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Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of “enmity against God,” including two Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority prisoners at Fajr Prison on August 4. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, beatings in custody, forced confessions, poor prison conditions, and denials of access to legal counsel. International media and human rights activists reported authorities in Qarchak Prison for Women routinely targeted Gonabadi Sufi inmates for mistreatment and denied them access to legal counsel. In January the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi Order in Iran, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. Human rights organizations, as well as UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman, widely decried Ahmadi’s mistreatment, along with that of 10 Gonabadi Sufi women serving prison sentences at Qarchak. They also deplored the high number of deaths and arrests in ethnic and religious minority provinces that, according to the organizations, resulted from the government’s excessive use of force against protesters during November demonstrations. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. In March CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms of up to 26 years each on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to media, these individuals were among the more than 300 Gonabadi Sufis arrested in 2018 for protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader and the arrest of a fellow devotee, Nematollah Riah. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, non-Armenian Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported in September authorities sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term for charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “supporting opposition groups,” and “propaganda against the state.” The website IranWire reported that between March and October judiciary officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is, and during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial in various cities across the country. According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati to serve a one-year prison sentence after he was tried in absentia for defending the “false Baha’i Faith.” On February 10, according to NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents arrested a pastor from Rasht and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to his congregants. Yarsanis stated authorities continued to discriminate against and harass them. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher education opportunities for members of religious minorities and confiscated or restricted their use of religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on businesses owned by Baha’is or forcing them to shut down. The government continued to crack down on public displays of protest of the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. In August international media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to a May report by CHRI, state agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of minority religious groups, particularly those of Gonabadi Sufis. The Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported Baha’is remained barred from government employment at the local, provincial, and national levels, not only in the civil service but also in such fields as education and law.

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

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. At the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom…We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs, and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.” On August 2, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz, whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.” The United States supported the rights of members of minority religious groups in the country through actions in the United Nations. In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 84 million (midyear 2019). Muslims are estimated to constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of which 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

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

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers above 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and CHRI estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 – significantly reduced from a peak of approximately 300,000 prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

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

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

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

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are areligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s (AI) report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

The penal code specifies the death sentence for “enmity against God” (which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents, and not for other categories of death such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

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

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

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Rehman expressed deep concern about the government’s use of “excessive” force during the November protests in provinces with a majority population of ethnic minorities. The report pointed to the highest number of deaths in these provinces, with at least 84 persons killed in Khuzestan (predominantly Sunni Arab) and 52 in Kermanshah (predominantly Kurdish). IranWire, citing an unnamed Khuzestan official, reported on December 17 that the total number of protester fatalities in Mahshahr, a major city and residence for Ahwazi Arabs in the region, was 148 over five days. On December 1, The New York Times reported IRGC forces killed as many as 100 protestors on a single day, many of whom were local Sunni Arab citizens, by machine gun fire in a marshland in Mahshahr. The special rapporteur also reported officials arrested dozens of activists from ethnic minorities, including Kurds and Azerbaijani-Turks, as well as 10 Baha’is who were arrested in Baharestan on November 29 and 30.

According to AI, authorities executed Abdullah Karmollah Chab and Ghassem Abdullah, two Sunni Ahwazi Arab-minority prisoners, at Fajr Prison on August 4, after they were convicted on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with an armed attack on a Shia religious ceremony in Safiabad. The convictions and executions proceeded despite AI’s and other human rights NGOs’ concerns regarding what they stated was the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.

The NGO Iran Human Rights reported on May 23 that authorities hanged Mehdi Cheraghi on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with the robbery of a jewelry shop in April 2015. According to the report, authorities hanged Cheraghi in public, in the city of Hamadan, during Ramadan. Iran Human Rights also reported authorities executed two prisoners, Hossein Roshan and Mohsen Konani, at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj on charges of “enmity against God” on October 2. Authorities originally arrested and convicted the two prisoners for armed robbery.

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 27, international media reported police in Sistan and Baluchistan Province shot and killed a young Sunni Baluchi man, Mousa Shahbakhsh, after he did not follow orders to stop following a police pursuit because he did not have a driver’s license. Following his death, protests broke out at the governor’s office in the provincial capital of Zahedan; authorities arrested approximately 30 protesters. Media reports noted a tense relationship between the Sunni Baluchi population and the Shia authorities.

AI reported on June 26, Benyamin Alboghbiesh, a Sunni Ahwazi Arab arrested on May 26, died under suspicious circumstances at a detention center believed to be under the control of the IRGC in Ahvaz, Khuzestan. Alboghbiesh’s mother and brother were arrested with him and remained detained at year’s end. Intelligence agents notified Alboghbiesh’s family on June 26 of his death. AI raised concerns that he might have been tortured. AI urged authorities to undertake immediately an impartial investigation into Alboghbiesh’s death and to hold accountable anyone found responsible.

According to HRANA and AI, after arresting Kurdish singer Peyman Mirzazadeh in February, authorities sentenced him to a two-year prison term in May and flogged him 100 times on July 28 for sabb al-nabi, or “insulting the prophet” (80 lashes) and drinking alcohol (20 lashes). AI said the flogging left Mirzazadeh “in agonizing pain with a severely swollen back and legs.”

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards routinely targeting Gonabadi Sufi prisoners for mistreatment, such as encouraging other inmates to physically abuse them. In January CHRI reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi order, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. She reportedly had said that another imprisoned Gonabadi Sufi, Shahnaz Kianasl, did not receive proper medical attention.

In his July report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran commented on Ahmadi’s case and those of other Gonabadi Sufis at Qarchak Prison. According to the report, “The special rapporteur is deeply concerned about the situation of members of the Gonabadi Dervish community who remain in detention in Qarchak Prison without access to their lawyers since the protests of 2018. This includes at least 10 women serving prison sentences of up to five years.” CHRI and the special rapporteur reported that in April, according to an unnamed source, a fellow inmate beat Sima Entesari, a Gonabadi Sufi detainee at Qarchak Prison, after prison authorities promised the attacker a case review if she assaulted her fellow prisoner, and they promised to consider her request for conditional release if she attacked Sufi dervishes. The special rapporteur also reported the authorities placed Entesari and four other Gonabadi Sufi detainees sentenced on national security charges in the same ward as prisoners convicted of drug-related charges, theft, and social crimes, in contravention of the prison’s regulations.

Human rights NGOs also reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities in Great Tehran Penitentiary. On January 28, CHRI reported two Gonabadi Sufi dervishes – Hassan Shahreza and Vahid Khamoushi – were denied medical treatment for infected wounds received when security forces shot them with pellet guns during protests in 2018. According to CHRI, Shahreza reportedly retained 200 pellets in his body, which had led to the infections. In addition to pellet gun wounds, Khamoushi had a broken ankle. CHRI reported authorities denied both men access to medical care.

CHRI reported Mitra Badrnejad, a Baha’i woman arrested in March 2018 during a raid by security agents on her home, began her one-year prison sentence on September 22. The revolutionary court in Ahvaz convicted Badrnejad of “membership in the Baha’i Organization” and “propaganda against the state,” with a sentence of five years in prison and two years in exile. Upon appeal, the sentenced was reduced to one year. According to her son, authorities held Badrnejad in solitary confinement for 50 days in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center and in Ahwaz’s Sepidar Prison. Her son also said authorities blindfolded her during interrogation and subjected her to threats and other forms of psychological abuse.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Mohabat News reported that on January 23, eight security officers raided the Isfahan home of Christian convert Sina Moloudian and arrested and beat him, leaving bruise marks on his face. The officers also confiscated cellphones, computers, Bibles, and other religious materials. Authorities emphasized they had been monitoring Moloudian for months prior to the arrest. He was released on bail on February 4.

On February 7, HRANA reported special forces agents beat several Sunni prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison. According to HRANA, the beatings came in retaliation for Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi’s refusal to attend his court hearing. Ghoreishi, Hamzeh Darvish, Marivan Karkuki, and Namegh Deldel were among the Sunni inmates severely injured in the beatings.

On February 12, a Baloch NGO reported security guards in the city of Iranshahr, in Sistan and Balochistan Province, shot and killed a young Baluchi man, Davood Zahroozah, while he was transporting fuel in his personal vehicle. HRANA reported a Balochi man, Muhammad Kurd, was shot and killed on February 9 by security forces when they opened fire on his vehicle without warning as he was transporting fuel for sale, a common activity in that region that the government viewed as “smuggling.” According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, at least 103 were imprisoned on charges of “enmity against God”, 49 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 15 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam,” and 15 for “corruption on earth.” At least 10 were arrested for a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (“baghi”), which officials have used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.”

Noor Ali Tabandeh, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Surfi order, died on December 24 after almost two years of house arrest and denial of urgent medical care. He was under house arrest resulting from 2018 protests in Tehran. According to the Majzooban Noor website, as of March, approximately 110 dervishes remained imprisoned in inhumane conditions in Great Tehran Penitentiary and Qarchak Prison. On March 15, CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms ranging from six to 26 years each, which included 74 lashes, two years in exile, a two-year ban on social media and interviews, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad for each. Charges included “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to the November CHRI report, Gonabadi Sufi religious centers remained closed following the 2018 protests.

According to the July report to the UN General Assembly from the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, on March 13 Amir Noori, a member of the Gonabadi Dervish community, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “acting against the internal security of the country, and disrupting public order.” Noori lost a finger during the 2018 protests, when authorities initially arrested him.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. In January IranWire reported security agents detained and threatened at least three Sunni seminary students and clergymen traveling from Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Mashhad and banned them from entering Sunni seminaries and mosques. Similarly, according to the same report, intelligence agents detained another group of Sunni seminary students traveling from Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Khaf, in Khorasan Province. The agents inspected their phones, notebooks, and cars and forced them to return to Zahedan.

HRANA reported that on September 24, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term. Ghoreishi, the former imam of Friday prayers at Imam Shafi’i Mosque in Talesh, was originally arrested in April 2014 and had just completed a five-year sentence. The 16-year sentence was based on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security (10 years), “supporting opposition groups” (five years), and “[disseminating] propaganda against the state” (one year).

IranWire reported the arrest of several Baha’is in late November, noting the reasons for the arrests were unclear but appeared related to claims Baha’is had led and spurred on the nationwide protests. On November 27 and 29, security officers in Baharestan, a satellite city of Isfahan, arrested at least ten Baha’is – Soroush Azadi, Shahab Ferdowsian, Nasim Jaberi, Mehranollah Daddy, Shahbaz Bashi, Vahid Niazmand, Naser Lotfi, Ghodus Lotfi, Saghar Manouchehrzadeh, and Homa Manouchehrzadeh – and took them to an unknown location. Following Friday prayers, residents of Baharestan held up signs calling for the arrest of Baha’is and protesters. On November 30, a social media application, Telegraph, reported the arrestees in Baharestan were of Baha’is involved in the unrest and called for them to receive the worst possible punishment.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

According to the Geneva-based Baha’i International Community (BIC) and the UN special rapporteur’s June report, more than 49 Baha’is remained in prison. According to BIC, the Baha’i citizens were arbitrarily detained, and some were subsequently given harsh sentences due to their professed faith and religious identity. IranWire reported between March and October, officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is since the appointment of a new chief justice earlier in the year. It said during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial. According to media and NGO reports, Baha’is continued to face charges that included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” “espionage and collaboration with foreign entities,” and “actions against national security.” Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution offering mainly distance learning, that the government considered illegal. According to BIC, in many cases, authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRANA, IranWire, and Iran Press Watch (IPW) reported that on April 30, MOIS masked agents arrested three Baha’is in Semnan – Ardeshir Fanaeian, Behnam Eskandarian, and Yalda Firoozian – following a search of their homes. According to the reports, the three were initially held at an unknown location without the right to legal counsel and were accused of “propaganda against the regime.” According to an updated October Iran Wire report, the three were detained in the central prison of Semnan and the judge handling the case held them without clear reason, despite the completion of their interrogations three months prior. In August Iran Wire and IPW reported prison officials allowed inmates to beat Eskandarian, resulting in a ruptured ear, blood clots, and severe inflammation of the inner ear. According to the report, guards observed the attack but did nothing to intervene. On December 16, following an initial ruling by the revolutionary court in Semnan in October, the Semnan Court of Appeals sentenced Fanaeian to a prison term of six years, Eskandarian to three years and six months, and Firouzian to two years and six months.

According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati in his home. Hajati’s wife stated the day before, Hajati had received a text message notifying him authorities had sentenced him in absentia to one year in prison and two years of exile. On June 19, IPW reported 29 prominent political and civil rights activists issued a statement strongly condemning Hajati’s imprisonment. International media and human rights NGOs reported the government previously detained him for 10 days in 2018 for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. Following that detention, the judiciary placed Hajati under surveillance and banned him from holding his seat on the council for approximately three months.

CHRI and international media reported authorities in February sentenced Mehdi Moghaddari, a member of the Isfahan City Council, to six months in prison for his social media support of Hajati and Baha’i rights. An appeals court upheld the sentence, but authorities did not summon him to prison by year’s end. On April 15, the revolutionary court in Isfahan handed down a six-month suspension from the city council.

In January IPW reported authorities arrested four Baha’is in Isfahan stemming from 2017 convictions of “membership in illegal Baha’i organizations with the intention of acting against national security.” Sohrab Naghipoor was sentenced to five years, while Farzad Homayooni, Mohsen Mehregani, and Manouchehr Rahmani each received 20-month sentences. All remained imprisoned at year’s end.

IPW reported in January the Isfahan Court of Appeals sentenced, in separate judgments, nine Baha’is to prison sentences averaging more than five years each. Authorities charged them with “membership in the illegal Baha’i community and disseminating propaganda against the regime by spreading the Baha’i faith in society.”

CHRI and BIC reported that on May 6, a revolutionary court in Bushehr sentenced seven Baha’is – Asadollah Jaberi, Ehteram Sheikhi, Emad Jaberi, Farideh Jaberi, Minoo Riyazati, Farrokh Faramarzi, and Pooneh Nasheri – to three years in prison each for answering questions about their religious beliefs to Muslim guests in their homes and for “membership in an organization against national security.” According to the report, intelligence ministry agents arrested the seven in February 2018.

HRANA reported that on July 6, the revolutionary court in Birjand sentenced nine Baha’i residents to six years each in prison. According to the report, the court authorities did not allow the defendants to have their lawyer present during the hearing. The nine – Sheida Abedi, Firouz Ahmadi, Khalil Maleki, Simin Mohammadi, Bijan Ahmadi, Maryam Mokhtari, Saghar Mohammadi, Sohrab Malaki, and Bahman Salehi – were convicted of “membership in an illegal…Baha’i group” and “propaganda against the state by promoting Baha’ism.” Authorities also confiscated funds the Baha’i community raised to support the needs of Baha’i residents of Birjand.

IPW reported that in June the revolutionary court in Isfahan sentenced Negin Tadrisi, a Baha’i resident, to a five-year prison term on charges of “collusion and assembly against national security.” According to the report, authorities arrested Tadrisi in October 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day. HRANA and IPW reported that on March 6, judicial authorities sentenced Baha’i Ghazaleh Bagheri Tari to five years in prison for “acting against the security of the country through membership in and administration of Baha’i institutions.” Security forces arrested Bagheri Tari in 2017 during a celebration held in her home marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. According to the report, security forces required each of the participants in the celebration to sign a pledge not to attend Baha’i gatherings.

On June 25, HRANA reported the revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Baha’i resident Sofia Mobini to 10 years in prison for “establishing and organizing an illegal Baha’i group with intentions to threaten the national security.” Authorities arrested Mobini in October 2017 during the celebration of the 200th birthday of Baha’u’llah and transferred her to Evin Prison, from which she was later released on bail. According to the report, the maximum allowable penalty for such charges under the relevant article of the penal code is no more than five years imprisonment.

In August BIC and international media reported a wave of arrests of Baha’is in various cities. On August 10, MOIS agents arrested Monireh Bavil Saqlaei, Minou Zamanipour, and Gholamhossein Mazloumi in their homes in Tehran and transferred them to Evin Prison. Simultaneously, authorities arrested Sohaila Haqiqat, a Baha’i resident of Shiraz, in her home and took her to an unknown location, as well as Farid Moqaddam in Birjand. On August 3, according to the reports, authorities detained two Baha’is from Karaj: Abolfazl Ansari and Rouhollah Zibaei. Security agents reportedly ransacked the homes of all the detained Baha’is, confiscating their laptops, smartphones, identification cards, bank statements, and other personal effects. Authorities did not cite charges at the time of the arrests. While confirming these reports, the Geneva-based BIC said it was not yet clear which state-run entity was behind the arrests or what the charges were.

According to HRANA and IPW, on January 21, eight MOIS agents arrested and imprisoned a Baha’i woman living in Tehran, Atousa Ahamadayi, following a search of her house and the confiscation of some of her personal belongings, including books, laptops, and religious material. The agents accused Ahamadayi of committing acts against national security. On March 11, IranWire, HRANA, and IPW reported security agents arrested two Baha’i brothers and residents of Tehran, Hamid Nasseri, at his place of business, and Saeed Nasseri, who had gone to the Evin prosecutor’s office to inquire about on his wife’s detention. According to the report, security forces arrested Nasseri’s wife, Afsaneh Emami, on February 2; authorities transferred all three Baha’i family members to Evin Prison.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and arrests of teachers associated with the program. Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation. According to IPW, on October 9, authorities released BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh after she completed a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution. Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a fiveyear sentence. According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while he was visiting his wife, who was imprisoned at Evin Prison. The Tehran revolutionary court sentenced the two on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”

Since the government did not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces, Baha’i activists said this situation often left women facing irreconcilable differences with their partners, including in cases involving domestic violence, without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

On November 2, BIC reported authorities harassed Baha’is around the time of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Baha’u’llah. Authorities raided Baha’i homes and celebrations in Shiraz, arresting at least five Baha’is. In the days leading to the anniversary, perpetrators vandalized a Baha’i cemetery. Authorities sealed five shops belonging to Baha’is because owners had observed the Baha’i holy days.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the most generous rights among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

In May, according to Christian Post, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi stated authorities were “summoning” Christian converts from Islam to explain their conversions. In a speech to Shia clerics, Alavi cited “evangelical propaganda” as one of the government’s concerns about the spread of Christianity and local Muslims’ converting to it. According to the Post report, Alavi said the Ministry of Intelligence and the Qom Seminary had dispatched officials to counter “the advocates of Christianity” and to question converts.

According to al-Arabiya English news service, authorities began increasing their surveillance of evangelical Christians in the days preceding Christmas. Christmas celebrations made it easier for authorities to arrest a group of Christians at one time, according to Dabrina Tamraz, a religious rights activist. According to reports, at least 109 evangelical Christians were arrested during the year. On February 10, according to CSW, IRGC agents arrested Matthias Haghnejad, the pastor of an underground Christian church, in Rasht following a church service and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to church attendees. Agents also confiscated the pastor’s books and his wife’s phone from their home. On September 23, the Tehran revolutionary court sentenced Haghnejad and eight members of the church to five years in prison after a short trial. Media reported the supreme leader intervened in Pastor Haghnejad’s case to ensure the court upheld the charges against him; he was subsequently transferred to Evin Prison without trial and remained in detention at year’s end.

According to media reports and Article 18, an NGO promoting religious freedom and supporting Iranian Christians, MOIS agents raided the homes of eight converts to Christianity on July 1 in Bushehr, placing them in solitary confinement and denying them access to legal counsel. During the raids, agents reportedly confiscated Bibles, religious literature, wooden crosses, pictures of Christian symbols, laptops, phones, identity cards, bank cards, and other personal belongings.

On August 1, international media and Christian NGOs reported that in late July, the revolutionary court in Karaj sentenced 65-year-old Mahrokh Kanbari, a Christian convert, to one year in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and engaging in “propaganda against the system.” According to the reports, three MOIS agents initially arrested Kanbari at her home on Christmas Eve in 2018, after which she was released on 105 million rials ($2,500) bail. Authorities reportedly directed Kanbari, while released on bail, to be instructed by an Islamic religious leader on how to return to Islam.

According to a September report from Mohabat News, the Bukan Revolutionary Court sentenced Mustafa Rahimi to six months and one day in prison on charges related to selling the Bible at his bookstore. Intelligence agents arrested Rahimi in June and released him on bail, but authorities detained him a few days later and imprisoned him at Bukan Central Prison.

HRANA reported on December 20, Mohammad Moghisseh, Presiding Judge of Branch 28 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, sentenced nine converts to Christianity to five years in prison each for “acting against national security” on October 13. According to HRANA, the trial reportedly took place on September 23; the individuals appealed the sentences. All were reportedly arrested by IRGC intelligence agents.

According to Article 18 and Mohabat News, on October 26, authorities released Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert imprisoned in Rajai Shahr Prison since 2013. On November 12, he reported to Sarbaz to begin the two years of internal exile included in his 2013 sentence for “collusion against national security,” for converting to and practicing Christianity, and related missionary activities.

Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church; his wife, Shamiram Isavi; and their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, continued to appeal prison sentences handed down to them because of their religious activities. According to Article 18 and Christian religious freedom NGO Middle East Concern, the judge postponed a hearing for Victor Bet Tamraz and Isavi on November 13, stating the court was “too crowded” and there was not time to hear their cases.

According to a report by NGOs Article 18, Open Doors International, CSW, and Middle East Concern, at least 17 Christians were in prison on charges related to their religion at year’s end.

NGO reports said the Erfan-e Halgeh group, followers of the spiritual doctrine of Interuniversalism, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Taheri, continued to be subject to frequent arrests, detentions, harassment, and surveillance. According to HRANA, in February authorities arrested and sentenced an Interuniveralism believer and member of the Erfan-e Halgheh group to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security.” In April authorities released Taheri from prison after he served nearly eight years following his arrest in 2011, according to media and NGO reports. According to CHRI, a state media outlet reported authorities granted him a furlough for the Iranian new year, but he faced more time in prison because the appeals court in Tehran upheld a 2018 five-year prison sentence based on the charge of “corruption on earth.” According to social media reports, Taheri remained out of prison on furlough but was banned from leaving the country.

CHRI reported that on May 15, an appeals court upheld the 91-day prison sentences of 18 persons whom authorities arrested on charges of “disrupting public order” while they were peacefully protesting on behalf of Taheri outside Evin Prison in 2015. Sixteen of the defendants in the case are followers of Taheri and the Erfan-e Halgheh group.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.

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

On January 12, HRANA reported authorities sentenced Shia cleric Seyed Hassan Aghamiri to two years of suspended imprisonment and stripped him of his clerical office as a result of his interviews and speeches in government media. According to Radio Farda, Aghamiri was charged with “undermining clerics’ prestige and insulting sanctities”. NHK English News Service reported in February Aghamiri was very popular among youth because he called for younger generations to “think on their own” by telling them, “God gives you talent. Nothing will stop you. You don’t have any limits.”

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials. In January BIC, HRANA, and IPW reported authorities denied the renewal of a business license to Farshid Deimi, a Baha’i resident of Birjand, because of his Baha’i faith. According to the report, on January 5, officials sealed Deimi’s business of 20 years without providing any specific reason for doing so. HRANA also reported in May authorities raided the Kashan home of Heshmatollah Ehsani and confiscated his equipment for producing rosewater because he was a Baha’i business owner. BIC similarly reported in May the intelligence ministry office in Kermanshah summoned Baha’i resident Sasan Ghaghchi for eight hours of interrogation and intimidation related to an inventory of goods authorities had confiscated from his shop and warehouse.

In September IPW reported agents from the state agency The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) forcibly entered the residence of Sharareh Farrokhzadi and Sirous Irannejad, a Baha’i family in the Niavaran region of Tehran, and within seven hours, cleared the residence of all furniture and other belongings and transferred ownership of the house to EIKO. In 2017 a revolutionary court order stated, “Since it has been established that the above-named are…members of the perverse sect of Baha’ism, all their assets may be seized by EIKO.”

HRANA and Iran Wire reported that between June 9 and 15, security forces searched the homes and businesses of nine Baha’i families in Shahin Shahr – Arshad Afshar, Aziz Afshar, Peyman Imani, Mahboubeh Hosseini, Bahram Safaei, Mehran Yazdani, Mesbah Karambakhsh, Sirous Golzar, and Naieem Haghiri – and confiscated their belongings, including cell phones, laptops, tablets, satellite devices, books, photographs, carpets, identification documents, tools, and other business equipment. Judicial authorities summoned the Baha’is, along with three others, to the local intelligence ministry office. According to the report, a group of seven security agents confiscated belongings valued at approximately one billion rials ($23,800). According to HRANA, under pressure from intelligence agents, Haghiri’s employer fired him.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan Provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

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

International media and the Assyrian International News Agency reported authorities closed a 100-year-old Presbyterian church belonging to the Assyrian community in Tabriz on May 9. According to Article 18, agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader, stormed the church. The agents then changed all the locks, tore down a cross from the church tower, ordered the church warden to leave the premises while they installed closed circuit television and other monitoring systems, and barred the congregants from holding services in the building. According to Article 18, a cross was reinstalled on top of the church in July.

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

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. International media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence on August 27 of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to an August 27 report by HRANA, on June 1, security forces arrested Afshari on charges of “collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “promoting corruption and prostitution by appearing without a headscarf in public.”

In April authorities arrested three anti-forced-hijab activists, Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi, and her daughter Yasaman Ariyani, for their widely shared video via various social media networks on March 8, International Women’s Day, depicting the women handing out flowers in the Tehran metro while suggesting to passengers that the hijab should be a choice. According to HRW, on July 31, branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced each of them to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state,” and 10 years for “encouraging and enabling [moral] corruption and prostitution.” Keshavarz received an additional seven-and-a-half years for “insulting the sacred.” On August 16, six UN human rights experts issued a statement calling for the release of the women These included the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran; the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences; the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the chair of the working group on discrimination against women and girls; the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The experts stated, “We call upon the Iranian authorities to quash these convictions and immediately release all human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their work in advocating women’s rights, and to ensure full respect for the rights of women to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and nondiscrimination.”

International media and human rights organizations widely reported the March 11 sentencing of female human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. According to AI, Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing came as a result of her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s degrading forced-hijab laws.” In June 2018 authorities arrested Sotoudeh, who represented opposition activists, including women prosecuted for removing their mandatory headscarf, and she remained in Evin Prison at year’s end. UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed alarm at the news of Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing. “We are deeply concerned about Ms. Sotoudeh’s conviction and the prison sentence imposed. Her detention and the charges against her appear to relate to her work as a human rights lawyer, especially representing Iranian women human rights defenders arrested for peacefully protesting against laws making the wearing of veils compulsory for women,” the experts said. The Los Angeles Times reported Sahar Khodarayi, also known as “Blue Girl,” was arrested in March for violating the government ban on women entering soccer stadiums by donning a blue wig and an overcoat to watch her favorite soccer team Esteghlal, known for their blue jerseys, play against a team from the United Arab Emirates. She was released on bail and charged with “harming public decency” and “insulting law enforcement agents” for not wearing a hijab. In September, when informed she faced six months in prison, she doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire in front of a courthouse, dying from her burns a few days later. In October women flooded Azadi Stadium in Tehran to attend a FIFA soccer match chanting “Blue Girl” as they defied the longstanding de facto ban on women attending sporting events in stadiums, where they could mix openly with the opposite sex.

The government continued to suppress public displays it deemed counter to Shia Islamic laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public. In May international media reported the arrest of 30 persons in the city of Gorgan for taking part in a private, mixed-gender yoga class. A local justice department official said the participants wore “inappropriate clothing” and “behaved inappropriately.” According to CHRI, these types of arrests were common but rarely acknowledged publicly by government officials. In March international media reported police in Arak arrested a couple on charges of “undermining Islamic chastity” after an individual posted a video on social media of the young man proposing to the young woman. According to the reports, clerics accused the couple of promoting an illicit relationship and living together without being married. The reports, however, indicated that according to local police, the couple was already legally married.

According to a May 20 CHRI report, government agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of religious minority groups, with the aim of stealing private information in the individuals’ accounts. There were nearly 100 documented accounts that authorities hacked, according to CHRI. CHRI identified accounts of the Gonabadi Sufi community in particular as key targets of the government’s hacking efforts.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsan religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. In September Iran Wire, IHRDC, and international media reported that Minister of Education Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei described a new ministry initiative, Project Mehr, which allowed schools increased authority to deny education to religious minority students. The minister was quoted as saying, “If students say they follow a faith other than the country’s official religions and this is seen as proselytizing, they cannot continue attending school.” He further stated all of the ministry’s provincial and local offices were taking part in the initiative and the human resources necessary for its implementation had been organized.

In June HRANA and IHRDC reported a new directive issued by The Welfare Organization, the country’s social welfare ministry, banning the employment of religious minorities in preschools. The directive states, “Employment of personnel belonging to religious minorities in any capacity in kindergartens is prohibited, except in kindergartens specific to religious minorities.” Director of the Office of Children and Adolescents in the State Welfare Organization Seyed Montazer Shobbar issued the directive on May 27.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. In September HRANA reported at least 22 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs, even though they passed the entrance exam. Officials stated the students had “incomplete files” or their names were not in the registration list. Applicants received a short message stating, “…There is a flaw in your dossier. Please contact the Response Unit of the Appraisal Agency.”

On January 19, media and NGOs reported a wave of expulsions of Baha’is from universities because of their religion. HRANA reported authorities at Azad University in Sama expelled Shirin Bani Nejad, a fifthterm Baha’i studying applied computer science, one month before she was to complete her associate degree. According to the reports, Bani Nejad’s expulsion came after she had paid her full tuition and taken one of her exams. Similarly, according to BIC, authorities expelled Shadi Shogi, a Baha’i student at Najafabad University of Applied Science and Technology, after four terms of study. Officials also expelled Elmira Sayyar Mahdavi, an undergraduate student in photo advertising, from Karaj University of Applied Science and Technology during her third term for being Baha’i. HRANA reported the expulsion of Baha’i Sama Nazifi, a student of architecture at Azad University in Shahriar. According to the reports, Nazifi had received awards and recognition the prior year for her academic achievement. According to Radio Zamaneh, authorities expelled Badi Safajou, a Baha’i student in chemical engineering at Azad University of Sciences and Research in Tehran with a high gradepoint average, during his seventh term. According to the report, supporters of Safajou conducted a poll that showed 81 percent of respondents disapproved of his expulsion. After nine days, security agents ordered the removal of the poll from the university’s Instagram page.

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

According to Mazjooban Noor, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and to bar them from university studies because of their affiliation with the Sufi order.

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

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their faith. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

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

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

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. A July report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of government-sanctioned discrimination and human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests of community leaders. The report noted the continuing practice of firing Yarsanis from employment after it was discovered they were Yarsani, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the report noted the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, including during military service.

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

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

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

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representative Siamak Moreh-Sedegh, the sole Jewish Member of Parliament, stating there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but there was little interference with Jewish religious practices. He ran the Sapir Hospital in Tehran, which played a key role in treating revolutionaries throughout 1978-79 and which continued to have a Hebrew phrase from the Torah over its entrance. Speaking as a government official during a human rights meeting in Geneva on November 9, Morseh-Sedegh, according to government media, said, “Like other Iranians, we religious minorities are free to perform our religious ceremonies.” According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. In an October 2 speech, IRGC Chief General Hossein Salami said Israel would be “wiped off the world’s political geography.” Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “Death to Israel,” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel. Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region. For example, Jam-e Jam daily newspaper in September published an editorial cartoon that suggested Israel’s participation in international sports “was a Jewish plot to crush Palestine.”

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries. According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years. In April BIC reported residents in Shiraz held a town-hall-style meeting against the Baha’i Faith and posted related banners promoting anti-Baha’i sentiment and publications.

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

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

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements. On September 25, local media reported several government sources criticized Sufi beliefs in reaction to announced plans to produce a film about the life of Sufi Persian poet Shams Tabrizi. Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi said, “Considering that this [film] will promote the deviant Sufi sect, it is religiously forbidden and should be avoided.” Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani said, “According to Imam Sadeq, the Sufi sect is our enemy and promoting it in any way is not permitted and is religiously forbidden [haram].”

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

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

At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom. In Iran, blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and proselytization of Muslims are crimes punishable by death. Many Iranians are languishing in jails, including the Great Tehran Penitentiary and Evin Prison, simply for exercising their fundamental freedom to worship, observe, practice, and teach their faiths. Unrecognized religious minorities, including Baha’is and Christian converts, are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment. …Last year, the Iranian government sentenced more than 200 Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms and other harsh punishments after security forces cracked down on Gonabadi Sufis peacefully protesting the detention of one of their fellow faith members. We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.”

During the Secretary of State’s July 18 keynote remarks, he said, “In the Islamic Republic of Iran, authorities ban religious minorities from possessing religious books and they deny them access to education…In May, the Iranian government prohibited religious minorities from working at childcare centers where there are Muslim children. And as we know too well, beatings and imprisonments are common. Iranians who dare stand up for their religious freedom, for their neighbors, face abuse. Last month, the regime threw a city councilman in prison for calling for something so simple as the release of two Baha’is.”

On August 2, in response to media reports of Christian convert Mahrokh Kanbari’s prison sentence, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “I am appalled to hear reports that Iran’s despotic rulers have punished yet another Christian woman for exercising her freedom to worship. Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.”

On October 3, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran delivered a video message in which he stated, “Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other religious minorities are denied the most basic rights enjoyed by the Shia majority today. And believers are routinely fined, flogged, and arrested in Iran. Worse off yet are the members of unrecognized religious minorities like the Baha’is or others in Iran who are met with brutal subjugation including prison, torture, intimidation and even death due to their faith. Today, there are dozens of Baha’is arbitrarily detained in Iran for practicing their faith.”

In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, although the law is generally not enforced. The law bans “takfiri” sects such as Wahhabism that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not enforce the federal ban on Baha’i practitioners and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion. Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 600 demonstrators were killed in protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. The protesters were mostly young Shia Muslims, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement, according to news reports. Sunni Muslims in Anbar were detained by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for expressing their support of the protests on social media, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting. According to human rights organizations, although the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and Ministry of Interior security forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law to detain individuals without due process. Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018. In June a Sunni parliamentarian (MP) from Diyala Province stated Sunnis in his province were being forcibly displaced by government-affiliated Shia militia groups, resulting in systematic demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Community leaders continued to state the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, including children born of rape, be listed as Muslim resulted in forced designation as Muslim. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.

According to security sources in Khanaqin, in May ISIS attacked a Kurdish village and killed four individuals in two attacks. According to the Directorate General of Yezidi Affairs in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, approximately 3,000 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced that during the year, 18 more mass graves had been discovered throughout the country; they contained victims of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, some remains dating back decades. In March the Directorate of Mass Graves, with the support of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims, discovered in 2017, in the village of Kocho, the first such exhumation in the majority-Yezidi district of Sinjar.

Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the youth-led reformist protests that began in October, many demonstrators were kidnapped, wounded, and killed by masked individuals and armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade (30th Brigade), reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On July 18, speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, the Vice President announced the U.S. government had provided $340 million for assistance in northern Iraq, focusing on helping minority religious communities previously targeted by ISIS. He said an additional $3 million would provide shelter and clean water to communities victimized by ISIS. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR in the north of the country. According to Christian leaders, the Christian population has declined over the past 17 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders continue to report that most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary. According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south, with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians. According to Kaka’i (known as Yarsani or Ahl al-Haq in Iran) activists, their distinct ethnic and religious community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members and has long been located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.

There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are 70 to 80 Jewish families, according to the Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA). There are possibly more, as some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG MERA, and NGO sources. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR.

According to the International Organization for Migration, as of December, nearly 1.5 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Erbil, Dohuk, and Ninewa Provinces, compared with 1.8 million persons at the end of 2018. Population movements are multidirectional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center in the KRG, 40 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurd (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation. It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, such as Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Law 105 of 1970 prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 year’s imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. The KRG, however, does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion, while in other parts of the country the law generally is not enforced.

Law 32 of 2016 bans the Baath Party, and also prohibits “takfiri” organizations, such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. A 2001 resolution prohibits the practice of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions. The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and they require the administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape. Civil status law allows all non-Muslim women who are identified in their official documents as non-Muslims to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government: Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups in the country, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country: the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan. The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i Faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

Outside the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA. To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam. Eight faiths are recognized and registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other five registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (25 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia. The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj. The council, attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, organizes a lottery to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas. Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel: 3.7 million dinars ($3,300) for Hajj travel by land and 4.8 million dinars ($4,200) for travel by air. In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 48 Syriac and 18 Turkoman language schools. The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and charitable donations. Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith. The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court. In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between members of the same religion while the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Immigration Service. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim. There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian. Without an official identity card, one may not register a marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion. IKR law forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of religious and ethnic minority communities: five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit. Usually one of the Council of Representatives (COR) rapporteur (administrative) positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other for a Turkoman. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities: five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR. Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The antiterrorism law defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.” Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

More than 600 demonstrators were killed in mass protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. According to news reports, the protesters were mostly young Shia, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement. Human Rights Watch also documented examples of Sunnis in Anbar being detained by ISF for expressing their support of the protests on social media. The reports stated, however, that there was no evidence that members of minority religions taking part in the protests were specifically targeted by security forces suppressing the protests. According to human rights organizations, including HRW, although the PMC and Ministry of Interior forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. In October journalists reported that authorities issued arrest warrants for 130 activists and journalists for covering the demonstrations. The warrants were based on the terrorism law; however, reportedly the real reason for the arrest warrants was their coverage of the demonstrations taking place in Shia-dominant provinces of the country.

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were again implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced abuses by PMF and ISF that included violence and forced displacement by PMF and ISF.

In June MP Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala. Al-Dahlaki stated government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in a systematic demographic change along the border with Iran. There were reports that gunmen attacked the village of Abu Al-Khanzir in the province, killing three members of the same family and prompting a wave of displacement from the village.

Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartalla Subdistrict, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, there were 14 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the KRG, compared with 11 in 2018: Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.

Representatives of minority religious communities continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities. Christians again reported abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the 30th Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in Bartalla said they felt threatened by the actions of the Shabak 30th Brigade, such as deploying forces in Christian areas, establishing its headquarters in the Christian sub-district of Bartalla, controlling the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain by establishing check points, forcing merchants to pay bribes, controlling real estate in Christian areas, and other forms of harassment of Christians and Sunni Arabs.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartalla said activities of the 30th Brigade threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias posted pictures of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani on shops in Bartalla, as well as Iraqi militia leaders such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. They also stated that the 30th Brigade refused to comply with government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak individuals threatened priests over social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the brigade from the area on social media. Local sources said six Shabak Sunni families left their home in Bashiqa District because the 30th Brigade verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their lands. Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported continued verbal harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.

Yezidi community leaders continued to report that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered Yezidi. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of the Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, there were no reported cases of discrimination against them in the IKR during the year. They continued to state, however, that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by non-Christian religious minorities.

According to Christian leaders, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith continued to be forced to either register their child as Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depend on family size. Larger families with legally registered children receive higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, some Shabak MPs, including Hunain Qado, with the support of some of some Shia elements in the central government, continued to direct the 30th Brigade to harass Christians, drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population, and allow Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers. Christians in Tal Kayf said the nominally Christian but majority Shia Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively continued to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town, but it no longer blocked Christians from returning to the area.

In Ninewa Province, some Shabak MPs in the COR continued to advocate for the provision of land grants in accordance with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF victims who fought ISIS. Throughout the year, according to media and local news reports, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya. In 2018 Behnam suspended the grants in a historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change. During the year, government construction of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla continued. Christian community leaders continued to express concern that all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

During the year, the Office of the Prime Minister created a committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders to return all Christian properties in Ninewa to their Christian owners. The committee returned tens of houses to their Christian owners and remained active as of the end of year. Reportedly, no similar committee was formed to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian MP Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders worked individually to help Christians return to their homes; he said he managed to return 180 homes during the year.

During the year, the PMF Imam Ali Brigade continued to block the return of the members of the Yezidi Sinjar District Council and the mayor to Sinjar City from their temporary location in Dohuk, notwithstanding an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister provided in 2018 that ordered their return.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report physical abuse and verbal harassment by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated more by territorial disputes rather than religious discrimination.

According to multiple sources, many alleged Sunni ISIS sympathizers or their families whom government forces and militia groups had expelled in 2018 from their homes in several provinces had not returned home by year’s end. Some of these IDPs said PMF groups, including Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib Hezballah, continued to block their return.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported between 2,900 and 3,000 Yezidis, mainly women and children, remained missing in and outside the country. Approximately 150 Christians also remained missing. According to the KRG MERA, as of October more than 3,500 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or were released from ISIS captivity since 2014.

As of August the KRG Yezidi Rescue Office, established by then-KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, had spent approximately $5 million since its inauguration in 2014 to rescue captive Yezidis from ISIS. Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs. According to Yezidis activists and officials, the Yezidis were afraid to return to Sinjar because of the continuing Turkish airstrikes targeting the PKK. In November a Turkish airstrike hit the local headquarters of Yezidi PKK fighters in Sinjar, called the People’s Protection Units (also known as YBS), killing or injuring 20 of them.

According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported the ISF returned to the Sunni Endowment the property of a Sunni mosque in Mosul, confiscated by PMF militia in 2018. The Shia Endowment’s seizure of property owned by the Sunni Endowment continued to create tension with Sunnis in Mosul. One unidentified group placed banners throughout Mosul with the hashtag #OurWaqf [religious endowment] is our Red Line.

At year’s end, the central government had not opened an investigation of the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharaf in 2017. According to Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Sharaf, the government had neglected to address the issue.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration. According to estimates, including those cited by several Christian MPs, the monthly number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22. A director of an Assyrian NGO reported four Syriac language schools remained closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.

Some Yezidis and Christians continued to maintain their own militias. According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some received support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they needed to have a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.

NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate the laws, and no legislation proposed to repeal them.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them without interference or intimidation to observe their religious holidays and festivals. Provincial governments also continued to designate festivals as religious holidays in their localities.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula continued to include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660-$1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. The KRG subsidized tuition by approximately 25 percent. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end, some schools still did not utilize elements of the universally adopted 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Other than making small changes to the curriculum, observers stated that the Ministry of Education did not have a clear strategy to implement the rest of the religious tolerance curriculum.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students. The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies. The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education continued to partner with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes – an effort that continued through year’s end.

The central government again extended by two years the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010. They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were again reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG MERA built four churches and one Christian center during the year.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous two years. Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’is and Sabean-Mandeans, continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian. Although there were no reliable statistics available, minorities stated they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime. Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible. Some Sunnis said they were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts by the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP had 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law did not restrict who could vote in quota seat races. Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority populations said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government. Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Brigade. Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits. The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol. Community sources reported the continuing practice of Muslim businessmen using Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

During the year, the Kaka’i community reported it controlled all of its places of worship. In 2018 Kaka’i leaders had reported that the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad, converting them into mosques.

In September the KRG announced the closure of a restaurant named the “Hitler Restaurant,” located outside Dohuk. The KRG stated that “Nazism and racism would not be tolerated in the autonomous Kurdish region and such actions are against the law.” The KRG’s Department of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs later released a statement calling for expanded laws to punish genocide denial in the KRG.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the protests that began in October, many activists were killed, wounded, and kidnapped reportedly for political reasons by masked individuals and armed groups affiliated with Iran, such as AAH, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Shia religious and government leaders continued to urge PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses. Religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Shia Marjaiya in Najaf, called for the protection of minorities in a Friday sermon. Political and religious leader Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of the Hikma Party, also called for the protection of religious minorities.

According to media, the Yezidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a statement in April appearing to accept children born of ISIS rape into the community; days later, however, the council issued a second statement clarifying it was referring to children born of Yezidi parents and kidnapped by ISIS, but not children born of rape.

Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the 30th Brigade, reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura. There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment. According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

In an August 6 interview with the National Review on the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil said, “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction…Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”

Based on Iraqi media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place two consecutive years in a row. The KRG marked the genocide’s anniversary with a commemoration ceremony in Dohuk with participants including then-IKR president Barzani, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, Yezidi leader Mir Hazim Beg, KRG ministers, diplomats, and genocide survivors. The same day, the Ninewa Provincial Council also commemorated the anniversary of the genocide in Sinjar. The IKR parliament passed a resolution recognizing August 3 as Yezidi Genocide Remembrance Day.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.

Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

During the year, with the stated purpose “To support the faithful and encourage them to stay in their homeland,” the Syriac Catholic Church re-established a diocese for the Kurdistan region. To mark the occasion, the Syriac Catholic patriarch celebrated Mass at the Queen of Peace Syriac Catholic Church in Erbil on August 24.

In Baghdad on February 18, the University of London’s SOAS Jewish Music Institute featured Baghdadi folk songs and lullabies with British-born musician Carol Isaacs, of Iraqi Jewish origin. Titled “The Wolf of Baghdad,” the presentation was a personal familial audiovisual journey, an effort to revive Iraq’s vanishing Jewish community that formed one-third of Baghdad’s population in the 1940s. In December members of the Jewish community from the IKR and abroad gathered in the town of Al-Qosh in the Nineveh Plains to celebrate Hanukkah.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including then-prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of minorities into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and the embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, medical supplies, psychosocial support and other protection interventions, education, and livelihoods.

On July 18, the Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two militia figures pursuant to Executive Order 13818: Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the PMF 50th Brigade, and Waad Qado, the leader of the 30th Brigade, along with two former Iraqi governors, Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan and Ahmed al-Jabouri. The OFAC press release stated, “Many of the corruption- and abuse-related actions committed by these sanctioned individuals occurred in areas where persecuted religious communities are struggling to recover from the horrors inflicted on them by ISIS. Therefore, today’s sanctions demonstrate solidarity with all Iraqis who oppose corruption and human rights abuse undertaken by public officials and underscore the Administration’s commitment to support the recovery of persecuted religious communities in Iraq.”

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional ministries of education, justice (which includes the functions of the former national Ministry of Human Rights), labor, and social affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.

Working with the local business sector, the U.S. Agency for International Development organized the Ninewa Investment Forum on December 4-5 in Erbil to connect local businesses with investors from around the world, including the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The event featured panel discussions that raised awareness of the business opportunities and challenges that exist in Ninewa, including among religious minority communities.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Syria

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that according to NGO and media sources was exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. According to media and NGO sources, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, persistent attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimated the government arbitrarily detained nearly 3,000 citizens. As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted largely Sunni opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, chemical weapons attacks, and aerial bombardment, including a siege of Idlib Governorate and a May 19 chemical weapons attack in Idlib as part of the government’s effort to retake the area. Government and progovernment forces launched major aerial and ground offensives in April that continued through the end of the year to recapture Idlib, northern Hama, Ladhiqiyah, and western Aleppo, killing thousands of civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee from devastating attacks on civilian infrastructure, including damage or destruction of 51 medical facilities. The government continued to use Law No. 10 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to claim their property or return to their homes. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable up to imprisonment or death. Progovernment forces were implicated in attacks on Christian places of worship throughout the year. SNHR documented 124 attacks on Christian places of worship from 2011 until September, 75 of which were carried out by progovernment forces. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia individuals (such as Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran) to travel to the country and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayer times, and limit the activities of religious groups, and to state the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.” According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups, including some Christians, viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) reported nonstate actors, including terrorist organizations such as ISIS and HTS, targeted religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians throughout the course of the conflict. Until its territorial defeat in April, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, and homosexuality. On November 11, ISIS members shot and killed two Armenian Catholic priests and wounded a church deacon as they headed from Hasakah to Deir al-Zour to oversee the renovation of a church. On October 7, the Turkish army, along with Turkish-sponsored opposition groups (TSOs), some of which may include fighters from violent extremist groups, launched Operation Peace Spring (OPS) in areas of northeast Syria held by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, displacing by October 21, 154,000 persons, including Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians. Since 2014, ISIS abducted an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, as well as numerous Christian and ethnic Turkmen women; NGOs and activists reported that more than 2,000 have since escaped, been liberated, or been released. The United Nations estimated that ISIS militants killed or kidnapped more than 9,000 Yezidis in “a genocidal campaign.” According to community leaders, more than 3,000 Yazidis remained unaccounted for at year’s end. HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against members of religious minorities, and seizing the homes and agricultural lands of thousands of Christians in and around the town of Qameshli. According to a U.S. think tank, Iranian-backed Hizballah attempted to ignite intra-Druze conflict and recruited Shia militias to aid Iranian-backed Shia forces aiding the government.

Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups. Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups as displaced members of religious groups relocated, seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.2 million IDPs and more than 5.6 million refugees at year’s end.

The President and Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in the country leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely. Although the U.S. embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere in the region with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). At year’s end there were more than 5.6 million refugees, primarily Sunni, registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries, as well as 6.2 million IDPs. Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

The U.S. government estimates the Christian population is 10 percent, although media and other reports, such as those issued by Americans for a Free Syria estimate that figure is considerably lower, approximately 2.5 percent or 450,000 individuals, due to Christians fleeing the country because of the civil war. Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, and NGOs estimated fewer than 20 Jews remained in the country in 2012. It is unclear how many, if any, Jews currently remain in the country. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

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

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox Churches, the Eastern Catholic (or Uniate) Churches (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian Churches. Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast of the country. While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq. Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Sweida Governorate, where they constitute a majority of the local population. Yezidis previously lived in Aleppo, but now live mainly in northeast Syria areas controlled by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 2018 law regulates the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The law grants the Awqaf additional powers, including the establishment of a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist or deviant thought. The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” activity, including “Wahhabism.” The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight over the country’s religious affairs.

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

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

For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation. Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce. Per the Personal Status Code, a Muslim man may marry a Christian woman, but a Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam and may not inherit any property or wealth from her husband, even if she converts. The law states that if a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.

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

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.

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

Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state. If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government. An individual may prove ownership only in person or through designated proxies.

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

Government Practices

According to press and NGO reporting, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, persistent attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. There were continued reports that the war waged by the Alawi-dominated government against opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among the majority Sunni population. According to SNHR, the civilian death toll during the year was 3,364, of which more than half was at the hands of the government and its allies. The COI stated Sunnis accounted for a majority of civilian casualties and detainees.

During the year, SNHR estimated the government and progovernment militias arbitrarily detained nearly 3,000 citizens. According to a September SNHR report, the government used “enforced disappearance” and secretly arrested more than 128,417 citizens since 2011. The report stated detainees were subject to torture intended to “inflict serious physical damage or cause severe pain for numerous purposes, whether to extract information, for retaliation, or to cause panic among detainees.” Human rights organizations and civil society groups continued to report the government arbitrarily detained tens of thousands of citizens, mainly Sunnis, with the support of Iranian Shia forces militias, without due process. The SNHR report stated arbitrary arrests of individuals occurred on a daily basis since the start of the conflict for “exercising one of their basic rights such as the freedom of opinion and expression, or because they were denied a fair trial, or because they were detained after their punishment had ended.” The SNHR report stated the government was responsible for at least 89 percent of all arbitrary arrests; nonstate actors also engaged in this practice. In most cases, victims’ families could not accurately identify the progovernment entity that made the arrest because Iranian militias, the predominantly Shia Lebanese Hizballah, and all other progovernment forces were able to engage in arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

The Syria Justice & Accountability Centre reported government forces operated with impunity while systematic, officially sanctioned torture continued. According to SNHR, since 2011, more than 14,000 persons died from torture in government custody and the vast majority were Sunni Muslims. During the year, government forces were reportedly responsible for 275 deaths by torture. As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, the vast majority were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition.

In 2018 government officials began releasing death notices of thousands of prisoners held in government detention facilities and continued releasing them during the year. The government did not announce publication of notifications on updated state registers, return bodies to families, or disclose locations where remains were interred. According to numerous NGO and media reports, many families were unaware of the status of their detained family members and learned that relatives they believed to be alive had died months or even years earlier. Amnesty International estimated during the year that thousands of citizens, mostly Sunni Muslims, remained missing. SNHR said the government delayed announcing detainees as certified dead until years later as a way of punishing victims’ families. The Washington Post reported in March that the notices referenced detainees who died between 2013 and 2015, with the overwhelming majority of them Sunni Muslim.

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

As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, according to media and NGOs, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, chemical weapons attacks, and aerial bombardment, including a siege of Idlib Governorate as part of the government’s effort to retake the area. Government and progovernment forces launched major aerial and ground offensives in April to recapture Idlib, northern Hama, Ladhiqiyah, and western Aleppo, killing thousands of civilians and forcing at least one million more to flee following devastating attacks on civilian infrastructure, including damage or destruction of 51 medical facilities. The assault, involving use of heavy weapons and likely use of chemical weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Government and Russian air strikes repeatedly struck civilian targets, including hospitals, markets, schools, and farms, many of which, these parties had been informed in advance, were sheltering vulnerable civilians. According to the COI, multiple human rights organizations, and media reports, government and progovernment forces used weaponry indiscriminately against civilian and military targets in densely populated areas, used chemical weapons, and denied humanitarian aid.

The COI, SNHR, and human rights activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the government. Analysts said this was evidenced by population shifts in Homs. According an April Atlantic Council report, the government continued to implement Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country, by revoking property rights, specifically of displaced residents from areas considered to be antigovernment. Groups such as SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature.

Many human rights NGOs reported throughout the year the government invoked positive slogans that depicted itself as a “protector of the people,” especially minority communities, such as Christians; however, on the ground, they said the government did the opposite. The SNHR documented 124 attacks on Christian places of worship from 2011 until September, 75 of which were carried out by progovernment forces. Six of these attacks occurred during the year.

Most opposition groups and terrorist groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist in statements and publications. According to observers, these groups drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, giving government targeting of the opposition a sectarian element. Some NGO sources stated that the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from attacks by Sunni extremist groups. Other NGO sources said that some minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists.

The government continued to use Law No. 10 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to claim their property and return to their homes. According to a September report from the Carnegie Middle East Center, since the law’s enactment, the government has begun to replace residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies, including by allowing only religious institutions submissive to government control to operate in those areas. The government’s policies disproportionately impacted Sunni populations. One U.S.-based NGO described the law as part of the government’s attempt to legalize demographic change and stated, “it is unlikely that displaced citizens will ever see their property again.” In August SHNR said that Law No. 10 and other legislation “constitute a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs, amounting to enforced evictions and to an effort to manipulate demographics and social structures” of the country. According to multiple press reports and human rights organizations, the vast majority of refugees and displaced were Sunni and were viewed with suspicion by the government. In December the UN Secretary-General and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported approximately 284,000 persons fled from their homes, mainly in southern Idlib, due to the large-scale regime assault on the Idlib Governorate.

In January the government extended the window from 30 days to one year for citizens to prove they owned land being seized for development under Law No. 10, but NGOs stated it would be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property. They said the procedural requirement of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population. Subsequently, in a July report, the European Institute of Peace stated many citizens were unable to assert their housing, land, and property rights due to land zoning, titling, and documentation, and the government continued to prevent displaced residents from returning to their properties, including by blocking access to the properties or demolishing their properties with no warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation. Despite the existence of an appeals process, NGOs continued to express serious concern the law was being implemented in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner.

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

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. In addition, Hizballah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas. Voice of America reported during the year that Iranian military advisers were building a new, all-Syrian militia force in an attempt to augment Tehran’s support of other Shia militias in the country. According to NGO reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia individuals, such as Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran, to travel to the country and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. Representatives of the Iranian government stated its forces were present in the country to protect the Zainab Shrine, a Shia holy site just outside Damascus, and other Shia holy places.

According to a March report from the Carnegie Middle East Institute, as the government recaptured areas from rebel groups, authorities began reviving their previous model of control through a renewed reliance on trusted local religious actors while introducing institutional measures to ensure the government retained its central influence in the country’s religious affairs. State media allowed only those clerics it approved to preach on the air (e.g., the imam of Umayyad Mosque) and coverage of the Qubaysiyat (a pro-regime female religious group) meetings with President Bashar al-Assad.

According to experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services; however, the senior officer corps of the military accepted into its ranks individuals from other religious minorities. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption. There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population.

Media and academic experts said the government and its Russian and Iranian allies led a robust disinformation campaign that continued to portray the armed resistance humanitarian and aid groups in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and were terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance. The official state Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) routinely reported on the government’s struggle to “expose the true nature of the organization known as the White Helmets” calling the group, a volunteer rescue and relief organization, a risk to stability and security “because of its terrorist nature.”

The government continued to warn the Sunni population against contact with foreign coreligionists, which it characterized as facilitating political opposition or military activity. For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the religious leaders abroad.

Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and called any Israeli strikes against Hizballah in Syria and Gaza “Zionist aggression.” The government repeated its claim that a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s continuing conflict.

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

SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in damage to or destruction of places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques. Additionally, the government conducted targeted attacks against places of worship the government said were occupied by armed fighters. On September 9, SNHR released a report stating that it had evidence of the government targeting churches, mosques, and other religious sites since 2011. According to the report, there were attacks on 124 Christian houses of worship during this period and progovernment forces carried out 75 of them. During the year, SNHR reported at least 11 Christian places of worship were turned into administrative headquarters – six at the hands of government forces and two at the hands of other parties to the conflict. It was not clear who was responsible for conversion of the three remaining churches.

A May 2018 COI report detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a “reconciliation process” as a condition for remaining in their homes. The option to reconcile reportedly was not offered often to healthcare personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters. In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement through organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government, and it reflected the government strategy to punish those individuals. This practice continued throughout the year as the government regained control of additional territory.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Christians reported they continued to feel threatened by violent extremist groups. According to observers, the Sunni Islamist character of the opposition continued to drive members of the Christian community to maintain support for the government. Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi met on August 12, releasing a joint statement praying for the safe return of the two abducted Archbishops of Aleppo: Boulos Yazigi and Mor Gregorious Youhanna Ibrahim, who have been missing since 2013. In the statement, the patriarchs acclaimed “the victory of [government] leadership, army, and people… over terrorism” in the country and discussed the “alarmingly diminishing” numbers of Christians, who are emigrating.

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President and the Secretary of State continued to condemn the government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The President repeatedly stressed the need for a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states that such a solution should establish credible, inclusive, and nonsectarian governance.

Following instability in northeast Syria due to OPS, the President announced in October that he intended to obligate $50 million in stabilization assistance to protect members of persecuted ethnic and religious minority groups. The Department of State worked to develop an implementation plan to carry out the President’s announced funding to address the immediate needs of religious minorities in Syria, as well as the longer-term goals for the advancement of human rights and accountability in the country.

The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the moderate opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens. These efforts included support for the Constitutional Committee process that began in October in Geneva aimed at paving the way for political reforms and new elections. The Secretary of State attended the Syria Small Group meeting with ministers from like-minded states during the UN General Assembly session in September. At the meeting, the Secretary and the Small Group Ministers expressed their support for the United Nations’ role in negotiating a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, facilitates free and fair elections, and establishes inclusive and nonsectarian governance. In addition, the Secretary affirmed the U.S. commitment to the country’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and nonsectarian character; to ensuring state institutions remain intact; and to protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012. U.S. government representatives met with religious groups and leaders in the United States and elsewhere in the region. They met with representatives of the World Council of Arameans, Free Yazidi Foundation, and Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque, as part of its effort to promote an inclusive political settlement for the conflict. A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, officials from the Office of Levant Affairs, and other officials participated in dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on increasing religious tolerance and countering extremist violence. At the UN General Assembly, the U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement hosted with the support of the special envoys from France, Germany, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom a panel discussion on accountability for human rights abuses, including those committed against religious minorities. Groups representing religious minority communities in Syria participated in the event. Department of State officials held meetings with Yezidi-rights groups and Greek Orthodox leaders, and met in July with Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

In July the Department of State announced a “Rewards for Justice,” offering a monetary reward for information on ISIS kidnapping networks or the persons responsible for the kidnapping in recent years of Christian clerics Maher Mahfouz, Michael Kayyal, Gregorios Ibrahim, Boulos Yazigi, and Paolo Dall’Oglio.

The United States continued to support the documentation, analysis, and preservation of evidence of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict, including those committed against religious minorities, through the COI and International Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria, as well as through direct support for Syrian-led documentation efforts.

Turkey

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Islam. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox community elected a new patriarch in December; members of the community and rights organizations criticized government interference in the election process. Minority communities continued to object to the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. The government did not return any church properties seized in previous decades. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In March President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly raised the possibility the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque. With President Erdogan in attendance, the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground in August on a new church in Istanbul, the first newly constructed church since the country became a republic in 1923. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the country’s largest mosque, which may accommodate up to 63,000. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.

In May a Muslim televangelist associated with a private television station converted a 13-year-old Armenian boy living in Turkey to Islam during a live broadcast without his parents’ permission. Members of the Armenian community and members of parliament (MPs) denounced the action. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship continued to occur. In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District of Istanbul with derogatory messages on the door and walls. Anti-Semitic discourse continued in public dialogue, particularly on social media. In July a video posted on social media showed children at an apparent summer camp being led in chants calling for “death to Jews.” In January the premier of the film Cicero generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red-carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions. In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”

The Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials to emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination. Senior officials continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 81.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members represent 0.2 percent of the population, while the most recent public opinion surveys published in January by Turkish research firm KONDA suggest approximately 3 percent of the population self-identifies as atheist and 2 percent as nonbelievers.

Leaders of Alevi foundations estimate Alevis comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population; Pew Research Center reporting indicates 5 percent of Muslims state they are Alevis. The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population.

Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia); 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines); and 16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs); 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits); and 10,000 Baha’is.

Estimates of other groups include fewer than 1,000 Yezidis; 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses; 7,000-10,000 members of Protestant denominations; fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians; and up to 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Maronite Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) estimates its membership at 300 individuals.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship. It stipulates individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion, and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion” or “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.

The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters. According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable and promote the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam; educate the public about religious issues; and administer mosques. The Diyanet operates under the Office of the President, with its head appointed by the president and administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties. The Diyanet has five main departments, called high councils: Religious Services, Hajj and Umrah Services, Education, Publications, and Public Relations. While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.

There is no separate blasphemy law; the penal code provides punishment for “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs. The penal code prohibits religious clergy from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.

The law criminalizes “insulting values held sacred by a religion,” interfering with a religious group’s services, or defacing its property. Insulting a religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.

Although registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups to operate, registering the group is required to request legal recognition for places of worship. Gaining legal recognition requires permission from the municipalities for the construction or designation of a new place of worship. It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law.

Interfering with the service of a religious group is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison. Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to recognized religious groups.

The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.

Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection. A government policy allows individuals to pay a fee of 31,343 Turkish Lira (TL) ($5,300) instead of performing full military service; however, they are required to complete a three-week basic training program. Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and, if convicted, could be subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.

The leadership and administrative structures of religious communities do not have a legal personality, leaving them unable to directly buy or hold title to property or press claims in court. Communities rely on separate foundations or associations governed by individual boards to hold and administer assets and property.

A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law. Non-Muslim citizens direct these longstanding foundations; 167 continue to exist, the majority of which are associated with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. In practice, a religious group formed after the 1935 law may successfully apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious. According to the Protestant community, there are six foundations (four existing before the passage of the 1935 foundation law), 36 associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.

The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all foundations, and it assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational statute. There are several categories of foundations, including those religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.

If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to rule it is no longer operational and transfer its assets to the state. Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close foundations by decree. The state of emergency instituted in 2016 ended in July 2018, but laws similar to regulations during the state of emergency remain in force.

A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties, as well as from donations. The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level.

Associations must be nonprofit and receive financial support only in the form of donations. To register as an association, a group must submit an application to the provincial governor’s office with supporting documentation, including bylaws and a list of founding members. A group must also obtain permission from the Ministry of the Interior as part of its application if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is a founding member; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of its residence permits. If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change the bylaws to meet the legal requirements. Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials for actions deemed to violate the organization’s bylaws. Only a court order may close an association, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close associations as well as foundations by decree. The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.

By law prisoners have the right to practice their religion while incarcerated; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship. According to the law, prison authorities must allow religious groups visitation by clergy members and allow them to offer books and other materials that are part of the prisoner’s faith.

The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public and private schools at all levels starting with fourth grade, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction, which falls under the authority of the Office of the Presidency. Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through 12. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. Atheists, agnostics, Alevis, or other non-Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Yezidis, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card are not exempt from the classes. Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.

The government continues to issue chip-enabled national identity cards that contain no visible section to identify religious affiliation. The information on religious affiliation is recorded in the chip and remains visible to authorized public officials as “qualified personal data” and protected as private information. National identity cards issued in the past, which continue in circulation and only require replacement if the card is damaged, the bearer has changed marriage status, or the individual is no longer recognizable in the photograph, contain a space for religious identification with the option of leaving the space blank. These older cards included the following religious identities as options: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, No Religion, or Other. Baha’i, Alevi, Yezidi, and other religious groups with known populations in the country were not options.

According to labor law, private and public sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on religion. Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court. If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the reversal of the employment decision.

Government Practices

Multiple monitoring organizations and media outlets, including Middle East Concern, International Christian Concern, World Watch Monitor, Mission Network News, and Voice of Martyrs, reported entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country. On December 2, the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for Migration Management (DGMM) announced that as of January 1, 2020, the government would deny extension requests to long-term residents for tourist purposes, in the absence of another reason to request a residency permit (i.e. marriage, work, study). Several religious minority ministers, including Christians, conducted religious services while resident in in the country on long-term tourist residence permits. While similar measures occurred in previous years, multiple groups said they perceived a significant increase in the number of removals and entry bans during the year.

Multiple reports said these Protestant communities could not train clergy in the country and relied on foreign volunteers to serve them. Local Protestant communities stated they aimed to develop indigenous Turkish leaders in their congregations because it was becoming increasingly difficult to rely on foreign volunteers; however, they faced difficulties because they could not operate training facilities in-country. Community sources also said some of the deportations and entry bans during the year targeted foreign-citizen members of the community who had lived legally, as long-term residents, in the country for decades and who had previously not experienced any immigration difficulties. According to community members, these immigration procedures also affected a local community’s ability to raise funds for local churches because foreign clergy members attracted individual donations and support from church communities in their countries of origin. Some of the individuals with entry bans or resident permit denials requested review of their immigration status through the country’s legal system. None of the cases reached conclusion by year’s end and could take several years to resolve due to the complexities of and backlog in the judicial system, according to media reports.

According to a report by the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, released and presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on September 19, 63 Jehovah’s Witnesses faced prosecution as conscientious objectors, with 44 individuals facing 177 different charges and fines totaling more than $54,000. The report stated a person may be called for military service multiple times per year and charged as a “draft evader” because there was no form of approved alternative service in the country. The report also stated the Ministry of Defense sent letters to the individual’s employer to encourage the termination of his or her employment.

The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ to remove its volunteers and international staff from the country remained in effect throughout the year. In April 2018 the Church cited safety reasons as the reason for the removal. According to local members, some followers stayed away from church because they feared retribution and discrimination. Some said they had lost their jobs, including in the public sector, because of their faith, and they experienced difficulties in finding new employment.

The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship. In March 2018, the head of Diyanet said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis.

In December the Armenian community elected Bishop Sahak Masalyan as the 85th Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Istanbul. Some members of the community said in public statements and social media posts that the government’s involvement in the process and the community’s decision not to oppose the state-issued election regulations undermined the legitimacy of the process. In September the Ministry of Interior issued regulations governing the election of a new patriarch following the death of Mesrob II Mutafyan in March. According to public statements and media reports, multiple Church officials and rights groups widely criticized the regulations, stating they infringed on the community’s religious freedom by limiting eligible candidates to bishops currently serving within the patriarchate. The regulations also lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and expanded the number of elected delegates from 89 to 120, which Church officials said they regarded as positive steps. In July the Constitutional Court published its ruling that the Istanbul governor’s decision to block the patriarchal elections in 2018 violated the right of religious freedom for the community. In February of that year, the Istanbul governor’s office denied a 2017 application by the Armenian Patriarchate to hold patriarchal elections, stating the patriarchate had not met the required conditions for an election since the patriarch had not passed away or resigned.

The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country. Because of a lack of seminaries within the country, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy. Protestant churches also reported an inability to train clergy in the country made their communities dependent on foreign clergy. Local Protestant church representatives raised concerns that the government’s reported accelerated deportation of foreign clergy members hurt their community’s ability to instruct local clergy unable to travel abroad for training.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I again called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clergy in the country. A 1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure. Amendments to the constitution in 1982 allowed for the establishment of private institutions of higher education but also placed significant restrictions on the institutions, and the seminary was not permitted to reopen and operate under its traditions. According to the ecumenical patriarch, the continued closure interrupted a tradition of instruction dating back centuries to the historical roots of the school as a monastery. In July 2018, the Diyanet announced plans to open an Islamic educational center on the same island as the shuttered seminary. At year’s end, the Diyanet had not taken further steps to advance the project.

According to media reports, several imams criticized the Diyanet for becoming increasingly politicized after those imams were dismissed from their posts, reportedly for not supporting the government. In statements to media, multiple former employees said the Diyanet did not apply its regulations fairly. The justification provided for the dismissals was a “breach of guidelines,” applicable to all imams, including neither praising nor criticizing political parties; however, some of the dismissed imams said the sanctions were not applied to those supporting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to media reports, an imam lost his position after accepting an invitation to lead a prayer for an opposition party before the local elections on March 31.

In October the Diyanet established a radio and television commission tasked with reviewing products prepared by the Diyanet itself or public institutions, agencies or production companies.

The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic and the Ecumenical Patriarchates and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, overseen by separate governing boards, to hold and control individual religious properties.

Members of religious communities reported the inability to hold elections for the governing boards of their foundations remained an impediment to managing their affairs. They said when board members died, retired, or left the country, foundation boards had a more difficult time fulfilling their duties and ran the risk of eventually not functioning without new members. If they reached the point of no longer functioning, the government could then declare the foundation defunct and transfer its properties and other assets to the state.

In March the Directorate General of Foundations issued a decree allowing foundations to appoint members to their governing boards but did not issue new regulations to permit elections, which had been pending since 2013. The Freedom of Belief Initiative, a human rights project of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said the action was contrary to the traditions of foundations in the country, describing it as further interference in the rights of religious communities. Some foundations stated they would not make use of the new order and instead would await new regulations to hold elections for their governing boards. According to local religious community representatives, without the ability to hold new elections, governing boards risked losing the ability to manage the activities and properties of their communities, and foundations could become inactive without newly elected leadership.

The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and kill its pastor in 2013 continued throughout the year.

In January the ECHR ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly and association, because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. The court ruling required the government to pay six members of the congregation in Istanbul a total compensation of 8,724 euros ($9,800). Compensation could include legal assistance and legal and court registration fees; by year’s end there was no information available on whether the government had compensated the six individuals and no disclosure of any government payments.

According to media reports, in May a court released Uighur activist Abdulkadir Yapcan after nearly three years in detention, but he remained under judicial controls that limited his movements to his neighborhood in Istanbul. The deportation case against him continued at year’s end. In 2003 China listed Yapcan as one of its 11 most-wanted terrorists and accused him of supporting violence and founding a terrorist organization. Uighur activists and rights organizations, however, said the extradition request was punishment for his political positions. His defense attorney said China did not produce any evidence to substantiate its claims despite previous promises to do so, according to public statements to local media after the May hearing. In 2016 the ECHR ruled against removing Yapcan from Turkey during the ongoing court case due to concerns about his safety and potential refoulement to China should he be deported to a third country. In August media reports quoted Interior Minister Soylu stating, “We do not send anyone back to China if they face persecution.”

The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so. The government’s position remained that the ecumenical patriarch was only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011 stopgap solution intended to widen the pool of candidates eligible to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in that city, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens.

The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations.

Multiple Protestant church representatives continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in registering places of worship. Church representatives said they had to continue meeting in unregistered locations for worship services. According to Protestant group representatives, local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, including minimum space requirements not imposed on mosques. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, which they permitted to build worship facilities in malls, airports, and other smaller spaces. Additionally, some Protestant churches reported local authorities did not allow them to display crosses on the exterior of their buildings.

In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and governorate of the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house in the city. Previously, a court had fined the two government agencies as part of a longstanding case. The lawyer of the victims’ families said they would appeal the October ruling. According to their lawyer, if the ruling held, the families would have to return compensation totaling 900,000 TL ($151,000) with interest to the ministry and the governorate.

In February an Istanbul court acquitted Berna Lacin on charges of insulting religious values, sometimes referred to locally as “blasphemy charges.” The charges stemmed from Lacin’s 2018 post on Twitter about the alleged number of rapes in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The tweet was in response to calls by the Grand Union Party, families of victims, and some newspapers to reinstate capital punishment for child abuse crimes following a wave of molestation reports in media. “If capital punishment was a solution, the city of Medina would not be breaking records in rape cases,” Lacin said in her post. In the indictment, the prosecutor said Lacin insulted people’s religious values and went beyond what was permissible under the law governing freedom of expression.

In February the ECHR rejected the country’s appeal to reduce the 54,400-euro ($61,100) compensation it was obligated to pay the Alevi Cem Foundation. The Cem Foundation took the government to the ECHR in 2010 for discrimination for not paying the electric bills of Alevi places of worship, a service provided for mosques. The government appealed for a fee reduction to 23,300 euros ($26,200). In November 2018 the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled cemevis are places of worship and therefore should receive the same benefits as Sunni mosques, including being exempt from paying utility bills. Alevi organizations continued to call on the government to comply with the ruling throughout the year.

In February the GDF announced restoration plans for, and began work on, the Surp Giragos Armenian and Mar Petyun Chaldean Churches, both in Surp District, Diyarbakir. The Kursunlu Mosque reopened in March following the completion of structural renovations. Religious communities challenged the government’s 2016 expropriation of their properties damaged in clashes between government security forces and the U.S. government-designated terrorist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The government expropriated those properties for its stated goal of “post-conflict reconstruction.” In September 2016, the GDF began restoring the expropriated Armenian Catholic Church; the restoration continued through year’s end, and the church was not accessible for public use. During the year, the government again did not pay restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.

During the year, the government did not return properties seized in previous decades; it returned 56 properties to the Syriac community in 2018. Representatives from various communities said they continued to pursue property returns through the appropriate legal and government channels. From 2011, when the compensation law was passed, through 2013, when the period for submitting compensation applications expired, the GDF received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations that sought compensation for seized properties. Because the period for submitting new applications expired in 2013, no new applications were filed during the year. In previous years, the GDF returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties. The GDF had rejected the other applications pending from 2011; it said the applications did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to say these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Due to their legal status, recognized religious foundations were eligible to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.

According to media reports, in June the Ovacik District Governorate sent a letter to the muhtars (village leaders) of eight villages in the district ordering them to evacuate as soon as possible due to the villages “being in a natural disaster zone.” The district is home to many Alevis and their religious sites. According to media reports, the villages were scheduled for removal because the government had awarded a Canadian-Turkish mining consortium rights to conduct exploratory mining in Munzur National Park – a spiritual area for the Alevis containing many holy sites. The letter did not specify when the villages were to be evacuated; as of December there was no public update on the case.

In March President Erdogan raised the possibility that the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque during a televised interview, adding that the name could change to Ayasophia Mosque. The government took no action following the president’s comments.

Progovernment newspaper Yeni Safak reported in November that the Council of State (the highest administrative court) ruled a former church and mosque now serving as the Chora Museum should be returned to its status as a mosque, sparking concerns in the global Christian community that this decision could pave the way for similar changes to the status of the Hagia Sophia. The museum, famed for its mosaics and frescos depicting Christian imagery, was originally constructed and repeatedly renovated as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior in the fifth century and then converted into the Kariye Mosque in 1511 before becoming a museum in 1945. According to the Yeni Safak report, the Council of State determined the 1945 decision to designate the structure as a museum was illegal because it violated the charter of the foundation that owned the then-mosque; the charter stated the building would serve indefinitely as a mosque. Yeni Safak said the decision moved to the cabinet for action; no changes to the museum’s status were reported at year’s end.

Religious communities, particularly Alevis, continued to raise concerns about several of the government’s education policies. At year’s end, the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ECHR ruling that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to Alevi religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECHR decision, but Alevi groups stated the material was inadequate, and in some cases, incorrect. In February various Alevi organizations issued a joint statement: “Alevis respect all religions … but will keep their distance from those who ignore, limit or attempt to transform Alevism.” They also called on the government to implement the ECHR decisions.

Non-Sunni Muslims and secular Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives dealing with different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as Muslim. The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups, including Alevis and members of Christian denominations, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups, such as some educational texts referring to Alevi beliefs as mysticism. In February the Konya Regional Administrative Court ruled the changes made in the compulsory religion course curriculum did not eliminate violations to educational freedom as ruled by the ECHR in 2013. In June the Istanbul 12th Regional Administrative Court accepted an Alevi parent’s appeal for his son’s exclusion from the compulsory religious course.

Members of other minority religious groups, including Protestants, said they continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from religion classes. Some rights groups said that because schools provided no alternative for students exempted from the compulsory religious instruction, those students stood out and as a result could face additional social stigma.

In March the Council of State ruled to end a three-year agreement between the Ministry of National Education and the Islamic Hizmet Foundation to provide “moral values” education in schools. The state council ruled the 2017 agreement contradicted a provision of the constitution that requires the conduct of education in state schools be performed by public sector employees. In September the ministry issued a new regulation enabling international organizations and NGOs to organize social activities in schools. In 2018 the teachers union Egitim-Sen applied to the Council of State, which hears cases seeking to change administrative policies of the government, to end the moral values education protocol, and stated conducting such programs during school hours would force students to attend regardless of religious affiliation.

According to media reports and public statements, in January administrators of an Istanbul public high school reprimanded with letters to their files 12 students for participating in a December 2018 demonstration where they stated “Islamist students supported by school principals” pressured them to attend “religious conversations” in their spare time. Egitim-Is, an education sector union, criticized the school administration and said the government had handed over secular schools to religious groups.

According to media reports, in January a religious culture and ethics teacher at a high school in Istanbul, Cemil Kilic, was suspended from duty reportedly after making public comments favorably comparing the morals of atheists and deists to those of “self-professed” Muslims and saying headscarves were not obligatory in Islam. In May he was allowed to resume his duties in the central province of Nigde while awaiting the ruling of a disciplinary committee. According to media reports, Kilic faced possible dismissal pending the outcome of the committee’s deliberations.

In January a headmaster in Ankara distributed a leaflet and issued a warning against teachers who wore high heels, stating it was against Islam. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), demanded the headmaster’s removal from office. The headmaster subsequently issued an apology to the teachers.

In August Egitim-Sen stated only one of every five students was learning in gender-segregated classrooms. Egitim-Sen said this violated the rights of children living under a secular constitution and it contradicted the 2018 National Education Ministry regulation allowing separate classrooms for girls and boys in multiprogram (offering regular, technical, and vocation programs) high schools. Officials of the Ministry of Education denied allegations the regulation was a step towards creating single-gender classrooms in all schools. Multiprogram schools continued to bring regular, technical, and vocational high schools together in less populated areas where the requirement for the minimum number of students for each program could not be met.

The Mental Health Professionals’ Platform in February criticized the continuing assignment of Diyanet employees to university dormitories as an example of greater religious influence on the education system. It stated social services should not be provided by individuals without the appropriate professional background. In 2017 the Diyanet announced a plan to expand and make permanent a pilot program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms and provide the Diyanet’s provincial muftis with performance reviews every six months.

The government continued to provide funding for public, private, and religious schools teaching Islam. It did not do so for minority schools recognized under the Lausanne Treaty, except to pay the salaries for courses taught in Turkish, such as Turkish literature. The minority religious communities funded all their other expenses through donations, including from church foundations and alumni.

The government continued to permit Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government continued to classify legal migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive a diploma from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. According to members of the Syriac Orthodox community, which has operated a preschool since 2014, the community was still unable to open additional schools for financial reasons. The government did not grant permission to other religious groups to operate schools.

Parents of some students again criticized the practice of converting some nonreligious public schools into imam hatip religious schools. Sources said this created a hurdle for those preferring to attend secular public schools because the number of imam hatip middle schools increased by more than one hundred and the number of students by nearly 40,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to official statistics. These sources rejected government claims that demand drove the increase, and they said limited options often compelled nonreligious families to send students to the religious schools. The country’s 2019 investment program in the general budget included the government’s associated priorities, with 460 million TL ($77.42 million) allocated for new imam hatip schools, compared with TL 30 million ($5.05 million) for new science schools.

Many public buildings, including universities, continued to maintain small mosques. In June 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued a regulation requiring every new school to have an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported the approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country were insufficient to meet demand. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.

In January several Alevi foundations requested the end of an ongoing program that takes school children ages six to 13 to local mosques for religious instruction during their two-week winter break. In 2018 the Ministry of National Education signed a contract with Server Youth and Sports Club for 50,000 children drawn from each of the 81 provinces to participate in the voluntary program. Alevi representatives said they objected to the program because students not participating could be “singled out” for not participating and as being different from the other students.

In November an IYI Party MP commented on a government official’s family’s “excessive” display of wealth on social media, posting “There is a group of people that have become rich due to their undeserved income and live luxuriously; we call them Protestant Muslims. These people have become Jews, mentally.” The post received widespread criticism from social media users and members of the Jewish community.

According to media reports, in February the Prophet Lovers Foundation (Peygamber Sevdalıları Vakfı), a group based in the southeast of the country, received permission to conduct religious examinations in public schools. One exam answer stated the concept of Jews and Christians going to heaven was a “poisonous idea.”

The government continued not to authorize clergy of religious groups designated as non-Islamic or heterodox Islam, including Alevi leaders (dedes), to register and officiate at marriages on behalf of the state. Imams received this authority in November 2017. Some critics continued to state the law solely addressed the demands of some within the Sunni Muslim majority and not the needs of other religious groups.

The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 107,206 Sunni personnel at the end of 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 109,332 in 2017. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.

The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and to fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet’s most recent published statistics, there were 88,681 mosques in the country in 2018, compared with 88,021 Diyanet-operated mosques in 2107. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the largest mosque in the country. Located in Istanbul, it can accommodate 63,000. Although Alevi groups were able to build some new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction and maintenance in most cases.

In August leaders of the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground on the St. Ephrem (Mor Efrem) Church in Istanbul during a ceremony attended by President Erdogan and representatives of other religious communities. Once completed, it will be the first newly constructed church since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. To date, the approximately 18,000-member Syriac Orthodox community in Istanbul has used churches of other communities, in addition to its one current church, to hold services. Erdogan said the church would add “new richness” to the city and stated, “Our region has been the heart of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity,” according to media reports. Community representatives said the project would not have been possible without the public support of the president.

The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant Christian sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, and the House of the Virgin Mary, near Selcuk. The Ecumenical Patriarchate again cancelled an annual service at Sumela Monastery, near Trabzon, because of its continuing restoration. A portion of the Sumela Monastery reopened to visitors in May after renovations were completed on part of the complex, but large portions continued under renovation.

In April a court sentenced the chairperson of Alperen Ocaklari Foundation to one year in prison for inciting public hatred and animosity during a 2017 protest in front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. During the incident, a group hurled rocks at the synagogue, kicked its doors, and threatened members of the Jewish community. The protest was a reaction to the placement of metal detectors by Israel in front of Al Aqsa Mosque, according to the members of the protesting group.

In June a local court in Bursa approved the application by the Protestant community in Bursa to start a foundation. At year’s end the government still had not responded to a request by the Protestant foundation to allow long-term use of a church renovated in 2018 using government funding. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations continued to share the building, owned by the GDF for more than 10 years.

The government continued to provide incarcerated Sunni Muslims with mesjids (small mosques) and Sunni preachers in larger prisons. Alevis and non-Muslims did not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons; however, clergy of other faiths were permitted to enter prisons with the permission of the public prosecutor to minister to their adherents as long as doing so was not considered a threat to a facility’s security.

For the second year in a row, the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country was officiated by the then-acting Armenian patriarch. Authorities canceled annual services between 2015-2017, citing security concerns arising from clashes between the military and the PKK.

Government funding for daily and weekly newspapers published by minority communities increased from a total of TL 200,000 ($33,700) in 2018 to 250,000 TL ($42,100) during the year.

Jewish citizens again expressed concern about anti-Semitism and security threats. According to members of the community, the government continued to coordinate with them on security issues. They said the government measures were helpful and the government was responsive to requests for security.

In December the Gaziantep Synagogue, located in the southeast of the country, reopened for a Hanukkah celebration after remaining closed for 40 years due to the shrinking size of the congregation. The synagogue was used as a cultural center by Gaziantep University until reopening for special occasions following renovations by the GDF.

A then-AKP MP denounced in a social media post the red carpet premier of the film Cicero, which depicted detailed features of a concentration camp, stating “There can be no explanation” for using “one of the most tragic and calamitous crimes in the history of humanity as material for entertainment at a film gala.”

Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 24, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement commemorating the victims and underlined the service of Turkish diplomats who aided Jewish victims of persecution by providing Turkish passports and identity documents to help them flee the tragedy. The deputy foreign minister for EU affairs, members of the diplomatic corps, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, other leaders of the Jewish community, and high school students took part in the event. In February the government for the fifth year in a row commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration.

In April and September President Erdogan again sent messages to the Jewish community celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The messages described Turkey as a symbol of “love and tolerance” and recognized “diversity as the most important wealth that strengthens unity and solidarity.” In December the Jewish community celebrated Hanukkah with a ceremony at Galata Tower Square in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood. President Erdogan extended his congratulations and best wishes for wellbeing and happiness to mark the beginning of the Festival of Lights. He said in a written statement, “It is of great importance for us to ensure each and every one of our citizens’ liberty to practice their faith.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May a Muslim televangelist, Nihat Hatipoglu, converted a 13-year-old Armenian Christian boy to Islam during a live broadcast on private television channel ATV without the permission of his parents. Members of the Armenian community denounced the act as a forced conversion and violation of the Lausanne Treaty. Then-acting Armenian Apostolic patriarch Atesyan also issued a statement and personally expressed his concerns to the chairman of the Diyanet. MPs of the ruling AKP and opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP) criticized the conversion, and Turkish Armenian HDP MP Garo Paylan filed an official complaint with the radio and television oversight body.

In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” Police launched a criminal investigation into the incident. The investigation continued through the end of the year.

Some converts to Christian Protestant groups from Islam or from Christian Orthodoxy reported social shunning within their family, among friends, and at their workplaces following their contacts’ discovery of the conversion, according to local community members.

The premier of the film Cicero in January generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. The local Jewish community, columnists, a then-AKP MP, and social media users denounced the display as disgraceful. The filmmakers subsequently apologized.

Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions.

During the campaign for Istanbul mayor, altered images of opposition CHP Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu showing him shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and meeting with a group of Orthodox Jews appeared on social media in an effort to discredit him, according to commentators. Disparaging comments and statements calling Imamoglu a “friend of Zionism” accompanied the images.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a Hrant Dink Foundation project on hate speech, there were 430 published instances of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the press between January and August depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and a threat to the country, compared with 899 published instances during the same period in 2018. A reader’s letter published in the newspaper Yeni Akit stated Jewish residents in Istanbul trained street dogs to bite Muslims and repeated historic accusations of blood libel. Some commentators criticized the letter as ridiculous, and Mustafa Yeneroglu, an MP formerly with the ruling AKP party, denounced the content as “the language of the Nazis,” according to multiple media reports.

In January anti-Semitic comments surfaced on social media following an increase in gas and electric bills, with some users reacting by asking, “What have we done to get such a bill; did we burn Jews?” The editor-in-chief of Shalom, a Jewish community newspaper, called the comments a despicable example of racism and a reaction of sick minds. He added that such forms of anti-Semitism were increasingly common on social media and asked legal authorities to intervene.

In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. The posters cited a Quranic verse that appeared to advise Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews. The images also included a crucifix and Star of David with what appeared to be droplets of blood. Social media users from all three faiths criticized the posters as insulting to religious minorities, misrepresenting the message of the Quran, and undermining the dignity of the nation. The private advertising company leasing the billboards said the associations changed the content of the posters before printing them. It replaced the images with Turkish flags shortly after the concerns appeared on social media. The Anatolian Youth Association described the situation as a misunderstanding and said it was investigating the incident. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”

In June at a memorial service in Istanbul for former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the crowd chanted anti-Semitic slogans. President Erdogan attended the service.

Several Christian and Jewish places of worship experienced acts of vandalism and received threats, according to local observers and the Freedom of Belief Initiative. In January three assailants reportedly threw a “sound” grenade at the door of the Mardin Protestant Church. The suspects were detained and released after making statements to police.

In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the doors and walls of the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District, Istanbul that included derogatory messages. A representative of community foundations to the GDF, Moris Levi, said in a statement that police had opened an investigation and received security camera footage of the incident. HDP MP Garo Paylan condemned the attack. According to the community, the perpetrators had not been found by year’s end.

According to media reports, in March a person attempted to vandalize the Beth Israel Synagogue in Izmir with a Molotov cocktail. The synagogue was not damaged in the incident. Police arrested and charged the individual for attempting to damage a place of worship. He stated his intention was to “protest Israel,” according to multiple media reports. Representatives of the Jewish community expressed gratitude to the İzmir Security Directorate for what they said was its swift response and sensitivity to the community’s security needs.

In January a small group of protestors demanded the status of the Hagia Sophia change from a museum to a mosque following the social media posting of a woman dancing inside the structure. Police prevented the group from entering the structure, and museum officials said they would investigate the incident. The investigation continued at year’s end.

In February hundreds of persons gathered in front of the Hagia Sophia for Friday prayers in an event organized by the Platform on Unity in Idea and Struggle, which advocates for the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque.

Despite the law permitting teaching and spreading religious beliefs, church officials and rights groups indicated these types of activities were widely viewed with suspicion and occasionally led to societal stigmatization.

Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders again joined representatives from various municipalities in Istanbul and the minister of culture and tourism for a public interfaith iftar in May. Organized by the representative of community foundations to the GDF with the support of all religious minority communities and hosted this year by the Syriac Catholic community, the event was described by organizers as an opportunity for communities that have shared the same lands for thousands of years to share their tables as friends.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diyanet, and GDF. They underscored the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups.

U.S. officials also provided overviews of the 2018 International Religious Freedom report in private meetings with government officials. They offered to hear from government representatives specific claims of potential religious freedom issues raised by local religious communities and how best to collaborate between the governments of the two countries to protect and respect religious freedom.

U.S. government officials urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups, raised the issue of property restitution and restoration, and discussed specific cases of religious discrimination.

Senior U.S. government officials continued to publicly, and privately with government officials, express their understanding of the Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance, and to support its preservation in a manner that respects its complex multireligious history. They underscored the importance of the issue with government officials and emphasized that the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of peaceful coexistence, meaningful dialogue, and respect among religions. Embassy staff continued to press for the restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.

The Secretary of State and other senior U.S. government officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki and allow all religious communities to train clergy in the country. In May the Charge d’Affaires and the Istanbul Consul General visited Halki to demonstrate ongoing interest in the reopening of the seminary. In October staff of the consulate general in Istanbul joined representatives from 24 other missions and the foreign ministry to visit Halki with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In April the Charge d’Affaires attended Easter services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. George to show support for religious minorities.

In March embassy officials met with the leaders of a recently renovated Greek Orthodox Church in Antalya to learn more about the community’s concerns and aspirations for its growing congregation, and to express the U.S. government’s interest in promoting religious freedom in the country.

In September the Principal Officer of the consulate in Adana attended the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country, officiated by the acting Armenian patriarch, to emphasize U.S. government support for religious minorities in the country.

In April the Istanbul Consul General traveled to the city of Edirne to visit Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i historic sites and demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In May senior embassy officials hosted a Jewish community leader at the embassy to learn firsthand about the community’s views and concerns.

In January a senior embassy official attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ankara University with senior host government officials and the leadership of the country’s Jewish community. Local media provided positive coverage of the event.

Senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials regularly engaged with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns, visit their places of worship, and promote interreligious dialogue. Officials from the embassy and consulates met with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Church of Jesus Christ, and Baha’i Faith communities, among others, throughout the country. The embassy and consulates utilized Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to emphasize the importance of the inclusion of religious minorities, including messages under hashtags such as #DiniOzgurluk (religious freedom) on designated days that recognized and underscored the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and human rights.

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