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Estonia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to the government’s NGO register, five religious associations were registered during the year, including three Lutheran and two Buddhist groups.

In January the government allocated 6.75 million euros ($7.58 million) to the Evangelical Lutheran Church and 1.15 million euros ($1.29 million) to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church as compensation for the damage to Church properties during WWII and the subsequent Soviet occupation.

In September the government pledged 844,000 euros ($948,000) to renovate Alexander’s Cathedral of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Narva, which is located in the eastern part of the country near the border with Russia.

As in 2018, the government allocated 596,000 euros ($670,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches. The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities. The government continued to fund ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs broadcast on the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing.

According to media, in March a man reportedly under the influence of drugs verbally abused the country’s chief rabbi. The man shouted anti-Semitic remarks, including, “Heil Hitler” and “Jews to the oven.” The prime minister condemned the incident, stating discrimination based on religion, nationality, origin, or any other reason was totally unacceptable. A court found the man guilty of harassment and sentenced him to eight days in prison.

In April Prime Minister Ratas formed a new coalition government that included EKRE. Some members of the party had made anti-Semitic statements prior to joining government, including praising Nazi Germany. Media quoted MP Ruuben Kaalep, former leader of EKRE’s youth wing Blue Awakening, as saying during the year that “Hitler was a rather good commander in the context of WWII.” According to media, in the lead-up to the coalition government being formed, leaders of the Jewish community expressed concern about including EKRE. Media reported that in August EKRE member of the European Parliament Madison stated on his Facebook page it was “time for the Final Solution” regarding refugees in Europe. Madison used the term in German, which was associated with the Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jews during WWII.

According to the NCSEJ, on July 27, three MPs attended the annual commemoration of the WWII battle of Tannenberg Line in the town of Sinimae, a battle in which the Estonian Waffen SS fought under the leadership of German Nazi forces against the Soviets.

On January 28, the government held its annual memorial event for Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. Schools also participated in commemorative activities throughout the country. The Education and Research Ministry, in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Estonia, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), Estonian Memory Institute, and Museum of Occupation, organized an essay writing competition for children on topics related to the Holocaust.

On September 18, the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory held an international conference to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the September 19, 1944, massacre of approximately 2,000 Jews at Klooga concentration camp and to study and disseminate information about the Holocaust history and preservation of memory. Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu opened the conference and Cecilia Stockholm Banke, head of the Danish delegation to the IHRA, delivered the keynote address. On September 19, Minister of Population Riina Solman and other government officials attended a commemorative event at the camp site, at which the country’s chief rabbi read a memorial prayer. The minister stated, “It is our duty to commemorate the victims, stand up for historical truth, and pass on knowledge from the past to future generations so that ideologies against humanity can never prevail.”

The government is a member of IHRA.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases, as defined by law, the same as in 2017.

In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 86 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in the country, and 60 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who felt that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 9 percent; on the internet, 12 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 8 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 7 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 9 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 5 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 7 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 6 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 7 percent.

According to the Police and Border Guard Board, on June 23, unidentified individuals knocked over five gravestones at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn and spray-painted a swastika on the large stones nearby. Police opened a criminal investigation, which continued at year’s end.

According to many religious and other civil society leaders, there was societal support for religious freedom and tolerance in the country, including a biannual interreligious event, which last occurred in 2018.

Georgia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On June 27, a court sentenced two men to 15 years each in prison for the 2018 stabbing to death of 25-year-old human rights activist Vitali Safarov, who had Jewish and Yezidi roots. The court ruled, however, the killing was not a hate crime of “racial, religious, national, or ethnic intolerance,” stating hate was not the only or decisive motive in the killing. International observers and local NGOs disagreed, saying the attackers engaged in further aggression and cried out racist epithets after Safarov told them he was Jewish. According to witness testimony and materials NGOs found on the internet, including Nazi symbols and calls to violence on personal Facebook pages, the men belonged to neo-Nazi groups and held ultranationalist ideas. The Center for Participation and Development, where Vitali Safarov worked, and the Human Rights Center, both NGOs, said they supported the prosecutor’s November 16 decision to file an appeal for the court to establish hate as a motive in the crime.

The NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) again stated the MOIA was generally correctly applying the appropriate articles of the criminal code and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve.

The NAPR registered one new religious organization as an LEPL during the year: the Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Care. It rejected the registration applications of six other groups on the grounds that they either did not demonstrate historic ties to Georgia or were not recognized as a religion by Council of Europe countries. The NAPR declined registration to the Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Care for People; Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Care Visit the Prisoner; Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church for Bible Care; Georgian Christian Evangelical Protestant and Lutheran Church – Bible Support; Church for All Nations – Georgia; and Georgian Christian Religious Organization Gideon.

Most prisons continued to have GOC chapels but no areas for nondenominational worship. According to SARI and Catholic, AAC, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisons could provide religious counseling services if requested by members of the military or prisoners.

Parliament held several hearings during the year with civil society, government officials, and religious representatives on changes to the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups. The Constitutional Court ruled in 2018 that the GOC’s exclusive privileges were unconstitutional and mandated legislative change that would either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018. Parliament did not meet the deadline nor amend the law by year’s end. SARI and some religious representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, favored drafting a new and broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and other religious groups, including some members of the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, were opposed, arguing that such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase the government’s leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.

NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of the AMAG religious leader and the selective transfer of land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. Following the December 25 election of a new AMAG leader, several staff members left the organization, stating the State Security Service had unduly interfered with the process. A number of Muslim groups also were critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization.

At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court did not rule on the AAC’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as GOC property a church of which the AAC claimed ownership since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The AAC continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. At year’s end, SARI had not responded to any of the AAC’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The AAC reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. SARI said the issue was a lack of evidence provided by the AAC itself, but said it was in communication with the AAC and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.

According to the PDO’s Tolerance Center, non-GOC religious organizations continued to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship, as was the case with a mosque in Batumi. The center continued to attribute the resistance to what it termed a general societal bias in favor of the GOC. According to TDI, although the law provides for equal treatment for applicants seeking construction permits, municipalities often discriminated against representatives of religious minority groups. TDI also cited what it described as the “problematic role” of SARI in the process, which “without a legitimate purpose and legal basis” interfered with the authority of local self-governance.

Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period, and in some cases said the existing mosques were former GOC houses of worship or were erected in their place.

On September 30, the Batumi City Court ruled Batumi City Hall had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Muslim community said it needed a second mosque in the city because the only mosque currently operating there was too small to accommodate the local population. The mayor’s office argued in court that the plot of land was located in a high-density residential zone and was therefore not suitable for a religious building. According to media, there were already several churches in the same area. The NGOs Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) and TDI brought the case to court on behalf of the fund. They criticized the court decision for not requiring the mayor’s office to issue the permit. The mayor outlined several conditions for allowing the construction, including that the fund retract its appeal to the courts and give the land acquired for the mosque to AMAG, which would later apply for the necessary permits. On December 4, Batumi City Hall appealed the Batumi City Court’s September 30 decision, leading the New Mosque Construction Fund to submit its own appeal seeking the court obligate the city to issue the construction permit rather than simply “reconsider.” At year’s end, the appeals were ongoing. According to a report by the TDI, Muslims in Batumi told the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18 that AMAG backed the state in its refusal to grant the permits for the second mosque, while the Georgian Muslim Union, which did not receive state funds, supported the plans for a second mosque.

Parallel to the mosque permit issue, the construction fund appealed Batumi City Hall’s decision to impose a fine of 3,000 lari ($1,000) for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land. The appeal was ongoing at year’s end.

Construction continued on property surrounding the main building of a new mosque AMAG built in late 2018 in the village of Mokhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti. The community was already conducting prayers at the mosque. A local Muslim donated the land for the new mosque to AMAG after a SARI commission transferred the original, disputed building the local Muslim community had planned to use as a mosque to the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation in 2018. At the time, SARI told reporters that the commission’s decision and AMAG’s subsequent steps to build the mosque on the new plot were acceptable to the local Muslim community. EMC, however, said that the commission’s decision was not representative of local Muslims because no trustees of the local community were represented on the commission. They reported at the time that some local Muslims refused to pray at the new mosque and instead prayed temporarily outside the property of the old mosque. EMC appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of some local Muslims, stating that the state had violated their rights to equality and freedom of religion, among others. The Human Rights Committee had not responded to the appeal as of year’s end.

The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 2.3 million lari ($801,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, a decrease of approximately 200,000 lari ($69,700) from 2018.

There was no movement on a 2018 EMC appeal to the Supreme Court of a lower court ruling that the MOIA did not discriminate against Muslims by failing to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school. The boarding school had not opened by year’s end. According to a 2018 TDI report, religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. TDI continued to report cases of religious discrimination in schools, including incidents involving the promotion of GOC theology during general courses on religion, GOC prayers conducted in classrooms, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite the law’s prohibition of proselytizing. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to do so under the concordat, the government did not define the requisite legal structures for direct GOC involvement in public institutions. Nevertheless, NGOs and non-GOC organizations, such as EMC, reported GOC clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.

In October EMC called upon the Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department, responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior, to “ensure the … protection of religious neutrality” in education after a video surfaced of GOC clergy meeting with professors and teachers emphasizing the importance of Christianity in Adjara, a majority ethnic-Georgian, Muslim region. After the meeting, one high school principal declared that educational professionals had a “duty to convert [students] to their ancient faith.” By year’s end, authorities did not respond to EMC’s complaint.

The government paid compensation to five religious groups for “material and moral damages” they sustained during the Soviet period. It distributed the same amounts as in 2018: 25 million lari ($8.7 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($958,000) to the Muslim community, represented by the AMAG; 550,000 lari ($192,000) to the Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($279,000) to the AAC; and 400,000 lari ($139,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups in the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation and to question the criteria the government used to select them.

Media reported that on May 8, by a vote of 96-0, parliament approved a change to the labor code making May 12 a holiday marking the country’s consecration to the Virgin Mary and allocating 890,000 lari ($310,000) to celebrate it. May 12 was already a public holiday marking St. Andrew’s Day. Sopho Kiladze, head of parliament’s human rights committee, told Maestro Television, “It is important for Georgia to be officially declared as the domain of the Virgin Mary.” Beka Mindiashvili, head of the PDO’s Tolerance Center and a former GOC theologian, denounced the measure.

The MOI Department of Human Rights, in cooperation with the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, conducted 10 training programs on discrimination and hate crimes during the year, and commissioned research on the victims’ attitudes toward investigations of the crimes against them, with a focus on religious minorities, among others.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The MOIA investigated 44 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, including 10 cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites, 10 cases of persecution, and eight cases of damage or destruction of property. The PGO reported criminal prosecutions were launched against 14 individuals for crimes motivated by religious intolerance. Six of these individuals were convicted on the charge. By comparison, in 2018 the ministry investigated 23 incidents reported as religiously motivated crimes.

At year’s end, the PDO reported it received 19 complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, equal to 19 received in 2018. Ten incidents – of which eight targeted the Jehovah’s Witnesses – involved violence, compared with six in the previous year. The remaining nine cases concerned complaints that authorities refused to register religious organizations, as well as of discrimination in the workplace, harassment, and the “lack of involvement of religious minorities in cultural life.” At year’s end, the PDO was examining whether religious discrimination was involved when a Muslim religious organization faced difficulties importing religious literature for dissemination. The Customs Department of the Revenue Service allowed the import, saying there had been a technical issue, only after the organization raised the issue. The PDO stated cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.

At year’s end, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 20 religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared to 19 in 2018. Of the 20, 11 involved physical violence, five vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and four interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that prosecutors investigated eight of these cases and convicted an individual in one. According to the PDO, the PGO continued to decline to classify crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as religiously motivated, despite repeated PDO requests that it do so. In 2018 the Council of Europe reported that after LGBTI persons, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the most likely group in the country to face discrimination.

In one case in February, an individual verbally insulted, then attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. Patrol officers arrived on the scene and were able to restrain the attacker; the victim sought medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip. Officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health,” and, at year’s end, the case was ongoing. In another incident in April, a Jehovah’s Witness was verbally insulted and attacked by a Tbilisi resident after approaching the resident’s apartment to proselytize. The investigation into this case was ongoing and authorities did not press any charges at year’s end.

Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property. Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses legal department said communication with the MOIA had improved compared with previous years, and they commended the Department of Human Rights within the ministry for increased responsiveness to their concern that crimes against members of the community should be treated as religiously motivated, even though the PGO declined to prosecute them as such.

In January the Supreme Court upheld the 2018 conviction of a man the Tbilisi City Court found guilty of harassing two female Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2016 the man kicked and insulted the two women and tore their clothes while they were sharing Bible verses in Alexandre’s Garden in Tbilisi. Although the court upheld the guilty verdict, it reduced the man’s fine from the original 2,000 ($700) to 500 lari ($170).

Representatives of the PDO’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values. A 2018 Council of Europe study reported 36 percent of citizens believed diversity affected the country adversely and was detrimental to its culture and traditions.

Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishing places of worship and religious schools. A Muslim boarding school in Kobuleti, near Batumi, remained closed after city officials ignored a 2018 ruling by the Batumi City Court ordering them to provide the school with sewage and water connections. On April 4 and again on November 4, unknown persons broke into a chapel used by Armenian Apostolic and Catholic parishes in Akhalkalaki and vandalized the premises, breaking icons, and damaging portraits. Authorities were investigating both incidents at year’s end.

MDF documented 55 instances of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared to 148 such incidents in 2018. The instances included a January statement by GOC clergyman David Isakadze in which he criticized a 2016 joint declaration from Russian Patriarch Kirill and Catholic Pope Francis. Isakadze said, “Catholicism is the greatest deviation and heresy from Church dogmas.” Separately, the online publication “Georgia in the World” published in October a statement by Vazha Otarashvili, political secretary of the Alliance of Patriots party, in which he said, “They will build numerous mosques so quietly, so treacherously, that people will not understand that this is the Islamization of Adjara.”

The ROC and the GOC both formally recognized the Orthodox churches in Abkhazia, as well as in South Ossetia, as belonging to the GOC; however, de facto authorities continued to restrict access to GOC clergy. According to media reports from online news outlets like Netgazeti and Resonance Daily, as well as experts on the region, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, others wished to subordinate them to the ROC, and still others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Mauritania

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On July 29, the government released blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir from prison and permitted him to depart the country. After an initial stop in Senegal, on August 3, he relocated to France, where his application for permanent asylum was pending a decision by French authorities. A court sentenced Mkheitir to death in 2014 for apostasy after statements he published on social media criticizing the use of religious precepts to justify discrimination and hereditary slavery were judged to be critical of the Prophet Muhammad. Mkheitir had been held in administrative detention despite a 2017 ruling by an appeals court reducing his sentence to two years and ordering his release. The government, however, stating it had concerns for Mkheitir’s safety, continued to hold him in administrative detention. On July 9, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs convened several dozen leading imams to discuss Mkheitir’s case with then president Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The imams agreed that Mkheitir should be freed conditional on a public declaration of his repentance on national television, which Mkheitir delivered on July 11.

In December 2018 the parliament rejected for a second time a law criminalizing gender-based violence for “noncompliance” with the precepts of Islam. On December 11, an interministerial committee led by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Childhood, and Family that also included the Ministry of Justice and the MIATE met for the first time to discuss ways to make the draft law more compatible with sharia principles so that it could be brought before parliament in 2020.

During the year, relations between the government and leaders of the Islamist movement in the country improved, according to media reports, particularly after the June 22 election of President Mohamed Cheikh El Ghazouani. On September 26, the spiritual leader of the principal Islamist party Tawassoul, Cheikh Mohamed Hacen Ould Deddew, met with the new minister of Islamic affairs; some observers said the meeting could signal the possible reopening of a religious training center run by Deddew that the government closed in 2018.

Several international Christian NGOs reported they continued to operate successfully in the country. The new government began the process of drafting legislation to facilitate registration for NGOs.

The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Islamic religious groups and other foreign partners to combat extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. On May 3, the MIATE, in collaboration with the Association of Ulema of Mauritania, organized and supervised a training session for 40 imams on the dangers of hate speech and extremism.

Although there remained no specific legal prohibition against non-Muslims proselytizing, the government prohibited such activity through a broad interpretation of the constitution that states Islam shall be the religion of the people and of the state. Any public expression of religion except that of Islam remained banned.

Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize. An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Muslim worship to the few recognized Christian churches. There were Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Nouakchott, Kaedi, Atar, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Citizens could not attend non-Islamic religious services, which remained restricted to foreigners. On December 22, government officials attended a service at the Catholic Church in Nouakchott during which the papal nuncio’s honorary consul general was recognized for his service.

The possession of non-Islamic religious materials remained legal, although the government continued to prohibit their printing and distribution. The government maintained a Quranic television channel and radio station. Both stations sponsored regular programming on themes of moderation in Islam.

The government continued to provide funding to mosques and Islamic schools and universities under its control. The government paid monthly salaries of 5,000 ouguiyas ($140) to 200 imams who passed an examination conducted by a government-funded panel of imams and heads of mosques and Islamic schools. It also paid monthly salaries of 2,500-10,000 ouguiyas ($68-$270) to 30 members of the National Union of Mauritanian Imams, an authority established to regulate the relationship between the religious community and the MIATE.

Islamic classes remained part of the educational curriculum, but class attendance was not mandatory and not required for graduation. Academic results in the classes did not count significantly in the national exams that determine further placement. Many students reportedly did not attend these religious classes for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons. The Ministry of National Education and the MIATE continued to reaffirm the importance of the Islamic education program at the secondary level as a means of promoting Islamic culture and combating religious extremism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the annual Eid al-Adha observance, Imam Ahmedou Ould Lemrabott Ould Habibou Rahman, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Nouakchott, renewed his warnings about the growing influence of Shia Islam in the country. Rahman stated for a fourth successive year that government authorities should sever ties with Iran in order to stop the spread of Iranian-backed Shia Islam.

In December an international Protestant community, which conducted services for several years on the grounds of the Catholic Church, began holding services at a newly consecrated, stand-alone church in Nouakchott.

Mauritius

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The Assemblies of God has petitioned the government for years to be recognized as a religion, but as of year’s end the government had not addressed the issue and the group was still considered an association. As a consequence, according to a pastor from the Assemblies of God, newborns could not be registered as members and its pastors had limited access to hospitals and prisons.

Before the November elections, a political party and several independent candidates refused to identify themselves as belonging to one of the four national communities cited in the constitution, arguing that the practice was undemocratic. The Supreme Court ruled against them and they were run in the elections. These politicians said they would take the case to the UN Human Rights Committee. At year’s end, there was no further update on the case.

Some Christians and Muslims continued to state the predominance of Hindus in the civil service favored Hindus in government recruitment and promotion, preventing Christians and Muslims from reaching higher level positions in the civil service. In general and dating back years, non-Hindus have stated they were underrepresented in government. There were no reliable statistics available on the numbers of members of different religious groups represented in the civil service. According to the Truth and Justice Commission’s 2011 report, however, civil service employment did not represent national ethnoreligious diversity.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Police said they continued to investigate the 2017 case in which unknown individuals vandalized five Hindu temples and other places of worship. The vandals destroyed deity statuettes and smeared blood on the places of worship. As of year’s end, there were no arrests.

The court case against two Muslim men accused of vandalizing a Hindu temple in 2015 remained pending. Five Hindu men responded to the vandalism of the temple by vandalizing a mosque in the south of the island.

Police said low level tensions between Hindus and Muslims continued.

The Council of Religions, a local organization composed of representatives from 18 religious groups, hosted regular interfaith religious ceremonies and celebrations to foster mutual understanding and enhance interfaith collaboration among faith communities. These included interfaith ceremonies in local private companies and the celebration of International World Peace Day. The council continued the distribution of booklets entitled “Peace and Interfaith Dialogue” to local schools and institutions.

United Arab Emirates

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to media reports, in September the Dubai Criminal Court sentenced a Moroccan national to three months imprisonment, deportation upon completion of his prison sentence, and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting God in an argument with his employer.

Media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Moroccan woman in August to three months imprisonment and deportation for charges that included blasphemy, for insulting religion in text messages sent to a man with whom she had been romantically involved.

According to media reports, in February, Sharjah officials charged two residents with engaging in extramarital sex, in violation of local interpretation of sharia.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery. Customs authorities in Dubai and the northern emirates reported seizing shipments containing materials they said were intended for use in magic and sorcery. In March a woman was acquitted after appealing charges related to practicing witchcraft. The Fujairah Court of First Instance initially convicted her and ordered her to pay a fine of 10,000 dirhams ($2,700).

Following a December 31, 2018 court ruling upholding his earlier conviction, the government continued to imprison Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017. Although specifics of the charges against Mansoor remained unknown, authorities stated that, among other violations of the law, Mansoor promoted “a sectarian- and hate-filled agenda.”

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. Since 2011, the government also has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. In August the country’s president pardoned political activist Osama al-Najjar and two other detainees accused of having ties to al-Islah. Their release was accompanied by a video in which the three detainees renounced their membership and condemned the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services. In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy reported difficulties visiting Christian prisoners and raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians. They said that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain web sites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including some with information on Judaism, Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.

In an April statement during the Fatwa Council’s second annual conference, the council declared the importance of regulating fatwas so that they could “consecrate values of tolerance and coexistence.”

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background, and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks. According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. Leading up to Ramadan, the Awqaf launched training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons. Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, managed Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams. The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The government did not appoint imams for Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private, but not in public. There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates. In September the Department of Community Development (DCD) in Abu Dhabi granted licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the country’s first traditional Hindu temple. Prior to receiving licenses, the 18 houses of worship operated on informal approval from local authorities. According to the DCD – the regulator of places of worship in Abu Dhabi emirate – the licensing ensured the places of worship had a channel of communication through which to request support on administrative and operational issues affecting religious communities. These changes did not apply to religious groups in the other emirates.

The government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases. For example, the government continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers. Since the September licensing of 18 houses of worship by DCD, community sources reported that unregistered religious organizations faced challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes, as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were continued reports of delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds. In 2018, the CDA was tasked with implementing an oversight structure for civil institutions and nonprofits and with regulating non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate. Despite changes in personnel since 2018, when the CDA imposed significant restrictions on non-Muslim groups practicing in hotels, there were continued reports of such restrictions as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA. There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications. School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation. Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings, or in private facilities or homes. While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions. In February Pope Francis held a public Mass in Abu Dhabi for 180,000 Catholics as part of the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. In April 5,000 worshipers attended a stone-laying ceremony for a Hindu temple.

News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from Catholic, Anglican, Hindu, Sikh, and other religious communities, expressing appreciation for government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which their communities could worship. Following the government licensing of 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, Pujya Brahmavihari Swami, the head priest of the UAE’s first Hindu temple, described the event in which the licenses were publicly presented as “a great signal to the world that the way forward for humanity is global inclusiveness where we not only respect each other’s beliefs but also accept their existence.”

The government continued to provide land for non-Muslim cemeteries. Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community. Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the facilities.

In June the Abu Dhabi International Airport opened a new multifaith prayer room for use by the general public.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

Despite legal prohibitions on eating during daylight hours in Ramadan, in Dubai and several northern emirates, non-Muslims were exempt from these laws in hotels and most malls; non-Muslims could eat at some stand-alone restaurants and most hotels in Abu Dhabi as well. In Dubai and several northern emirates, most licensed restaurants were permitted to offer alcohol during Ramadan. Although private eating establishments historically used curtains or partitions to conceal customers who ate during Ramadan daytime hours, in May, a few days prior to the conclusion of Ramadan, Abu Dhabi authorities ordered the partitions be taken down, thereby allowing restaurants and cafes to serve food openly during Ramadan. Due to confusion in the publication of the Abu Dhabi municipality’s instruction, compliance with the order to remove partitions was not universal.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them, such as books. Additionally, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, spells, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam, and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting another religion other than Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

In a June statement, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said the government has “taken significant, constructive steps to advance the theological basis for Muslim coexistence with adherents of other religions, including but not limited to Christians and Jews.” In this regard, the ADL cited the government’s training of thousands of Afghan imams on interreligious coexistence and the appointment of the world’s first cabinet-level minister of tolerance.

During Ramadan, government-owned companies sponsored programs featuring speakers that the ADL had cited for past anti-Semitic comments. A government-owned radio station broadcast a program featuring Saleh Al-Maghemsy, a Saudi Sunni Islamic scholar, and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority hosted a presentation by Omar Abdel Kafi, an Egyptian writer active on the international lecture and television circuit. In a letter to the director general of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated the November UNESCO-sponsored Sharjah International Book Fair featured a number of anti-Semitic titles, including “Mein Kampf” and “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space. In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic. Media reports highlighted that holiday services often attracted tens of thousands of worshippers to the compounds. Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally make up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The country’s 42 Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels.

There were two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2022. There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities. There were no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in a private Dubai villa that was publicly acknowledged as a worship space in a 2018 Bloomberg article. In May at an event cohosted with the UAE Embassy in Washington, the ADL announced the country’s expatriate Jewish community had selected its first chief rabbi. In February the government announced construction of the first official synagogue in the country, in Abu Dhabi, with construction scheduled to begin in 2020 as part of the larger Abrahamic Family House – a project slated to bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. Construction was halfway complete on a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law and are thus considered invalid. In April the government issued its first birth certificate for an interfaith baby, in this case born to a Muslim mother and a Hindu father. The request, initially rejected by authorities, was deemed an exception.

In February the government hosted the Muslim Council of Elders’ Global Conference on Human Fraternity, which brought together Pope Francis, Grand Imam of al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib, and religious leaders from across the region to discuss interfaith cooperation and dialogue. During the conference, Pope Francis and Grand Imam al-Tayyib signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together– a declaration of reconciliation, cooperation, tolerance, and fraternity among believers and non-believers. In August the government formed a multifaith committee tasked with implementing the document. In a subsequent statement to the UN Human Rights Council, the NGO International Organization for the Least Developed Countries declared the government has “been able to offer a unique model of tolerance and dialogue between religions, cultures, and civilizations based on mutual respect. Consequently, tolerance has become an integral part of the structure of the UAE’s society and has been characterized by the establishment of a culture of human coexistence.”

In April the government hosted scholars and religious leaders as part of the International Tolerance Convention hosted by Dubai’s Al Manar Center to discuss fostering peace and curbing extremism related to religion.

In January the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation condemned the terrorist attack on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka and stated the country stood against violence, extremism, and religious discrimination.

In March Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the ruler of Fujairah, received Bishop Mor Osthatheos Issac, Patriarchal Vicar of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in India, and spoke about the importance of tolerance and respect for other cultures.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities. Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

The Dubai government’s Al Manar Islamic Center hosted an interfaith iftar, and invited attendees to share their thoughts on the themes of tolerance and happiness.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms. In October UAE Vice President, Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid wished UAE’s Hindu community a happy Diwali in a social media message that was amplified in the local press.

In November the government conferred the “UAE Pioneer” award on two Christian expatriates, an Indian businessman, Saji Cheriyan, and Anglican clergyman Reverend Canon Andrew Thompson, chaplain of St. Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi, for their work in promoting interreligious tolerance in the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam. In June the Zayed House for Islamic Culture posted a video online featuring new converts to Islam and the religion’s role in promoting tolerance and forgiveness. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. For example, local media reported that nine prisoners converted to Islam in a public ceremony at a Sharjah police station after the local Department of Islamic Affairs organized proselytizing sessions at the prison. By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers. The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including activities such as Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores; however, bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.

There were continued reports of users posting anti-Semitic remarks on some social media sites. In March Twitter users circulated an anti-Semitic message alleging Jewish control of media outlets in the United States.

During Ramadan, local media widely covered interfaith iftars hosted by minority faith communities, including at St. Paul’s Church in Abu Dhabi, which hosted an iftar and Maghrib prayer for 500, mostly Muslim, blue-collar workers, and Dubai’s Sikh temple, which hosted nightly interfaith iftars.

Vietnam

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In September members of various ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands stated that government officials continued to assault, monitor, interrogate, arbitrarily arrest, and discriminate against them, in part because of their religious practices. Local government officials stated that Degar Christians, a religious group which follows a form of evangelical Christianity not recognized by the government, incited violent separatism by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands from 2001 through 2008. State-run media published articles cautioning individuals that Degar Protestantism aimed to undertake antigovernment activities.

In some cases, ethnic minority individuals from the Central Highlands stated social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia and Thailand, where approximately 250-300 individuals have sought asylum since 2017 according to a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on minority rights. Several of the asylum seekers in Thailand reported local-level (communal) Vietnamese authorities continued to harass them through social media, and in some cases threatened and physically assaulted family members back home.

On August 9, the People’s Court of Gia Lai Province tried Degar Protestant Rah Lan Hip on charges of “undermining the unity policy” and sentenced him to seven years in prison, followed by three years of probation. According to the indictment, Rah Lan Hip used his Facebook account “Kieu Rah Lan” to share multiple posts about Degar Protestantism. According to articles appearing in state media, the government considers Degar Christianity not a religious group but rather a separatist political movement controlled by “hostile forces” aiming to undermine the country’s policy of national unity. According to human rights activists, between June 2018 and March 2019, Rah Lan Hip and two other individuals used Facebook to contact 1,304 Degar Protestants, including two recently released from prison, to encourage them to resist authorities’ efforts to persuade them to renounce their Degar Protestant faith.

Independent media sources continued to report tension and disputes – at times violent – between Catholics and authorities in the Vinh and Ha Tinh Dioceses in the central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh. Media coverage of these incidents in many cases was inconsistent. For example, on May 9, media reported that Father Paul Nguyen Xuan Tinh, pastor of Khe San parish, Ha Tinh Diocese, was attacked by two men who beat him while he was on his way from the church to a parishioner’s home in Son Lam Commune, Huong Son District, Ha Tinh Province. Some observers reported the attackers were plainclothes police who called him by name before assaulting him. Others, however, said an unidentified individual intentionally blocked the road with his motorbike, which led to an argument that turned violent when the priest reportedly threw the first punch.

On May 7, Nghe An police arrested Catholic activist and public school music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh on charges of “making, storing, and spreading information, materials, and items for the purpose of opposing the State.” On November 15, Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

On April 19, social media users reported that individuals wearing masks and armed with farming implements and tear gas raided a house where seven Protestants attending a “registered” activity were staying in Tan Dinh Commune, Lang Giang District, Bac Giang Province. The individuals reportedly broke down the doors of the home and used tear gas before beating the occupants and destroying their personal property. Before departing, the intruders reportedly collected all religious materials, including Bibles and personal papers, and forced the worshipers to burn the items. Although eyewitnesses stated there was heavy uniformed police presence outside the home, no police intervened.

On February 5, hundreds of riot police armed with electric batons and automatic rifles reportedly surrounded Na Heng Hamlet, Nam Quang Commune, Bao Lam District, Cao Bang Province, where Duong Van Minh followers were celebrating the Lunar New Year festival. According to witnesses, police beat participants who refused to disperse. Duong Van Minh, patriarch and founder of the Duong Van Minh sect, stated that authorities set up checkpoints around the festival to prevent followers from attending and that they beat those who did not comply. The group, which international academics describe as a “H’mong millenarian (striving to transform society) movement,” continued to resist general government pressure to seek formal recognition.

Throughout the year, authorities reportedly cited the Cybersecurity Law when arresting and questioning ethnic and religious minorities. The Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) reported several instances in which Khmer Krom Buddhists were arrested, interrogated, and detained for visiting the KKF website and Facebook page. According to KKF members, the government stated the organization was an “antistate” separatist group, but KKF members said it was an ethnic heritage, religious freedom, and human rights organization. According to an international human rights NGO, in December authorities issued death threats, seized cell phones, and arrested and questioned Degar Christians in Mdrak District, Dak Lak Province for creating a Facebook page for the International Degar Church (IDC) and for posting on Facebook about the church and religious activities. IDC members said authorities forced them to pledge in writing to stop posting information about the IDC and warned them that using cell phones for religious activities and human rights advocacy was prohibited under the Cybersecurity Law. Also in December in Cu Mgar District, Dak Lak Province, an NGO reported authorities arrested a member of the Evangelical Church of Christ for “violating the Cybersecurity Law” by disseminating information about church leaders. The member said authorities forced him to renounce his faith, sign a confession, and pledge in writing not to contact the international community, continue church activities, or celebrate Christmas.

The Vietnam Baptist Convention, an unregistered religious group, reported that local authorities in Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and Hai Duong continued to prevent and/or disrupt gatherings at unregistered house churches during the year.

According to multiple Catholic bishops and priests, authorities also continued to harass outspoken Catholic priests and prevented or disrupted Catholic services in remote areas by blocking parishioners’ access to unregistered home churches or threatening the hosts of such gatherings.

According to local Catholics, in April authorities of Tan Uyen District, Lai Chau Province denied the Catholic community in Ho Mit Commune permission to celebrate Easter Mass. Local authorities stated that the Catholics in the commune were recent converts who had not yet properly registered as adherents of the Catholic faith in their community and therefore had not met their obligations under the law.

Reports continued of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment Red Flag Association, although the group reportedly dissolved itself in March 2018. Catholic leaders also reported internet-based harassment by Force 47, a group tasked with rebutting government critics on social media that takes its name from a Vietnam People’s Army cyber security unit; Catholic leaders were uncertain if the harassment was state-sponsored.

The Vietnam Baptist Convention (VBC) reported that Quang Ninh and Ha Long provincial police made repeated requests to meet with local VBC pastors. VBC sources stated police demanded that the VBC not publicize incidents of harassment against VBC congregations and that the VBC share with the provincial authorities the identities of other unregistered Protestant congregations.

From July to September, commune members and district police officials in Krong Pac District and Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province, publicly denounced Evangelical Church of Christ members Ksor Sun, Pastor Y Nuen Ayun, Y Jon Ayun, Y Nguyet Bkrong, and Y Kuo Bya, according to an international human rights NGO. Police accused the individuals of acting against the government and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Police reportedly said these persons should be imprisoned and that they must leave the Church of Christ and stop meeting with foreign diplomats if they wanted to remain in the community.

Chang A Do, a local leader and member of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam from Doan Ket Village, Dak Ngo Commune, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province, reported that local authorities continued to harass him.

Some religious leaders faced travel restrictions, and leaders and followers of certain religious groups faced other restrictions on their movements by government authorities. The Catholic Redemptorist Order stated authorities still held passports confiscated in 2018 of at least two priests of the order. Some pastors who were outspoken and critical of authorities expressed concerns about traveling abroad for fear of being stopped at the border or being detained upon return to the country.

Several independent and religious leaders from unrecognized religious organizations who participated in the 2018 Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference (SEAFORB) in Thailand reported they faced harassment upon their return to Vietnam. Cao Dai adherent Nguyen Van Thiet reported that provincial authorities in Tay Ninh Province prevented his travel outside of the country, thereby denying him the opportunity to participate in the 2019 SEAFORB conference.

In December more than one dozen government officials of My Phuoc Tay Commune, Tien Giang Province entered the home of an unrecognized Cao Dai church adherent and cited her for participating in a ritual to install a Cao Dai “Divine Eye” banner on her home altar without preregistration. The adherent said she had notified authorities the day before. The woman said authorities also established a traffic checkpoint where they stopped and recorded the identities of co-adherents on the way to her home for the ritual.

On September 12, local officials and policed prevented Phan Van Dung, a resident of Hung Quoi Village, Hung Thạnh Commune, Tan Phuoc District, Tien Giang Province, from hosting a traditional ceremony for a friend whose mother had passed away. The officials told Dung the ceremony violated the Law on Belief and Religion, as the sect of Cao Dai to which he belonged was not recognized under the law.

According to local observers, authorities in northern mountainous areas continued destroying “Nha Don” (a sacred structure to store human remains and funeral items for Duong Van Minh followers). Duong Van Minh adherents described the continuing slow destruction of these sites by authorities as a means of “inflicting psychological pain.” During the year, in Ha Quang District, Cao Bang Province alone, local authorities demolished 13 such structures. Members of this group reported that authorities destroyed more than 130 structures during the last several years. State media and progovernment websites at times reported that the structures were built illegally on agricultural land.

Provincial and local authorities continued many social and economic development projects that required the revocation of land rights and demolition of properties of religious organizations or individuals across the country. Authorities also reportedly did not intervene effectively in many land disputes that involved religious organizations or believers; in most of these cases the religious organizations or believers were unsuccessful in retaining land use rights.

State media and progovernment websites stated that Catholic priests in many parishes occupied – or urged their parishioners to use or illegally occupy – land legally used by other nonbelievers or authorities. There were also cases in which Catholics were alleged to have “misused” their land, for example, by turning an agricultural plot into a soccer field without the approval of the proper authorities. However, Catholic priests pointed to examples of land confiscated from the Catholic Church by the government being subdivided and sold for commercial purposes.

On December 31, the Ho Chi Minh City government awarded city-level “Artistic Architectural Heritage” status to the Thu Thiem Church and Holy Cross Lovers Convent. The designation ended a multiyear standoff between the church and local authorities over plans to demolish the church complex. Thu Thiem is the first church to be awarded historic preservation status in the southern part of the country.

Religious leaders continued to say existing laws and regulations on education, health, publishing, and construction were restrictive toward religious groups and needed to be revised to allow religious groups greater freedom to conduct such activities.

On October 23, the GCRA granted a “certificate of recognizing religious organization” to the Vietnam Assemblies of Gods in Ho Chi Minh City under the Law on Religion and Belief. During the year, the government registered the Church of Jesus Christ. Although the Church of Jesus Christ coordinating committee was registered in 2016, the new registration of religious activities brought the Church into compliance with the new law and was the second step in the three-step process towards recognition.

Registered and unregistered religious groups continued to state that government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, if at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals as required by law. Some local authorities reportedly requested documents or information beyond what was stipulated by law. Several religious leaders said authorities sometimes asked for bribes to facilitate approvals. Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the applicants’ failure to complete forms correctly or provide complete information. Religious groups said the process of registering groups or notifying authorities of activities in new or remote locations was particularly difficult.

The ECVN reported continued difficulties in registering their local congregations and meeting points with local authorities in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, and Hoa Binh Provinces. According to ECVN, authorities recognized 23 local congregations and granted registration to approximately 500 meeting points out of approximately 1,200 local congregations and houses of worship – referred to locally as “meeting points.”

The VBC stated that local authorities in Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and Hai Duong denied registration requests for their meeting points. The most common justification for denial was that the application package was incomplete. Local authorities often required information and documents not required by law, while not providing clear instructions of how to correct an incomplete application, according to the VBC. In many cases, authorities continued to refuse subsequent submissions, citing different justifications for doing so. In some cases, local authorities required a list of congregation members, which many churches said they refused to provide out of fear of harassment of their members.

According to several Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas or with majority ethnic minority populations continued to face difficulty registering with provincial authorities due to an inconsistent application of national laws. Catholic leaders reported that the most problematic regions were in the Central Highlands (Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Kon Tum, and Lam Dong Provinces), and the Northwest Highlands, including Hoa Binh, Son La, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, and Yen Bai Provinces.

Hoa Binh authorities continued to deny Luong Son Parish’s application to become a parish affiliate of Hoa Binh Diocese and did not respond to a similar request from Vu Ban Parish, Catholic representatives reported. Authorities reportedly deemed the Lang Son application incomplete and stated that Vu Ban was a new parish, which the Church continued to dispute.

Some Buddhist, Protestant, and Cao Dai groups stated they chose not to affiliate with any government-recognized or government-registered religious organizations, nor did they seek their own registration or recognition, because they believed that recognized and registered groups were manipulated by or at least cooperated closely with authorities. They said they could not tolerate such manipulation and cooperation.

State-run media and progovernment blogs continued to accuse priests and parishioners who were vocal in their opposition to the government of exploiting religion for personal gain or “colluding with hostile forces with the purpose of inciting public disorder and acting against the Communist Party and State.” Progovernment blogs and, at times, state-run media, continued publishing stories about Catholic clergy allegedly involved in inappropriate sexual situations and parishioners misappropriating donations for personal use, allegations that two Catholic bishops stated were totally false and designed to discredit the Church. Catholic leaders in the central part of the country said digitally manipulated social media posts falsely portrayed Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop of the Ha Tinh Diocese in compromising sexual situations. Progovernment blogs also made repeated references to sex scandals involving priests outside of the country.

State-run media and progovernment websites sometimes equated particular Christian denominations and other religious groups, notably Falun Gong, with separatist movements, blaming them for political, economic, and social problems, particularly in remote areas in the Northwest and Central Highlands where there was a high concentration of ethnic minorities. According to Degar Christians, authorities repeatedly accused Degar Christian groups of belonging to the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), a defunct group the government considers an insurgency militia; Degar Christian members and leaders said they were not associated with FULRO.

State media reported local and provincial authorities in the northern mountainous provinces, including Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, Bac Can, and Thai Nguyen, continued to call the Duong Van Minh religious group a threat to national security, political stability, and social order. State media and progovernment websites continued referring to the group as “an evil-way religion” or “an illegal religious group.” The provincial and local authorities reportedly considered breaking up this group to be a priority.

Some progovernment websites associated Falun Gong with acts against the party and state or other hostile political agendas. Following the discovery in Binh Duong of two bodies of Falun Gong practitioners, reportedly killed by fellow Falun Gong adherents, state media and progovernment websites reiterated previous statements reminding the public that the practice of Falun Gong and dissemination of related material is illegal. State media reported that authorities dispersed Falun Gong gatherings and confiscated Falun Gong literature.

During the year, the Catholic Church reassigned a number of priests who were vocal in their opposition to the government or engaged in human rights activities to less restive areas. According to social media and activists, authorities intervened with the relevant Catholic dioceses to have perceived “problematic” priests removed, although both the priests and Catholic Church leaders denied these reports. Among those transferred were Fathers Dinh Huu Thoai, Tran Dinh Long, and Le Ngoc Thanh, who ran the Justice and Peace Committee of the Saigon Redemptorist Order, which provided assistance to former army officials of the former Republic of Vietnam and victims of injustice; Father Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong of Thai Ha Church in Hanoi; and Father Nguyen Duy Tan of Tho Hoa parish, Dong Nai Province.

In May authorities in Thua Thien Hue Province reportedly requested that the leadership of the International Benedictine Order and Vietnamese Benedictine Order assign Nguyen Huyen Duc to a parish in Thua Thien Hue rather than the Thien An monastery; a senior Catholic official stated this request was likely due to the priest’s efforts to highlight issues of land reform and land rights.

Many ordained pastors conducted pastoral work despite not having completed paperwork mandated by law to be recognized as clergy by the government. For example, ECVN reported that only approximately one fifth of its pastors were officially recognized by the government.

Some pastors of unregistered groups stated that authorities did not interfere with their clerical training, despite their lack of legal authorization.

Some Catholic leaders stated authorities did not approve their requests to establish new parishes and more than 20 such requests were pending at year’s end.

According to pastors from the unregistered VBC, government officials urged unregistered groups to affiliate with registered or recognized organizations. Some stated authorities did so knowing unregistered groups would never accept affiliation, while others said authorities sought increased control over the groups through affiliation with other organizations.

From June to October, independent Hoa Hao followers in An Giang reported that local authorities and state-recognized Hoa Hao Buddhists groups in Phu Tan District, An Giang Province, advocated tearing down the 100-year-old An Hoa Pagoda, one of the first independent Hoa Hao pagodas founded by Prophet Huynh Phu So, citing a purported need to build a new pagoda. Independent Hoa Hao followers opposed the pagoda’s demolition due to its religious importance and proposed it be renovated instead. Plainclothes police reportedly assaulted independent Hoa Hao Buddhists who tried to prevent the pagoda’s demolition. The government temporarily halted demolition of the pagoda, and it remained intact at year’s end.

There were multiple reports of discrimination against believers and religious groups across the country. Members of some religious groups that did not enjoy the support of the government and whose members were poor or ethnic minorities reported that authorities denied some of the legal benefits to which the members were entitled. In August local and provincial police reportedly disrupted a Buddhist ritual at Dat Quang temple, where monks from Phuroc Buu Temple and approximately30 worshippers were celebrating Vu Lan Day. Authorities said Thich Khong Tanh, who was leading the ceremony, did not have permission to conduct religious activities at Dat Quang Temple because he was not a local monk. According to a U.S.-based human rights organization, authorities continued to harass UBCV communities in an effort to seize their temples and facilities and force the UBCV to join the government-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Church.

On July 24, public security officials in Kmleo Village, Hoa Thang Commune, Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province, temporarily detained and interrogated Pastor Y Nguyet Bkrong of the unregistered Vietnam Evangelical Church of Christ for holding a worship ceremony in his home church to which he invited a U.S. pastor. A human rights NGO said officials ordered Y Nguyet to list the attendees of the meeting. After six hours of interrogation, the public security officials escorted him home, which they searched and confiscated religious documents.

Also on July 24, four public security officers in Jung Village, Ea Yong Commune, Krong Pac District, Dak Lak Province, reportedly detained Pastor Ksor Sun of the unregistered Vietnam Evangelical Church of Christ without an arrest warrant, interrogated him for three days regarding his relationship with a U.S.-based pastor, and ordered him to recant his faith.

In June and July public security officials in Hoa Dong Commune, Krong Pac District, and in Buon Ho Town, Ea Drong Commune, Cu Mgar District, Dak Lak Province, reportedly monitored suspected followers and pastors of the Vietnam Evangelical Church of Christ, interrogated them about their religious activities, and told them to recant their faith.

On January 11, authorities in Plei Kan Town, Ngoc Hoi District, Kon Tum Province, demolished the UBCV Linh Tu Pagoda after Abbot Thich Dong Quang left for medical treatment. Officials reportedly demolished the pagoda because the abbot did not align himself with the local state-sponsored Buddhist pagoda and local authorities. No state media outlets reported the demolition.

On March 26, local authorities in Xuyen Moc District, Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province issued a declaration that the Six-Harmony Tower and the Pavilion of Overlooking Water of the Thien Quang Pagoda were constructed without authorization and therefore must be demolished. At year’s end, there were no indications authorities had demolished the structure.

Catholic leaders said some local authorities in Quang Binh Province provided families with four kilograms (nine pounds) of rice if they agreed to replace images of Jesus Christ in their homes with pictures of Ho Chi Minh.

According to religious leaders of multiple faiths, the government did not permit members of the military to practice religious rites at any time while on active duty; military members were required to take personal leave to do so. There were no clear regulations for religious expression in the military, leaving individual unit commanders to exercise significant discretion.

While religious believers could serve in the enlisted ranks (including during temporary mandatory military service), commissioned officers were not permitted to be religious believers. Religious adherents continued to be customarily excluded through the process to recruit permanent military staff.

Khmer Krom Buddhists, whose males traditionally enter the monastery for a period of training when they come of age, reported faced forced conscription into the military with no alternative service, despite no active conflict in the country, preventing males in the community from receiving their religious rite of passage.

According to family members of some imprisoned religious believers, authorities continued to deny some prisoners and detainees the right to religious practice. Detention officers continued to deny visits by priests to Catholic prisoners, including Ho Duc Hoa and Le Dinh Luong. Prison authorities stated this was due to the lack of appropriate facilities inside the prison for Catholic services. Other prisoners reported they were allowed to read the Bible or other religious materials and practice their beliefs while incarcerated. According to an international NGO, independent Hoa Hao adherent Bui Van Trung was able to have a censored version of the Hoa Hao scripture in prison.

Protestant and Catholic groups continued to report that legal restrictions and lack of legal clarity on operating faith-based medical and educational facilities made them wary of attempting to open hospitals or parochial schools, despite government statements welcoming religious groups expanding participation in health, education, and charitable activities. Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools seized from the Catholic Church in past decades.

In several instances, local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services and to gather for training. For example, in Hanoi and surrounding areas, city officials continued to allow Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers.

Most representatives of religious groups continued to report that adherence to a registered religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental civil, economic, and secular life, but that adherence to an unregistered group was more disadvantageous. Practitioners of various registered religious groups served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly. Many nationally recognized religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government-affiliated organizations under the guidance of the CPV. High-ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha. The official resumes of the top three CPV leaders stated they followed no religion; however, while many senior CPV leaders were reported to hold strong religious beliefs, particularly Buddhism, they generally did not publicly discuss their religious affiliation.

On December 18, 2018, Joseph Vu Van Thien was installed as the new Archbishop of Hanoi at a ceremony attended by Catholic leaders from the country, the Vatican, and members of the diplomatic corps. The prime minister received the high-level Vatican delegation later the same day.

Since January 2018, the GCRA has conducted more than 2,000 training sessions nationwide to assist with the continued implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion, according to the Director General of the GCRA. The GCRA created a website with an interactive portal to provide access to forms required for registration of religious activities. By the end of the year, 13 religious organizations had established accounts on the website. The portal also allowed religious organizations to track the status of their document submissions. During the year, the GCRA conducted inspections in 12 cities to monitor implementation of the law and trained provincial government officials to conduct their own local inspections.

Although the law prohibits publishing of all materials, including religious materials, without government approval, some private, unlicensed publishing houses continued to unofficially print and distribute religious texts without active government interference. Other licensed publishers printed books on religion. Publishers had permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English. Other published texts included works pertaining to ancestor worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai.

The Church of Jesus Christ reported it was able to import sufficient copies of The Book of Mormon, although the Church was still working with the GCRA to import additional faith based periodicals. The president of the Church of Jesus Christ traveled to the country for the first time in November, where he met with senior CPV and religious affairs officials and held a devotional session for believers.

Authorities permitted Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Baha’i, and Buddhist groups to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities, and religious leaders noted increased enrollment in recent years. Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

On October 22, in Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam Seventh-day Adventist Church celebrated the 90th Anniversary of its foundation. The event drew 300 guests, including representatives of local and central governments.

On October 27, in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Baha’i community celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bab, the organization’s founder. The event planners hosted approximately 100 guests, including representatives of other faith organizations and senior officials of the Fatherland Front.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Authorities in Binh Duong reported that four women stating they were Falun Gong adherents admitted to killing a practitioner of Falun Gong. The women said a second Falun Gong follower committed suicide. The women encased both bodies in a concrete barrel. Following the discovery of the bodies, state media and progovernment websites reiterated previous statements reminding the public that the practice of Falun Gong and dissemination of related material is illegal.

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha organized the 16th United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations, an international observation of Buddha’s birthday. The festival attracted more than 1,650 delegates from 112 countries and territories, along with approximately 20,000 Vietnamese Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns, and followers. Among the dignitaries in attendance was Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future