On August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul, declaring the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate” throughout the country. On September 7, the Taliban announced an interim “caretaker government” made up exclusively of male Taliban members. On September 22, the Taliban expanded its interim “caretaker government,” adding some representatives of religious and ethnic minority groups including Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Nuristani, and Khawaja, but no women. By year’s end, the U.S. government had not yet made a decision as to whether to recognize the Taliban or any other entity as the Government of Afghanistan or as part of such a government.
Following their takeover in August, the Taliban did not establish a clear and cohesive legal framework, judicial system, or enforcement mechanisms. The Taliban conveyed that those laws enacted under the former government of Afghanistan that were in effect prior to their takeover remained in effect unless the laws violated sharia. Taliban leaders issued decrees specifying acceptable behaviors under their interpretation of sharia, but variously described them as “guidelines” or “recommendations” and unevenly enforced them. Press reports following the Taliban takeover raised fears the group would consider Christian converts as apostates. These reports, combined with statements from some Taliban leaders starting in August reserving the right to enforce harsh punishments for violations of the group’s strict interpretation of sharia, drove some Christian converts into deeper hiding, according to International Christian Concern, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on persecution of Christian communities. At year’s end, there were no reports of Taliban representatives having directed sharia-related punishments. According to Amnesty International, Taliban fighters killed 13 Shia Hazaras in Daykundi Province on August 31; the Taliban denied the allegations. In November and December, the Taliban detained 28 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Kabul. According to members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the Taliban falsely accused them of belonging to ISIS-Khorasan (an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, also known as ISIS-K). The Taliban held 18 of them through year’s end. The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW)reported the Taliban expelled Shia Hazara members from their homes in several provinces in October, in part to redistribute land to Taliban supporters. In August, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that the group would respect the rights of members of religious minority groups, including Shia Hazaras. On November 16, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told the press, “We are providing a safe and secure environment for everyone, especially the Hazaras.” Both prior to and immediately following the Taliban takeover, predominantly Shia Hazara communities expressed fear the Ashraf Ghani administration and the Taliban lacked the ability to protect them from violence and discrimination. According to Hazara community and NGO representatives, Shia Hazaras continued to face longstanding and widespread discrimination by Ghani government officials in public service delivery, public sector hiring, and other areas before August 15.After the Taliban takeover, Taliban leaders publicly pledged to protect the rights of Sikhs and Hindus, although some Sikhs and Hindus reported they had ceased to congregate at their gurdwaras (places of worship), and others sought to resettle abroad due to fear of violent attacks by the Taliban and ISIS-K. In November and December, high level Taliban representatives held meetings with leaders of Shia, Sikh, and Hindu communities, reportedly to offer protection and improve relations. According to community representatives, in these meetings the Taliban laid out rules for the behavior of women, forbade the playing of music, and presented restrictions on businesses owned by minority religious group members. Some Hazara political figures expressed continued concern over the Taliban’s commitment to support freedom of worship but commented that this engagement represented a shift from the Taliban’s approach between 1996 and 2001. According to civil society groups, at year’s end, approximately 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 400 at the start of the year. The Taliban closed the Ministry for Women’s Affairs in September, announcing the reconstituted Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, charged with enforcing the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia, would be housed in the same building. While enforcement varied by province and district, local Taliban representatives enforced decrees on gender segregation, women’s dress and head covering, men’s facial hair, unaccompanied women, and music. On December 3, Taliban “Supreme Leader” Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a decree stating that women should not be considered property and must consent to marriage. Media reported the Taliban framed the decree as a call to adhere to broader Islamic law on women’s rights. Some observers praised the decree; others said it did not go far enough because it did not mention a woman’s right to work or to access education and other public services.
the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (ISIS-K claimed responsibility. ISIS-K also conducted such attacks against other groups. In total, for the first six months of the year, 20 incidents targeted the Shia Hazara community resulting in 143 killed and 357 injured, compared with 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other anti-government elements in 2020. According to UNAMA, during the second half of the year, attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS-K increased and expanded beyond the movement’s previous areas of focus in Kabul and the eastern part of the country. Between August 19 and December 31, the United Nations recorded 152 attacks by the group in 16 provinces, compared with 20 attacks in five provinces during the same period in 2020. In addition to targeting the Taliban, ISIS-K also targeted civilians, in particular Shia minorities, in urban areas. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on two Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar cities on October 8 and 15. On October 8, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 70 to 80 members of the Hazara community at a mosque in Kunduz. On October 15, a suicide bomber attack targeting the largest Shia mosque in Kandahar, the Fatima Mosque (also known as the Imam Bargah Mosque), killed more than 50 worshippers and injured at least 100. Two December 10 attacks in western Kabul targeting a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood remained unclaimed at year’s end. Prior to the Taliban takeover, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities. According to the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), over the last two decades, the Taliban and other extremist groups had killed 527 religious scholars, including approximately 50 Sunni and Shia religious leaders killed between February 2020 and July 2021. Prior to their August takeover and as previous years, the Taliban killed and issued death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. Taliban fighters killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country, and the Taliban warned mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for Ghani administration security officials. On May 8, unidentified individuals detonated a car bomb in front of the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in a predominantly Shia Hazara community, killing at least 85 civilians and injuring another 216. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. According to press interviews in October, Shia Hazaras struggled to take what some characterized as a “life or death” risk to go to mosque on Fridays.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Sunni Muslim minority groups continued to report that some Sunni Muslims verbally harassed them, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public prior to August 15. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians continued to live in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted to or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately and in small groups, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. Prior to the Taliban takeover in August, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, which they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations on August 31. In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence. On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar. The U.S. delegation expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.” After August 31, the U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the so-called Taliban Political Commission in Doha, Qatar, through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit. efore the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities. To enhance the Ghani administration’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism and foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) and MOHRA, among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and NGOs, to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.5 million (midyear 2021). According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 80-85 percent of the population, and Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, together constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 400 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most members of the Sikh and Hindu communities are in Kabul, with smaller numbers in Ghazni and other provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the country numbers in the hundreds. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions. There are no known Jews in the country, following the departure of the country’s last known remaining Jew after the Taliban takeover.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religion and ethnicity in the country were often closely linked. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated that prior to the Taliban takeover, they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions.
According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. They said fears of violent societal repression had further increased since the Taliban takeover.
According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution, including harassment from neighbors and coworkers. They also said that following the Taliban takeover in August, relatives and neighbors who were aware of their identities were more likely to treat them harshly or report them to the Taliban, whether out of self-preservation or to curry favor with the Taliban.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, women of several different faiths, including Sunni and Shia Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. Clerics in numerous provinces preached that woman must wear modest dress and that the faithful should publicly enforce a strict implementation of sharia law. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts in urban areas, including in Kabul, before the Taliban takeover, in contrast to other more secure, Ghani administration-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and to increase their security in public. Prior to the Taliban takeover, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, considered by the religious leaders to be inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. Following the Taliban takeover, media reported instances of local Muslim religious leaders becoming more prohibitive of such activities.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, Ahmadiyya Muslims said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadiyya Muslims reported an increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community said they were able to intermittently perform weekly congregational prayer at a nondescript location in Kabul. According to international Ahmadiyya Muslim organizations with close ties to Ahmadi Muslims in the country, following the Taliban takeover, fear of persecution by the Taliban and its sympathizers had driven community members to refrain from worship at their center in Kabul. Approximately 100 Ahmadi Muslims departed the country in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover. As of year’s end, hundreds remained in country. Ahmadi Muslims said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadi Muslim representatives said they did not initially report or publicize these threats because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from Taliban representatives.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, Christian representatives reported public opinion, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches. Following the Taliban takeover, Christians described raids by Taliban on the homes of Christian converts even after they had fled the country or moved out. Christian sources stated the Taliban takeover emboldened intolerant relatives to threaten them with violence and inform on converts should they continue their practice of Christianity.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, some Sikhs and Hindus had refused to send their children to public schools because other students harassed their children, although only a few private school options were available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. According to community members, since the Taliban takeover, the small number of remaining Sikh and Hindu children did not attend school due to school closures related to COVID-19 and inclement winter weather.
Until the Taliban takeover, Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone known Jew departed Afghanistan in late August, saying he feared the Taliban would be unable to protect him from an ISIS-K attack.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, NGOs reported some Muslims remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
On August 31, the U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations.
In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence. On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar. U.S. government officials expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.” U.S. representatives also expressed concern over the status of religious minorities in a meeting with senior Taliban representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan, in December. The U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the “Taliban Political Commission” in Doha after August 31 through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit.
Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and its importance as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials promoted understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, senior embassy officials engaged leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities in June to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith freely.
Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to promote cooperation with ulema councils and emphasize the potential strong impact international Islamic scholars could have on moderating the Taliban. The embassy coordinated with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity. While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, the embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On May 20, the Ambassador, responding to a Taliban-attributed attack in Ghor in which three Hazara shopkeepers were killed, condemned via Twitter the Taliban’s and ISIS-K’s targeting of Hazaras. This followed the Ambassador’s condemnation of the May 8 attack on a Kabul girls’ school in a Hazara community that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 persons.
Following the Taliban takeover, the United States continued to support the Afghan people. The United States remained committed to providing humanitarian assistance and basic needs support to the Afghan people and continued to advocate for the need to respect the human rights, including religious freedom, of all Afghans through its engagements with the Taliban.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Ten of 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. Four state governments have laws imposing penalties against so-called forced religious conversions for the purpose of marriage although some state high courts have dismissed cases charged under this law. In August, two Muslim men from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand State filed a complaint against local police alleging that seven police officers sexually abused them during interrogation and used anti-Islamic slurs. According to media, police took no action on the complaint by year’s end. Police made several arrests during the year under laws that restrict religious conversion, and several state governments announced plans to strengthen existing legislation or develop new legislation restricting religious conversion. According to the United Christian Forum (UCF), a Christian rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), in the period between January and June, 29 Christians were arrested in three states on suspicion of forceful or fraudulent religious conversions under the laws restricting religious conversions in those states. Some NGOs reported that the government failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities. A faith-based NGO stated in its annual report that out of 112 complaints of violence filed by Christian victims from January to August, police filed official reports (First Information Report or FIR) in 25 cases. There were no updates on these cases by the end of the year. Police arrested non-Hindus for making comments in the media or on social media that were considered offensive to Hindus or Hinduism. NGOs, including faith-based organizations, continued to criticize 2020 amendments passed to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) as constraining civil society by reducing the amount of foreign funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, could use for administrative purposes and adding onerous oversight and certification requirements. The government continued to say the law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country. According to media reports, FCRA licenses of 5,789 NGOs, including hundreds of faith-based organizations, lapsed after the government said the organizations did not apply for renewal in time. In addition, during the year the government suspended FCRA licenses of 179 NGOs, including some that were faith-based. The states of Assam and Karnataka enacted legislation imposing strict penalties for killing cattle; 25 of 28 states now have similar restrictions. The most recent National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) report, Crime in India for 2020, released in September, said that the violence in New Delhi in February 2020 following passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) resulted from a “feeling of discrimination” among the Muslim community. During the year, Delhi courts acquitted some of those arrested on charges related to the protests and convicted one Hindu participant. Various courts criticized the Delhi police for inadequate investigation of the protests. Politicians made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts about religious minorities. For example, Madan Kaushik, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttarakhand State, told the media in October that “Our party line is clear that no [religious] conversion [from Hinduism] will be tolerated.” In May, the Assam government removed theological content from the curriculum of more than 700 state-run madrassahs and state-run Sanskrit schools, which converted them into regular public schools. Analysts indicated that madrassahs were impacted in greater numbers.
Attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults, and intimidation, occurred throughout the year. These included incidents of “cow vigilantism” against non-Hindus based on allegations of cow slaughter or trade in beef. According to the UCF, the number of violent attacks against Christians in the country rose to 486 during the year from 279 in 2020. According to Catholic news agency Agenzia Fides, Hindus committed 13 instances of violence and threats against Christian communities in Uttarakhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi. According to UCF, most of the incidents were reported in states ruled by the BJP and included attacks on pastors, disruption of worship services, and vandalism. The NGOs United Against Hate, the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, and UCF released a joint report that noted more than 500 incidents of violence against Christians reported to UCF’s hotline during the year. Suspected terrorists targeted and killed civilians and migrants from the Hindu and Sikh minorities, including Hindu migrant laborers from Bihar, in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. As of December, alleged terrorists had killed 39 civilians including two schoolteachers from the Hindu and Sikh communities. According to media reports, the killings caused widespread fear among Hindus and Sikhs in the Kashmir valley, leading hundreds of migrants to depart Jammu and Kashmir. There were reports of vandalism against Muslim facilities during the year, including by Hindu nationalist groups damaging mosques, shops, and houses belonging to the Muslim community across Tripura State in October. Media reports said these attacks occurred in retaliation for attacks on minority Hindus in Bangladesh during the Durga Puja festival in that country. A mob killed four Muslim men on June 20 in Tripura on suspicion of cattle smuggling. On June 21, suspected cow vigilantes killed Muslim Aijaz Dar in Rajouri District of Jammu and Kashmir. Cow vigilantes allegedly killed Babu Bheel, a member of a Rajasthan tribal community, on June 14. Religious leaders, academics, and activists made inflammatory remarks about religious minorities. During a Hindu religious gathering in Hardiwar, Uttarakhand State, December 17-19, Yati Narasinghanand Saraswati, described as a Hindu religious extremist, called upon Hindus to “take up weapons against Muslims” and “wage a war against Muslims.” On December 21, police named Narasinghanand and seven others for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings” in multiple FIRs; police arrested Narasinghanand a few weeks later, although he was subsequently released on bail. The others had not been arrested by year’s end. The Pew Research study on “Religion in India” released in July noted that most Indians valued religious tolerance but preferred living religiously segregated lives. Eighty-nine percent of Muslims and Christians surveyed said they were “very free to practice their own religion” but 65 percent of Hindus and Muslims said they believed communal violence between religious groups was “a problem” for the country. Freedom House downgraded the country’s ranking from “free” to “partly free” during the year in part due to policies described as advancing Hindu nationalist objectives.
During the year, U.S. embassy officials, including the Chargés d’Affaires, engaged with members of parliament, politicians from multiple political parties, religious leaders, representatives of faith-based organizations, and civil society members to discuss the importance of religious freedom and the responsibility of democracies to ensure the rights of religious minorities. During engagements with political parties, civil society representatives, religious freedom activists, and leaders of various faith communities, U.S. government officials discussed the importance of religious freedom and pluralism; the value of interfaith dialogue, and the operating environment for faith-based NGOs. Throughout the year, the Chargés d’Affaires met with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh faiths to discuss their perspectives and views on religious freedom issues. In May, the embassy organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan to emphasize the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom and interfaith harmony. In July, the Secretary of State, during his visit to the country, addressed the importance of freedom of religion and belief in his opening remarks and held a roundtable with diverse faith leaders to discuss inclusive development.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2021). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute fewer than 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. In government statistics, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially identifies as Hindus more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice indigenous religious beliefs – although an estimated 10 million of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members are Christians according to the 2011 census.
According to government estimates, there are large Muslim populations in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, and the Union Territories of Lakshadweep and Jammu and Kashmir. In Lakshadweep and Jammu and Kashmir, Muslims account for 95 percent and 68.3 percent of the population, respectively. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims are Sunni, with the remainder mostly Shia. According to media reports during the year, there are an estimated 150,000 Ahmadi Muslims in the country. According to government estimates, Christian populations are distributed throughout the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three northeastern states have majority Christian populations: Nagaland (90 percent), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of the population of Punjab. The Dalai Lama’s office states there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, and Uttarakhand States, and Delhi. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. According to media reports, approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country. UNHCR estimated it received 1,800 requests for refugee registration since August 2021 and projects it will receive 3,500-5,000 refugee registration requests by the end of 2022.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as religiously based restrictions on access to public or private establishments. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits the use of public funds to support any religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Federal law empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunal tensions, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate laws governing foreign contributions.
Ten of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh States prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” including marriage “with the intention of conversion” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha States maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” which would include the provision of any gifts, promises of a better life, free education, and other standard charitable activities, and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha State requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government. The notification procedures state that police must ascertain if there are objections to the conversion. Any person may object. Four state governments have laws imposing penalties against “forced” religious conversions for the purpose of marriage (Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Madhya Pradesh), although some state high courts have dismissed cases charged under this law. By year’s end, four other state governments announced plans to enact similar legislative measures: Haryana, Karnataka, Gujarat, and Assam. Since March, Madhya Pradesh has required prior permission from a district official to convert to a spouse’s faith in case of interfaith marriage, has permitted the annulment of a fraudulent marriage, and set the penalties for violators at a prison term of up to 10 years without bail and fines up to 100,000 rupees ($1,300).
Violators, including missionaries, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if converts are minors, women, or members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. on freedom of religion in April, Gujarat also imposes sentences of between three and 10 years in prison and fines of up to 50,000 rupees ($670) for forcible or fraudulent religious conversions through marriage. In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment, fines of 25,000 rupees ($340), or both.
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and their members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funding, in which case they must register under the FCRA. Federal law requires NGOs, including religious organizations, registered under the FCRA to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
Organizations conducting “cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” that receive foreign funding are required to obtain a license under the FCRA. The central government may also require that licensed organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject a license application or a request to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be acting against “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
NGOs, including religious organizations, may use 20 percent of their funding for administrative purposes and are prohibited from transferring foreign funds to any other organization or individual.
The constitution states that any legal reference to Hindus is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Jains, but it identifies the groups as separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.
Federal law provides official minority status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status under state law to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region. Members of recognized minority groups are eligible for government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government is responsible for protecting religious minorities and enabling them to preserve their culture and religious interests.
Personal status laws establish civil codes for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national and state legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If law boards or community leaders are not able to resolve disputes, cases are referred to the civil courts.
Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are generally required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment, although this requirement varies across states. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages but does not include divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For example, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.
Twenty-five of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that traditionally consume beef. In most of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, penalties include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($13-$130). Since August, when the Assam state government enacted new legislation, penalties have included minimum imprisonment of three years or a fine between 300,000 and 500,000 rupees ($4,000-$6,700) or both, without being eligible for bail prior to trial, for slaughtering, consuming, or transporting cattle. Since February, the slaughter of all cattle, except for buffalo older than age 13, has been illegal in Karnataka, with violators subject to imprisonment of between three and seven years and penalties between 500,000 and 1,000,000 rupees ($6,700-$13,500). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. Gujarat state law mandates a minimum 10-year sentence and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.
One state, Madhya Pradesh, imposes fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($340-$670) and prison sentences of six months to three years for “cow vigilantism,” i.e., committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the only law of its kind in the country.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These agencies have no enforcement powers but conduct investigations based on written complaints of criminal or civil violations and submit findings to law enforcement agencies. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution establishes the legal basis for preferential public benefit programs for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities and members of the “Other Backward Classes,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. The constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists are eligible to be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste. As a result, Christians and Muslims qualify for benefits if deemed to be members of “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On September 26, a 14-year-old Christian boy in the Gaya District of Bihar died at a hospital in Patna after perpetrators threw acid on him, according to media reports. The family members said police did not register a complaint despite threats to the family by Hindu groups and local individuals. The boy’s father, Vakil Ravidas, had adopted Christianity with his family five years earlier and, according to family members, local community members threatened and warned them against attending church. Police told media the boy died by self-immolation due to a familial dispute, a claim the victim’s family denied. Media reported the family signed a consent letter declaring they did not want to pursue the matter with police or the courts.
According to media reports, two Muslim men from Jamshedpur in Jharkhand stated that during an interrogation on August 26 police used anti-Muslim slurs, forced them to strip naked at a city police station, and pressured them to have sexual intercourse with each other. When they refused, they said they were “beaten and threatened to be sent to Afghanistan.” Police released them the same day. The men said they were called to the police station for questioning in connection with an alleged kidnapping case involving a Muslim man and a Hindu woman who had eloped. They said seven police personnel, including the station officer in charge, sexually abused them. The officer in charge denied the allegation. On August 27, the two men — Mohammad Arzoo and Mohammad Aurangzeb — filed a complaint with Jamshedpur police that they were tortured by seven police personnel. According to a media report, no action was taken against the accused police officers by year’s end.
The government did not release data on communal violence during the year. Government data from 2020 reported a large increase in communal violence compared to 2019, largely due to the February 2020 violence and protests following passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The CAA provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered the country on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly situated Muslims, Jews, members of other faiths, and atheists from these three countries were not included. The government argued the law was necessary to provide protections for religious minorities from those countries.
The National Crimes Record Bureau reported 857 instances of communal violence in 2020 compared to 438 in 2019. According to both media and the Crime in India for 2020 report, released in September, police arrested 1818 individuals throughout 2020 for the protests in Northeast Delhi. The report said that 53 persons including two security personnel were killed in the protests, and 581 individuals, including 108 police personnel, were injured. Of those killed, 35 were Muslim and 18 Hindu. Of those arrested, 956 were Muslim and 868 Hindu. By the end of the year, 1204 individuals remained in jail, 544 individuals had been released on bail, various courts in Delhi were processing 250 outstanding criminal complaints, and Delhi police were investigating an additional 350 criminal complaints related to the riots. Those numbers continued to fluctuate due to the ongoing hearings. The first conviction was a Hindu male in December for setting a Muslim resident’s house on fire as part of a mob.
The Crime in India for 2020 report said the riots resulted from the Muslim community’s “feeling of discrimination” due to the NRC and the CAA, and certain groups with “vested interests capitalized on this feeling and further aroused the sentiments of this community against the central government.” The Assam State government published its NRC in 2018 to define citizenship, and any Assamese resident who did not appear on the list would need to go before the Foreigners’ Tribunal, a quasi-judicial body, which would declare them a foreigner or citizen. An estimated one-third of Assam’s 33 million residents are Muslim. The Muslim community and media expressed concern that the NRC, a proposed list of all citizens being implemented only in the state of Assam, coupled with the national CAA, could result in Muslims being determined to be “illegal immigrants” and detained or deported. None had been deported by the end of the year.
Opposition parties and civil society members continued to criticize the probe into the riot cases and accused Delhi police of targeting minorities, a charge Delhi police and the national Home Ministry (responsible for police oversight) denied. In a press conference on September 13, several prominent civil society members and activists said Delhi police were responsible for “derailing” the probe and demanded release of individuals arrested for the rioting or protesting against the CAA. Various courts also criticized the Delhi police for inadequate investigation of the riots, which Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists said reflected police anti-Muslim bias, while deflecting the investigation away from those responsible. A lower court in Delhi imposed a fine of 25,000 rupees ($340) on the Delhi police for “callous” investigation into the case of one man who said police shot him in the eye during the riots. The judge said the police had “miserably failed” their duty in that case. The Delhi High Court stayed the fine but upheld the lower court judge’s criticism of the riot investigation. Critical court rulings led to the Delhi police setting up a Special Investigation Cell to monitor progress of the Delhi riots investigation.
During the year, Delhi courts released some of those arrested during the 2020 riots. In July, for example, a court dropped charges against a Hindu man who was held for over a year in pretrial custody after being accused of joining a mob that burned and looted a shop the mob thought was Muslim-owned, according to media reports.
The case against activist and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid, a Muslim, who told a court in 2020 he had spent time in solitary confinement after being arrested during the riots, remained ongoing at year’s end and he remained in custody. Media reported that during a bail hearing, Khalid’s lawyer argued the police officer who originally filed charges against his client had been influenced by the communal tension during the riots and the charges were fabricated. In September, prominent civil society groups demanded Khalid’s release, describing him a “defender of human rights” and a “peace activist.”
By year’s end, the government had not enacted rules to implement the CAA, and the Supreme Court had not heard any of the more than 100 legal challenges to the act.
Christians and Muslims were charged during the year under laws restricting conversions, and some state governments announced plans to strengthen existing legislation or develop new legislation.
Media reported Madhya Pradesh police filed 21 cases against 47 individuals and arrested 15 Muslims and six Christians between March and June for violations of the state’s law restricting conversions. In 15 of the 21 cases, rape and molestation charges were added.
On March 8, a law went into effect in Madhya Pradesh that increased the penalties for forced religious conversion through marriage or any other fraudulent means. The law requires prior notice to a district official, to which any person may object, to convert to the spouse’s faith. The law also permits the annulment of a fraudulent marriage and increases the penalty for violators from a two-year prison term with bail possible to a term of up to 10 years without bail and fines that can exceed 100,000 rupees ($1,300). Legal expert Sanjay Hegde said the state laws against conversion let the mobs have the final say. “If you are born in a religion, you can’t change your religion, without the State’s consent,” said Hegde. “These laws try to control women, rather than marriage, and assume that the women don’t have any agency of their own,” Hegde added.
According to the Christian NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), on January 11, Azad Prem Singh, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad Hindu nationalist group, sent a memorandum to the Jhabua District administrative head in Madhya Pradesh demanding a ban of all churches in tribal areas. Singh said Christians were fraudulently mass converting individuals to Christianity. “In the past 70 years, Christian missionaries have converted gullible indigenous people to Christianity and built churches specifically on protected tribal land,” Singh said. “All the illegally built churches should be shut down immediately and action should be taken against all priests and pastors involved in the process.” In the memorandum, Singh gave the local government 30 days to meet his demands and threatened to use violence if they were not met. The state government did not agree to Singh’s demand to ban all churches in tribal areas. The police continued to arrest Christians on charges of forced or induced conversion in the region, according to Christian community members. On December 25, police arrested three persons, including a Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor, at Bicholi village in Jhabua District for allegedly luring tribal villagers into Christianity by offering free education and treatment in missionary-run schools and the hospital, media reported. In September, the Christian community in Jhabua wrote to the district authorities and President Ram Nath Kovind complaining of attacks and false accusations by the various Hindu nationalist affiliates of the BJP and the Hindu nationalist organization RSS.
In Uttar Pradesh, between November 2020 and November 2021, police filed 148 cases against 359 persons for violating laws restricting conversion. According to state police records, the police completed investigations in 113 cases and filed charges in 90, but media reported that no case had been decided by the courts in Uttar Pradesh by year’s end. Media reported that 72 of the 359 had charges dropped against them for lack of evidence. According to a faith-based NGO, between June and September, at least 71 Christian leaders were arrested in Uttar Pradesh after Hindu nationalists accused them of carrying out illegal conversions.
In June, the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested Muslim clerics Mohammad Umar Gautam and Mufti Qazi Jahagir Alam Qasmi for performing illegal conversions. Police told media the two had been running a “huge conversion racket.” The ATS later arrested eight more individuals whom police said were performing conversions at the Islamic Dawah Centre by offering “education, marriage, and jobs” to poor people. According to media reports, eight of those arrested, including the two clerics, were charged in September with “illegal conversions” and “waging war against India.”
On October 7, the Uttar Pradesh ATS arrested a Muslim man in connection with his activities as a member of a WhatsApp group that encouraged individuals to convert to Islam. ATS told media that the man had been involved in illegal conversion activities since 2016 and that he and others “spread religious hatred” by inducing people to convert to Islam.
On October 10, seven Protestant pastors in Mau District in Uttar Pradesh were taken into judicial custody pending a police investigation after being arrested on charges of unlawful religious conversions.
In March, Uttar Pradesh police detained two nuns and two postulants from the Sacred Heart convent of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala after Hindu activists riding with them on a passenger train said the nuns were forcibly converting the postulants to Christianity, according to media reports. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s (EFI) report covering January-June, police immediately arrested the four and took them to the local police station followed by a crowd of 150 “religious radicals.” The police released the four after five hours of questioning and did not press charges. In a statement, the Church said the four continued their journey with police protection.
In January, according to the EFI report, police in Malkangiri District of Odisha arrested Raja Kartami for violating the state’s conversion restriction laws following a complaint from his Hindu in-laws that he was forcing his wife to become a Christian. As of year’s end, Kartami was in jail awaiting trial.
In August, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Khattar announced that the state would consider drafting legislation to stop forced religious conversions in response to incidents of “love jihad” (a derogatory term referring to Muslim men seeking to marry women from other faiths to convert them to Islam). Such legislation had not been introduced by year’s end.
On September 21, Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra announced that his government would propose legislation to prevent forced religious conversions in the state. Following this announcement, a delegation of Karnataka-based Catholic bishops, led by Archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado, met with state Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai to discuss the proposed legislation. The delegation expressed concern, should the legislation become law, about the potential misuse of the law to falsely accuse the Christian community of engaging in forced conversions. On December 23, the Karnataka State Legislative Assembly passed the “anti-unlawful conversion bill,” which would prohibit forced religious conversion in the state. At year’s end, the bill was pending approval by the State Legislative Council.
In October, the Uttarakhand government stated it intended to amend existing law and empower police to register cases based on allegations of forced religious conversion. The existing state law requires such allegations to be handled directly by the courts. Madan Kaushik, the BJP’s president in Uttarakhand, told media in October that “Our party’s line is clear that no conversion will be tolerated.” A civil rights attorney in the state expressed concern that such a change in the law could lead to abuse. She said, “A citizen is somewhat protected if the court hears the complaint and proceeds with the matter. However, if the state police are given the power to register FIRs [in forced conversion cases], there is no protection from misuse.”
In February, the Supreme Court declined to hear petitions from NGOs and activists challenging the constitutionality of the conversion restriction laws in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, deferring the challenges first to the respective state high courts.
On June 21, Gujarat police arrested a Muslim man for forcibly marrying a Hindu woman. Police said the man was in violation of the state’s freedom of religion law, which had been amended in April to increase penalties for forced marriages. According to media reports, after the victim’s mother filed a missing person complaint, Gujarat police opened an investigation and determined that the man, who was already married, kidnapped the woman and forced her to marry him. Media also reported that the woman said the man raped her and threatened to harm her family if she did not marry. The Muslim man was charged with kidnapping, rape, and criminal intimidation. Investigation on the case continued at the end of the year.
On April 1, Gujarat government amended legislation enacted in 2003 on freedom of religion to explicitly prohibit the use of fraudulent marriage to convert partners of different religions. The law’s preamble stated the amendment aimed to reduce the “emerging trend” of coerced religious conversion of women. On August 19, the Gujarat High Court suspended seven provisions of the state’s amended freedom of religion law, stating an interfaith marriage by itself cannot be treated as a forceful or “unlawful conversion by deceit or allurement.” On August 26, the state government asked that the suspension of those provisions be annulled; the High Court rejected the request. On December 14, the Gujarat government challenged the stay in the Supreme Court; there was no ruling by the end of the year.
On October 13, the Gujarat High Court granted bail to all seven individuals arrested in the state’s first case under the amended freedom of religion law. The case involved a Hindu woman who filed forced conversion charges against her Muslim husband, five of his Muslim family members, and the officiant at their wedding; all of whom were arrested on June 18. On August 5, the woman filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court to retract her complaint, stating the police had “twisted” her complaint into a case of forced religious conversion, rape, and other charges. According to the police report, her Muslim husband had claimed to be Christian before their wedding and, once they were married, the family pressured the wife to convert to Islam. Police dropped the case after the woman retracted her complaint.
In September, media reported the MHA had suspended the FCRA licenses of six NGOs, including two Christian evangelical groups and one Islamic charity in Kerala, citing FCRA violations. In December, the MHA stated that FCRA licenses of 5,789 NGOs had lapsed because they did not apply for renewal in time. Media reported that hundreds of these NGOs were faith-based. The MHA also stated that it had denied FCRA renewal to 179 NGOs during the year, including Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. The MHA reversed the denial several weeks later. The original MHA announcement of the action cited unnamed “adverse inputs” against the NGO. Some media reports noted that the government decision came days after police filed a complaint against the director of a children’s home run by the Missionaries of Charity in Gujarat state for attempting to convert young girls to Christianity although the Ministry of Home Affairs did not attribute a linkage between the two events.
NGOs, including faith-based organizations, continued to criticize the requirements of the FCRA as constraining civil society and religious organizations. Opponents of the FCRA amendments called the requirements onerous and a barrier to organizations continuing to work in the country. The government continued to say the FCRA law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country.
In a July virtual session hosted by the U.S.-based nonprofit Indian American Muslim Council on Religious Freedom in India, Amnesty International USA said the organization was forced to halt all operations in the country in 2020 because of the FCRA requirements. The Amnesty representative said the FCRA requirements were one example of “the Indian government activating their overall governmental framework” to crush opportunities for upholding religious freedom.
In March, the MHA stated 22,678 NGOs had been granted registration under the FCRA during the last five years. The government also reported the registrations of 2,742 NGOs had been revoked from 2018 to 2020 for noncompliance, the most recent data available.
In its annual report, international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government adopted laws and policies that discriminated against religious minorities, especially Muslims. HRW also said some BJP leaders vilified Muslims and police failed to act against some BJP supporters who committed violence, a combination that emboldened some Hindu nationalist groups to attack Muslims and government critics with impunity.
On January 4, police officials in Karnataka’s Hassan District banned a Christian prayer service, according to media reports. A senior police officer asked the worshippers, who included 50 individuals from 15 families, to show proof they were Christians; he later accused them of having been converted to Christianity and misrepresenting their religion by claiming they had been Christian from birth. Police did not charge the families and warned the worshippers against conducting prayer gatherings without permission.
According to ICC, police shut down a house church in Dharmapuri, Telangana on February 28 following a complaint from a local Hindu group, which had also disrupted the church service there. The NGO stated that the police invoked a 2007 Andhra Pradesh state law, later adopted by the state of Telangana, to close down the church because Dharmapuri is designated by the law as a “temple town.” The pastor told ICC he had been leading worship in his home for five years without problems. While the town of approximately 78,000 persons is overwhelmingly Hindu, there are more than 300 Christians and more than 2,000 Muslims living there.
On July 24, Tamil Nadu police arrested Father George Ponnaiah, a Catholic priest based in Nagercoil, south Tamil Nadu, for alleged hate speech against Hindu gods, the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, and the state government in Tamil Nadu. Ponnaiah was in custody for 16 days. At year’s end, Ponnaiah was released on bail, awaiting trial. If convicted, he could face a prison term up to five years. Archbishop of Madurai Antony Pappusamy publicly criticized Ponnaiah for his statements.
On January 1, police in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, arrested stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqi and five associates after Eklavya Gaur, the son of state Member of Legislative Assembly Malini Gaur and the head of a local Hindu nationalist group, filed a police complaint stating he overheard the comedian and his associates using religiously offensive language during rehearsal. On February 6, Indore prison authorities released Faruqi after the Supreme Court granted him bail. The Madhya Pradesh High Court later granted bail to Faruqui’s five associates.
On January 14, Andhra Pradesh police arrested nondenominational Christian pastor Praveen Chakravarthi for “disturbing communal harmony” after one of his videos from 2013 circulated on social media. In the video, in a conversation with the head of a U.S.-based NGO, Chakravarthi discussed his evangelism in the country. After his arrest, Chakravarthi’s bank accounts were frozen. He was later released on bail, and no further action was reported by the end of the year.
On August 19, Hyderabad police arrested Pastor Honey Johnson from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh on the charge of making derogatory remarks against Hinduism and Hindu deities on his YouTube channel. Members of his church held protests in Visakhapatnam demanding his release, and he was subsequently released on bail.
On July 20, the Supreme Court expressed concern about the Kerala government’s relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions during Eid al-Adha celebrations July 18-20. In a ruling, the court said it could not block the state government’s actions after the fact, but it said, “The Kerala government failed to protect the fundamental rights of life and health of the people.” The court said it would take action against the Kerala government if the loosened restrictions led to additional spread of COVID-19, but it took no further action on this issue by year’s end. Earlier in July, the Supreme Court had cancelled the annual Hindu Kanwar Yatra festival in Uttar Pradesh due to a surge in COVID-19 cases there. In April, activists had asked the government to cancel the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival for COVID-19 reasons, but the government declined to do so. Also in April, the Supreme Court approved the petition of Muslim leaders to open the Nizzamuddin Mosque in New Delhi for Ramadan services. Advocates for the mosque cited the Kumbh Mela celebrations in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, which were permitted, as well as at the Hindu temple dedicated to Hanuman in Karol Bagh, Delhi, which remained open despite COVID-19 restrictions, to support their request to reopen.
In June and July, residents of the predominantly Muslim Union Territory of Lakshadweep protested reforms proposed by Administrator Praful Khoda Patel in December 2020. The reforms included banning cow slaughter and beef sales on the islands, removing beef and meat (except fish and eggs) from meals in schools, closing government-run dairy farms, permitting liquor sales, imposing a law allowing preventive detention, and disqualifying residents with more than two children from running in local elections. Media reported the local residents considered the proposed reforms as anti-Muslim, and primarily affected Muslim families. Protesters said Patel had been trying to transform the island culturally and demographically. The Lakshadweep administration said the reforms were necessary to develop Lakshadweep as a global tourist destination like the Maldives.
NGOs, including faith-based organizations, continued to criticize the requirements of the FCRA as constraining civil society and religious organizations. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 5,789 NGOs lost their FCRA licenses because they did not file for their renewal. Some opposition political parties and faith-based NGOs described the regulations as “onerous” and difficult to comply with, making registration and renewal difficult. The government continued to say the FCRA law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country.
In October, media reported Hindu protesters in Haryana said Muslims had been using public property to conduct daily prayers for four weeks without authorization from local authorities. The Muslim worshippers, who numbered 200 according to the media, had been praying outside in an area not designated for prayer. The protestors said they would continue to “protest peacefully” until the police took action. Haryana Chief Minister Khattar stated prayer in public spaces would be prohibited. Muslim groups representing the worshippers stated they were offering prayers at places designated by Haryana government officials. On December 16, Muslim former MP Mohammed Adeeb filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking action against Haryana government officials for not following directions to allow Muslims to offer prayers at designated public spaces. The Supreme Court had not ruled on the matter at year’s end.
The government closed the 600-year-old Jamia Mosque, which serves the largest Muslim congregation in Jammu and Kashmir, for 45 of the 52 Fridays during the year. According to media reports, the chief imam of Jamia Mosque remained in home detention during closure of the mosque. Some other mosques in the region closed by the government in August 2019 when it abrogated Article 370 (state status) in Jammu and Kashmir were allowed to reopen during the year. Since 2019, the government has continued to close mosques in the area periodically, sometimes for long intervals.
In May, authorities in Uttar Pradesh bulldozed a 100-year-old mosque in Barabanki on the grounds that it was an illegal structure. The destruction followed a March 15 order from the state government to cease worship in the mosque so it could be demolished. The government also said it blocked traffic. Muslim leaders said the destruction violated a court order suspending destruction of all “illegal” structures until the end of May and said they would take the case to the Supreme Court. The government then tried to block access to the mosque by building a wall, which according to media led to public protests in which activist Syed Farooq Ahmad stated at least 30 persons were arrested and others were beaten. Two days after authorities demolished the mosque, the Sunni Waqf Board of Uttar Pradesh filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court demanding the government reconstruct the mosque. The court had not ruled on the matter at the end of the year.
On September 6, opposition legislative assembly members from the BJP in Jharkhand protested the state government decision to offer a room in the state assembly building for Muslims to pray. Media reported that BJP legislators loudly disrupted the assembly session that day with Hindu chants and instruments, calling for the prayer room decision to be rescinded or a separate Hindu prayer room also be designated in the building. In a media interview, BJP national vice-president Raghubar Das said that the [Muslim] members of the state assembly from the Jharkhand government “openly support the Taliban. A separate Namaz Hallim [Muslim prayer room] in the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly is a result of this ideology. Otherwise, any person who believes in Indian democracy would not do such an act.”
In January, two residents of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court challenging the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court’s September 2020 acquittal of all 32 persons, including BJP politicians, charged in the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.
In May, the Assam government implemented the 2020 Assam Repealing Bill, which abolished the 1995 Assam Madrassa Education (Provincialization) Act and 2018 Assam Madrassa Education (Provincialization of Services of Employees and Re-Organization of Madrassa Educational Institutions) Act. Implementation of the act resulted in removal of the theological content from the curriculum at 700 state-run madrassahs and converted them into regular public schools. Theological content was also removed from the state-run Sanskrit schools, but analysts indicated that madrassahs were impacted in greater numbers. Privately-run madrassahs and Sanskrit schools were not impacted by the state government measure.
On October 19, 2020, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state’s Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim arrested under the act. Uttar Pradesh police had filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the act as of August. According to Uttar Pradesh State government data, the National Security Act (NSA) was also invoked in some cow slaughter cases; observers said this was to make the charges more serious. Persons detained under the NSA could be held up to 12 months without formal charges. A media investigation revealed that between January 2018 and December 2020, the Allahabad High Court had annulled detention orders and freed those arrested under the NSA in 94 of 120 cases it heard under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act in Uttar Pradesh.
Assam (in August) and Karnataka (in February) enacted legislation imposing strict penalties for killing cattle, bringing the total states with similar restrictions to 25 (of 28). Opposition members of the Assam legislative assembly, including from Muslim parties, protested that state’s new legislation. Faith-based organizations said the law could negatively affect the large Christian and tribal populations in the state that consumed beef. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma stated the law would promote harmony between Hindus and Muslims in the state, while some opposition party members said that it could stoke religious tensions, adversely affect livelihoods, and be detrimental to trade and food habits in the region. Media reported that the new law in Karnataka would give police in the state the power to search and seize property based only on suspicion of violation of the law.
In September, the Gau Sewa Commission, a Punjabi organization dedicated to the preservation and welfare of cows, submitted a petition to the Governor of Punjab demanding the death penalty be instituted for cow slaughter.
In October, the Madras High Court ruled that displays of a Christian cross and other religious symbols and practices could not be cited as reasons to revoke Scheduled Caste (SC) community certificates, which are used by members of designated lower castes in the Hindu hierarchy to obtain government benefits. The ruling was in response to an appeal by a Hindu medical doctor whose SC community certificate was revoked in 2013 because she married a Christian and the couple raised their children in the Christian faith. The court ordered the restoration of her SC community certificate in October.
In February, Pratap Simha, a BJP MP, called for denying benefits of government affirmative action programs to individuals who converted to Christianity. The MP made the remarks while attending a District Development Coordination and Monitoring Committee meeting on February 24. The Bengaluru-based Christian Political Leaders Forum protested the remarks.
On April 6, the Gujarat High Court blocked the arrest of a Parsi man accused by a Hindu neighbor of selling land to a Muslim in 2020 in violation of the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act, which mandates that buyers and sellers of different religions obtain permission for property transactions in specific neighborhoods. The Hindu neighbor also said that the buyer concealed his religion and forged documents to evade provisions of the act. There was no update by the end of the year.
In September, the government of the Muslim-majority Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir launched a program to address the grievances of migrants from the region, a majority of whom were Hindu. Under this program, migrants who were forcibly displaced from the Kashmir Valley in the 1990s could reclaim their properties in Kashmir. According to civil society reports, members of the Hindu Pandit caste may have sold land under duress and the central government measure was a means to address the displacement in the 1990s. In March, the national government informed the parliament that 44,167 Kashmiri migrant families, including 39,782 Hindu families, had registered with a government-appointed Relief Office, and 3,800 Kashmiri migrants had returned to the Kashmir Valley in the last six years to take up government jobs under a special program announced by the Prime Minister in 2015 for infrastructure development and economic prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir. According to media reports, mostly Hindus applied for those jobs. Since the state status of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked in August 2019, 520 migrants had returned and another 2000 migrant candidates were likely to return during the year and in 2022, the government stated.
On August 10, thousands of Dalit Christians and Muslims observed the 71st anniversary of a 1950 petition still pending before the Supreme Court to maintain Scheduled Caste benefits such as quotas in government jobs and education. The petition seeks to reverse a government order which limited such benefits to Hindu Dalits. A Dalit Christian lawyer, Franklin Caesar Thomas, who has been arguing the case in the Supreme Court for 16 years, told media that Dalit Christians and Muslims continued to face caste discrimination because of their adopted faiths since they were not formally recognized as Scheduled Castes. According to the National Council of Churches in India, approximately 70 percent of Christians in India belonged to Scheduled Castes before they converted. A seven-member panel of Supreme Court judges formed in 2020 to hear the petition had not ruled on the matter by the end of the year.
In April, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (All India Trinamool Congress Party) made a public appeal to Muslims to vote for her party in West Bengal elections. Such a direct appeal from a sitting government official to voters from a particular religious group is prohibited in the constitution. The national Election Commission reprimanded her for violating the election code of conduct.
On December 24, Asaduddin Owaisi, an MP and president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a predominantly Muslim political party, implied in remarks to parliament that Hindus would face consequences when Prime Minister Modi and Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, both BJP, left office. Police filed a FIR against Owaisi for communal hate speech. The leader later clarified that he was speaking in the context of past police “atrocities against innocent Muslims” in Uttar Pradesh and was not making a threat.
In February, ahead of elections in Assam, state Health, Education, and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma (BJP) told media that his party did not need or want the votes of Bengali-origin Muslims because they were “openly challenging Assamese culture and language and the composite Indian culture.”
While addressing Church members on September 9, Catholic Bishop Mar Joseph Kalarangatt of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala said Muslims were using the practices of “love jihad and narcotics jihad” to “destroy” non-Muslims. Kalarangatt said, “In a democratic country like ours, jihadis have realized that they cannot destroy other communities by using arms. The jihadis are using other weapons which cannot be identified easily by others. In the perspective of jihadis, non-Muslims have to be annihilated. When the agenda is spreading religion and eradication of non-Muslims, the ways for attaining that agenda get manifested in different manners. The love jihad and narcotic jihad are two such ways.” According to media reports, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said his government would not take action against the bishop.
In February, the Maharashtra state government petitioned the Supreme Court to dismiss pleas seeking a national-level CBI inquiry into the April 2020 killing of three Hindu monks by a crowd in Palghar. The state government said it had already disciplined 18 police officials for their failure to control the crowd in that incident. On January 16, a local court granted bail to 89 of the 201 arrested in the case. The Supreme Court asked the Maharashtra government to submit a second charge sheet filed in the case by Maharashtra police but did not rule on the petition seeking a CBI investigation before year’s end. In the 2020 incident, a mob pulled the three monks from a police vehicle and killed them, alleging that they were child kidnappers.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on September 12 publicly stated that earlier governments in Uttar Pradesh had favored Muslim constituents in benefits distribution.
In July, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the RSS, which is commonly considered to be the ideological parent to India’s ruling party BJP, publicly stated that Hindus and Muslims in India had the same DNA and should not be differentiated by religion. “There can never be any dominance of either Hindus or Muslims (in the country); there can only be the dominance of Indians,” Bhagwat said, adding that members of the Muslim community should not be afraid that Islam is in danger in India. He also said that killing non-Hindus for cow slaughter was an act against Hinduism.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On May 17, a Hindu group in the Mewat region of Haryana stopped the car in which Muslim Asif Khan was riding, verbally abused Khan and the other passengers, yelled “kill Muslims,” forced Khan to chant Hindu prayers and killed him when he tried to escape, according to media reporting. Police opened an investigation but made no arrests by the year’s end.
On June 20, media reported that a Hindu mob killed four Muslim men in the Khowai District of Tripura on suspicion of being cattle thieves. According to media, the men were killed when they were intercepted at Maharanijur transporting five cows in a truck. Police arrested three persons in connection with the killing and two others for spreading communal hatred on social media. There were no further developments in this case reported by year’s end.
On June 21, Muslim Aijaz Dar was beaten to death in Rajouri District of Jammu and Kashmir. He was returning home after buying a buffalo when suspected cow vigilantes attacked him with stones and sticks, according to media reports. Police arrested five suspects, but there were no further developments reported by year’s end.
According to media reports, on September 28, Muslim Arbaaz Aftab Mullah was decapitated in Khanapur village in the Belgavi District of Karnataka due to his relationship with a Hindu woman. Police arrested 10 individuals, including members of the Hindu organization Sri Rama Sene, described as radical, the woman’s parents, and the man hired to kill Mullah. There were no further developments by year’s end.
On April 3, police in Mangaluru, Karnataka arrested four Hindu activists and members of the Hindu nationalist group Bajrang Dal who were accused of stabbing to death a Muslim man traveling with a Hindu woman. The woman who filed the police complaint against the assailants stated the victim was her friend for many years and was accompanying her on a bus to a job interview when he was killed. She said the assailants stopped the bus, then attacked her and the other victim. After police made the arrests, local Bajrang Dal members reportedly defended the attack claiming that they wanted to save the woman from “falling prey to love jihad.” One local Bajrang Dal leader told media, “Our responsibility is to rescue girls from our community.”
According to EFI, a group of Hindus killed Pastor Alok Rajhans in the Balangir District of Odisha on May 20. Police opened a case and arrested two suspects, but they were released shortly thereafter, according to Irish NGO Church in Chains.
On May 20, according to ICC, a group of Hindu nationalists attacked the family of Pastor Ramesh Bumbariya at his home in the Bansawra District in Rajasthan, killing the pastor’s father and beating the pastor and other family members when they refused to renounce their Christian faith. The police arrested seven persons for the killing and the investigation continued at year’s end, according to Church in Chains.
Terrorist groups Lashkar-e-Taiyaaba and Hizbul Mujahideen killed several civilians and migrant laborers belonging to the minority Hindu and Sikh communities in the Muslim-majority Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir during the year. In October, 11 civilians including two schoolteachers – Supinder Kour and Deepak Chand – were killed in targeted attacks. Kour, a Sikh, and Chand, a Hindu, were killed on October 7 after terrorists forcefully entered their school in Srinagar and identified them as belonging to minority communities. On October 5, local businessman Makhan Lal Bindroo, a member of the Hindu Pandit caste, was fatally shot at his pharmaceutical shop. According to media reports, the killings caused widespread fear among Hindus and Sikhs in the Kashmir valley, leading hundreds to depart Jammu and Kashmir.
On October 15, Sikh farm laborer Lakhbir Singh was killed, and his mutilated body tied to a barricade. In several videos released on social media, Nihang Sikhs claimed responsibility for the killing, saying Singh insulted the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. Police arrested four members of the Nihang Sikh community and charged them with murder.
On December 19, an unidentified man was reportedly beaten to death by a group of Sikhs at a gurudwara (temple) in Kapurthala, Punjab, on suspicion that he had insulted the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag. Police and Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi stated that there was no evidence that the victim had committed sacrilege. Police arrested gurudwara caretaker Amarjit Singh on charges of murder.
On September 23, two Muslim men in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, were beaten for carrying meat in their vehicle. According to media reports, members of a cow-vigilante group attacked the two and posted video of the assault on social media. The attackers claimed the Muslim men were carrying beef in violation of the state’s anti-cow slaughter law and the state government’s order banning the sale and transport of any meat in Mathura. Police arrested the victims under the anti-cow slaughter law and violation of the meat ban order. None of the attackers were arrested. A Mathura council member said the two lacked the permit and refrigerator required to transport perishable goods such as meat. He also said the two men had been jailed. There was no further information available on the case by year’s end.
In September, the BBC reported views from freelance journalists and political opposition members that the number of attacks against the country’s Muslim community had increased in recent years as well as their views that the government often declined to condemn such attacks.
According to UCF, the number of violent attacks against Christians in the country rose to 486 during the year, from 279 in 2020. According to UCF, most of the incidents were reported in states ruled by the BJP and included attacks on pastors, disruptions of Christmas celebrations, and vandalism. A joint report entitled Christians under Attack in India, drafted by NGOs United Against Hate, the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, and the UCF, noted that more than 500 incidents of violence against Christians were reported to the UCF hotline during the year. The report stated that 333 of 486 incidents were recorded in Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka States. The report stated that only 34 FIRs were filed against the perpetrators through the year. At the end of the year, 19 cases were pending against Christians in nine states under the conversion restriction laws, although no Christian had been convicted in the country for illegal religious conversion during the year, according to the report.
In a December New York Times article, Hindu nationalist Dilip Chouhan, who was recorded on video breaking into a church in Madhya Pradesh with a gun strapped to his back, said that senior police officials told him authorities would not pursue charges against him. Instead, several local pastors were arrested on charges of illegal conversions. Chouhan said his organization has more than 5000 members. BJP youth leader Gaurave Tiwari said opposing forced conversion was an important issue for the party. In Chhattisgarh State, BJP youth conducted several anti-Christian marches. In September, a group of young BJP workers from the same chapter entered a Chhattisgarh police station, hurled shoes at two pastors and beat them up, reportedly in front of police officers. Rahul Rao, an office holder in the BJP youth cell, was charged with assault by police and released on bail. The article also quoted a leaked letter from a top police official in Chhattisgarh ordering police to “keep a constant vigil on the activities of Christian missionaries.” Media reported the Chhattisgarh government transferred the senior police official from the station hours after the incident. The investigation continued at the end of the year.
On September 18, media reported police arrested Christian pastor Ravi Gupta from Bihar’s Supaul District was arrested for converting 30 Hindu families to Christianity in his native village. Members of Vishna Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the RSS, detained Gupta and handed him over to police. There were no further developments on this case reported by year’s end.
On September 21, according to media reports, a village council in Mangapat Sirsai in the West Singhbhum District of Jharkhand ostracized three tribal families who converted to Christianity. In the presence of local police officials, the council reportedly asked the families to convert back to the local tribal Sarna religion and subsequently barred them from free movement inside the village when they refused to do so. According to the district president, the council took the action to counter the influence of Christian missionaries, whom he said had been quite active in the area, luring tribe members with land and money to convert them.
On June 30, approximately 20 members of the Hindu organization Bajrang Dal allegedly attacked Pastor Hemant Meher in the Jajpur District of Odisha, according to a July 10 report from ICC. The report said the group filmed the incident and beat the pastor before handing him over to the police and saying he had been forcibly converting people to Christianity. According to ICC, police released Meher without charge, urging him to file a complaint against his assailants. ICC said Bajarang Dal members attacked Meher again on July 1, forcing him to flee the area.
In April, media reported that a Muslim man posed as a Hindu to marry a Hindu woman in the Fatehabad District of Haryana. The man allegedly revealed his religious identity seven years into the marriage and attempted to forcibly convert her to Islam. When his wife refused, he forced her and their child out of their home. She pressed the local police to take action. Initially they took no action, but later, according to media reports, police opened an investigation and promised to take action against the police personnel who refused to register her original complaint. There was no further action reported on this case by year’s end.
The Union of Catholic Asian News service and major international media reported that on January 26, approximately 100 Hindu activists attacked a prayer service at the Satprakashan Sanchar Kendra, a Catholic media center in Indore in Madhya Pradesh, accusing the center of conducting religious conversions. The pastor told media the assailants beat worshippers and yelled at them. He said when police arrived, they only jailed the pastors and other church elders for violating Madhya Pradesh’s new law outlawing conversions. The pastor said he and eight other church leaders were jailed for two months before being released, and still faced charges. According to national media, police pressed trespassing charges against 15 persons and opened investigations into the incident. Their cases were pending in court at year’s end.
On January 5, according to media sources, members of the Hindu nationalist group Bajrang Dal disrupted a Christian prayer meeting in Uttar Pradesh. The pastor told media the group beat them and forced them to chant Hindu prayers, threatening to kill them if they did not. The Hindus turned the pastor and four others over to police, who charged them with forced conversion, based on the comments of one of the Hindus. Police also seized copies of the Bible and musical equipment, according to media reports. On January 6, the pastor and eight others filed a police report. There were no further developments reported on the case during the year.
On January 6, a Christian group in Uttar Pradesh filed a complaint against members of VHP for disrupting a prayer meeting. The Christians said 20 VHP members, including one police officer, entered their meeting uninvited, beat some worshippers, and damaged the facility. Police charged five of the Christians with illegal conversion, according to media reports, but there were no further developments on this case reported by year’s end.
Media reported that on August 29 a group of more than 100 individuals targeted a Christian pastor for alleged religious conversion in Polmi village in Kabirdham District of Chhattisgarh. The reports stated that the group physically abused the pastor and vandalized his residence during a prayer service. Police opened an investigation into the incident.
On October 3, according to Catholic news agency Agenzia Fides, there were 13 instances of violence and threats committed by Hindus against Christian communities in Uttarakhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh states, and in New Delhi. Drawing on reporting from EFI, Agenzia Fides said these incidents included disrupting worship services and prayer meetings and beating worshippers; police arresting pastors for forced conversion, based on complaints filed by Hindus; and Hindu groups vandalizing Christian places of worship.
In October, Giani Harpreet Singh, leader of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, a Sikh religious organization, and head priest of the Sikh community, said that Christian missionaries were “running a campaign for forced conversions in border areas of Punjab.”
NGO Sabrang reported that in Uttarakhand on October 3, 200 local members of Hindu organizations Bajarang Dal, VHP, and the youth wing of the BJP disrupted a worship service in Roorkee, shouting Hindu slogans, beating worshippers, and ransacking their meeting room. According to media, police charged the assailants with rioting, vandalism, trespassing, and deliberately injuring others.
In September, Vellappally Natesan, a prominent Hindu Ezhava leader and patron of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena political organization in Kerala, stated it was not the Muslim community but Christians who were at the forefront of conversions and “love jihad” in the country.
According to media, Hindu nationalist groups disrupted nine Christmas prayer meetings, six in Uttar Pradesh, two in Haryana, and one in Assam, vandalizing church property in some of the incidents. In Agra, Uttar Pradesh, the regional general secretary of Bajrang Dal told the media that Christian missionaries used the season to “allure children by making Santa Claus distribute gifts to them and attract them towards Christianity.”
The investigation continued into the September 2020 killing of Hindu woman Priya Soni. Soni was beheaded reportedly for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying Muslim Ajaz Ahmed in a civil ceremony, in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh. Police arrested Ahmed and Shoaib Akhtar, also a Muslim, for the crime and they remained in custody at year’s end.
In June, the Sikh minority community in Jammu and Kashmir protested over allegations of the forced conversion of two Sikh women, who subsequently married Muslim men. A Sikh delegation met national Home Minister Amit Shah and requested passage of a conversion restriction law “similar to the one in Uttar Pradesh” in Jammu and Kashmir.
On August 6, according to The Christian Post, a Sikh family in Punjab attacked a Christian woman, her sister, and mother for their beliefs. The report said that the attackers choked one victim unconscious. Police opened an investigation, but there were no further developments by the end of the year.
On October 6, Sikh leaders in Punjab started a campaign in rural areas to counter the potential conversion of lower income Sikhs to Christianity. The head priest of the Punjab Sikh community said, “Christian missionaries have been running a campaign in the border belt for forced conversions over the past few years. Innocent people are being cheated or lured to convert. We have received many such reports.” He also called forced conversions [to Christianity] “a dangerous attack on the Sikh religion.”
In its Freedom in the World 2021 report, Freedom House downgraded the country from free to partly free due to “rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population” and crackdowns on dissent.
A Pew Research study “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation,” released in July and based on interviews conducted in 2019 and 2020, found that 84 percent of those surveyed across different faiths said that “respecting all religions was very important to truly being Indian”; 80 percent said that “respecting other religions was very important to their religious identity”; and 91 percent said they were “very free to practice their own religion.” These numbers ranged from highs of 93 percent of Buddhists and 91 percent of Hindus, and lows of 82 percent of Sikhs and 85 percent of Jains saying they are very free to practice their religion, with Christians and Muslims at 89 percent. The survey also showed, however, that 83 percent of all respondents believed communal violence between religious groups was “a problem” for the country. The study’s overview stated that Indians’ commitment to tolerance was accompanied by a strong preference for keeping religious communities segregated, which was true even for religious minority communities. Large majorities of those surveyed said they did not have much in common with members of other religious groups, and large majorities in the six major religious groups said their close friends came mainly or entirely from their own religious community. Nearly two-thirds of Hindus (64 percent) said it was very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian. According to the report, Hindus who strongly link Hindu and Indian identities were more likely to also support religious segregation.
In its report covering the year, Christian NGO Open Doors said that overall violence against Christians and pressure against Christians “in all spheres of life” remained “very high.” The NGO said the persecution of Christians had intensified as Hindu nationalists “aim to cleanse the country of their presence and influence.” This led to the targeting of Christians and other religious minorities, including the use of social media to spread disinformation and stir up hatred.
On December 17-19, during a gathering in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, several Hindu leaders and activists called publicly for violence against religious minorities. Yati Narasinghanand, characterized as a Hindu extremist, announced a reward of 10 million rupees ($135,000) for any Hindu leader who would lead a militant movement against Islam and Christianity. Narasinghanand also called upon Hindus to “take up weapons” against Muslims and wage a war against “Islamic jihad” for the protection of Hindus. Another Hindu religious leader, Sadhvi Annapurna, called for creation of a nation exclusively for Hindus and for raising an army against Muslims. Uttarakhand police subsequently booked seven persons including Narasinghanand and Annapurna, on multiple charges under the criminal code, including promoting enmity between religious groups, deliberately intending to outrage religious feeling by insulting religious groups, and acting prejudicial to social harmony. The spokesperson for the Uttarakhand government and director general of police condemned the statements and said that police would “take required action” against those responsible. On December 26, a group of attorneys, including a former judge on the Patna High Court, wrote the Supreme Court urging action in the case, and stating that the speeches made at the event in Haridwar were not merely hate speeches but “an open call for the murder of an entire community” which not only posed “a grave threat to the unity of the country, but also endangered the lives of millions of Muslim citizens.”
According to media reports, on October 1, Hindu nationalists held a rally in the Surguja District of Chhattisgarh to protest a perceived spike in forced conversion of Hindus to Christianity in the area. Media reported that World Hindu Congress leader Swami Parmatmanand attended the protest and called for those who engage in forced conversions to be beheaded. Police took no action against him, according to the Chhattisgarh-based Christian community.
On August 8, a video was widely circulated on social media of a group shouting threats to kill Muslims and demanding that Muslims convert to Hinduism to remain in the country. The incident took place during a demonstration near parliament in New Delhi in which the crowd was protesting colonial-era laws still in force, according to media reports. MP Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim, stated in parliament that “genocidal slogans” were used against Muslims during the incident. Media reported that several prominent Hindu activists took part. Police officials told the media they were viewing video to identify suspects and had filed an FIR against “unknown persons” for shouting the threats.
On June 29, Hindu religious leader Mahamandaleshwar Yatindra Nath Giri in New Delhi stated that parliament should adopt a new constitution banning madrassahs, declaring religious conversion a crime, and punishing couples that have more than two children.
On October 15, Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui said persons who insulted the Quran should be “beheaded.” Siddiqui’s comments were aired in a video shown by media.
Media and one NGO reported that on October 20, Hindu groups affiliated with the RSS, Hindu Jagran Manch, and the VHP attacked and vandalized at least six mosques and more than a dozen shops and houses belonging to Muslim communities across Tripura State, reportedly in retaliation for attacks on minority Hindus in Bangladesh during the Durga Puja festival there. The NGO Centre for Study of Society and Secularism reported that attackers damaged 11 mosques, six shops, and two homes. The NGO also said that the authorities took stronger action against the journalists and activists who were reporting the violations than on the rioters themselves. The government rejected this claim and stated that action was taken against journalists for their “inflammatory social media posts” about the event. Tripura police registered a case against Ranu Das, a leader from the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (the youth wing of the BJP) who allegedly threw stones at a mosque and burned Muslim properties, for provocation to cause riot, intent to hurt religious feelings, and causing public enmity. The suspect fled and had not been arrested by year’s end.
According to media reports, on October 2, unidentified individuals vandalized a Hindu temple in the Anantnag District of Jammu and Kashmir. Police opened an investigation into the incident.
EFI said that on January 20, members of the Bajrang Dal demolished the boundary wall of a church in the Mahabubabad District of Telangana, saying the church building was too close to a Hindu temple.
According to Pastor Upajukta Singh, in June Hindu villagers destroyed the homes of eight Christian families, expelling them from Ratagaya village. The victims filed a police complaint.
In May, Hindu Jatav Dalit community villagers of the Muslim-majority Noorpur village in Aligarh District of Uttar Pradesh stated to media that Muslims were harassing them and discriminating against them. The villagers also said Muslims stopped a marriage procession from passing in front of a mosque in the village.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
During the year, embassy and consulate officials met with government officials to discuss religious freedom and emphasize the importance of interfaith dialogue. Embassy officials, including the Chargés d’Affaires, also engaged with members of parliament and politicians across diverse political ideologies on the importance of religious freedom and the responsibility of democracies to ensure the rights of religious minorities.
Embassy and consulate officials met with leaders from religious minorities, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith leaders to discuss the perspectives about the status and experiences of religious minorities.
On October 1, the Consul General in Chennai joined Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan at the Sri Vishnu Mohan Foundation’s annual Peace and Reconciliation Conference. Speaking to a gathering of religious and civil social leaders, government officials and academics, the Consul General emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.
On May 7, the consulate general in Hyderabad hosted a virtual panel discussion during Ramadan that highlighted interfaith and cross-cultural experiences during the holiday period.
Throughout the year, the Chargés d’Affaires engaged with members of religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. In May, the Chargés d’Affaires organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the importance of religious freedom. Members of academia, media commentators on interfaith issues, NGO interfaith activists, and representatives of multiple faiths participated.
In July, the Secretary of State met with several leaders from the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Baha’i, and other faiths. He highlighted the value of the country’s diversity and religious pluralism and the importance of protecting it. The Secretary addressed the importance of freedom of religion and belief in his public opening remarks and listened to the views and concerns of the religious minority and civil society leaders.
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code provides for hudud punishments (those mandated by sharia), including amputation, flogging, and stoning, and specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. In January, parliament amended the penal code to criminalize insulting “divine religions or Islamic schools of thought” and committing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.” Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said these new provisions put religious minorities at a higher risk of persecution. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates that five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” According to numerous international human rights NGOs and media reporting, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda and, in the case of members of some religious minorities, detained them and held them incommunicado. Amnesty International reported an “alarming rise” in the execution of ethnic minority prisoners since mid-December 2020. Authorities denied prisoners access to attorneys and convicted them based on “confessions” extracted under torture. In January, authorities executed Baluchi Javid Dehghan (also known as Dehghan-Khold) in Zahedan Central Prison on charges of “enmity against God,” “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic,” and alleged membership in banned Sunni separatist groups. The NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR) reported that as of October, government executions continued at an “alarmingly high” rate, with at least 226 people put to death, 125 of them under “retributive” (eye-for-an-eye) justice. According to the database of the NGO United for Iran, Iran Prison Atlas, least 67 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned at year’s end for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners listed in the database, the government sentenced at least 62 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or “armed rebellion against Islamic rule” (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minority prisoners, including beatings, sexual abuse, degradation specifically targeting their religious beliefs, and denial of medical treatment. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 1 to September 24, the government sentenced at least 77 individuals to flogging, based on its interpretation of sharia, and carried out these sentences in at least eight cases. NGOs reported that in January, authorities transferred women’s rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, originally charged in 2014 with “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “spreading propaganda” for criticizing the government’s policy of stoning women to death for adultery, to Amol Prison in Mazandara Province, far away from her family. According to IranWire and the London-based NGO Article 18, which focuses on religious freedom in Iran, in September, security forces in Shiraz and Mazandaran Province conducted multiple arrests of Baha’is in their homes or workplaces in the last week of September without providing reasons or charges. In a July report, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran (UNSR) Javaid Rehman stated there continued to be reports of forced evictions of members of the Sunni Baluch minority in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. An August report by the UN Secretary General highlighted that the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences for 10 Kurdish political prisoners on charges involving “acting against national security,” “spreading corruption on earth,” and “membership in Salafi groups.” According to an October report by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), at least 10 Baluchi individuals were summoned to court following a rally in the village of Ramin to prevent the destruction of the Eidgah (land reserved for Eid prayers for Sunni followers). Officials continued to disproportionately arrest, detain, harass, and surveil non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, according to Christian NGOs. On March 9, the Tehran Appeals Court reduced Saba Kord-Afshari’s prison sentence, which she received in 2019 on a set of charges relating to protesting the compulsory hijab, from 24 years to seven years and six months in prison. UNSR Rehman’s July report and NGOs said authorities continued to confiscate Baha’i properties as part of an ongoing state-led campaign of economic persecution against Baha’is. Authorities issued an order in April denying Baha’is permission to bury their dead in empty plots at the Tehran-area cemetery designated for Baha’is, forcing them to bury them at a mass grave site. Sunni Muslims stated the government did not permit them to build prayer facilities sufficient to accommodate their numbers, and government restrictions forced many Christian converts and members of unrecognized religious minority groups, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret. Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as members of other unrecognized religious minority groups, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported textbooks at all grade levels and across many subjects contained antisemitic material. Government officials continued to disseminate anti-Baha’i and antisemitic messages using traditional and social media. On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution expressing concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred” against recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.
According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs. Yarsanis reported experiencing widespread discrimination. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their distinct mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis. According to human rights NGOs, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members. Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements. Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class. Baha’is reported continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), on September 8, a Baha’i cemetery in Dena County, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province was partly destroyed by unknown individuals using heavy machinery.
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran. During the year, the U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn and promote accountability for the government’s abuses against and restrictions on worship by members of religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. On March 9, the United States sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) interrogators Ali Hemmatian and Masoud Safdari for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Evin Prison, including torturing activists advocating for religious freedom. On December 7, the United States sanctioned the Special Units of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Iran’s Counter-Terror Special Forces (NOPO) for violently suppressing protests in November 2019. It sanctioned two LEF commanders, Hassan Karami and Seyed Mousavi Azami, as well a Basij commander, Gholamreza Soleimani, and the Governor of Qods City, Leila Vaseghi, for their roles in carrying out crackdowns against peaceful protesters. Two prisons, Zahedan Central Prison and Isfahan Central Prison, as well as the warden of Qarchak Women’s Prison, Soghra Khodadadi, and IRGC commander and brigadier general Mohammad Karami were also sanctioned for their roles in the “flagrant denial” of the rights of prisoners and other citizens, including religious minorities. The Treasury Department statement announcing the sanctions said, “Zahedan Prison holds several political prisoners who belong to the Baluch ethnic minority group. According to public reports, on January 3, 2021, Baluch prisoner Hassan Dehvari was executed in Zahedan Prison. Dehvari was sentenced to death for ‘armed rebellion against the Islamic Rule.’ His prison sentence was escalated to execution after he engaged in several acts of peaceful protests, such as signing statements condemning executions of Sunni prisoners and condemning the mistreatment of fellow prisoners.”
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.9 million (midyear 2021). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.
According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.
According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.
The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religion Database, there are approximately 579,000 Christians. NGO Open Doors USA estimates the number is 800,000, and Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.
Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.
There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the NGO Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.
According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.
According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians, although the World Religion Database estimates this number to be 64,000.
According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives of the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.
The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.
According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. The 2020 World Religion Database estimates their number to be 239,000. Often, however, these groups do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for apostasy.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”
The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from other religions to Islam. Sharia as interpreted by the government considers conversion from Islam apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.
By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempt to convert a Muslim to another faith or belief. The law considers these activities to be proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.
The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“enmity against God,” which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities [Islam]”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.
On January 13, parliament passed amendments that added two provisions to the penal code criminalizing “insulting legally recognized religions and Iranian ethnicities.” The Guardian Council approved the amendments on February 3, and then president Hassan Rouhani signed them into law on February 18. Under the amendment to Article 499 of the code (which criminalizes membership in any group that “disturbs the security of the country”), authorities may impose a sentence of between two to five years in prison and/or a monetary fine where violence is involved, and between six months and two years and/or a monetary fine if no violence is involved, on anyone who “insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognized under the constitution.” Under the amendment to Article 500, authorities may impose prison sentences of two to five years and/or a fine on anyone who commits “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.”
The constitution states the four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. The government considers any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979 to be Muslim.
Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (also known as Ahl-e-Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.
Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or if unregistered individuals attend services. The law does not recognize as Christian individuals who convert to Christianity. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.
The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretations of Islamic legal sources. The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The IRGC also monitors churches.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”
The Ministry of Education determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level, through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs. Applicants to university must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology, based on their official religious affiliation.
Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education supervises private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.
The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education, or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulations state Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of one of the four officially recognized religions (i.e., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).
According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, a group of 86 popularly elected and Supreme Leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the Supreme Leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or Majles) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council, composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, President, and parliament, and supervises elections for those bodies. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).
The constitution bans parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system, or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.
Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliamentary seats reserved by the constitution for members of recognized religious minority groups. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.
The constitution states that in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school, within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.
According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”
The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”
The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyyah, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive blood money. This law also reduces the blood money for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal blood money as men, but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents and not for other categories of death, such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.
The criminal code provides for hudud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes. As part of hudud, the code allows for qisas (retribution in kind). The code also allows for ta’zir, which allows judges to use their personal discretion to determine punishment.
By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.
The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the Supreme Leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.
Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws. The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.
The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.
The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification, it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”
According to numerous international human rights NGOs and media reports, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and producing anti-Islamic propaganda. In February, Amnesty International reported an “alarming rise” in the execution of ethnic minority prisoners since mid-December 2020. Officials arrested Kurdish individuals, including civil society activists, labor rights activists, environmentalists, writers, university students and political activists. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to January reports by the NGOs IHR and Iran International, authorities executed three Sunni prisoners – Hamid Rastbala, Kabi Saadat-Jahani and Mohammad Ali Arayesh – on December 31, 2020, at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad. Ministry of Intelligence officers arrested the three men in 2015 for suspected membership in Hizb al-Forghan, a militant Sunni group, and in the National Solidarity Front of Iranian Sunnis. Branch One of the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad sentenced them to death for “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic.” The men denied being members of Hizb al-Forghan, which was active in the country from 1992 to 1997, when the three men were boys between ages 10 and 12. According to HRANA, prior to their execution, authorities deprived the prisoners of contact with their families for months, including a final meeting, and denied the men legal representation during the trial. In an August 2020 letter, Rastbala said that following their arrest, interrogators tortured all three and threated to arrest or rape family members to convince them to make televised confessions of their “crimes.”
According to Iran International and United for Iran, on January 30, the Justice Department of Sistan and Baluchistan Province announced that authorities executed Javid Dehghan-Khold in Zahedan Central Prison. He had been sentenced to death on charges of “enmity against God/moharebeh” and “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic” for alleged membership in banned Sunni separatist groups Jaish ul-Adl and Jaish al-Nasr of Iran. A court also convicted Dehghan-Khold of taking part in an attack that killed two Revolutionary Guard officers in 2015 and the kidnapping of five border guards in the city of Saravan in 2017. According to his lawyer, Dehghan-Khold denied membership in these groups or participation in the attacks. The Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) in a January 29 post on Twitter condemned Dehghan-Khold’s execution as part of “the series of executions – at least 28 [Iranians] – since mid-December, including of people from minority groups.” According to Amnesty International, the court had “relied on torture-tainted ‘confessions’ and ignored the serious due process abuses committed by Revolutionary Guard agents and prosecution authorities during the investigation process.”
CHRI and HRANA reported that on February 28, authorities executed four Sunni Ahwazi Arabs – Jasem Heidary, Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji, and Nasser Khafajian (Khafaji) – in Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz City, Khuzestan Province, without any advance notice to their families. Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Heidary in December 2017 and allegedly tortured him into falsely confessing to being a member of an armed group. Security forces detained the other three men in June 2017 as suspects in an armed attack on a military outpost and police station near Ahvaz in May 2017. Officials charged all of the men with “armed rebellion against Islamic rule” (baghi). According to Amnesty International, family members who visited the men in prison observed bruises on their bodies, indicating prison authorities had physically abused them. Following the executions, Ministry of Intelligence agents told the four families they were not permitted to hold public memorials or invite family to their homes to mourn. Amnesty International said the families were told the men “would be buried in la’nat abad [damned land].”
In March, IHR reported that a woman, Maryam (Masoumeh) Karimi, was executed in Rasht Central Prison at the hands of her own daughter. Authorities had sentenced Karimi more than 13 years earlier for having killed her husband, who was reportedly abusive and had refused to separate from her. In accordance with the rules of qisas, Karimi’s estranged daughter, as the victim’s next-of-kin, carried out her execution by hanging on March 15. IHR stated that for unknown reasons, Karimi’s father, her co-accused in the killing, was not executed on the same day, but prison officers brought him to the gallows to see her corpse.
On October 10, World Day Against the Death Penalty, IHR released its findings on the country’s use of capital punishment. According to IHR, as of October, government executions continued at an “alarmingly high” rate, with at least 226 individuals – one juvenile offender, nine women, and 216 adult men – put to death. One hundred and twenty-five executions were qisas executions for murder, compared with 164 for the same period in 2020. The qisas executions included the juvenile offender, five adult women, and 119 adult men. Among the men, officials executed eight in Zahedan Prison, including Sunni Baluch prisoners Elias Qalandarzehi and Hassan Dehvari, on charges of armed rebellion against Islamic rule/baghi for alleged involvement with Jaish al-Adl, and Sunni Ahwazi Arab Ali Motayyeri [Motiri] on charges of moharebeh, afsad-i fil arz (“spreading corruption on Earth”) and killing two individuals from the Basij paramilitary militia forces. According to United for Iran, authorities held Motayyeri in solitary confinement for more than one year and subjected him to physical and psychological abuse to force a false confession. According to Dehvari’s attorney, authorities escalated his original prison sentence to execution after he peacefully protested inside Zahedan Central Prison, including by signing statements condemning the executions of Sunni prisoners. Dehvari’s attorney said his execution was carried out despite a retrial request pending with the Supreme Court.
In April, IHR released its annual report on the government’s use of the death penalty, covering the 2020 calendar year. According to the report, murder was the most common charge brought against those executed, and 211 of the 267 individuals executed had been sentenced under the qisas code. IHR said that between 2010 and 2020, the government carried out at least 1,678 qisas executions.
In October, UNPO, the Kurdistan Human Rights Association Geneva, the Baluchistan Human Rights Group, and the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization submitted a joint report to the UNSR in which they stated executions of the predominantly Sunni Baluch minority and of Kurdish citizens increased between June and October, with at least 39 Baluchi citizens and 56 Kurds executed during that time period. According to IHR’s report entitled Women and the Death Penalty: A 12-Year Analysis, between January 1, 2010, and October 10, 2021, three of the at least 164 women who were executed were convicted on security charges. One of these was Shirin Alamhooli, who was executed in 2010 on charges of moharebeh/enmity against God and membership in PEJAK, a Kurdish opposition group. According to IHR, Alamhooli did not speak Farsi at the time of her interrogations and legal proceedings. In her letters from prison, she described experiencing three months of physical and mental abuse.
Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported judicial authorities and members of the security services continued to repress them, including through extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. The UN Secretary General’s August report compiled by OHCHR, IHR, and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. The Secretary General’s August report also stated the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for 10 Kurdish political prisoners on charges involving “acting against national security,” afsad-i fil arz/spreading corruption on earth, moharebeh, and membership in Salafi groups.
According to the UNSR Rehman’s July report, on February 22, IRGC officers killed 10 Sunni Baluchi fuel smugglers (sookhtbars) in Sistan and Baluchistan Province at its border with Pakistan. The shootings triggered demonstrations, during which security forces fired lethal ammunition at protesters and bystanders, killing at least two persons and seriously injuring others. The death toll was difficult to verify, following the disruption of local mobile data networks from the 24th to the 27th of February. Reuters reported the death toll in Saravan and other parts of Sistan and Baluchistan Province as “possibly up to 23.”
According to Amnesty International, authorities held Ahwazi Arab Falah Heidari incommunicado following his arrest on May 20. A source told Amnesty International that security and intelligence agents interrogated Heidari and his son, Safa Heidari, for information about the political activities of Falah’s brother, Abdorrahman Heidari, who was based abroad and was the spokesperson for the political group Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz. According to Amnesty International, Ministry of Intelligence interrogators also questioned Falah Heidari about the religious beliefs and practices of his other son, Alaa Heidari, who had left Iran several years earlier, sought asylum abroad after converting from Shia to Sunni Islam and had since engaged in online proselytizing activities. Authorities aimed to have Falah Heidari pressure his relatives to stop their activities or to relay authorities’ threats to kill or abduct and forcibly return Abdorrahman and Alaa to the country. On May 30, an IRGC officer interrogated Falah Heidari’s 15-year-old daughter about her family’s contact with her paternal uncle and brother abroad, as well as her family’s political opinions and religious beliefs.
According to UNSR Rehman’s July report, the UN Secretary General’s August report, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), in January, authorities arrested and arbitrarily detained more than 100 Kurdish civil society activists and forcibly disappeared some of these individuals. Observers stated that there was credible evidence to believe some of these activists were expressing their Sunni religious identity while standing up for Kurdish rights. According to HRW, of the 89 individuals who remained detained at year’s end, authorities subjected at least 40 to enforced disappearance and refused to reveal any information about their whereabouts to their families. While authorities did not provide information about the reasons for these arrests, according to IHR and HRW, the arrests were “due to the individuals’ peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression and association, including through involvement in peaceful civil society activism and/or perceived support for the political visions espoused by Kurdish opposition parties seeking respect for the human rights of Iran’s Kurdish minority.”
Human rights NGOs reported poor conditions and the mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. BIC reported Baha’is and other prisoners also faced a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to overcrowding.
In February, IranWire and CHRI reported that Behnam Mahjoubi, a Gonabadi dervish, died after suffering seizures in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Authorities had originally arrested Mahjoubi and several other Gonabadi dervishes for participating in street protests in 2018 following the death under police interrogation of a Gonabadi Sufi dervish. Mahjoubi had been serving a two-year prison sentence since June 2020, despite the state medical examiner’s concluding he was not in sufficiently good health to withstand incarceration. Amnesty International stated that during his incarceration, authorities injected Mahjoubi with unknown substances and subjected him to electric shocks on multiple occasions.
CHRI reported that in a letter from Rajaee-Shahr Prison in Karaj to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, dated February 3, former political prisoner Arash Sadeghi said authorities denied several fellow prisoners medical treatment, including Raheleh Ahmadi, who was serving a 31-month sentence in Evin Prison for opposing the country’s mandatory hijab law. According to CHRI, Ahmadi suffered from mobility issues and her lawyer and medical specialists said there was a possibility she could become paralyzed. In his letter, Sadeghi also wrote that Monireh Arabshahi, who was serving 5.5 years in Kachuei Prison in Karaj for peacefully protesting the mandatory hijab law, had developed a speech impairment due to an untreated inflamed thyroid gland.
On September 28, IranWire reported authorities continued to reserve the harshest treatment for prisoners who were religious minorities. This mistreatment included beatings, harassment of family members, and forbidding visits and phone calls. A former Yarsani inmate told IranWire that authorities shaved Yarsani prisoners’ traditional mustaches as a means of humiliating and degrading them. In Dieselabad Prison in Kermanshah Province, to harass Sunni prisoners, the guards would play “music and eulogies that insulted the caliphs and their beliefs.” One source told IranWire that authorities routinely tortured Sunnis in detention to obtain confessions. “If you’re both a Sunni and a Kurd, these two characteristics are enough for you to be guilty.”
The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran stated that from January 1 to September 24, the government sentenced at least 77 individuals to flogging, based on its interpretation of sharia, and carried out these sentences in at least eight cases.
In October, media reported the government continued to practice qisas, including hand or finger amputations for theft. According to these reports, in October, authorities sentenced one man to be blinded as punishment for having blinded his neighbor in one eye during a fight in 2018.
According to IranWire, on June 15, authorities transferred Amir Hossein Moradi to the Tehran Police Investigation Center, which, according to IranWire, suggested a new case was being prepared against him. Authorities arrested Moradi following the November 2019 protests, charging him and two other defendants with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” Later in the month, the Twitter account 1,500 Images, run by activists in contact with the family members of individuals killed and arrested during the November 2019 protests, which initially began over a fuel price increase but quickly turned into antigovernment demonstrations, warned about Moradi’s deteriorating health, reporting, “He is sick whenever he eats and has been taken to the hospital several times on a stretcher” and that he “is in a critical condition.”
On September 23, HRW reported the judiciary had confirmed the September 21 death of Shahin Nasseri, a prisoner who said he had witnessed the torture and forced confession of fellow inmate Navid Afkari when they were both detained in Shiraz Prison. The government arrested Afkari and his brothers Habib and Vahid in 2018 on charges that included “enmity against God.” Authorities executed Afkari in 2020. His brothers remained in solitary confinement at year’s end. Nasseri’s former lawyer posted on Twitter that Nasseri had called him several times on September 20, the day before his death, to report that his interrogators had threatened him with physical violence.
The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 67 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned as of November for “religious practice.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 62 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or armed rebellion against Islamic rule/baghi, which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 20 persons to prison for “insulting Islamic sanctities” and for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.” According to the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, there were 82 persons serving prison terms for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as of November 1.
In the July report, UNSR Rehman again expressed concern at the reportedly high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azeri, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.
According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, in March, authorities sentenced Kurdish Sunni imam Mamoutsa Rasoul Hamzehpour to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “activities on the internet.” According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested Hamzehpour in the city of Piranshahr in 2020 at his home, which they searched. The news report stated Hamzehpour was regarded as a prominent cleric in West Azerbaijan Province and had been arrested several times in the past.
According to IranWire, security forces conducted multiple arrests of Baha’is in the last week of September without providing reasons or charges. Authorities held four Baha’is from Shiraz City – Negar Ghaderi Sadi, Moin Misaghi, Hayedeh Forootan, and his son, Mehran Mosalanejad – in solitary confinement in Shiraz Police Detention Center 201 for at least one month following their arrests on September 22. Sources said officers ransacked Misaghi’s house, spilling a bowl of soup on his one-and-a-half-year-old baby, causing the child to suffer burns. At Negar Ghaderi’s house, officers confiscated mobile telephones, tablets, satellite dishes, and several prayer books. Authorities previously raided these four individuals’ homes in April and confiscated personal items, including religious books and pictures. IranWire reported that on September 23 in Ghaem Shahr, Mazandaran Province, Intelligence Ministry agents entered the home of Baha’i Sheida Taeed, confiscated her mobile phone, passport, computer, family photographs, and other personal items, and arrested her without a warrant. BIC’s representative to the UN posted on Twitter that authorities appeared to be targeting young parents, and their children in particular, with arbitrary arrests.
IranWire reported that on September 23, Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Baha’i Sheida Taeed in Mazandaran Province. A source told IranWire that eight agents of the Mazandaran Intelligence Bureau entered Taeed’s home, which they searched for two hours. After confiscating personal items, including her mobile phone, laptop, computer, letters, family pictures, and passport, they arrested her without a warrant. According to IranWire, this was the third time authorities had detained or arrested Taeed since 1989.
According to HRANA, Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi continued at year’s end to serve her sentence at Evin Prison, along with 19 other female prisoners of conscience. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the November 2019 antigovernment protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison.
According to widespread media reports and Amnesty International, security forces reacted violently to protests that began in Khuzestan Province in mid-July over water shortages. As protests spread across the country, government forces fired on crowds with live ammunition, birdshot, and tear gas, killing at least nine protestors, including a 17-year-old boy. Security and intelligence forces swept up dozens of protesters and activists, including many from the Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority, in mass arrests.
Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.
UNPO’s October joint report to the UNSR stated that in June, officials summoned at least 10 Baluchi citizens to court following a rally in the village of Ramin to prevent the destruction of the Eidgah (land reserved for Eid prayers for Sunnis). The report also stated that since June, authorities had arrested or detained three Sunni clerics and religious activists without disclosing the charges, including Baluchi Sunni cleric Jafar Hanzarani from Iranshahr County, Sistan and Baluchestan Province, whom police arrested on August 21 without charge. According to the same report, IRGC intelligence officers arrested Baluchi religious activist Khalilullah Zaeem on September 28, also without an official charge.
According to Article 19, a London-based international human rights organization, the new amendments to the penal code passed in January that criminalized insulting Iranian ethnicities or “divine religions or Islamic schools of thought” (Article 499) and committing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” (Article 500) put religious minorities such as Baha’is, Yarsanis, Mandaeans, Sufi dervishes, Christian converts, atheists, and followers of Erfan-e Halgheh (Inter-Universalism) at a higher risk of persecution. In July, human rights advocate Ewelina Ochab wrote in Forbes magazine, “Such provisions are destined to be abused against religious minorities.” In his July report, UNSR Rehman stated these two amendments would “further suppress freedom of religion and belief as well as freedom of expression, especially for religious minorities, and in particular, non-recognized minorities such as Baha’is, atheists, converts to Christianity and Gonabadi dervishes.”
In his July report, UNSR Rehman also noted other official policies targeting religious minorities, including documents published in March that indicated that the suppression of Baha’is and Gonabadi dervishes was “official policy in Sari, Mazandaran Province.” The report stated the documents contained plans by local authorities to “rigorously control the movements” of Baha’i and Gonabadi dervish residents and to impose restrictions on Baha’is in education and commerce. According to the UNSR’s report, authorities harassed, arrested, and forcibly disappeared dozens of Baha’is in April and June in incidents in Shiraz and Isfahan.
Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with operating illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.
According to human rights activists, the government continued to subject Christians who converted from Islam to arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. The NGO Article 18 reported that on April 19, intelligence agents in Dezful, Khuzestan Province, arrested four Christian converts – Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Esmail Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, and Mohammad Ali (Davoud) Torabi – and in August charged them with “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” due to their membership in a house church. Authorities arrested and interrogated four additional male Christian converts at the same time and ordered them to sign commitments to refrain from further Christian activities. Authorities reportedly beat some of the Christians during their interrogations, including Narimanpour.
Article 18 reported that on January 18, the morality police rearrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, saying her trousers were too tight, her headscarf was not correctly adjusted, and she should not be wearing an unbuttoned coat. Mohammadi, who was released from prison in February 2020 after being incarcerated for participating in January 2020 prodemocracy protests, stated she had been unable to return to work as a gymnastics instructor because intelligence agents pressured her former employer not to rehire her.
According to Article 18 and HRANA, on August 22, the Albroz Court of Appeals sentenced three Christian converts – Milad Goodarzi, Amin Khaki, and Alireza Nourmohammadi – to three years each in prison. In November 2020, authorities raided the men’s homes and confiscated personal items, including laptop computers, mobile phones and religious books. At their first trial in June, the Revolutionary Court of Karaj sentenced the three men to five years’ imprisonment each and a 400 million rial ($9,500) fine for “spreading propaganda against the state” and “engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam.” The latter charge stemmed from an amendment to Article 500 penalizing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” that went into effect on February 18.
Media reported that on 27 January, the 4th Branch of Bushehr Court of Appeal upheld the one-year prison sentences of three Christian converts – Sam Khosravi, Sasan Khosravi, and Habib Heydari – agreeing with the lower court that they were guilty of the “organization of house churches and promotion of Christianity, which are clear examples of propaganda against the state.” Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Sam and Sasan Khosravi, their wives Maryam Falahi and Marjan Falahi, Heydari, and Pooriya Peyma and his wife Fatemeh Talebi at their homes in Bushehr Province in July 2019. In June 2020, authorities fined the women and gave the men prison terms of one year for Habib, Sam, and Sasan, and 91 days for Pooriya. The court also sentenced Sam and Sasan Khosravi to two years of internal exile and a ban on working in their profession, the hospitality sector, while exiled.
According to IranWire, on March 14, authorities informed Christian converts Homayoun Zhaveh and Sara Ahmadi their case “had advanced” and they could receive a summons to prison at any moment. Intelligence agents arrested the couple in June 2019 during a trip they took with several other Christian families to Amol in Mazandaran Province. Authorities first held the couple in Amol before taking them to Evin Prison. Authorities released Zhaveh after one month, but Ahmadi spent 67 days in detention, half of them in solitary confinement in the Ministry of Intelligence’s Ward 209. On November 14, 2020, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Zhaveh and Ahmadi to two years and 11 years in prison, respectively, for “membership and leadership of [a] church.” On appeal Ahmadi’s sentence was reduced to eight years in December 2020.
According to Article 18, on September 5, authorities arrested three Christian converts – Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh – during raids on a house church and a private home in Rasht. The officials held the three converts incommunicado at an unknown location, possibly an IRGC detention center, for nearly two weeks. On September 18, authorities transferred Mashoodkari and Sarparast to Lakan Prison and released them on bail on September 21. Authorities released Poor-Rezazadeh on bail on October 3. Authorities did not file official charges, but during interrogations, they accused the men of “acting against national security.”
Article 18 reported that on April 21, authorities arrested four Christian converts – Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Esmaeil Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, and one other person – and detained them for two days. Authorities released the four individuals on the condition they refrain from further Christian activities. Government representatives subsequently summoned them to the 4th branch of the prosecutor’s office of the Civil and Revolutionary Court of Dezful, Khuzestan Province, to answer charges of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
According to human rights activists, Baluchis continued to face government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They stated authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent. According to the UN Secretary General’s August report, between January 1 and June 18, authorities executed at least 26 Baluchi individuals, the majority on narcotics charges. The same report stated there were “a large number of executions of members of minorities” during the first half of the year, including from the Kurdish and Arab minorities. The report also noted that from January 1 to June 15, at least 24 border couriers (kolbar) and fuel smugglers (sookhtbar), predominantly from the Kurdish and Baluch minorities, “were killed as a result of the government’s excessive use of force.”
Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes (Majzooban Noor), reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions continuing inside Qarchak Women’s Prison, as well as reports of Shia guards requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.
On June 16, HRANA reported that Hossein Sepanta continued to face medical neglect of long-term injuries in his eighth year inside Adelabad Prison in Shiraz, Kerman Province. Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.” Authorities beat him during his incarceration, causing a spinal cord disorder. United for Iran posted on Twitter on July 25 that authorities moved Sepanta to a Ministry of Intelligence cell inside the prison after he reportedly started a hunger strike, making it impossible for the NGO to obtain new information on his condition.
According to a January report by IranWire, in December 2020, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence. According to his Instagram page, he continued to post messages in support of opposition figures like Mehdi Karroubi as of October.
According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late February, government security services arrested five Kurdish religious activists – Musa Brusan, Taha Karimi, and Saber Mohtadi from Brukan; Abdul Latif Mahmoudi Deli from Oshnaviyeh; and Naseh Sorkhabi from Piranshahar – in West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on February 27. According to the NGO, authorities accused the five individuals of “collaborating with and joining Salafist groups.” NGOs reported that the Kurds were denied access to a lawyer.
There continued to be reports that authorities harassed and arrested Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a December report by Iran International, the Supreme Leader’s representative in Golestan Province, Kazem Nour-Mofidi, dismissed Mowlavi Hossein Gorgij, the Friday prayer imam in Azadshahr City and an outspoken and popular Sunni cleric, as punishment for his Friday prayer remarks that allegedly insulted Shia “sanctities.” Nour-Mofidi appointed a new Sunni imam. Gorgij’s followers protested in Azadshahr, and Gorgij issued a statement saying his remarks were misunderstood and that he meant no disrespect toward Shia.
HRANA reported in July that nine Sunni prisoners held in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province, since at least 2016 wrote a letter to UNSR Rehman requesting an investigation into their cases. The prisoners – Eisa Eid-Mohammadi, Farhad Shakeri, Eid al-Hakim Azim Gargij, Abdolrahman Gargij, Habib Pir-Mohammadi, Abdolbaset Orsan, Mohammad Reza Sheikh Ahmadi, Morteza Fakuri, and Abdullah Hosseini – said authorities beat and tortured them into providing false confessions and threatened their family members. HRANA said they received death sentences and long prison terms based on false charges of being members of dissident groups and groups the government labeled as “terrorist,” for example, Hizb al-Forghan, and of committing acts of “propaganda against the regime.”
BIC reported authorities arrested 64 Baha’is between January and December. Prison officials kept many in solitary confinement for long periods and detained individuals for weeks or months before releasing them on bail. BIC stated that authorities set bail at exorbitantly high levels, requiring families to hand over deeds to properties or business licenses. In nearly all cases, authorities searched their homes and/or workplaces and confiscated personal belongings, particularly books, photographs, computers, copying machines, and other supplies, as well as items related to the Baha’i Faith. Some victims reported officers beat them when taking them into custody. According to BIC, during the year, authorities required 18 Baha’is to begin serving prison sentences or resume sentences following temporary release.
According to BIC, on June 8, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Baha’i Shahrzad Nazifi, a women’s cross-country motorcycle racing trainer, to eight years in prison for “managing unlawful groups for the purpose of disturbing national security.” On January 21, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Baha’is Sofia Mobini and Negin Tadrisi to five years each in prison on national security charges. Subsequently, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, from the same court, without arraignment, adjusted their sentences to 10 and five years’ imprisonment, respectively, for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization with intent to disturb national security,” under Article 499 of the penal code. The Court of Appeals later restored their original five-year prison sentences. Intelligence agents arrested Mobini and Tadrisi in 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day.
In March, HRW reported that Baha’i historian and writer Touraj Amini had begun serving a six-year prison sentence in January. Authorities first searched Amini’s house in 2019, confiscating numerous books and his laptop. HRANA later reported that a court in Karaj sentenced Amini to one year’s imprisonment and two years in domestic exile in 2020. An Alborz Province appeals court later reduced the sentence to six months in prison and rescinded the exile. According to HRW, Amini is a historian specializing in the history of Iranian religious minorities prior to the 1979 revolution.
The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that in early October, the Revolutionary Court of Orumiyeh sentenced Sunni Kurds Anvar Chaleshi and Kamel Jabarvand (also known as Saydan Maskan) to seven years in prison for “acting against national security” through “membership in the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.” IRGC officers arrested the men in December 2020 and transferred them in a MOIS detention center in the al-Mahdi base in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province in January, following their interrogation.
Activists and NGOs reported that the government continued to detain or disappear Yarsani activists and community leaders for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community. According to NGO reports, on June 28, a district court in Kermanshah arrested Kheyrollah Haghjouyan of the Yarsan Civil Rights’ Activists Advisory Council for his remarks criticizing the government’s discriminatory practices against the Yarsani community and for commemorating the eight-year anniversary of the deaths of three Yarsani activists who self-immolated to protest the forced shaving of mustaches – considered an insult in the Yarsani religion – of Yarsani prisoners in Hamadan Prison. The court accused Haghjouyan of “insulting the sanctities and officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
According to a March report by CHRI, judges continued to use internal exile as a form of punishment for political prisoners, including peaceful activists, religious minorities, and dissidents. Exile could be ordered as the primary punishment, for example for those found guilty of moharebeh or “armed rebellion,” or as a supplemental punishment for various crimes, to be carried out after the completion of a prison sentence. Judges chose exile locations from a list prepared by the Ministry of Interior; these were usually remote towns in regions with extreme poverty. CHRI reported that during the year, judges also sent individuals into “prison exile” by transferring them in the middle of their prison terms to severely under-resourced prisons far from their families and friends. According to CHRI, the concept of exile or banishment is rooted in Shia theology and is referred to as “denial of country” (nafiye balad). CHRI stated that prison exile also harmed the detainee’s family by putting the individual in a location family members could not easily visit.
CHRI reported that on January 24, Golrokh Iraee Ebrahimi, a civil rights activist who protested against the practice of stoning women accused of adultery, was transferred from Gharchak Women’s Prison in Tehran to the central prison in Amol, Mazandaran Province, far from her parents. Authorities originally arrested and charged Ebrahimi in 2014 with “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “spreading propaganda.” According to her husband, prison officials held Ebrahimi in an unsanitary ward with approximately 50 other inmates, where the risks of infection from COVID-19 and other diseases were high. Contrary to law, prisoners were not being separated by type of offense or duration of sentence, and many of the other inmates in Ebrahimi’s ward were serving narcotics-related sentences. According to the NGO Humanists International, in April, Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Iraee in absentia to an additional one year in prison, banned her from membership in political organizations, and imposed a two-year travel ban on charges of “propaganda against the state.” Iraee was denied legal representation during the trial. She remained in Amol Prison at year’s end, unable to make telephone calls or contact her family.
Human rights NGOs reported that in February, authorities summoned Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert, to respond to allegations of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic in favor of hostile groups.” He appeared in court on February 8. Authorities arrested him and detained him in Chabahar Prison in Sistan and Baluchestan Province for 19 days, and then released him on bail. Firouzi had been in internal exile as part of his 2015 sentence for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After first serving six years in Rajai Shahr Prison, he was released in November 2019 and reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence. Authorities later extended his exile by 11 months, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. The government informed him in November that he would not be required to serve the 11-month extension of his internal exile.
In the July report, UNSR Rehman stated there continued to be reports of forced evictions of the Sunni Baluch minority in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Citing a report by HRANA, HRW said a court in Borazjan, Bushehr Province, sentenced six Baha’is to lengthy prison terms on vaguely defined national security charges, including propaganda against the state “by spreading the beliefs of the Baha’i Faith.” The six convicted Baha’is were Maryam Bashir, Mino Bashir, Hayedeh Ram, Frank Sheikhi, Borhan Ismaili, and Derna Ismaili. Authorities charged Borhan Ismaili with “spreading” the beliefs of the Baha’i Faith and acting against national security interests and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. The court sentenced the other individuals to 12 and a half years in prison for “assisting” in this propaganda, the evidence of which included social media posts on Facebook. At year’s end, the case remained subject to appeal.
The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to exercise what sources stated was perhaps the greatest degree of religious freedom among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.
In November, Humanists International stated in its Freedom of Thought Report 2021 that although “‘enmity against God’ is framed as a religious offense and may be used against humanists and other religious dissenters, it [was] most often used as a punishment for political acts that challenge[d] the regime (on the basis that to oppose the theocratic regime is to oppose Allah).”
According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target these Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.
Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas or participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.
Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.
The government continued to require all women to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body-length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women.
According to media reports, on August 9, authorities in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province arrested a man for running over two women with his vehicle for “bad hijab” and not heeding the Islamic dress code. The two women, one of whom was reportedly seriously injured, were taken to the hospital. Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei ordered an investigation into the attack. Meeting with officials on August 9, he stressed the judicial duty of “supporting those who enjoin good and forbid wrong and defend Islamic values.”
The NGO Frontline Defenders reported that on March 9, the Tehran Appeals Court reduced Saba Kord-Afshari’s prison sentence, which she received in 2019 on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab, from 24 years to seven years and six months in prison. According to the NGO, on January 26, guards physically assaulted Kord-Afshari and forcibly transferred her from one ward of Qarchak Women’s Prison to another. Kord-Afshari undertook a hunger strike from May 8 to 18 to protest the continued incarceration of her mother, women’s rights defender Raheleh Ahmadi, in Evin Prison, despite Ahmadi’s deteriorating physical and mental health.
On June 21, UN human rights experts condemned the continued imprisonment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” On July 21, authorities released her from Qarchak Women’s Prison on temporary leave to receive treatment after she contract COVID-19 there. Her husband told media that conditions in Qarchak Women’s Prison were “catastrophic.” Authorities summoned Sotoudeh back to prison one month after her release. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. According to HRW, in 2020, authorities arrested and then gave conditional release to Sotoudeh’s attorney, Payam Derafshan, whom the NGO described as “a respected human rights attorney.” According to the HRW report, the IRGC committed “revolting abuse and medical negligence” on Derafshan during his detention in Evin Prison, including injecting him with a substance that resulted in physical and psychological damage.
The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.
The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from performing burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, 100 miles away, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires that the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.
Citing a report by the Baha’i National Center, in April, HRW reported that authorities instituted a prohibition on the Tehran Baha’i community from burying their dead in a section of a cemetery, Golestan Javid, near Tehran that previously was allocated for their use. In an April 23 statement, the Baha’i National Center said the office overseeing the cemetery threatened Baha’is trying to use the designated part of the cemetery. HRW stated that the new policy was part of “a broader, decades-long government repression” of the Baha’i community. The NGO reported that the Baha’i representative to the UN in Geneva stated that the prohibition was intended to coerce the Baha’i community into burying the dead in areas of the nearby Khavaran cemetery, believed to be the site of a mass grave for political prisoners killed by the government in 1988. NGOs and the media identified Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s newly elected President, as being heavily involved in those killings. In April, Amnesty International stated that the mass grave was bulldozed multiple times and had become a symbol of the struggle for truth and justice. The Amnesty report said, “As well as causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Baha’i minority by depriving them of their rights to give their loved ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, Iran’s authorities are willfully destroying a crime scene.”
In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed “alarm” at the government’s order denying the Baha’i community access to that part of the Khavaran cemetery assigned for their use, saying, “This order violates the Baha’i community’s right to freedom of religion and belief.” He said that the order was “one of the many occasions where Baha’i cemeteries have been desecrated or where burial rituals have been restricted.”
According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsani religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship.
MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s late leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.
According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsani religion remained banned. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.
There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.
UNSR Rehman’s July report stated authorities continued to confiscate Baha’i properties they characterized as “illegitimate wealth.”
BIC reported that in August, judicial authorities issued court orders informing six Baha’i property owners of the imminent seizure of their properties in Semnan Province. These court orders followed raids security forces carried out on hundreds of Baha’i-owned properties in November 2020, including these properties in Semnan, during which they confiscated ownership deeds. According to BIC, the judiciary ruled these properties belonged to Baha’i institutions rather than to the individuals. However, the institutions in question were banned by the government in 1979 and formally dissolved in 1983, with the government confiscating all connected properties. According to BIC and other NGOs, the confiscations were part of an ongoing state-led campaign of economic persecution against Baha’is. In a 2020 decision upholding the government’s 2019 confiscations of Baha’i property in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, a court ruled that Baha’is had “a perverse ideology,” which was “heretical and ritually unclean,” and therefore had no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.
In February, HRANA reported tax authorities in Bandar Lengeh city, Hormozgan Province, acting on a court order, confiscated the business, homes, and bank accounts of two Baha’is – Mohabatullah Thaabet and Erfaan Noahnezhaad. According to HRANA, they had operated a workshop making composite beams, paid taxes, and kept accounts as required for five years prior to authorities forcing them to close in 2019 “because of their Baha’i beliefs.”
Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented construction of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population. Three news sources opposed to the government previously stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.
Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their religion. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.
According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize private Christian churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs reported that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.
Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.
According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals to be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.
In February, the ADL published a report entitled, Incitement: Antisemitism and Violence in Iran’s Current State Textbooks. The report stated that “incitement to hatred against Jews and Israel are extensively interspersed throughout multiple fields of the curriculum such as history, religion, and social studies” at all grade levels in the academic year 2020-2021. According to the report, school textbooks “overwhelmingly teach hateful messages about Jewish people across both ancient and modern history” in furtherance of a narrative pitting Islamic leaders against the enemies of Islam. Children were also taught that Jews were untrustworthy, Zionism was “racist,” and the state of Israel must be destroyed.
The ADL report stated a 10th grade textbook on “defense preparation” claimed Zionism and global arrogance had used “religious tools with new definitions of Islam and sect and the creation of takfiri [extremist] groups” to undermine Islam, including ISIS. An 11th grade sociology textbook asserted, “The gathering of media power in the hand of wealth owners and Zionist associations…makes the cultural identity of non-Western societies vulnerable[.]”
The ADL report stated that state school textbooks depicted Baha’is as “a conspiratorial creation of the West rather than adherents to a legitimate faith” who, along with Buddhists and Wahhabi Muslims, were “physically unclean.” An 11th grade history textbook stated the Baha’i “sect” was “deviant” and a “trick of colonialism to destroy the religious and cultural foundations of Islamic countries.”
Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools, but only after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools.
Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms.
Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. According to HRW, Iranian authorities systematically refuse to allow Baha’is to register at public universities because of their faith. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980.
The July UNSR report stated documents published in March indicated it was official policy to impose restrictions on Baha’i education and commerce in Sari, Mazandaran Province. In 2020, UNSR Rehman reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”
According to BIC, on March 17, authorities expelled two Baha’i students – Hananeh Afshar and Sana Fakhri Tazangi – mid-semester from the University of Applied Science and Technology in Shiraz, Fars Province. The Baha’i women learned via a text message that the university had changed their student status to “registration cancelled” and had voided their credits from prior semesters. The president of the university showed them a letter from a Ministry of Education official that requested the expulsion of nine Baha’i students from the Universities of Applied Science and Technology across the country. Authorities expelled three other Baha’i students – Sina Shakib, Shima Fattahi Mirshekarlu, and Mahsa Forouhari – from their universities mid-semester under similar circumstances.
In January 2020, the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions changed to allow only citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. The Atlantic Council stated in September 2021, “Baha’i families, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans, and other religious minorities or atheists must either lie to receive a national identification card or be denied access to services, such as insurance, education, banking, and, most recently, public transportation.” Previously, application forms for an ID card had an option for “other religions.”
The Atlantic Council reported in September that Sabean-Mandaeans experienced hate speech and discrimination. One member of the community told a researcher, that “we cannot even choose and officially register a Mandaean name for our children because the state has always instilled a great fear of being interrogated in us.” According to the individual, Sabean-Mandaeans were often called “infidels and impure Muslims in the mosques.” They did not have the right to work in governmental agencies. Authorities denied self-employment permits “under various pretexts” and, in some cases, shut down their businesses.
According to an October 29 report by CHRI, the state-run Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced plans to launch university-level religion courses dedicated to the “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” that conformed to the government’s interpretation of Islam.
According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed Baha’is “unclean.”
Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report that the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a 2020 article in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”
In January, IranWire reported that the Yarsani Consultative Assembly of Civil Activists issued a statement calling on the government to stop discriminating against Yarsanis, including depriving of them of government employment, the right to hold public office, the right to post-graduate education, and the right to serve as directors of companies. The assembly protested the compulsory teaching of Islamic sharia to Yarsani children. The assembly also called for amending the constitution to include the Yarsan religion as a recognized minority religion.
According to the U.S.-based think-tank Middle East Institute, under the Ebrahim Raisi administration, which assumed power in August, not a single mid-ranking position was held by a Sunni Muslim or a woman during the year.
Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic year), the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.
According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens. In March, a local Jewish community source told the Times of Israel the government permitted the Jewish community to maintain youth organizations, kosher facilities, and four Jewish schools. In November, Voice of America reported the law barred Jews, in addition to other recognized minorities, from serving in the judiciary and security services, and it further prohibited Jews from holding authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Media reported local sources were careful to avoid publicly discussing politics or the State of Israel.
According to BIC, during the year, the government campaign of hate speech and propaganda against Baha’is “reached new levels, increasing in both sophistication and scale.” BIC stated there was a growing and coordinated network of hundreds of websites, Instagram accounts, Telegram channels, and Clubhouse chat rooms containing content such as “Baha’is are unclean and enemies of your religion,” “Associating with Baha’is is banned,” and “Purchasing any goods from a Baha’i store is forbidden.” BIC stated discriminatory online material existed alongside videos, print newspaper articles, books, seminars, exhibitions, graffiti, and fatwas “from both official outlets and others sponsored by the government but purporting to be independent.”
International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored propaganda aimed at deterring the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity. In December, Article 18 stated that although government officials issued Christmas greetings on social media as a propaganda tool, government persecution of Christians increased around the holiday. One academic told Article 18 the regime feared that an interest in Christmas and other elements of Western culture would lead Muslims, especially youth, to convert to Christianity. The academic said the government was “more afraid of the religious significance and consequences of these behaviors than of fearing a celebration that belongs to other countries. Negative reactions to the celebration of Christmas, or open repression of Christian converts, are signs of this fear.”
In its annual report on the year 2020 published in April, Amnesty International stated, “Freedom of religion and belief was systematically violated in law and practice. The authorities continued to impose on people of all faiths, as well as atheists, codes of public conduct rooted in a strict interpretation of Shia Islam. The authorities refused to recognize the right of those born to Muslim parents to convert to other religions or become atheists, with individuals seeking to exercise this right risking arbitrary detention, torture and the death penalty for ‘apostasy.’ Only Shia Muslims were allowed to hold key political positions. Members of religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Gonabadi Dervishes, Yarsan (Ahl-e Haq), and converts from Shia Islam to Sunni Islam or Christianity faced discrimination, including in education and employment, as well as arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment for practicing their faith.” The report added, “The authorities continued to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations against members of the Baha’i minority, including forcible closure of businesses, confiscation of property, bans on employment in the public sector, denial of access to higher education and hate speech campaigns on state media. Raids on house churches persisted. Sunni Muslims continued to face restrictions on establishing their own mosques.”
In its annual report on the year 2021, HRW noted the country’s “law denies freedom of religion to Baha’is and discriminates against them. Authorities continue to arrest and prosecute members of the Baha’i faith on vague national security charges and to close businesses owned by them. The government also discriminates against other religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims…. Minority activists are regularly arrested and prosecuted on vaguely defined national security charges in trials that grossly fall short of international standards.”
In July, Article 18 reported that in a video published by Roshangar Media, senior Armenian and Assyrian representatives distanced themselves from the house church movement of evangelical Christian converts. Iranian-Armenian Catholic archbishop Sarkis Davidian reportedly said in the video, “We do not encourage people to change their religion. People must remain in their religion.” Iranian-Assyrian parliamentary representative Shaarli Anouyeh Tekyeh, in the same video, said evangelical churches were “repugnant to us.” In an August 2020 Article 18 report, an Armenian journalist said despite harassment of minorities being “institutionalized in the very fabric of the Islamic Republic… representatives of religious minorities find themselves almost forced to defend the interests and discourse of a government that has deprived them of many of their rights, in an attempt perhaps to regain those lost rights or to prevent their further deterioration.”
Government officials continued to employ antisemitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. On February 22, Supreme Leader Khamenei posted a message on Twitter saying, “That international Zionist clown [the UN] has said they won’t allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. First of all, if we had any such intention, even those more powerful than him [sic] wouldn’t be able to stop us.” On June 27, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in Newsweek, “that [President] Raisi was responsible for systematically propagating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most dangerous tracts in history, provides an unsettling reminder of just how engaged Iran’s government and leaders have been in inciting antisemitism.” According to the ADL, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.
In May, the government-controlled arts promotion organization Hozeh Honari hosted an exhibition of submissions to its third Holocaust-denial cartoon contest and offered cash awards to several of the participating artists. The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation reportedly broadcast the exhibition’s closing ceremony live. Many of the cartoons at the exhibition, also published in a book produced by Hozeh Honari, featured antisemitic imagery and stereotypical caricatures of Jews. The contest had financial sponsorship from the partly state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran through its subsidiary and the largest mobile operator in Iran, Hamrahe Aval. In an interview on state-run Channel 4 on September 9, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the visual arts director of Hozeh Honari and director of IranCartoon.com, who also organized these exhibitions 2020, 2016, and 2006, said the Holocaust was the “Achilles heel” of the Zionists, that Israelis had “benefited” from the Holocaust, and that the figure of six million Jewish victims was “very exaggerated.”
The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and some self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and charitable associations.
Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.
On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 78 states in favor, 31 against, and 69 abstentions. The resolution, introduced by Canada with 47 cosponsors, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i Faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences during the COVID-19 pandemic….” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights….” The resolution also called upon the government “to eliminate, in law and in practice, all forms of discrimination on the basis of thought, conscience, religion or belief, including restrictions contained in newly enacted provisions Article 499bis and Article 500bis of the Islamic Penal Code, as well as economic restrictions, such as the closure, destruction or confiscation of businesses and properties, the cancellation of licenses and the denial of employment in certain public and private sectors, including government or military positions and elected office, the denial of and restrictions on access to education, including for members of the Baha’i Faith, and other human rights violations against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities….” The resolution condemned “without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust,” and called upon the government “to end impunity for those who commit crimes against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.
According to a media reporting, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.
Violence and social stigma continued to target Baha’i individuals, according to Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights, and perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity. There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith.
Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries. IranWire reported that in September, HRANA released a video showing the partial destruction of a Baha’i cemetery in the village of Kata, Dena County, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province. According to HRANA, the attack occurred on September 8. In a manner that would have been difficult without machinery, much of the cemetery’s exterior wall and bathroom had been knocked to the ground and stone shrines were smashed.
In July, IranWire reported an Assyrian Christian nicknamed “Farough” suffered employment discrimination following a workplace injury at an industrial factory in 2016 in which he lost three fingers on his right hand. Farough said that when he returned to the factory after his recovery, “They were supposed to do an expert examination and pay me blood money, but when I was paid, I realized that the amount I received was much lower based on the fact that I was a religious minority.” Farough said a Muslim colleague with similar academic credentials was promoted and given a raise. “I meanwhile have all the right conditions for employment and career advancement but, just because I am a Christian, I am deprived of any promotion.”
According to human rights NGOs, including CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.
Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.
Sunni students reported that professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.
IranWire reported that according to a survey released by Iran Open Data in October, 48 percent of 2,000 adult respondents said they drank alcohol. When asked about drinking frequency, 24 percent of respondents reported that they “sometimes” drank, while 9 percent said they drank “weekly,” and 6 percent said they drank “daily.” Fifty-two percent of participants said they did not drink alcohol.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and did not have opportunities during the year to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.
The U.S. government continued to call publicly and in multilateral forums for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn and promote accountability for its abuses of members of religious minority groups in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials, use of social media, reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.
On June 13, the Special Envoy for Iran posted to Twitter, “It’s been 3 years since human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 and a half years in prison and 148 lashes for defending women’s rights in Iran. From prison she cont[tinue]s to advocate for the humane treatment of political prisoners. She should not have spent a single day in prison.”
On July 28, the Department of State released a statement on the protests that started over water shortages in Khuzestan Province, home to the predominantly Sunni Muslim Ahwazi Arab minority. It condemned the use of violence against peaceful protestors and supported their rights “to peacefully assemble and express themselves, without fear of violence and detention by security forces.”
On March 9, the United States designated IRGC interrogators Ali Hemmatian and Masoud Safdari pursuant to Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2021 for their involvement in gross violations of human rights. According to NGOs, Hemmatian and Safdari operated in Ward 2A of Evin Prison and tortured political prisoners, including activists advocating for religious freedom and protestors, during their interrogations. On the same day, the U.S. representative to the Human Rights Council’s Interactive Dialogue together with the Special Rapporteur on Iran called for Iran to “end its systematic use of an arbitrary and unfair justice system to detain and impose sentence against human rights defenders, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, journalists, members of minority groups, such as the Baha’i, and others who dissent from the government.”
On December 7, the U. S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, sanctioned the Special Units of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Iran’s Counter-Terror Special Forces (NOPO) for violently suppressing prodemocracy protests in November 2019. OFAC sanctioned two LEF commanders – Hassan Karami and Seyed Mousavi Azami – as well a Basij commander Gholamreza Soleimani and the Governor of Qods City, Leila Vaseghi, for their roles in carrying out crackdowns against peaceful protesters. OFAC also sanctioned two prisons, Zahedan Central Prison and Isfahan Central Prison, as well as the warden of Qarchak Women’s Prison, Soghra Khodadadi, and IRGC commander and brigadier general Mohammad Karami for their roles in the “flagrant denial” of the rights prisoners and other citizens, including religious minorities. The Treasury Department statement announcing the sanctions said that “Zahedan Prison holds several political prisoners who belong to the Baluch ethnic minority group. According to public reports, on January 3, 2021, Baluch prisoner Hassan Dehvari was executed in Zahedan Prison. Dehvari was sentenced to death for ‘armed rebellion against the Islamic Rule.’ His sentence was escalated to execution after he engaged in several acts of peaceful protests, such as signing statements condemning executions of Sunni prisoners and condemning the mistreatment of fellow prisoners.”
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states that while no religion shall have a “state character,” the government shall form cooperative relations with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious faiths. The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See that grants the Catholic Church additional benefits not available to the three other groups with which the government has agreements: Muslims, Protestants, and Jews. Groups without agreements may register with the government and receive some benefits. Throughout the year, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) called for the government to reform the part of the penal code that criminalizes offending “religious sentiments,” which, it stated, unduly restricted freedom of expression. Some organizations said laws criminalizing public statements disparaging religious beliefs or nonbelief, or perpetrating “profane acts” that “offend the feelings” of persons equated to criminalizing blasphemy. Religious groups that in prior years participated in the government’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom reported that the committee, an important venue for coordination with the government, had not met since 2019. Some religious groups and NGOs voiced concerns about government restrictions on places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. There were instances of members of parliament and local government officials using derogatory language against Jews and Muslims. The governmental Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation continued outreach to various religious groups and organized events promoting religious freedom. Several religious groups cited continuing obstacles to providing religious education and the integration of teachers of religion in schools, given the legal requirement for a minimum of 10 interested students to initiate non-Catholic religious education classes in public schools. The Ministry of the Interior’s Office on Hate Crimes offered assistance to victims of religiously motivated hate crimes and provided training to law enforcement.
The NGO Observatory for Religious Freedom and Conscience (OLRC) reported 148 religiously motivated incidents – including two assaults – in the first 10 months of the year, 33 fewer than in approximately the same period of 2020. Of the 148 cases, 110 (74 percent) were against Christians, nine were against Muslims, three against Jews, and 26 were classified as being against all faiths. Separately, the Ministry of the Interior documented 45 hate crimes with religious motivations in 2020, compared with 66 in 2019. The General Prosecutor’s 2020 annual report identified one new prosecution during 2020 for hate crimes involving religion, compared with seven such cases in 2019. Several individuals were sentenced to fines and imprisonment for antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes and hate speech. Some Christians, Muslims, and Jews reported they continued to experience both elevated hostilities directed against them on social media and frequent instances of vandalism. In September, the Brussels-based NGO Action and Protection League issued the results of its European antisemitism survey, which found that 10 percent of 1,000 respondents ages 18-75 in Spain said they had negative feelings towards Jews.
U.S. embassy and consulate representatives met with the Ministry of the Presidency’s Office of Religious Affairs, as well as with regional governments’ offices for religious affairs officials to discuss antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities. Issues discussed included access to permits for places of worship, religious education, cemeteries and burial, religiously motivated hate crimes, and hate speech. Embassy officers also raised these issues with religious leaders who participated in Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation meetings. Embassy and consulate officials met with leaders of Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhist, and other religious groups, and civil society groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 47.3 million (midyear 2021). According to a survey conducted in July by the governmental Center for Sociological Research, 58.6 percent of respondents identified as Catholics and 2.4 percent as followers of other religious groups. In addition, 10.4 percent described themselves as “nonbelievers”11.5 percent as agnostics, and 15 percent as atheists; the remaining 1.9 percent did not answer the question.
The Catholic organization Episcopal Conference of Spain estimated in 2017 that there are 32.6 million Catholics. The Islamic Commission of Spain (CIE) estimates there are 2.2 million Muslims; the Federation of Evangelical Religious Entities (FEREDE) estimates there are 1.5 million Protestants; the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain (FCJE) estimates there are between 40,000 and 45,000 Jews; the Episcopal Orthodox Assembly of Spain and Portugal, an umbrella organization for the various Orthodox churches, stated in 2014 there were 1.5 million Orthodox Christians; the Jehovah’s Witnesses reports approximately 120,000 members; the Buddhist Union of Spain-Federation of Buddhist Entities (UBE-FEBE) estimates there are 100,000 Buddhists; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) reports nearly 57,000 members. Other religious groups include Christian Scientists, other Christian groups, Baha’is (12,000 members), Church of Scientology (11,000 members), and Hindus (40,000). The autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa contain the highest percentages of non-Christians; nearly 50 percent of the population in both cities is Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and provides for freedom of religion and worship for individuals and communities. The constitution states no one may be compelled to testify about his or her religion or beliefs. It also states, “No religion shall have a state character,” but “public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and consequently maintain appropriate cooperative relations with the Catholic Church and other denominations.” The Catholic Church is the only religious group explicitly mentioned in the constitution. Under the penal code, it is a crime to prevent or disrupt religious services or to offend or scorn religious beliefs, ceremonies, or practitioners. The constitution allows limits on expression if “necessary to maintain public order.”
The law imposes a sentence of between eight to 12 months against an individual who offends the feelings of members of a religious group, publicly disparages the dogmas, beliefs, rights, or ceremonies of that religious group or who publicly insults members of the religious group. The law imposes the same penalties against an individual who publicly disparages those who do not profess any religion or belief. The law also imposes a six-month to one-year prison sentence or a fine against anyone who perpetrates “profane acts” that “offend the feelings” of persons belonging to legally protected religious confessions in a place of worship or at religious ceremonies.
The penal code’s definition of hate crimes includes acts of “humiliation or disrespect” against victims because of their religion, with penalties of one to four years in prison. Antisemitism is specifically defined in the penal code as a hate crime. By law, authorities may investigate and prosecute criminal offenses committed by neo-Nazi groups as terrorist crimes. Genocide denial is a crime if it incites violent attitudes, such as aggressive, threatening behavior or language. The law also provides for a “Declaration of Reparation and Personal Recognition” for those who experienced violence or persecution for political, ideological, or religious beliefs during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War or the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
The government does not require religious groups to register, but registration confers on religious groups certain legal benefits. Groups registered in the Registry of Religious Entities maintained by the Office of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of the Presidency, Relations with Parliament, and Democratic Memory (Ministry of the Presidency) may buy, rent, and sell property, and may act as a legal entity in civil proceedings. Registration entails completing forms available on the ministry’s website and providing notarized documentation of the foundational and operational statutes of the religious group, its legal representatives, territorial scope, religious purposes, and address. All persons or groups have the right to practice their religion whether or not registered as a religious entity. New religious communities may register directly with the Ministry of the Presidency, or religious associations may register on their behalf.
Registered groups that wish to sign cooperation agreements with the state must acquire notorio arraigo (“deeply rooted” or permanent) status through the Ministry of the Presidency’s Office of Religious Affairs. To achieve this status, groups must have an unspecified “relevant” number of followers, a presence in the country for at least 30 years, and a “level of diffusion” in the general population that the government considers demonstrates a “social presence,” which is not further defined. Groups must also submit documentation demonstrating the group is religious in nature to the Office of Religious Affairs, which maintains the Register of Religious Entities. Jehovah’s Witnesses, UBE-FEBE, the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Episcopal Orthodox Assembly of Spain and Portugal are registered religions with notorio arraigo status.
The government maintains a bilateral agreement with the Holy See, executed in part by the Episcopal Conference of Spain. The Episcopal Conference interacts with the government on behalf of the entire Catholic community. Per a 1979 agreement with the Holy See, individual Catholic dioceses and parishes are not required to register with the government. The Catholic Church is the only religious entity to which persons may voluntarily allocate 0.7 percent of their taxes. The government also has cooperation agreements with CIE, FEREDE, and FCJE. These agreements with the country’s four predominant religions – Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Judaism – are legally binding and provide the religious groups with certain tax exemptions and the ability to buy and sell property, open a house of worship, and conduct other legal business. The agreements also grant civil validity to weddings performed by clergy and permit the placement of teachers in schools and chaplains in hospitals, the military, and prisons. Groups with cooperation agreements are also eligible for independently administered government grants. The agreements cover legal, educational, cultural, and economic affairs; religious observance by members of the armed forces; and the military service of clergy and members of religious orders.
If the Office of Religious Affairs deems an applicant for registration a nonreligious group, the applicant may instead be included in the Register of Associations maintained by the Ministry of the Interior. Inclusion in this register grants legal status but confers no other benefits. Registration itself simply lists the association and its history in the government’s database. Registration as an association is a precursor to requesting that the government deem the association to be of public benefit, which affords the same tax benefits as charities, including exemption from income tax and taxes on contributions. For such a classification, the association must be registered for two years and maintain a net positive fiscal balance.
The Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation is a governmental entity attached to the Ministry of the Presidency that promotes religious freedom and diversity. It provides funding to non-Catholic religious denominations that have a cooperation agreement with the government in support of activities that promote cultural, educational, and social integration. It provides nonfinancial assistance to other religious groups registered with the government to increase public awareness. The foundation also promotes dialogue and rapprochement among religious groups and the integration of religion in society. It works closely with the Office of Religious Affairs.
The government funds religious services within the prison system for Catholic and Muslim groups, including Sunday Catholic Mass, Catholic confession, and Friday Islamic prayer. The cooperation agreements of FCJE and FEREDE with the government do not include provisions for publicly funded services. These groups provide religious services in prisons at their own expense.
The government guarantees access to centers for asylum seekers and refugees for religious workers of groups with cooperation agreements with the state so that these groups may provide direct assistance, at their expense, to their followers in the centers. Religious workers from groups without a cooperation agreement with the government may enter internment centers upon request to the Ministry of the Presidency.
Military rules and cooperation agreements with the government allow religious military funerals and chaplain services for Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and Jews, should the family of the deceased request it. Other religious groups may conduct religious funerals upon request.
The government recognizes marriages performed by all religious communities with notorio arraigo status. Members of religious groups without this status must be married in a civil ceremony.
The regions of Madrid and Catalonia maintain agreements with several religious groups that have accords with the national government. These regional agreements permit activities such as providing religious assistance in hospitals and prisons under regional jurisdiction. The central government funds these services for prisons and the military, and the regional governments fund hospital services. According to the central government, these subnational agreements may not contradict the principles of the federal agreements, which take precedence.
Religious groups must apply to local governments for a license to open a place of worship, along with other establishments intended for public use. Requirements for licenses vary from municipality to municipality. Documentation required is usually the same as for other business establishments seeking to open a venue for public use and includes information such as architectural plans and maximum capacity. Religious groups must also inform the Office of Religious Affairs after opening new places of worship.
Local governments are obligated to consider requests for use of public land to open a place of worship. If a municipality decides to deny such a request after weighing factors such as availability and value added to the community, the city council must explain its decision to the requesting party.
The law requires a minimum of 10 interested students to initiate new religious education classes in public schools for religions other than Catholicism. As outlined in the cooperation agreements with religious groups, the government provides funding for salaries of teachers of Catholic religious education classes in public schools and, when at least 10 students request it, funding for Islamic and Protestant teachers. The Jewish community is also eligible for government funding for Jewish instructors but has declined it. The courses are not mandatory. Those students who elect not to take religious education courses are required to take an alternative course covering general social, cultural, and religious themes. Regional governments are responsible for developing curricula and financing teachers for religious education, with the exception of Andalusia, Aragon, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, and the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which leave the curricula and financing of education to the national government in accordance with their respective regional statutes.
Autonomous regions generally have the authority to develop the requirements for religious education instructors and certify their credentials, although some defer to the national government. Prospective instructors must provide personal data, proof that the educational authority of the region where they are applying to work has never dismissed them, a degree as required by the region, and any other requirement as stipulated by the religious association to which they correspond. The religious associations must provide a list of approved instructors to the government. Ministry of Education-approved CIE guidelines stress instruction in “moderate Islam” in worship practices, with emphasis on pluralism, understanding, religious tolerance, conflict resolution, and coexistence. CIE also requires instructors to have a certificate of training in Islamic education. Private religiously based schools, whether or not they receive public funds, must comply with governmental education regulations. Private religious schools that do not receive public funds must additionally obtain authorization to function from regional educational authorities.
Catholic and Jewish clergy may include time spent on missions abroad in calculations for social security and may claim retirement pension credit for a maximum of 38.5 years of service. Protestant clergy are eligible to receive social security benefits, including health insurance and a government-provided retirement pension with a maximum credit of 15 years of service, but pension eligibility requirements for these clergy are stricter than for Catholic clergy. Muslim, Orthodox, and Jehovah’s Witnesses clergy are also eligible for social security benefits under the terms of separate social security agreements each of these groups negotiated with the state.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, Amnesty International and other NGOs reiterated calls for the government to reform the part of the penal code that criminalizes offending “religious sentiments,” which, they stated, unduly restricted freedom of expression. Some organizations said the laws criminalizing public statements disparaging religious beliefs or nonbelief, or perpetrating “profane acts” that “offend the feelings” of persons equated to criminalizing blasphemy. In May, a Malaga appeals court reaffirmed the conviction of a woman for “offending religious sentiments,” confirming the 2,700-euro ($3,100) fine levied against her as punishment. The Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers had originally filed a complaint against the woman for her participation in a 2013 public women’s rights procession in which she carried a large plastic vagina fashioned to look like the Virgin Mary. The appeals court determined the woman’s actions were not “guided by public or collective interest in criticism, but rather with the intention of vilifying or offending” Catholics.
In January, the government implemented a new education law, under which Holocaust education remained mandatory.
Several religious organizations with notorio arraigo status reported the government’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom had not held a meeting since late 2019. Members of these organizations said the committee – composed of government officials, religious representatives, and experts on religious issues – previously met several times per year. Organizations expressed concern regarding the loss of a primary venue for interfaith cooperation and government dialogue. Officials from the Ministry of the Presidency identified the cessation of committee activity as an unintended consequence of the 2019 transfer of responsibility for religious freedom issues from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of the Presidency. Parliament must modify the decree to allow the Ministry of the Presidency to convene the committee.
In September, the Madrid regional parliament approved for presentation to the national congress a draft bill prohibiting state assistance to entities that engage in antisemitism or otherwise discriminate on the basis of birth, race, sex, religion, or other personal characteristics. The FCJE applauded the move. In the same month, the Madrid regional parliament adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism.
On May 7, the Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation and Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces announced a new joint project to promote religious diversity and increase local governments’ capacity to protect religious freedom. Through the project, local and provincial government officials committed to adhere to principles of coexistence, share best practices, and access expert consultants. The cities of Bilbao, Burgos, Cartagena, Castellon, Fuenlabrada, Guadalajara, Malaga, Olivenza, and Valladolid joined the initiative.
In the fall, the public Madrid Autonomous University unveiled a new academic course in religious leadership and administration. Religious officials collaborated with faculty to develop the course, which focuses on the legal principles affecting the relationship between religious entities and the Spanish government. Buddhist and Catholic representatives praised the course as the product of interfaith collaboration.
In April, the city of Madrid signed an agreement with the Sefarad-Israel Center to jointly promote Jewish culture in Madrid society. The agreement included the creation of a dedicated Jewish literature space in Madrid’s public library and a commitment to cohost community events on Sephardic culture and history. In December, the city and center cohosted a public Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony.
In May, the city of Leon unveiled a new exhibit depicting the country’s Jewish history. Called “Discover Sefarad,” the exhibit included images furnished by the Network of Jewish Quarters and the Cervantes Institute.
In February, the Supreme Court suspended regional COVID-19 restrictions on religious services in Castile and Leon that had limited attendance to 25 persons. The court’s ruling called for proportionality, and it stipulated that blanket restrictions had failed to reasonably consider building characteristics that might safely permit larger, or necessitate smaller, gatherings. The regional government of Castile and Leon had lifted the restrictions several days before the court’s ruling.
In August, reports stated that the OLRC reiterated concerns regarding the suspension or interruption of religious services during a conversation with Interior Minister Fernado Grande-Marlaska. The OLRC said the continued restrictions on religious gatherings impeded acts of worship fundamental to religious practice. In December 2020, the Supreme Court had dismissed a complaint filed by the Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers against Grande-Marlaska in his official capacity. That complaint accused the ministry’s security forces of unlawfully interrupting religious gatherings throughout the country while enforcing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The court determined the interruptions fell within the government’s authority under its first pandemic state of emergency (March through June 2020) and were therefore justified as “extraordinary measures to preserve collective safety.”
In January, FEREDE expressed concerns regarding capacity and other restrictions on churches due to the COVID-19 pandemic. FEREDE and other religious organizations reacted positively when the government lifted or reduced restrictions in later months, although they urged caution among their congregations.
CIE representatives stated that COVID-19 restrictions continued to complicate the pre-pandemic practice of repatriating the remains of deceased Muslims to their countries of origin for burial. As a result, CIE reported that more Muslims chose to bury their deceased in sections of local cemeteries with dedicated plots for burial, in accordance with Islamic rites. According to CIE, 12 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities have cemeteries with dedicated plots for Muslim burials. In May, CIE representatives met with a member of parliament to advocate for agreements in communities lacking dedicated space. In October, members of the Islamic community in Cordoba, Andalusia, expressed concerns about the lack of protocols for the burial in accordance with religious rites of Muslims who die while experiencing homelessness. Throughout the year, media reported on the ongoing efforts of the Muslim community to establish such an agreement in Badajoz, Extremadura, where city officials voiced opposition to ceding control of a portion of the municipal cemetery to that community.
In March, media reported the European Court of Human Rights in November 2020 had declined to hear a complaint brought by the grandchildren of former dictator Francisco Franco related to the government’s October 2019 exhumation and reburial of Franco’s remains. The OLRC had previously said it did not consider removing Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen as an attack on religious freedom.
On July 15, King Felipe VI hosted a second secular memorial service, one year after the first, to honor Spaniards who had lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several religious groups, including Protestants and Jews, expressed appreciation for the ceremonies’ secular tone that contrasted with the Catholic rituals previously common at similar ceremonies.
In September, the regional governments of the Ceuta and Melilla enclaves in north Africa announced that for the first time Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr would be paid holidays for public and private sector employees.
Several religious groups cited continuing obstacles to providing religious education and integrating teachers of religion in schools, given the legal requirement for a minimum of 10 interested students to initiate non-Catholic religious education classes in public schools. CIE reported the number of teachers and schools offering Islamic studies courses continued to increase annually. Islamic studies courses in seven Balearic Islands schools began during the 2021-22 academic year. In 2021, there were only four autonomous communities without Islamic studies courses in public schools: Asturias, Cantabria, Galicia, and Murcia. CIE said some regions lacked Islamic studies courses due to decisions by local authorities or a lack of demand. Where viable, CIE professors taught at more than one school.
FCJE reported there were no Jewish religious education classes in public schools. FCJE officials said they did not consider the lack of Jewish education classes to be problematic because of the availability of, and preference for, private religious instruction in the Jewish community. FCJE reported schools were usually unaware of Jewish holidays as provided for in the accord between FCJE and the state but were often amenable to modifying school schedules to accommodate students when informed of these holidays. Occasionally, mandatory public examinations for university students conflicted with Jewish religious occasions, such as the Sabbath. In these cases, FCJE reported it worked with affected students and academic institutions to make individual accommodations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said they declined to seek their own religious instruction in schools, since they believed that religious training was the responsibility of the individual and not the responsibility of the state.
In January, the FCJE advocated for autonomous community governments to incorporate “robust” Holocaust and Jewish history as mandatory topics in the secondary school curricula at the regional in addition to the national level, where it has been mandatory since 2013. Also in January, the central government implemented a new education law, under which Holocaust education remained mandatory. The Sefarad-Israel Center continued to train teachers on the Holocaust, Judaism, and anti-Semitism through a 2017 agreement between the FCJE and the Ministry of Education.
In May, CIE criticized a history textbook used in some high schools in Catalonia as offensive to Muslims and inappropriate for students. Observers said what they called the textbook’s overly simplistic description of Islam and its tenets presented the religion in a negative light. The publishing company Vicens Vives said it would correct this in future editions of the textbooks.
Non-Catholic religious groups described what they said was unequal legal treatment by the government as an ongoing concern. The Catholic Church remained the only religious entity to which persons could voluntarily allocate 0.7 percent of their taxes. According to media, one in three Spaniards chose to allocate some of their taxes to the Catholic Church in 2020, yielding 301 million euros ($341.27 million), a 5.85 percent increase in donations compared with 2019. Other religious groups were not listed on the tax form as potential recipients of funds. Several religious groups, including Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to express their desire to have their groups included on the tax form, while some groups described the system as discriminatory. They said they would rather receive voluntary contributions from taxpayers without preconditions than rely on funding from the FPC, which has specific conditions for use of its funds.
CIE, FEREDE, and FCJE stated they relied on government funds provided through the Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation to cover their administrative and infrastructure costs. The Ministry of the Presidency stated it continued to allocate funding to different groups according to the number of registered entities and the approximate number of adherents. Foundation officials reported the pandemic delayed disbursement of funds during the year. In 2020, it provided FEREDE with 462,800 euros ($525,000), CIE with 330,000 euros ($374,000), and FCJE with 169,405 euros ($192,000). In addition to infrastructure and administrative funding, foundation funds also covered small publicity and research projects. Several religious groups reported financial challenges due to COVID-19, with many of their members unable to make the same levels of charitable donations as in previous years.
In February, three Catalonia-based Muslim community organizations – the Union of Islamic Community in Catalonia, the Islamic Federation Council of Catalonia, and the Islamic Federation of Catalonia – filed a complaint against the Vox political party for its “Stop Islamization” social media campaign leading up to Catalonian regional elections. As part of this campaign, Vox’s regional candidate had posted videos to Twitter juxtaposing images of area mosques and Islamic studies courses with footage of 2017 terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. The Barcelona hate crimes prosecutor opened a hate crimes investigation into Vox’s messaging during the campaign. The case was subsequently transferred to Madrid. In October, the Madrid prosecutor’s office closed the investigation, finding that Vox’s campaign was protected by laws guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression.
The Ministry of Justice continued processing applications under the 2015 law that provided descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country more than 500 years ago the right of return as full Spanish citizens, as long as the applications were submitted before the law’s expiration in September 2019. The government allowed petitioners to modify their applications, if necessary, until September 2021. It had twice extended this deadline. As of June, the government had received more than 150,000 petitions and had granted citizenship to approximately 60,000 descendants of Sephardic Jews. The government rejected approximately 3,000 petitions for various reasons and continued to address outstanding cases. FCJE reported the organization remained involved in the law’s adjudication process and that it devoted considerable resources to supporting the ministry’s efforts. In July, overseas Jewish associations stated the Ministry of Justice deviated from the criteria and evaluation procedures outlined in law to dismiss petitioners with valid cases. FCJE officials said the ministry continued to adjudicate cases fairly and in accordance with the law.
On October 13, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares spoke at the Malmo International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, reaffirming the country’s commitment to the 2000 Stockholm Declaration, the founding document of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Albares referenced the nearly 10,000 exiled Spanish Republicans sent to Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen and Buchenwald, saying, “To remember is also to prevent…. We remember [the past] so we do not repeat [it.]”
The FCJE estimated there were very few survivors of the Holocaust residing in the country and said, for this reason, the government only considered property restitution on a case-by-case basis.
In May, the FCJE’s Observatory of Antisemitism denounced the use of public billboards in Oleiros, Galicia, to criticize the actions of Israel with the phrase “Zionist Terrorism.” City mayor Angel Garcia Seoane took responsibility for the signage, which he said displayed his personal views.
Courts continued to rule against municipal and provincial government resolutions supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, although sources stated that new resolutions were increasingly uncommon. Such resolutions usually entailed a nonbinding declaration calling on the central government to “support any initiative promoted by the international BDS campaign” and to “suspend relations with Israel until that country stops its criminal and repressive policies against the Palestinian population.” Some pro-BDS-movement legislation also contained language in support of a “space free of Israeli apartheid.” In May, a Valencia pro-BDS organization led a demonstration advocating boycotts to protest “Zionist attacks and crimes in Gaza, Jerusalem, and all of Palestine.”
The Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation conducted several outreach campaigns, including hosting virtual events, aimed at promoting a better understanding of different religions and respect for religious freedom. It continued working with religious groups on the opening and operation of places of worship, the impact of religious education, and the effects of discrimination and limits to religious freedom in the workplace. The Office of Religious Affairs maintained an online portal for information to aid new immigrants or citizens moving into a community to find his or her locally registered religious community and place of worship. The Ministry of the Interior’s Office on Hate Crimes continued to provide assistance to victims of religiously motivated hate crimes and training for law enforcement.
Several regional and municipal government offices continued to conduct outreach with the stated goal of promoting religious diversity. In March, the Catalan regional government published the 2020 Barometer on Religiosity and on the Management of its Diversity, an opinion poll showing the population’s religious affiliation, knowledge of other faiths, and opinions on religious freedom. The report reflected that 70 percent of the population supported incorporating instruction about the world’s major religions into school curricula. The Department of Religious Affairs and the regional ministry of interior published a guide for law enforcement agencies that provided police with tools to respect religious diversity in their operations. The Barcelona city council’s Office for Religious Affairs and Office for Non-Discrimination facilitated and promoted religious celebrations and provided grants for projects of various religious groups. The municipal government organized roundtables to discuss the status of religious freedom in the city, emphasizing the role of women in religious communities.
In September, the Catalan regional government’s Department of Religious Affairs partnered with the Ramon Llull University to launch a Chair of Religious Freedom and Conscience as a forum for studying and promoting religious freedom in the region.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the OLRC, there were 148 incidents it described as violating religious freedom in the first 10 months of the year, 33 fewer incidents than occurred in approximately the same period of 2020. Of the incidents, 110 (74 percent) targeted Christians, nine were against Muslims, three against Jews, and 26 were classified as being against all faiths. There were two incidents of violence (one assault on Catholics and one against Muslims), 21 attacks on places of worship, 49 cases of harassment, and 76 cases of “public marginalization of religion.” According to the OLRC’s 2020 annual report, published in September, Catalonia was the region with the most attacks on religious freedom in 2020, followed by Madrid and Andalusia.
According to the Ministry of the Interior’s 2020 annual report on hate crimes, the most recent available, there were 45 hate crimes based on religious beliefs or practices – and, separately, three motivated by antisemitism – in 2020, compared with 66 and five such crimes, respectively, in 2019. Only crimes involving antisemitism were disaggregated, as the penal code treats these as distinct offenses. Most of the religiously motivated crimes occurred in Catalonia (12 hate crimes based on religious beliefs, and two specifically of antisemitism), followed by Madrid (eight and zero crimes), Valencia (five and zero crimes), and Murcia (four and zero crimes).
The ministry’s report did not cite specific examples or provide a breakdown of religiously motivated incidents by type of crime. According to a ministry official, the figures in the annual report only included officially filed complaints and not incidents gathered from press reports.
The General Prosecutor’s 2020 annual report reported one new prosecution in that year for a hate crime involving religion, compared with seven such cases in 2019.
In October, a Valencia regional court convicted a man of physically and verbally assaulting seven Jehovah’s Witnesses in Torrent, Valencia in 2018. Although prosecutors originally requested two years’ imprisonment, after he pleaded guilty, the courts sentenced the defendant to six months’ imprisonment (served as a two-year suspended sentence) and a mandatory course in tolerance.
In April, the Barcelona hate crimes prosecutor asked for between three and 10 years’ imprisonment for 15 members of groups generally considered to be far right that promoted anti-Muslim sentiments through weekly protests outside a local Barcelona mosque in 2017 and 2018.
Also in April, a court in Tocoronte in the Canary Islands sentenced a man to two years’ imprisonment for xenophobic and anti-Muslim social media posts, including references to “taking out” a mosque, in 2017 and 2018. Although the messages were posted to the man’s personal account and had limited reach, the court ruled they qualified as hate speech under the law because they were publicly accessible.
In May, the former leader of the Islamic Federation of the Canary Islands faced hate crimes charges for antisemitic social media posts from 2014-2017. In July, a Tenerife regional court dismissed the charges, ruling that the messages fell within the bounds of freedom of expression. The Canary Islands General Prosecutor’s Office said it planned to appeal the decision.
In May, the Cantabria public prosecutor’s office announced it would pursue a nine-month prison sentence and a 2,400-euro ($2,700) fine in the trial of a woman accused of shouting slurs at a Muslim woman in 2019. Authorities accused the woman of denigrating wearing a hijab. Afterwards, she made similar comments to three bystanders. In August, courts convicted the defendant of a hate crime and sentenced her to six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 1,080 euros ($1,200); the court suspended the woman’s sentence and imposed a two-year probation period.
In May, the Interreligious Council of Catalonia and the Working Group of Religions, an entity composed of the representatives of the various religious faiths in the region, released a statement titled “Anti-Religious Phobias: Rights and Limits of Freedom of Expression.” The statement warned of an increase in antisemitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiment, and discrimination against other faiths present in Catalonia.
In June, a Madrid court sentenced a man to a six-month suspended sentence and three years’ probation under a plea agreement with the prosecutor’s office for physically and verbally assaulting a Muslim woman on the metro. Reports of the 2017 incident suggested the individual had lifted his arm in a Nazi salute and referenced gas chambers while disparaging the woman’s use of a hijab.
Media reported that in February, 300 people attended an event paying tribute to the Blue Division, a Spanish volunteer military unit that fought on the side of Nazi Germany in World War II. During the event, a woman gave a speech calling Jews “the same enemy hiding behind different masks,” praising the Blue Division’s contributions, and identifying communism as “a Jewish invention to oppose workers.” The FCJE filed a hate speech complaint with the General Prosecutor’s office, which opened an investigation. In May, a judge ruled that the statements did not constitute a crime, and the prosecutor’s office appealed the ruling. Media reported in October that the case had been closed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israeli embassy, and national and local government officials condemned the gathering. In April, the National Police announced it would not levy charges against other attendees, citing the constitutional right to gather peacefully without prior authorization.
In September, the Brussels-based NGO Action and Protection League issued the results of its European antisemitism survey based on data from December 2019-January 2020. According to the survey, 10 percent of 1,000 respondents ages 18-75 in Spain said they had negative feelings towards Jews. Thirteen percent said they would be “totally uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable” with having Jewish neighbors. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents the degree to which they agreed or disagreed. The proportion who responded “strongly agree” or “tend to agree” with the following statements were – “the interests of Jews in this country are very different from the interests of the rest of the population” (21 percent); “there is a secret Jewish network that influences political and economic affairs in the world” (17 percent); “Jews have too much influence in this country” (9 percent); “Jews will never be able to fully integrate into this society” (8 percent); “Jews are more inclined than most to use shady practices to achieve their goals” (11 percent); “many of the atrocities of the Holocaust were often exaggerated by the Jews later” (10 percent); “Jews are also to blame for the persecutions against them” (10 percent); “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes” (11 percent).
Muslim leaders in Valencia expressed concern that some Muslim youth might be susceptible to more extreme ideologies in the absence of public Muslim education classes or religious services.
Media reported several incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, many of which prosecutors referred to the courts. In January, an unknown individual threw a large rock through the door of a mosque in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands, destroying a wood panel. In February, unknown individuals partially burned a mosque in San Javier, Murcia, which had previously been defaced with anti-Muslim graffiti. City officials called the incident intentional and released a statement condemning the vandalism. Also in February, city officials in Burgos in Castile and Leon region reported 26 vandalism incidents in 2020 involved antisemitic symbols or language. In April, local political figures denounced the defacement with a swastika of a statue honoring famed middle ages Muslim physician Ibn al-Baytar. In May, the local government of Hoyo de Manzanares, in Madrid Region, denounced antisemitic and anti-Muslim graffiti that appeared on the gates of the town’s Jewish cemetery. Also in May, an unknown person defaced a mural in a Madrid-area neighborhood named for Polish Jewish activist Rosa Luxemburg, killed in Berlin in 1919, with the words “killer Jew.” In July, the mayor of Cabezo de Torres, Murcia, condemned an act in which an individual left a severed pig’s head at the door and wrote the words, “Stop the invasion” and “No to Islam” on the walls of a local mosque.
In September, the UNESCO Association for Interreligious Dialogue (AUDIR), a Catalan NGO, organized its sixth “Night of Religions” in Barcelona, in which 40 places of worship representing 15 different religious groups opened their doors to local residents. More than 2,500 persons took part in in-person and online activities, double the number of the previous year, which were conducted in-person and online. AUDIR established interreligious dialogue groups in 10 cities in the region bringing together religious leaders from different faiths to discuss religious diversity and create neighborhood joint projects.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy and consulate representatives met with the Ministry of the Presidency’s Office of Religious Affairs, as well as with regional governments’ offices for religious affairs officials to discuss antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities. Issues discussed included access to permits for places of worship, religious education, cemeteries and burial, religiously motivated hate crimes, and hate speech. Embassy officers also raised these issues with religious leaders who participated in Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation meetings.
Embassy and consulate officials met with leaders of Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhist, and other religious groups, and civil society groups. Embassy and consulate officials discussed the concerns of community members regarding discrimination and the free exercise of their religious rights.
In October, embassy officials traveled to Cordoba, a city with historic Islamic sites and communities, to engage with Muslim community organizations. Muslim community representatives in Cordoba discussed funereal challenges, such as the lack of religiously appropriate protocols to bury Muslims who died while experiencing homelessness.
In November, embassy officials met with Muslim leaders in the city of Valencia to discuss the community’s assimilation into the local population.
In January, the embassy participated in a Holocaust Remembrance Month event hosted by the Spanish Senate. In February, the consulate general in Barcelona invited the Director of the European Association for the Promotion of Jewish Heritage and Culture and founder of Catalonia’s first Jewish cultural center to participate in a virtual embassy-sponsored exchange program on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom.
In April, the Charge d’Affaires posted a series of messages on social media marking the beginning of Ramadan and highlighting the importance of religious freedom as well as the inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. The messages underscored the U.S. commitment to tolerance and coexistence around the world. In lieu of hosting an annual iftar celebration, the Charge sent personal letters to leaders of religious groups, government offices, diplomatic missions, and NGOs commemorating Ramadan and promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The consulate general in Barcelona also promoted religious freedom and diversity on social media on occasions such as the International Religious Freedom Day and Ramadan.