The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, although the law is generally not enforced. The law bans “takfiri” sects such as Wahhabism that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not enforce the federal ban on Baha’i practitioners and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion. Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 600 demonstrators were killed in protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. The protesters were mostly young Shia Muslims, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement, according to news reports. Sunni Muslims in Anbar were detained by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for expressing their support of the protests on social media, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting. According to human rights organizations, although the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and Ministry of Interior security forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law to detain individuals without due process. Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018. In June a Sunni parliamentarian (MP) from Diyala Province stated Sunnis in his province were being forcibly displaced by government-affiliated Shia militia groups, resulting in systematic demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Community leaders continued to state the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, including children born of rape, be listed as Muslim resulted in forced designation as Muslim. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.
According to security sources in Khanaqin, in May ISIS attacked a Kurdish village and killed four individuals in two attacks. According to the Directorate General of Yezidi Affairs in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, approximately 3,000 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced that during the year, 18 more mass graves had been discovered throughout the country; they contained victims of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, some remains dating back decades. In March the Directorate of Mass Graves, with the support of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims, discovered in 2017, in the village of Kocho, the first such exhumation in the majority-Yezidi district of Sinjar.
Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the youth-led reformist protests that began in October, many demonstrators were kidnapped, wounded, and killed by masked individuals and armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade (30th Brigade), reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.
U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On July 18, speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, the Vice President announced the U.S. government had provided $340 million for assistance in northern Iraq, focusing on helping minority religious communities previously targeted by ISIS. He said an additional $3 million would provide shelter and clean water to communities victimized by ISIS. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a provision amended by the Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated proportional representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the cabinet, and other senior government positions. Media reported on June 21 that the Hadath municipality prohibited Christian residents from renting or selling property to Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments in largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) summoned a senior member of the Jewish Community Council for interrogation concerning the identities of visitors to synagogues and cemeteries during the summer months. Authorities banned a Brazilian metal band, Sepultura, from entering the country after its members were accused of being “devil worshippers,” according to concert organizers. Organizers also said the band was denied entry due to cultural perceptions that metal music is “satanic” and “anti-religion.” Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. While then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan and several other political figures vocalized support for optional civil marriage, at least 30 applications for interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration in the face of criticism, particularly by religious leaders.
Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over some territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia Muslim.
Organizers of the Byblos International Festival canceled a planned August 9 concert by internationally known indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, citing the need “to avoid bloodshed.” Political and religious figures, as well as many private citizens, criticized the band for a four-year-old post on Facebook of a controversial image that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary. The Maronite Eparchy of Byblos accused the group of “offend[ing] religious and human values and insult[ing] Christian beliefs,” while figures ranging from members of parliament (MPs) to private citizens threatened violence. In a December incident, during months of political protests reportedly driven by the country’s economic and political problems, hundreds of Shia protesters demonstrated in Beirut after a video produced by a Sunni individual appeared on social media insulting Shia political and religious figures. A prominent Sunni imam said the posting did not represent the views of the Sunni community. The author of the video later apologized for posting it. The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism, including dumping of trash and rubble, at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon. Muslim and Christian community leaders said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. On July 30, an interreligious spiritual summit convened in Beirut at the House of Druze Communities; senior religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities attended the event.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious communities and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador met on March 7 with a group of religious leaders in Tripoli to discuss relations among the different communities. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups, including through interfaith exchange programs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that according to NGO and media sources was exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. According to media and NGO sources, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, persistent attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimated the government arbitrarily detained nearly 3,000 citizens. As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted largely Sunni opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, chemical weapons attacks, and aerial bombardment, including a siege of Idlib Governorate and a May 19 chemical weapons attack in Idlib as part of the government’s effort to retake the area. Government and progovernment forces launched major aerial and ground offensives in April that continued through the end of the year to recapture Idlib, northern Hama, Ladhiqiyah, and western Aleppo, killing thousands of civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee from devastating attacks on civilian infrastructure, including damage or destruction of 51 medical facilities. The government continued to use Law No. 10 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to claim their property or return to their homes. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable up to imprisonment or death. Progovernment forces were implicated in attacks on Christian places of worship throughout the year. SNHR documented 124 attacks on Christian places of worship from 2011 until September, 75 of which were carried out by progovernment forces. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia individuals (such as Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran) to travel to the country and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayer times, and limit the activities of religious groups, and to state the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.” According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups, including some Christians, viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.
The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) reported nonstate actors, including terrorist organizations such as ISIS and HTS, targeted religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians throughout the course of the conflict. Until its territorial defeat in April, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, and homosexuality. On November 11, ISIS members shot and killed two Armenian Catholic priests and wounded a church deacon as they headed from Hasakah to Deir al-Zour to oversee the renovation of a church. On October 7, the Turkish army, along with Turkish-sponsored opposition groups (TSOs), some of which may include fighters from violent extremist groups, launched Operation Peace Spring (OPS) in areas of northeast Syria held by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, displacing by October 21, 154,000 persons, including Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. Since 2014, ISIS abducted an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, as well as numerous Christian and ethnic Turkmen women; NGOs and activists reported that more than 2,000 have since escaped, been liberated, or been released. The United Nations estimated that ISIS militants killed or kidnapped more than 9,000 Yezidis in “a genocidal campaign.” According to community leaders, more than 3,000 Yazidis remained unaccounted for at year’s end. HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against members of religious minorities, and seizing the homes and agricultural lands of thousands of Christians in and around the town of Qameshli. According to a U.S. think tank, Iranian-backed Hizballah attempted to ignite intra-Druze conflict and recruited Shia militias to aid Iranian-backed Shia forces aiding the government.
Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups. Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups as displaced members of religious groups relocated, seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.2 million IDPs and more than 5.6 million refugees at year’s end.
The President and Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in the country leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely. Although the U.S. embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere in the region with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. In August, following clashes between government forces and the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), STC forces gained control of Aden, the temporary capital, and the cabinet moved to Riyadh. Following a cease-fire, military withdrawal, and power sharing agreement known as the Riyadh Agreement between the government and STC on November 5, a few members of the government returned to Aden. The government did not, however, exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory, and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. To highlight what they describe as a sectarian aspect of the country’s conflict, some sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism is distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both are generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said that political and economic issues are more significant overall drivers of the conflict. Many sources, including in the international media, continued to describe the conflict as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia. According to the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and the media, military actions by all parties to the conflict damaged places of worship and religious institutions and caused casualties at religious gatherings.
At year’s end, the Houthis controlled approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and increasingly discriminated against those not following those practices, particularly religious minorities. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings throughout the year regarding the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled National Security Bureau (NSB) in 2018 on charges of espionage. Haydara had been imprisoned since 2013, accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel. He remained in prison at year’s end. According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), at year’s end there were six Baha’is in prison in the country for practicing their faith, including Haydara, and more than 20 Baha’is facing charges of apostasy and espionage leveled by a Houthi-controlled court in September 2018. On September 26, a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution condemned the persecution of the Baha’i in the country. According to media reports, militants attacked a mosque in Ad-Dhale Governorate in June, killing at least five worshipers and abducting three. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018 the Houthis have destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone. Progovernment clerics were reportedly among those arrested by STC-aligned forces during that group’s August takeover of Aden. According to the United Nations, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’ and Abyan.
In contrast to previous years, the media did not report any killings of Muslim clerics in Aden. Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
On April 22, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement condemning the imprisonment of Haydara, expressing the U.S. government’s concern about the treatment of the Baha’i population in the country, and calling on the Houthis to end their “mistreatment” of the Baha’is.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom