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Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace.  Other laws protect individual religious freedom against abuses by government or private actors.  The government began implementation of the nationality law passed in 2017, and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an increase in requests for nationality certificates.  Muslims born in the country continued to report they were unable to obtain citizenship documentation based on nationality laws that fail to provide a mechanism for some stateless children born in country to naturalize.

Members of the Muslim community and adherents of some evangelical Protestant churches reported they sometimes had limited access to employment due to their religious affiliation, while members of a small Jewish community continued to report general improvement regarding their interaction with society.

U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with Ministry of Interior officials responsible for registration of religious groups.  Embassy officials continued to engage with international community representatives to minimize the impact of the nationality code on stateless persons, including Muslims with long-standing ties to the country.  The embassy regularly met with religious leaders throughout the year and organized an interfaith virtual discussion to encourage solidarity among different religious faiths around a common concern.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits religious discrimination in the workplace.  Other laws protect individual religious freedom against abuses by government or private actors.  The constitution states that such rights may be limited by the need to protect the rights of others or to preserve public order, national dignity, or state security.  The labor code prohibits religious discrimination in labor unions and professional associations.

The law requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of the Interior.  By registering, a religious group receives the legal status necessary to receive direct bequests and other donations.  Once registered, the group may apply for a tax exemption each time it receives a gift from abroad.  Registered religious groups also have the right to acquire land from individuals to build places of worship; however, the law states landowners should first cede the land back to the state, and the state will then transfer it to the religious group.  To qualify for registration, a group must have at least 100 members and an elected administrative council of no more than nine members, all of whom must be citizens.

Groups failing to meet registration requirements may instead register as “simple associations.”  Simple associations may not receive donations or hold religious services, but the law allows them to conduct various types of community and social projects.  Associations engaging in dangerous or destabilizing activities may be disbanded or have their registration withdrawn.  Simple associations must apply for a tax exemption each time they receive a donation from abroad.  If an association has foreign leadership and/or members, it may form an association “reputed to be foreign.”  An association is reputed foreign only if the leader or members of the board include foreign nationals.  Such foreign associations may receive only temporary authorizations, subject to periodic renewal and other conditions.  The law does not prohibit national associations from having foreign nationals as members.

Public schools do not offer religious education.  There is no law prohibiting or limiting religious education in public or private schools.

The government requires a permit for all public demonstrations, including religious events such as outdoor worship services.

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

Government Practices

As of July media reported an increase in requests for nationality certificates following promulgation in 2017 of a new law enabling a woman to transmit her nationality regardless of her marital status.  The legal specialist from the NGO Focus Development reported the court in Antananarivo alone had delivered more than 1,500 certificates since this legal reform.  She did not indicate the number of Muslims among those beneficiaries.  The new code of nationality did not address the problem of children born of two stateless parents; these individuals remained unable to obtain citizenship, even after several generations of residence in the country.  Under the nationality code, children with unknown parentage were to be evaluated based on appearance, ethnicity, and other factors.  Muslim leaders continued to state the nationality code affected the Muslim community disproportionately, as many members were descendants of immigrants and were unable to acquire the country’s nationality, despite generations of residence in the country.  Children of ethnic Indian, Pakistani, and Comorian descent often had difficulty obtaining citizenship, leaving a disproportionate number of Muslims stateless.  A 2014 study by Focus Development and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that approximately 6 percent of individuals in the communities surveyed were stateless and of this number, more than 85 percent were born in the country.

The Ministry of the Interior registered 49 new religious groups during the year, an increase from 17 registrations in the previous year, bringing the total to a reported 345 officially registered groups.  Religious groups stated the government did not always enforce registration requirements and did not deny requests for registration.  In addition, the government acknowledged that some registered groups may have become inactive or have dissolved without informing the government.

Religious leaders continued to state that inadequate government enforcement of labor laws resulted in some employers requiring their employees to work during religious services.  Faith-based social centers receiving vulnerable workers and labor unions continued to report that employers failed to respect the labor code provisions requiring a 24-hour break weekly, which affected factory workers’ ability to attend worship services.

The leadership of the Muslim Malagasy Association, which states it represents all Muslims in the country, reported some Muslims continued to report difficulty obtaining official documents such as national identity cards and passports because of their Arabic-sounding names.

State-run Malagasy National Television continued to provide free broadcasting to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and to Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians on weekends, along with the Muslim community once a week.  During Ramadan, the Muslim community was able to purchase additional airtime.  The leader of a well-known local evangelical Christian church reported his church rarely received access to the state-run television and radio, even if it agreed to pay for the broadcast time.

Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  The media stated that politicians sought to use religion and religious events to increase their visibility ahead of the presidential elections scheduled to occur by the end of the year.  Several prospective candidates appeared in larger religious events such as the 50th anniversary of the FJKM Church, the eighth annual Catholic youth assembly, and other smaller religious events and gatherings.  Several media outlets criticized what they called an obvious intent to use religious occasions as a tool to target and attract potential voters through their religious affiliation.

In August the central committee of the church council FFKM (composed of the four biggest Christian churches of the country) released a communique urging citizens of voting age to make the best choice during the upcoming presidential elections.  The communique described the ideal candidate as a person who believes in God as defined by Christianity.  Many observers viewed the communique as referring to traditional or mainstream Christianity and as aiming to denigrate and exclude a specific candidate who was the founder and leader of a local evangelical Christian church with what observers described as nontraditional views.  In October, however, Catholic bishops announced during the official closing of a youth general gathering in Mahajanga that the Catholic Church (part of the FFKM) deliberately avoided endorsing any presidential candidate.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, belief, and thought.  Rastafarian children continue to be denied enrollment in public school unless they shaved their dreadlocks.  A test case remained pending and, by court order, the child involved was attending school with his hair intact pending conclusion of litigation.  The Malawi Human Rights Commission sided with the child and joined the case amicus curiae.  Muslim leaders reported that Muslim female students were required to remove their headscarves to attend class in some public schools.

In February United Religious Initiative, a global interfaith network, organized its annual “World Interfaith Harmony Week,” which entailed a tour of houses of worship, speeches highlighting the importance of interfaith dialogue, soccer and netball matches, and activities encouraging peaceful coexistence.  More than 7,000 persons from various religious groups attended.

In an effort to foster collaboration with influential interfaith leaders, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a luncheon with 30 representatives from various religious groups to celebrate the U.S. Religious Freedom Day.  The Ambassador and senior embassy officials attended iftars, engaging with local Muslim leaders on issues affecting their coreligionists.  U.S. embassy officials also regularly sought input from leaders of religious groups on issues of religious freedom and tolerance.  To encourage interfaith and civil dialogue among religious, civil society, and political leaders, the embassy regularly invited religious leaders of different faiths to its events.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, belief, and thought.  These rights may be limited only when the president declares a state of emergency.

The law states that holders of broadcast licenses “shall not broadcast any material which is…offensive to the religious convictions of any section of the population.”

Religious groups must register with government to be recognized as legal entities.  To do so groups must submit documentation detailing the structure and mission of their organization and pay a fee of 1,000 kwacha ($1).  The government reviews the application for administrative compliance only.  According to the government, registration does not constitute endorsement of religious beliefs, nor is it a prerequisite for religious activities.  Registration allows a religious group to acquire land, rent property in its own name, and obtain utility services such as water and electricity.

The law authorizes religious groups, regardless of registration status, to import certain goods duty free.  These include religious paraphernalia, vehicles used for worship-related purposes, and office equipment.  In practice, however, the Ministry of Finance rarely grants duty exemptions even to registered groups.

Detainees have a right to consult with a religious counselor of their choice.

Religious instruction is mandatory in public primary schools, with no opt-out provision, and is available as an elective in public secondary schools.  According to the constitution, eliminating religious intolerance is a goal of education.  In some schools, the religious curriculum is a Christian-oriented “Bible knowledge” course, while in others it is an interfaith “moral and religious education” course drawing from the Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Baha’i faiths.  According to the law, local school management committees, elected at parent-teacher association meetings, decide on which religious curriculum to use.  Private Christian and Islamic schools offer religious instruction in their respective faiths.  Hybrid “grant-aided” schools are managed by private, usually religious, institutions, but their teaching staffs are paid by the government.  In exchange for this financial support, the government chooses a significant portion of the students who attend.  At grant-aided schools, a board appointed by the school’s operators decides whether the “Bible knowledge” or the “moral and religious education” curriculum will be used.

Foreign missionaries are required to have employment permits.

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

Government Practices

Despite guidance from the Department of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS), the Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM) continued to report that some DRTSS photographers required Muslim women to remove their hijabs to take their driving license picture.

MAM reported that some teachers asked female students to remove their headscarf in order to attend class.  Muslim leaders also continued to express concern about staggered school shifts that complicated the organization of after-school religious education.

Muslim organizations also continued to request the education ministry to discontinue use of the “Bible knowledge” course and use only the broader-based “moral and religious education” curriculum in primary schools, particularly in predominantly Muslim areas.  The issue arose most frequently in grant-aided, Catholic-operated schools.

Representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to report that public school principals prohibited children with dreadlocks from attending certain public schools.  Although in January 2017 the solicitor general reaffirmed in writing Rastafarian children’s constitutional rights to education, school policy usually requires children to shave their heads to attend.  By year’s end, the Ministry of Education had taken no further measures to ensure access.  Most Rastafarian parents relented and shaved their children’s heads, but the children of several families continued to be denied access to public school by principals.  A child who was selected through a highly competitive process to attend Malindi Secondary School in Zomba was denied enrollment in September 2017 because of his hair.  He was allowed to attend school with dreadlocks after a December 2017 Zomba High Court ordered that he be enrolled pending the conclusion of litigation initiated by the Malawi Women Lawyer Association on his behalf.  The Malawi Human Rights Commission officially joined the case as a plaintiff filing an amicus brief.  As of the end of the year, the case remained pending.  Several families whose children were also denied education or were forced to shave their heads to enroll were in the process of joining the suit.

Rastafarians continued to object to the laws making use and possession of cannabis a criminal offense in country, noting that it is a part of their religious doctrine.

Religious organizations and leaders regularly expressed their opinions on political issues, and their statements received coverage in the media.  In April and June the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (Catholics) and the Evangelical Association of Malawi released pastoral letters denouncing poor governance, corruption, and political violence.

Most government meetings and events began and ended with a prayer, usually Christian in nature.  At larger events, government officials generally invited clergy of different faiths to participate.

On October 28, at a government-convened national prayer for good rains, President Peter Mutharika hailed religious organizations’ role in service delivery but warned them not to get involved in politics and “stick to their mandate.”


Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.”  Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups.  Other forms of Islam are illegal.  Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices.  Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”  The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia.  The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system.  In January the country’s highest court unanimously overturned a 2015 Court of Appeal decision and ruled minors could only convert to Islam with the consent of both parents.  The court held it had jurisdiction over the administrative decisions of sharia authorities and such jurisdiction could not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment by parliament.  In December the country’s human rights commission concluded an investigation into the 2017 abduction of a Christian pastor and was expected to report to parliament in 2019.  The wife of a social activist who reportedly promoted Shia teachings and disappeared in 2016 said a police officer told her security forces were responsible for the disappearance of both her husband and the Christian pastor.  The retired local head of the security force who was named by the wife denied responsibility.  The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion without approval from a sharia court and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes.  Religious converts from Islam to another religion had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards.  The High Court ruled in July that Selangor State religious authorities did not have jurisdiction over the Ahmadiyya community because they were not recognized as Muslims.  State religious authorities appealed the decision.  Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty in using the word “Allah” to denote God.  Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report difficulty in gaining registration as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship.  Some political parties criticized the government for appointing non-Muslims to high-level positions, including attorney general.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again stated society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity.  In October a member of parliament received death threats after urging the government to ratify a UN declaration on the elimination of religious intolerance.  A Sarawak State legislator received online death threats in February for representing four individuals who sought to convert from Islam.  In November violence broke out after as many as 200 individuals, reportedly hired by a real estate developer claiming ownership of the land, entered a Hindu temple and attempted to forcibly evacuate devotees.  Police arrested a man for two incidents of vandalism at a church and Hindu temple in Kelantan State.

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, increasing religious intolerance and avoiding the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of three Christians and a Muslim activist.  Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.  The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in visitor exchanges and conferences that promoted religious tolerance and freedom.  A visiting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor urged officials to lift restrictions on religious freedom, including discrimination against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and impediments to conversion for Muslims, and raised concerns about the disappearance of the Christian pastor and social activist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The federal constitution states, “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims.  The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs.  Federal law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.  Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.”  The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as the “Heads of Islam” within their respective states.  Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states and are the highest Islamic authority; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the king.  Islamic law is administered by each state.  The office of mufti exists in every state to advise the sultan in all matters of Islamic law.  Sultans oversee the sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils who manage the operations of the courts.  In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the king assumes responsibility for this process.

Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law, except in matters concerning Islamic law.  A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  In a January Federal Court ruling in a case involving conversion of minors, however, the court held it had jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in the case, and that such jurisdiction could not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment by parliament.

The Shariah Judiciary Department (JKSM) is the federal agency charged with coordinating the sharia courts.  The federal Department of Development of Islam (JAKIM) is the permanent secretariat of the federal Fatwa Committee, which consists of 14 muftis, one from each state and one representing the Federal Territories.  The Sharia and Civil Technical Committee within the Attorney General’s Chambers oversees the process of sharia lawmaking at the federal level.  A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.”  Sharia courts seldom grant such requests, especially for those born a Muslim, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam.  Penalties for apostasy vary by state.  In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term.  In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed.  The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death.  These laws have never been enforced, and their legal status remains untested.  Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam.  In some states, sharia allows one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent.

A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15.  In January the Federal Court, the country’s highest, unanimously overturned a 2015 Court of Appeal ruling that had previously upheld the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents.  The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam.  Convictions can result in prison sentences of three to seven years, or up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property.  The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison or a 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam.

JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques.  JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all teachers of Islam before they may preach or lecture on Islam in public.

There is no legal requirement for non-Muslim religious groups to register, but to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Registrar of Societies (RoS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and paying a small fee.  These organizations are legally required to submit annual reports to the RoS to remain registered.  The RoS may inspect registered organizations and investigate those suspected of being used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order, or morality.”

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for individual donors.  Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate.  Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state.  Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual same-sex sexual relations, prostitution, kidnapping, rape, and robbery.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, and including imprisonment and caning.  The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing others.  The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation.  A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the marriage to be officially recognized.

State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and surau (prayer rooms) – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or surau.

Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses.  Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances.  Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families.  The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system.  Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have symbolically enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of the code.  The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, except in Selangor State, where Muslim females must be 18.  Sharia courts may make exceptions for marriage before those ages with the permission of their parents.  Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry but may marry as young as 16 with the approval of their state’s chief minister.  In September the Selangor State legislature raised the minimum age to marry for both male and female Muslims to 18.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation, and the government uses them to determine which citizens are subject to sharia.  The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card.  Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.

JAKIM coordinates the pilgrimage (Hajj), endowment (waqaf), tithes (zakat), and other Islamic activities.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In January police charged a man with kidnapping and extortion in the February 2017 abduction of Christian Pastor Raymond Koh.  The Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) then suspended its public inquiry into the matter following a request from the inspector general of police, who cited a law that SUHAKAM may not investigate any complaint that is the subject of a court proceeding.  Some civil society members said the arrest was an attempt by police to stop SUHAKAM’s public inquiry.  SUHAKAM reopened its investigation in August, stating the subject matter of the inquiry and the police investigation were different.  Media reported SUHAKAM ended its inquiry on December 7, after hearing the testimonies of 16 witnesses.  The inquiry panel was expected to present its findings and recommendations to parliament in 2019.

In May the wife of Amri Che Mat, a Muslim social activist accused of spreading Shia teaching, filed a police report after she said a police officer told her members of the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch’s Social Extremism Division (E2) were involved in her husband’s disappearance in 2016 as well as Pastor Koh’s.  The retired E2 official named by Mat’s wife said he was not involved.  Throughout the year, SUHAKAM continued investigating the case as well as that of Christian Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth, who also disappeared in 2016.

In September two Muslim women were publicly caned after the Terengganu State sharia court found them guilty of attempting same-sex relations.  In September Terengganu’s sharia court sentenced a thirty-year-old woman to be caned and a six-month jail term for prostitution.

Legal experts said the January Federal Court ruling on conversion of minors reaffirmed civil courts’ oversight role in administrative affairs, including the administrative acts of state Islamic religious authorities.  The Registrar of Muallafs (Converts) in Perak State had issued certificates of conversion for the minors in 2009 to their father without fulfilling the mandatory statutory requirements, thus “misconstruing the limits of its power and acting beyond its scope,” according to the court’s judgment.  The decision came as part of a suit brought by Indira Gandhi, a Hindu, whose ex-husband converted to Islam and unilaterally converted their three minor children, and then successfully petitioned a sharia court for sole custody.  As part of its decision, the Federal Court declared both parents must consent to the conversion of a minor child and found the children’s conversion to be “null and void.”  In doing so, the court overruled a 2015 Court of Appeal decision in favor of the father and upheld a 2009 High Court decision setting aside the certificates of conversion.

Despite calls from the court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s ex-husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing at year’s end.  An Islamic nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Muslim Scholars Association of Malaysia, said religious violence could break out were police to continue their search for the ex-husband and child.  A coalition of Islamic NGOs later filed an application to review the Federal Court ruling, arguing that only a sharia court could determine whether someone is Muslim or non-Muslim; the case remained undecided at year’s end.

According to media reports, critics of the Indira Gandhi ruling included the Muftis of Perak and Pahang and the Malaysian Islamic Organization Consultative Council.  The council said the decision conflicted with the views of the majority of ulama and undermined the provision of the constitution that stipulated the jurisdiction of a sharia court could not be disputed.  Supporters of the ruling included the Women’s Aid Organization and the Malaysian Human Rights Society, which said the decision resolved issues in cases where the nonconverting spouse had been left without remedy in the civil courts.

Citing the Indira Gandhi decision, a lower court ruled in October that the unilateral conversion of two minor children by their mother, who converted to Islam after their birth, was invalid.  Despite the court decisions, some members of civil society said questions surrounding unilateral conversions of minors would remain outstanding until the federal parliament clarified the issue through legislation.

It remained difficult for those registered as Muslims to have their religious identification changed by the authorities.  In April the Court of Appeal dismissed an application made by a woman born out of wedlock to a Muslim-Buddhist couple and raised by her Buddhist mother to be declared a non-Muslim and therefore to remove “Islam” from her national identity card.

In a case involving conversion by adults, the Federal Court dismissed in February an appeal by four individuals from Sarawak State who wished to have their cases considered in a civil court, ruling the state’s sharia court was the proper court for apostasy cases.

Lawyers, civil liberty groups, and non-Muslim religious leaders said that when civil and sharia jurisdictions intersected, civil courts continued largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where sharia judgements affected non-Muslims.

In June a 41-year-old Muslim Malaysian man married an 11-year-old Muslim Thai girl in Thailand and moved back with her to Malaysia.  Despite public outrage over the matter, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said the Malaysian government was powerless to act, as Islamic courts have jurisdiction over the issue of marriage between Muslims.  The prime minister, deputy prime minister, and other government officials said they would work to increase the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for all men and women.  By year’s end, Selangor State changed the official age of marriage to 18 years.

In July the minister for religious affairs said the government planned to present three new bills – the Anti-Discrimination Act, National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Act, and Religious and Racial Hatred Act – to parliament that would criminalize “humiliating religion and race” and impose penalties of up to seven years in jail and a fine up to 100,000 ringgit ($24,200).  By year’s end, the government had not introduced the bills for parliamentary consideration; some civil society groups expressed concern the legislation could curtail lawful free speech.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition government, which took power for the first time following federal elections in May, indicated that it would continue to enforce a 1996 fatwa declaring Shia teachings “deviant.”  Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of religious authorities arresting Shia Muslims for observing Ashura.  Media reported, however, that religious authorities in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor State increased monitoring of Shia individuals to prevent Ashura gatherings and distributed leaflets condemning “deviant practices.”  Officials in Kelantan State raided a Shia religious center in August and detained 10 individuals.  When the federal minister for religious affairs stated publicly that the constitution protects the rights of minority communities, including Shia, Zahid Hamidi, president of the opposition United Malays National Organization (UMNO), said his party would oppose the spread of Shia teachings.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the Associated Press in August, “Anti-Semitic is a term that is invented to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for doing wrong things.”  In October he repeated his statement from the 1970s that Jews are “hook-nosed” and that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was not six million.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines concerning what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief.  State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines.  Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices.  The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length, but often lasted approximately six months.  These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam.

State Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments, and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex).  An officer from the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Religious Department testified in court in March that warrants were never produced during any of the raids in which he was involved on such issues.  In October The Star reported the minister for religious affairs indicated the government was not interested in what went on behind closed doors, but only what happened in the “public sphere.”  The government, however, subsequently demanded an apology from The Star for reporting the government would stop “khalwat raids.”

According to some state laws, Muslims could be fined 1,000 ringgit ($240) if they did not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deemed to be immodest clothing.  The Kelantan State Islamic Affairs Department issued notices to more than 300 individuals from January through June for wearing clothing deemed un-Islamic, such as women wearing tight clothing, and behaving indecently in public.  The notices required the individuals to attend counseling sessions; however, a representative of the Islamic Affairs Department said only 20 percent complied with the order.  The representative said the department would pursue legal action if the accused did not attend a counseling session after receiving a second notice.  In July media reported the Kota Baru municipal council in Kelantan would consider employees’ adherence to Islamic dress codes when evaluating food outlets’ cleanliness.

In March a woman said Kota Baru municipal council officials stopped her from working as a master of ceremonies during a children’s event, saying that Muslim women could not speak into microphones because a woman’s voice should not be heard by unrelated men.

In October the Terengganu State tourism department issued 11 guidelines for music and dance events, including segregation of male and female performers and audience members and the requirement that female performers only sing and dance in front of an all-female audience in a closed venue.  In response to the announcement, the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) said, “The government’s readiness to resort to guidelines that impose their archaic worldview endangers the progress of all Malaysian women and their right to participate fully and equally in this country’s socioeconomic development and public life.”

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech allegedly denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths.  In April a court fined a woman 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) after she was convicted under the Sedition Act for posting a picture of a pork dish on social media during Ramadan in 2013 with a caption that said “Happy breaking of the fast.”  Weeks before federal elections in May, then Minister of Federal Territories Tengku Adnan warned voters against voting for a largely ethnic Chinese party because many of its members were evangelical Christians.  “If they are Catholics I would believe them, but when they are evangelists, new Christians, this is the problem,” he said.  The same month, the Mufti of the Federal Territories said Islam permitted voting for non-Muslims but said voters must ensure “that the country’s top posts, such as prime minister, Islamic affairs [minister], and national defense [minister], remain to be held by qualified Muslims only.”

During a speech in February, then Prime Minister Najib Razak promised supporters “all of you will be able to perform the Hajj” if they returned his party to power in upcoming elections.

Some politicians, Islamic leaders, and NGOs opposed the government’s plan to sign the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), saying it would strip away ethnic Malay privileges and threaten Islam’s position as the country’s official religion.  The president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) said, “We must oppose (it) because it is compulsory for Muslims to say that Islam is correct.  We can give rights to other religions but to say that other religions are the same as Islam is unacceptable.”  Following opposition from Islamic and ethnic Malay groups, the government announced in November it would not ratify the convention.  As many as 50,000 individuals rallied in downtown Kuala Lumpur on December 8 to celebrate the government’s rejection of ICERD.  Referring to opposition parties, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said some Malaysians appeared “allergic” to the idea of human rights, according to Al Jazeera.

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam.  In March media reported sermons in Selangor State no longer included language referring to Shia Islam as “deviant,” although officials said the decision was to shorten the length of the sermons and represented no change in policy.

During the year, Islamic authorities in the states of Perak and Johor banned several Muslim preachers from delivering sermons because they were deemed “divisive.”  One of the banned preachers had questioned the Sultan of Johor for publicly criticizing a laundromat that did not allow non-Muslim customers.

In May members of PAS criticized the Sabah State government’s decision to revive construction of a statue of the Taoist and Chinese Buddhist goddess Mazu, saying such a statue would challenge “the sensitivities of the [Muslim] community.”

The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and provisions, which denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations.  Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the RoS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons.  Representatives of religious groups continued to say the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups.  In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company.  Religious groups reported that registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding.  Examples of groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam.  While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque.  The High Court ruled in July that the Selangor State religious authorities did not have jurisdiction over the Ahmadiyya community because they were not recognized as Muslims.  Ahmadiyya community leaders expressed optimism about the ruling, seeing it as a new protection of their freedom to worship without harassment by the state’s Islamic authorities.  Some civil society members, however, expressed concern that the Ahmadiyya community’s recognition as a non-Muslim group could have symbolic and practical implications.  The Selangor State Islamic Department appealed the decision and the case remained pending at year’s end.  Local authorities have permitted billboards proclaiming “Ahmadis are not Muslims” to be placed in front of the group’s headquarters for the past several years.

In September the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) investigated a public awareness campaign event in Kuala Lumpur organized by “Who Is Hussain?” – a UK-based organization JAWI said was proselytizing Shia teachings.  No one was arrested in connection with the event, which involved the distribution of free donuts to commuters at a train station.

Restrictions remained on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.  An appeal by the Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the right of the church and its Malay language-speaking congregation to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications remained ongoing.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.”  In April the government announced it had banned six publications “deemed to contain elements that cause confusion among the people and are contrary to Islam’s Ahli Sunnah Wal Jamaah (Sunni) teachings.”  In January the Court of Appeal ruled a 2015 ban on three books by novelist Faisal Musa violated the author’s freedom of speech.  The previous government appealed the decision, but in October the new government withdrew the appeal and instructed the Ministry of Home Affairs to remove the titles from its list of banned publications.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services.  Observers said this practice remained largely tolerated, but left the religious groups vulnerable.  In December Minister for Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin said the government was preparing to register all existing houses of worship and their location.  According to The Straits Times, the minister said houses of worship located on land not belonging to them would have to move.  The ministry was drafting regulations to make it compulsory for all proposed houses of worship to acquire government approval before building.

In February at the 69th session of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a delegate from the Attorney General’s Office and other Malaysian delegates said female circumcision was and should be observed by Muslims per a 2009 decision by the national fatwa committee, although there was an exception for health reasons.  NGOs said the procedure practiced in Malaysia qualified as Female Genital Mutilation according to the UN CEDAW definition.

Some government bodies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, were tasked with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups.  Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that none had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, citing the large footprint and budget for JAKIM, compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration.  The Department of National Unity and Integration’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($66.59 million), while 1 billion ringgit ($242.13 million) was marked for the development of Islam, including 811 million ringgit ($196.37 million) for JAKIM.

During the year, JAKIM continued to fund a wide variety of Islamic education and mosque-related projects.  There were no specifically allocated funds in the government budget for non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities.

At public school primary and secondary levels, student assemblies frequently commenced with recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader.  Particularly in the peninsula of the country, community leaders and civil liberties groups said religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school.  Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces, except for their eyes.  Homeschooling remained legal, but some families continued to report difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.

A civil liberties activist called attention to the contents of an Islamic studies supplementary book for secondary school students that promoted death for apostates.

In August a judge on the Court of Appeal who had disagreed with that court’s 2015 decision allowing unilateral conversion of children to Islam said he was reprimanded by a senior judge and was ostracized and not assigned to certain cases as a result of his view.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate.  The government continued its appeal of a 2017 ruling by the Court of Appeal that the National Registration Division was not bound by edicts issued by the National Fatwa Committee, a religious body, regarding when a child conceived out of wedlock could take his or her father’s name.  Implementation of the court’s decision remained stayed pending the appeal.  The 2003 edict declared children illegitimate, and therefore unable to take their father’s name, if they were born fewer than six months after the marriage of their parents.

On June 5, the government announced Tommy Thomas as the new Attorney General, the first non-Muslim, non-Malay to hold the post.  In July a member of PAS said the government’s appointment of non-Muslims to senior positions, including to the positions of attorney general, chief justice, and minister of legal affairs, would weaken sensitivity to legal matters involving Islam and Muslims.  The prime minister responded, “We will establish a government that upholds the laws and the constitution of the country and we will not do anything contrary to Islam.”  In September PAS stated it would focus on advocating for “Islamic leadership” given what it said was the low number of Muslims in parliament.

In November police in Kedah State arrested and later deported four foreign nationals for allegedly distributing religious materials that contained excerpts from the Bible.  The individuals were investigated for causing disharmony or ill will and violating the conditions of their visas.  Authorities in Penang State arrested five foreign nationals earlier in the month for similar offenses.


Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the president, to be followers of Sunni Islam.  The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.”  The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity.  Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense.  The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.”  Antiterror legislation bans the promotion of “unlawful” religious ideologies.  The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as stoning and amputation of hands.  In November the parliament repealed the Anti-Defamation Act, which had criminalized expression deemed to be at odds with Islamic tenets.  In July then President Abdulla Yameen publicly stated his government intended to impose harsh legal punishment against individuals who insulted Islam, including stripping them of state benefits.  In April then Minister of Defense and National Security Adam Shareef Umar said the government would not allow religions other than Islam in the country.  Also in April the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) published a policy paper proposing financial penalties and either prison or house arrest for individuals who insult Islam.  In September police destroyed a semi-submerged sculpture gallery installed by a resort after a court ruled the installation posed a threat to “Islamic unity and the peace and interests of the Maldivian state.”  In February the Civil Service Commission dismissed a teacher and a school janitor for refusing to take off their niqabs in compliance with civil service dress code guidelines.  The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religious affairs, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers.  The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to target other individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, and label them “secularists.”  They also reported continued community pressure on women to wear a hijab.  In April police briefly arrested a male taxi driver who threatened to kill a woman for not wearing a hijab but did not press charges.  In May a woman moved away from her island due to harassment after appearing in an online video speaking about societal pressure to wear the hijab and her wish to remove it.  NGO representatives also stated they continued to see a rise in what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, asserting the government actively encouraged this trend.

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and U.S. Embassy Colombo staff represent U.S. interests there.  In meetings with government officials in both Colombo and Male, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates Islam as the state religion, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings.  It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam.  According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.

The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.”  In making a decision on whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must consider the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.

The constitution makes no mention of freedom of religion or belief.  Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis for discrimination.  The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to tenets of Islam.”

The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion (i.e., apostasy).  By law, a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence.

The Religious Unity Act states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.”  Any statement or action found to be contrary to this objective is subject to criminal penalty.  Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, disrupting religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences.  The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society.  According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.

In November the parliament repealed the Anti-Defamation Act, which had criminalized expression deemed to be at odds with Islamic tenets.  Other laws continue to criminalize speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security.  The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam.”  According to the law, a person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by “engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing ‘idols of worship’; and/or, attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause ‘religious segregation.’”  Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.

By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA.  Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization.  To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies, and not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court.  The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate.  Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons.  The regulations prohibit statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination, discourage access to education or health services in the name of Islam, or demean the character of and/or create hatred toward persons of any other religion.  The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions.  Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000-20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300).  The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.

Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison or house arrest.  Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty.  If the offender is a foreigner, authorities may revoke the individual’s license to preach in the country and deport the individual.

By law, mosques and prayer houses remain under the control of the MIA rather than the country’s island councils.  The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.

The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.”  By law, those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320 to $1,300), and deportation.

By law, a female citizen may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam.  A male citizen may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.

The law prohibits importation of any items the MIA deems contrary to Islam, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials.  Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months to three years imprisonment.  It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages on resort islands.  Individuals may request permission to import restricted goods from the Ministry of Economic Development.

The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.”  In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools.  By law, educators who teach Islamic studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government.  By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic studies may receive authorization to do so only if they subscribe to Sunni Islam.  Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students.  The curriculum incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices.

The constitution states Islam forms one basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.”  The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law.

The penal code prescribes flogging for a small number of crimes, including adultery and fornication.  Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for hudood (serious crimes) listed in the Quran and qisas (retaliatory) offenses – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt.  The penal code requires all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to hudood and qisas offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.

The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters.  The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms.  The president names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives.  The minister of Islamic affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to the president’s approval.

Antiterror legislation states that “unlawfully” promoting any religious, political, or other ideology is a crime.

The constitution stipulates the president, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.”

Government Practices

Police reported they had investigated 19 cases of suspected “black magic” during the year.  Although no law defined or addressed the practice of black magic, police included it in warrants as a basis for making arrests.  Police forwarded 10 such cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office, which subsequently filed charges in each case.  Authorities charged suspects in all of these cases with smuggling and possession of items contrary to the tenets of Islam.

Observers reported several cases in which the Family Court refused to register children if one of the parents was a non-Muslim.  Although there is no legal statute that expressly prohibits the marriage of Muslim men to Christian or Jewish women, the court reportedly argued citizens could neither marry non-Muslims nor have children with them.  The government does not issue birth certificates or identity cards to unregistered children, but such documents are required for admittance to schools or for government services.

According to media reports and NGOs, courts sentenced individuals to flogging for committing fornication and consuming alcohol but did not impose sharia penalties for hudood and qisas offenses despite having the legal authority to do so.

After returning from exile in the Netherlands in November, the Maldives Police Service detained Aishath Velezinee, a former member of the Judicial Service Commission declared an apostate by the MIA in May 2017 for allegedly blasphemous remarks made on Facebook.  Police released her to a local hospital the next day after family and NGOs argued she suffered from mental health issues.  No charges had been filed as of December.

In February the Civil Service Commission dismissed a teacher and janitor in a school for refusing to remove their niqabs in compliance with civil service dress code guidelines.  The guidelines require civil servants to be dressed in a manner that makes them easily identifiable.  In February 2017, religious rights NGO Jamiyyatul Salaf challenged the constitutionality of the ban on the niqab for civil servants.  The case was pending in the High Court as of October 18.

In April police questioned Shahinda Ismail, executive director of the Maldivian Democracy Network, for a second time concerning a December 2017 tweet in which she had stated, “religions other than Islam exist in the world because Allah made it possible.”  Ismail had been responding to a statement by then President Yameen that he would not allow any religion but Islam in the country.  Police launched an investigation in December 2017 after articles in Vaguthu, an online news site closely linked to the government, denounced Ismail for “indirectly calling to allow other religions in the Maldives.”  Concurrently, the MIA issued a statement saying, “Allah does not accept any other religion but Islam.  And he has said anyone who believes any other religion than Islam will be amongst the perishable on Judgment Day.  So we remind you to reassert yourself in religion.  Let’s strengthen the belief of citizens of our 100 percent Muslim country that Islam is Allah’s religion as written in the Quran.  We caution and remind every Maldivian citizen to stop spreading unnecessary sayings in our society that imply giving space for any other faiths but Islam.”  Ismail subsequently received death threats on social media.

In September police destroyed a semi-submerged sculpture gallery installed by Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi resort after the courts ruled the installation posed a threat to “Islamic unity and the peace and interests of the Maldivian state,” citing a prohibition on the worship of idols and arguing the life-like human statues were idols.

The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) continued to maintain an unpublished blacklist of websites containing material it deemed un-Islamic or anti-Islamic.  The CAM stated it did not proactively monitor internet content but instead relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites violating laws against criticism or defamation of Islam.  Police reported investigating one website for un-Islamic content but did not file any charges.

The MIA controlled all matters relating to religion and religious belief and required imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers.  The government maintained its ownership and control of all mosques, including their maintenance and funding.  The government continued to permit private donors to fund mosques as well.

In April the MIA released a policy paper announcing intentions to strengthen the legal framework and address policy gaps around apostasy, “mockery” of Islam, and foreign terrorist fighters.  The paper declared the biggest challenges for the country included apostasy; openly mocking, demeaning, or undermining Islam; and going to war or assaulting individuals with differing viewpoints in the name of religion.  It declared apostates should be “removed from society for a certain period” without parole, clemency, or any leniency to their sentence, while those who mock Islam must be placed on house arrest or fined.  It also declared apostates and those who mock Islam must be deprived of all state benefits except a pension, including state-provided health insurance, land rights, housing subsidies, and low-interest loans.  Observers noted while the paper highlighted the issue of increased hate speech and violence against ”individuals with different views,” it also labeled these voices as “extremists” and equated undefined “mockery of Islam” to fundamentalist rhetoric and the issue of foreign terrorist fighters, which could exacerbate the threats faced by secular bloggers.

In a July 3 campaign speech, then President Yameen made statements suggesting the political opposition would undermine Islam.  He argued his administration would be the only government to protect Islam, while the opposition would collaborate with the international community to allow unlimited freedom of speech to undermine Islam.  Yameen said youth on social media regularly insulted Islam and the prophet:  “Aren’t our Maldivian youth on social media doing this beyond what non-Muslims are doing?  Is this how far freedom of speech can be stretched?  In my government, I want to give the harshest legal punishment for such people.  And if there aren’t laws, this has to be stopped even if we have to make laws…my government will now allow this freedom…this is what you must keep in mind ahead of the September 23 [presidential election] vote.”  Yameen also said nonbelievers must be stripped “of any kind of benefits,” echoing an April policy paper from the MIA that proposed financial penalties and prison terms for apostates.  Observers stated the president’s statements continued to impact civil and political discourse and increased the risk of attacks against others labeled “secularists” or “apostates” on social media.

Speaking at an April 14-16 international seminar organized by the MIA, then Defense Minister Adam Shareef Umar reiterated the government would not allow religions other than Islam in the country.  “We are facing challenges in promoting Islam and because Maldivians follow Islam.  However, we can’t allow for religious freedom in the Maldives.  The Maldives will remain a country with moderate Islamic values prioritizing development and peace,” Shareef told the gathering of scholars representing the Organization of Islamic Countries, Arab League, and prominent Islamic universities in Egypt, Pakistan, and Malaysia.  During the seminar, scholars presented papers on disunity among Islamic societies and on religious and ideological differences among Muslims.

According to the MIA, foreign residents, such as teachers and laborers and tourists, remained free to worship as they wished in private, but congregating in public for non-Islamic prayer remained illegal, as was encouraging local citizens to participate in such activities.  The government continued to permit foreigners, including non-Muslims, to attend local Sunni mosques.

Customs authorities said the MIA continued to permit the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use.  The MIA also continued to allow some religious literature for scholarly research.  The ministry continued to restrict the sale of religious items, including Christmas cards, to resort islands patronized by foreign tourists.  Customs officials reported there were no cases involving importation of religious idols, statues, and Christian crosses during the year.

The MIA continued to conduct what it termed “awareness programs” through radio and television broadcasts in Male and on various islands to give citizens information on Islam, and it continued to provide assistance and counseling to foreigners seeking to convert to Islam.  The ministry, in partnership with religious NGOs, continued to send imams to outer atolls to conduct workshops for students, youth, and other groups in schools and government buildings for the stated purpose of strengthening the islanders’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.

The National Institute of Education continued to implement a curriculum for public and private schools incorporating Islam into all subject areas.  According to NGOs and other observers, passages in some of the textbooks portrayed democracy as being anti-Islam, encouraged anti-Semitism and xenophobia, glorified jihad, and demonized the West.  The MIA continued to permit foreign nationals to opt out of Islamic instruction as a stand-alone subject.  The MIA also stated it continued to permit foreigners to raise their children to follow any religious teaching they wished, but only in private.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and grants individuals freedom of religion in conformity with the law.  The law criminalizes abuses against religious freedom.  On January 31, the government adopted a new national Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy that included interfaith efforts and promotion of religious tolerance.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship was responsible for administering the national CVE strategy, in addition to promoting religious tolerance and coordinating national religious activities such as pilgrimages and religious holidays for followers of all religions.

Terrorist groups used violence and launched attacks against civilians, security forces, peacekeepers, and others they reportedly perceived as not adhering to their interpretation of Islam.  In the center of the country, affiliates of Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) attacked multiple towns in Mopti Region, threatening Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious communities, reportedly for heresy.

Muslim religious leaders condemned extremist interpretations of sharia, and non-Muslim religious leaders condemned religious extremism.  Some Christian missionaries expressed concern about the increased influence in remote areas of organizations they characterized as violent and extremist.  Religious leaders, including Muslims and Catholics, jointly called for peace among all faiths at a celebration marking Eid al-Fitr in June hosted by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.  In January Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic religious leaders called for peace and solidary among faiths at a conference organized by the youth of the Protestant community.  The president of the High Islamic Council of Mali (HCI) and other notable religious leaders announced the necessity for all religious leaders to work toward national unity and social cohesion.

The U.S. embassy supported programs to counter violent extremism related to religion and promote peace and reconciliation.  The secretary general, second-ranking official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship, participated in an exchange program on countering violent extremism.  Embassy officials met with the president and vice president of the HCI and called upon their interlocutors to promote peace and tolerance among religions.  The Ambassador spoke about religious tolerance at public events and on social media.  The U.S. government sponsored numerous programs to support religious diversity and tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion in conformity with the law.

According to the penal code, any act of discrimination based on religion or any act impeding the freedom of religious observance or worship is punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment or 10 years’ banishment (prohibition from residing in the country).  The penal code also states any religiously motivated persecution of a group of persons constitutes a crime against humanity.  There is no statute of limitations for such crimes.

The law requires registration of all public associations, including religious groups, except for groups practicing indigenous religious beliefs; however, registration confers no tax preferences or other legal benefits, and there is no penalty for failure to register.  To register, applicants must submit copies of a declaration of intent to create an association, notarized copies of bylaws, copies of policies and regulations, notarized copies of a report of the first meeting of the association’s general assembly, and lists of the names of the leaders of the association with signature samples of three of the leaders.  Upon review, if approved, the Ministry of Territorial Administration grants the certificate of registration.

The constitution prohibits public schools from offering religious instruction, but private schools may do so.  Islamic religious schools, which are privately funded and known locally as medersas (a variant of madrassah), teach Islam but are required to adhere to the standard government curriculum.  Non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic religious classes.  Catholic schools teach the standard educational curriculum and do not require Muslim students to attend Catholic religious classes.  Informal schools, known locally as Quranic schools, which some students attend in lieu of public schools, do not follow a government curriculum and offer exclusively religious instruction.

The law defines marriage as secular.  Couples who seek legal recognition must have a civil ceremony, which they may follow with a religious ceremony.  Under the law, a man may choose between a monogamous or polygamous marriage.  The law states that the religious customs of the deceased determine inheritance rights.  Civil courts consider these customs when they adjudicate such cases; however, many cases are settled informally.

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

Government Practices

On January 31, the government adopted a new national strategy to counter violent extremism.  The strategy was based on five pillars:  Prevention, Protection, Pursuit, Response, and Social Cohesion.  Specific objectives outlined in the national strategy include:  eliminating conditions conducive to the development of terrorism and violent extremism, including but not limited to religious outreach and interfaith efforts; prosecuting all perpetrators and accomplices of crimes of violent extremism and terrorism; providing fair and diligent responses in the event of a terrorist attack or acts of violent extremism perpetrated on national territory, with respect for human rights and the rule of law; contributing to the regeneration of a collective identity, including religious tolerance and coexistence, to strengthen the bonds of national solidarity.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Worship was responsible for administering the national CVE strategy, in addition to promoting religious tolerance and coordinating national religious activities such as pilgrimages and religious holidays for followers of all religions.  On November 17-18, the ministry organized, in coordination with the archbishop, the annual Catholic pilgrimage in Kita Cercle and called for religious tolerance among faiths, a sentiment echoed by President Keita in an official statement on November 18.  The ministry also continued supporting a training program for moderate Sufi imams in Morocco, one objective of which was to improve interfaith tolerance.

The Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission continued operating through the year.  In December it opened its field office in Kidal Region.  By year’s end, the commission heard 10,102 testimonies, including cases of religious freedom violations.

Throughout the year, mostly in the country’s central and northern regions, domestic and transnational violent terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliates Ansar al-Dine, Macina Liberation Front, and Al-Mourabitoun, united under the umbrella JNIM, continued to carry out attacks against security forces, UN peacekeepers, civilians, and others they reportedly perceived as not adhering to their interpretation of Islam.

According to eyewitness and media reporting, on September 11, in the town of Hombori, Mopti Region, armed men believed to be JNIM affiliates interrupted a party by firing in the air, threatened those in attendance, and vandalized the venue.  The men announced that playing music and dancing were not acceptable in Islam.

According to church leaders in the town of Barareli, Mopti Region, on December 30, armed men believed to be affiliated with JNIM fired on the town’s church while Christian youth were gathered for Bible study.  No injuries were reported.

According to Christian leaders, continued threats from JNIM prevented the Christian community in Djidja from reopening its church that was closed due to threats from JNIM in 2017.  Six church workers who fled the area remained displaced at year’s end.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious worship and prohibits religious discrimination.  It establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and mandates Catholic religious education in state schools, but allows students to opt out of the classes.  In July the government postponed making a decision for six months on a Russian Orthodox application to build a new church.  The government continued to expand its ethics program as an alternative to Catholic instruction in public schools and appointed an education officer specifically for ethics education.

The self-styled nationalist Maltese Patriots Movement advocated a “Christian Europe,” and opposed Islamic teaching in Catholic schools and the existence of unofficial Muslim prayer rooms.  The Catholic Church offered premises for worship to a Russian Orthodox parish while it awaited a government decision on its application to build a new church.

In meetings with government officials at two ministries and with religious leaders, the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed religious tolerance and religious groups’ efforts to establish places of worship.  During an iftar for members of the Muslim community and others and attended by two government ministers, the Ambassador stressed the importance of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution stipulates full freedom of conscience and religious worship, subject to restrictions in the interests of public safety, order, morality, health, or protection of the rights and freedoms of others.  It prohibits discriminatory treatment based on creed.  The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and states the Catholic Church has “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.”

The criminal code prohibits the disturbance of “any function, ceremony, or religious service of any religion tolerated by law,” and carried out by a minister of religion, both in places of worship or in areas accessible to the public.  The penalty for violators is up to six months in prison.  The punishment may increase if the disturbance results in “serious danger.”  If the disturbance involves any act amounting to a threat or violence against a person, punishment is imprisonment for a period of six months to two years.

The criminal code prohibits individuals from wearing “masks or disguises” in public, unless explicitly allowed by law; there is no specific reference – or exception – to coverings worn for religious reasons.  Violations are subject to a reprimand, a fine of 23-1,165 euros ($26-$1,300), or a jail sentence of up to two months.

The government does not require religious groups to be registered.  A religious group has the option to register as a voluntary organization with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations.  To qualify for registration, the organization must be nonprofit, autonomous, and voluntary; provide a resolution letter signed by all its committee or board members requesting registration; provide its authenticated annual accounts and annual report; and pay a 40 euro ($46) registration fee.  The law does not provide registered groups with tax deductions or exemptions but allows them to engage in “public collections” without obtaining any further authorization.  It also makes them eligible to receive grants, sponsorships, and financial aid from the government and the Voluntary Organizations Fund, an entity financed through the government and the European Union.  The minister of education appoints the governing council of the fund, which includes members from voluntary organizations and a government representative.

Religious groups not registered as voluntary organizations with the Office of the Commissioner for Voluntary Organizations do not receive funding from the government or the Voluntary Organizations Fund, and must obtain approval from the commissioner of police to carry out public collections.  Approval is not required for collections from members or congregants.  Groups that do not register as voluntary organizations otherwise have the same legal rights as registered groups.

All registered and unregistered religious groups may own property, including buildings.  Groups using property for a particular purpose, including religious worship, must obtain a permit for that purpose from the Planning Authority.  All religious groups may organize and run private religious schools, and their clergy may perform legally recognized marriages and other religious functions.

The constitution and law make Catholic education compulsory in public schools, although non-Catholic teachers may teach the course.  Students, with parental consent if the student is under the age of 16, may opt out of these classes and instead take an ethics course, if one is available.  If a school does not offer an ethics course, students may still opt out of the religion class.

Students may enroll in private religious schools.  The law does not regulate religious education in private schools.  The law does not allow homeschooling for religious or other reasons except for physical or mental infirmity.

The law allows criticism of religious groups but prohibits incitement of religious hatred; violators are subject to imprisonment for a term of six to 18 months.

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

Government Practices

In July, according to media reports, the Planning Authority postponed making a decision for six months on an application the Russian Orthodox Parish of St. Paul the Apostle submitted in 2017 to build a new church in Kappara.  According to the Times of Malta newspaper, the Planning Authority needed more time to analyze the proposal, which generated opposition from nearby residents and from Nature Trust Malta, the manager of the Wied Ghollieqa nature reserve adjacent to the proposed site.

The government continued its practice of not enforcing the legal ban on face coverings or disguises, including those worn for religious purposes.

The government did not introduce voluntary Islamic religious education as an after-school program in state primary or secondary schools.  In 2017, there were reports the government was advancing plans to introduce such classes in state schools, and Education and Employment Minister Evarist Bartolo said at that time there should be no problem in providing voluntary, accredited Islamic religious classes in schools.  In October the Ministry of Education and Employment stated it was continuing discussions with Muslim leaders on the possible introduction of Islamic classes; it did not release details or a timeline for the program’s implementation.  The government said it also continued to explore similar programs for other religious groups.

The Ministry of Education and Employment continued to expand a pilot program to offer ethics education in state schools as an alternative to Catholic religious classes.  According to the ministry, 10.2 percent of students opted for ethics education in schools that offered it.  The ministry attributed this increased enrollment to the growing number of non-Catholic foreign students.  During the 2017-18 school year, 1,520 primary and secondary level students, approximately 4.8 percent of the student body in state schools, enrolled in ethics classes, compared with 1,073 students in the previous year.  For the first time, the government appointed an education officer specifically for ethics education, and recognized the subject in assessing qualifications for the Secondary Education Certificate, a credential gained by students following exams at the end of their compulsory secondary education.  During the 2017-18 school year, post-secondary educational institutions also began accepting ethics education as an academic subject for students in their academic programs.

In June the opposition Nationalist Party organized an iftar for members of the Muslim community at its party headquarters.  In remarks at the iftar, Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia appealed for religions to unite, rather than divide, people.

Marshall Islands

Executive Summary

The constitution provides protections for religious freedom with “reasonable restrictions” to ensure public order and the rights of other individuals.  The constitution provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and to the free exercise of religion.  Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community said authorities did not allow them to use the government conference center that other religious groups use, and said they experienced longer waits at government hospitals than others.

Members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community reported societal religious intolerance, which they attributed to international news reports linking Islam to terrorism.  One Ahmadi Muslim leader said leaders of local Christian congregations tried to dissuade fellow Christians from converting to Islam by saying Islam promoted violence and Muslims used bribery to entice new members or influence their congregation.  There were instances of anti-Semitic graffiti in several locations in Majuro.  Christian parishioners reported feeling increased pressure to give more of their income to their church or face severe penalties from church leaders, including excommunication, if donation quotas were not met.

Embassy officials met with leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ,) Assembly of God, Seventh-day Adventist, and Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.  The Ambassador spoke at the Fourth Annual National Conference of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at in Majuro.  The organizers said the objective of the conference was to promote a better understanding of the Ahmadis as a peaceful and contributing element of society so as to reduce societal suspicion and promote greater freedom for the community.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, as well as for free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law, regardless of religious beliefs.  It also provides for “reasonable restrictions” imposed by law on the “time, place, or manner of conduct” – provided they are the least restrictive necessary for public peace, order, health, or security or the rights or freedoms of others, and they do not penalize conduct based on a disagreement with the ideas or beliefs expressed.  The constitution states no law or legal action shall discriminate against any person on the basis of religion.

The constitution allows the government to extend financial aid to religiously supported institutions to provide nonprofit educational, medical, or social services, on the condition that such services do not discriminate among religious groups.

There are no requirements for the registration of religious groups, but if religious groups register as a nonprofit corporation or a cooperative, they may qualify for tax exemptions.  The law states the tax on gross revenue shall not be applied to “corporations, associations, or societies organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, or educational purposes.”  In addition, the goods imported into the country by “churches for their own religious, educational, or charitable purposes” are exempt from import duty.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which established a presence in the 1990s and totals approximately 50-60 members, said its members continued to report difficulties in gaining access to government officials.  They said the government did not allow them to use the government International Conference Center for their events, whereas other religious denominations were granted permission to use the facility.  Ahmadis also reported not receiving prompt medical attention during visits to government hospitals when compared to other patients.

Governmental functions, by continuing custom, usually began and ended with an ordained minister or other church official delivering a Christian prayer.  While there was no religious education in public schools, most extracurricular school events began and ended with an interdenominational Christian prayer delivered by a minister.  According to local residents, prayers before and after events were a longstanding cultural practice and part of the widely accepted tradition of the country.

During the year, the government provided funding totaling $295,000 to 15 private religious schools.  All chartered private schools were eligible for funding.  The amount of funding religious schools received depended on how much was available after ensuring the basic needs of the public school system were covered first.  The distribution of allocations was based on a combination of enrollment, performance (test results), and accreditation.


Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state.  Only Muslims may be citizens.  In April the National Assembly voted to amend the penal code to remove the discretion of the courts in imposing death sentences for apostasy or blasphemy.  The amendment removed all references to repentance, essentially making the death penalty a mandatory sentence in both cases.  Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheytir, a blogger sentenced to death in 2014 for apostasy after he allegedly posted statements on social media critical of the Prophet Muhammad, hereditary slavery, and discrimination, remained detained in an unknown location, despite a 2017 appeals court decision that he be released.  On May 28, government authorities closed a Shia religious center, the Ali bin Abi Talib complex in Nouakchott’s Dar al-Na’im district, after which the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education (MIATE) confiscated the property.  In September authorities closed a religious training center and Abdallah Ibn Yasin University, a private Islamic studies graduate school, that had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamist political party, Tawasoul.  For the first time in the country’s history, the government accredited an ambassador of the Holy See to the country.  The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups as well as with foreign partners to combat extremism, radicalization, and terrorism through a series of workshops in all 15 provinces.

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

U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, such as the minister of Islamic affairs.  Embassy officials raised apostasy and religious freedom-related issues with authorities on multiple occasions and urged them to follow through on the court decision concerning Mkheytir.  The Ambassador and embassy officials hosted two iftars, during which they discussed religious tolerance with government officials and religious and civil society leaders.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizenry and the state.  Only Muslims may be citizens.  Persons who convert from Islam lose their citizenship.  The law and legal procedures derive from a combination of French civil law and sharia.  The judiciary consists of a single system of courts that uses principles of sharia mainly in matters concerning the family and secular legal principles in other matters.

The law prohibits apostasy.  The criminal code, as amended in April, requires a death sentence for any Muslim convicted of apostasy, although the government has never applied capital punishment in this regard.

The amended criminal code also treats blasphemy as a capital offense and subject to the death penalty.  The amendments remove the possibility that courts may take into account an individual’s repentance as a mitigating factor in determining the punishment for offenses related to blasphemy and apostasy.

The penal code stipulates that the penalty for unmarried individuals of any gender caught engaging in sexual activity is 100 lashes and imprisonment of up to one year.  The penalty for married individuals convicted of adultery is death by stoning, although the last such stoning occurred more than 30 years ago.  The penal code requires death by stoning for those convicted of consensual homosexual activity.  These punishments apply only to Muslims.

The government does not register Islamic religious groups, but all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including humanitarian and development NGOs affiliated with religious groups, must register with the Ministry of Interior.  Faith-based NGOs must also agree to refrain from proselytizing or otherwise promoting any religion other than Islam.  The law requires the Ministry of Interior to authorize in advance all group meetings, including non-Islamic religious gatherings and those held in private homes.

By law, the MIATE is responsible for enacting and disseminating fatwas, fighting “extremism,” promoting research in Islamic studies, organizing the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, and monitoring mosques.  The government also appoints the High Council for Fatwa and Administrative Appeals, which advises the government on conformity of legislation to Islamic precepts, and which has sole authority to regulate fatwa issuance and resolve related disputes among citizens and between citizens and public agencies.

The law requires members of the Constitutional Council and the High Council of Magistrates to take an oath of office that includes a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.

Public schools and private secondary schools, but not international schools, are required to provide four hours of Islamic instruction per week.  Religious instruction in Arabic is required for students seeking the baccalaureate.

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

Government Practices

On April 27, the National Assembly voted to amend Article 306 of the penal code to remove the discretion of the courts in imposing death sentences for apostasy and blasphemy.  The amendment removed all references to repentance, essentially making the death penalty a mandatory sentence for such crimes.  The government has never carried out a death sentence pursuant to Article 306 and has not carried out any death sentences since 1989.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheytir, a blogger sentenced to death in 2014 for apostasy after he allegedly posted statements on social media critical of the Prophet Muhammad, hereditary slavery, and discrimination, remained detained in an unknown location.  In November 2017, before passage of the amendment removing the courts’ discretion in sentencing under Article 306, an appeals court ordered that Mkheytir be freed after determining that he had repented and therefore was not subject to the death penalty.  During the year, Mkheytir had contact with his family and attorney and at least one visit from human rights officials.

On May 28, government authorities closed a Shia religious center, the Ali bin Abi Talib complex in Nouakchott’s Dar al-Na’im district, in what media sources said was an attempt to hinder public expressions of Shia Islam.  Government officials said a large quantity of Shia literature sent to the center was seized at the airport on the grounds that its dissemination was not authorized by the state.  Following the closure, the MIATE confiscated the property.

During the year, the government took a series of actions against the Islamist opposition political party, Tawasoul.  On September 24, after Tawasoul won 14 seats in the parliament to become the second-largest party overall and the dominant opposition party, authorities closed a religious training center led by Imam Cheikh Mohamed El Hassen Ould Dedew, the spiritual leader of the party.  On September 26, the government closed Abdallah Ibn Yasin University, a private Islamic studies graduate school also led by Dedew.  These actions were based on a 2017 law that imposes a criminal penalty of between one and five years in prison against anyone who speaks in a manner “contrary or hostile” to the dominant Maliki school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, which sources stated was generally regarded by citizens as endorsing a more tolerant interpretation of Islam than competing Sunni schools of thought.

Many NGOs, particularly those campaigning against slavery, reported that the government failed to register their organizations, leaving them vulnerable to government harassment.  Several international Christian NGOs reported they continued to operate successfully in the country.

The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Islamic religious groups and other foreign donors to combat extremism, radicalization, and terrorism through a series of workshops in all 15 provinces.  On March 18, the MIATE organized a scientific symposium entitled, “Scientists’ responsibilities to combat the phenomena of extremism and intellectual deviation.”  The Minister of MIATE, Ahmed Ould Ehel Daoud, opened the symposium, which the Grand Imam of Nouakchott and the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb attended.  On May 27, the MIATE organized a seminar on terrorism and extremism, emphasizing the causes and methods of treatment according to the “Mauritanian approach,” which is to fight terrorism based on interfaith dialogue.

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

Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize.  An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Muslim worship to the few recognized Christian churches.  There were Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Nouakchott, Kaedi, Atar, Nouadhibou, and Rosso.  Citizens could not attend non-Islamic religious services, which remained restricted to foreigners.  The Ministry of Interior did not act on requests by a group of foreign Protestant Christians for authorization to build their own place of worship in Nouakchott.  The group first sought authorization to construct a place of worship in 2006.  They renewed their efforts in 2012 and 2016, and were still awaiting approval at year’s end.

On October 23, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz accepted the credentials of Michael Banach as the nonresident Ambassador (Nuncio) of the Holy See to the country.  This marked the first time in the country’s history that the government accredited an ambassador from the Holy See.

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

The government continued to provide funding to mosques and Islamic schools under its control.  The government paid monthly salaries of 5,000 ouguiyas ($140) to 200 imams who passed an examination conducted by a government-funded panel of imams and heads of mosques and Islamic schools.  It also paid monthly salaries of 2,500-10,000 ouguiyas ($70-$280) to 30 members of the National Union of Mauritanian Imams, an authority established to regulate the relationship between the religious community and the MIATE.

Islamic classes remained part of the educational curriculum, but class attendance was not mandatory and not required for graduation.  The results in the classes did not count significantly in the national exams that determine further placement.  Additionally, many students reportedly did not attend these religious classes for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons.  The Ministry of National Education and the MIATE continued to reaffirm the importance of the Islamic education program at the secondary level.  In this regard, the government reportedly considered religious education a tool to protect children and society against extremism and to promote Islamic culture.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on creed and provides for the right of individuals to change, manifest, and propagate their religious beliefs.  The government grants subsidies to six religious groups:  Hindus, Roman Catholics, Muslims, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists, based on their relative numbers in the population.  Other groups must register with the government to obtain tax-exempt status but receive no subsidies.  Christians and Muslims continued to state they were underrepresented in the civil service and elsewhere in the government, including at the highest levels.

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims continued.  The Council of Religions, a local organization composed of representatives from 18 different faiths and denominations, hosted regular religious ceremonies and celebrations to foster mutual understanding and enhance interfaith collaboration among faith communities.

The embassy promoted religious tolerance and understanding through engagement with government officials.  Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including those affiliated with the Council of Religions.  The Charge d’Affaires hosted a dinner for Muslim civil society and religious leaders to highlight religious tolerance and emphasize ways to continue to foster interreligious tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on creed and provides for freedom of thought and religion, including the right of individuals to change, manifest, and propagate their religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice, and observance, alone or in community, in private or in public.  These rights may be subject to limitations to protect public order, safety, morality, health, or the rights of others.  The constitution also bars requiring oaths contrary to an individual’s religious belief and bars compulsory religious education or attendance at religious ceremonies in schools.  It gives religious groups the right to establish schools and provide religious instruction therein to members of that group; these institutions are open to the population in general as well.  Citizens may file complaints of religious discrimination with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which can initiate investigations if it believes a citizen’s rights may have been infringed.  Legislative election candidates must identify themselves as belonging to one of the four national communities cited in the constitution:  Hindus, Muslims, Sino-Mauritians, or the general population.

A parliamentary decree recognizes the six religious groups that were the main ones present prior to independence:  Hindus, Catholics, Muslims, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists.  These groups receive annual lump-sum payments from the finance ministry based on the number of their adherents as determined by the voluntary self-identification of individuals in the 2011 census.  The registrar of associations registers new religious groups, which must have a minimum of seven members with designated leadership responsibilities.  The finance ministry grants these new groups tax-exempt privileges.  Although registration of religious groups is required, the law does not prescribe penalties for unregistered groups.

Religious groups must obtain both residence and work permits for each foreign missionary.  The Prime Minister’s Office is the final authority on the issuance of these documents.  While there are no explicit restrictions, there are unofficial limits on the overall number of missionaries per religious group who are issued the requisite visas and work permits.  The government grants residence permits to missionaries for a maximum of three years with no extensions.

Religious education is allowed in public and private schools, at both the primary and secondary levels.  Students may opt out, and civic education classes are provided for non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools.

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

Government Practices

Some Christians and Muslims continued to state the predominance of Hindus in the civil service resulted in “interference” in the government promotion system and prevented Christians and Muslims from reaching higher-level positions in the civil service.  More generally, non-Hindus often stated they were underrepresented in government.  There were no reliable statistics available on the numbers of members of different religious groups represented in the civil service; however, according to the Truth and Justice Commission’s most recent report in 2011, civil service employment did not represent national ethnoreligious diversity.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees all persons religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship.  Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure allowing them to practice their own particular “uses and customs.”  The General Directorate for Religious Associations (DGAR) within the Interior Ministry (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups.  During the year, DGAR investigated 11 cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with six in 2017.  Government officials stated a continued wave of killings and attacks on Catholic priests reflected high levels of generalized criminal violence throughout the country rather than targeting for religious beliefs.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, said criminal groups targeted Catholic priests because communities viewed them as moral authority figures.  NGOs said criminal groups sought to remove these moral authority figures so communities would more likely overlook organized crime activities.  According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), in March community authorities in San Miguel Chiptic, Chiapas State, threatened three indigenous families for converting from Catholicism to the Seventh-day Adventist Church and later did significant damage to three of their properties.  Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church sought assistance from municipal and state authorities, who declined to intervene, according to CSW.  On May 23, local police in San Miguel Chiptic arrested two Seventh-day Adventist men for preaching beliefs other than Catholicism.  At year’s end, six families remained displaced and sheltered with other Seventh-day Adventist Church members in Chiapas.  Evangelical Protestant leaders continued to state local indigenous leaders pressured some evangelical Protestants in mainly rural and/or indigenous areas in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca to support financially and/or participate in Catholic cultural and religious events, and in some cases convert or return to Catholicism.  In September CSW reported representatives from Rancheria Yocnajab, located in the Comitan de Dominguez municipality of Chiapas, did not allow the burial of an evangelical Protestant in the community public cemetery because she had not participated in Catholic religious festivals.

The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) reported criminal groups continued targeting priests and other religious leaders in some parts of the country, which included killings, kidnappings, death threats, and extortion.  The CMC reported unidentified individuals killed seven priests and kidnapped another during the year, and in August asserted Mexico was the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 10th year in a row.  In March unidentified individuals detonated two homemade bombs in two Catholic churches in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.  CSW reported unidentified individuals killed four non-Catholic clergy.

U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government counterparts throughout the country to discuss concerns about violence toward religious leaders as well as reports of discrimination toward religious minorities in some communities.  Embassy officials met with members of religious groups and NGOs to gather details about specific cases.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution states all persons have the right to have or adopt the religion of their choosing, or not to have a religion.  This freedom includes the right to participate individually or collectively, both in public and in private, in ceremonies, devotions, and acts of worship, if they do not constitute an offense otherwise prohibited by law.  Philosophical freedoms of conscience and religion have equal treatment by the state.  Congress may not dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion.  Religious acts of public worship should be held in places of worship.  Individuals who conduct religious ceremonies outside of places of worship will be subject to regulatory law, which requires a permit to do so.

To establish a religious association, applicants must certify the church or other religious group observes, practices, propagates, or instructs a religious doctrine or body of religious beliefs; has conducted religious activities in the country for at least five years; has established domicile in the country; and shows sufficient assets to achieve its purpose.  Registered associations may freely organize their internal structures and adopt bylaws or rules pertaining to their governance and operations, including the training and appointment of their clergy.  They may engage in public worship and celebrate acts for the fulfillment of the association’s purpose lawfully and without profit.  They may propagate their doctrine in accordance with applicable regulations and participate in the creation, management, maintenance, and operation of private welfare, educational, and health institutions, provided the institutions are not for profit.

To operate, religious groups are not required to register with the government.  Registration is only required with DGAR to negotiate contracts, purchase or rent land, apply for official building permits, receive tax exemptions, or hold religious meetings outside of customary places of worship.  Religious associations must notify the government of their intention to hold a religious meeting outside their licensed place or places of worship.  Religious associations may not hold political meetings of any kind.

The federal government coordinates religious affairs through SEGOB.  Within SEGOB, DGAR promotes religious tolerance, conducts conflict mediation, and investigates cases of religious intolerance.  If a party presents a dispute based on allegations of religious intolerance, DGAR may mediate a solution.  If mediation fails, the parties may submit the issue to DGAR for binding arbitration or seek judicial redress.  Each of the 32 states has offices with responsibility for religious affairs.  The National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) is an autonomous federal agency responsible for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, including for minority religious groups.

As of September 28, there were 9,146 religious associations registered by DGAR, an increase from the 8,908 groups registered in 2017.  Registered groups included 9,106 Christian (an increase of 237 from 2017), 13 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, two Hindu, three Islamic, and two International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups.  Baha’is and Ahmadi Muslims remain unregistered.

The constitution states acts of public worship are to be performed inside places of worship.  Active clergy may not hold public office, advocate partisan political views, support political candidates, or publicly oppose the laws or institutions of the state.

The law guarantees prisoners dignified and equal treatment from prison staff without distinction based on religious preferences.

Religious groups must apply for permits to construct new buildings or convert existing buildings into houses of worship.  Any religious building constructed after January 27, 1992, is the property of the religious group that built it and is subject to the relevant taxes.  All religious buildings erected before then are considered part of the national patrimony and owned by the state.

The constitution requires that public education be secular and not include religious doctrine.  Religious groups may operate private schools that teach religion and hold religious ceremonies at their schools.  Private schools affiliated with a religious group are open to all students regardless of their religious beliefs.  Students in private schools are exempt from participating in religious courses and activities if the students are not affiliated with the school’s religious group.  Homeschooling is allowed at the secondary level after completion of schooling at an accredited primary school.

A visa category exists for foreign clergy and religious associates to obtain a temporary resident visa or visitor visa without permission to perform paid religious activities.

The law states religious groups may not own or operate radio or television stations.  Government permission is required for commercial radio or television to transmit religious programming.

The constitution grants indigenous communities the right to autonomy to “decide their internal forms of coexistence” and permits them to maintain separate legal systems for the resolution of conflicts within their communities.  The constitution also protects the right of indigenous leaders to practice their own particular uses and customs.  This right of self-governance for indigenous communities sometimes conflicts with other rights provided by the constitution, including freedom of religion, for members of those communities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The country claims the following constitutional limitations to the covenant:  a limitation (to Article 18) that religious acts must be performed in places of worship unless granted prior permission and a reservation (to Article 25) that religious ministers have neither a passive vote nor the right to form political associations.

Government Practices

According to CSW, community authorities in the indigenous community of San Miguel Chiptic, Chiapas, threatened three families on March 4 for converting from Catholicism to the Seventh-day Adventist faith, telling them if they did not renounce their faith, authorities would destroy their houses and expel them from the community.  On March 15, indigenous community members destroyed three buildings, toppling cement blocks that damaged all of the furniture and appliances inside the residences.  Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church sought assistance from municipal and state authorities, who, according to CSW, declined to intervene because of the constitution’s legal authorities granted to the indigenous community leadership.  On May 23, local indigenous authorities arrested two Seventh-day Adventist men for preaching beliefs differing from the community’s traditional Catholicism.  At year’s end, six families remained displaced and sheltered with other Church members in the municipality of Ocosingo, Chiapas.  Some Protestant groups continued to request the government amend the constitution or laws to permit a more vigorous governmental response to reports of abuse and discrimination in indigenous communities.

DGAR continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups, primarily evangelical Protestants.  DGAR investigated 11 cases related to religious freedom at the federal level during the year, compared with six in 2017.  Four of these cases occurred in the state of Oaxaca, three in Hidalgo, and one each in Puebla and Chiapas.  According to DGAR, most incidents of religious discrimination should have been filed with the state government, as the federal government lacked jurisdiction.  Municipal and state officials commonly mediated disputes among religious groups.  Some groups said officials rarely pursued legal punishments against offending local leaders, preferring instead to reach informal mediated solutions.  The groups said there were insufficient resources devoted to federal and state agencies that work on religious freedom.

According to CSW, local indigenous authorities in the indigenous community of Rancho Nuevo, Hidalgo, illegally detained five members of the Christ Is Coming Protestant Church.  Unidentified individuals reportedly removed four men from a church service on March 3, tied them up, and held them until just after noon on the following day.  A fifth victim was taken from his home on the following day and held with the others.  The unidentified individuals reportedly beat them and forced them to pay a fine for their “religious beliefs.”

NGOs and some religious organizations continued to state that a number of rural and indigenous communities expected inhabitants, regardless of their faith, to participate in and fund traditional community religious gatherings, and in some cases adhere to the majority religion.

According to media reports, in March local authorities expelled three evangelical Protestant families from their indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas, for practicing a religion other than Catholicism.  According to the reports, the children in these families were not allowed to return to school, the adults could not return to work, and the community leaders destroyed their homes with all their belongings still inside.  The municipal government had not responded to complaints from the families by year’s end.

According to the NGO Impulso 18, the indigenous community authority in Coamila, Hidalgo, closed a small school of 16 students in August because the students’ parents were evangelical Protestants who refused to let their children participate in local festivities that violated their religious beliefs.  The families filed a complaint with DGAR.  The Hidalgo State Commission of Human Rights opened a complaint on behalf of the students.  On September 25, state education authorities stated the students were welcome to attend and reopen the school and said many parents decided to keep their children out of school because of social tensions arising from their refusal to contribute to community festivals associated with Catholic holidays.

Evangelical Protestants again cited cases in which those refusing to participate in Catholic festivities, or in some cases to convert to Catholicism, faced forcible displacement from their communities, experienced arbitrary detention by local authorities, or had property destroyed by community leaders.  In September CSW reported representatives from Rancheria Yocnajab, located in the Comitan de Dominguez municipality of Chiapas, did not allow the burial of an evangelical Protestant in the community public cemetery because she had not participated in Catholic religious festivals and the local indigenous community restricted the cemetery’s use to Catholic burials.

On August 15, the Supreme Court ruled a child in Chihuahua with leukemia must be given blood transfusions despite the parents’ religious objections due to their religious beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  After receiving input from doctors and the parents, state officials took custody of the girl to provide proper medical attention, including transfusions.  The Supreme Court later ruled in favor of the state’s actions to protect the life of the child.

According to DGAR, the federal government continued to promote dialogue with religious actors with the stated goal to ensure the exercise of religious freedom and help resolve conflicts involving religious intolerance.  Between 2011 and 2017, CONAPRED reported 67 complaints of alleged acts of religious discrimination, and another five filed in 2018.  In July a Tijuana hospital refused to perform surgery on a Jehovah’s Witness because of his religious objection to receiving blood transfusions if required, a hospital requirement for the procedure he requested.

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