The constitution grants individuals the right to choose, practice, and change religions; it prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the legal system. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government; failure to do so can result in the group’s dissolution and liquidation of its physical property. Multiple religious leaders continued to express concern regarding the 2019 administrative consolidation of religious affairs issues within the Human Rights Secretariat, stating the change had improved the registration process but reduced a religious group’s ability to advocate its interests before the government. Religious leaders said the registration processing time decreased from six-month delays in 2019 to an average 30-day wait. On September 1, the human rights ombudsman ruled in favor of a group of COVID-19 victims’ relatives, stating authorities had infringed on the freedom of worship during the pandemic outbreak by misplacing or losing several remains and thus preventing religious traditions regarding burial customs from taking place as prescribed. Religious leaders said the National Assembly made no progress on the proposal to reform the 1937 religion law that the interfaith National Council on Religious Freedom and Equality (CONALIR), which includes representatives from Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical and nonevangelical Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, and Seventh-day Adventist Church faith communities, first discussed with the National Assembly in 2018. Jewish and Muslim leaders said general customs regulations continued to hinder their ability to import products for use in religious festivals. Religious leaders expressed opposition to a health reform law the National Assembly passed on August 25, but which President Lenin Moreno vetoed on September 25. Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders asked the President to reject the law because of a provision requiring medical doctors to provide emergency care to women who had begun an abortion or had complications from an abortion to protect the mother’s life. Two cases involving Seventh-day Adventist students remained pending in the court system; both involved the refusal of two different universities to accommodate the students’ requests to observe Saturday, the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath.
Some Catholic and Protestant leaders said COVID-19 infection fears sparked social media disinformation about places of worship being epicenters for COVID-19 contagion. Several religious leaders expressed concern regarding what they considered a rise in secularism and societal discouragement of their participation in important legal and cultural discussions. A Muslim leader said a common societal view was that Muslims were foreigners, with some individuals saying Muslims should “return to their countries,” even though they were citizens or residents.
U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with officials in the Ministry of Government to discuss the registration process for religious groups, government promotion and protection of religious freedom, and other related human rights. A senior embassy official hosted an October 15 roundtable with religious leaders to discuss challenges facing their communities. The Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable on September 29 with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and their communities’ response to COVID-19. Embassy officials spoke with representatives from CONALIR to encourage continued interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice, as long as it is not prejudicial to good morals or public order. The constitution also protects the right to form religious associations. It names the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the state church, to which the government provided financial support and benefits not available to other religious groups. A new agreement between church and state removed ELC clergy and staff from civil service status on January 1, and in June the government passed laws amending the financial structuring and subsidies for the ELC. The government allows other spiritual and humanist groups (“life-stance groups” under the law) to register to receive state subsidies. The government registered two new religious groups during the year.
The National Commissioner of Icelandic Police cited one religiously motivated incident during the year involving property damages, in which a person connected to the Nordic Resistance Movement – a pan-Nordic neo-Nazi group – hung anti-Semitic posters in the downtown Reykjavik area. According to a February Gallup poll, 31 percent of the public expressed trust in the ELC, a result virtually unchanged from 2019 but down from 41 percent in 2009.
U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Registers Iceland, and the district commissioner office (the local authority responsible for registering religious groups) to discuss the status and rights of religious groups. Embassy officials also maintained contact with representatives of religious groups and life-stance organizations to discuss their perspectives on religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee integration. In November, the embassy launched its Religious Freedom Initiative to work with Icelandic partners to champion and advocate for shared values of religious tolerance and freedom. The Ambassador hosted the Chabad Jewish community for a celebration of the group receiving the country’s first Torah scroll.
The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and prohibits religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. The law prohibits both proselytism and “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally. One man was killed by police in August in a confrontation with the Muslim community over cow slaughter. In September, police and protestors clashed in Lalitpur District when the government tried to prevent the celebration of a local religious holiday due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Officials arrested several pastors for violating the COVID-19 lockdown, including one who was arrested while sending parishioners home from their church. Another pastor was arrested, first for providing what the government said was misinformation about COVID-19, released on bail, and then arrested twice more for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity. Police arrested seven Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year for proselytizing, including two U.S. citizens, who were released on bail and were awaiting trial as of the end of the year. In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate most Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but prohibited the public celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday and continued to drastically curtail their ability to hold public celebrations. During the year, police surveillance of Tibetans remained high. Authorities cited the pandemic in restricting public ceremonies and gatherings while maintaining, and in some cases increasing, prepandemic levels of security personnel and scrutiny of Tibetan cultural and religious celebrations, particularly those involving the Dalai Lama. Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the anti-Christian sentiment of the Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which seeks to reestablish the country as a Hindu state. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs. The government again did not recognize Christmas or Eid al-Adha as public holidays, but allowed Christians and Muslims time off from work to celebrate and continued to recognize Buddha’s birthday as a public holiday. Christian and Muslim groups said they continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.
In August, assailants shot and killed a Hindu priest on temple grounds in southern Nepal in an attack that some sources stated was religiously motivated. Police arrested and charged two suspects and stated they were seeking three others in connection with the case. In September, a clash between Hindus and Muslims in a southern district left more than a dozen people injured. Christian leaders said that a Hindu activist openly threatened Christians on a television interview in January. Catholic and Protestant sources stated that threats of violence against Christians on social media had increased. Local media again published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other “high-caste” individuals continued to prevent persons of “lower” castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites. There were incidents of vandalism against a church and a mosque, characterized by sources as minor and which were addressed by authorities.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador, U.S. embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code, including the continued criminalization of converting others and proselytizing. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against “forced or induced” conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. The embassy used social media to communicate religious freedom messages, highlight the country’s religious diversity, and promote respect and tolerance. Following the arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers spoke with the detainees, their lawyer, and police. Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.