The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” According to the Supreme Court, the Bahai Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy, which is also a capital offense under Hanafi jurisprudence. The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions. The criminal code punishes verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion with a prison sentence of not less than three months. As in the past two years, there were no reported prosecutions for apostasy or blasphemy, but individuals who converted from Islam to other religions stated they continued to fear punishment from the government and reprisals from family and society. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities reported they continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and preferred to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religions continued to report the courts denied non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims, although holding some major government positions, said the number of positions did not reflect their demographics and complained the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas.
The Taliban and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S. designated terrorist organization, continued to attack and kill members of minority religious communities because of their beliefs or their links to the government. The ISKP publicly claimed responsibility for attacks killing over 100 members of the Shia community. In July a suicide bombing targeted a protest attended primarily by members of the Shia-majority Hazara community, killing at least 97 and injuring more than 260. In October gunmen entered the Karte-Sakhi mosque and opened fire on worshippers gathering to mark the Shia holiday of Ashura, killing 17 worshippers and wounding 58, including women and children. The ISKP claimed responsibility for both attacks. The Taliban were responsible for a number of kidnappings of Shia Hazaras and continued to threaten clerics with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. They warned mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. The Taliban also continued to impose punishments on residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities stated they continued to face harassment and occasional violence. Hindus and Sikhs said they were still able to practice their religions publicly, although Sikhs reported instances in which they were told they did not belong in the country. Christians continued to report hostile public opinion towards Christian proselytizing and said they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different religions reported local Muslim religious leaders initiated confrontations with them over their attire. As a result, they said, almost all women wore some form of head covering. Minority religious leaders stated only a few places of worship remained available for the decreasing numbers of Sikhs and Hindus, who were emigrating because of discrimination and the lack of employment opportunities. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near cremation sites, including an incident in which unknown individuals threw stones at a cremation site following a Sikh’s cremation. Observers stated discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there continued to be reports of discrimination in some localities.
U.S. embassy officers met with senior government officials to promote religious tolerance, to discuss the protection of religious minorities, and to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent extremism. In particular, the embassy met with the Office of the National Security Advisor (ONSC) to assist in the creation of a national strategy to combat violent extremism. The embassy continued to meet with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to introduce the public to a broader range of religious perspectives and enhance religious tolerance. Embassy outreach programs facilitated religious dialogue and the government’s effort to identify and counter the sources of violent extremism.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion, says the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, pertaining to recognition, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the faith communities will receive financial support from the government, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The government legalized 137 mosques during the year compared to six the previous year. Religious groups reported some progress on the hundreds of outstanding claims for government restitution or return of property seized during the communist era, and that the Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) met with them to begin reconciling lists of property claims. VUSH leaders stated their churches continued to have difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and continued to face problems over tax payments. The prime minister announced a pilot project involving 10 schools aimed at promoting religious tolerance in secondary schools as a means of countering violent extremism.
The Interreligious Council, which is meant to function as a forum for the leaders of the country’s religious communities to discuss common concerns, did not meet as it had in previous years. Pope Francis held an audience in Rome with the head of the global Bektashi community headquartered in Tirana, the first such audience for any religious leader from the country with the pope.
U.S. embassy officials continued to urge government officials to accelerate its handling of long-standing religious property claims and to return to religious groups the buildings, land, and other property confiscated from them during the communist era. The embassy expanded its civic education program, in which students of several religious educational institutions carried out projects celebrating religious diversity. The embassy also worked with the religious communities and nongovernmental actors to discourage violent extremism related to religion among youth and to promote religious tolerance.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and, after an amendment enacted in February, for freedom of worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. Police arrested Ahmadi Muslims for conducting unauthorized religious activities, such as holding prayers and printing religious books. A court sentenced a Christian convert accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad to three years in prison. In April an appeals court ordered the release of a journalist sentenced in 2015 to three years in prison for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The government continued to regulate the importation of religious materials. Two Christian organizations said the government delayed four months in authorizing their requests to import Bibles, but viewed the waiting period as an improvement in the delays experienced in past years. Senior government officials issued statements opposing calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam. They also criticized the spread of “extremist” Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, Ahmadi Islam, and the Bahai Faith. Christians reported continuing delays in obtaining visas for foreign religious workers.
Jund al-Khilafa, a terrorist group affiliated with ISIS, took credit for the October 28 killing of a police officer in Constantine. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, another terrorist group, took credit for a March 18 attack on a gas plant in Krechba.
There were reports of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Practitioners of religions other than Sunni Islam, including Christians and Jews, reported they had experienced threats and intolerance and often kept a low profile as a result. In January youth in Biskra distributed leaflets describing Shia Islam as “invading” the country. A private television channel aired interviews with a professor, an imam, and a scholar of Islam about what they described as the dangers of the Ahmadi faith. There were reports of employment discrimination against non-Muslims and one incident of attempted vandalism against a church.
The U.S. Ambassador encouraged the government to promote religious tolerance. Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both majority and minority religious groups, as well as with members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with several officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to stress the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of worship. The embassy sponsored the visit of a Muslim writer and scholar from the United States to engage youth in discussions of religious freedom and tolerance.
The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination. In accordance with the constitution, the government continued to offer the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups. Following enactment in August of a regulation to protect animals at the time of slaughter, halal butchery continued to be permitted as long as it was carried out under veterinary supervision at the country’s slaughterhouse. Some Muslims expressed concerns individuals wearing head coverings for religious reasons had to remove them in photographs for official documents. In September the government held initial meetings with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss the possible construction of a cemetery where they could conduct burials in accordance with their religious beliefs and customs. Non-Catholic foreigners performing religious functions could not obtain permits for their religious work and had to enter the country under a different status, but could perform religious work unhindered.
The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella lent its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking community.
During periodic visits, the U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona discussed with senior government representatives and civil society leaders issues such as the lack of official status for faiths other than Catholicism and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.
The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religion. The law requires religious groups to seek government recognition by meeting rigorous criteria. In April the Huambo provincial court convicted Jose Kalupeteka, leader of the Light of the World Church, and nine of his followers for killing nine police officers in a clash between police and members of the religious group in April 2015. The government stated publicly it was concerned about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which the government said exploited vulnerable populations and threatened domestic stability. The government has not recognized any new religious groups since passage of a law on religion in 2004. While many unregistered religious groups continued to operate with tacit acceptance, the government continued not to take formal action to recognize many of these religious groups, including Muslim groups. During the year, the government attempted to bring unrecognized Christian groups together in associations that could receive government recognition en masse, requesting those groups actively support government requests and not engage in illegal practices. Some religious leaders, civil society members, and media outlets accused the government of trying to coerce religious groups to align themselves with the ruling party in exchange for authorization to operate freely. The government was also accused of destroying some places of worship in locations where it exercised eminent domain authorities to accommodate private development.
Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations continued to criticize publicly the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups. Newer and more established religious groups traded accusations of corruption and profiting from their members’ personal assets. Governmental organizations as well as some religious associations called for all new religious groups to rejoin their “mother churches” or cease operations.
U.S. embassy representatives promoted religious freedom and tolerance with the government, encouraging government officials to allow all people to worship freely and to ease restrictions on the registration of new religious groups. The embassy also continued to monitor cases involving government tensions with religious groups.
Antigua and Barbuda
The constitution provides for freedom of worship as well as the right to practice and change religion. Rastafarians continued to express concern that government practices, including the prohibition of marijuana use, required vaccination for entry to public schools, and headdress restrictions, negatively impacted their religious activities and convictions. They also reported being subjected to undue scrutiny at security checkpoints.
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
The U.S. embassy engaged representatives of the government and civil society on religious freedom issues.