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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. Shia representatives said they saw no increase in Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) protection; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the Shia community ahead of large Shia gatherings. Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) in March that targeted Sikhs and killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of the lack of security and insufficient government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling commercial and civil disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation by the local community and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils.

There were reports that ISIS-K, an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities and that the Taliban targeted and killed individuals because of their religious beliefs or their links to the government. During the year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019 – causing 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. According UNAMA, consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. Two major attacks on the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, two gunmen opened fire on participants, primarily Shia Hazara, attending a commemorative ceremony in Kabul, killing 32; ISIS-K claimed responsibility. On May 12, three gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and health-care workers; no group claimed responsibility, although the government believed ISIS-K was responsible. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one person. Police also found and defused two other IEDs targeting Sikhs on March 26 and 27. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. Media reported an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission statement that on June 19, Taliban physically abused and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing funeral rites for a local police commander. Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques, including attacking two mosques in June, leading to the deaths of two imams and other worshippers. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were harassed by fellow students in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived 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 or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. One mullah in Herat reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia; authorities did not restrain his activities, citing the need to focus on the Taliban. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as music concerts, they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, due to the small size of their communities, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of violent attacks on the community, societal discrimination, and lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the Hindu and Sikh communities continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested the support of police, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. According to members of the community, at year’s end, approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

U.S. Embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost Province with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. The embassy used virtual platforms to engage communities so these discussions could continue despite COVID-19 restrictions. The embassy continued to sponsor 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. The embassy also used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 400 members of the Sikh community remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 600 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most of the community is located in Kabul, with smaller groups in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including at least one Jew.

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 II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the tenets and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

The penal code contains provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years and specifies imprisonment for persons using a computer system, program, or data to insult Islam.

Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$780). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.

While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up hudood crimes as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood crimes are punished according to sharia as interpreted by the Sunni school of Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines age of maturity as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts. Those accused of proselytizing are subject to the same punishment as those who convert from Islam.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels by other Muslims.

Licensing and registration of religious groups by the MOHRA are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.

A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs to reflect Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools, but there are no alternatives offered. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. MOHRA registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-registered madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education.

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes addresses a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring Hanafi jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the President and two Vice Presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu or Sikh communities. The person occupying the seat is not obliged to swear allegiance to Islam, only to obey the law and serve all citizens and the state.

MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues.

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

Government Practices

Media reported and representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, merely symbolic measures – and that the government failed to implement effective measures to protect the community, including from nonstate actors. Members of the Shia community reported they saw no increase in ANDSF protection during the year; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the community ahead of large Shia gatherings. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians under police authority to provide extra security for the Ashura commemoration. According to media reports, security forces took special precautions to reduce street traffic in the affected neighborhoods of Kabul during the Ashura commemoration period. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-K in March that killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of lack of security and insufficient government protection.

There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels” by many Muslims, although they were not always considered converts from Islam (apostates); as such, they were not charged with either crime.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics on the number of mullahs and mosques in the country because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry, but they estimated there were approximately 160,000 mosques. MOHRA reported that at year’s end, of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 7,000 mullahs were registered with and paid by MOHRA. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive monthly salaries of between 7,710 and 15,420 afghanis ($100-$200) from the government, depending on their location, the size of their congregation, and the knowledge of the mullah. MOHRA reported that just 7,000 mosques in the country were registered with the ministry.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate approximately 65 percent of its budget (188 million afghanis – $2.44 million) for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy but not to spread information about their religion or encourage others to practice it. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing commercial and civil disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and that they avoided pursuing land disputes through the courts for the same reason, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs also reported that individuals who lived near the cremation site continued to interfere with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government allocated 80 million afghanis ($1.04 million) for the repair of places of worship, including for Sikh and Hindu sites, of which 40 million afghanis ($520,000) were expended as of October 2020. Community leaders reported that MOHRA provided free water and electricity and was making efforts to provide repair services for a few remaining Sikh and Hindu temples.

According to MOHRA, due to insecurity, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said that in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs and that because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. In November, the First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, ordered the Central Statistics Office to register all teachers and students of the 362 madrassahs in Kabul City and of the 130 madrassahs in the other districts of Kabul Province. Once registration was complete in Kabul Province, the office was expected to conduct the same process throughout the country. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to media reporting, there were approximately 5,000 madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country registered with MOHRA. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates. The government stated that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not have sufficient resources to consolidate data on the enrollment of students in religious institutions.

MOHRA officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Approximately 80 Ministry of Education-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,000 public madrassahs were registered with the ministry, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of the number of unregistered madrassas available.

Members of the Ulema Council, the highest religious body in the country, continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.

MOHRA’s office dedicated to assisting religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus, focused on helping Sikhs and Hindus secure passports and visas so they could permanently leave the country, most often to India.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish and a number of deputy ministers, governors, and one member of the Supreme Court, but no cabinet-level positions, unlike in previous years. Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics, which they attributed to the government’s marginalization of minority groups and the lack of a supportive social environment. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia were overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras, who are mostly Shia Muslims, often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Some observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported that Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country.

A small and decreasing number of Sikhs continued to serve in government positions, including one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, and one as a presidential advisor on Sikh and Hindu affairs.

Three Ismaili Muslims were members of parliament, down one from 2019, and State Minister for Peace Sadat Mansoor Naderi is also an Ismaili Muslim. Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council (a Shia-led initiative with some Sunni members), and MOHRA continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. On October 25 and November 12, they held meetings in Kabul to address concerns and find areas of mutual cooperation. On October 1, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani organized the country’s first women’s Ulema conference, held in Kabul. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by ISIS-K and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Shia Hazara. During the year, UNAMA documented a reduction from 2019 in civilian casualties from attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. UNAMA recorded 19 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019. The attacks caused 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. The report attributed all the attacks to antigovernment elements.

UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISIS-K-directed, sectarian-motivated violence, primarily targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. It documented 10 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and Sikhs, resulting in 308 civilian casualties (112 killed and 196 injured), compared with 2019 when there were 10 incidents resulting in 485 civilian casualties (117 killed and 368 injured).

Several major attacks against the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazara, killing 32 persons; ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On May 12, three unidentified gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and healthcare workers; no group claimed responsibility. On October 24, a suicide bomber staged an attack on an educational center in the same Shia Hazara-dominant neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons and wounding 57. Most of the casualties were between the ages of 15 and 25. ISIS-K claimed responsibility.

On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11 during a six-hour siege. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection.

Progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Media reported that on January 28, the district director of the Hajj and Religious Department for Pashtun-Zarghon District in Herat Province, Mullah Abdulhamid Ahmadi, was shot and killed by unidentified individuals. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Media reported that on February 2, unidentified gunmen killed one person praying in a Shia mosque in Herat. On February 11, five children were killed and three others wounded when a bomb exploded at their Sunni madrassah in Kunduz Province. All the children were under the age of 14. On May 13, unknown gunmen attacked worshippers praying at a Sunni mosque in Khost Province. One person was killed and another wounded. On May 19, unidentified gunmen killed three persons and wounded another in a Sunni mosque in Khost. Also on May 19, in Parwan Province, gunmen opened fire on worshippers gathered at a Sunni mosque, killing 12, including four children, and wounding six. None of the perpetrators was identified.

On June 18, a bomb killed at least seven students at a seminary in Takhar Province. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there was no investigation of the incident by year’s end.

According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted progovernment Sunni mosques. On June 2, a bomb exploded inside the Sunni Wazir Akber Khan Mosque in Kabul, killing the imam and one other worshipper attending evening prayers. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 12, a bomb in the Sunni Sher Shah Suri Mosque in Kabul killed four men gathered for Friday prayers, including the imam. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Following these attacks on two mosques in June, clerics gathered in Kabul to demand government protection of religious figures. Media reported that the Ministry of Interior said it had assigned a team to investigate the incidents.

The Taliban continued to kill religious leaders and threaten them with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. Media reported that on December 22, the Taliban killed Imam Mawlawi Ghullam Sakhi Khatib in Farah because of his progovernment messaging.

In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on progovernment religious leaders was unclear. In these instances, although no individual or group claimed responsibility, local authorities said they suspected that ISIS-K or, less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On June 13, an imam in Takhar Province was killed and two of his companions wounded by unidentified gunmen as the imam returned from prayers. No group claimed responsibility. On October 17, a religious scholar was killed by a bomb that exploded inside the seminary where he studied in Nangarhar Province; no group claimed responsibility.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban monitoring the social practices of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their interpretation of Islamic law. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. The man with whom she was reportedly involved escaped. Media reported that on August 4, the Taliban killed a local singer in Takhar Province as he returned home from a wedding because the Taliban considered singing to be prohibited in Islam.

There were again reports of Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for members of the ANDSF and other government employees. According to media, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that on June 19, the Taliban tortured and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing the funeral rites of a local police commander.

According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.

There again were reports of the Taliban taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula; however, it was difficult to obtain information in Taliban-controlled territory.

Shia Hazara leaders said the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations in Doha offered a chance for a peaceful future but were concerned a postsettlement Taliban would “turn back the clock” to a time when human rights, including religious freedom, were not respected in Afghanistan. Hazara leaders expressed concern that, if the Taliban established an Islamic emirate in the country, the Taliban would not accept Shia Islam as a formal religion and would ignore laws currently in place that protect Shia. In March, the UN Security Council issued UN Security Council Resolution 2513 noting that the Security Council did not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic’s negotiating team for the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations included Shia Hazara representatives.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity in the country are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community reported they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress.

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. Christian sources estimated there were “dozens” of Christian missionaries in the country, mostly foreign but some local.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. 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, in contrast to other more secure, government-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 increase their security in public.

Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadis continued to report the 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. Ahmadis 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. Ahmadis representatives said they did not report these threats to police because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from police and other officials.

Christian representatives continued to report public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. 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. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few remaining places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were a total of 70 gurdwaras and mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, although they did not specify how many of each. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said their complaints over seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Paktiya, and Parwan Provinces – some pending since 2016 – remained unresolved at year’s end. The ONSC established a commission to assist in the restoration of these properties, but no further action was taken by year’s end.

Community leaders continued to say they considered the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders again reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools lacked capable teachers, books, and other items necessary to teach students.

While in past years Sikh leaders stated the main cause of Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities, due in part to illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education, during the year they said threats from antigovernment groups, inadequate government protection, and multiple attacks on the community in March caused many families to emigrate or consider doing so. Many left for India, where international Sikh organizations facilitated their relocation. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples because they could not afford permanent housing. Both Sikh and Hindu communities stated emigration would increase as economic conditions declined and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated fewer than 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country at year’s end, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year. They said the departure mirrored events in 2018, when 500 to 600 Sikhs fled the country following a major attack on the community. Some Sikhs and Hindus also reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam.

Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. Media reported a cleric in the city of Herat banned public music and concerts, stating that certain television programs and social media platforms were un-Islamic. The cleric enjoyed the support of hundreds of supporters; according to press and other observers, local law enforcement rarely interfered with the cleric’s strict interpretation and enforcement of sharia. The same mullah reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia, such as women not covering their hair or public contact between unrelated men and women.

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 Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform his religious rituals. He said that in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies had attended the synagogue, but they could no longer do so due to security concerns.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.

Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports. Women who swam at a private swimming club in Kabul and exercised at a gym in Kandahar told media they experienced harassment from men when going to and from these facilities and sometimes faced the disapproval of their families due to traditional attitudes against women’s participation in sports.

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

U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, although COVID-19 restrictions changed the platforms for engagement used by embassy officials, and many discussions were held virtually.

Senior embassy officials met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities following the March attacks on the Sikh community to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith. On March 28, senior embassy officials met with Shia Hazara leaders to discuss the peace process and the protection of Afghan ethnic and religious minorities. On October 14, senior embassy officials met virtually with members of the Shia Hazara community to discuss their perspectives on the peace negotiations and how they might affect their community, including religious freedom.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could foment intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, especially in the context of peace negotiations. The embassy reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and tolerance. It coordinated events with researchers and religious scholars throughout the provinces to discuss religion as an avenue to promote tolerance. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. On February 20, representatives of the Lincoln Learning Center in Gardiz visited the Sikh minority community of Gardiz to highlight interfaith tolerance. On May 21, the Lincoln Learning Center network hosted a speaker who shared his personal experience about how Muslim Americans observe Ramadan in the United States. In addition, in the context of the connections between ethnicity and religious identities in the country, embassy officials hosted panel discussions to analyze antiracism efforts through an Islamic lens.

The embassy hosted in-person and virtual roundtables with researchers, Sunni and Shia religious scholars, Ulema Council members, including members of the Women’s Ulema, and MOHRA representatives to discuss means to counter violent extremism related to religion and to promote tolerance.

The embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On January 16, U.S. Religious Freedom Day, the embassy highlighted on Twitter and Facebook a roundtable with faith communities that centered on how tolerance promotes peace and underscored the U.S. government’s support for religious freedom. Senior Department of State officials condemned the late March attacks on the Sikh community in Kabul through tweets and media statements. In drawing attention to diversity in June, the Charge d’Affaires shared a quote on social media expressing U.S. commitment to stand with an Afghanistan that promotes freedoms for all its citizens, including in following their faith. The Charge d’Affaires condemned through Twitter the June 2 attack on a Kabul mosque that resulted in the death of its imam and other worshippers.

Australia

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office. The government considered public feedback on revised draft religious freedom laws whose stated aim was to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life. Citing pressures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced the legislation’s consideration would be delayed to an unspecified date. As movement restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 began to ease in the latter part of the year, several religious leaders criticized remaining state government restrictions, saying they unfairly affected religious communities. Parliaments in the two most populous states – New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria – initiated inquiries into laws with the stated purpose of strengthening protections against religious discrimination and vilification. While Catholic archdioceses welcomed the legislation, some individual Catholic leaders expressed opposition to state laws enacted in Victoria and Queensland requiring religious leaders and workers to report evidence of child abuse, including evidence heard in confession.

There were reports that COVID-19 enabled conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazi sympathizers, and far-right hate groups to introduce new avenues of attack on religious organizations. Members of minority religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, experienced instances of religious discrimination, threats, attacks, and hate speech. Allegations of anti-Semitic bullying in a Melbourne school received widespread media attention and in July, the Victoria Department of Education launched an investigation into claims two Jewish brothers were regularly the subjects of verbal and physical abuse. There were several reports of anti-Semitic verbal attacks in Melbourne. In NSW, a man was jailed for 10 months for posting anti-Muslim threats on social media.

The U.S. embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included engagement with members of the country’s Uyghur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2016 census, 52.1 percent of residents are Christian, including Roman Catholics (22.6 percent of residents), Anglicans (13.3 percent), Uniting Church (3.7 percent), Presbyterian and Reformed (2.3 percent), Baptist (1.5 percent), and Pentecostal (1.1 percent). Muslims constitute 2.6 percent of the population, Buddhists 2.4 percent, Hindus 1.9 percent, Sikhs 0.5 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent. An additional 9.6 percent of the population either did not state a religious affiliation or stated affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 30.1 percent reported no religious affiliation.

Revised figures from the 2016 census indicate that indigenous persons constitute 3.3 percent of the population, and that there are broad similarities in the religious affiliation of indigenous and nonindigenous individuals. In 2016, less than two percent of the indigenous population reported adherence to traditional indigenous religions or beliefs. Fifty-four percent of indigenous respondents identify as Christian, and an estimated 36 percent report having no religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law imposing a state religion or religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or establishing a religious test for a federal public office. The constitution’s protection of the “free exercise of any religion” may be limited only when deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination may have recourse under federal or state and territory discrimination laws and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion. In Queensland, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory, freedom of religion is protected in statutory human rights charters. The antidiscrimination laws of all states and territories, with the exceptions of NSW and South Australia, contain a prohibition against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. NSW prohibits discrimination on the basis of “ethnoreligious origin,” and South Australia protects individuals from discrimination in employment and education on the grounds of religious dress. Complainants may seek redress through state and territory human rights bodies.

Religious groups are not required to register. To receive tax-exempt status for income or other benefits and an exemption from the goods and services tax (sales tax), however, nonprofit religious groups must apply to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO compliance procedures. To receive tax-exempt status, an organization must be a nonprofit entity. An organization’s activities, size, and permanence are some of the factors taken into account when determining its tax-exempt status.

State and territory governments share responsibility for education policy with the federal government, and they generally permit religious education in public schools that covers world faiths and belief structures. Instruction in the beliefs and practices of a specific religion may also be permitted, depending on the state or territory. In some jurisdictions instruction must occur outside regular class time, while in others, alternative arrangements are made for the children of parents who object to religious instruction. The federal government provides funding to state and territory governments to support the employment of chaplains in public schools. Chaplains may represent any faith and are banned from proselytizing. Thirty-four percent of students attend private schools; approximately 94 percent of these schools are affiliated with a religious group.

In February, new laws in Victoria came into effect requiring religious leaders and workers to report suspected child abuse, including where discovered through confession. The law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a mandatory reporter (which includes persons in religious ministries) fails to report abuse to authorities. In September, the Queensland parliament passed laws requiring adults to report knowledge of child sexual abuse, including where information is gained during “a religious confession.”

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

Government Practices

In May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced delays to proposed religious freedom legislation as a consequence of his government’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. The government made no further announcements during the year related to the proposed laws’ revision or their introduction in the parliament. The government stated the purpose of the draft legislation was the prohibition of discrimination in key areas of public life on the ground of religious belief or activity and the creation of a new office of Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission.

A revised draft of the religious freedom legislation, released in December, 2019, made several changes to the original draft legislation as a consequence of public consultation. This included provisions allowing religiously-affiliated hospitals, aged care facilities, and accommodation providers to take religion into account in staffing decisions; allowing religious camps and conference centers to take faith into account when deciding whether to provide accommodation; and narrowing conscientious objection protections for health professionals by expressly stating an objection must be to a service generally, rather than to the personal attributes or characteristics of an individual seeking a service. The draft laws continued to propose banning large businesses with a turnover of more than 50 million Australian dollars ($38.6 million) from setting codes of conduct that would have the effect of restricting or preventing an employee from making a statement of belief “other than in the course of the employee’s employment,” meaning outside the employee’s working hours, unless the business can prove it would cause “unjustifiable financial hardship to the business.” The draft laws continued to propose protections for “statements of belief” (i.e., statements of an individual’s religious beliefs) from the application of certain provisions of federal, state, and territory antidiscrimination laws that might otherwise make the statement of belief unlawful.

The government received approximately 7,000 submissions from interested members of the public related to the revised draft. The Australian Human Rights Commission praised the legislation’s objective of prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of religion, but it warned that other provisions “provide protection to religious belief or activity at the expense of other rights,” which in turn raised concerns about protections for religious organizations “participating in the general economy” that would allow them to deny services or exclude others in ways that the commission considered discriminatory. The commission recommended the government remove provisions exempting statements of belief from federal, state, and territory antidiscrimination laws. LGBTI Legal Service Inc. said these provisions “will allow discriminatory and hurtful comments to be made against a large portion of our community, including LGBTI people.”

Several religious groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby, welcomed “some improvements” in the revised draft, but they said there were “fundamental deficiencies” needing amendment, including broader protections for religious charities. The Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney welcomed changes permitting religious bodies to provide preference to persons who share their faith in an employment setting, but it lobbied for broader protections for religious charities and statements of belief.

Equality Australia, an organization that promotes “the wellbeing and circumstances of LGBTIQ+ people in Australia,” said the bill “continues to privilege the interests of some people and institutions over the rights of others,” and expressed concern that private sector employers “will find it harder to enforce universal standards of appropriate conduct across their workplaces.” The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the proposed protections for statements of belief potentially create “a serious issue for employers” in balancing employees’ public comments with their obligations to prevent discrimination in the workplace.

In response to a pledge made in late 2018 by the Prime Minister to remove religious schools’ ability to expel LGBTI students, Attorney General Christian Porter tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into religious exemptions in antidiscrimination legislation. In March, the Attorney General amended the original December, 2020 reporting deadline, setting it at 12 months after the draft religious freedom legislation passes the federal parliament.

In November, the Victoria state government introduced a bill that would ban practices that encourage individuals to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. If enacted, violation of this law could result in fines of up to 10,000 Australian dollars ($7,700) and 10 years in prison. Some religious leaders, including Catholic and Baptist clergy, criticized the bill, saying its language was too broad and could cause restrictions not only on practices considered harmful but also on the free speech and free choice of those following their religious beliefs. As of year’s end, the bill had not been passed by the state parliament.

As restrictions on movement that were imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 began to ease in the latter part of the year, several religious leaders, including senior Catholic, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox clergy, criticized remaining state government restrictions, saying they unfairly affected religious communities. On October 21, the NSW state government eased restrictions on religious gatherings, increasing maximum attendance from 100 to 300 persons. St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was granted an exemption from the NSW government’s 100-person cap on religious services to hold a larger ordination mass on September 19. In October, the Premier of Victoria State, citing public health recommendations, defended his government’s decision to ease restrictions in areas of Victoria outside the city of Melbourne on hospitality venues but not on religious gatherings. The leaders of several prominent religious groups criticized the decision.

State and territory governments administered grant programs supporting multicultural and multifaith communities throughout the country. In response to COVID-19, the Victoria state government provided grants to religious communities to upgrade their IT infrastructure to enable digital services in their facilities. In August, the Victoria government announced new grants to fund projects and IT capabilities for online cultural and religious festivals.

In February, several Hindu groups criticized comments made by Treasurer of Australia Joshua Frydenberg regarding the opposition Labor Party’s proposed “wellbeing budget” as demeaning to the Hindu religion, with the Hindu Council of Australia calling the comments “brazen, racist, and Hindu-phobic.” Frydenberg subsequently apologized for any offense taken by his depiction of an opposition spokesperson delivering his wellbeing budget after descending barefoot from an Ashram in the Himalayas.

When a new law requiring religious leaders to report suspicions of child abuse discovered through confession came into effect in February, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne said the Church “fully supported” mandatory reporting. She declined to comment on the Archbishop of Melbourne’s previous position, in which he indicated he would refuse to comply with such a law. Queensland enacted similar laws in September. The Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane criticized the laws as making priests “less a servant of God than an agent of the state.” The laws in Victoria and Queensland followed similar legislation passed in South Australia (2017), Tasmania (2018), Western Australia (2019), and the Australian Capital Territory (2019).

In April, Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell won an appeal in the country’s highest court that nullified his conviction for child sexual abuse. The High Court of Australia’s decision was unanimous in its ruling that the jury ought to have had reasonable doubt about Pell’s guilt based on testimony from other witnesses. Pell had been found guilty by a Victoria court in 2018, sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, and required to register as a sex offender. After his release, victims’ advocacy groups and others criticized the verdict. The same night Pell was released, the cathedral in Melbourne was vandalized with graffiti that included calls for the cardinal to “rot in hell.” A tricycle was tied to the fence of the monastery where Pell spent his first night following his release from prison.

In late 2019, the Victoria state parliament opened an inquiry into existing antivilification laws, examining the potential for the expansion or extension of protections. The stated purpose of the inquiry was to examine the effectiveness of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, seek evidence of increasing vilification and hate conduct in Victoria, and examine online vilification. The inquiry was due to report back on September 1, but the deadline was extended to March 1, 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking to the media about the inquiry, Premier Daniel Andrews said, “Anti-Semitism is on the rise – that is a fact.” Sources said the review would also consider a prohibition on publicly displaying anti-Semitic iconography, such as swastikas.

In August, the NSW state parliament began an inquiry into the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020, proposing to make discrimination on the ground of a person’s religious beliefs or activities unlawful. Equality Australia criticized the bill for privileging “the interest of some people and institutions over the rights of others, including LGBTIQ+ people, women, people with disabilities, and even people with different or no beliefs,” by allowing organizations “to discriminate in employment, education, and service provision against others with different or no beliefs, even when religion has no relevance to the role…” The Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney welcomed the attempt to protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of religious belief. The inquiry received 144 public submissions.

Muslim immigrants detained in Brisbane filed a complaint in September with the Australian Human Rights Commission, saying they had not been given certified halal food for more than 12 months. The detainees stated that their caterer confirmed to them that the food was not certified halal.

Due to what they stated was an increasing number of students in NSW public schools who do not identify with a religion, some education groups continued to advocate for the removal of Special Religious Education classes from high schools. According to the NSW Teachers Federation, “School time is for teaching and learning, and special religious instruction should not be interrupting the crucial learning of students during the school day.” Government-approved Special Religious Education providers included representatives of Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religious groups. The NSW government requires schools to provide “meaningful alternatives” for students whose parents withdraw them from Special Religious Education, which could include courses in ethics. At year’s end, Special Religious Education remained in place in NSW public schools.

The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful, continued to be based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion, and included religious freedom as a component.

The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In October, Stipe Lozina, who punched and stomped on a pregnant Muslim woman in 2019, was sentenced to three years in prison. Media reported that Lozina shouted “anti-Islamic hate speech at the victim and her friends” during the attack.

In January, a household in Victoria State prominently flew a swastika flag for several weeks. Neither the local council nor the police could require the flag’s removal, but a spokesperson for Victoria Police said it had been taken down after discussions with the homeowners, who stated they were not aware the flag could cause offense.

Sources stated that the COVID-19 pandemic enabled conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazi sympathizers, and far-right hate groups to introduce new avenues of attack on religious organizations. In August, during Victoria State’s second wave of COVID-19, a cluster of cases emerged at the Islamic Al-Taqwa College. Principal Omar Hallak told media that references to the “Al-Taqwa cluster” by state leadership, including Premier Daniel Andrews, had instigated online attacks from hate groups.

On July 17, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network expressed concern to a Senate inquiry into foreign interference that “right-wing extremist rhetoric” was being brought into the country through various social media platforms. The network also stated that there were 12 fringe political parties in the 2019 federal election that ran on platforms that supported “discriminatory anti-Muslim polic[ies.]”

The NSW Attorney General’s Department told the state parliament that it was aware of three instances of swastika flags being flown in the state during the year.

There were reports that anti-Semitic rhetoric increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one well publicized incident, Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews was targeted with anti-Semitic graffiti reading “Stop Dan Andrews,” with a Star of David replacing the “a” in “Dan” and a swastika replacing the “s” in “Andrews.” The Australian Jewish News reported that anti-Semitic content was posted online that included statements that blamed Jews for the COVID-19 pandemic and called it the “Jew Flu.” Anti-Defamation Commission chairman Dvir Abramovich warned that COVID-19 was fueling “anti-Semitic and hateful conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the pandemic.”

In June, an NSW man was jailed for 10 months for posting threats against Muslims on social media.

The Anti-Defamation Commission reported a Jewish man and his son were subjected to anti-Semitic verbal abuse in Melbourne in July. The two were standing on a busy road when a man began yelling at them, calling them “Jew dogs.”

In July, the Victoria Department of Education launched an investigation into anti-Semitic bullying at Brighton Secondary College, where two Jewish brothers said they were regularly the subjects of verbal and physical abuse, including taunts of “Heil Hitler” from students, as well as comments from teachers referring to Israel as “Palestine.” The brothers said they made numerous reports to teachers but no serious action had been taken.

In August, a Jewish Uber driver in Melbourne reported that a passenger asked him if he was Jewish. When the driver confirmed his religion, the passenger asked that the car be stopped, since he “did not want a Jew to drive him,” and as the car pulled over, the passenger verbally abused the driver with insults, including “Jewish scumbag.” Uber removed the passenger’s access to the app and the driver filed a complaint with Victoria Police.

On January 24, Islamic scholar Ismail al-Wahwah of the Australian chapter of Hizb ut-Tahrir delivered a sermon, later uploaded on YouTube, that denied the Holocaust and called for world domination by Islam.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported 331 anti-Semitic incidents involving threats or abuse during the year, compared with 368 the previous year. According to the council, there was an increase in several more serious categories of incidents, including physical assault (eight, compared with four in 2019) and direct verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation (128, compared with 114 in 2019). Graffiti reports declined to 42, compared with 95 in 2019.

The Community Security Group released a report on anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 in which it stated there were 451 reported incidents throughout the country, a 31 percent increase over the 343 incidents reported in 2018.

In May, vandals sprayed swastikas on a golf course in Melbourne that was originally founded by Jews nearly seven decades ago because they were not allowed to play at other clubs.

The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 36 complaints involving religion from July 2019 to June 2020, a 36 percent decrease from the previous year. Of these complaints, half occurred in the provision of goods and services, and just over a third occurred in employment. Complaints relating to employment under the Equal Opportunity Act and Racial Religious Tolerance Act decreased 28 in 2018/19 to 20 in 2019/20.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included engagement with members of the country’s Uyghur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.

Belgium

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. In September, the federal government recognized the Belgian Buddhist Union, which first applied for recognition as a nondenominational philosophical community in 2008. An application for recognition by the Belgian Hindu Forum, submitted in 2013, remained pending. In December, the government suspended the recognition process for the Great Mosque of Brussels, citing intelligence that it had ties with the Moroccan intelligence agency. In September, the Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Kraainem, charging it with inciting discrimination and hatred after a former member said the congregation shunned him when he reported a case of sexual abuse. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that universities may ban religious symbols on campuses, specifically headscarves, prompting widespread criticism. In December, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a judgment that a Flemish law requiring the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, including kosher and halal slaughter, is consistent with EU law on religious freedom. The judgment followed a legal challenge by the Jewish and Muslim communities against the Flemish law and a similar one in Wallonia.

Unia (an independent government agency that reviews discrimination complaints) reported that in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 79 anti-Semitic incidents (compared with 101 in 2018) and 336 incidents (307 in 2018) against other religious groups, 86 percent of which targeted Muslims. Media reported in February that during the annual Aalst Carnival parade, there were anti-Semitic floats and caricatures, as well as marchers who appeared to be dressed as Nazi soldiers.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Office of the Prime Minister; at the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice; and with members of parliament to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders in Brussels and other communities to address anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment and to promote religious tolerance. In October, the Ambassador led a discussion on Muslim issues with academics, religious experts, and civil society leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S government estimates the total population at 11.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent survey in December 2018 by the GESIS-Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, 57.1 percent of residents are Roman Catholic, 2.3 percent Protestant, 2.8 percent other Christian, 6.8 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 0.6 percent Orthodox Christian, 0.3 percent Jewish, 0.3 percent Buddhist, 9.1 percent atheist, 20.2 percent “nonbeliever/agnostic,” and 0.5 percent “other.” A 2015 study by the Catholic University of Louvain estimated that 42.2 percent of Muslims reside in Flanders, 35.5 percent in Brussels, and 22.3 percent in Wallonia. According to Catholic University of Louvain sociologist Jan Hertogen, based on 2015 data, 24.2 percent of the Brussels population and 7.5 percent of the Antwerp population is Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of worship, including its public practice, and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be required to participate in any religious group’s acts or ceremonies or to observe the group’s religious days of rest, and it bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of clergy (according to law, to qualify clergy must work in recognized houses of worship and be certified by those religious groups), as well as those of representatives of organizations recognized by the law as providing moral assistance based on a nonconfessional philosophy.

The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation. Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. Discrimination based on Jewish descent is distinguished from discrimination against Jewish religious practices. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison. Courts have interpreted that an antiracism law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, skin color, ancestry, national origin, or ethnicity may be applied to cases of anti-Semitism.

The government officially recognizes Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.

The law does not define requirements to obtain official recognition. The Ministry of Justice specifies the legal basis for official recognition. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection to parliament, which votes on the application. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend granting recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.

The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, such as an office composed of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of the religious curriculum in schools, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.

The federal and regional governments provide financial support for officially recognized religious groups. Federal government subsidies include direct payment of clergy salaries and pensions, while regions subsidize maintenance and equipment costs for facilities and places of worship, as well as clergy housing, and oversee finances and donations when the legal exemption amount is exceeded. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Parent religious groups distribute subsidies according to their statutes, which may also include salaries to ministers and public funding for renovation or facility maintenance. Unrecognized groups do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly. Three organizations outside of the recognized religious groups also receive subsidies by law: the Belgian Muslim Executive, the Belgian Buddhist Union, and the Secular Central Council.

There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to apply to obtain recognition and federal subsidies. To do so, a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, and certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from lower taxes but not government subsidies. Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.

There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Individuals wearing face coverings that cover all or part of the face in public are subject to a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($170). In addition, the penal code stipulates violators may be sentenced to a maximum of seven days’ imprisonment.

Outside of the Brussels region, which still allows ritual slaughter without stunning, the law prohibits the slaughter of animals without prior stunning. The legislation does not prevent halal and kosher meat from being imported from abroad.

By longstanding practice rather than law, the government bans the wearing of religious symbols by employees in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public. The ban does not apply to teachers of religion in public schools.

The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. All public schools offer religious or “moral” instruction oriented toward citizenship and moral values. Outside of Flanders, these courses are mandatory; parents in schools in Flanders may have their children opt out of such courses. Francophone schools offer a mandatory one-hour-per-week “philosophy and citizenship” course plus an additional one-hour mandatory course on either philosophy and citizenship or the recognized religions, based on a constitutional court ruling.

Schools provide teachers, clerical or secular, for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The degree of religious expression varies but must follow a principle of “neutrality.” Because “neutrality” is not defined explicitly in the constitution in the context of religious expression, most state-funded institutions follow one of two principles: “inclusive neutrality,” where individuals must remain neutral in their behavior but may wear religious symbols, or “exclusive neutrality,” where there is a total ban on religious attire and the education provided must also be neutral.

Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools (limited to schools operated by recognized religious groups), known as “free” schools, follow the same curriculum as public schools but may place greater emphasis on specific religious classes. Teachers at these religious schools are civil servants, and their salaries, as well as subsidies for the schools’ operating expenses, are paid for by the respective linguistic community, municipality, or province.

Unia is a publicly funded, independent agency responsible for reviewing discrimination complaints, including those of a religious nature, and attempting to resolve them through mediation or arbitration. The agency lacks legal powers to enforce resolution of cases but may refer them to the courts.

The federal justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and oversee their prosecution, including those involving religion, as a criminal act.

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

Government Practices

The federal government granted recognition on September 30 to the Belgian Buddhist Union, which applied as a group representing a nondenominational philosophy of life, rather than as a religious community. The Buddhist Union, which first submitted its application in 2008, had already been receiving a subsidy from the federal government before its recognition. An application for recognition from the Belgian Hindu Forum, submitted in 2013, remained pending, as did its application to receive a government subsidy. There were no other pending requests by religious groups.

Some observers continued to state that a number of mosques opted not to seek official recognition because they received sufficient foreign funding and preferred to operate without government oversight. Some observers stated the lengthy, bureaucratic process of obtaining recognition also acted as a deterrent. The stated government policy was to extend recognition to more mosques (which would make them eligible for government funding) to curb foreign, radical Islamic influence by reducing the mosques’ reliance on foreign funding and providing authorities with greater oversight.

According to local media, nine mosques in the Brussels-Capital region, including the Great Mosque of Brussels, which submitted its application in January, had pending recognition requests. Mustapha Chairi, the President of the Belgian Collective Against Islamophobia, stated that recognition was slowed by “political obstacles” and cited inefficiencies in the Ministry of Justice’s administrative process.

The Flemish government announced it was reinforcing its policy of conducting enhanced security screening against possible radicalization of imams or worshippers and against foreign influence at mosques, including by requiring all religious communities and places of worship to submit to a four-year probation period prior to official recognition. Then-Flemish regional Minister-President Liesbeth Homans, also of the New Flemish Alliance Party, questioned the existing recognition of some mosques and withdrew recognition of the al-Ihsaan Mosque in Leuven during the year. At year’s end, there were 87 recognized mosques: 39 in Wallonia, 27 in Flanders, and 21 in Brussels. The Belgian Muslim Executive estimated there were a total of 300 mosques in the country, both recognized and unrecognized.

In November, Flemish Minister for Social Affairs Bart Somers presented a bill in parliament to revise the recognition application process, as well as reopen religious communities’ applications for recognition that then-Regional Interior Minister Homans had suspended in 2017. The bill included the ban on foreign funding and influence, as well as the mandatory four-year probationary period that the Flemish government established as policy in the previous year. In a November interview with Flemish public television network VRT, Somers stated 50 to 100 local religious communities had pending applications for recognition, some dating back to the 2017 moratorium.

On December 4, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne suspended the recognition process for the Great Mosque of Brussels, stating that, according to the country’s civilian intelligence, the mosque had ties with the Moroccan intelligence agency. He also said that all bodies of the Muslim Executive should reexamine and, as needed, replace their leaders because they were no longer representative of all Muslims living in the country, adding that “the same individuals continuously appear, whether in the Muslim Executive or in associated nonprofit organizations.” (The Muslim Executive is composed of four organs focused respectively on mosques, education, social issues, and imams, as well as the Council of Theologians and the Coordination Council for Belgian Islamic Institutions [CIB].) On December 5, the Belgian Muslim Executive, CIB, and Association for the Management of the Great Mosque released a joint statement condemning Van Quickenborne’ s announcement, saying it was “defamatory, insulting, and onerous to declare that our members are spies with interests abroad” and that the suspension violated freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

According to Belgian online journal The Bulletin, one of the two major English-language, Brussels-based media outlets, the Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Kraainem, charging it with inciting discrimination against a person and a group on the basis of religious beliefs and inciting hatred or violence against a person and a group. According to the report, the prosecutor filed the charges after a five-year investigation based on a complaint by a former member of the congregation, Patrick Haeck, who said Jehovah’s Witnesses shunned him after he exposed a case of sexual abuse. A court held a preliminary hearing in September and scheduled a trial for February 2021.

The ban on face coverings remained unchanged despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Several police precincts, however, reported not enforcing the law. The Brussels Midi police department, for example, reported that it had asked its officers to “use common sense” and analyze situations on a case-by-case basis.

In June, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Haute Ecole Francisco Ferrer, a university in Brussels that had banned religious garments and symbols. The court stated that institutions of higher education had the authority to ban the wearing of religious symbols, specifically headscarves, on campus if they chose to do so, adding the ban violated neither constitutional law nor the European Convention on Human Rights. In July, more than 1,000 mostly female demonstrators gathered in the center of Brussels to protest the court’s decision. The ruling also sparked a social media campaign with the hashtags #HijabisFightBack and #TouchePasAMesEtudes (“Don’t Touch My Studies”). In response to the court’s ruling, some institutions of higher education used social media to announce that headscarves were allowed at their schools.

On December 8, in response to calls from the Jewish community, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, overturned a total ban on collective religious worship services that the government had instituted in October as a protective measure against COVID-19. The prohibition also applied to nonreligious gatherings. According to the council, the ban violated freedom of religion, “a fundamental right of a special nature,” and the right to profess faith collectively with fellow believers “is at the heart of freedom of worship.” The council called the ban “a disproportionate limitation of the freedom of worship” and asked the government to allow worship services again, within certain limits, by December 13. In response, the national government relaxed the measure to allow up to 15 persons to gather in places of worship.

In October, the municipal government of Charleroi opened a second request for public comment on an application to build a mosque in the city’s Lodelinsart neighborhood. Several town residents also voiced their disapproval of the mosque in an independent petition. The Charleroi government had approved the project with modifications in 2019 after receiving 119 complaints against the mosque during an initial public comment period. The city government did not indicate why it reopened the public comment period.

In Court-St-Etienne, the construction of a new mosque was underway and was expected to be finished by mid-2021. The project, whose construction resumed in February 2020 after a year-long pause, was being entirely financed through private donations. According to Abdelhafid Jellouli, the mosque coordinator, the delay was the result of a change in construction plans and delays in finding a new contractor. Local authorities approved the project in 2018 after four previous rejections.

On December 17, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a judgment that a Flemish animal welfare law requiring the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, including halal and kosher slaughter, was consistent with EU law and did not infringe on the rights of religious groups. The court’s ruling ran counter to the recommendation in September of its advocate general, who had stated that “member states … cannot ignore the EU’s religious freedom protections.” Flemish Minister for Education, Sport, and Animal Welfare Ben Weyts tweeted that “the door is now open throughout Europe to a ban on slaughter without stunning” and called on religious communities to “turn the page.” The judgment followed a legal challenge to the Flemish law and to a similar law passed by the Wallonian regional government in 2019. At that time, the Belgian Constitutional Court had asked the Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion to confirm the two laws complied with EU law.

Following the ruling, President of the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations Yohan Benizri stated, “We plan to pursue every legal recourse to right this wrong.” In an official statement, the President of the Belgian Muslim Executive, Mehmet Ustun, expressed his disappointment with the judgment, stating, “The Court of Justice thus seems to give in to the growing political and societal pressure from populist movements which are waging a symbolic struggle against vulnerable minorities throughout Europe.”

A large slaughterhouse continued to operate in Brussels, where ritual slaughter was still permitted, but it could not accommodate all requests, particularly during religious holidays. The Brussels government, led by Minister-President Rudi Vervoort, had no policy on ritual slaughter and had stated it would wait for a final ruling before opening a debate.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in October that the government planned to stop providing soldiers for security around synagogues in Antwerp as part of a broader drawdown of Operation Vigilant Guardian, the military’s domestic counterterrorism mission that provided protection for sensitive sites, such as embassies and certain Jewish community buildings. The Forum of Jewish Organizations of Flemish Jews stated, “The Jewish community needs more, not less, protection in these difficult times.” At year’s end, the soldiers remained in place, and the government had not announced a final decision on whether to end the program.

Police continued to offer a voluntary, day-long course, “The Holocaust, the Police, and Human Rights,” at the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, site of a Holocaust museum and memorial.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media and NGOs, including Amnesty International, the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium, and Unia, reported incidents of violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Muslims and Jews. Unia reported 79 anti-Semitic incidents – which it defined as incidents against Jewish persons rather than against Jewish religious practices and which it tracked separately – and 336 complaints of other religious discrimination or harassment in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 101 anti-Semitic incidents and 307 other complaints in 2018. Approximately 86 percent of incidents targeted Muslims. There were five incidents against Christians, 11 against Jewish religious practices, and eight against nonbelievers. According to Unia, 30 percent of the incidents in 2019 involved speech in media or on the internet (54 percent of these involving Facebook postings); 29 percent concerned discrimination in the workplace; and 17 percent occurred in the education sector, where a majority (54 percent) of incidents involved restrictions or prohibitions on wearing of the hijab.

Unia reported 96 complaints of workplace discrimination based on religion in 2019, compared with 56 in 2018. The reported discrimination principally targeted Muslims.

In 2019, Unia and the Human Rights League submitted an injunction against the Brussels public transportation company, STIB/MIVB, for rejecting a job applicant who wore a headscarf. The woman had applied for two internal administrative positions and reported being rejected after communicating she wanted to wear a headscarf in the workplace. Unia did not indicate the outcome of this case.

Also in 2019, Unia and the Human Rights League took legal action against a fitness center in Liege that refused entry to a woman wearing a headscarf for what it stated were hygiene and security reasons. In another case, Unia filed a suit in 2019 against a fitness center in Brussels that told a Muslim woman after she had signed up for membership that it banned headscarves for security reasons. In February, the Brussels Court of First Instance decided in favor of the fitness center, ruling that prohibiting headscarves in sports for safety reasons was permitted, and that a sports headscarf did not meet the safety requirements.

Unia cited numerous instances of religious hate speech via social media in 2020. It also reported that in October, two individuals were sentenced to six months in prison and fined 800 euros ($980) for hosting a Facebook page called “Identitaires Ardennes” that contained anti-Muslim hate speech featuring messages, such as “Islam is a danger,” and “Halt the invasion – let’s kick them out.”

In February, the European Commission, Belgian academics, and New Flemish Alliance Party Chairman Bart De Wever criticized the annual Aalst Carnival for including open displays of anti-Semitism. An open letter by three professors from the universities of Ghent, Antwerp, and Leuven urged media not to show images of floats with Jewish caricatures, while the European Commission said the floats were “incompatible” with EU values. According to the Catholic News Agency, the carnival parade included “numerous apparently anti-Semitic caricatures and floats,” as well as marchers who seemed to be dressed as Nazi soldiers. One float displayed caricatures of Jews with ant features next to a label called “complaint ant,” a phrase that in Dutch resembles the term “Western Wall.” National and international press widely cited Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese as stating that the carnival was not anti-Semitic and that outside intervention was censorship. Then-Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, and Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz condemned the parade, with Katz calling it “hateful” and a “vitriolic anti-Semitic display” and “a hateful parade.” In December 2019, UNESCO removed the carnival, which included an anti-Semitic float in that year’s parade, from its intangible cultural heritage list because of what it said was the carnival’s “repetition of racist and anti-Semitic representations.”

According to the Times of Israel, on June 28, protesters at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Brussels chanted “Khaybar,” in reference to a battleground in Saudi Arabia where Muslims had defeated Jews in the seventh century. At least 100 men chanted, “Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning,” according to the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism (LBCA). Joel Rubinfeld, the league’s president, characterized the chant as an “incitement of violence,” and the organization filed a complaint with police. The rally’s organizer, a nonprofit called the Belgo-Palestinian Association, condemned the chanting in a statement.

In August, newspaper Le Soir published a cartoon by Pierre Kroll showing a tourist bus with a balloon above the driver reading, “After the zoo, we shall go visit the coronavirus village,” while an Orthodox Jewish man without a mask rides a bicycle nearby as vultures hover above him. LBCA President Rubinfeld said the cartoon “again shows that Kroll obsessively returns to Jews in his works….” According to The Times of Israel, critics had accused Kroll of anti-Semitism in several of his previous cartoons.

In July, the Leuven Criminal Court sentenced a man in Keerbegen to one year in prison for inciting hatred and violence against the Jewish community and violating the antiracism law and the law against Holocaust denial. In 2019, Unia had filed a complaint against the man for decorating his home with Nazi paraphernalia and possessing anti-Semitic pamphlets.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials discussed continued anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment in meetings with representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister; the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Justice; and regional governments.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with religious leaders to discuss incidents of religious discrimination and ways to counter public manifestations of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment. They continued engagement with activists from the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities, including with leaders from the Consistory (official representatives of authorities for Jewish community matters with the government), the Muslim Executive, and the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium to promote interreligious understanding.

In reaction to the ECJ ruling that a Flemish law requiring the stunning of animals prior to ritual slaughter was consistent with EU law and did not infringe on the rights of religious groups, the Ambassador tweeted the following on December 17: “I am very disappointed in the European Court of Justice decision upholding a Flemish law that effectively bans kosher and halal slaughter, a core religious practice of Jews and Muslims. Religious freedom must be protected. I call on the Flemish government to reconsider its positions and accommodate the needs of all its religious communities. I will continue to work closely with Belgian authorities and the EU to advance religious freedom for all.”

In October, the Ambassador led a discussion on Muslim issues with academics, religious experts, and civil society leaders, raising awareness of freedom of religion issues and exchanging ideas on future projects.

The embassy awarded a grant to a Brussels-based NGO to organize a series of events, beginning in October and continuing into 2021, to raise awareness about China’s persecution of its Muslim Uyghur population. The events included a webinar examining Chinese propaganda in Belgium and two empowerment workshops for the local Uyghur community that taught local activists to lobby, communicate with the media, and establish and sustain publicity campaigns.

The embassy expanded an interfaith youth exchange program administered by the U.S. Department of State to include a virtual platform that launched in October for Belgian youth to engage with U.S. experts on various aspects of youth leadership. The platform included an interfaith element to enhance collaboration among religious groups in the country and, in turn, enhance religious freedom.

Canada

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The government does not require religious groups to register, but some registered groups may receive tax-exempt status. In November, the Quebec Court of Appeal reduced the sentence of a man to 25 years before eligibility for parole after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for the 2017 killing of six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec. In November and December, a Quebec court concurrently heard challenges by four groups of plaintiffs, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the English Montreal School Board, a Quebec teachers union, and individuals to strike down as unconstitutional a provincial law prohibiting certain categories of government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. The law remained in force through year’s end. Provincial governments imposed societal restrictions on assembly, including for all faith groups, to limit the transmission of COVID-19, but some religious communities said provincial orders and additional measures were discriminatory. Quebec authorities imposed a temporary mandatory COVID-19 quarantine on a Hasidic Jewish community in a suburb of Montreal that some members said was discriminatory because it applied only to Jews, although the religious community had initiated the quarantine voluntarily. Some members of Hutterite colonies in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta said they experienced societal discrimination outside their communities due to provincial governments publishing outbreaks of COVID-19 in Hutterite communities. In January, Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge announced plans to abolish the province’s ethics and religious culture course, compulsory in all Quebec schools since 2008 and taught from grades 1 to 11, with the exception of Grade 9. In May, Public Schools of Saskatchewan filed an application with the Supreme Court to appeal a March ruling by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal that the provincial government continue to fund non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools. The public school plaintiffs stated the case had national implications, including for publicly-funded Catholic schools in Alberta and Ontario, and that conflicting judgments from lower courts required clarity from the country’s top court. In August, the Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled again in favor of two Muslim students barred in 2011 from praying at their nondenominational private school after the Supreme Court returned the case to the commission for a new hearing. The school said it would appeal the second finding of discrimination

Reports continued of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including cases of violence, hate speech, harassment, discrimination, and vandalism. In December, Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2019 showing the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes was 608 incidents, approximately 7 percent lower than in 2018. The B’nai B’rith League Canada for Human Rights recorded 2,207 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, compared with 2,041 in 2018. On September 18, police charged a male suspect with first-degree murder in the September 12 killing of a congregant in the parking lot of the International Muslim Organization of Toronto mosque in Rexdale, a Toronto neighborhood. Media reports linked the male suspect to white supremacist postings online. Toronto Police Services continued its investigation through December and did not rule out bringing additional hate crime charges. Unidentified individuals damaged statues outside Buddhist temples in Montreal in a series of attacks in February and March, including lion statues symbolizing protection smashed on two different occasions with a sledgehammer at the Quan Am Temple. In January, an unidentified individual pelted the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa with eggs days after the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Embassy, consulate, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the government. Embassy officials discussed strategies to combat religious intolerance through engagement with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and minority religious groups. The embassy sponsored and participated in public programs and events encouraging interfaith dialogue and freedom of religion. It funded two grants to Liberation75, organizations formed to mark the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust, combat anti-Semitism, and promote education and remembrance. In January, the Consul General in Quebec City hosted an event with representatives of One World Strong, an NGO that offers peer-to-peer support to survivors of terrorism, and the survivors of the 2017 attack at a Quebec City mosque. On September 24, the Consul General hosted 11 Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, and indigenous animist faith leaders at an interfaith breakfast in which they discussed religious freedom and the impact of COVID-19 on their communities. The embassy and consulates amplified activities and policy content from senior Department of State officials in Washington through social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, which has the most recent data available on religion, approximately 67 percent of the population self-identifies as Christian. Roman Catholics constitute the largest Christian group (38 percent of the total population), followed by the United Church of Canada (6 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Baptists (1.9 percent), and Christian Orthodox (1.7 percent). Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal groups each constitute less than 2 percent of the population. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates its membership at 199,000. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS Church) estimates its membership at 1,000. The Hutterites, or Hutterite Brethren, numbering approximately 35,000, are an Anabaptist ethnoreligious group living primarily in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan Provinces. Approximately 3 percent of the population is Muslim, and 1 percent is Jewish. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Scientologists, Baha’is, and adherents of Shintoism, Taoism, and aboriginal spirituality together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Approximately 24 percent of the population lists no religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Every individual is equal under the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The law imposes “reasonable limits” on the exercise of these religious rights only where such restrictions can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The law permits individuals to sue the government for violations of religious freedom. Federal and provincial human rights laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. Civil remedies include compensation and/or changes to the policy or practice responsible for the discrimination.

The law does not require religious groups to register, but the government grants tax-exempt status to religious groups that register as nonprofit organizations with the Charities Directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency. Nonprofit status provides such organizations with federal and provincial sales tax reductions, rebates, and exemptions. To gain and retain tax-exempt status, a group must be nonpolitical and undergo periodic audits. Charitable status also grants members of the clergy various federal benefits, including a housing deduction under the tax code and expedited processing through the immigration system. The term “clergy” includes persons whose communities have licensed, ordained, or otherwise formally recognized them for their religious leadership and authority to perform spiritual duties and services within their religious organization. Individual citizens who donate to tax-exempt religious groups receive a federal tax receipt entitling them to federal income tax deductions.

The criminal code prohibits the practice of polygamy, which is an indictable offense subject to imprisonment of up to five years.

A Quebec government law passed and implemented in 2019 prohibits certain provincial government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. The law defines a religious symbol as “any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewelry, an adornment, an accessory, or headwear, that (1) is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or (2) is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.” Among categories included in the law are president and vice presidents of the national assembly; administrative justices of the peace; certain municipal court employees; police, sheriffs, and deputy sheriffs; certain prosecutors and criminal lawyers; and certain principals, vice principals, and teachers, among others. The law also requires anyone seeking certain provincial government services to do so with “face uncovered.” The law invoked the “notwithstanding clause” of the federal constitution, which permits a province to override specific constitutional protections for a period of five years to prevent citizens from bringing challenges to the law based on the federal constitution. The religious symbols ban applies to public school teachers, government lawyers, judges, prison guards, and police officers, among others. It exempts provincial employees working prior to the implementation of the law, but they lose their right to wear religious symbols upon changing jobs or receiving a promotion.

Government policy and practices regarding education, including regulation of religious schools, fall under the purview of the provincial, rather than federal, governments. Six of the 10 provinces provide full or partial funding to some religious schools.

Catholic and Protestant schools in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan retain the federal constitutionally protected right to public funding they gained when those provinces joined the federation. Other provinces either had no legally recognized denominational schools that qualified for such protection at the time of federation or accession, or they subsequently secured a federal constitutional amendment to terminate religious education funding rights and introduce an exclusively secular publicly funded education system. Federal statutory protection for Catholic and Protestant publicly funded minority education exists in the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories, which do not have provincial status. Constitutional or federal statutory protection for public funding of religious education does not extend to schools of other religious groups, although British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec offer partial funding to religious schools of any faith that meet provincial scholastic criteria. The laws permits parents to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools for religious reasons.

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

Government Practices

In November, the Quebec Court of Appeal reduced the sentence of a Quebec man to 25 years before eligibility for parole from 40 years after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for killing six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec in 2017. Twenty-five years without parole eligibility is both the minimum term for first-degree murder and the customary maximum. The court ruled the original 40-year term was “grossly disproportionate” and struck down the law permitting consecutive maximum 25-year life sentences without parole as unconstitutional. The court stated its decision pertained to the constitutionality of the law and the arbitrary nature of the sentencing judge’s calculation of the sentence, not to the gravity of the crime. The original sentencing judge had rejected the prosecution’s recommendation for consecutive sentences for the six victims for a total of 150 years as constituting cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Both the convicted man and the prosecution had appealed the 40-year sentence.

Provinces temporarily banned in-person religious gatherings or imposed restrictions limiting the number of persons permitted to gather to stem transmission of COVID-19 that varied by province. Restrictions fluctuated during the pandemic, based on local conditions. For example, in March, Ontario temporarily banned gatherings of more than five persons for any purpose, including for religious assembly, and then in May, the province loosened some rules, including allowing drive-in worship services, after religious leaders of multiple faiths signed a joint letter to the Premier of Ontario asking for changes for religious groups due to the impact of these limits on religious assembly. Ontario permitted spaces of worship to reopen in June, subject to a 30 percent cap of the capacity of their room or structure. Ontario then tightened regulations on gatherings for any purpose as of September 30 due to an increase in COVID cases in the province, limiting them to 50 persons or fewer in indoor licensed facilities or to 10 individuals or fewer in private facilities, but permitted spaces of worship to retain their ability to host up to a 30 percent cap of capacity indoors and a maximum of 100 persons outdoors. On December 21, Ontario announced additional restrictions on gatherings effective December 26, which included a limit of 10 persons at religious services, funerals, and weddings, whether they occurred indoors or outdoors. Other provinces, such as British Columbia and Alberta, allowed religious gatherings of up to 50 persons as long as physical distancing could be maintained; however, in November, British Columbia prohibited in-person religious services, except for time-sensitive events such as funerals, marriages, or baptisms, with a limit of 10 persons due to a rise in COVID-19 case numbers. Separately, in May, four Toronto-area Orthodox rabbis sent a letter to the Premier arguing the province’s cap on gatherings of five persons prevented Orthodox Jews from meeting their religious obligation for a quorum of 10 males to pray.

In September, Quebec reduced the number of persons who could gather in public places, including places of worship, to 25 to 250 persons in specific regions of the province calibrated to the number of cases of COVID-19 locally, although where settings involved little talking or singing the higher cap of 250 persons applied. In September, a group of Quebec leaders representing various faiths issued a public statement asking for all places of worship to be subject to the 250-person limit. Quebec faith leaders said the province did not consult with religious groups before imposing limits on assembly for religious observance and that the lower limits applied to religious compared to some nonreligious venues constituted discrimination. In November, the Quebec government proposed a “Christmas reprieve” allowing limited social gatherings for Christmas celebrations. Leaders of other faith groups said the decision discriminated against their faiths because the province had not lifted public health restrictions during the year for celebrations of their religious holidays. In December, the government reversed its decision, citing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Also in December, an Alberta judge dismissed an emergency application by two Southern Baptist churches and individuals for a temporary injunction to suspend provincial restrictions to allow for in-person religious and seasonal celebrations of Christmas pending a hearing of their suit, filed earlier the same month, to strike down the restrictions as undemocratic and as a violation of constitutional rights to religious freedom. The judge ruled the public interest outweighed the restrictions of rights and that the application did not meet evidentiary benchmarks to grant an injunction. The court did not hear the suit by year’s end.

In April, some members of the Kiryas Tosh Hasidic Jewish community in Broisbriand, a suburb of Montreal, said they faced police and societal discrimination after local police enforced a mandatory quarantine on the 4,000-member community in response to a significant outbreak of COVID-19 cases among its members. The Kiryas Tosh community had initiated a voluntary self-quarantine that the local municipality made mandatory in late March and applied to “the Jewish community” rather than a geographical area. The quarantine confined residents to their homes except to buy food at community stores or in case of medical emergency. Religious gatherings were initially cancelled per an order by the Quebec government that extended to all faith groups across the province. Some residents said public officials and police singled out Jews in applying the local quarantine order and that the lockdown was disproportionate, and they expressed concern that local authorities and media stigmatized and inaccurately portrayed the Jewish community as responsible for transmitting COVID-19. Local media reported incidents of community members disregarding public health regulations. Other Hasidic community members said police acted appropriately, that the quarantine was imposed in coordination with community leaders, and that the restrictions did not prompt widespread concerns within the Hasidic community.

In October, the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reversed a policy that had assigned its officers who wear religiously-mandated beards to desk duty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Representatives of the World Sikh Organization (WSO) in September said the RCMP had failed for six months to respond to its complaint that the police force discriminated against its officers who wear religiously mandated beards. RCMP policy required active duty officers to wear respirator masks during the pandemic, and the force stated that facial hair prevented the masks from forming an effective seal. The WSO said other police forces in the country had made an accommodation for religiously-mandated facial hair, but the RCMP stated that as a federal police force, it was uniquely subject to the federal labor code and federal health and safety regulations requiring a clean-shaven face for proper use of the masks. Opposition parties raised the issue in the federal parliament. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair said the RCMP mask policy was discriminatory and directed the RCMP to find an “appropriate accommodation” to allow officers to serve their communities while practicing their faith. The RCMP permitted bearded officers to respond to operational calls wearing the facemasks in cases where supervisors determined the risk of exposure to COVID-19 was low or where multiple responding officers were present. The RCMP said it continued to work to procure a facemask that met operational and health and safety requirements without discriminating against members.

In November and December, the Quebec Superior (general trial) Court concurrently heard separate challenges by four groups of plaintiffs, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the English Montreal School Board, a Quebec teachers union, and individuals, to strike down as unconstitutional a provincial Quebec law prohibiting certain categories of government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. The Supreme Court, the country’s highest court of appeal, previously had declined to hear a request for an injunction to suspend the law passed in 2019. The law remained in force through year’s end. The plaintiffs stated a subnational government could not infringe on the fundamental and federally guaranteed constitutional rights granted to all citizens. Although the law applied to the wearing of religious symbols of all faiths, according to press reports, the legislation primarily excluded religious minorities whose religion mandates the wearing of religious symbols or dress from positions of authority, including in education and law enforcement. The press also said the legislation unfairly targeted Muslim women in the province who wear hijabs or other head coverings.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff contested the constitutionality of the law, stating that only the federal government could limit rights to religious observance and that the same principle should apply to a law that attempted to regulate religious nonobservance. The plaintiffs said the law discriminated against faith communities by limiting their ability to access public institutions, and the law’s definition of “religious symbols” was so vague it could not be applied consistently and was therefore discriminatory. The plaintiffs also challenged portions of the law prohibiting individuals from receiving certain government services with their faces covered. The three other organizations that filed separate challenges to the law were a multifaith organization on behalf of three teachers – a Catholic and two Muslims – who wore religious symbols; the English Montreal School Board, the largest English language school board in Quebec; and a Quebec teachers union representing 45,000 teachers. The English Montreal School Board applied for, and was granted, funding for its case through a publicly-funded federal court challenges program. The program was administered independently from the federal government by the University of Ottawa, which selected recipients for program funding based on the human rights significance of their case, but the Premier of Quebec declared the use of federal money to sue the Quebec government an “insult” to Quebec. In February, the Montreal English School Board decided not to accept the funding but continued with its suit.

In September, a Quebec judge who declined to hear a Muslim woman in court in 2015 unless she removed her hijab provided a written apology to complainant Rania El-Alloul. The apology was the result of a negotiated settlement that also terminated related disciplinary proceedings against the judge.

According to media reports, in April, the city of Mississauga, Ontario granted an exemption to its noise bylaws to permit local mosques to broadcast daily calls to prayer outdoors during the month of Ramadan to facilitate religious observance for persons unable or unwilling to worship indoors due to COVID-19. A Facebook group called “Mississauga Call to Prayer on LoudSpeaker Unconstitutional,” which included some self-identified secular Muslims and had 10,445 members as of August, objected to the allowance of the prayer in public spaces. The group launched a crowdfunding drive for a constitutional challenge to the exemption, but did not file suit by the end of the year. Hindu Forum Canada, a Mississauga-based nonprofit advocacy group, opposed the exemption on the grounds that Canada is a multifaith society. The call to prayer was the first time the broadcast was permitted publicly in the country. Other Ontario cities, including Toronto, Brampton, Hamilton, Windsor, and Ottawa, as well as Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, and Vancouver, British Columbia, issued similar noise bylaw exemptions for Ramadan. Hindu Forum Canada subsequently reversed its opposition and sought and received a similar exemption from the Mississauga City Council for Hindu temples. The city granted an exemption for Hindu temples to broadcast hymns during three major Hindu festivals every evening at 7:00 p.m. for five minutes between August 11 and September 1.

In August, the Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled for the second time in favor of two Muslim students barred from praying at their nondenominational private school. The school had accommodated the boys’ request for prayer space briefly after enrolment in 2011 but withdrew permission on the basis that it contravened the school’s secular character. When the boys continued to pray, the school expelled them. The Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled the school had discriminated on the basis of religion and ordered the school to pay a 26,000 Canadian dollar ($20,400) fine in 2015. The school appealed, and the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the commission’s finding and ordered a new hearing before the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The commission appealed the order to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, returning it to the commission, which renewed its original finding of discrimination. According to media reports, the school said it would appeal the second finding of discrimination, stating the decision set a “dangerous precedent” in contravening its right to welcome students of all faiths, or no faith, in a secular environment and ignored the human rights of other students. In news reports, Imam Syed Soharwady of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada said the school was demonstrating “arrogance and ego” and doing the wrong thing by “dragging on” the case, and should apologize and accept the decision.

In January, Quebec Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge announced plans to abolish the province’s ethics and religious culture course, compulsory in all Quebec schools since 2008 and taught from grades 1 to 11, with the exception of Grade 9. He said the government believed there was “too much” religion in schools and the revision was “part of the government’s desire to offer students a modern citizenship education course” focused on secular “21st century themes” such as democracy, citizen engagement, legal education, sexuality, and ethics. In February, the government held consultations to solicit public comment on content for the new course. The government planned to test the new curriculum in some schools during the 2021-2022 school year and implement it in all Quebec schools in September, 2022. Observers stated the change aligned with the government’s wider vision of a “secular” Quebec, and was consistent with its passage of legislation prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols by provincial public employees.

In May, Public Schools of Saskatchewan filed an application with the Supreme Court to appeal a March ruling by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal that the provincial government continue to fund non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools. The application remained pending through year’s end. The provincial appeal court unanimously overturned a 2017 lower court ruling that public funding for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools discriminated against secular schools and those of other religious groups in favor of Catholic education. The provincial government and the Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association welcomed the court of appeal ruling, but the public school plaintiffs stated the case had national implications, including for separate schools in Alberta and Ontario, and the conflicting judgments required clarity from the country’s top court.

In December, the Quebec Superior Court dismissed a request from a Jewish couple for a binding judgment that the province had failed to regulate schools and should provide a remedy to ensure children who attend private religious schools in the province receive an education compliant with the provincial curriculum. The court acknowledged past problems with the schools, but it ruled provincial education authorities acted in accordance with laws in place at the time. It stated the provincial government addressed challenges in 2017 by tightening regulations granting the province broader powers to close illegal schools or to intervene in cases where a child’s education was being neglected, and by allowing ultra-Orthodox children to register for home schooling with the secular curriculum to supplement their religious education. The provincial government further strengthened the regulations in 2019. The court stated the home schooling agreement for ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities was a success. The president of Quebec’s Jewish Association for Homeschooling said parents tried to balance the preservation of their faith with satisfying provincial educational requirements. A significant number of parents had signed home schooling agreements with the provincial education ministry since 2017 that included permitting their children to take provincial tests, and at least one religious school helped prepare its students for such exams.

According to the CanAm Hutterite Colony in southwest Manitoba, in July, provincial governments’ publication of COVID-19 outbreaks in Hutterite communal living settings led to cultural and religious profiling. Media reported that some Hutterites in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta were denied service in commercial stores outside their colonies. The country’s chief public health officer and premiers of the three provinces stated publicly that surrounding communities should not stigmatize Hutterite colonies. The premiers and public health authorities said Hutterites were cooperating with testing, and were working with health officials to try to limit the spread of the virus. Some colonies adopted the wearing of masks and/or voluntarily restricted travel into and out of the colonies. In July, at the request of the CanAm Hutterite Colony and responding to the colony’s intention to file a human rights complaint, Manitoba ceased publicly identifying colonies where members had tested positive. Also in July, the Hutterian Safety Council wrote to the Saskatchewan government requesting the same discretion and questioning why Hutterite colonies were identified in case updates in press reports where the virus risk was contained, given that no other societal group was identified with specific outbreaks. Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer said it was important to inform the public where new cases occurred. The province published updates on outbreaks by region, community name, known source of infection, and case status on its public COVID-19 dashboard, but not by societal or cultural group.

Eight lawsuits by religious and other organizations filed in 2018 that sought to reverse denial of their grant applications by the federal government under the Canada Summer Jobs Program remained pending before the Federal Court, with no hearing scheduled as of the end of the year. The federal government had denied their applications after the recipients would not sign an attestation the government imposed as a condition of receiving funding. The attestation required recipients to confirm that their core mandate and the summer jobs for which they planned to use the federal funds respected the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as other rights and associated case law, including the right to abortion, reproductive and sexual health services, gender equality, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. The plaintiffs stated the attestation infringed on their rights to freedom of religion and of expression.

In February, a Quebec real estate broker asked the Quebec government to formally strike anti-Semitic clauses from archaic certificates of location and deeds of sale that prohibited sales of such property to “persons of Jewish origin.” The Supreme Court invalidated these covenants decades ago, but some remained on paper for older properties. A spokesperson for the Quebec Minister of Justice acknowledged the clauses were discriminatory and said the government “needs to do a more comprehensive legal analysis to assess what would be the best collective remedy.” The spokesperson advised owners who have the clause in their covenants to invalidate them in court or decline to apply them during the sale, but the real estate broker who brought the complaint said the responsibility lay with the government, not property owners. The broker said the government should enact legislation requiring notaries to strike the clauses from documents.

In November, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed the country’s first Special Envoy for Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism. The Special Envoy was designated to lead the country’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and work domestically to promote Holocaust education, remembrance, and research. B’nai B’rith said it had advocated for the appointment of a Special Envoy as part of its “Eight-Point Plan to Tackle Anti-Semitism,” and it described the appointment as “a major step forward in the fight against anti-Semitism” in the country. On January 27, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in which he said the country would continue to address a resurgence of anti-Semitism domestically and abroad. He said the government had adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in its anti-racism strategy; recommitted to the principles of the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust; and had supported the adoption of the 2020 IHRA ministerial declaration as part of these efforts. He also reaffirmed the country’s commitment to Holocaust remembrance and education. Also in January, the Governor General, the country’s vice-regal representative, attended the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, and the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Anti-Semitism,” in Jerusalem.

The National Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony in Ottawa scheduled for April 21 was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which he urged citizens to observe the day through virtual or other means and stated, “Sadly, acts of anti-Semitic violence are still frequent today, and it is our solemn duty to stand united and vigilant against all forms of anti-Semitism, hatred, and discrimination. We must be clear: attacks against the Jewish community are attacks against all of us. Today – and every day – we stand with Jewish communities here in Canada and around the world to vow, ‘Never Again’.”

In October, Ontario became the first province to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, following its adoption by the federal government in 2019. Elsewhere, debate on the IHRA continued throughout the year. In January, Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante did not support a city council motion for the city to adopt the IHRA definition, stating to media that she was “absolutely not” rejecting the motion, but rather was suggesting Montreal formulate its own definition. Gail Adelson-Marcovitz and Reuben Pouplo, national President of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and cochair of CIJA-Quebec, respectively, issued a joint communique, stating, “We are deeply disappointed that Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante did not support the adoption of the most widely accepted definition of anti-Semitism. The mayor failed to seize the opportunity and show leadership on International Holocaust Remembrance Day to demonstrate that the City of Montreal is committed to combating anti-Semitism, which is rapidly increasing around the world.” Expressing support for the mayor’s position, members of the NGO Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) stated the IHRA definition was “designed to silence criticism of Israel and Zionism by equating this criticism with anti-Semitism and the wrong way to counter anti-Semitism.” In February, the Canadian Federation of Students endorsed IJV’s position on IHRA, stating the IHRA “infringes on both freedom of expression and academic freedom in post-secondary education campuses.” Other city councils, including the city council of Westmount, a Montreal suburb, and the city council of Vaughan in the Toronto area, endorsed the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

According to B’nai B’rith Canada, petitions sponsored by the organization prompted the city council of Ajax, Ontario in August to vote to rename a street in a new subdivision that commemorated the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee, and in November to vote to rename another street that commemorated the ship’s captain, Hans Langsdorff. The vessel and its crew fought for Germany in World War II. In July, B’nai B’rith Canada issued a joint call with the Canadian Polish Congress for the removal of monuments in Edmonton, Alberta and Oakville, Ontario, which the two organizations said honored Nazi collaborators.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of physical violence, vandalism, hate speech, and harassment directed at religious groups, in particular against Jews and Muslims. In December, Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2019 that showed a 7 percent decline in the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes, from 657 in 2018 to 608 in 2019.

In 2019, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai B’rith Canada League for Human Rights reported 14 cases of anti-Semitic violence, compared with 11 in 2018; there were 182 reports of vandalism, including the painting of swastikas and threatening messages on buildings, and 2,011 reports of harassment, compared with 221 and 1,809, respectively, in 2018. The league received 2,207 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2019, compared with 2,041 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2018, and 1,752 cases in 2017. More than 90 percent of the occurrences (2,011) involved harassment. Eighty-three percent of all incidents reported in 2019 occurred online or had an online component; the physical location and identities of those posting the online messages were unknown. Occurrences of in-person, compared to online harassment, nearly doubled between 2018 and 2019, rising from 8.6 percent to 16.8 percent, with 238 recorded incidents of bullying of Jewish students by their peers at primary and secondary schools. In 2019, while overall incidents increased across the country, there were significant reductions in all provinces except for Quebec and Ontario, which have the largest Jewish communities in the country. Ontario experienced the greatest increase (62.8 percent) in incidents between 2018 and 2019, from 481 in 2018 to 783 in 2019. Quebec had the largest total number of incidents for a second consecutive year, rising from 709 in 2018 to 796 (up 12.3 percent) in 2019.

According to media reports, on September 18, police charged a male suspect with first degree murder in the killing of a congregant in the parking lot of the International Muslim Organization of Toronto mosque in Rexdale, a Toronto neighborhood, on September 12. The mosque’s security video captured the attack. In the recording, an intruder approached and slashed the neck of the male victim, who was also the mosque’s volunteer caretaker, as he sat alone outside the entrance of the building controlling access to it to comply with pandemic health regulations. Paramedics pronounced the victim dead at the scene. Media reports linked the male suspect to white supremacist postings online. The chief executive of the National Coalition of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) called for police to file hate crime charges and to take stronger steps to dismantle white supremacist organizations, including the creation of a national strategy to counter extremism and hate. The accused remained in custody. Toronto Police Services said it continued the investigation as of December and did not rule out filing additional hate crime charges.

According to media reports, in October, the NCCM publicized violent messages sent by unidentified persons to a Toronto-area mosque, including a threat, “We have the guns to do a Christchurch all over again,” referring to attacks on two mosques in New Zealand in 2019 in which a gunman killed 52 persons. The NCCM declined to identify the mosque for safety purposes, but police confirmed they had opened an investigation of the messages that remained pending through year’s end. The Prime Minister said the threats were “unacceptable” and that Islamophobia and extremism had no place in the country, and separately tweeted that he was “deeply disturbed” by the messages.

According to media reports, a Quebec man pled guilty in June to one charge of inciting hatred in social media posts in 2019. The posts included hate speech against Muslims and Jews, and promoted Aryan supremacy. The court stayed a second charge of inciting hatred and one charge of advocating genocide, and released the man after five months in custody. The court ordered three years probation and prohibited him from using social media during that period.

In September, B’nai B’rith reported several anti-Semitic acts occurring over the Rosh Hashanah holiday, including in Ottawa, where a man spat at worshipers at an outdoor service and called them “dirty [expletive] Jews” as he drove by. On September 18, a man harassed a Jewish father and his son outside a synagogue in Thornhill, a community north of Toronto, yelling, “You’re a piece of [expletive], you’re Jewish, you run the [expletive] world.”

According to B’nai B’rith Canada, the Polish-language newspaper Glos Polski blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on a Jewish plot in an article published in March and republished in April. The article also said Jews created and controlled ISIS, described Israel as “the cause of all the world’s woes” and “an emanation of the Devil himself,” and stated Jews sought to take over Poland. B’nai Brith asked police to open a hate crime investigation. By year’s end, police had not opened an investigation.

According to B’nai B’rith Canada, police in June arrested the publisher of the Polish-language publication Goniec, based in Mississauga, Ontario, for disseminating articles with anti-Semitic content in 2019. The articles accused Jews and Zionists of having “terrorism in their blood,” stated Jews were spying on individuals through the WhatsApp cell phone application, said certain foreign governments were controlled by Jews, and urged readers “to stand up to the Jews.” Police released the man without charge, but cautioned him that they would file charges if he continued to promote hatred against Jews. The news outlet removed the content from its website.

In October, the Privy Council Office (PCO) that serves the Prime Minister confirmed it had opened an internal investigation into social media posts by an employee that allegedly contained anti-Semitic content. The posts reportedly disparaged the genetic heritage of Jews and claimed Jews participated in or enabled Nazi atrocities. The CIJA and the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre brought the complaint. The posts were removed and the PCO issued a statement in which it expressed shock and disappointment with the content. The two organizations said they were gratified the PCO took the complaint seriously.

According to media reports, unknown individuals damaged statues outside Buddhist temples in Montreal in a series of incidents in February and March. Vandals smashed lion statues symbolizing protection with a sledgehammer at the Quan Am Temple on two separate occasions, and damaged statues at two other temples. Vandals also painted crosses on and defaced with graffiti lion statues at the gate of the Chinatown district. Police opened a hate crime investigation, but by year’s end made no arrests in the case.

According to media reports, police released security camera footage in January in an attempt to identify a male suspect in the defacement of the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa. An unidentified individual pelted the monument with eggs days after the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Police opened a hate crime investigation, but by year’s end, made no arrests in the case.

In March, according to media reports, an unidentified individual painted a yellow swastika on a garbage can outside the Chevra Mishnayes Synagogue in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The synagogue previously had been targeted with similar vandalism. Police opened an investigation, but by year’s end made no arrests in the case.

In May, police cautioned three teenagers, informed their parents, and counselled the teens after they dumped a metal suitcase painted with a swastika and containing a dead skunk at the side of a road in Innisfil, Ontario in February. The area is home to two synagogues. Police opened a hate crime investigation, but determined the incident constituted an “immature prank” and not an anti-Semitic incident.

In June, according to media reports, police charged a Barrie, Ontario man with nine counts of mischief for painting swastikas and pro-Nazi and Holocaust references at multiple locations in downtown Barrie, including on buildings and on children’s playground equipment in a park. The graffiti included the names of Hitler, Goebbels, and Anne Frank. The vandalism occurred hours before the Barrie City Council voted to create an antiracism task force.

According to B’nai B’rith Canada and the CIJA, in July, high school student protestors in Mississauga, Ontario led and responded to chants in Arabic of “Palestine is our country and the Jews are our dogs” at a rally organized by student organization Sauga for Palestine in opposition to proposed Israeli government annexation of territory in the West Bank. Spokespersons for Sauga for Palestine said the chanting occurred after the protest had concluded and that rally organizers intervened to stop it; the organization also published an apology on its Facebook page. Jewish witnesses said the rally organizers did not stop the chants. The mayor of Mississauga issued a statement that she stood with the Jewish community “in strongly condemning these hateful and disturbing anti-Semitic comments,” and said the right to peaceful protest excluded promotion of hatred against individuals or groups. B’nai B’rith filed a complaint to police to open a hate crime investigation. By year’s end, police had not opened an investigation.

In June, according to media reports, police closed a hate crime investigation and determined it was a case of vandalism after unidentified individuals in May drew a swastika and the words “all heil Hitler” in chalk on the exterior walls of a school in Toronto. The area has a sizeable Jewish population and some of the school’s staff and students are Jewish.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted during its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 65 percent of Canadian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the lowest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy, consulate, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial governments. They also raised how we might better support individuals persecuted for their religion and counter rising threats to religious freedom. Embassy and other U.S. government officials met with representatives from Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to discuss issues of religious freedom in the country, including issues raised in this report.

Embassy and consulate officials conducted outreach to religious leaders, NGOs, and religious groups to discuss strategies for combating religious intolerance and promoting inclusion. The embassy funded two grants to Liberation75 to combat anti-Semitism and in support of a Liberation75 international event in May and June in Toronto to mark the 75th anniversary of liberation from the Holocaust. The latter event was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On January 20, the Consul General in Quebec City hosted an event with representatives of One World Strong, an NGO that offers peer-to-peer support to survivors of terrorism, and the survivors of the attack at a Quebec City mosque in 2017. The discussion at the event included promotion of religious freedom.

In March, April, and July, the Consul General in Quebec City met with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish faith leaders to reiterate the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. On September 24, the Consul General hosted 11 Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, and indigenous animist faith leaders at an interfaith breakfast in which they discussed religious freedom. They also discussed the impact of COVID-19 on their communities and restrictions on their ability to congregate for worship and religious expression, how to foster hope and resilience during the pandemic, and best practices to promote tolerance, diversity, and inclusion. On November 24, the consulate in Quebec City hosted a webinar with a panel of U.S. and Quebec speakers, including survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, of the Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017, a former member of Al-Qaeda, and a former member of a right-wing extremist group. A survivor of a white supremacist attack described how his attacker targeted him because of his Islamic faith, and the panelists discussed the importance of promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws on minors’ participation in religious activities. The government continued to assert control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,600 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. According to the annual report of The Church of the Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 7,000 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions. The CAG reported some individuals died in custody or as a result of police harassment. Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, where authorities beat them and forced them to take medication. Authorities detained and arrested religious leaders trying to hold services online. The government continued its 2019-2024 campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts, including, according to media, stories from the life of Jesus, to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the State. In September, United Front Work Department (UFWD) vice head and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) director general Wang Zuo’an announced foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, and maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong. From January to July, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID restrictions. There were reports the government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase the surveillance and arrest of religious practitioners, including members of state-sanctioned groups, and to curtail private worship among religious groups. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized publishing and copying businesses that handled religious materials. Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country. The government removed architectural features that identified churches and mosques as religious sites. It altered textbooks to delete references to religious holidays. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In October, the Holy See extended for another two years its 2018 provisional agreement with the government concerning the appointment of bishops. Critics stated the agreement did not alleviate government pressure on Catholic clergy to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture, while promoting ethnic Han individuals in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread.

In multiple public speeches, the U.S. Secretary of State criticized the government for curtailing religious freedom. In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four Chinese leaders and additional PRC entities pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. During the year, the U.S. government added 20 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List that were implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing the visa restrictions, the Secretary of State said, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” The U.S. also prohibited import of merchandise believed to have been produced in Xinjiang with forced labor. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country. An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than one percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020 report, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. The SCIO report states there are six million Catholics, although media and international NGO estimates suggest there are 10-12 million, approximately half of whom practice in churches not affiliated with the CCPA. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uyghur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 14.9 million residents, or 60 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimate tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates there are seven to 20 million practitioners.

Some ethnic minorities follow traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as an expression of “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but it limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining normal. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in or do not believe in any religion.” The constitution states, “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution. Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

The CCP is responsible for creating religious regulations and oversees the UFWD, which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities. SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations and administers the provincial and local bureaus of religious affairs.

CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practice. Members found to belong to religious organizations are subject to expulsion, although these rules are not universally enforced. The vast majority of public office holders are CCP members, and membership is widely considered a prerequisite for success in a government career. These restrictions on religious belief and practice also apply to retired CCP members.

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups. Criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison. There are no published criteria for determining or procedures for challenging such a designation. A national security law also explicitly bans cult organizations.

The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other organizations. The government continues to ban the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy) and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.” The government also considers several Christian groups to be “cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of the Almighty God (CAG, also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

The Counterterrorism Law describes “religious extremism” as the ideological basis of terrorism; it uses “distorted religious teachings or other means to incite hatred or discrimination, or advocate violence.”

The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Regulations require religious organizations to register with the government. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations are permitted to register, and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. The five associations, which operate under the direction of the CCP’s UFWD, are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (TSPM), and the CCPA. Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See, are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations. Registration information is only required once, but religious organizations must reregister if changes are made to the required documentation.

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in June, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code. The revisions formalized the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions. Previously, bank accounts and real estate holdings were commonly held in the name of individual staff members, making it difficult in some cases for authorities to separate the financial matters of members from those of the religious institution.

Religious and other regulations permit official patriotic religious associations to engage in activities such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities. The CCP’s UFWD, including SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

Government policy allows religious groups to engage in charitable work, but regulations specifically prohibit faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities require faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once they are registered as official charities, authorities allow them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government does not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government requires faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of their registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often require these groups to affiliate with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

Article 70 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.” Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100 and $30,600). Illegally obtained income connected to the travel may be seized and “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

The regulations specify that no religious structure, including clergy housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. SARA regulations place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions, and they state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,300) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

The regulations require that religious activity “must not harm national security” or support “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling the credentials of clergy.

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations. Many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect. In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, may permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices. In Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces, for example, local governments allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.

SARA states, in a policy posted on its website, that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government. A provision states, however, that religious organizations should report the establishment of a religious site to the government for approval.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody. However, the PRC defines the right to religious faith differently than the right to religious activities, such as prayer facilities and access to clergy. Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states that no state unit, social organization, or individual may force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion. Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 criminalize the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments or symbols; doing so is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release, and a concurrent fine. Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

Publication and distribution of literature containing religious content must follow guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. Online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups require prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools.

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must first receive approval from the religious affairs department of the local government when the facility is proposed, and again before services are first held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space. Therefore, every time such groups want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel room or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for that specific service. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, gained either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity and is subject to criminal or administrative penalties.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or the construction of “key” projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local bureau of religious affairs (guided by SARA) and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or to provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules varied widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students. The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the XUAR state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities. No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.” Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues. Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.” Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

The law states job applicants shall not face discrimination in hiring based on religious belief.

On February 1, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism. Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With respect to Macau, the central government notified the UN Secretary-General, in part, that residents of Macau shall not be restricted in the rights and freedoms they are entitled to unless otherwise provided for by law, and in case of restrictions, the restrictions shall not contravene the ICCPR. With respect to Hong Kong, the central government notified the Secretary-General, in part, that the ICCPR would also apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Government Practices

Police continued to arrest and otherwise detain leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention. Authorities reportedly used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.

Sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities had targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,492 individuals imprisoned for “organizing or using a ‘cult’ to undermine implementation of the law.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that according to a government source, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a confidential document in September ordering a nationwide, three-year crackdown on the CAG. The campaign outlined three main goals: “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad.” Bitter Winter reported increased arrests of Church members following the issuance of this document, including 71 arrests in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province, in September and 160 arrests in Nanyang City, Henan Province, on November 10 alone.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 42,807 church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 32,815 in 2019. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 35,752 church members (at least 26,683 in 2019), arrested 7,055 (6,132 in 2019), detained 4,045 (4,161 in 2019), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 5,587 (3,824 in 2019), sentenced 1,098 (1,355 in 2019), and seized at least RMB 270 million ($41.3 million) in church and personal assets. At least 21 church members died as a result of abuse or persecution (19 in 2019). The 21 included four who died as a result of physical abuse or forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and four who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the CAG annual report, in August, a woman named Qin Shiqin died in custody in Shandong Province 10 days after her arrest. Facial swelling and blood in the corners of her mouth could be seen on her remains. A 71-year-old woman identified as “Xiang Chen” died in prison in Sichuan Province while serving a three-year sentence because of her faith. Her remains appeared emaciated, her face was swollen and bruised, and a scar was visible under her nose. A man named Zou Jihuang died in custody in Hubei Province of liver cirrhosis. Zou had been arrested in 2017. During his imprisonment, he had developed a liver condition for which he was denied medical treatment, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor. In Shaanxi Province, a 77-year-old woman named Yang Fengying committed suicide after police went to her home multiple times over the course of three years to intimidate and threaten her.

According to the CAG annual report, at least 847 CAG members were arrested between February and April, many of whom were apprehended as a result of the CCP’s antipandemic household checks or at identity card checkpoints. Police extracted information on the church from these individuals through physical abuse, such as administering electric shocks and handcuffing them painfully, with one arm over a shoulder and one twisted up from below.

Media reported authorities used measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups. The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic. According to media reports, the government conducted door-to-door household inspections, during which they identified and arrested members of banned religious groups. One CAG member said she hid under the bed every time officials came for an inspection. A government employee in Shandong Province said his superiors ordered him to search for nonlocal tenants, particularly members of banned groups, such as the CAG and Falun Gong.

In May, Bitter Winter reported the political and legal affairs commission of a locality in northeastern China released a document stating the CCP had established “a stability maintenance mechanism” targeting religious groups, among other individuals and groups, that the government determined posed “a danger to social stability” during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that between February and March, authorities used COVID-19-related mandatory identification checks and home inspections to arrest 325 CAG members. In February, authorities arrested two church members during an identification check, searched their home, and confiscated RMB 45,000 ($6,900) of church valuables. During interrogation, officers reportedly placed a plastic bag over the head of one of the Church members and beat him. They also strapped him to a “tiger bench” with his body tied in a stress position and shocked him with an electric baton. According to Bitter Winter, another church member was arrested when a pandemic inspection team that included community representatives, health personnel, and police officers came to his home. During his interrogation, officers reportedly covered his mouth with a plastic bag and hit him on the face with a desk calendar, stepped on his feet, beat his calves with an iron rod, and forced him to hold a live electric baton.

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,659 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed 8,576 practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith, compared with 6,109 arrested and 3,582 harassed in 2019. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted. Those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, authors, and dancers. Minghui stated individuals were tortured in custody. Minghui also reported that authorities sentenced 622 practitioners to prison throughout the country during the year. The sentences ranged from three months to 14 years, with the average sentence being three years and four months.

Minghui reported that during the year, 83 individuals from 20 provinces and centrally controlled municipalities died due to being persecuted for being Falun Gong practitioners. Some individuals died in custody as a result of physical abuse, including being deprived of sleep and food, forced into stress positions, and denied proper medical attention. Others died shortly after being released on medical parole. On May 13, authorities in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, arrested Zhang Zhiwen for distributing Falun Gong materials the previous August. Zheng’s husband attempted to bring her clothes and insulin for her diabetes, but authorities refused to accept the items, saying they would provide her medication. Zheng died in custody on May 17 and authorities sent the body directly to a funeral home without notifying her husband. Falun Gong practitioner Li Ling of Dazhangjia Village, Penglai City, Shandong Province, died on July 13 after reportedly being severely beaten following her arrest on June 28. Village authorities forced her family to cremate her remains on the same day. According to her family, her face was deformed, and she was covered in bruises. The village’s CCP secretary and a group of paramilitary soldiers took Li from her home on June 28 after a fellow villager reported seeing her with dozens of Falun Gong booklets.

According to Minghui, on September 22 and 23, authorities in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, arrested 27 Falun Gong practitioners and three family members who were not practitioners, and confiscated books, laptops, printers, money, photographs of Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi, and other personal items. Authorities harassed eight other practitioners within days of the arrests. One practitioner returned home to find police ransacking her home. They confiscated books on Falun Gong and arrested the woman along with her husband, who was not a practitioner. Following a group arrest of Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun City, Jilin Province, in July, police beat one practitioner, hit his head against the wall, and dragged him around on the concrete floor. He suffered severe injuries to his knees as a result.

According to Bitter Winter, on May 18, authorities assaulted several individuals who were protesting the demolition of a Buddhist temple in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, that authorities declared was “a dilapidated building.” Police beat one woman for filming the scene. A witness said, “Three officers pressed her to the ground, hitting her collarbones until she lost consciousness, and the phone was destroyed.” Police injured a monk in his 70s for waving his walking stick at authorities and accused him of “assaulting the police.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report, Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ-transplant market. A related series of articles published during the year examining the country’s organ transplantation system questioned the plausibility of official government statistics about the sourcing of transplant organs, stating there was an overlap between medical personnel performing organ transplants and individuals involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign.

On March 1, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal established by the Australia-based NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, released its Full Judgment on the conditions of organ harvesting in the country. The report was a fuller account with appendices of the evidence the nongovernmental group had drawn on and methodology it had used to reach conclusions contained in its Short Form Conclusions and Summary Judgment report issued in June 2019. In the Full Judgment report, the group included accounts by individuals, including medical personnel, who stated they were eyewitnesses to abuses, including from medical personnel, and other evidence that documented what the NGO determined to be a decades-long and ongoing state-run program of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, principally Falun Gong practitioners. The Full Judgment report also contained eyewitness accounts from Falun Gong and Uyghur individuals of involuntary medical examinations, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, and DNA tests.

According to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated news organization, on August 2, authorities broke into the home of a Falun Gong practitioner, pinned her down, and forcibly took a sample of her blood, telling her it was “required by the state.” One officer shouted, “The law does not apply to you. We’re going to wipe you all out.” The Epoch Times stated that dozens of other practitioners across the country reported similar incidents. On July 22, authorities in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, arrested and took blood samples from 46 practitioners. An attorney familiar with the cases said the blood sampling did not appear to be a routine physical checkup but rather was illegally “collecting people’s biological samples.”

According to the CAG annual report, harassment of members included the collection of biological data, such as blood samples and hair.

In April, Bitter Winter reported instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. According to a staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it was hospital practice to begin “treatment” of CAG members as soon as they were brought in, without any tests or examination. According to a member of the Church from Tianmen City, Hubei Province, who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital, “A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests.” Nurses threatened to tie her up if she refused to take medication. One former patient said two doctors pressed her down on a desk and shocked her on the back, hands, and feet with an electric baton to force her to take medication. During the month she was in the hospital, doctors administered six electroshock treatments, causing her to suffer memory loss and numbness in her limbs. She said doctors threatened that her son’s job would be negatively affected if she continued to practice her faith.

International religious media outlets and human rights groups reported that local authorities in several districts around the country continued to award compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners from certain groups or confiscating donation money. Conversely, local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, a government employee from Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter the municipal government issued arrest quotas for CAG members to subordinate localities, leading to the arrest of 211 individuals. In Jiangxi Province, the police arrested 116 CAG members and confiscated RMB 378,000 ($57,800) of church and personal assets. Minghui reported police received an unknown amount of bonus pay for each Falun Gong practitioner arrested.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities raided the homes of and arrested at least eight members of the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during an online worship service on April 12, Easter Sunday. A pastor and a deputy deacon were among those arrested. According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), authorities continued to harass members in the weeks following the raid. On April 24, authorities took Church member Ran Yunfei to a police station shortly before he was scheduled to speak in an online service. He returned home later that same day. The NGO ChinaAid reported police summoned Ran again in November in connection with his participation in another online religious seminar.

The ICC reported that on May 23, authorities arrested a pastor from the Nanjing Road Church in Wuhan, Hebei Province, during an online evangelism event in which he was taking part. They interrogated him for approximately five hours before releasing him.

According to Bitter Winter, in February, police arrested 13 members of the Born Again Movement, also called the All Sphere or All Range Church, in Huai’an City, Jiangsu Province. Five of the members arrested were elderly and suffered from various illnesses. Police released the five after protests from their relatives but forced them to sign statements promising to stop their church activities. Police also came to the home of another church member who hosted church gatherings at her home and threatened to arrest her if she did not stop doing so. They said three generations of her descendants would be unable to take college entrance examinations, enroll in the army, or become public servants if she did not stop. The officers took samples of her blood and prints of her fingers and palms.

According to AsiaNews.it, on April 2, authorities took Zhao Huaiguo, founder and pastor of the Bethel Church in Cili County, Hunan Province, from his home and arrested him on a charge of “inciting subversion against state power.” Police returned to his apartment on April 15 to confiscate books, Bibles, and photocopies of books as evidence of “illegal trade” in books. His wife said he was likely arrested because he spoke to foreign news agencies about COVID-19 and had not affiliated his church with the TSPM church. ChinaAid reported the Zhangjiajie Intermediate Court tried Zhao in October for “inciting subversion of state power,” and prosecutors recommended an 18-month sentence.

In May, the ICC reported that authorities transferred Pastor Wang Yi of the ERCC from Chengdu City Detention Center to a prison in an unknown location. In December 2019, Wang had been sentenced to nine years in prison. According to the ICC, since his arrest, authorities had denied Wang’s parents the ability to visit him, either in person or virtually, despite their having the legal right to do so, and Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location under surveillance.

At year’s end, the whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police had detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups. In September, the NGO Jubilee Campaign submitted a written statement to the 45th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the government to “release unconditionally and with immediate effect all political and religious prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng.” Gao’s daughter, Geng Ge, submitted a video statement to the council, stating, “As of today, I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

In October, ChinaAid reported that since July, police in Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, had threatened and harassed Pastor Wang Hai of the Trinity Church and his wife and detained other church leaders and members of Wang’s extended family. Wang said authorities had targeted the Church because its members belonged to the ethnic Miao minority and were Christian. He said that due to the ongoing harassment, church attendance had dropped from 100 worshippers to only a handful who attended Sunday services.

AsiaNews.it reported that on September 1, authorities from the Religious Affairs Bureau in Fujian Province arrested Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of the Mindong Diocese, and held him incommunicado for 17 days to pressure him to join the CCPA. At least 20 underground priests in the region faced similar pressure from the religious affairs bureau, according to AsiaNews.it.

According to RFA, on April 19 and May 3, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Church pastor Yang Xibo told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM. According to multiple international press reports and mobile phone videos that Church members posted to Twitter, authorities forcibly entered a private residence in which Church members were holding a worship service, without a warrant or showing any form of identification. Authorities seized several congregants and tried to drag them out, injuring three; they detained at least nine members, releasing them approximately 12 hours later. According to RFA, authorities raided Xingguang Church again on June 11, taking away furniture and other church belongings, but did not arrest anyone. ChinaAid stated authorities broke into church members’ homes on July 22, destroying and removing property.

In January, RFA reported that authorities in Jinan City, Shandong Province, arrested Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country. He was held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” According to RFA, this charge was “frequently leveled at peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

The Falun Dafa Information Center, a Falun Gong rights advocacy group, reported authorities in Beijing detained at least 40 persons ahead of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on May 22. Sources said police also harassed practitioners and searched their homes and that police told the individuals they were taking the actions because of the upcoming political meetings. On April 21, police forcibly entered the home of Wang Yuling by prying open her window. They ransacked the house and confiscated books and printed materials related to Falun Gong, as well as a printer and computer. They took Wang and her daughter into custody. On April 27, authorities forcibly entered the home of Yang Yuliang, searched it, and confiscated Falun Gong books and photographs of Falun Gong’s founder. They held Yang and his daughter, Yang Dandan, in custody for three days.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities pressuring members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. Media reported the government threatened to withhold social welfare benefits and to retaliate against family members. The NGO CSW stated authorities instructed schools to report the religious beliefs of students and staff.

Bitter Winter reported that on November 1, the government began the seventh national population census, collecting a broad range of personal and household data, including individuals’ identification numbers. According to several census takers, although there were no questions about religion on the census questionnaire, they were instructed when visiting people’s homes to pay attention to religious materials and symbols and to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue. In one case, when five census takers entered a home in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, they saw a Bible and asked the residents if they were Christian. They determined the home was being used as a house church and ordered the residents to stop hosting gatherings. A census taker in Yantai City, Shandong Province, said local police told him and his colleagues to report any households with images associated with Falun Gong. A census taker in Heze City, Shandong Province, said he was ordered to report to police any person who did not allow him inside the home, because refusal might indicate the person held religious beliefs or hosted unauthorized religious gatherings.

According to the ICC, on October 11, police arrested Elder Li Yingqiang of the ERCC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, just before the church began an online service. During the arrest, police also threatened Li’s two young children. Police also arrested another church member, Jia Xuewei, and interrogated him for several hours about ERCC’s recent spiritual retreat and the worship that was about to take place. Both were released later that day. An ERCC member told the ICC that authorities likely detained Li and Jia to prevent the online service from taking place. According to the source, police told Li he would be taken from his home every week and that they would target his children if he posted about his experience online.

According to Bitter Winter, during the year, authorities in several provinces investigated the personal backgrounds of civil servants, hospital staff, teachers, students, and the family members of each to determine their religious status. In May, the Education Bureau of Jinan City, Shandong Province, required some primary and secondary schools to determine if any of their teachers, students, or their family members were religious.

There continued to be no uniform procedures for registering religious adherents. The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the state-sanctioned religious associations. Only government-accredited religious personnel could conduct such activities, and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. The April 2018 white paper by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) stated there were approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 were Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.

The 2018 SCIO white paper stated that by 2017, there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA: 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic, and 21 Protestant. Students younger than 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country: 222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered or, at other times, because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader. According to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, Article 34 of the new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups regulation, which governs money and finances, if enforced, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations, promulgated in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” According to Bitter Winter, on April 13, the UFWD in Zibo City, Shandong Province, issued an order calling on religious groups and clergy to write essays on their “love for the country and the Communist Party.” A Catholic dean in Zibo said that on April 16, a religious affairs bureau official told him to study Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Congress of the CCP for an examination he would have to take later. On February 18, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province issued a notice that the city’s religious groups should hold events to advance Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, the TSPM in Fujian Province issued a document stating, “Posters promoting the core socialist values shall be posted in prominent positions in all church venues. Clergy members should highlight the core socialist values in their sermons and use important festivals, major events, and other occasions to interpret and publicize the core socialist values, so that they are inserted into believers’ minds, their Sunday worship services, and daily lives.” Local government authorities reportedly threatened to close churches whose clergy refused to help spread government propaganda.

According to Bitter Winter, the government regularly pressured clergy to incorporate government messages into sermons. Following President Xi’s call in August to curb food waste in the country, two Chinese Christian Councils of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, demanded all TSPM churches integrate the president’s ideas into their sermons, so that “the policy reaches everyone in society.” In response, some clergy members reportedly integrated the president’s exhortation into the Biblical story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country. Many religious groups faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances. Following investigations, authorities shut down hundreds of churches that were reportedly unregistered or whose registration had not been updated under the new regulations. In late 2019, the Jilin Province Religious Affairs Bureau issued a document calling for investigations of churches related to or funded by overseas religious groups and blocking their activities online, and it began implementing these measures during the year. In Shandong Province, national security officers interrogated a house church pastor in February for evangelical activities abroad.

The government media outlet Xinhua reported that in September, UFWD vice head and SARA director general Wang announced that in the previous 70 years, through the development of the TSPM, foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in the country.

On May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association held a training session for Buddhist professionals and monks across the province. The training included advising monks on how to implement religious Sinicization, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National Religious Work Conference, and the religious affairs regulations.

The BAC-affiliated Buddhist website AmituofoCN.com reported that on April 16, approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized by the Hainan Province UFWD, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School. Participants studied the principles of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the Regulations on Religious Affairs. Hainan UFWD deputy director general Liu Geng in his opening remarks told the religious professionals to “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.” According to AmituofoCN.com, on May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association organized another training session for clergy, teachers, and religious workers from various temples in the province. Song Xinghe, an official in the Hainan UFWD Religious Affairs Bureau, gave a lecture entitled, “Insistence on the Sinicization of Religion.”

According to Gospel Times, a Chinese Christian news website, from July 15 to 17, the Guangdong TSPM held a training session for 98 clergy to study new regulations and promote Sinicization in Guangdong Province. An associate professor from Jinling Union Theological Seminary gave a lecture on TSPM and the Sinicization of Christianity. Government officials also gave a lecture on “anticult” measures.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders. The publication reported that on July 20, the Dandong City Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province required TSPM clergy to participate in a sermon competition on the Sinicization of religion. The clergy were told to prepare sermons by “looking for elements in the Bible that are relevant to the core socialist values and traditional Chinese culture,” in conformity with “the progress of the times.” One clergy member told Bitter Winter that only competition participants would pass the annual review to receive a clergy certificate.

In August, a conference to study the new civil code and volume three of Xi Jinping on Governance was held at the Guangxiao Buddhist Temple, organized by the Guangdong Buddhist Association. Approximately 800 leaders of all religious groups in Guangdong Province attended in-person and virtually.

The state-owned China News Service reported that on December 1, SARA director general Wang delivered remarks at the 10th National Congress of the BAC. Wang called on the BAC to “pursue political progress toward the adherence of Sinicization of Buddhism” to ensure Buddhist content was suitable for “contemporary social development.”

From August 10 to16, the Gansu provincial UFWD held what it described as the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of temple management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. A UFWD press release stated the training was intended to direct the Sinicization of Islam, promote the statement of CCP principles, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and “increase political literacy, all while highlighting policies and regulations, history and culture, and national and provincial conditions through the lens of patriotic education.”

In November, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an Islamic scholar in the northwestern part of the country said of Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out. You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out – but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

On October 13, the state-owned China National Daily News reported the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association released an outline for implementing the “five-year plan for Hubei Province to adhere to the Sinicization of Islam in China (2018-2022).” According to the article, measures to implement the plan included “strengthening political identity,” studying the works of Xi Jinping, studying the Regulations on Religious Affairs, and guiding imams to interpret the scriptures in accordance with “Chinese traditional culture and the core values of socialism.”

China News Service reported that on November 28, the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Taoist Association was held in Jurong, Jiangsu Province. In addition to passing a code of conduct for Taoist teachers, the congress elected Li Guangfu as the new Taoist Association chairman. Li stated that Taoism should “adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “adhere to the Sinicization of Taoism.”

Media reported in September that Catholics in the country protested the distorted retelling of a Bible story in a textbook the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology Press published to teach “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools. In the original biblical story from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who committed adultery and prevented a crowd from stoning her to death. In the textbook, Jesus disperses the crowd, but he says to the woman, “I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” and he then proceeds to stone her to death himself. According to UCA News, Catholic critics said the authors of the textbook “want to prove that the rule of law is supreme in China and such respect for law is essential for a smooth transfer to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Sources told media that authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians wearing skull caps or veils.

During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating loyalty to the CCP over the church. In a press release on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Pastor Wang Qingwen, senior pastor of Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches in the city to “unswervingly adhere to the three-self patriotic principle of teaching and strive to promote the theological construction of the Sinicization of Christianity.” In the press release, Wang urged churches to continue to adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to “hold high the banner of patriotism.”

In December, the Jerusalem Post reported there were approximately 100 practicing Jews among the 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Lacking access to the Torah, they used Christian Bibles containing the Old Testament. Members of the community said they worried about government crackdowns on religion and had to celebrate Hanukkah and hold other gatherings in secret. One community member said, “Every time we celebrate, we are scared.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities placed pastors of house churches and dissident Catholic priests under arrest to make sure they would not lead Christmas celebrations in churches or private homes. According to the publication, in Xiamen, Fujian Province, police stopped a group of Christians from singing Christmas songs at a mall, even though they had been invited to perform there. Authorities fined a Christian in Lushan County, Henan Province, RMB 160,000 ($24,500) for gathering people to pray and sing Christmas songs. The NGO Human Rights Defenders reported there was pressure on schools across the country to teach children that Christmas should not be celebrated and that gifts should not be exchanged. According to the NGO, the government gave permission for “spontaneous” street demonstrations by people carrying banners reading “Christmas, Get out of China.”

The government labeled several religious groups as “cults” (xie jiao – literally “heterodox teachings”), including the CAG, the Shouters, the Association of Disciples, and the All Sphere Church. The government also continued to ban certain groups, such as Falun Gong, which it classified as an illegal organization. In July, Bitter Winter reported that several provinces had introduced measures that encouraged individuals to report on members of what it called “cults,” which carried a penalty of between three and seven years’ imprisonment. According to the CAG’s annual report, authorities harassed and threatened with imprisonment more than 8,400 Church members across the country who refused to sign statements renouncing their faith. In Shandong Province, those who reported on suspected “cult” members could receive up to a RMB 2,500 ($380) award, while Hainan Province offered awards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300). Guangdong Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Nanjing City introduced similar measures. Actions by cults to be reported included using the internet to produce or disseminate religious materials; producing or disseminating religious leaflets, pictures, slogans, newspapers, and other publications; and hanging religious banners and posters in public places. Sources told Bitter Winter the campaign against xie jiao was ubiquitous throughout the country. Bitter Winter posted photographs of a park in Yuchen County, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, that contained multiple large red banners with anti-xie jiao messages.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it labeled as cults and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities. Faluninfo.net reported that in June, a police supervisor in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, fired Falun Gong practitioner Zha Zhuolin from the force for refusing to write a statement denouncing the group. According to Zha, the supervisor, Xu Wang, said, “The first rule for a police officer is to be loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Media reported that in Guangzhou, pandemic-control volunteers delivered anti-xie jiao brochures, along with facemasks and hand sanitizer, to residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then broadcast anticult propaganda when an industrial park reopened in April.

According to media, police and local religious affairs bureau officials raided the Dongguan Branch of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church on the evening of August 21 when more than 10 adherents were holding a Bible study session. Police accused the attendees of “spreading heterodox teachings” and detained three individuals. Two were released shortly, but the minister, Yang Jun, was detained until the next day on a fraud charge.

According to Bitter Winter, the government responded to protests against school reform in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region by blaming the unrest on banned religious groups, such as Falun Gong, or groups it labeled cults, such as the CAG. On August 28, the region’s Anticult Association launched “Prevention of Xie Jiao Propaganda Month.” Activities during the month included holding events, distributing brochures, and teaching “all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia to guard against xie jiao.”

In October, CSW reported that some ethnic minority villages had established “village rules” to allow villagers to isolate and target Christians. According to CSW, in September, village authorities in Huang Fei Village, Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, issued a notice stating that the traditional faith of the Dai community was Buddhism and that Christianity was an “evil cult.” The notice announced that anyone who violated the rules of the village “by believing in Jesus Christ and other sects” would have to pay a financial penalty to the community. CSW stated that individuals on social media reported the Li community in Hainan Province had also imposed a financial penalty on persons believing in Christianity.

From January to June or July, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bitter Winter reported, however, that authorities allowed Taoist temples displaying Mao Zedong images to stay open throughout the lockdown. Sources told Bitter Winter that people worshiped at the Arhat Temple in Zhumadian City, Henan Province, throughout the lockdown because it had a Mao Zedong wall painting. The director of the Chinese National Ancestors’ Temple in Shanqui City, Henan Province, said authorities allowed his temple to remain open during the pandemic because it had a Mao Zedong statue.

Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown. On February 23, Shandong Province’s two state-run Christian organizations, the TSPM and the Chinese Christian Council, issued a notice prohibiting live streaming of religious services. A former TSPM pastor from Jiangxi Province told Bitter Winter that in early February, police shut down a chatroom he was using for a religious gathering. The ICC reported that on August 11, the local religious affairs bureau in Yunnan Province fined Zhang Wenli of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for conducting unauthorized online Bible study. A TSPM pastor in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, told Bitter Winter in April that the government blocked the link he shared with his congregation on WeChat, a Chinese social media application. A house church director in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, live-streamed a church service on YY, a video-based social network, but the service was suspended less than half an hour into the broadcast. An imam in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, reported that shortly after he discussed Islamic festivals on a social media platform, police blocked his account. A local government official in Liaoning Province was summoned by his superiors in March for attending an online service of a South Korean church. They forced him to uninstall the app that allowed him to join the service.

In June, AsiaNews.it reported that although the government had begun allowing churches to reopen, the bureaucratic process and conditions for reopening made doing so difficult. A priest in central China said these conditions included getting permission to reopen from the village, city, and provincial governments and meeting strict sanitation requirements. The priest said, “Religion does not seem to belong to us; it belongs to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” The Catholic News Service reported authorities in Zhejiang Province issued a notice on May 29 stating that priests were required to “preach on patriotism” as a condition for resuming in-person services. Bitter Winter reported in June that authorities in Zhejiang Province required churches to praise the government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to pray for “national economic and social development,” “attainment of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and “promotion and realization of human destiny community,” all of which were President Xi Jinping’s political slogans.

According to Bitter Winter, in July, before the government had begun to lift lockdown restrictions and reopen religious venues in Nanyang City, Henan Province, the city’s religious affairs bureau ordered several folk religion temples to remove religious books and incense burners. Government authorities inspected the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple three times in August. As a condition for reopening the venue, officials ordered the temple to burn scriptures and expel a nun who lived on the premises. The temple remained closed, however, even after meeting these conditions.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although it allowed some musical, cultural, and political events to take place. On Christmas Day, riot police blocked the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral of the Savior in Beijing (also known as the Xishiku Church), saying religious gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic. A large Christmas tree was used to block the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing, and signs were also posted there saying gatherings were cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to Bitter Winter, officials placed arbitrary restrictions on Catholic churches affiliated with the CCPA, closed facilities, and merged others without the congregations’ consent. Government officials in Linyi used a point system to determine whether a congregation should be merged, considering such factors as whether the congregation had more than 10 members or the facility was equipped with a blackboard, audio system, desks, and chairs.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 10, the local religious affairs bureau and the security bureau ordered Father Liu Jiangdong, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, to leave the Zhengshou Diocese, which was affiliated with the CCPA. A source told Bitter Winter that government authorities had previously accused Liu of financial improprieties, suspended his priesthood certificate, and imprisoned him from October 2018 to December 2019. The source said Liu had in fact been imprisoned because he opposed removal of the cross from atop his church, formed a Catholic youth group, and allowed minors to attend religious services. A member of his congregation said that since Liu’s release, authorities had surveilled him, monitored his telephone calls, and locked him out of his residence. A churchgoer said authorities threatened to fine members of Liu’s former congregation up to RMB 200,000 ($30,600) if they sheltered him or invited him to hold Mass in their homes.

Media and human rights organizations reported that SARA issued a new requirement in October that only the IAC was permitted to organize Muslims’ pilgrimage trips. The new regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health. They also had to be able to completely pay the costs associated with going on the Hajj and must oppose religious extremism. The new administrative measure was reportedly intended to “preserve religious freedom and the continued Sinicization of religion in the PRC.”

According to Bitter Winter, the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang Province issued a document in April that required authorities to increase “counterterrorism and stability maintenance measures” during Ramadan. The document instructed police to intensify surveillance of local Hui and other Muslims, especially during Friday prayers, the daily breaking of the fast, and other important Ramadan activities. It also instructed police to surveil ethnic minority visitors from Xinjiang by checking their documents and luggage, determining their whereabouts while in the city, and acquiring other information.

NPR reported in November that in the spring, police detained 14 men in Yiwu City, Central Zhejiang Province, because they had purchased Islamic books. They were subjected to weeks of questioning about their political views and online correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and Chinese Muslims overseas. According to a friend of one of the men detained, “The police had printed out the text records everyone had on WeChat with writers and publishers…Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to [the police] beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

Sources reported churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

Bitter Winter reported that in April, authorities placed surveillance equipment, including facial recognition cameras, in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Authorities also installed surveillance cameras in all Protestant and Catholic churches in Jinxiang County, Jinin City, Shandong Province. A deacon at one TSPM Church in Henan Province, where authorities had installed a surveillance camera in December 2019, said, “[Government officials] always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” In March and April, authorities in a city in Zhejiang Province placed surveillance cameras outside the entrances of homes of seven members of the CAG. One church member reported she was told this was done for “theft prevention.”

In October, Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Jiangxi Province’s Poyang County, which has a large population of Christians, issued orders to install RMB one million ($153,000) in facial recognition cameras in all state-approved places of worship. According to the report, authorities installed approximately 200 cameras in more than 50 TSPM churches from July to September, and nearly 50 in 16 Buddhist and Taoist temples. A police officer stated the cameras were installed to monitor church members and sermons.

A Catholic source in the northeast part of the country told AsiaNews.it in July that government staff attended Sunday services to monitor activities and ensure children who were 18 or younger did not attend. The Grand Mosque in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, displayed signs prohibiting children who were 18 and younger from participating in religious activity. According to one worshipper at the mosque, authorities said this was to allow young people to focus on their secular education.

Minghui reported that police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, intensely surveilled Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zhenyu, who had been released from Suzhou Prison on September 19 after completing his three-year sentence. While monitoring Ma, authorities intimidated his mother and other practitioners.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in September that authorities in Sanya City, in the island province of Hainan, took measures against the predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, which comprised approximately 10,000 members. They banned girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school. An Utsul community worker said the ban prompted fierce protests by students and their families and that it was temporarily lifted after hundreds of students wore hijabs in public and boycotted classes. Photographs and videos circulated on social media showed girls wearing hijabs and reading from textbooks outside their primary school while surrounded by police officers. According to the SCMP, Utsuls working in government or CCP bodies were told the hijab was “disorderly.” The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued document, Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui Neighborhoods, which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods on the island. The document called for the demolition of mosques displaying “Arabic” features, the removal of shop signs saying in Chinese characters the words “Islamic” or “Halal,” and increased surveillance over the Utsul population.

According to Bitter Winter, from March to May, Islamic symbols and writings in Arabic were painted over or covered on signboards of 70 Hui-run businesses in Chuxiong, the capital of the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. According to some shop owners, officials from various state institutions, among them the public security bureau, urban management, and religious affairs bureaus, ordered them to remove the symbols from their signboards or replace them entirely. Otherwise, their business licenses would be revoked. A baker from the prefecture’s Lufeng County said that from December to May, Islamic symbols were removed from the signboards of 62 halal shops in the county. “The state is out of control, like during the Cultural Revolution…Hui men are not allowed to wear white caps and women, headscarves. Hui Muslims will disappear in two or three generations.” Local officials told shop owners that the order came from the central government and that the signboard-removal campaign was nationwide. According to one local resident in Songming County, Kunming Province, signboards on 176 Hui businesses were “Sinicized” between December 2019 and May. A restaurant owner said, “If we Hui people tried to argue with officials, they would call us rioters and arrest us on any trumped-up charge.”

The SCMP reported in September that new foreign teachers coming to the country had to attend a mandatory 20-hour training course of what the news source characterized as “political indoctrination covering China’s development, laws, professional ethics, and education policies.” According to the newspaper, the Hainan provincial public security bureau offered rewards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for tips on foreigners who “engaged in religious activities without permission,” including teaching religion and evangelizing. One teacher said authorities installed a surveillance camera in his classroom to monitor his lessons.

The SCMP reported in September that many foreign missionaries were not allowed to return to the country after it partially lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreign national residents. According to the Voice of America (VOA), in November, the Ministry of Justice published draft regulations requiring foreign worshippers wanting to host religious activities to apply for a permit and to demonstrate their groups were “friendly to China” in their country of origin. The regulations would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners and would require those organizing religious activities to provide the names, nationalities, and visa status of those who would attend as well as a detailed program of the service, including which texts would be read, before authorities would grant permission. According to VOA, authorities said the new regulations were intended to stop foreigners from spreading “religious extremism” or using religion “to undermine China’s national and ethnic unity.” The draft regulation specified it would also apply to individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups. During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” from unofficial distribution channels. The government-affiliated news outlet Meipian.com reported that in January, law enforcement officers inspected publication wholesale and retail locations, farmer’s markets, and “urban-rural junctions within their jurisdictions” looking for “illegal religious publications and illegal training courses of a religious nature.” The ICC reported that on March 24, the Zhongshan No. 1 District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong Province charged Christians Liang Rurui and Zhu Guoqing with conducting illegal business operations that “seriously disrupted market order.” According to the ICC, authorities in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, had arrested them in November and December 2019, respectively, for printing 7,000 children’s Bibles. According to the human rights blog Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network), on July 2, authorities arrested four Christians from the Life Tree Culture Communications Co., Ltd. – Fu Xuanjuan, Deng Tianyong, Han Li, and Feng Qunhao – on charges of “illegal business operations” for selling electronic audio Bible players, small handheld devices that allow the user to listen to (as opposed to read) Biblical text. According to Weiquanwang, the company had been legally established in 2011 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on September 14, the education and environmental protection bureaus in Luoyang City, Henan Province, inspected a local printing house to determine whether it was publishing banned religious materials. The printing house manager said, “They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content. If any such content is found, I’ll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed.” According to Bitter Winter, similar bans applied to photocopying businesses. One photocopy employee said, “I was told to report anyone who comes to copy religious materials.” Another said, “If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities.”

The ICC reported in September that the People’s Court of Linhai City in Zhejiang Province sentenced online Christian bookseller Chen Yu to seven years in prison and fined him for “illegal business operations,” allegedly for selling unapproved religious publications. Authorities first detained him in September 2019.

In July, Bitter Winter reported government restrictions on printing, copying, and mailing nonapproved Buddhist literature increased throughout the country. A source in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said authorities confiscated thousands of Buddhist books and compact discs from at least 20 stores in the region. One store owner said authorities confiscated more than 2,000 Buddhist books and materials from the store. Another shop owner said, “In the past, people would send me books and materials they printed themselves to distribute them for free, but nobody dares to do this now.” In March, police in Zhejiang Province forbade printing houses from fulfilling orders from venues not approved by the government. In June, authorities in Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia, banned copy centers from printing Buddhist and Christian materials. One copy shop owner said, “Government officials come every day to inspect computers and copy machines. If they discover that religious materials have been copied, I could be held legally accountable.”

Bitter Winter reported that in early September, police arrested a person in Jinan City, Shandong Province, who attempted to mail compact discs of sermons by Shenpo Sodargye, a Tibetan Buddhist master, to the more than 100 individuals in Weihai City, Shangdong Province, who had ordered them online. The names of the buyers were forwarded to local Weihai police, who summoned them for questioning.

According to Bitter Winter, during a meeting on Buddhism organized on July 31 by the Fuzhou City Religious Affairs Bureau in Jiangxi Province, authorities banned all temples in the city from keeping religious books from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the name of “preventing foreign infiltration.” The director of a Buddhist temple said, “The government controls all books on Buddhism; nothing that does not comply with the CCP ideology is allowed and is considered illegal. Only religious materials promoting the Party are permitted to be circulated.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Chinese New Year. Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them. One merchant in Luhe County, Guangdong Province, said, “We don’t carry religious couplets. Even if we had them, we wouldn’t dare sell them.” On January 19, three officials from Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, entered a TSPM church, took photos, and registered the personal information of those in the church. The officials distributed couplets praising the CCP and demanded they be posted. A government employee in Xinmi City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter that in early March, municipal authorities ordered all town and township governments to conduct door-to-door inspections of households and shops looking for religious couplets. Inspectors were instructed to remove the couplets and cooperate with the public security bureau to ascertain where they had been produced. One shopkeeper said authorities threatened to close his business if he posted Christian couplets again.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. According to VOA, in October, ChinaAid stated that online censors removed the words “Christ” (jidu), “Jesus” (Yesu), and “Bible” (shengjing) from social media posts and replaced them with the initials “JD,” “YS,” and “SJ.” The word Christianity was replaced with “JD religion.” According to some scholars, Christians were replacing the words in texts themselves to avoid online censors who might block the posts.

In May, Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to dismantle Islamic architectural features and remove Islamic symbols from mosques throughout the country, and it published photographs from multiple locations showing construction workers taking down domes and minarets as well as before-and-after pictures. In Weizhou City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, many of the more than 4,000 mosques in the city were remodeled or destroyed between 2018 and February 2020 as part of the government’s “de-Arabization and de-Saudization” campaign. Before-and-after photographs of the Weizhou Grand Mosque and other mosques showed that Chinese-style pagodas had replaced minarets and crescent moon symbols had been removed.

In late March, authorities removed the domes and star-and-crescent symbols from 17 mosques in Pingliang City, Gansu Province. A local imam said that before the removals, authorities forced imams to study “de-Arabization and de-Saudization policies as well as the promotion of religion ‘Sinicization.’” The imam said authorities threatened to revoke the credentials of imams who did not cooperate with removal of the symbols. Many mosques visible from major highways in Qinghai Province in September had replaced traditional Islamic minarets with more Chinese-looking structures or appeared to be in the process of doing so. Mosques with more traditional Han Chinese architecture, such as the Grand Mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, remained unchanged and were highlighted in public tours by imams and other mosque representatives.

According to Bitter Winter, in January, authorities removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from at least 10 mosques in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. On March 18, amid the coronavirus lockdown, government-hired workers remodeled the roof of the Gongmazhuang Mosque in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, to make it look “more Chinese.” Authorities had removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from the mosque in November 2019. In late March, the government ordered the removal of domes and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Xiaoma Village, Henan Province. In mid-November, authorities removed the dome and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Qinghua Town, Henan Province, and hung banners reading, “Resolutely resist religious infiltration and combat religious extremism” at the mosque’s entrance. In Maying Village, Henan Province, after the government ordered the removal of symbols from the local mosque, one resident said, “We have to listen to what Xi Jinping says and what state policies indicate. No one dares to challenge the state.”

In December, Bitter Winter published before-and-after photographs of numerous churches in multiple provinces, including churches affiliated with the TSPM, that showed that exterior crosses had been removed and facades altered to eliminate Western-style features that identified them as Christian worship venues. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM churches in Anhui Province between January and July. In April, UCA News reported the removal of crosses from several Catholic churches, including from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Anhui Diocese on April 18. A priest said dioceses normally cooperated with authorities on the removal of crosses in the hopes that they would not demolish the entire building. On June 6, all crosses, other religious symbols, and pews were removed from the Wangdangjia village church in Linyi County. The “Catholic Church” signboard above its entrance was covered with wooden boards.

According to Bitter Winter, between March 2019 and January 2020, authorities removed crosses from approximately 70 Christian churches, including TSPM churches, in Linyi City, Shandong Province. Authorities said the crosses were “too close to the national highway,” “too tall,” or might seem “unpleasant” to visiting provincial government superiors. They threatened to demolish the buildings if the crosses remained. On January 8, the provincial government ordered a TSPM Church near the high-speed rail line in Lanshan District, Shandong Province, to remove its exterior cross because it was “too eye-catching.” The Chinese characters for “love” and “Christian Church” were also removed. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM Churches in Anhui Province between January and July.

According to Bitter Winter, officials in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, pressured the abbot of the Buddhist Yuantong Temple to remove an 11-meter (36-foot)-high statue of Guanyin for being “too tall.” According to sources, authorities threatened to close the temple if the abbot did not comply. On March 9, workers dismantled the statue, and photographs accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed it lying in pieces on the ground.

Media reported authorities continued to destroy religious sites, including those affiliated with the TSPM and CCPA. Throughout the year, Bitter Winter published numerous before-and-after photographs showing churches, temples, and other religious structures that had been reduced in whole or in part to rubble. Bitter Winter reported that on March 10, authorities demolished a TSPM Church in Shangqiu, Henan Province. A source told Bitter Winter that on March 10 at 4:00 a.m., more than 200 government personnel and police came to demolish a TSPM Church in Xiazhuang Village, Shangqiu City, Henan Province. According to the source, police kicked in the door and forcibly removed a member of the congregation who was guarding the church, fracturing two of his ribs. The contents of the church were buried under the rubble.

On April 20, the government of Shangrao County in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Prefecture, demolished a TSPM Church, saying the structure was “unlicensed and dilapidated.” Sources said local officials told the congregation higher-level officials had ordered the demolition because “the government doesn’t allow belief in Jesus.” A church member told Bitter Winter the structure was in fact sound and was also registered with the local religious affairs bureau. The church member said that, contrary to law, authorities did not compensate the congregation for destroying the building. Accompanying the article were photographs showing the church before demolition and a pile of rubble following the demolition. According to another church member, following the demolition, congregants began practicing separately at home but had to be cautious. “The government arrests anyone in unauthorized religious gatherings. When they find two or three of us meeting, they can charge us with any crime at will, saying we are against the CCP.”

The ICC reported that on September 12, authorities in the town of Xiezhou in Yanhu District, Yucheng City, Shangxi Province, demolished the tombstones of more than 20 Swedish missionaries who had performed missionary work in the country in the early 1900s. They threatened to arrest anyone who photographed or videotaped the incident. Authorities planted vegetation over the gravesites.

Local sources reported authorities continued to close Christian venues or repurpose them into secular spaces. According to Bitter Winter, in April, the government of Qingshui Township in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, closed a TSPM Church for being “unlicensed and too eye-catching.” Officials destroyed religious symbols inside the church and posted a closure notice at the entrance. In May, officials converted the church into an activity center for the elderly, placing a ping-pong table, Chinese chess boards, and secular books inside.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 1, six local government officials and police officers raided a Catholic nursing home in Fuzhou City, Jiangxi Province. They confiscated 30 religious publications, a cross, and other religious symbols, sculptures, and paintings. A photograph accompanying the article showed that a mural of Jesus that had been displayed behind the alter was replaced with a landscape painting and an outdoor sculpture of Jesus was covered with a shed. Authorities pressured the church’s priest to sign an application to join the CCPA, but he refused. According to Bitter Winter, authorities also targeted the Benevolence Home, a nursing home operated by nuns in Saiqi Village, Fujian Province. On January 12, nearly 50 local government officials and police officers raided the nursing home where more than 30 persons lived, some of whom were from impoverished households or disabled. Authorities forced the elderly residents out and cut off the building’s electricity and water supply.

In July, a Catholic source in southeast China told AsiaNews.it that the local government denied permits to construct new Catholic churches and halted construction that was already underway. In January, AsiaNews.it reported that in at least five parishes in Mindong Diocese, Fujian Province, including Fuan, Saiqi, and Suanfeng, authorities cut off power and water to prevent churches from being used, citing “fire safety” measures.

Bitter Winter reported that government and law enforcement personnel destroyed the Great Hall of Strength, a Buddhist temple in Handan City, Hubei Province, on March 6. A local Buddhist said authorities demolished it because it “lacked a religious-activity venue-registration certificate.” The temple director said he was never approached about obtaining such a certificate. The local Buddhist said, “The government just wanted to demolish the temple…People cannot argue with authorities; they will accuse us of breaking the law as they please.”

According to Bitter Winter, authorities demolished the Buddhist Phoenix Temple in Qitang Town, Chongqing Municipality, on January 3. In March, authorities ordered eight Buddhist temples in Yongchuan District, Chongqing Municipality, to close and brick up their entrances, rendering the buildings unusable. Authorities demolished the Longhua Temple in Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, on April 1.

Sources told Bitter Winter that on May 18, more than 20 officials and police in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, destroyed a Buddhist temple that authorities had declared “a dilapidated building.” When a protester attempted to film the scene, police officers pressed her to the ground and hit her in the collarbone until she lost consciousness. Police then destroyed her mobile phone.

Bitter Winter reported several cases of authorities destroying folk religion sites throughout the country. From April 14 to 19, authorities demolished three buildings in the Yangfu Temple in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. On April 22, authorities demolished 18 statues in two folk religion temples in Linzhou, Henan Province. From April to June, authorities demolished 85 small folk religion temples in Handan, Hebei Province. On May 1, authorities demolished an ancestral hall in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 2 in Dangtu County, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Prefecture, more than 100 police officers destroyed a village folk temple. One villager said police first cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching. The witness said, “They then smashed the lock to get inside and demolished the temple after dragging out the eight elderly believers protecting it.” The online magazine posted a video on social media that showed a large number of police standing guard while a bulldozer knocked down the structure.

Bitter Winter reported in July that authorities had not yet reopened the Cao’an Manichean temple in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police were seen periodically patrolling the temple. Before its closure, authorities ordered the construction of a flagpole for the national flag and placed government propaganda slogans inside the temple.

Religious education for minors remained banned, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.

AsiaNews.it reported authorities sent a directive to Xilinhaote Middle School Number 6 in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia dated March 25 forbidding students from taking part in religious activities in or outside of school. The directive reportedly prohibited parents from teaching their children about religion and religious organizations from operating in schools. Students and teachers found disobeying the restrictions faced expulsion and dismissal.

In November, Bitter Winter reported that a fifth-grade teacher in a Liaoning Province primary school told the online magazine any mention of religious holidays had been purged from English-language textbooks. The teacher said a text originally entitled “Easter Party” had been replaced with “English Party” and descriptive passages such as “You will meet the Easter Bunny” with “You will meet Robin the Robot.”

In January, AsiaNews.it, reported the government had closed down several Tibetan Buddhist centers in Sichuan Province because, authorities said, “Illegal activities” were carried out in the centers. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet said the government’s actual purpose was to limit the influence of Khenpo Sodargye, a Buddhist monk who founded these centers. The centers were associated with the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, from which authorities had expelled more than 15,000 Buddhist monks and nuns since 2016 and destroyed significant portions of the property.

Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning continued to be required to obtain the support of the corresponding official state-sanctioned religious association. The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates from religious schools. Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.

Religious groups reported state-sanctioned religious associations continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice. The associations also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “Uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22-years-old.” According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge to renew their license each year.

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations and the Holy See had no official representative to the country. On October 22, the Holy See and the PRC announced they had agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. The two parties signed the original agreement in 2018. The precise terms of the agreement were not made public, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA) and Vatican News, it was a “pastoral” effort to help unify members of the underground Catholic Church in China – which had remained in communion with the Holy See – with Catholics belonging to the CCPA. Vatican News stated the agreement “does not directly concern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between the clergy and the authorities of the country. The Provisional Agreement concerns exclusively the process of nomination of bishops…” Following the signing of the agreement, seven CCPA-affiliated bishops appointed without papal mandate were brought into full communion with the Holy See; an eighth bishop was posthumously recognized. AsiaNews.it reported that on November 23, Reverend Thomas Chen Tianhao became the third new bishop without a prior affiliation with the CCPA to be ordained under the agreement, assuming the position of Bishop of Qingdao in Qingdao City, Shandong Province. UCA News reported that on December 22, a fourth bishop, Peter Liu Genzhu, was ordained bishop of Hongdong in Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Commentators, human rights groups, and some Catholic leaders criticized the agreement as doing little to protect freedom of religion or belief for Catholics in China. On November 17, the America Jesuit Review published an article discussing 30 bishops who belonged to the underground Catholic Church and refused to join the CCPA. “The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong in his online blog of October 7 said the agreement was lopsided, with the CCP nominating bishops for the Pope to approve, and that persecution of the underground Catholic Church had increased since 2018.

Catholic clergy and laypersons told media the situation of both registered and unregistered Catholic communities worsened during the year. A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the Pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. According to Bitter Winter, the Catholic Diocese of Mindong in Fujian Province suffered severe persecution from the CCP after most of its priests refused to join the CCPA. Authorities closed five parishes in January. Bitter Winter reported multiple instances of authorities pressuring Catholic leaders to join the CCPA and, in some cases, arresting and physically abusing Catholic leaders who refused. According to Bitter Winter, during the first half of the year, the CCPA attempted to force 57 unregistered Catholic priests from the Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 had complied, three had resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. Local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests to join.

According to Bitter Winter, on April 2, officials detained Father Huang Jintong, a priest from the Mindong Diocese’s parish in Saiqi Village in Fuan City, Fujian Province. Police deprived the priest of sleep for four days before he signed a document saying he would join the CCPA. According to AsiaNews.it, on September 1, the local religious affairs bureau detained another priest of the Mindong Diocese, Father Liu Maochun, for at least 17 days for refusing to join the CCPA.

Sources told Reuters News Agency that in May, two Catholic nuns serving at the Holy See’s Study Mission to China in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were arrested by mainland authorities when they traveled to Hebei Province to visit their families. The nuns were detained in Hebei for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They remained under house arrest as of year’s end, and their families’ homes were under surveillance. The nuns were reportedly allowed to attend Mass but were not permitted to leave mainland China.

In July, AsiaNews.it reported that a priest said authorities often gathered priests in order to “brainwash” them, congregation members were no longer able to host Mass in their homes, and bishops of underground dioceses were increasingly arrested since the 2018 signing of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China. One lay member said there were more restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to attend religious gatherings, children younger than 18 were forbidden from entering the church, and government authorities often sat in on church meetings to surveil the church.

CNA reported that on October 4, Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the auxiliary bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province, announced he would no longer preside over public masses or receive any tithes and said that all administrative matters associated with the diocese should be referred to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. In 2006, the Holy See excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese while Guo stepped into the subordinate position. Zhan was one of seven individuals appointed without papal mandate whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. The government did not recognize Guo, who was not a member of the CCPA, in his role as auxiliary bishop. In an open letter announcing his withdrawal from public religious duties, Guo stated, “The sacraments celebrated by those who sign [a document joining the CCPA] and those who do not sign are legitimate.”

In June, CNA reported that authorities detained underground Catholic bishop Cui Tai in Zhangjiakou Municipality, Hebei Province. According to AsiaNews.it, authorities in the past had repeatedly placed Cui under house arrest or sent him to forced-labor camps for engaging in evangelization activities without official government permission and for criticizing the CCPA. As of year’s end, it was unclear whether he had been released from detention.

Sources told Bitter Winter the government threatened to retaliate against family members if clergy in the Mindong Diocese did not join the CCPA. Authorities forced Father Feng from Xiyin Village, Fuan City, to sign an application to join the CCPA by threatening to dismiss his younger brother and sister-in-law from public employment. After another priest refused to join, authorities confiscated the vehicle his brother used for business and shut down his nephew’s travel agency.

The ICC reported in July that a member of the ERCC said authorities threatened to send the children of church members to “reeducation camps” and take adopted children away from their parents. The source said authorities had already taken four adopted children from one church family and returned them to their biological parents or found them other homes.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers. Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities. Minghui reported cases of Falun Gong practitioners losing their jobs due to their beliefs.

Bitter Winter reported that in June, a sanitation worker in Henan Province was fired for reading the Bible while on a work break. The director of the Environmental Sanitation Bureau fired her after publicly criticizing her earlier in the day. Thereafter, the Environmental Sanitation Bureau required that new workers show a “certificate of no faith” issued by police in the area of their permanent residence registration and stated that “one who believes in the Lord is not allowed.” A man in Shaanxi Province told Bitter Winter that he was required to provide a “certificate of no faith” to each of the multiple hotels he had worked at over the course of his career. A man working in the public security sector in Shandong Province said he lost his job because his father was a member of the CAG.

Discrimination against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs continued. Since 2017 and 2018 when articles in the 2005 Public Security Administration Punishment Law related to “suspicious activity” began to be enforced in earnest, Falun Gong practitioners reported ongoing difficulty finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Sources stated the enforcement of this law continued to move the PRC further away from informal discriminatory practices by individual landlords towards a more formalized enforcement of codified discriminatory legislation.

Sources told Bitter Winter that government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility towards that group. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread. Bitter Winter reported that in March, police in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, sent notices to many rental and real estate agencies forbidding them to rent apartments or shop spaces to Uyghurs. One property owner said police fined him RMB 500 ($76) for renting to Uyghurs and demanded he send police identification information and photographs of all Uyghur tenants. One Uyghur man said his family had, after some difficulty, found an apartment to rent, but on the condition that the family report to a local police station three times a week. The man said, “Three days after we signed the rental contract, police officers installed a surveillance camera at our building entrance.” One man in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, said owners preferred to keep their properties empty rather than to rent to Uyghurs. A Uyghur man said he had to use his friend’s bank card because local banks refused to issue him one. Uyghur grocery store and restaurant owners said constant police visits had a severe negative impact on their businesses. A Han businessman told Bitter Winter, “The government tries every means possible to deprive Uyghurs of their rights, prohibiting them from renting, doing business, and staying in hotels. The goal is to drive them away and cut off all their sources of survival, forcing them back to Xinjiang to be locked in ‘transformation-through-education’ camps.”

According to Bitter Winter, several college students stated college administrators encouraged students to report on fellow students who appeared to engage in religious activities. One Christian student in Inner Mongolia said she had been reported and that school administrators investigated her, frequently summoned her, and forced her to write self-criticism statements. A university professor who was a member of the TSPM Church was demoted from her teaching position after mentioning the Bible in class and was subsequently investigated by the State Security Bureau.

There were reports that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other religious minorities continued to face difficulties in finding accommodation when they traveled.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On September 30, at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy in Rome, Italy, the Secretary gave a speech on the restrictions of religious freedom in China. The Secretary said the CCP “has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.” In an October speech on tolerance while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.”

Embassy and consulate officials regularly sought meetings with a range of government officials managing religious affairs to obtain more information on government policies and to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials, including the Ambassador and Consuls General, urged government officials at the central, provincial, and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and to release prisoners of conscience. The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in meetings with senior officials. The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience and advocated on behalf of individual cases of persons imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu (prior to its closure by the Chinese government in retaliation for the closure of PRC Consulate Houston), Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The Consul General in Chengdu (prior to its closure) met with Tibetan and Muslim leaders in Sichuan Province to emphasize support for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities. Embassy officials met with visiting members of U.S. religious groups to discuss how these groups were engaging with local communities.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to its Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 120 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 250,000 social media users engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy staff and with each other. The embassy also highlighted the Secretary’s visit to the Vatican to emphasize U.S. support on religious freedom.

The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments, such as “Countries that respect religious freedom will be respected,” “Freedom of religion is a prerequisite for building a civil society,” and “The essence of religion is to lead people to the good. As a democratic power, the United States has guaranteed religious freedom.” For International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy published the Secretary’s message supporting respect for religious freedom as well as information describing the Chinese government’s continuing control over religion and restrictions on the activities of religious adherents. These posts on Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter social media platforms garnered more than 750,000 views and approximately 10,000 engagements.

In January, the Consulate General in Guangzhou submitted comments to the Guangdong People’s Congress and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission regarding the new draft of Guangdong Religious Affairs Regulations. The government stated the new regulations would “protect citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious harmony and social harmony, standardize the management of religious affairs, and improve the level of legalization of religious work.” In December, the embassy submitted comments and recommendations on the central government’s draft Rules for the Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Foreign Religious Activities, which proposed burdensome preapproval procedures for almost all religious activities. The draft rules also limited activities of unregistered religious groups and conflated peaceful religious practice with “terrorism.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons, bring the total number of entities added to the Entity List during the year to 20. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 1, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee; and Wang Mingshan, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB). They and their immediate family members became ineligible for entry into the United States. In making the announcement, the Secretary said the United States “will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB organization, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed a second round of sanctions pursuant to the Executive Order on one government entity and two current or former government officials, in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC.

On December 10, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on Huang Yuanxiong, chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau Wucun police station “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xiamen, China.” In his statement, the Secretary said, “Huang is associated with particularly severe violations of religious freedom of Falun Gong practitioners, namely his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.” The action also applied to Mr. Huang’s spouse.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities.

PRC authorities consistently harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend. Authorities routinely declined to approve or postponed U.S. officials’ requests to visit religious sites and meet with religious leaders.

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Cuba

Executive Summary

The country’s constitution contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds. According to the religious freedom advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and religious leaders, the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life. CSW’s annual report concluded the government “violated freedom of religion or belief routinely and systematically” through arbitrary detentions, false charges, threats, and harassment of religious leaders and religious freedom defenders. The report also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government confiscated food that some religious groups intended to provide to those in need, blocked overseas humanitarian aid, and threatened and charged religious leaders for “spreading disease.” There were reports that authorities continued to subject leaders of Free Yorubas of Cuba to arbitrary detentions, threats, and verbal harassment. Media and religious freedom defenders reported the government continued to restrict the right of prisoners to practice religion freely, limit or block international and domestic travel, and harass and detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez and Apostolic Church Pastor Alain Toledano. CSW reported 203 documented cases of freedom of religion violations, compared with 260 in 2019, attributing the decrease to the decision of the Ladies in White to halt their weekly attendance at Catholic Mass for seven months during the pandemic. On October 30, state security officers surrounded a church affiliated with Toledano in Santiago de Cuba and destroyed it; authorities arrested Toledano while he live streamed the destruction on Facebook. According to media, authorities temporarily detained Apostolic leader Yilber Durand Dominguez and Christian artist Jose Acebo Hidalgo when they resisted letting government officials into their homes during the COVID-19 quarantine. In March, authorities released homeschooling advocate Ayda Exposito after she served a sentence for “other acts against the normal development of a minor.” Her husband, Reverend Ramon Rigal, was released in July. Media reported authorities threatened to deny the couple custody of their children if they resumed homeschooling. According to religious groups, the ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). In April, a female convert to Islam told media she stopped wearing a hijab after her government-run workplace forbade her from wearing it. In January, a member of the Jewish community in Nuevitas, Camaguey Municipality, said a local state prosecutor forced him to sign a document acknowledging that if his children came to school wearing kippahs, he and his wife would be arrested and charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor,” with a potential one-year prison sentence. According to CSW, many religious leaders continued to practice self-censorship because of government surveillance and infiltration of religious groups. A coalition of evangelical Protestant churches, Apostolic churches, and the Roman Catholic Church continued to press for legal changes, including easing registration of religious groups, ownership of church property, and new church construction.

Unlike in previous years, the Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” was unable to hold an interfaith meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions. Some religious groups and organizations, such as the Catholic charity Caritas, however, continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to individuals regardless of religious belief.

Due to lack of government responsiveness, U.S. embassy officials did not meet with or otherwise engage the ORA during the year. Embassy officials met regularly, both in person and virtually, with a range of religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics, concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs. In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion. On October 5, the Secretary stated, “Vast swathes of humanity live in countries where religious freedom is restricted, from places like…Cuba, and beyond.” Embassy officials remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating meetings between visiting civil society delegations and religious groups in the country.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Cuba on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Catholic Church estimates 60 percent of the population identifies as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent. According to some observers, Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 150,000 members; the four Baptist conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000.

Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists 50,000; Seventh-day Adventists 36,000; Presbyterians 25,000; Anglicans 22,500; Episcopalians 10,000; Anabaptists 4,387 (mostly Iglesia de Los Hermanos en Cristo, the Brethren of Christ), Quakers 1,000; Moravians 750; and the Church of Jesus Christ 357 members. There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International. According to some Christian leaders, evangelical Protestant groups continue to grow in the country. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,200 members, of whom 1,000 reside in Havana. According to the local Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims, of whom an estimated 1,500 are native born. Immigrants and native born citizens practice several different Buddhist traditions, with estimates of 6,200 followers. The largest group of Buddhists is the Japanese Soka Gakkai; its estimated membership is 1,000. Other religious groups with small numbers of adherents include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Baha’is.

Many individuals, particularly Afro-Cubans, practice religions with roots in the Congo River Basin and West Africa, including Yoruba groups often referred to by outsiders as Santeria, but by adherents as the order of Lucumi or Orisha worship, or Bantu influenced groups referred to as Palo Monte. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism and other forms of Christianity and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership. Rastafarian adherents also have a presence on the island, although the size of the community is unknown.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “the state recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious liberty” and “distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration.” The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs. It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state.

The constitution also “recognizes, respects, and guarantees people’s freedom of thought, conscience, and expression.” It states, “Conscientious objection may not be invoked with the intention of evading compliance with the law or impeding another from the exercise of their rights.” It also provides for the “right to profess or not profess their religious beliefs, to change them, and to practice the religion of their choice…,” but only “with the required respect for other beliefs and in accordance with the law.”

The government is subordinate to the Communist Party; the party’s organ, the ORA, enlists the entire government, especially the MOJ and the security services, to control religious practice in the country. The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion. The Law of Associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration. The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations. The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements. Even if the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities other than regular services, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship. Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations and confiscation of their property.

The penal code states membership in or association with an unregistered group is a crime; penalties range from fines to three months’ imprisonment, and leaders of such groups may be sentenced to up to one year in prison.

The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship). Two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of one another and detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – must be provided to authorities. The law states if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled. If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the house church may be closed permanently and members subject to imprisonment. Foreigners must obtain permission before attending services in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions. Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.

The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.

A law in force since July 2019 curtails freedom of expression on the internet to protect against “disseminating information contrary to the common good, morals, decency, and integrity through public data transmission networks.” The penalty for violating the law is 3,000 Cuban pesos ($120) or two to four years in prison.

Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service.

Religious education is highly regulated, and homeschooling is illegal, with parents who homeschool their children subject to arrest.

The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it. The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”

Government Practices

CSW’s annual report concluded that the government “violated freedom of religion or belief… routinely and systematically” through arbitrary detentions, false charges, threats, and harassment of religious leaders and religious freedom defenders. It reported 203 documented cases of freedom of religion violations compared with 260 in 2019, attributing the decrease in numbers to the decision of the Ladies in White to halt their weekly attendance at Catholic Mass for seven months during the pandemic. CSW said approximately half of the cases involved threats and harassment, including arbitrary summons of religious leaders and pressure on congregation members to not worship at unregistered churches or else face losing their employment. The report also noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government confiscated food some religious groups intended to provide to those in need, blocked overseas humanitarian aid, and threatened and charged religious leaders for “spreading disease.”

Many religious groups said notwithstanding the constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict the activities of some religious groups, leaders, and followers, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely. Religious groups also said the government applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Some religious groups continued to state their concern that the new constitution, in effect since February 2019, significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief, as well as diluting references to freedom of conscience and separating it from freedom of religion.

According to media, prison authorities continued to abuse Christian rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro for his refusal to participate in ideological re-education programs while incarcerated. Diaz Paseiro, imprisoned since November 2017 and recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, was beaten, prohibited from receiving visits or phone calls, denied medical and religious care, confined to a “punishment” cell, and transferred from prison to prison. Diaz Paseiro was serving a three-year and five-month sentence for “pre-criminal dangerousness” for protesting municipal elections in 2017. He remained in prison through year’s end. Media reported police also used violence against individuals protesting Diaz Paseiro’s treatment. On September 30, police detained two Free Yorubas of Cuba leaders who were protesting Diaz Paseiro’s mistreatment, holding them overnight, beating them, and breaking the arm of one of them, Jennifer Castaneda.

In August, the U.S.-based Patmos Institute blogged a statement calling on the Cuban government to recognize religious minority groups, including the Free Yorubas of Cuba. According to the U.S.-based Global Liberty Alliance, authorities continued to subject Free Yorubas of Cuba leaders to arbitrary detentions, threats, and verbal harassment, in addition to the September detentions and beatings of the two Yoruba leaders protesting the mistreatment of Paseiro. In February, police detained a Free Yorubas couple, telling the couple, “There is only one god, Fidel Castro.” According to observers, although Yoruba and other African syncretic religious groups were given latitude to practice their beliefs as individuals, the government selectively recognized groups and leaders based on their favorable view of the government.

Media reported police continued their repeated physical assaults on and brief arrests of members of the Ladies in White; more than 20 women were arrested across the country on March 8, International Women’s Day. Reports indicated the group’s members typically attempted to attend Mass and gather afterwards to protest the government’s human rights abuses. Throughout the year, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez reported repeated arrests and short detentions for Ladies in White members when they attempted to meet on Sundays. According to media, because of the government’s intensified pressure on the movement, it lost significant momentum. According to media and NGOs, Soler Fernandez and other Ladies in White members were frequently physically abused while in police custody, as shown in videos of their arrests. After being taken into custody, they were typically fined and released within 24 hours.

According to media, authorities detained Apostolic leader Yilber Durand Dominguez and Christian artist Jose Acebo Hidalgo when they resisted allowing government officials into their homes during the COVID-19 quarantine. Acebo and Durand were released shortly thereafter.

According to media, authorities harassed and threatened journalists reporting specifically on abuses of religious freedom. In September, authorities released journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones, imprisoned in April 2019 while reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Reportedly, he left prison having lost a significant amount of weight due to insufficient food.

According to media, in March, authorities released homeschooling advocate Ayda Exposito after having served 11 months of an 18-month sentence for “other acts against the normal development of a minor.” Her husband, Reverend Ramon Rigal, was released in July. After the couple was released from prison, authorities threatened to deny them custody of their children if they resumed their prior activities (homeschooling their children). Patmos reported that on August 9, journalist Yoel Suarez Fernandez was detained and threatened for reporting on the Quinones and Rigal cases, and authorities confiscated his phone. In February, he had been prohibited from leaving the country.

According to media sources, Oscar Kendri Fial Echavarría was scheduled for trial in late December for refusing compulsory military service after declaring himself a conscientious objector because of his Christian faith. His trial was subsequently suspended. Echavarría had previously been detained by state security in October and early December.

According to CSW, many religious groups continued to state their lack of legal registration impeded their ability to practice their religion. Several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994. Despite a 2019 letter from Cuban Ambassador to the United States Jose Cabanas to the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City stating that the denomination was “welcome” in Cuba, the MOJ had not approved the Church’s registration by year’s end.

Representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought registration said the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny registration of certain groups. They also said ineligibilities for registration sometimes included determinations by the MOJ that another group had identical or similar objectives, using this argument as a pretext to favor certain factions of a religious denomination or one religious group’s activities over others.

Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, the MOJ delayed requests for registration. EchoCuba, a U.S.-based international religious freedom advocacy group associated with Outreach Aid to the Americas, again reported that some Apostolic churches repeatedly had their attempts to register denied, forcing them to operate without legal status.

Members of Protestant denominations said some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes, although some unregistered house churches could operate with little or no government interference. According to EchoCuba, however, several religious leaders, particularly those from smaller, independent house churches or Santeria communities, said the government was less tolerant of groups that relied on informal locations, including private residences and other private meeting spaces, to practice their beliefs. They said the government monitored them, and at times, prevented them from holding religious meetings in their spaces. CSW reported authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on house churches.

According to EchoCuba, the ORA approved some registration applications, but it took up to two to three years from the date of the application to complete the process. At year’s end, Soka Gakkai remained the only Buddhist group registered with the government.

According to religious leaders and former inmates, authorities continued to deny prisoners, including political prisoners, pastoral visits and the ability to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study. Many prisoners also said authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles, crucifixes, rosary beads, and other religious items, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason. According to recently released prisoner Roberto de Jesus Quinones, during his time in prison, officials repeatedly “lost” copies of his request for pastoral care and punished him for fasting on holy days by placing him in solitary confinement or suspending other privileges.

According to CSW, the government, through the Ministry of Interior, continued to systematically plant informants in all religious organizations, sometimes by persuading or intimidating members and leaders to act as informants, or by sending informants to infiltrate a church. The objective was to monitor and intimidate religious leaders and report on the content of sermons and on church attendees. As a result, CSW assessed, many leaders continued to practice self-censorship, avoiding stating anything that might possibly be construed as anti-Castro or counterrevolutionary in their sermons and teaching. Catholic and Protestant Church leaders, both in and outside the government-recognized Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), continued to report frequent visits from state security agents and CCP officials for the purpose of intimidating them and reminding them they were under close surveillance, as well as to influence internal decisions and structures within the groups.

Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be threatened if the house church leaders continued their activities.

CSW reported that on May 4, state security officers appeared at the home of a member of an unregistered Islamic group, who was studying the Quran with others. Members were summoned to appear the next day at the National Revolutionary Police, where authorities told them if they continued to hold unpermitted religious activities, they would be “punished for the crime of association to conspire and commit crimes.”

Authorities continued to harass Pastor Alain Toledano Valiente, a member of the Apostolic Movement and leader of the Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba. According to Toledano’s Facebook page, state security officials organized several “actos de repudio” (state-sanctioned crowds) to intimidate and socially isolate him. On May 1, local members of the Communist Party surrounded his home, as shown in a video posted to the pastor’s Facebook page. According to his Facebook page, several individuals also interrupted church services on July 26, National Revolutionary Day and a civic holiday. According to observers, in the eyes of the Communist party, church services held on a civic holiday were an affront to the spirit of the revolution.

On October 30, state security officers surrounded a church affiliated with Toledano in Santiago de Cuba and destroyed it with bulldozers and other heavy equipment while parishioners watched and sang hymns. Toledano was arrested while live streaming the destruction on Facebook. Authorities said they were destroying the church to construct a new railroad line to a local cement factory, but no other buildings or structures were razed. According to CSW, the church’s pastor, Palomo Cabrera, and Assemblies of God Regional Superintendent Jose Martinez were taken by state security officials and pressured to sign a document stating the demolition of the church was legal. Local sources also reported authorities attempted to bill Cabrera for usage of the machinery employed in the demolition. Toledano said authorities opposed the construction of a new church – authorities had demolished the previous Emanuel Church and detained hundreds of church members in 2016 – although he had the permits to build the new church. Following one summons, Toledano stated, “In Cuba, pastors are more at risk than criminals and bandits….I cannot carry out any religious activity; that is to say they want me to stop being a pastor.”

According to Pastor Andy Nelson Martinez Barrero, on March 17, authorities demolished the III Eden Baptist Church, allegedly for its being an illegal structure. When parishioners approached the site, police said they could not be in the area because they were considered to be a danger to a former member of the congregation who had been expelled for bad behavior. Members of the church said they believed the person was sent to join their church as an informant, a common government practice.

According to media, on September 8, authorities impeded celebrations of the country’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre, an unofficial but important holiday also known as Feast Day, and security officials arrested scores of activists. According to many observers, senior government leaders attempted to appropriate the religious holiday with political messaging. The Catholic Church received permission to televise a special Mass and published a statement describing the “opportunistic politicization” of the Feast Day by “the heirs [the current government] of those who once said they [Fidel and Raul Castro] wanted to erase every vestige of religion.” The statement also said, “Neither side has the right to politicize a celebration that precisely calls for harmony, peace, unity, and not hatred.”

According to CSW, although the majority of cases of what CSW defined as religious persecution were directed toward Christians, the country’s religious minorities were also likely to be victims of religious persecution. Patmos again stated that Rastafarians, whose spiritual leader remained imprisoned since 2012, were among the most stigmatized and repressed religious groups. The Patmos report said reggae music, the primary form of Rastafarian expression, was marginalized and its bands censored. According to Sandor Perez Pita, known in the Rastafarian world as Rassandino, reggae was not allowed on most state radio stations and concert venues, and Rastafarians were consistently targeted in government crackdowns on drugs, with the government incarcerating them for their supposed association with drugs without presenting evidence of actual possession or trafficking. Authorities also subjected Rastafarians to discrimination for their clothing and hairstyles, including through segregation of Rastafarian schoolchildren and employment discrimination against Rastafarian adults.

According to its representatives, the country’s small Muslim community was subject to discrimination. Samira Salas Quiala wrote on a Facebook group page for Cuban Muslim Women about her experience of discrimination while working at CIMEX, a company owned by the Cuban Armed Forces. She said that after three years working at a CIMEX store in Havana, her supervisor summoned her and the head of Human Resources and told her she could no longer wear a hijab. Salas Quiala said she stopped wearing a headscarf to avoid being fired.

According CSW, Christian leaders from all denominations said a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature continued, primarily in rural areas. Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles prevented them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic obstruction and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether. According to Patmos, the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam was unable to obtain a container of religious literature embargoed since 2014. Several other groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.

The Catholic Church and several Protestant representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and to operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.

By year’s end, the government again did not grant the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCB) requests to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcasting on television and radio. According to Church representatives, the ORA expanded the CCB’s access to state-controlled media and allowed some members to deliver sermons on public networks as a concession to COVID-19 restrictions. Not all religious groups that also petitioned for media access were given similar access, although for the first time, state-selected evangelical Protestant pastors associated with the government-recognized CCC were given the opportunity to prerecord 15-minute broadcasts during Holy Week. No other churches had access to mass media, which remained entirely state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to express concern about the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.

According to media, the government continued to prohibit the construction of new church buildings. All requests, including for minor building repairs, needed to be approved by the ORA, which awarded permits according to the inviting association’s perceived level of support for or cooperation with the government. The Berean Baptist Church, whose request for registration has been pending since 1997, continued to be prevented from repairing existing church buildings because as an unregistered group, it could not request necessary permits.

According to CSW, the government continued to use endless requirements for permits that could be arbitrarily cancelled at any time, plus other bureaucratic practices, to control and restrict freedom of religion or belief. Reportedly, the ORA’s processes meant many communities had no legal place to meet for church services, particularly in rural areas. Some denominations, especially Protestant denominations, reported similar problems, with the government prohibiting them from expanding their places of worship by threatening to dismantle or expropriate churches because they were holding “illegal” services.

According to CSW, several cases of authorities’ arbitrary confiscation of church property remained unresolved or under review, including a church in Artemisa that belonged to a registered religious group and that the government confiscated in March 2019, and the Nazarene Church of Manzanillo. The government had started a process to confiscate the Nazarene Church in April 2019 but took no further action during 2020.

According to media, between June and July, evangelical Protestant pastors Uberney Aguilar and Yalina Proenza received at least six visits and official summons from various government agents aimed at shutting down their congregation, Jehovah Shalom Church, in Holguin. The pastors said that starting in 2017, they met in a property owned by a member of their congregation. On July 9, Holguin Minister of Justice Nelson Flavio Plutin Santos and Ormani Rodriguez Tamayo, the head of the provincial Department of Associations, denied their request for government recognition, which they had submitted in 2019. Due to government public health restrictions, they continued to hold outdoor services.

Other land ownership issues remained unresolved, including that of the land owned by the Western Baptist Convention, which the government confiscated extralegally in 2012 and later transferred to two government companies. According to observers, the confiscation was in retaliation for the refusal of the Western Baptist Convention to agree to various ORA demands to restructure its internal governance and expel some pastors. The Methodist Church of Cuba said it continued its efforts to reclaim properties confiscated by the government more than 60 years ago, including a theater adjacent to the Methodist church in Marianao, Havana. The Methodist Church reportedly submitted all necessary ownership documentation, but government officials again took no action on the case during the year.

According to the Catholic News Agency, on August 29, the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba consecrated the San Benito Abad Church, located in San Bendito Crucero, Santiago de Cuba. Another small Catholic church was under construction in Havana at year’s end.

According to media, religious discrimination against students was a common practice in state schools, with multiple reports of teachers and Communist Party officials encouraging and participating in bullying. According to Olaine Tejada, a member of the Jewish community in Nuevitas, Camaguey Municipality, local state prosecutor Mary Vidal forced him on January 6 to sign a legal document acknowledging that if his sons came to school wearing kippahs, he and his wife Yeliney Lescaille would be arrested and charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor,” with a potential one-year jail sentence. In December 2019, local officials ruled against the Jewish family’s right to wear religious headgear to school. Tejada said the family would appeal to higher authorities to reinstate their rights.

In another incident, Yordanis Diaz Arteaga, President of the Christian Reformed Church of Cuba, told online magazine Evangelico Digital in January that his eight-year-old son had been harassed by his teacher in Havana because of his faith. On one occasion, the teacher humiliated his son in front of his peers for saying that he believed in God. On another day, the same teacher confiscated a bracelet the boy was wearing because it had Jesus’ name on it. Diaz said he reported the incident to the school but was not informed if the teacher was disciplined.

According to religious leaders, the government continued to selectively prevent some religious groups from establishing accredited schools but appeared to tolerate the efforts of other religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework, including entrepreneurial training leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer university-level degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the courses of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs because their religion prohibited them from political involvement.

CSW continued to report the government used social media to harass and defame religious leaders, including Facebook posts of public figures targeting religious leaders or groups. In most instances, accounts posting attacks targeting religious leaders seemed to be linked to state security. According to CSW, during the year, the government increased pressure on leaders of the Cuban Evangelical Alliance, including through a state television broadcast of a purported investigation of the growth of “dangerous fundamentalism” on the island. The program included an interview with a religious leader considered close to the government who spoke of “extremist Christian fundamentalists” who received support and funding from the United States. The backdrop of the interview included footage of worshippers at religious services in churches affiliated with the Cuban Evangelical Alliance.

Although movement to, from, and within the country was highly restricted for most of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, religious travelers said they faced higher levels of scrutiny than others and were often denied freedom of movement, including traveling to religious gatherings outside the country. According to Patmos, immigration officers continued to target religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of incoming and outgoing travel. On March 31, authorities in Las Tunas refused to renew Pastor Mario Jorge Traviezo’s passport, informing him he was under a travel ban and could not leave the country. According to several news accounts, on February 17, state security agents arrested journalist Ricardo Fernandez Izaguirre, a reporter on religious freedom issues, as he tried to leave his hometown of Camaguey to attend a religious celebration at the invitation of Pastor Alain Toledano. Authorities told him if he tried to leave his town again, he would be imprisoned for “disrespect.” Reportedly, Fernandez Izaguirre did not leave town during the year, partly due to the government order and because of COVID-19 restrictions.

According to CSW, unlike in previous years, there were no reported cases of the ORA and immigration officials targeting foreign visitors by denying them religious visas. CSW attributed the change to the government’s overall closure of borders to tourists as part of its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Reportedly because of restrictions on internal movement, government agencies continued to refuse to recognize a change in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to a new church or parish. These restrictions made it difficult or impossible for relocating pastors to obtain government services, including housing. Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups. According to EchoCuba, the application of the decree to religious groups was likely part of the general pattern of government efforts to control their activities. Some religious leaders said the decree was also used to block church leaders from traveling within the country to attend special events or meetings. Leaders associated with the Apostolic churches regularly reported they were prevented, sometimes through short-term detention, from traveling to attend church events or carry out ministry work.

According to EchoCuba, the government continued to give preference to some religious groups and to discriminate against others. EchoCuba continued to report the government applied its system of rewarding churches that were obedient and sympathetic to “revolutionary values and ideals” and penalized those that were not. Similarly, the government continued to reward cooperative religious leaders and threatened to revoke the rights of leaders deemed as noncooperative. According to EchoCuba, in exchange for their cooperation with the government, CCC members continued to receive benefits that other nonmember churches did not always receive, including building permits and international donations of clothing and medicine.

According to media reports, President Miguel Diaz-Canel met with visiting international religious leaders, such as Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, but he did not hold public meetings with any national religious leaders.

According to international media, in the face of increasing shortages of food and other essential items, authorities increased restrictions on many religious organizations’ ability to receive and distribute humanitarian assistance. While the government allowed Caritas to continue providing food and other goods to the needy, it did not allow many smaller religious groups and charities that were not part of the government-recognized CCC to provide aid. According to The Havana Times in August, Customs refused to hand over to non-CCC-affiliated church groups a shipment of five containers of food and other donations from Florida for needy families in Cuba, organized by dissident Rosa Paya of the human rights project Cuba Decide. A CCC religious leader said, “Cuba doesn’t need aid from those who serve a government which has wanted to create humanitarian crises with a political and economic agenda for 60 years.” Other religious leaders also said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas.

Some religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs. Other religious groups reported government restrictions varied and were largely based on the government’s perceptions of the “political pliancy” of each religious group. Religious leaders continued to report government opposition to and interference in religious groups’ providing pastoral services.

According to media, government officials frequently instigated or did not investigate harassment of religious figures and institutions. For example, Pastor Daniel Gonzalez told online magazine evangelicodigital.com that for several years, police in his town of Florida, Camagüey Province, failed to investigate individuals throwing rocks at his church during services. The large rocks severely damaged the roof of the building. Members of the Missionary Church of Cuba in Victoria, Las Tunas, were pelted with stones on their way to worship several times a week, according to Pastor Yoel Demetrio, who said state security officials knew about the attacks and encouraged residents in their neighborhood to carry them out. Prior to the attacks, Demetrio received two summonses from the National Revolutionary Police, accusing him of “disturbing public order” because of his “illegal” use of audio equipment at his also “illegal” church.

During the year, the government increasingly used an internet law restricting freedom of expression against independent journalists, including those promoting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights. Authorities threatened to use the law to sanction Pastor Jose Yvan Rodríguez Yanez of the Apostolic Movement for making “subversive posts on social media.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Unlike in previous years, the Community of Sant’Egidio, recognized by the Catholic Church as a “Church public lay association,” was unable to hold an interfaith meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions.

International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, both Catholic, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to all individuals regardless of religious belief.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials did not meet with or otherwise engage with the ORA during the year due to lack of responsiveness from the government. In public statements and through social media postings, U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion and expression. On October 5, the Secretary stated, “Vast swathes of humanity live in countries where religious freedom is restricted, from places like…Cuba, and beyond.”

Embassy officials met with the head of the CCC and discussed obstacles unregistered churches faced to gain official status.

Embassy officials met in person and virtually with leaders of a range of registered and unregistered religious groups, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Catholics. They discussed the principal issues of religious freedom and tolerance affecting each group, including freedom of assembly, church expansion, access to state-owned media, and their inability to open private religious schools.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed the country on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Finland

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. In September, the Supreme Court affirmed the ban on the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country. Authorities continued to investigate NRM members for engaging in banned activities as part of the successor group Towards Freedom, including public demonstrations. According to representatives of their respective groups, immigration authorities denied most asylum applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan. More than 50 cases of Jehovah’s Witness asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end. In July, a court upheld an ethnic agitation fine for a Finns Party Member of Parliament (MP), while parliament declined to remove the immunity from prosecution of another Finns Party MP who was being investigated for ethnic agitation concerning comments he made during a parliamentary session that equated Muslim asylum seekers with invasive species. In August, police completed their investigation into anti-Semitic comments made by an MP from the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In August, the Ministry of Interior created a working group dedicated to improving security at religious sites, including synagogues and mosques. In January, a municipal councilor in Polvijarvi from the SDP resigned after posting comments to Facebook questioning whether the Holocaust occurred. In February, the Oulu District Court fined an Oulu city councilor for two counts of ethnic agitation for posting videos online depicting Muslims and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings.

Police reported 133 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2019, the most recent statistics available, compared with 155 such incidents in 2018, but did not specify how many were motivated solely by religion. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 37 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019, compared with 35 in 2018. The NRM continued to post anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements online and acted to circumvent the ban of the organization by continuing activities as part of Towards Freedom. There were several demonstrations by neo-Nazi or nativist groups. Towards Freedom burned an Israeli flag during a rally in Tampere on January 27, which coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Also in late January, vandals targeted the Israeli embassy and Jewish property, including the Helsinki and Turku synagogues. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center. Muslim groups reported a shortage of funds needed to establish houses of worship to match their growing population.

U.S. embassy staff engaged with government ministries to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, the government’s response to anti-Semitic incidents, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ahmadis seeking asylum. Embassy staff met with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss their shared concerns about the impact of government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and addressed religiously motivated crimes and continuing problems involved in establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minority groups, and interfaith networks.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Finnish government statistics from December 2019, which count only registered members of registered congregations, 68.7 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent (approximately 17,000 individuals) have official membership in Islamic congregations, and 28.5 percent do not identify as belonging to any religious group. The census combines other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and members of the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.4 percent of the population.

Multiple sources indicate the Muslim population has grown rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants. Muslim religious leaders estimate the number of Muslims rose to 100,000 in 2018 (most recent data available), of which approximately 80 percent is Sunni and 20 percent Shia. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated 2.7 percent of the population, or approximately 150,000 persons, were Muslim. According to a survey by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Muslim population numbered approximately 65,000 in 2016. According to the Islamic Society of Finland, discrepancies among these sources and between them and official government statistics may occur because only a minority of Muslims register with registered Islamic societies. Apart from Tatars, who emigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as during the Soviet Union period, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia, North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

In a report released in October, the Institute of Jewish Policy Research estimated the Jewish population at 1,300.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.” It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community. It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion. The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes “blaspheming against God,” publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment of up to six months. Authorities have occasionally applied the law, most recently in 2019. The constitution cites the ELC, the only religious group it mentions, stating that “provisions on the organization and administration [of the ELC] are laid down in the Church Act.”

The law prohibits religious discrimination and establishes the position of a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law, investigating individual cases of discrimination, and having the power to issue fines in noncriminal cases. The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling, promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities. The ombudsman may also refer cases to the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal (NDET), which also enforces fines issued by the ombudsman and assists plaintiffs seeking compensation in court. Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the NDET, which may issue binding decisions that may be appealed to the courts or through the district court system. Litigants may appeal the decisions of the NDET and the district courts to the higher Administrative Court. Neither the ombudsman nor the NDET has the authority to investigate individual cases of religious discrimination involving employment. Such cases fall under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Authority.

Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government. To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community. To register as a religious community, a group must have at least 20 members, the public practice of religion as its purpose, and a set of rules to guide its activities. A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims. A religious group may also acquire legal status by registering as an association with a nonprofit purpose that is not contrary to law or proper behavior. Registered religious groups and nonprofit associations are generally exempt from taxes. According to the MEC, as of 2019 there were approximately 142 registered religious communities, most of which had multiple congregations. Persons may belong to more than one religious community.

All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Finnish Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments. Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, currently set at between 1 to 2 percent of a member’s income. Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership. Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person. Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.

Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church are eligible to apply for state funds in lieu of the church tax. In addition to receiving the church tax, the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church may also apply for state funds. The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements, including ELC and Orthodox congregations, may apply to receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.

The law requires the ELC to maintain public cemeteries using its general allocation from state funds and church taxes and to account for monies used for this purpose. Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries. All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy. The law authorizes the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Digital and Population Data Services Agency. State registrars do this for other persons.

Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12. The religious affiliation of children between the ages of 12 and 17 may only be changed by a joint decision of the child and his or her parents or guardian, and the family must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate the religious affiliation.

All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion. All students must take courses either in religious studies or ethics, with the choice left up to the student. Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community. Municipalities may arrange for students from different schools to take a combined course to meet this requirement. Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics. Students aged 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or the ethics courses. If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates. The national and municipal governments fund private, including religiously based, schools. Despite the name, private schools are in fact completely financially dependent on government funding, in order to ensure equitable education nationwide. With the exception of international and foreign-language schools, by law private schools may not charge tuition. They do not practice selective admission based on students’ religion.

Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and on general instruction in ethics. Teachers of religion must have state-mandated training for religious instruction. The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community. The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.

By law, conscientious objectors, including those who object on religious grounds, may choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service. Conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service. Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.

The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be stunned and killed simultaneously if done pursuant to religious practice. On December 17, the European Union Court of Justice ruled EU member states may impose a requirement that animals be stunned prior to slaughter and that such a requirement does not infringe on the rights of religious groups.

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

Government Practices

On September 22, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM). The organization was originally banned in 2017 by the Pirkenmaa District Court, but the Supreme Court, while keeping the ban in place, granted the organization the right to appeal the decision in 2019. According to the September ruling, NRM’s activities violated or sought to violate fundamental and human rights protected by the constitution and international human rights treaties. In addition, the Supreme Court found that some of the group’s activities violated the criminal code. Police continued to implement the 2017 ban of the NRM, but the organization continued to demonstrate in public and maintain a website, despite the Supreme Court’s order that it refrain from all activities. The National Bureau of Investigation concluded an investigation in April that found that nine members of the NRM continued to operate the group under the name Towards Freedom. On its website, Towards Freedom publicized events it held in multiple cities. At these events, individuals gave out flyers and stickers advertising the organization, and recruited new members.

As of December, parliament had not voted on an amendment to the Church Act, which governs the practices of the ELC. Parliament took up the bill in 2018 after the General Synod of the ELC approved it but did not enact the bill that year. The amended Church Act has the stated intent of clarifying and facilitating administration, enhancing church autonomy, and facilitating internal decision-making in the ELC. The amended act would clarify the ELC’s decision-making procedures. The Constitutional Law Committee argued that these details should not be addressed in the Church Act but rather in the Church Order, which is enacted by the ELC alone without parliament’s approval.

According to a representative of the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions (CORE Forum), an interfaith group, the Ministry of Interior created a working group in August dedicated to improving security at religious sites. According to the ministry’s website, the goal of the working group was to gather information on security threats directed at religious communities, especially Jewish synagogues and Muslim prayer rooms or mosques, and to propose suggestions for how safety could be enhanced through training and other measures.

According to the Secretary General of the Finnish Association of Museums, Kimmo Leva, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans to prepare a formal study of the state of research on the provenance of Holocaust-era art in museum collections, as recommended by the MEC in June, 2019. According to the MEC, the study was intended to address the lack of such research in order to better meet the requirements for the implementation of the Terezin Declaration on restitution of assets seized during the Holocaust. Leva said a national project to research all insufficient provenance information would be too large scale to conduct under restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He suggested the Finnish Association of Museums might crowdsource the research, following the example of the Finnish National Gallery, which, prior to the pandemic, had published a list online of all its art lacking sufficient provenance from the period 1933-1945. Leva said the MEC supported the strategy.

According to Yle News, in July, the Ministry of the Interior postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic an investigation into whether religious symbols, including headscarves, could be worn as part of police uniforms. The ministry was considering how the regulation on police uniforms could be amended. Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo said she would consider the results of the investigation when completed, then decide whether to launch a legislative reform proposal. The nondiscrimination ombudsman said current police uniform regulations ran counter to religious freedom and equality. According to the Yle News article, police were reluctant to alter the uniform. Ohisalo said the Ministry of Interior considered permitting religious symbols on police uniforms to be a means of integrating immigrants into society and giving them an equal chance to become police officers.

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public healthcare funding for such procedures. In its guidelines, which were recommendations rather than requirements per prior Supreme Court rulings, the ministry stated only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent. Members of the Muslim and Jewish communities continued to express disagreement with the guidelines. The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice did not renew her 2018 request to the MSAH asking it to establish legally binding regulations on nonmedical circumcision.

Members of the opposition National Coalition Party (NCP) serving on parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee called on the government to enact laws regarding nonmedical male circumcision. Parliamentarian Pihla Keto-Huovinen said that the nonmedical circumcision of boys could be problematic in terms of other existing domestic laws and international agreements, including the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that the fundamental rights of a child must not be violated by invoking the freedom of religion and conscience of another person. The call to revisit the legal status of nonmedical male circumcision was prompted by a separate citizen’s initiative in 2019 calling for legislation banning female genital mutilation, though the citizen’s initiative did not include the nonmedical circumcision of boys.

According to representatives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the number of Russian-origin members of Jehovah’s Witnesses applying for asylum based on stated religious persecution declined significantly compared to previous years. The Finnish Immigration Service (FIS) rejected most of the claims by members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and confirmed that asylum adjudicators did not consider membership in the Church alone to be sufficient basis for an asylum claim. More than 50 cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end. Authorities stated the government planned to deport applicants whose appeals were denied, and some Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses whose asylum claims were rejected returned to Russia voluntarily.

According to representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland, the FIS continued to deny most asylum applications for Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan. The representatives said the FIS only considered “prominent persons” in the Ahmadi community to be in danger, while other Ahmadis should be able to move to safer areas of Pakistan instead of seeking asylum. The representatives said that when deportation orders were appealed, authorities requested proof that the individuals in question were in danger instead of considering the systematic persecution Ahmadis faced in Pakistan. The representatives said the group had requested to meet with the Ministry of Interior to discuss the challenges the community faced, but the ministry declined.

According to a senior military officer, the military continued to maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding hate speech and hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents. Unit commanders initiated investigations of reported incidents. If a commander judged the infraction to be minor, he or she administered a formal reprimand or other punishment. For more serious offenses, the commander reported the investigation up the chain of command, and military authorities might refer the case to civilian courts. The officer also said the military accommodated, per regulation, religious dietary needs and fasting requirements, and granted religious leave and prayer time to all personnel. The officer said that these procedures were maintained during the COVID-19 pandemic and that recruits still had access to military chaplains while pandemic protocols were in place.

According to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, in July, the Rovaniemi Court of Appeal upheld Finns Party MP Sebastian Tynkkynen’s fine for ethnic agitation in connection with his 2016 Facebook post on Islam and terrorism. In the post, Tynkkynen had said immigrants moved to the same areas where people were being radicalized. He blamed terrorist attacks in Europe on multiculturalism. He wrote, “The fewer Islamic envoys in Finland, the better. The fewer Muslims we have, the safer.” Tynkkynen denied having committed a crime and said his trial was politically motivated. The prosecutor in the case stated that Tynkkynen must have known his Facebook post was racist in nature and constituted defamatory hate speech directed at Muslims. In 2017, Tynkkynen was additionally convicted of ethnic agitation and the separate crime of breaching the sanctity of religion for other Facebook comments he posted in 2016. A third case for ethnic agitation was also pending at year’s end that involved anti-Muslim Facebook posts Tynkkynen wrote in 2017. Oulu police referred that case to the district prosecutor for consideration of charges.

According to the Helsinki Times, in July, 121 members of parliament voted in favor of and 54 members voted against lifting immunity from prosecution for Finns Party MP Juha Maenpaa. This was short of the five-sixths majority (167 votes) required to revoke immunity and thereby made it impossible for the prosecutor general to bring charges against Maenpaa for ethnic agitation or disturbance of religious peace. During a June 2019 session of parliament, Maenpaa had equated asylum seekers from Muslim majority countries with alien or invasive species. Prosecutor Raija Toiviainen said she was disappointed with the result. “It gives the impression that a minority voted to express its acceptance of racist hate speech.” Centre Party MP Mikko Karna, who voted against lifting Maenpaa’s immunity, wrote on Twitter, “Maenpaa used reprehensible and repulsive language in the Chamber, but in democracy, MPs cannot be brought to justice for speeches in the Chamber. The reprimands of the Speakers’ Council must suffice.”

According to Yle News, in February, the Oulu District Court fined Oulu city councilor Junes Lokka for two counts of ethnic agitation. The court found that Lokka had posted online videos in 2016 depicting Muslims and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings. According to the prosecutor, the speaker in one of the videos called immigrants and Muslims “worthless” and “sick” and stated that they should not even exist. One video showed a demonstration in Helsinki featuring anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim speech. The court ruled the videos violated laws on human dignity and religious freedom.

According to Yle News, in August, Helsinki police completed their investigation of SDP MP Hussein al-Taee for alleged anti-Semitic Facebook posts from 2011-2012, before he was elected to parliament, and referred the case to the prosecutor. The investigation began in August 2019, when existence of the posts was reported in media and police determined the prosecutor’s ability to act had not expired because the posts were still in circulation. At a press conference in September, 2019, al-Taee apologized to Jewish and Sunni Muslim communities for the posts and did not contest the police findings that his posts promoted ethnic agitation. Al-Taee had also in 2014, and possibly as late as 2016, made anti-Semitic comments online, including comparing Israel to ISIS. During that time, he was a private citizen. By the end of 2020, neither the Social Democratic Party nor parliament had taken any disciplinary action against al-Taee in light of the police findings.

According to the newspaper Iltalehti, in January, Pauliina Kuhlmann (SDP), a municipal councilor of Polvijarvi in North Karelia, questioned in a Facebook post whether the Holocaust had occurred. Kuhlmann posted that the estimate of six million deaths was “about 25 times the upper limit” of actual deaths, and referred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp website as “false propaganda” and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as a “propaganda museum.” Other members of the municipal council denounced Kuhlmann’s post and in January she was expelled from the council. Kuhlmann resigned from the SDP in January and formally tendered her resignation from the council on January 31, which was accepted at the council’s next meeting on June 15. As of year’s end, there was no pending police investigation.

On February 20, the Helsinki Times reported Helsinki police questioned Christian Democrat MP Paivi Rasenen, a former Minister of Interior, for possible incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality in connection with a booklet she published in 2004. According to the Helsinki Times article, the booklet, titled “Male and Female He Created Them – Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity,” argued that LGBTI relationships were incompatible with the Christian faith. Incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality was outlawed in 1995. In June, 2019, Rasenen responded to news that the ELC was partnering with the Helsinki Pride Festival by posting a Bible passage coupled with the caption, “How can the church’s doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?” At year’s end, the prosecutor was considering whether to bring charges in both cases.

The government allocated 115.6 million euros ($141.84 million) to the ELC, compared with 114 million euros ($139.88 million) in 2019, and 2.58 million euros ($3.17 million) to the Finnish Orthodox Church, compared with 2.54 million euros ($3.12 million) in 2019. The MEC allotted a total of 824,000 euros ($1.01 million) to all other registered religious organizations, an increase of 300,000 euros ($368,000) over 2019. The entire increase went to the Helsinki Jewish Congregation to continue its investments in security at facilities and events following anti-Semitic incidents. This was the second consecutive year the government provided this level of funding to this congregation for improving security; similar funding levels were included in the government’s fiscal plan for the next three years. According to the parliament’s Finance Committee, “The threats have not diminished, but increased anti-Semitism in many countries is also affecting the Finnish Jewish community.” In June, the government allocated an additional 4.5 million euros ($5.52 million) to the ELC and the Finnish Orthodox Church to support their work in helping local communities during the pandemic.

The MEC awarded a total of 110,000 euros ($135,000) to promote interfaith dialogue, an increase of 30,000 euros ($36,800) over 2019. Three organizations split the funding: the CORE Forum, composed of representatives from the largest religious denominations; Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization; and Ad Astra, an organization promoting dialogue, interfaith projects, and inclusivity for children in schools, preschools, and daycare facilities.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Despite the ban against it, the self-described neo-Nazi NRM continued to operate a website, made statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims, and participated in demonstrations, according to press reports. According to authorities, members of the NRM began operating as part of the Towards Freedom group, considered to be the NRM’s successor by the National Bureau of Investigation.

Media reported Towards Freedom burned an Israeli flag during a rally in Tampere on January 27, meant to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and said on its website that it carried out the burning. Officers of the Central Finland Police Department were present at the rally and spoke to those burning the flag, but they made no arrests. A spokesperson for the department said only the burning of the national flag (and not another nation’s flag) is a criminal offense. Police subsequently announced they were investigating the flag burning as a case of illegal ethnic agitation. Media reported that on the same day, the front door, steps, and walls of Turku Synagogue were defaced with red paint. Police were investigating the incident as a property damage case but had made no arrests as of year’s end. President Sauli Niinisto and other government officials denounced both incidents in official statements.

According to the newspaper Ilta Sanomat, on January 31, vandals defaced the building housing the Embassy of Israel with NRM stickers. The same night, unknown individuals placed similar stickers on Helsinki Synagogue. Israeli Ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg told media that similar incidents had occurred numerous times in the last two years and that stickers were just one example of the vandalism and intimidation the embassy and Jews living in the country faced. Following the two incidents of vandalism, representatives of the Jewish community reported feeling threatened and specifically targeted due to their beliefs.

According to Yle News, in April, unknown individuals vandalized a Jewish cemetery in Hamina by knocking over a tombstone and painting a white swastika on another. The more than 200-year-old cemetery was no longer in use. The mayor of Hamina, Hannu Muhonen, denounced the vandalism, and the Helsinki Jewish Congregation filed a criminal report concerning the incident. The police confirmed the matter was under investigation but said no perpetrators had been identified. Yaron Nadbornik, head of the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland, stated vandalism of Jewish cemeteries was uncommon, but said neo-Nazi leaflets had been distributed to mailboxes of nearby Hamina residents at the time of the incident. A pastor of the Hamina Orthodox Parish also reported seeing a leaflet advertising the neo-Nazi group Towards Freedom.

According to media reports, on August 16, the anti-immigrant National Alliance again organized a memorial march in Turku to commemorate the victims of a 2017 stabbing by a Moroccan asylum speaker. Approximately 300 persons joined the demonstration, holding banners that read, “White lives matter.” On the same day, the group Turku Without Nazis held a counterdemonstration. The website Freigner.fi showed a picture of one counter protester holding a sign reading, “No Nazis on our streets.”

NGOs working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center. A representative of the center said converts to Christianity in migrant reception facilities often experienced harassment, including social exclusion, threats, and blackmail.

A representative of the Core Forum said that in June or July, a mosque in Jarvenpaa was defaced with stickers promoting the NRM.

A representative of the Core Forum said that Muslim groups, including the Islamic Congregation of Finland, continued to seek adequate houses of worship that could accommodate their growing population, but that they were hindered by insufficient funds from purchasing property, given that most Muslims did not belong to congregations registered with the government and did not choose to register. Except for a handful of purpose-built mosques, most mosques were located in converted commercial spaces. A representative of the Core Forum said on September 15 that this problem was driven by many Muslim congregations being too small to be able to raise the resources necessary to fund property purchases or construction.

Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland said other Muslim congregations continued to block the group’s formal membership in interfaith organizations. A representative of the Core Forum said this was possibly because many Muslim groups did not consider Ahmadis to be “true Muslims.” Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland said the group planned to create a mosque and cultural center in the future and that although the mosque would be built solely with funds from the Ahmadi community, it would be open to all religious and nonreligious individuals.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 37 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019 – 4 percent of total discrimination complaints – compared with 35 complaints in 2018. In one example the report cited, a swimming hall prevented women and girls dressed in burkinis from swimming. The ombudsman recommended that swimming halls allow the wearing of burkinis.

Research by theologian Esko Kahkonen published in January by the Diakonia University of Applied Sciences indicated most religiously motivated hate crimes targeting Muslims were committed by Muslims from groups he said were more extreme. Individuals he termed “liberal Muslims,” or Muslims from minority schools of Islam, were the most common victims, as well as individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity. According to Kahkonen’s research, which covered the period 2015-2016, only 8 percent of cases during that time were incidents in which non-Muslims targeted Muslims. Jenita Rauta, a researcher from the National Police Academy, said that the 2015-2016 data included many instances of hate crimes between Sunni and Shia Muslims and that an increase in the number of asylum seekers who were placed in reception centers without extensive background checks – intended to identify individuals with a history violent or illegal behavior – drove the phenomenon. Rauta said that more recent National Police Academy data from 2017-2018 showed a larger proportion of hate crimes targeting individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity.

The website Magneettimedia continued to post anti-Semitic content. In September, it published an article stating, “Harmful immigration to Europe is not the fault of the Islamic religion or Muslims, but is the fault of international Zionists and their global henchmen,” and, “Israel and the related Khazar-mafia have taken as their objective causing confrontation between the Christian world and the Islamic world.” Major companies and consumer brands continued to boycott the department store chain owned by the former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, due to his anti-Semitic views.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of religious groups participated in virtual events hosted by other religious groups. Finn Church Aid (FCA), associated with the ELC, again hosted an interfaith iftar, bringing together virtually representatives from the major religious groups, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and municipal governments.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, embassy staff engaged with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Foreign Affairs to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in asylum adjudications. The embassy engaged with the police following several anti-Semitic incidents in January and encouraged the government to identify and prosecute those responsible. The Ambassador met with the Israeli Ambassador on several occasions to discuss these incidents and raised the concerns of the Israeli embassy with government officials and in media. The Ambassador also hosted a virtual board meeting of the Core Forum on November 17 to discuss the government’s response to COVID-19 and the ongoing parliamentary debate on nonmedical male circumcision.

Embassy staff engaged with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, lay activists from these communities, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy staff and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities discussed these communities’ shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, religiously motivated crimes, and problems establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with representatives from different Muslim congregations and met regularly with NGOs such as the Core Forum and FCA. Embassy staff continued to engage with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning the high rate of application denials for Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia seeking asylum on grounds of religious persecution. Embassy staff met with representatives of the Ahmadi Muslim community, who expressed concerns over the high rate of denials of asylum applications for Ahmadis from Pakistan. Embassy staff also engaged with the Uyghur Muslim community.

A senior embassy official hosted the administrative head of the Jewish Community of Helsinki at an event intended to introduce the head to senior representatives from other foreign missions in the country to amplify the challenges of anti-Semitism in Finland.

Hong Kong

Read A Section: Hong Kong

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.

Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. If a state of emergency is proclaimed, the rights may not be limited based solely on religion.

On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both, provided they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Dafa Association is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it may establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.

Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.

Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”

In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”

Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.

Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.

In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.

Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.

In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.

Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.

Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

Read a Section

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Indonesia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides a guarantee of freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and, as noted in the constitution, to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” Individuals continued to be detained and received prison sentences for violations of blasphemy laws. In April, police arrested individuals across the country for blasphemy related to social media uploads that included altered lyrics to a popular song about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including caning a woman, who received 200 strokes for her extramarital affairs with two men, who each received 100 strokes for their involvement. In Riau Province, a local community had been preventing renovations at a Catholic church until President Joko Widodo’s cabinet became involved in February and mediated the dispute to ensure the renovations could begin. At the national level, government and religious leaders cooperated closely in developing restrictions to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some disputes occurred between government authorities and religious groups at the local level. In December, a joint ministerial decree outlawed the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group known to observers for violence and religious intolerance, for its violations of law. That same month, police arrested the leader of the FPI for organizing large gatherings in violation of COVID-19 health protocols and for being involved in an altercation that left six FPI members dead. In September, a Christian pastor was killed in Papua Province, with human rights organizations stating that members of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) involved in a conflict with Papuan armed separatists were responsible. In February, local authorities in Bandung, Central Java, organized an interfaith parade that attracted more than 6,000 persons, where government and police officials signed a document stating their intent to support religious tolerance and harmony.

Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media. Individuals affiliated at the local level with the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a national, quasi-governmental Muslim clerical body, used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims. There were multiple reports of assaults on Shia Muslims at Shia events. In August, several Islamic organizations associated with the South Sulawesi chapter of the United Islam Community Forum (FUIB) released a statement condemning the Shia community and its plans to commemorate Ashura. In April and May, reports of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” spread on social media that claimed Jews, Christians, and communists were using COVID-19 and restrictions on public gatherings to destroy Islam. In March, an interfaith group of representatives from 11 youth wings of the largest religious organizations in the country signed a declaration promoting religious tolerance within the country and internationally.

In October, the U.S. Secretary of State gave a speech at an event hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest independent Muslim organization in the world, on the importance of religious freedom and pluralism. The Ambassador and embassy and consulate officials advocated for religious freedom with the government, including at the highest levels. Issues raised included actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the importance of tolerance and rule of law, and the application of sharia to non-Muslims. Members of the U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – an organization endorsed by both governments and comprising religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts from both countries – met with the Ambassador to discuss religious freedom. The embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach to promote respect for diversity and religious tolerance through events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public-speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 267 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, Gafatar, other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question, comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.

The Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni. An estimated one to five million Muslims are Shia. Many smaller Muslim groups exist; estimates put the total number of Ahmadi Muslims at 200,000 to 400,000.

Many religious groups incorporate elements of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, making it difficult to disaggregate the exact number of followers. An estimated 20 million persons, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as aliran kepercayaan. There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago.

The Sikh population is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, with approximately 5,000 in Medan and the rest in Jakarta. There are very small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, Jayapura, and elsewhere, with the total number of Jews estimated at 200. The Baha’i Faith and Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) communities report thousands of members, but independent estimates are not available. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists states it has more than 1,700 members.

The province of Bali is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the right to practice the religion of one’s choice and specifies that freedom of religion is a human right that may not be limited. The constitution states, “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God,” but it guarantees all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief, saying the right to have a religion is a human right that shall not be discriminated against.

The constitution also says the state is based on the belief in one God, and the state is obliged to guarantee the freedom of worship. It states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy, as noted in the constitution, “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” The law restricts citizens from exercising these rights in a way that impinges on the rights of others, oversteps common moral standards and religious values, or jeopardizes security or public order.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) extends official recognition to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The government maintains a long-standing practice of recognizing Sunni Islam as the official version of Islam of local Muslims, although the constitution has no such stipulation.

Blasphemy articles in the criminal code prohibit deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six officially recognized religions or have the intent of preventing an individual from adhering to an official religion. These articles also stipulate that in any case of defamation of the six officially recognized religions, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the MORA, and the Attorney General’s Office must first warn the individual in question before bringing a defamation charge. The articles also forbid the dissemination of information designed to spread hatred or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Individuals may be subject to prosecution for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements under either of these provisions or under the laws against defamation and may face a maximum prison sentence of five years. A separate law forbids the electronic dissemination of the same types of information, with violations carrying a maximum four-year sentence.

The government defines a religion as having a prophet, holy book, and deity, as well as international recognition. The government deems the six officially recognized religions meet these requirements. Organizations representing one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law are not required to obtain a legal charter if they are established under a notary act and obtain approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Religious organizations other than the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law must obtain a legal charter as a civil society organization (CSO) from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MORA before granting legal status to religious organizations. The law requires all CSOs to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God, justice, unity, democracy, and social justice, and they are prohibited from committing blasphemous acts or spreading religious hatred. By law, all religious groups must officially register with the government. Registration requirements for religious organizations include: (a) organizations may not contradict Pancasila and the constitution; (b) they must be voluntary, social, independent, nonprofit, and democratic; and (c) they must have notarized articles of association (bylaws) and a specifically defined purpose. The organization then registers with the MORA. After MORA approval, the organization is announced publicly through the state gazette. Violations of the law may result in a loss of legal status, dissolution of the organization, and arrest of members under the blasphemy articles of the criminal code or other applicable laws. Indigenous religious groups must register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as aliran kepercayaan to obtain official, legal status.

A joint ministerial decree bans both proselytizing by the Ahmadi Muslim community and vigilantism against the group. Violations of the Ahmadi proselytizing ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy. According to the criminal code, vigilantism carries a maximum five-and-one-half-year prison sentence.

A joint ministerial decree bans proselytizing and other activities by the Fajar Nusantara Movement, known as Gafatar. Violations of the ban may be charged with blasphemy, and may receive a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy.

There is no joint ministerial decree that bans proselytizing by other groups. The MUI, however, has issued fatwas that ban proselytizing by so-called deviant groups such as Inkar al-Sunnah, Ahmadiyya, Islam Jama’ah, the Lia Eden Community, and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah. While the MUI has not labelled Shia Islam as deviant, it has issued fatwas and guidance cautioning against the spread of Shia teachings.

The government requires all officially registered religious groups to comply with directives from the MORA and other ministries on issues such as the construction of houses of worship, foreign aid to domestic religious institutions, and propagation of religion.

A 2006 joint ministerial decree issued by the MORA and the MOHA states that religious groups may not hold services in private residences, and those seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are responsible for implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the provincial and district/city level and comprise religious leaders from the six official groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

The law requires religious instruction in public schools. Students have the right to request religious instruction in any one of the six official religions, but teachers are not always available to teach the requested religion classes. Under the law, individuals may not opt out of religious education requirements. In practice, however, students of minority religious groups are often allowed to opt out and attend study hall instead.

Under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a separatist conflict, Aceh Province has unique authority to implement sharia regulations. The law allows for provincial implementation and regulation of sharia and extends the jurisdiction of religious courts to economic transactions and criminal cases. The Aceh government states sharia in Aceh only applies to Muslim residents of the province, although nonresident Muslims and adherents to other faiths may accept sharia in lieu of punishment under the criminal code.

Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 1 p.m. Sharia regulations prohibit female Muslim residents of Aceh from wearing tight clothes in public, and officials often recommended wearing headscarves. The regulation allows local officials to “remind” female Muslims of these regulations but does not allow women’s detention for violating them. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and caning. There are regulations intended to limit the amount of force that authorities may exert during a caning.

Many local governments outside of Aceh have enacted regulations based on religious considerations; most of these are in majority-Muslim areas. Many of these regulations relate to matters such as religious education and only apply to a specific religious group. Some religiously inspired local regulations in effect apply to all citizens. For instance, some local regulations require restaurants to close during Ramadan fasting hours, ban alcohol, or mandate the collection of zakat (Islamic alms). Other local regulations forbid or limit the religious activities of religious minorities, especially Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

The law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it requires that parties must perform the marriage ceremony according to the rituals of a religion shared by both the bride and groom.

The law requires the leader of an aliran kepercayaan group to demonstrate group members live in at least three regencies, which are administrative designations one level below a province, before the leader may officiate legally at a wedding. This constraint effectively bars believers of some smaller groups without such geographic presence from receiving official marriage services from a member of their faith, although groups may aid each other and facilitate marriages by a group with similar faith traditions and rituals.

A joint ministerial decree requires domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the MORA to receive funding from overseas donors and forbids dissemination of religious literature and pamphlets to members of other religious groups, as well as door-to-door proselytizing. Most religious groups may, however, proselytize in their own places of worship, except for some groups such as Ahmadi Muslims.

Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the MORA to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.

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

Government Practices

The government was involved in a number of actions against the FPI that included a December 7 altercation with police that resulted in the deaths of six FPI members; the December 12 arrest of the FPI’s leader for violating COVID-19 related health protocols; and a December 30 government proclamation outlawing the FPI, its symbols, and any of its activities. Civil society and religious organizations have long accused the FPI of being a hardline Muslim group that engages in acts of violence, extortion, intimidation, and intolerance against other Muslims and religious and ethnic minority communities.

On November 10, Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the FPI, returned to the country after three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia. Shihab had originally left in 2017 while facing criminal investigations related to accusations that he had committed blasphemy, spread hate speech, been involved in land grabs, insulted the national ideology of Pancasila, and violated the antipornography law. Following his return, Shihab organized several large gatherings in Jakarta and West Java on November 13-14. Police arrested Shihab on charges of involvement in organizing mass gatherings in violation of COVID-19 health protocols. On December 29, a South Jakarta District Court judge ordered authorities to reopen the investigation into Shihab’s possible violation of the antipornography law for exchanging sexually explicit messages with a follower, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of 12 years in prison.

On December 7, police shot and killed six FPI members on the Jakarta-Cikampek toll road. According to Jakarta police, they received a tip that the six were part of a group planning to prevent police from questioning Shihab. Police officials said the shooting occurred in self-defense after the six FPI members attempted to attack the police. An investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), an independent, government-affiliated body, was underway at year’s end.

On December 30, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD announced a joint ministerial decree that declared the FPI was a “nonregistered” organization; it banned the organization, its symbols, and its activities. The FPI’s permit to operate as a religious organization had expired in June 2019, and it had been operating without a clear legal status for 18 months. Mahfud MD stated that during this period, the FPI had engaged in activities that violated the law and public order and refused to amend its articles of association to make it consistent with the law. A coalition of prominent human rights organizations released a statement saying that while they criticized the FPI’s violent actions, hate speech, and violations of law, the joint ministerial decree was not consistent with the country’s constitution and was an unjust restriction on the right of association and expression.

On September 19, Yeremia Zanambani, a Christian pastor, was fatally shot in Intan Raya Regency, Papua. Local activists and religious leaders called for an independent investigation into the killing, accusing TNI personnel as being the likely culprits. Minister Mahfud MD established an independent fact-finding team that concluded TNI personnel may have been involved. Komnas HAM publicly released its own report into the incident, which determined that TNI personnel were responsible for the killing. A TNI internal investigation continued at year’s end. Human rights organizations and religious leaders linked the incident to operations by security forces against armed separatists in the region, but they did not attribute the attack to religious discrimination or persecution.

In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs. Canings continued to occur in public spaces despite the Aceh governor’s 2018 order that they should be executed only in prison facilities. Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose punishment under either sharia or civil court procedures, but Muslim residents of Aceh must receive punishment under sharia. According to media reports and human rights activists, several non-Muslim residents of Aceh chose punishment under sharia, reportedly due to its expediency and to avoid the risks of prolonged and expensive trials and possible lengthy prison sentences.

On February 12, authorities in Central Aceh Regency caned a Christian man 27 times for selling alcohol. On March 5, authorities in Bireuen Regency caned a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman 24 times each for sexual relations outside of marriage. In both cases, the non-Muslim men accepted punishment under sharia in lieu of punishment under the regular judicial system. On April 10, authorities in Aceh Tamiang Regency caned a woman 200 times for her extramarital affairs with two men, who each received 100 strokes. On April 21, authorities in North Aceh Regency caned two men 25 and 40 times, respectively, for sexual abuse of a child, and a couple convicted of adultery received 100 strokes each. On June 5, authorities in the North Aceh Regency began caning a man sentenced to 100 strokes for adultery. The man collapsed following the 74th stroke and was taken away in an ambulance.

In August, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation reported 38 blasphemy cases from January to May, two of which involved five individuals younger than 18. According to two government officials, blasphemy laws were often used to discriminate against religious minorities. On August 21, the chairman of Komnas HAM, Ahmad Taufan Damanik, said a lack of clarity in the blasphemy law meant it was often used to target religious minorities. On March 6, the commissioner of the National Women’s Commission, Siti Aminah Tardi, said prosecutions under blasphemy laws targeted women, especially those from religious minorities.

On January 7, police in West Sumatra arrested Sudarto, an activist from Pusaka Foundation Padang, a human rights and environmental advocacy organization, for violating the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) law by disseminating information with intent to incite hatred based on religion, ethnicity, race, and/or class. Sudarto had uploaded a post on Facebook that stated the local government in Dharmasraya Regency, West Sumatra, had banned Christmas. According to media reports, in December 2019, police officials in Dharmasraya had told the local community not to hold Christmas services there and instead travel to a church in neighboring Sawahlunto Regency, 75 miles from the village. Sudarto was released a day after his arrest.

On January 15, police in South Sulawesi arrested and charged Paruru Daeng Tau, the head of the Organization for Implementing the Mandate of Adat and Pancasila (LPAAP), with blasphemy after receiving a complaint that Tau allegedly told his followers he was the last prophet and to disregard the basic tenets of Islam. The local MUI branch in Tana Toraja Regency had issued a fatwa in December 2019 denouncing LPAAP as a heretical organization. On June 3, Tau was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years and four months in prison.

In February, media reported that a panel of judges decided that Suzethe Margaret, a Catholic woman accused of blasphemy after bringing a dog into a mosque in June 2019, was guilty of blasphemy but would not be sent to prison due to mental illness. Prosecutors had previously recommended that she be sentenced to eight months in prison.

In March, police in Probolinggo Regency, East Java, arrested Indriyanto for sharing a picture of Hajar Aswad (a spiritually significant stone set in one of the corners of the Kaaba) that resembled female genitalia and for sharing an image that showed the word “Allah” being defecated on. On July 9, the Probolinggo State Court of East Java sentenced Indriyanto to four years’ imprisonment and imposed a five million rupiah (IDR) ($360) fine for violating the ITE law.

In April, police arrested and charged individuals across the country for social media uploads that included an altered version of “Aisyah Istri Rasulullah,” a popular song about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. On April 10, Rahmat Hidayat, a YouTube celebrity popularly known as Aleh Khas Medan, was arrested in Medan, North Sumatra, for posting a YouTube video that included the song, as well as for actions authorities deemed offensive. On October 1, Hidayat was sentenced to seven months in prison under the ITE law. On April 15, police in Surabaya arrested and charged Bambang Bima Adhis Pratama under the ITE law after Bambang uploaded a video of himself on social media, singing the song with changed lyrics. On April 30, police in South Sulawesi detained Bahrul Ulum, a university student, for tweeting the changed lyrics of the song. In May, police in Gorontalo Province arrested three young adults after they uploaded a video of themselves singing and dancing to the song with changed lyrics on WhatsApp.

On May 4, police in Central Lombok Regency, West Nusa Tenggara, detained a woman for blasphemy after she uploaded a video to TikTok of herself dancing in clothes traditionally worn during prayer. Following the arrest, an official from Muhammadiyah, one of the largest Islamic groups in the country, encouraged local police to release the woman, stating that she did not intend to commit blasphemy. It was unclear whether police released her.

On July 9, port police in Makassar arrested and charged Ince Ni’matullah with blasphemy after she allegedly threw a Quran during an argument with her neighbor.

On August 4, a court in Medan sentenced Doni Irawan Malay to three years in prison for blasphemy. According to prosecutors, on February 13, Malay desecrated a Quran in the Al-Mashun Mosque, including putting it down his pants, tearing out pages, and throwing it in the trash.

On August 8, police arrested Apollinaris Darmawan in Bandung under the ITE law for a series of tweets and videos posted on Twitter and Instagram that, among other things, stated Islam was not a religion and should be expelled from the country. Immediately prior to the man’s arrest, a crowd outraged at his postings stormed his house, dragged him into the street, and stripped him of his clothes. It did not appear that police detained anyone involved in the assault. On November 24, public prosecutors formally charged Darmawan under the ITE law and sought the maximum allowable punishment of six years in prison and an 800 million rupiah ($57,000) fine. Darmawan had been convicted and sentenced in August 2017 to four years in prison and an 800,000,000 rupiah ($57,000) fine for violating the ITE law for a series of pictures and articles he posted to Facebook which depicted Allah as a monster, the Prophet Muhammad as homosexual, and which made other disparaging descriptions of Islam. Darmawan was released early from prison in March as part of an assimilation program. It is not clear if this release was related to a government effort that helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons.

On September 29, a court in Medan sentenced Muhammad Qadafi, alias Udin, to 18 months in prison for blasphemy after he was found guilty of throwing a Quran inside a mosque during an incident on March 25.

On December 4, police arrested a Muslim cleric in Cibadak Regency, West Java, for distributing a video in which the man conducted the call to prayer with altered wording that made it a call to jihad instead. The man was arrested under the ITE law for spreading hate. Prominent Muslim leaders from Nahdlatul Ulama and the MUI publicly condemned the video when it began circulating in late November.

On December 28, police called in Haikal Hassan for questioning related to potential violation of the ITE and blasphemy laws for stating he had met with the Prophet Muhammad during a dream. Haikal was the spokesman for the 212 Alumni Association, a group formed in commemoration of the December 2, 2016, protests by conservative Islamic groups against then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama that called for his prosecution under blasphemy laws.

From August 18 to August 27, a coalition of CSOs hosted an online conference entitled “Blasphemy Law: Protection or Criminalization?” The conference explored trends, patterns, and developments in criminalization involving accusations of blasphemy, as well as what were described as “discriminatory practices” occurring in the country. The organizers of the conference surveyed the 2,247 participants and found that 78 percent believed the greatest challenges facing religious freedom were discriminatory regulations, intolerant acts against minorities, and a lack of remedies for victims. The survey also showed that 84 percent agreed efforts were needed to eliminate discriminatory regulations, promote effective law enforcement against those who violate others’ religious freedom, and provide remedy for those accused of violating blasphemy laws.

The government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing policies to prevent the spread of the virus through limiting public events, including religious gatherings. At the national level, government and religious leaders cooperated closely in developing these restrictions. For example, on March 16 the MUI issued a fatwa recommending the suspension of communal Friday prayers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In June, President Joko Widodo met with interfaith leaders to discuss how their organizations and religious groups were planning to adapt to COVID-19.

Several other disputes between government authorities and religious groups occurred at the local level regarding health restrictions related to the COVID-19 virus. In April, members of Ar-Rahmah Mosque in Parepare city, South Sulawesi, reported the district head, Andi Ulfa Lanto, to police for blasphemy after Lanto attempted to stop Friday prayer at the mosque. Mosque officials said Lanto’s actions constituted blasphemy because the local COVID-19 regulation encouraged persons only to avoid mass gatherings, as opposed to explicitly banning Friday prayer. On May 1, Parepare Mayor Taufan Pawe responded by filing a police report accusing the members of the mosque of failing to adhere to health protocols and of obstructing an official from conducting his duties. The South Sulawesi chapter of the MUI and the FUIB stated that Lanto did not commit blasphemy.

On April 19, two men entered the residence of a Christian family in Bekasi Regency, West Java, and demanded they terminate a religious service being held in the home. The disruption was recorded and disseminated widely online. According to media reports, one of the men was a local Muslim leader.

On January 27, the Regent of Bogor, West Java, Ade Munawaroh Yasin, issued a letter to the local Ahmadiyya community stating that Ahmadi Islam was illegal in Bogor and calling on the Ahmadis to stop all activities inside and outside their compound in Kemang Bogor. On March 16, activists from the Benteng Aqidah Alliance, an ad hoc group comprised of local Islamic groups seen by observers as more hardline, rallied in front of the regent’s office to support her decision to outlaw Ahmadi activity in Bogor. In response, a group of 31 local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) created an Alliance for a United Bogor to condemn the rally and to support tolerance in Bogor.

According to media reports, in July, the Ternate Municipality Team for Supervision of Beliefs and Religious Sects in Society (PAKEM), which includes the police, the Prosecutor’s Office, MORA, FKUB, and MUI, implemented a ban on activities by the Shia Jafariah religious group in the North Maluku city. The PAKEM meeting was held after the Shia group hung a banner to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. The North Maluku chapter of the MUI issued a fatwa against the group in 2015, designating it a heretical organization.

On July 27, the congregation of the Indonesian Pentecostal Efata Church in Indragiri Hilir Regency, Riau, accepted an offer from the local government to relocate its church to a location 10 kilometers (six miles) away. In 2019, local officials had prevented the congregation from worshiping at the location because it was not formally registered as a house of worship.

On August 5, the Bali Customary Village Council, created in 2019 by the Bali provincial government, banned all worship activities by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the province’s 1,493 customary villages. The council chairman stated ISKCON teachings were fundamentally different from Hindu teachings, and therefore the ban was necessary to preserve Hindu and Balinese culture. The Bali chapter of the Indonesian Hinduism Society (PHDI) publicly revoked its recognition of ISKCON and encouraged the central PHDI to do so on a national level.

On July 1, the MORA spokesperson stated the ministry would involve the TNI in efforts to increase religious harmony. Legislators and a coalition of CSOs stated that security forces’ involvement in religious affairs would likely create artificial and coerced religious harmony rather than the interfaith dialogue required for true harmony. On July 7, then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi, a retired TNI general, clarified before the legislature that the MORA had only requested the military’s input, not involvement, into religious efforts, and specifically only in Papua, to help ease tensions there.

The Smart Pakem smartphone app, launched by the Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office in 2018 to allow citizens to report heresy and blasphemy cases, was removed from both the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. Following its launch, human rights organizations had criticized the app and requested Google and Apple to remove it. It was unclear what caused its removal.

The MORA maintained its authority at the national and local levels to conduct the “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. Beginning in 2014, Ahmadiyya communities in several West Java regencies reported that local governments were forcing or encouraging the conversion of Ahmadi Muslims, using a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. However, in July, members of the Ahmadiyya community in Tasikmalaya City, West Java, reported they were no longer required to sign such forms prior to marriage or the Hajj.

According to religious groups and NGOs, government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedom and committing other acts of intimidation, such as damaging or destroying houses of worship and homes. Groups often identified as intolerant included the FPI, Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and Indonesian Mujahideen Council.

Throughout July and August, the East Nusa Tenggara FKUB held a short story competition on the value of religious harmony within the province. The organizers received 71 entries from university students. To celebrate the winning entries, the local FKUB chapter collaborated with local print media to publish the stories. The top 10 stories were also compiled into e-books, and published.

In August, East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa designated three villages in the province as “Harmony Awareness Villages,” Mojorejo village in Batu, Tenduro village in Lumajang, and Wonorejo village in Situbondo Regency. Governor Khofifah and East Java MORA officials selected them based on accomplishments in promoting religious tolerance.

In September, Minister of Villages, Underdeveloped Regions, and Transmigration Abdul Halim Iskandar designated Banuroja village in Gorontalo Province as a “Pancasila Village.” Iskandar and ministry officials selected Banuroja due to its ethnic and religious diversity.

In September, Tajul Muluk, leader of a community of more than 500 Shia Muslims, stated his intent to convert to Sunni Islam, along with the majority of his community. The community had been displaced to the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, since 2012 after communal violence forced them from their homes in Sampang Regency, Madura. In a September 10 letter to the Regent of Sampang, Muluk requested that he and his followers be converted to Sunni Islam. The letter and subsequent media interviews did not make clear the reason for the request for conversion. According to media reports, the regent stated that he had not requested Muluk write the letter.

In January, a group of local human rights organizations released a report entitled 2020 Outlook on Freedom of Religion and Faith in Indonesia. The report stated the number of religious freedom violations was increasing every year and criticized the government’s approach to religious freedom as increasing based on majoritarianism and repression. Speaking at the report release, Alissa Wahid, Coordinator of Jaringan Gusdurian and daughter of the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid, stated, “Favoritism and majoritarianism are getting stronger in Indonesia. The government is not doing enough to enforce the constitution, and more and more conflicts are being solved by local agreements, which often represent the interests of the majority.” Asfinawati, chairwoman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, stated during the report’s release that “the state has been employing a repressive approach [to religious differences], which only deepens conflicts and segregation instead of ending intolerance.”

In April, the legislature resumed discussions on a draft penal code that was tabled for further discussion in September 2019 due to mass public protests. CSOs expressed concerns that the legislation might expand the blasphemy laws and other criminal sections that could be used to restrict religious freedom. On April 14, the National Alliance of Reform of the Criminal Code, a coalition of 41 CSOs, released a statement criticizing the legislature’s proposal to resume deliberations in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic on the grounds that it would prevent meaningful public participation. The alliance was also critical of numerous provisions in the draft, including sections that might restrict religious freedom. The legislature continued discussing the proposed legislation at year’s end.

In July, the Wahid Foundation released a report documenting cases of religious freedom abuses, as defined by the foundation, that occurred from 2009 to 2018. The report found that during that period, there were 1,033 cases of abuse by state actors and 1,420 cases by nonstate actors, with the largest categories of state abuses being the restriction/closure of places of worship (163), and nonstate abuses being intimidation (205). According to the report, cases of persecution by state actors increased during the Joko Widodo administration compared to the prior administration, but nonstate and violent cases decreased.

The governors of two provinces requested the removal of translated Bibles that were available through smartphone apps. On May 28, the Governor of West Sumatra, Irwan Prayitno, sent a letter to the Minister of Communication and Information requesting the removal of an app called “The Bible in the Minangkabau Language.” Pravitno stated that the translation had made the Minangkabau people uncomfortable because it contradicted their culture. On May 30, acting Governor of Aceh Nova Iriansyah sent a letter to Google Indonesia requesting it remove an app titled “Aceh Holy Book,” a version of the Bible translated into the Acehnese language, stating it was provocative and triggered unrest in Acehnese society. In both cases, the developer chose to voluntarily remove the application from the Google Play Store. Sources stated that there was no indication that the application violated Google’s content policy or that the Ministry of Communication and Information requested the developer to remove the application.

Across the country, minority religious groups, including Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority areas, continued to state the official requirement for a specific number of supporters to build or renovate a house of worship was a barrier to construction. Members of the Jewish community stated that since their numbers nationwide were so few, it was impossible for them to build new synagogues.

Local governments did not issue permits for the construction of new places of worship even when congregations obtained the required number of applicants, since opponents of the construction sometimes pressured other congregants not to approve. In many cases, a few vocal opponents from the local majority religious affiliation were reportedly sufficient to stop construction approvals. State-recognized religious leaders in government-supported interfaith forums reportedly found ways to block aliran kepercayaan believers from constructing places of worship, largely through stringent permit requirements. Aliran kepercayaan adherents said they feared accusations of atheism if they contested such treatment in court. Christian leaders reported that local officials indefinitely delayed the approval of requests to build new churches because the officials feared construction would lead to protests. Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians said they also faced problems when seeking approval to relocate to temporary facilities while a primary place of worship underwent renovation.

Local governments, police, and religious organizations reportedly tried to close religious minority groups’ houses of worship on the grounds of permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had been issued a proper permit.

Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of houses of worship and often faced protests from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when authorities issued permits, they halted construction on some houses of worship after facing legal challenges and public protests. Protestant and Catholic churches also reported that “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money if they continued operating without a permit. Some houses of worship established before the joint ministerial decree on house-of-worship construction came into effect in 2006 reportedly were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops.

In February, President Joko Widodo and then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi interceded with the local government of Karimun Regency, Riau, to allow the renovation of a local Catholic church. The Saint Joseph Catholic Church had received a permit to renovate its premises in 2019, but local opposition prevented the beginning of construction. Following the intervention, construction of the Church began in April.

In February, President Joko Widodo approved the construction of an underground tunnel connecting Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, with the Jakarta Cathedral. President Joko Widodo termed it the “Tunnel of Brotherhood” to represent the deep connections among the country’s religions. Construction was to occur as part of a larger renovation of Istiqlal Mosque. Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo, head of the Jakarta Archdiocese, stated the tunnel was a continuation of the vision of the country’s first President, Sukarno, who decided to build Istiqlal Mosque opposite the cathedral to promote a message of tolerance. Istiqlal Mosque Grand Imam Nasaruddin Umar said that one day the road separating the two houses of worships might be removed to create one large interfaith campus shared by the two congregations.

In February, local authorities in Bandung, Central Java, organized an interfaith parade that attracted more than 6,000 persons. At the conclusion of the event, officials from the local legislature, government, and police signed a document stating their intent to support religious tolerance and harmony in Bandung.

Ahmadiyya congregations faced pressure from local officials to stop reconstruction and renovations on their houses of worship. According to a complaint filed by Ahmadi Muslims in Sukabumi city, West Java, to Komnas HAM in February and March, local government, police, and military officials attempted to intimidate the Ahmadi community in order to stop renovation of the Al-Furqon Mosque. Local officials visited the site on several occasions, warning that continued renovation would cause unrest and lead to attacks. According to media reports, on March 16, local officials permanently sealed the mosque. In a similar case, on January 27, the government of Tasikmalaya city, West Java, enacted a joint decree that banned renovation of the Ahmadi Al-Aqso Mosque, as well as forbidding Ahmadis from conducting worship activities publicly or proselytizing. On April 4, local officials sealed the mosque.

On March 6, protesters rallied against the construction of a Baptist church in the Tlogosari Kulon area of Semarang city, Central Java. The church had obtained a building permit from the city government in 1998, but construction had not been completed. Following the protests, local police contacted the church and requested it suspend building for three months to avoid more protests. On September 24, the mayor of Semarang issued a new building permit for the church, and construction resumed in October. Similar protests had stopped construction of the church in August 2019.

On July 20, local officials closed a tomb built by members of the Sunda Wiwitan religious group in Kuningan Regency, West Java. Local authorities said the group had built a monument, which according to local regulations required a building permit, while members of Sunda Wiwitan said that the structure was just a tomb and thus did not require a permit. Members of Sunda Wiwitan filed a complaint with Komnas HAM, which offered to mediate between local authorities and the religious group. On August 13, local officials removed the seals on the structure and it was reopened.

According to media reports, in September, in Cikarang city, West Java, individuals protested against a Christian church and used large speakers playing Islamic chants to drown out religious services. Leaders of the protest stated the church was located in a residence that did not have a valid permit to operate as a house of worship.

On September 17, the Regent of Singkil Regency, Aceh, sent a letter to Pakpak Dairi Christian Church ordering it to stop construction on a house for the pastor of the congregation. According to the letter, the house was being built without a proper permit and threatened the religious harmony of the area. Earlier in September, the congregation sent a complaint to the local office of the Komnas HAM that said local authorities were not responding to their communications. The congregation stated that since the building was a house for the pastor, it should not require the same approval as a house of worship.

According to media reports, on September 21, government authorities in Ngastemi village in Mojokerto Regency, East Java, asked a Christian woman to stop renovating her house after they suspected she was using her home as place of worship without a permit. Reportedly, local authorities halted the renovation after they discovered one of the newly renovated windows depicted a cross.

In March, the Paramadina Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy released a research study on the 2006 joint ministerial decree on houses of worship and FKUBs. Researchers received questionnaires from 24 provincial-, 33 city-, and 110 regency-level FKUBs – approximately 30 percent of the total 548 FKUBs in the country. The study found discrepancies among FKUBs in recommending whether new houses of worship should be built. For example, the FKUB in Solo, Central Java, had received 396 requests to build houses of worship, approving them all. The FKUB in North Lampung Regency, Lampung, however, had received 47 requests and refused 38 of them. The report concluded that vagaries in the 2006 decree meant the performance of FKUBs depended on local government regulation; the membership of FKUBs was not particularly diverse and was made up mostly of older, male government employees; and the FKUB’s mission to promote interfaith dialogue and prevent religious conflict was hampered by the administrative workload related to processing requests for the construction of houses of worship.

Aliran kepercayaan followers continued to say teachers pressured them to send their children to religious education classes conducted by one of the six officially recognized religions. Minority religious groups not among the six recognized religions said that schools often allowed their children to spend religious education time in study hall, but that school officials required parents to sign documents stating their children received religious education. Ahmadi Muslim students reported religion classes on Islam focused only on Sunni teachings.

On June 12, the Regent of Gowa, South Sulawesi, implemented a Quran reading-fluency test for Muslim civil servants seeking promotion. The local regency required 76 local civil servants to read the Quran to be considered for promotion. Fourteen civil servants failed to pass the test and were told to achieve a sufficient level of fluency in six months; otherwise, they would be not be considered.

According to media reports, in April, the local government of East Lombok Regency, West Nusa Tenggara, asked the Ahmadi Muslim community there to relocate from their current temporary shelter to a new location. The community had been housed in the shelter since being displaced from their village of Gereneng by communal violence in 2018. The community refused the government request to relocate.

In Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, 131 Ahmadi Muslims remained internally displaced in cramped apartments after a mob expelled them from their East Lombok village in 2006. According to media reports in June, the governor of West Nusa Tenggara offered to build a new apartment for the community, but as of the end of the year no progress had been made.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their identity cards (KTP), individuals continued to report difficulties accessing government services if they did so. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members, including those following indigenous beliefs, reportedly chose to identify as a member of an officially recognized religion close to their beliefs or reflecting the locally dominant religion. According to researchers, this practice obscured the real numbers of adherents to religious groups in government statistics. A 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allowed citizens to select indigenous faiths on their KTPs. According to media reports, in January, 450 adherents of Sapta Darma, an indigenous religious group, were able to change their KTPs to reflect their religion.

NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to remove the religion field from KTPs. Religious minorities reported they sometimes faced discrimination after others saw their religious affiliation on their KTPs. Members of the Jewish community said they felt uncomfortable stating their religion in public and often chose to state they were Christians or Muslims depending on the dominant religion where they lived, due to concern that local communities did not understand their religion.

Men and women of different religions who sought to marry reportedly had difficulties finding a religious official willing to perform a wedding ceremony. Some couples of different religions selected the same religion on their KTPs in order to marry legally.

Minority Muslim groups, including Ahmadis, Shia, and Gafatar, also continued to report resistance when they applied for KTPs as Muslims, effectively denying them access to public services if they could not secure KTPs.

Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. For example, Andrei Angouw won the December 9 election for mayor of Manado, becoming the country’s first Confucian mayor. President Joko Widodo’s new 34-member cabinet included six members of minority faiths (4 Protestants, 1 Catholic, and 1 Hindu), the same total number as during his previous administration.

Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. On August 14, President Joko Widodo delivered his annual Independence Day address, during which he stressed the need for an inclusive and united society. He said, “Indeed, democracy guarantees freedom, but it is only for freedom that respects other people’s rights. No one should be self-righteous and blame others. No one should think of themselves as the most religious.” At a December 27 interfaith conference, newly appointed Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas stated that Ahmadi and Shia Muslims have the same protections under the law as any other citizen. Qoumas also stated that he opposed Islamic populism, which sought to use religion as a source of division and conflict, and encouraged religious differences to be resolved through dialogue rather than violence.

The MORA introduced a “Religious Moderation” campaign that sought to improve religious tolerance. In January, President Joko Widodo signed the 2020-2024 National Medium-Term Development Plan, a strategic document for the government’s overall development efforts, which included “Religious Moderation” as a goal. The national plan budgeted 21.9 trillion rupiah ($1.56 billion) for the MORA to pursue this goal from 2020 to 2024. Religious moderation was also included as a goal in the MORA’s strategic plan released in June. The principles underpinning the Religious Moderation campaign were laid out in a book published by MORA in October 2019. According to officials and civil society organizations involved in the effort, specific activities to be undertaken by the campaign were still being developed.

In September, Komnas HAM released its Standardized Norms and Regulations on the Rights to Freedom of Religion or Belief. The document is a consolidated reference guide for national and international law related to religious freedom in Indonesia, including definitions of key terms and rights.

Foreign religious workers from numerous religious groups continued to state they found it relatively easy to obtain visas, and some groups reported little government interference with their religious activities.

Police provided special protection to some Catholic churches in major cities during Sunday services and Christian holidays. Police also provided special protection to Buddhist and Hindu temples during religious celebrations.

According to the law, a marriage is legitimate if performed according to the laws of the respective religions and beliefs of the parties concerned. Religious leaders, human rights activists, and journalists stated, however, that interreligious marriage was difficult unless the groom or bride was willing to marry according to the religious rituals of only one of the two religions. Many individuals preferred to go abroad for interreligious marriage, although this option was severely limited due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In November, suspected Islamic militants killed four Christians in Lemban Tongoa village, Central Sulawesi Province. The perpetrators also burned down several homes, including one used as a house of worship. Following the attack, President Joko Widodo called the killings “beyond the limits of humanity.”

Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi rhetoric was common in online media outlets and on social media.

Individuals affiliated at the local level with the MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects. In February, the chairman of the East Java MUI, Abdusshomad Buchori, stated he wanted the national MUI to release a new fatwa against the Shia community. The national MUI did not address or repudiate local MUI officials who called for such fatwas.

In August, a group of youths attacked a Shia prewedding ceremony in Solo city, Central Java, shouting anti-Shia slogans and assaulting several participants. Following the event, local police arrested several suspects for the assault.

According to Shia Rights Watch¸ in August, unknown individuals assaulted Shia Muslims attending a welcome dinner for a new Shia leader in the community, resulting in injuries to two youths.

In August, several Islamic organizations associated with the South Sulawesi chapter of the FUIB released a statement condemning the Shia community and its plans to commemorate Ashura, and said they would disrupt any events that the Shia community planned. The chairman of the South Sulawesi chapter of the FUIB, Muchtar Daeng Lau, cited an MUI fatwa that denounced Shia Islam as a form of heresy and condemned Shia commemorations of Ashura.

In April and May, reports of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” spread on social media that claimed Jews, Christians, and communists were using COVID-19 and related restrictions on public gatherings to destroy Islam. Large Muslim organizations dismissed the conspiracy theory, with the secretary general of Muhammadiyah, Abdul Mu’ti, stating in April that it was baseless.

Many of the largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups on numerous occasions. For example, on March 4, an interfaith group of representatives from 11 youth wings of the largest religious organizations in the country signed a declaration promoting religious tolerance within the country and internationally.

In January, the Alvara Research Center, a sociopolitical survey and marketing research company, released Indonesia Moslem Report 2019: The Challenges of Indonesia Moderate Moslems. The study consisted of face-to-face interviews with 1,567 Muslims across the country’s 34 provinces. The study’s findings included the following: 69.3 percent of respondents approved of or were neutral to the construction of houses of worship of other religions located near them, while 19.2 opposed such construction; 56.3 percent approved of or were neutral to the idea of non-Muslim political leaders, while 32.5 percent said they would not support a non-Muslim political leader; 82.9 percent would openly accept and help neighbors of different religions, while 16.3 percent said they would accept them but would limit the relationship due to religious differences; 0.5 percent said they would not accept neighbors of different religions; 81.6 percent believed the secular national ideology of Pancasila was an appropriate foundation for the country, while 18.3 percent believed a religious-based ideology would be more appropriate.

In November, the Center for the Study of Islam and Society at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University released a study showing that conversations on social media about religion were dominated by what it termed conservative narratives and traditional interpretations of the original teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Researchers categorized religious conversations on Twitter between 2009 and 2019 as being dominated by Islamist (4.5 percent), conservative (67 percent), moderate (22.2 percent), or liberal (6.1 percent) narratives. The lead researcher of the study, Iim Halimatussa’diyah, told media that a “noisy minority” pushing a conservative narrative was often able to co-opt conversations, while moderate narratives struggled to gain traction on social media.

In December 2019, the MORA released its Religious Harmony Index for 2019. The index used a survey of more than 13,000 respondents in 34 provinces to measure harmony across three dimensions: tolerance, equality, and solidarity. The index was scored from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most harmonious. The national score for 2019 was 73.83, up from 70.90 in 2018. According to the index, the most religiously harmonious provinces were West Papua (82.1), East Nusa Tenggara (81.1), Bali (80.1), North Sulawesi (79.9), and Maluku (79.4), all in the central and eastern parts of the country. The five lowest-rated provinces were Aceh (60.2), West Sumatra (64.4), West Java (68.5), Banten (68.9), and Riau (69.3), all in the west. Some civil society organizations and experts criticized the index as providing an overly optimistic assessment of religious freedom and harmony in the country.

On February 14-16, the Association of Journalists for Diversity held a three-day training event for students from different faiths and universities in Jakarta. Participants stayed with Ahmadiyya, Sunda Wiwitan, Catholic, and Christian communities in Kuningan Regency, West Java. After the event, the association encouraged participants to write about their experiences to promote religious freedom and tolerance among youth.

Hindu sites experienced acts of vandalism. In March, unknown individuals damaged three religious statues at the Agung Jagatnatha Temple in Denpasar city, Bali. In January, a Hindu school in Banyuwangi city, East Java, reported that unknown perpetrators broke into the facility and vandalized property.

On August 20, members of the local chapters of GP Ansor and Banser, organizations associated with Nahdlatul Ulama, confronted individuals suspected of supporting Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) in Pasuruan Regency, East Java. HTI is the Indonesian branch of the Hizbut Tahrir, outlawed in 2017 by the government. Video of the confrontation spread widely online and appeared to show GP Ansor and Banser officials aggressively questioning and reprimanding alleged HTI supporters. Then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi praised the organizations’ actions, while the secretary of the East Java chapter of the MUI, Ainul Yaqin, stated they should have reported the case to local police.

On September 29, a mosque in Tangerang regency, Banten, was vandalized with anti-Islamic messages written on the walls. On October 1, police arrested a suspect.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 29, the Secretary of State visited the country and addressed an audience of interfaith leaders at an event on religious pluralism hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama. The speech focused on several themes: the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in democracies; opposing blasphemy accusations and discrimination against nonofficial religions; and calling on all religious leaders to defend the rights of other religions. The speech was followed by a question-and-answer session with attendees, where the Secretary emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue in pursuing peace and human rights around the world.

The embassy, the consulate general in Surabaya, and the consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the undue influence of “intolerant groups,” the importance of the rule of law, the application of sharia to non-Muslims, the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance, the equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion or belief, and promotion of tolerance in international forums.

The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism is a civil-society-led entity endorsed by both governments that includes a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders established to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The Ambassador engaged its leadership by discussing ways to augment the council’s activity on issues affecting the country’s religious communities. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith gathering with council members, representatives of the country’s six officially recognized religions, and representatives of nonrecognized religions, including Ahmadi Muslims and Baha’is. During the event, the Grand Imam of the National Istiqlal Mosque, Nasaruddin Umar, who has published a series of weekly columns about religious pluralism in the United States since his return in 2019 from a U.S. exchange programs, thanked the Ambassador for frequent interfaith engagement during his tenure and noted the United States had been the most active country in doing so. In October, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights met with members of the council to discuss the environment of religious freedom in the country.

In August, the embassy initiated a project with the Yogyakarta-based Srikandi Lintas Iman to promote religious pluralism through early childhood education and utilizing social media among women. The project used funding related to the Department of State’s Meeting on Education, Resilience, Respect, and Inclusion. In August, the embassy launched a digital storytelling project, which places students from 20 high schools across four provinces (East Java, Central Java, West Java, and Jakarta) in interfaith groups to create videos, stories, photographs, and essays on themes of tolerance, diversity, and peace. Interactive webinars facilitated group discussions, and online content-creation workshops equipped diverse, interfaith groups of students with the skills to identity and avoid misinformation.

The embassy continued an $11.5 million project through a cooperative agreement with the Asia Foundation to engage with legal aid organizations to defend human rights and religious freedom in six provinces, including all provinces in Java except Banten and Papua. The embassy supported these partners in developing advocacy papers for outreach on regulations that discriminate against religious minorities, improving their capacity to represent minority religious groups in legal cases, undertaking strategic public campaigns to build wider civil society engagement in challenging intolerance, and publishing periodic reports on abuses of religious freedom.

The embassy continued a $27 million project aimed at developing more effective tools and systems to bolster religious tolerance. The project partnered with national and local-level government officials, CSOs, universities, research institutions, and grassroots movements that focus on promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Early in the year, the embassy launched a three-million-dollar activity to promote religious tolerance and pluralism among high school students. Through partnerships with the Ministries of Religious Affairs and Education and Culture, the project aimed to design and implement innovative arts and cultural curricula in select districts to advance community resilience to religious intolerance.

During Ramadan, the embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach throughout the country to highlight religious tolerance. The consulate in Surabaya hosted a Ramadan chat series with American Muslims that highlighted the contributions of U.S. Muslims in American society. The embassy hosted two events at its @America venue. The first consisted of former participants of embassy exchange programs discussing their experience of religious freedom in the United States during Ramadan. The second program celebrated Eid al-Fitr with an Egyptian-American singer-songwriter, who discussed his experiences practicing his religion in the United States.

The Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires met periodically with leaders of the country’s two largest Muslim organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, to discuss religious tolerance and pluralism and to further develop areas of cooperation.

Embassy officials met regularly with counterparts from other embassies to discuss support for freedom of religion and belief and to exchange information on areas of concern, programs being implemented, and possible areas of cooperation.

In February, 23 leaders of religious groups and communities in East Java visited the consulate in Surabaya to learn about the consulate’s activities in the east, as well as to exchange ideas on how to collaborate to promote religious freedom.

In August, the consulate in Surabaya hosted an event on religious freedom and multiculturalism that was headlined by Zuhairi Misrawi, a former participant in a U.S. exchange program.

The embassy posted translated speeches and commentary on religious freedom by the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and other high-level government officials on its website. The embassy also developed graphics for social media and sent information to local journalists to encourage them to cover these issues.

Japan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. Falun Gong members continued to report difficulty in renting performance spaces, which they attributed to People’s Republic of China (PRC) embassy interference. Japan Uyghur Association (JUA) Honorary Chairman and World Uyghur Congress Representative for East Asia and the Pacific Ilham Mahmut reported concern regarding potential bias against Uyghur Muslims applying for refugee status at government immigration centers, as well as continued intimidation by PRC officials. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported that in 2019 (latest statistics available), its human rights division received 224 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 164 in 2018, and confirmed seven cases, compared with eight in 2018, as highly likely to be religious freedom violations. The country continued to have a low rate of approval of refugee applications, a policy the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized. In 2019 (latest statistics available), the government granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, to four applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons, compared with two in 2018.

The Beppu Muslim Association faced opposition from some residents in response to its plan to build an Islamic cemetery on land that it owns in Hiji Town, Oita Prefecture.

In meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and while participating in a symposium attended by lawmakers, U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to continue to work with the United States to protect Muslims originating from China and from other countries that restrict religious freedom. Embassy officials also engaged with faith-based groups and religious minority leaders and their supporters to promote religious freedom and acceptance of diversity. The embassy used its social media platforms to highlight the importance of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 125.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A report by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (ACA) indicates that membership in religious groups totaled 183 million as of December 31, 2019. This number, substantially more than the country’s population, reflects many citizens’ affiliation with multiple religions. For example, it is common for followers of Buddhism to participate in religious ceremonies and events of other religions, such as Shinto, and vice versa. According to the ACA, the definition of follower and the method of counting followers vary with each religious organization. Religious affiliation includes 88.9 million Shinto followers (48.6 percent), 84.8 million Buddhists (46.3 percent), 1.9 million Christians (1 percent), and 7.4 million adherents of other religious groups (4 percent). The category of “other” and nonregistered religious groups includes Islam, the Baha’i Faith, Hinduism, and Judaism. The indigenous Ainu people mainly practice an animist faith and mostly reside in the northern part of Honshu, in Hokkaido, and in smaller numbers in Tokyo.

Most immigrants and foreign workers practice religions other than Buddhism or Shinto, according to an NGO in close contact with foreign workers. A scholar estimates as of 2018, there are 157,000 non-Japanese Muslims and 43,000 Japanese Muslims in the country, an increase of nearly 60,000 from previous estimates from 2013. He attributed the increase to more non-Japanese Muslims holding permanent residency, marriages between non-Japanese Muslims and Japanese converts to Islam, and their children. Most of the approximately 350 Rohingya Muslims in the country live in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo, with some of them residing in Saitama, Chiba, and Tokyo, according to Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan (BRAJ) President Zaw Min Htut. Ilham Mahmut, the JUA honorary chairman and World Uyghur Congress Representative for East Asia and the Pacific, said most of the 2,000 to 3,000 Uyghur Muslims in the country reside in Tokyo or its surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Saitama, and Kanagawa. The total Jewish population is approximately 3,000 to 4,000, according to a long-term Jewish resident.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and requires the state to refrain from religious education or any other religious activity. It prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. It states that the people shall not abuse their rights and shall be responsible to use their rights for the public welfare.

The government does not require religious groups to register or apply for certification, but certified religious groups with corporate status do not have to pay income tax on donations and religious offerings used as part of their operational and maintenance expenses. The government requires religious groups applying for corporate status to prove they have a physical space for worship and their primary purpose is disseminating religious teachings, conducting religious ceremonies, and educating and nurturing believers. An applicant must present in writing a three-year record of activities as a religious organization, a list of members and religious teachers, the rules of the organization, information on the method of making decisions on managing assets, statements of income and expenses for the past three years, and a list of assets. The law stipulates that prefectural governors have jurisdiction over groups seeking corporate status in their respective prefecture, and that groups must apply for registration with prefectural governments. Exceptions are granted for groups with offices in multiple prefectures, which may register with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). After the MEXT minister or a prefectural governor confirms an applicant meets the legal definition of a certified religious group with corporate status, the law requires the applicant to formulate administrative rules pertaining to its purpose, core personnel, and financial affairs. Applicants become religious corporations after the MEXT minister or governor approves their application and they register.

The law requires certified religious corporations to disclose their assets, income, and expenditures to the government. The law also authorizes the government to investigate possible violations of regulations governing for-profit activities. Authorities have the right to suspend a religious corporation’s for-profit activities for up to one year if the group violates the regulations.

The law stipulates that worship and religious rituals performed by inmates in penal institutions, alone or in a group, shall not be prohibited. To support the law and the constitutional right to religious freedom, the Ministry of Justice offers inmates access to volunteer chaplains from various faiths in prisons.

The law states that schools established by the national and local governments must refrain from religious education or other activities in support of a specific religion. Private schools are permitted to teach specific religions. The law also states that an attitude of religious tolerance and general knowledge regarding religion and its position in social life should be valued in education. Both public and private schools must develop curricula in line with MEXT standards. These standards are based on the law, which states that schools should give careful consideration when teaching religion in general to junior high and high school students.

Labor law states a person may not be disqualified from union membership on the basis of religion.

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

Government Practices

According to the president of the Japanese Falun Dafa Association, Shen Yun Performing Arts (Falun Dafa’s performance company) continued to encounter intimidation tactics by the PRC embassy in Tokyo. During a performance in Fuchu City, Tokyo, in January, police prevented PRC embassy interference with the performance. The government continued to grant status to Chinese nationals self-identifying as Falun Gong practitioners, allowing them to remain in the country, while also allowing overseas artists, many of whom were Falun Gong devotees, to enter the country in conjunction with performances held in January and February prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to the JUA honorary chairman, the government generally showed willingness to protect Uyghur Muslims in the country. However, he expressed concern regarding potential bias against Uyghur Muslims applying for refugee status at government immigration centers. He said there were cases in which Uyghur Muslims’ applications for refugee status were initially rejected by administrative staff, potentially due to the applicants’ ethnicity. In such cases, the applications were later accepted after further review by officials.

According to footage broadcast by a national television station, a man claiming to be a PRC national security official contacted a JUA executive member in May through his brother in China. The alleged PRC official demanded that the JUA member disclose the identities of other JUA members and the association’s activities. In exchange for the JUA member’s cooperation, the PRC would guarantee the safety of his family in China and issue him documents necessary to apply for Japanese citizenship, the alleged PRC official told him. The JUA honorary chairman also said the PRC embassy’s opaque criteria for issuing passport renewals sparked mutual distrust among Uyghur Muslims in Japan. The PRC embassy’s failure to provide an explanation for its rejection of some passport renewals led Uyghurs to suspect covert ties with the PRC government of any successful Uyghur applicant, he said.

On November 27, in civil proceedings, the Hiroshima High Court found five individuals guilty of the kidnapping and confinement of a married couple for the purpose of forcibly converting them away from their religion. In 2014, Koji and Yuko Seo were kidnapped and held for several days by family members attempting to force them to leave the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The court ordered those found guilty to pay 610,000 yen ($5,900) in damages to the husband and 1.11 million yen ($10,800) to the wife.

In August, a district court ruled that the remains of six Ainu that were exhumed by academics in 1888 and 1965 for research purposes, as well as other burial accessories that also were unearthed, must be returned to the Rapollo Ainu Nation. The association representing the Ainu filed a lawsuit seeking the return of their ancestors’ remains, as well as 500,000 yen ($4,900) in damages, stating this had prevented them from holding a memorial service and violated their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

JAORO said the government excluded religious groups with corporate status from eligibility for a government stipend designed to assist groups that were economically affected as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, despite the stipend’s being designed for all groups certified by law, which included religious groups with corporate status. JAORO called the government’s decision unequal. The government said that its decision was based on the constitutional separation of religion and state.

According to JAORO, a decline in donations to religious groups stemming from COVID-19 adversely affected the survival of some religious groups and the sustainability of their religious activities. In response, JAORO approached the government and ruling political parties for a tax reduction, exemption, or filing extension while providing JAORO member religious groups with relevant information. In April, the government implemented tax break measures for religious groups with corporate status.

The MOJ’s Human Rights Bureau continued to operate its hotline for human rights inquiries available in six different foreign languages – English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. In May, the MOJ reported that in 2019 (latest statistics available), its human rights division received 224 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 164 in 2018. It confirmed seven cases (compared with eight in 2018) as highly likely to be religious freedom violations, out of 16,481 suspected human rights violations in a variety of different types. The MOJ assisted the potential victims in all seven cases by mediating between the parties, calling on human rights violators to rectify their behavior, or referring the complainants to competent authorities for legal advice. These MOJ measures, however, were not legally binding.

According to the ACA, central and prefectural governments had certified 180,433 groups as religious groups with corporate status as of the end of 2019. The large number reflected local units of religious groups registering separately. The government generally certified corporate status for religious groups when they met the requirements.

According to the MOJ, penal institutions gave inmates access to 9,311 collective and 6,290 individual religious ritual activities, including worship and counseling sessions by civil volunteer chaplains in 2019, the most recent year for which figures were available. An estimated 1,625 volunteer chaplains were available to prisoners in 2019, according to the MOJ.

NGOs and UNHCR continued to express concern regarding the government’s low rate of approval of refugee applications (44 out of 10,375 in 2019). According to the MOJ, the ministry granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, to four applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons in 2019 (latest statistics available), compared with two in 2018. Civil society and legal groups expressed concern regarding restrictive screening procedures that led applicants to voluntarily withdraw their applications and accept deportation, specifically stating that the government’s interpretation of “fear of persecution” used when adjudicating refugee claims was overly restrictive. In the one case that the MOJ published, the MOJ determined that the applicant had a well-founded fear of being persecuted in her home country by an antigovernment, faith-based extremist group because she promoted women’s rights and education for girls. The extremist group threatened to kill her, claiming that her women’s empowerment activities were against its religious beliefs. The MOJ also concluded that her home-country government would be unable to protect her if she were repatriated.

The government continued to grant special permits to stay on humanitarian grounds, or temporary stay visas, to most of the approximately 350 Rohingya Muslims who had entered the country on the basis of ethnic and religious persecution in Burma. The majority of those individuals had resided in the country for more than 10 years – some for more than 20 years. Of the approximately 350 Rohingya Muslims in the country, the government granted refugee status to 18, but none since 2015, according to BRAJ President Zaw Min Htut. The BRAJ president also said another 18 additional undocumented Rohingya Muslims were not associated with any formal resettlement program, were prohibited from obtaining employment, and faced hardships, including lack of health care. Their children born in Japan remained stateless. The remaining Rohingya Muslims in the country were legally permitted to reside on humanitarian grounds, which allowed them to be employed and required regular renewal of their status by regional immigration offices. No Rohingya Muslims from Burma were deported during the year.

According to the JUA, the government has granted residential status or citizenship through naturalization to approximately 800 Uyghur Muslims from China out of a total population of 2,000-3,000, most of whom came to Japan initially to study. The government did not deport any Uyghur Muslims during the year. Although the government did not grant refugee status to any of the 10 who applied in 2017 on the basis of ethnic or religious persecution in China as of the end of the year, the government continued to grant other types of residential status to Uyghur Muslims, according to the JUA honorary chairman. NGOs and UNHCR reported a low rate of approval of refugee status. Civil society groups also reported that it takes an average of three years for an applicant to be recognized as a refugee, and some cases involving multiple appeals have lasted 10 years.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Muslim communities continued to report on the societal religious tolerance of their faith. The number of mosques grew to 105, according to a scholar. Several media outlets, however, reported that local communities were reluctant to have Islamic cemeteries in their neighborhoods, since local residents were concerned that the Muslim tradition of burying a body could contaminate soil and water. Due to this concern, the Beppu Muslim Association faced opposition from some residents to its plan submitted to local authorities in 2019 for a permit to build an Islamic cemetery on land that it owns in Hiji Town, Oita Prefecture. On December 4, the Hiji Town Assembly adopted a petition with approximately 100 residents’ signatures objecting to the association’s plan to construct a cemetery, the press reported. Hiji’s mayor had the final authority in determining whether the town would grant permission to establish a cemetery by municipal decree, according to the press. The mayor had not made a decision as of the end of the year.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and while participating in a symposium attended by lawmakers, embassy officials encouraged the government to continue to work with the United States to protect Muslims originating from China and from other countries that restrict religious freedom.

The embassy continued to use its social media platforms to highlight the importance of religious freedom. A story published in December 2019, “Japanese Manga Comic Tells Story of Uyghur Oppression,” received more than 21,500 page views in January, approximately 17 times higher than the next most popular article that month. It remained highly popular throughout the year, often far outpacing other articles.

In conversations and meetings with JAORO, as well as with leaders of religious groups and other minority organizations, including those of Rohingya and Uyghur Muslims, the Jewish and Falun Gong communities, and foreign workers, embassy officials underscored the priority the United States placed on respect for religious freedom, discussed issues faced by these communities, and advised them on their efforts to reach out to the government.

Macau

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers. The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese. Sources stated the PRC central government and religious leaders from mainland-authorized churches invited Macau diocese representatives to public events.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

According to Minghui.org, with fewer foreigners visiting the SAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Falun Gong practitioners interacted more with local residents, handing out information on the streets, including publications called CCP Virus Special Editions and MinghuiWeekly. According to the website, “Local residents have always treated Falun Dafa practitioners with kindness.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

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Malaysia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Individuals diverging from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Sources stated that there was some selective persecution of non-Muslim faiths through legal and extralegal means. In February, the human rights commission (SUHAKAM) initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of a Christian pastor and his wife. A government-appointed panel formed in 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s findings on the enforced disappearances of another Christian pastor and a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings in 2016 made little progress. In February, the wife of the second Christian pastor initiated legal action against the federal government and senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s disappearance. In July, the High Court convicted a man for training members of a WhatsApp group to commit terrorist acts, including attacks on a Hindu temple and other houses of worship. The Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against a member of parliament who stated that sharia courts discriminated against women. The government continued to selectively prosecute speech that allegedly denigrated Islam, while it largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. Non-Muslims faced legal difficulties when they sought to use the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report challenges in registering as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties said only Malay-Muslim parties should be allowed to lead the country. In July, a court sentenced a man to 26 months’ imprisonment for insulting Islam and a Muslim politician. The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs and limited Malaysians ability to travel to Israel.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity. A joint council of minority religious communities released a statement expressing its “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.”

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of the three Christians and a Muslim activist in 2016. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy funded a civic education curriculum and training program that will teach students in federal religious schools about freedom of expression and association, including freedom of religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions; and less than 1 percent each of other religious groups that include animists, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Baha’is. Almost all Muslims practice Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school. Ethnic Malays, defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the peninsular east coast of the country – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims. Two-thirds of the country’s Christian population inhabits the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law except in matters concerning Islamic law. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. However, since 2018, the Federal Court, the country’s highest, has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors and that such jurisdiction may not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment.

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

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests, especially for those born Muslim and ethnic Malays, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. Penalties for apostasy vary by state. In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death, but this penalty has never been imposed, and its legal status remains untested. According to former Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir, from 2000 to 2010, the sharia court approved 135 of 686 applications to no longer identify as a Muslim. NGOs report that most converts from Islam prefer to do so privately, without legal approval. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam. In some states, sharia courts allow one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the sharia court to officially recognize the marriage.

A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15. A 2018 decision of the Federal Court ruled against the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents. The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.

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

Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison, caning, or a 5,000-ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam. According to some state laws, Muslims may be fined 1,000 ringgit ($250) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia law in some states, any individuals who sell food to fasting Muslims or Muslims who do not fast are subject to a fine, a jail sentence, or both.

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

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

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

Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state. Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual same-sex sexual relations and prostitution. Caning is also permitted for a wider variety of offenses under the penal code.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, including imprisonment and caning. The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing without restriction.

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

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

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

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. When civil and sharia jurisdictions intersect, civil courts continue largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where sharia judgments affect non-Muslims.

Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of that code. The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

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

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

Foreign missionaries and international students for religious courses must apply for a professional visit pass with the Department of Immigration. This visa is given on a year-to-year basis and must be endorsed by a national body representing the respective faiths.

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

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

Government Practices

Police made little progress in investigating the disappearance in 2016 of Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu, reportedly due to a lack of information on the case. In February, SUHAKAM initiated a public inquiry into their disappearance. A witness testified that Hilmy had told him that “religious authorities were looking for him” due to his conversion from Islam to Christianity without following the required legal procedures. The witness said Hilmy told him he had not been threatened. Another witness testified in March that Hilmy had shown him an email from then Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin instructing Hilmy to “leave the country.” Jamaluddin denied the accusation in a statement, noting, “I never personally knew Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Hilmy, nor (the witness) Selvakumar Peace John Harris. I also deny having sent the alleged email, nor have I contacted them through any means of communication.” SUHAKAM’s inquiry was suspended in March after two of its commissioners tested positive for COVID-19, but it resumed in August and was ongoing at year’s end.

A government-appointed panel formed in June 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Royal Malaysia Police intelligence unit, Special Branch, was responsible for the 2016 “enforced disappearance” of Shia Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat made little progress in its investigation, according to SUHAKAM. In August, the NGO Citizens against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) urged the government to release the findings of the panel and police to reveal actions taken in response to the SUHAKAM report. The government-appointed panel did not investigate the disappearance of Christian pastor Raymond Koh in 2016, however, as the government argued it was “out of scope” of the panel, purportedly because prosecutors had previously charged him with extorting Koh’s son for information in the case.

In February, Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Koh, initiated legal action against the federal government and several senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure.

Despite calls from the High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s former husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing as of September. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her former husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. In February, Gandhi initiated legal proceedings against the police and the police inspector-general (IGP) for failing to locate her daughter, Prasana. At year’s end, the IGP had not disclosed Prasana’s location nor announced any progress on her case.

In February, the Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against Member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah for statements she made in 2019 asserting that the sharia court discriminated against women. The prosecution said Chin’s comments harmed the reputation of the court.

In July, an Indonesian man was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment and fined 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) for training members of a WhatsApp group, “sejati sejiwa” (one true soul), to commit terrorist acts and for possessing items linked to ISIS. Police said the man had been preparing to attack a Hindu temple in Selangor in 2019 to “avenge” the death of a Muslim firefighter who was killed when responding to a riot at a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur in 2018.

In May, the Federal Court allowed a man to challenge the constitutionality of a law in the sharia legal code against “unnatural sex.” The man’s lawyer argued that the Selangor State legislative body had no power to apply sharia because sharia pertained to criminal law, which falls under federal jurisdiction, and that there was already a federal law on “unnatural sex” in the penal code.

Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is a member party of the ruling Perikatan National coalition, said that the NGO G25, described by academics and the media as a promoderation group of eminent Malay individuals and civil servants, posed an intellectual threat to Muslims and was more dangerous than a militant group. A G25 report on the administration of Islam in Malaysia stated that Muslims who chose to convert to another faith or practice no faith should not face criminal punishment.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In February, a sessions court fined Wai Foo Sing 15,000 ringgit ($3,700) under the Communications and Multimedia Act for posting what the court said was an obscene graphic of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife on Facebook. The court said, “It is undeniable that the accused’s inappropriate, offensive, and obscene posting based on religion has transgressed the parameters of free speech guaranteed under our constitution.” In March, a judge fined Ain Zafira Md Said, a student, 4,000 ringgit ($1,000) in lieu of three months in jail for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on social media in 2019. In April, authorities detained two individuals and initiated investigations under the Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act relating to a social media video mocking Muslims praying. In July, a court sentenced Danny Antoni to 26 months in prison after finding him guilty on two counts of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the president of PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang, in a Facebook post.

In September, police opened an investigation into Member of Parliament Nik Muhammad Zawawi Nik Salleh for his remarks in parliament stating that “the Bible was distorted or altered.” Zawawi said he had no reason to apologize, since his statement was “a fact,” and he said the Christian community had “no right to be offended.” The investigation against Zawawi remained open at year’s end.

Lawyers called for the Ministry of Education to issue a directive forbidding religious conversion of students in school. In January, a Christian family in Sarawak state sued authorities over the conversion of their son, a minor, to Islam by a ustaz (religious teacher) in his school without the parents’ knowledge or consent. “My client’s instruction is to challenge the validity of the conversion of their son. He is still a minor. The parents were unaware of the conversion. They were shattered when they found out,” said Priscilla Ruth Marcus, the family’s lawyer. According to Marcus, “This is not the first reported case.” NGOs reported that similar cases reinforced fears among parents of rural Christian communities in Sabah and Sarawak State about what might happen if they send their children to boarding schools.

In January, government and religious authorities in Sabah State initiated investigations into reports that the Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation, a quasigovernmental charity trust fund, offered cash to individuals who agreed to convert to Islam. Then Assistant Education and Innovation Minister Jenifer Lasimbang told media, “It’s not a new thing. These things have been happening for a few years.” The foundation denied the allegations.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines on what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. In January, the NGO G25 denounced various state laws penalizing apostasy, whether by fines, caning, imprisonment, or extended “rehabilitation,” as inconsistent with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri made a statement in July that religious authorities would arrest transgender individuals and provide them religious education to “return to the correct path.” In August, JAKIM filed a police report against activist Nicole Fong, accusing her of defamation because of her tweets detailing JAKIM’s religious conversion program that targeted the LGBTQ community. In a statement, 15 NGOs said JAKIM intimidated human rights defenders with heavy-handed tactics that “send a message to Malaysians that we are not allowed to question governmental policies and programs.”

NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert and for non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to change the religious designation on their identification cards. A woman in Sabah State, Nusiah Pulod, faced significant bureaucratic challenges in attempting to remove the “Islam” designation printed on her identification card even though she said she was born Christian and had never converted. As a result, Nusiah was unable to marry her non-Muslim fiance, since the registration office would not recognize what it considered to be a mixed-faith marriage involving a Muslim. Nusiah said many Christian families in her village faced similar problems.

The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it limited Malaysians’ ability to travel to Israel. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in a June interview with Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV that it is better for Muslims to attack Israelis directly rather than carry out terrorist attacks against European countries and the United States. “The enemy is Israel. [If] you want to do anything, do it to the Israelis, like some of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, who individually attack Israeli soldiers. That is the enemy.” He also said that Jews controlled the media in the United States. “It is a propaganda campaign on the part of the Jews. They own all the newspapers in America. They own the TV stations. So they have tremendous influence.”

All foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to conduct religious talks were subjected to mandatory background checks for what the government termed national security reasons to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant” teachings.

State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex). In January, the Islamic Affairs and Religious Department in Kelantan State detained seven Muslim couples on suspicion of committing khalwat during a seasonal “antivice” operation in conjunction with the Lunar New Year celebration. A government representative said the operation was intended to “track down those who took the opportunity of the long public holiday to commit immoral behavior.” Four Muslim women were also issued summonses for wearing “sexy and tight clothing in public.”

In July, the Terengganu State government implemented a gender segregation policy in cinemas in what it said was a measure to ensure adherence to sharia. According to a local cinema operator, married couples needed to provide legal proof of marriage and were subjected to random checks. Muslim moviegoers were also required to dress according to Islamic regulations, while non-Muslim moviegoers were required to dress modestly.

Authorities in Terengganu State said they would soon introduce additional gender-segregation guidelines for event organizers barring female entertainers, including non-Muslims, from performing before male audiences.

In August, the chairman of the Kelantan State Community Unity, Culture, Heritage, and Tourism Committee said the state would review for “corrections” a century-old indigenous dance form, Main Puteri, that it considered “un-Islamic” in order to meet sharia compliance before the dance could be reintroduced for public entertainment.

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam. In February, a mosque in the state of Perak that organized a Chinese New Year celebration was censured by the Perak Islamic Religious Department for “disrespecting the sensitivity of the Muslim community.” In December, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmad Marzuk Shaary reported that the National Fatwa Council was investigating the teachings of Asmaul Husna Wan Maseri, founded by former PAS council member Professor Wan Maseri Wan Mohd in Kelantan, on allegations of deviation from Sunni Islam. The group had been declared as heretical in the states of Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang and the Federal Territories.

The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and provisions; these denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the ROS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups.

In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization to conduct certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers, as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque. In January, the Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) said there were 15 Shia religious centers, which JAIS considered to be a significant increase. The chairperson of JAIS said the agency would intensify efforts to monitor Shia Muslims and raid Shia religious gatherings and would also provide information on the alleged dangers of Shia Islam to schools and mosques throughout the state. In response, the NGO Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) said JAIS was promoting “an intolerant religion [Islam] in this modern age.”

In August, the Court of Appeal petitioned the High Court to determine whether 39 Ahmaddiya Muslims were to be considered Muslim following an appeal by JAIS against a 2018 High Court decision stating that the sharia court had no jurisdiction over the Ahmadi community, since JAIS had refused to recognize them as adherents of Islam. The petitioners challenged their 2014 sharia offenses charged by JAIS on the basis that Islamic authorities in Selangor State did not recognize Ahmadiyya as Muslims and that the petitioners were therefore outside JAIS jurisdiction. The High Court ruled in August, “The Ahmaddiya were, as with all other persons, entitled to freedom of religion, subject to the Federal Constitution.” The court also said the country’s dual legal system and the issuance of identity cards stating their holders’ religion as Islam compounded the ambiguity of their religious status as Muslims. The three-member bench chaired by Justice Badariah Sahamid further stated, “It is timely that all states, along with the federal government, work out a unified regime to determine the religious status of the Ahmadiyya so that they are not put at risk of sharia investigations and prosecution.”

The country’s movement control order (MCO), established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, banned gatherings of any kind from March 18 through June 4, including religious gatherings. During Ramadan, the MCO prohibited Muslims from worshiping in mosques, breaking their fast outside their homes, and visiting Ramadan bazaars, a popular tradition. The government assured Muslims that all religious obligations could be carried out at home and noted exceptions for front-line responders and those who were ill. State religious leaders, including conservative representatives from PAS, supported the federal government’s measures, noting “we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.” Non-Islamic leaders said that they were not consulted or warned by the government before restrictions were imposed.

In September, the Federal Court allowed the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) to proceed with a hearing to seek a court declaration to invalidate a Selangor State law that enabled sharia courts to review decisions made by state religious authorities. In 2019, the High Court dismissed the NGO’s application for a civil court to review a 2014 Selangor State fatwa that found the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights. The 2014 fatwa said SIS deviated from the teachings of Islam because the group subscribed to the principles of liberalism and religious pluralism. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The fatwa also ruled that the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. At year’s end, no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to function nationally.

In September, JAIS arrested Abdul Kahar Ahmad and 16 followers for spreading the teachings of a “deviant sect” that had been banned in 1991. JAIS confiscated books, cell phones, laptops, and other materials. Following the arrest, the Minister of Religious Affairs said the government will consider distributing reading materials on “deviant” teachings to imams and religious teachers appointed by religious authorities in order to warn the public of the dangers of such teachings. Abdul Kahar and three of those arrested were released on bail, while the other 13 remained in custody. Abdul Kahar, who proclaimed himself a Rasul Melayu (Malay prophet), was previously arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, six strokes of caning, and a fine of 16,500 ringgit ($4,100).

There were restrictions on the use of the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words by non-Muslims. These restrictions included saying certain words, such as “Allah,” “al Quran,” or “fatwa” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.”

In October, the Court of Appeal dismissed a discovery application by Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the documents the Home Affairs Ministry used to support its ban on the Church’s and its Malay-language speaking congregation’s right to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The ministry argued that the documents sought by the Church fell under the Official Secrets Act 1972.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.” In February, the Court of Appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books written by IRF. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017 for content that did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam, a decision the High Court upheld in 2019. IRF representatives welcomed the court’s decision, stating it fulfilled its role as “the last bastion for the protection of freedom of expression.”

A 2019 investigation into the book Unveiling Choices by Maryam Lee remained open. The book was alleged by JAIS to “insult or bring into contempt the religion of Islam.” It narrates Lee’s personal reasons for removing her hijab as well as the sociopolitical relationship between Muslim women and the Malaysian state. Lee would be subject to a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both, if found guilty.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said this practice remained largely tolerated but left the religious groups vulnerable. In March, authorities demolished the 100-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman Temple located within the Kamunting detention center in Taiping, Perak State. According to media reports, authorities did not inform the temple’s leaders of the impending demolition. Facebook later removed a post by Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy questioning whether the demolition was in part organized by a federal government dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims. “I think the title of the post, which asserted that the structure was probably the first Hindu temple demolished under the Perikatan National [ruling coalition] government, irked the powers that be,” Ramasamy commented to the media.

PAS party leader Hadi said during a September speech at the annual general meeting of party that only Malay-Muslim unity could lead and save the country. According to media reports, Hadi said, “The nation that is with Islam must rise so that it is not swept away by the influence of non-Muslims, who lose their identity.” In January, Hadi described choosing between Muslim and non-Muslim rule: “If we [Muslims] are patient with each other, and even if [the leadership] is cruel, we can at least be cow herders, but under other people’s rule, we will become pig herders.” Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Democratic Action Party, which is part of the opposition coalition but has the most seats in the lower house of parliament, responded, “The advocates of this version of politics are gambling with the future of a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural nation.”

The Prime Minister’s office tasked government agencies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. That department’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($68.41 million), while 1.4 billion ringgit ($348.3 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In April, the government allocated 21 million ringgit ($5.22 million) to assist private Islamic schools whose operations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said the assistance was part of 100 million ringgit ($24.88 million) allocated to JAKIM under the 2020 budget supplement intended to finance the maintenance and upgrading of Islamic schools. Non-Islamic schools did not receive this funding.

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

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

There were continued complaints concerning what critics said were religious overtones and symbols in public schools. In January, family members of children enrolled in government residential schools questioned what they said was an overemphasis on religious practices: schools frequently compelled students to attend group prayers and rituals, causing the studies of other subjects to be neglected. In response, the schools stated the rituals were intended to obtain “blessings” that would ensure that students excelled academically, and that would elevate the status of the school. “They are competing on which school is more Islamic instead of being better academically,” said one parent. Another parent told the online news portal Free Malaysia Today that her daughter was compelled to attend a “ruqyah” (exorcism) session to be cured from the possession of “bad spirits” after skipping Islamic instruction to attend biology classes.

An effort by the government to revive Jawi, an archaic Arabic script, in lessons on Bahasa Melayu in vernacular primary schools sparked tensions along ethnic and religious fault lines. Following an outcry from Chinese groups that the Jawi revival was an attempt at Islamization, the Ministry of Education pared down the pages to be taught on Jawi from six to three. Then Deputy Minister of Education Teo Nie Ching later clarified that Jawi lessons in vernacular schools could only be introduced with majority approval from parent-teacher associations.

In January, Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, vice president of Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, a Malay nationalist political party, wrote that a public school in Puchong, Selangor State, was propagating religion to its students through decorations for Lunar New Year. He stated, “The complaints we’ve received show unease at the excessive Chinese New Year 2020 decorations….This is distressing for Muslim students and is also against Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution.” In a sign of support for the school, the then Deputy Prime Minister and six other cabinet ministers visited it and helped put up Lunar New Year decorations.

In the same month, the Ministry of Education issued a circular stating that JAKIM advised that Ponggal, a Tamil harvest festival, is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Responding to a public outcry, then Minister of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that JAKIM had not prohibited schools from celebrating the festival, since, “It was permissible for Muslims to take part in the celebration as long as Islamic ethics were observed.” Mujahid called for stern action against the Ministry of Education official responsible for the circular in question.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. In a February ruling, the Federal Court determined that a Muslim child conceived or born out of what the state determined to be wedlock could not bear his or her father’s name, even if requested by the father. The court said the law “does not enable Muslim children to be named with the personal name of a person acknowledged to be the father” because ethnic Malays do not use surnames. The NGO SIS praised the court’s other ruling that children born out of wedlock do not have to automatically use the surname “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” which carries a social stigma in the country where children with these surnames are often “ridiculed, attacked, bullied, or targeted.”

Then Minister for Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said he would ask the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself wearing a prayer garment on pilgrimage in Mecca in February. Muhajid said Nur Sajat’s actions were an “offense” and could compromise the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. JAKIM circulated copies of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents were circulated on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety. The NGO Justice for Sisters condemned the government’s action, stating, “The real concern is not the telekung (prayer garment), but her safety and security, the breach of privacy, and the lack of rights and evidence-based response by the government.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in years past, local human rights organizations and religious leaders said society continued to become less tolerant of religious diversity. In September, the interfaith organization Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST) released a press statement to express “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.” NGOs also cited some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic” as well as heavily publicized statements targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.

In January, the NGO ILMU, whose members were closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party and who have in the past spoken out against Shia Islam, hosted a national convention on “Knowledge of the Hadith,” in Kuala Lumpur. Sheikh Abdurrahman Ibrahim al-Rubai’in, the religious attache of the Saudi Arabian embassy, in his keynote speech, said it was useless to include Shia Muslims in any efforts to unite Muslims, since “They are deviant.” He added, “The difference between Sunnis and Shias is not merely over jurisprudence, but also between truth and falsehood.”

Hundreds of Muslim students gathered in January outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur to demand the government ban the Chinese educational group Dong Zong, on the grounds that Dong Zong opposed the inclusion of Jawi lessons in the national school syllabus. The PAS youth chief spoke at the protest and blamed Chinese majority political parties in the ruling and opposition coalitions for perpetuating baseless fears against Islam. The Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition said Dong Zong was attempting to foment a repeat of the country’s bloody 1969 race riots. Also in January, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad labeled Dong Zong as “racist” against the Malay-Muslim majority after the group petitioned against the government’s move to introduce Jawi lessons in schools on grounds that the measure would be a form of “Islamization.”

The leader of the apolitical group of Malay-Muslim NGOs Pertubuhan Pembela Islam (Pembela), Aminuddin Yahaya, called on the new Perikatan Nasional coalition government to appoint an ethnic Malay attorney general and to “take action” against insults to Islam. “We have to take this seriously because Malays don’t insult other religions or other races, but other races insult Malays and Islam. Therefore, there must be enforcement.”

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former cobelievers, including friends and relatives.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear the headscarf or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming in public and on social media.

In March, the Malaysian rock band Bunkface released its song “The End of Times,” which caused controversy over lyrics that urged the LGBTQ community to “go and die.” In a statement, the band defended the lyrics as a criticism of the growing Muslim LGBTQ movement in the country and indicated its rejection of any rights for LGBTQ Muslims, describing the LGBTQ community as haram. “What has been set as haram will always remain haram,” the band said in its press released. YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music removed the song from their platforms following international media attention.

In April, a video of a local man harassing a Rohingya individual from Burma surfaced on Facebook amid an increase in comments online aimed at the Rohingya community. In the four-minute video, the man demanded the Rohingya prove his Islamic faith. In April, activist Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi of the European Rohingya Council rights group said in response, “There is harassment [of Rohingya] on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before.” In the same month, Tengku Emma was threatened with rape on social media, including the online group “32 Million Malaysians Reject Rohingya,” after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers to land.

Religious groups hosted virtual interfaith dialogues and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. In September, the Dalai Lama and a professor from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, Osman Bakar, discussed compassion and mercy as common values in Islam and Buddhism in a virtual forum organized by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious groups’ taking the opportunity to discuss different ways of promoting people’s right to pursue different ways of life. In an interfaith dialogue in December, Council of Churches Malaysia secretary general Hermen Shastri said the establishment of a “truly interfaith council” was hindered by a “majority vs. minority” mentality, since interfaith groups in the country have yet to form an entity that engages with the majority Islamic community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as with other agencies, on religious freedom and tolerance issues throughout the year, including concerns about the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children, and the disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, and Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu.

Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, who described heavy government restrictions on their religious activities and continued societal discrimination. The embassy also met with Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as those from SIS, G25, and the Islamic Renaissance Front, and with MCCBCHST to discuss strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.

The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.

The embassy nominated Susanna Liew, wife of missing pastor Raymond Koh, for the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award and facilitated her travel to the United States to attend the annual IWOC ceremony in Washington D.C. in March.

Netherlands

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief. It is a crime to engage in public speech inciting religious hatred. In a January letter to parliament, Minister of Social Affairs and Employment Wouter Koolmees expressed the cabinet’s concern regarding the influence of Salafist organizations that have negative views of Dutch society, the rule of law, the participation of Muslims in society, and generally those who do not agree with them. Parliament continued to pressure the government to counter the foreign funding of mosques and Islamic institutions to stop the influence of Salafist and radical ideas. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups stated that a parliamentary report on foreign funding released on June 25 did not make a clear distinction between the small number of “ultra-orthodox” Muslim groups and the majority of Muslims active in mainstream society. Authorities rarely enforced the law banning full-face coverings in schools, hospitals, public transportation, and government buildings, but the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Report Islamophobia stated the “burqa ban” led to a wave of physical and verbal abuse against Muslims, and it called on parliament to reconsider the law. Local and national security officials continued to work with Jewish and Muslim communities to increase security at religious sites. Politicians from some parties made anti-Islam statements during the year that were protected by constitutional provisions on free speech. On January 22, King Willem-Alexander attended the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, and on January 26, Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized on behalf of the government for doing too little to protect Dutch victims of the Holocaust. Jewish groups criticized national railway Nederlandse Spoorwegen for announcing on June 26 that it would donate five million euros ($6.13 million) to Holocaust remembrance sites as a “collective expression of recognition” of all Dutch Holocaust victims without first consulting them. The cornerstone of the National Holocaust Monument in Amsterdam was laid on September 23.

Government and nongovernmental organizations reported hundreds of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents involving nonlethal violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), an independent government advisory body, received 26 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019, mostly in the workplace, compared with 17 in 2018. Police registered 768 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 (of which 65 percent involved slurs). Police reported 599 anti-Semitic complaints in the previous year, but those statistics did not include incidents involving slurs. Some observers attributed the rise in complaints to increased political and public attention to anti-Semitism, including urgent appeals to report incidents. The HaCarmel Kosher Restaurant in Amsterdam was the target of several anti-Semitic incidents, including vandalism. On August 26, Dutch national Hassan N. was convicted of placing a fake bomb in front of the restaurant. The Jewish community again stated it was concerned about increasing anti-Semitism. On October 22, the Dutch Protestant Church admitted the Church’s guilt for its silence and inaction during the Holocaust. Despite agreements between authorities, the Royal Netherlands Soccer Association (KNVB), soccer clubs, and the Anne Frank Foundation to discourage anti-Semitic behavior at soccer matches, anti-Semitic chanting continued. In 2019, police registered 225 incidents of other forms of religious discrimination, most of which targeted Muslims, compared with 137 incidents in 2018. The governmental Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) found that 57 percent of Muslims experienced discrimination on the basis of religion and 68 percent because of their ethnicity. Monitoring organizations said there was a further increase in anti-Muslim hate speech online, particularly by those they considered to be extremist groups, and that many instances of workplace discrimination against Muslims were directed at women wearing headscarves.

The U.S. embassy and consulate general in Amsterdam emphasized the importance of supporting all faiths and engaging in interfaith dialogue in both formal meetings and informal conversations with government officials from multiple ministries and local governments and with parliamentarians. Embassy and consulate general representatives discussed religious freedom issues with leaders of several different faith communities and a broad range of civil society groups. The Ambassador met the owner of the HaCarmel Kosher Restaurant to discuss violent anti-Semitic acts against the restaurant, and with the Dutch Jewish Council (CJO) regarding cooperation with the Jewish community on Holocaust restitution and reparations efforts. The embassy and consulate general highlighted the need for religious tolerance and interfaith understanding and discussed issues of religious integration and violent extremism in outreach to youth, academics, and religious leaders and organizations from various faith traditions. Embassy representatives met with NGOs such as Femmes for Freedom to discuss religious freedom issues, including the ban on full face coverings.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 17.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). In a 2017 survey, the most recent available, of persons age 15 or older by Statistics Netherlands, the official source of government statistics, 51 percent of the population declared no religious affiliation, 23.6 percent self-identified as Roman Catholic, 14.9 percent as Protestant (6.4 percent Reformed, 2.9 percent Calvinist, and 5.6 percent unspecified Protestant), 5.1 percent as Muslim, and 5.6 percent, including members of the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and Baha’i faiths, as “other.”

Most Muslims live in urban areas and are of Turkish, Moroccan, or Surinamese background. The Muslim population also includes recent immigrants and asylum seekers from other countries, including Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. While there are no official estimates, most Muslims are believed to be Sunni. The Liberal Jewish Community, the largest Jewish community in the country, estimates there are 40,000-50,000 Jews. A Statistics Netherlands study from 2015, the most recent available, estimates the number of Hindus at 10,000, of whom approximately 85 percent are of Surinamese descent and 10 percent of Indian descent. The Buddhist community has approximately 17,000 members, according to a 2007 report by the SCP, the most recent estimate available.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and provides for the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief, individually or in community with others, provided it does not affect their responsibilities under the law. The constitution allows the government to restrict the exercise of religious beliefs outside of buildings or enclosed spaces to protect health, ensure traffic safety, and prevent disorder.

The law makes it a crime to engage in public speech that incites religious hatred and provides a penalty of imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to 8,100 euros ($9,900), or both. To qualify as hate speech, statements must be directed at a group of persons; the law does not consider statements targeted at a philosophy or religion, such as “Islam” (as opposed to “Muslims”), as criminal hate speech.

The law does not require religious groups to register with the government. Under the law, if the tax authorities determine a group is “of a philosophical or religious nature,” contributes to the general welfare of society, and is nonprofit and nonviolent, they grant it exemptions from all taxes, including income, value-added, and property taxes.

The law bans full-face coverings – including ski masks, helmets, niqabs, and burqas – in schools, hospitals, public transportation, and government buildings. According to the law, authorities must first ask individuals violating the ban to remove the face covering or to leave the premises. Those refusing to comply may be fined 150 euros ($180).

The law permits employees to refuse to work on Sundays for religious reasons, but employers may deny employees such an exception depending on the nature of the work, such as employment in the health sector. Members of religious communities for whom the Sabbath is not Sunday may request similar exemptions.

The Council of State and the NIHR are responsible for reviewing complaints of religious discrimination. The Council of State is the highest administrative court in the country, and its rulings are binding. The NIHR serves as the government’s independent human rights watchdog, responsible for advising the government and monitoring and highlighting such issues, including those pertaining to religion. The NIHR hears complaints of religious discrimination, often involving labor disputes, and issues opinions that do not carry the force of law but with which the addressed parties tend to comply. If they do not comply with NIHR’s opinion, plaintiffs may take their case to a regular court.

Local governments appoint antidiscrimination boards that work independently under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. These local boards provide information on how to report complaints and mediate disputes, including those pertaining to discrimination based on religion. Parties involved in disputes are not forced to accept mediation decisions of the local boards.

The government provides funding to religious schools, other religious educational institutions, and religious healthcare facilities. To qualify for funding, institutions must meet government educational standards as well as minimum class size and healthcare requirements. The constitution stipulates that standards required of religious or ideology-based (termed “special”) schools, financed either in part or fully by the government, shall be regulated by law with due regard for the freedom of these schools to provide education according to their religion or ideology.

The constitution stipulates public education shall pay due respect to the individual’s religion or belief. The law permits, but does not require, religious education in public schools. Teachers with relevant training approved by the Ministry of Education teach classes about a specific religion or its theology in some public schools, and enrollment in these classes is optional. All schools are required to familiarize students with the various religious movements in society, regardless of the school’s religious affiliation. Religion-based schools that are government funded are free to determine the content of their religious classes and make them mandatory, provided the education inspectorate agrees that such education does not incite criminal offenses such as inciting hate speech or action. Approximately 71 percent of government-funded schools have a religious, humanist, or philosophical basis. The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science is responsible for setting national curriculum standards with which all schools must comply and for monitoring compliance.

Courts may issue fines and arrest warrants against husbands who refuse to give their wives a religious divorce.

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

Government Practices

Parliament continued to pressure the government to screen the foreign funding of mosques and Islamic institutions to counter the influence of Salafist and radical ideas. On June 25, the parliamentary committee investigating foreign funding of religious institutions published a report of its findings. The report, based on February hearings on the issue, noted a lack of transparency on foreign funding of mosques, the extensive use of social media to disseminate “strict” religious messages within the Muslim community, and the influence of some countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, in local mosques through their training of imams. The report, however, made no recommendations on how to counter possible extremist influence accompanying donations from “unfree countries” to local Islamic institutions. The Muslim community, Dutch Muslim Council (CMO), and Council of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (OJCM) stated they were disappointed with the report, noting that it did not make a clear distinction between the small number of “ultra-orthodox” Muslim groups and the majority of Muslims active in mainstream society. The OJCM also criticized the inquiry report for not using well-defined concepts, particularly when referring to “unfree countries” and “invisible financing,” and for characterizing all Muslims in the country as radicalized. In statements to media, CMO president Muhsin Koktas questioned why the inquiry focused only on mosques and not on churches and political groups that might also be influenced towards radicalism by foreign funding. Koktas also expressed concern that the report produced a “skewed” picture of the Muslim community.

On November 23, the government stated that it shared concerns of undesirable influences through foreign funding and proposed legislation that would give mayors and the Public Prosecution Service the authority to inspect all donations from outside the EU or European Economic Area to any organization. As of year’s end, the bill had yet to pass. The government also pledged to strengthen local Muslim communities by supporting an imam training program and strengthening mosque boards.

In September, the Second Chamber (the lower house of parliament) organized hearings and debates around a November 2019 proposal presented by People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) parliamentarian Bente Becker to “counter repression in the name of culture and religion.” The plan focused on issues found in certain Muslim communities, such as arranged marriages, honor-related violence, repression of women, forcing women to wear niqabs, female genital mutilation or cutting, and polygamy.

The government continued to require asylum seekers requesting a residence permit to sign a statement of participation in civic integration. The statement informed immigrants of their rights and obligations and of fundamental values, including freedom of religion.

During the year, authorities rarely enforced the law banning full-face coverings – including niqabs and burqas – in schools, hospitals, public transportation, and government buildings. Public transportation representatives reported a decrease of women wearing niqabs using public transportation. Police stated few incidents were reported, and no one was fined. Some hospital officials said the ban was not an impediment to providing medical treatment, and while some incidents in which healthcare providers requested women wearing niqabs or burqas to take them off in a healthcare facility were reported, no one was denied medical care. Muslim women wearing niqabs reported they were subjected to increased physical and verbal abuse in locations where the ban did not apply, such as parks and shops. On September 22, the DENK political party posted on Twitter, “Niqab-wearers are victims of a badgering law. The women report being verbally and physically attacked because of the ‘burqa law.’ DENK says: ‘Recognize Islamophobia as racism and dismantle the law ASAP!’”

The NGO Report Islamophobia published a report on September 21 stating the “burqa ban” had led to a wave of physical and verbal abuse against Muslims, and it called on parliament to reconsider the law. The report also stated the ban had sparked online “witch hunts” and media articles instructing individuals how to make citizens’ arrests when the law was not enforced. According to the report, minors were involved in approximately half the incidents the foundation studied, usually as the children of the harassment victim. The foundation started a petition to abolish the ban. When the law banning face coverings was passed in 2019, the government said it would evaluate it in 2022, but the foundation called for an earlier review.

Local and national authorities, the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security, and police consulted closely on security issues with representatives from religious communities.

Local governments, in consultation with the national government, continued to provide security to all Jewish institutions. The volunteer organization For Life and Welfare also provided private security to Jewish institutions and events.

Local governments continued to provide security to mosques and Islamic institutions as necessary, and local authorities worked with Islamic institutions on enhancing the security of mosques and other religious institutes, as well as their visitors. The national government continued to support this local approach and developed materials to assist religious institutes and local governments in implementing such measures. The national government continued to disseminate the 2019 “Security of Religious Institutes” manual, which was developed in consultation with the Muslim community, local governments, and police.

At year’s end, parliament had not scheduled a debate on legislation proposed by the Animal Rights Party to ban ritual animal slaughter. In 2019, the Council of State said the legislation “constitutes a serious infringement on freedom of religion, violates the human rights of Jews and Muslims,” and should therefore not be introduced. The council stated the interest of protecting animal welfare did not outweigh the freedom of religion. On the occasion of Eid al-Adha, Party for Freedom (PVV) leader and member of parliament Geert Wilders tweeted on July 28, “It is a gross disgrace that the government allows and facilitates this Islamic cruelty of the un-anesthetized slaughter of animals. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” On September 25, the Right Resistance and Allies protest movement started an online petition against ritual animal slaughter, which had more than 2,500 signatures at year’s end. On December 17, the European Union Court of Justice ruled EU member states may impose a requirement that animals be stunned prior to slaughter and that such a requirement did not infringe on the rights of religious groups.

The Democrats 66 party and the Socialist Party included in their election platforms ahead of March 2021 general elections a call to amend the article of the constitution that guarantees freedom of education to give the Minister of Education the power to intervene in order to prevent the founding of schools by groups supporting “radical” and “undemocratic” views.

The Second Chamber of parliament adopted a resolution in July urging the government to allow Jewish students to observe the Sabbath in the context of school classes, which occasionally occurred on weekends due to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on school schedules.

The government continued to require imams and other spiritual leaders recruited from abroad to complete a course on integrating into Dutch society before preaching in the country. This requirement did not apply to clergy from EU countries and those with association agreements with the EU, such as Turkey, whose Religious Affairs Directorate appoints approximately 140 Turkish imams to serve in the country. The government continued to sponsor leadership courses intended to facilitate imam training in Dutch.

The Society and Integration Department of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment published its research report on domestic mosques on July 14. The research found that many imams could not speak Dutch, had insufficient knowledge of the local social context, and therefore had less authority within Muslim communities. The report assessed that this allowed Salafist organizations to take advantage of this space by using guest speakers who were fluent in Dutch to disseminate their message and spread Salafist doctrine in Dutch on the internet. The study recommended mosques support more Dutch language training for imams.

The NIHR reported receiving 26 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019 – mostly in the workplace – compared with 17 in 2018, and issued opinions in nine cases. In one case, the NIHR judged that a Christian school did not discriminate on the grounds of religion when it terminated the labor contract of a teacher because the teacher’s religious views were not the reasons for the contract’s discontinuance. In another case, it judged that a fitness center discriminated against a woman by not allowing her to wear her headscarf in the facility.

On August 5, the national railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) finished accepting online applications for compensation to Jewish, Roma, and Sinti Holocaust victims whom NS transported to transit camps, ultimately leading to concentration and extermination camps, during World War II when the country was under Nazi occupation. NS announced it paid more than 40 million euros ($49.08 million) in compensation to an estimated 500 Holocaust survivors and 5,000 widows and children during the yearlong application acceptance window. On June 26, NS also announced it would donate five million euros ($6.13 million) to four Holocaust commemoration centers in the country as a “collective expression” of recognition of all Dutch victims of the Holocaust. Domestic and international Jewish communities criticized NS for making this announcement without consulting them as representatives of those who suffered during the Holocaust due to NS’ role. The CJO stated afterward that NS had independently decided the issue, despite Jewish organizations urging NS to work with them to find a way to honor the memory of the many victims by contributing to the care of surviving victims and supporting the rebuilding of “Jewish life decimated” by the Holocaust.

A December 7 report by the ad-hoc Kohnstamm Committee, which was tasked in 2019 with evaluating the government’s artwork restitution policy, found that the Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Applications for Items of Cultural Value and the Second World War (restitution committee) should be more “empathetic” and less “formalistic” in its response to claims for Nazi-looted artwork. The report rejected the restitution committee’s practice of considering the equities of a museum when making restitution rulings, calling for an end to this “balance of interests” calculation. The report’s recommendations also included a call to resume the search for Jewish owners (or their heirs) of unclaimed artwork in the possession of the government and some museums. The report recommended the government establish a unified and clear framework for restitution policy in one policy document – replacing the multiple different applicable policy documents that currently exist – and create a government-run help desk that would offer information on restitution policy to the public. Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven, who was responsible for artwork restitution policy and commissioned the report in 2019, was expected to determine by spring 2021 which recommendations to adopt. The CJO publicly praised the Kohnstamm report after its release, highlighting its criticism of the “balance of interests” calculation and expressing hope that van Engelshoven would adopt all of the recommendations.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The government continued to state that it accepted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism but that it was not legally bound by it. The government shared indicators from this definition with police and Public Prosecutor’s Office so they could take the indicators into account when dealing with incidents of anti-Semitism. The government used the IHRA definition as a practical tool for registration and detection of criminal offenses that could have a discriminatory element. On August 28, Minister of Justice and Security Ferdinand Grapperhaus rejected criticism by the DENK party that the IHRA working definition was used to muzzle criticism of Israel.

On June 15, the government presented the annual update of its National Action Plan Against Discrimination, which included specific measures to counter anti-Islamic sentiment and anti-Semitism. The update prioritized local interreligious dialogue and discrimination awareness in education and soccer. In addition to implementing existing measures, the government appropriated 25 million euros ($30.67 million) to enhance education on World War II (including Holocaust education), modernize a number of war museums and commemoration centers, implement educational projects (including regarding the Dutch East Indies during the war), fund scientific research into World War II history, and facilitate digital access to resources and archives on World War II. The cabinet also presented legislation on citizenship education with the goal of increasing mutual understanding and knowledge of other cultures and religions and combating intolerance.

As it had in 2019, the government spent one million euros ($1.23 million) on projects to counter anti-Semitism during the year, with emphasis on the improvement of incident reporting and response. The government appropriation was set to continue until the end of 2021.

In response to a March 2019 resolution by Labor Party parliamentarians Gijs van Dijk and Kristen van den Hul, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment engaged in discussions with representatives of Muslim communities throughout the spring to develop specific policies to counter discrimination against Muslims. The ministry held online focus group sessions comprised of Muslims and non-Muslims to gain insight into countering anti-Muslim discrimination. During the year, the government-funded think tank Knowledge Platform on Integration and Society researched measures other countries were taking to counter anti-Muslim discrimination.

On July 2, the Second Chamber of parliament adopted a nonbinding plan of action put forward by parliamentarians Gert-Jan Segers of the Christian Union Party and Dilan Yesilgoz of the VVD that made concrete proposals to combat anti-Semitism more effectively. The plan proposed improving mandatory education about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, including the history of the Jewish community in the country; increasing support to teachers to raise these subjects in the classroom; creating a safe environment at school; reaching out to Jewish youth; focusing attention on the Holocaust, World War II, and freedom of religion in the mandatory integration courses for immigrants; providing structural security to Jewish institutes and synagogues; training police to recognize anti-Semitism; promoting policies to encourage victims to file complaints with police; pursuing zero tolerance with respect to anti-Semitism on the internet and during soccer matches; appointing a national anti-Semitism coordinator; and developing a specific national action plan to combat anti-Semitism. Segers stated the fight against anti-Semitism was “a litmus test for our civilization. If we cannot protect the Jewish community of only 50,000 people, we cannot protect anyone.” Yesilgoz stated she received many anti-Semitic messages whenever she spoke out against anti-Semitism. She said it was a problem that individuals felt free to share anti-Semitic statements on social media.

Segers and Yesilgoz said they advocated a targeted approach to combat anti-Semitism because, in their view, a generic antidiscrimination strategy would be ineffective. The government continued to promote its policy of fighting all forms of discrimination equally under its National Action Plan Against Discrimination.

On December 13, Justice Minister Grapperhaus announced the government would establish its first national coordinator for fighting anti-Semitism in early 2021. Grapperhaus said increased anti-Semitism in recent years, particularly online, drove the need for this position, noting that the government “must not leave this battle to the Jewish community alone.” According to Grapperhaus, the coordinator will advise the government on combating anti-Semitism, in cooperation with the Jewish community, for at least one year. The CJO welcomed the news, noting that combating anti-Semitism “requires an integrated approach,” which the future coordinator could influence.

The mayors and aldermen in larger cities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague, met at regular intervals with the Jewish community to discuss security issues and other topics of interest. These city governments continued to support a range of projects, such as educational programs to teach primary schoolchildren about the Holocaust and to counter prejudice against Jews. Amsterdam, with the largest Jewish population in the country, remained particularly active in such programming but postponed visits of school children to the Camp Westerbork Remembrance Center, the transit camp to which the Nazis transported Dutch Holocaust victims before taking them to concentration and extermination camps in eastern Europe, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government and security officials met throughout the year with the Jewish community to discuss matters of concern, such as security, anti-Semitism, and ritual animal slaughter. The CJO, Netherlands-Jewish Congregation, Netherlands Alliance of Progressive Judaism, OJCM, and NGO Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) attended these meetings.

PVV leader Wilders pursued a campaign calling for the “de-Islamization of the Netherlands,” advocating a series of measures, including closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Quran, and barring all asylum seekers and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. He used social media to disseminate his message. Wilders’ Twitter account, which remained active during the year, contained hundreds of entries criticizing Islam. For example, Wilders posted, “PVV is the only party that wants to stop the Islamic ideology of discrimination, hatred, and violence in the Netherlands. Enough is enough,” on July 25; “Islam does not belong in the Netherlands,” on July 27; “Islam is terror,” on August 15; and “I have a dream. Stop Islam,” on August 28. On February 19, Wilders said Islam was the main cause of rising anti-Semitism in the country. He asserted that Islam was “synonymous with anti-Semitism” and that the Quran “contains a lot more anti-Semitism than Mein Kampf.” Wilders also repeatedly introduced resolutions in parliament calling for a ban on all immigration from Muslim-majority countries to stop “Islamization.”

The Forum for Democracy Party (FvD) stated it did not support the PVV campaign for “de-Islamization” of the country and closure of all mosques, but party leader Thierry Baudet stated that Wilders “has put on the agenda the significant problem of radical Islam and Muslim immigration.” Baudet also called on Islamic schools to embrace Western values.

NL Times reported that on November 15, then FvD parliamentarian Theo Hiddema said on the television program WNL on Sunday that authorities should install wiretapping equipment in Salafist mosques, which he called criminal organizations. Hiddema said, “They are sowing hatred and division against unbelievers and apostates, and that is a crime.” The former head of the Supreme Court, Geert Corstens, who was also on the WNL broadcast, said evidence would be needed before implementing any such measure.

The FvD expelled from its youth group three members who posted anti-Semitic correspondence in the organization’s WhatsApp group on May 1. One message claimed that “Jews have international pedo[philia] networks and help women en masse into pornography.” A second round of correspondence in the FvD’s youth party in mid-November led to the expulsion of an additional individual and the departure of several senior party members, who said they felt Baudet, as party leader, did not deal strongly enough with the incidents. An internal party investigation into the incidents concluded on December 15 that there was no wrongdoing by the youth party or FvD’s parliamentary group in handling the situations.

Citing freedom of expression, authorities in Amsterdam permitted the weekly demonstration of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at Dam Square. CIDI reported the demonstrations frequently used anti-Semitic slogans, such as equating Zionism with racism. Due to the domestic coronavirus outbreak, the city banned all demonstrations on Dam Square as of June. BDS demonstrations were then occasionally held in Amsterdam’s Museumplein plaza instead.

Government ministers, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte, regularly spoke out against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in speeches, such as at the annual Auschwitz and Kristallnacht commemorations. King Willem-Alexander attended the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on January 22, the highest level of Dutch attendance in recent years. In a speech on January 26 at the National Holocaust Commemoration, Prime Minister Rutte apologized on behalf of the Dutch government for having done too little to protect Dutch victims of the Holocaust. This marked the first time the government specifically apologized for actions taken by the state during World War II.

The Anne Frank Foundation continued to organize government-sponsored and government-funded projects, such as the “Fan Coach” project that sought to counter anti-Semitic chanting by educating soccer fans on why their actions were anti-Semitic. Another foundation initiative, the “Fair Play” project, promoted discussion about countering discrimination, including religious discrimination among soccer fans.

On March 12, the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement in response to multiple complaints to police and antidiscrimination bureaus regarding the January 2019 publication of the evangelical Christian Nashville Statement on the relationship between men and women, which rejected homosexuality and transgender identity. The office stated the language of the Nashville Statement did not constitute a criminal offense because the freedoms of religion and expression were constitutional rights; therefore no prosecutions were warranted.

On September 23, Jacqueline van Maarsen, a childhood friend of Anne Frank, laid the cornerstone of the National Holocaust Monument in Amsterdam, which is government and privately supported and will carry the names of all 102,000 Dutch victims of the Holocaust. Construction is expected to be completed in 2021. Local residents continued to use legal means of redress to delay construction, saying the monument was too large, the expected large numbers of visitors would become a nuisance, and the residents were not sufficiently consulted.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of violence, threats, discrimination, verbal abuse, and vandalism against Jews and Muslims. Agencies collecting data on such incidents stated many occurrences went unreported or were reported to NGOs but not to police. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 58 percent of Netherlands respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the lowest of their priorities among democratic principles of the nine tested.

In November, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) released data for 2019 on domestic hate crimes motivated by bias. According to ODIHR, there were 257 incidents motivated by anti-Semitism and 100 motivated by “bias against members of other religions or beliefs.” The ODIHR report included a separate set of data from the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry of Tel Aviv University, which reported that in 2019, there were five “violent attacks against people” motivated by anti-Semitism and 13 violent attacks against persons motivated by anti-Muslim bias. In addition, according to the Kantor Center, there were 11 incidents of threats to persons and 23 “attacks against property” due to anti-Muslim bias.

On September 10, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights released a report providing an overview of data on anti-Semitic incidents recorded in EU member states between 2009 and 2019. According to the report, the National Organization of Anti-Discrimination Bureaus found that in 2019, antidiscrimination bureaus in the country recorded 78 incidents of anti-Semitic discrimination, compared with 48 incidents recorded in 2018. The Public Prosecutor’s Office reported 49 of 123 discrimination cases (40 percent) were connected to anti-Semitism.

CIDI reported 135 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 182 in 2019. These included 26 incidents of direct confrontation between strangers, 29 incidents occurring during the course of daily life (such as at school and work or among neighbors), 15 incidents of vandalism, 25 incidents of written statements, and 40 incidents directed against the Jewish community (as opposed to individuals). The NGO attributed the decrease in incidents to the lack of public gatherings, in which anti-Semitic incidents tend to occur, due to the pandemic. The report did not include incidents of online hate speech, but, according to CIDI, Jews were “portrayed as the cause and/or beneficiaries of the coronavirus with an alarming and growing frequency.”

On February 11, Justice Minister Grapperhaus informed parliament that the suspect who stabbed two Jewish individuals in the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam in March 2019 appeared to have been motivated by anti-Semitism. As of year’s end, the suspect’s trial had not been scheduled.

In 2019, the data collection methodology used by police regarding hate crimes changed, making a comparison to prior years difficult. Police reported 768 anti-Semitic incidents, a separate category of police discrimination statistics, in 2019, constituting 14 percent of all discriminatory incidents registered by police. Most incidents occurred in the immediate living environment of those targeted, often involving insults from neighbors or anti-Semitic graffiti or written threats on walls, mailboxes, or personal property. Approximately 65 percent of anti-Semitic incidents involved slurs, including the use of the word “Jew” as an insult. For example, individuals who shouted at police officers frequently called them “Jews.” An unspecified number of incidents were soccer related. Police reported 148 incidents of vandalism involving swastikas or anti-Semitic texts sprayed on property and Jewish monuments. Police also reported 45 incidents of individuals using anti-Semitic slurs against police officers or other public officials, which it classified as violent aggression.

The Anti-Discrimination Board received 78 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, 1.8 percent of all reports, compared with 48 reports of anti-Semitic events in 2018. Most concerned aggression against Jews, including slurs or disputes between neighbors, soccer-related incidents, or vandalism. The National Expertise Center for Discrimination, a section of the Public Prosecutor’s Office dealing exclusively with cases of discrimination, reported that it processed 123 new cases of discrimination in 2019 (compared with 79 new cases in 2018). Forty percent of the new cases in 2019 were related to anti-Semitism (of which 73 percent occurred during soccer matches), and 4 percent involved anti-Muslim sentiment.

The government-sponsored, editorially independent Registration Center for Discrimination on the Internet (MiND Nederland) reported that in 2019, there were 75 Dutch-language expressions of anti-Semitism on the internet, 11 percent of all reported expressions of discrimination, compared with 145 in 2018. MiND Nederland registered 64 inflammatory statements made against Muslims on the internet in 2019, compared with 71 in 2018. The organization gave no explanation for the decreases. CIDI stated it did not track incidents of hate speech online during the year, saying there was too much online anti-Semitic speech to monitor, even focusing only on Dutch content. In 2019, CIDI received 127 reports of hate speech online, compared with 95 in 2018. At the request of CIDI, the Kantar Research Institute – a data analytics consultancy – analyzed approximately 750 Dutch-language anti-Semitic Twitter postings and 300 websites from 2019. It found two-thirds of anti-Semitic messages on Twitter were posted as criticism of Israel or Zionism, such as one that read, “9/11 was a Zionist-inspired plot.”

In February, CIDI repeated its recommendations for the government to combat anti-Semitism more effectively: improve education on the Holocaust and Judaism; help teachers recognize and combat anti-Semitism; combat anti-Semitic bullying; improve knowledge about anti-Semitic crimes; train police and officials on anti-Semitism awareness; identify anti-Semitic incidents more clearly; accelerate reporting procedures for such incidents; encourage victims to report incidents; encourage social media companies to remove anti-Semitic material from their platforms; promote digital citizenship and media awareness to discourage online hate speech; hold accountable individuals who engage in online hate speech; and promote effective measures for social media companies to prevent and combat anti-Semitism. CIDI called for the KNVB to take measures to counter discrimination, including anti-Semitic chanting, during matches.

CIDI supported the July 27 48-hour British campaign #NoSafeSpaceforJewHate, which urged social media platforms to act against online anti-Semitism. CIDI was one of 128 organizations to publicly appeal to Facebook Inc., asking the company to endorse the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Holocaust survivors and CIDI welcomed Facebook’s October 12 announcement that it would ban denial of the Holocaust under its hate speech policy. CIDI welcomed the August 11 decision by Facebook to remove postings that contained certain anti-Semitic tropes.

On October 22, the Dutch Protestant Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, admitted the Church’s guilt for its silence and inaction against anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. On November 9, the anniversary of the Nazi’s 1938 Kristallnacht anti-Jewish pogrom, the Church made a formal statement to the Jewish community acknowledging its failure to help Jews during and after World War II and its present responsibility to combat anti-Semitism. General Synod chairman Rene de Reuver said, “Anti-Semitism is a sin against God and against people,” and promised the Church would fight anti-Semitism and work to develop Judeo-Christian relations.

In 2019, police registered 225 religious discrimination incidents, many of which targeted Muslims, compared with 137 incidents in 2018. These included physical and verbal harassment and vandalism. Multiple incidents concerned physical and verbal harassment of women on the street because they were wearing a headscarf, as well as incidents involving anti-Muslim stickers and posters. For example, in one case, an individual said to a social worker, “Muslims should leave. You don’t belong here,” and “Take off your headscarf. Show your hair. This is a free country.” One Muslim woman told media, “It is really difficult wearing the burqa. [They] just see you as the enemy….I am being discriminated against only because I want to practice my religion.” Police registered 30 incidents against mosques in 2019.

Using different methodology than that of the police, antidiscrimination boards registered 192 anti-Muslim incidents in 2019 – compared with 200 in 2018 – half of which concerned experiences in the labor market and workplace, often involving women who were discriminated against for wearing a headscarf. For example, there were reports of clients or customers who expressed a preference to be served by non-Muslims over Muslims wearing a headscarf, and in one case, a Muslim woman was fired for refusing to remove her headscarf. Other incidents involved Muslim men who were not hired because they refused to shake hands with women based on religious beliefs.

The HaCarmel Kosher Restaurant in Amsterdam was the target of repeated acts of anti-Semitism. On August 26, Hassan N. was convicted of placing a fake bomb in front of the restaurant on January 15 and sentenced to one year of prison, of which four months were suspended. Another man, Saleh Ali, smashed one of the restaurant’s windows on May 8. He had also committed vandalism against the restaurant in 2017. On August 19, Ali told the court that he was acting “by order of Allah” and threatened to use a firearm the “next time.” In October, the Prosecutor’s Office determined Ali had terrorist motives. At year’s end, he remained under psychiatric observation over a separate incident in which he threatened a Jewish neighbor with a billiard ball. He was awaiting trial for the May vandalism act. On May 19, the text “Find Jew” was spray-painted on the restaurant’s window for the third time since its establishment in 2001. The offender was recorded by surveillance camera but as of year’s end had not been identified. Amsterdam Mayor Halsema and Chief of Police Frank Paauw discussed supplemental security measures with the restaurant’s owner.

On July 2, the largest Dutch online shopping website Bol.com announced it would no longer sell books that incite hatred, including those with anti-Semitic content.

Pro-Israel activist Michael Jacobs was verbally abused on May 16 during the weekly BDS demonstration in Amsterdam’s Dam Square. CIDI reported that on separate occasions, some Israeli tourists who engaged with pro-Palestine demonstrators were also reportedly confronted with threats of physical violence. Jacobs was engaged in a verbal altercation with a pro-Palestinian activist on August 30 who verbally threatened him in Amsterdam’s Museumplein plaza.

CIDI stated the large number of anti-Semitic incidents demonstrated that Jews were disproportionately targeted for discrimination, given their small number in the country. CIDI also stated persons who were recognizable as Jewish because of dress or outward appearance, for instance wearing a kippah, were sometimes targets of confrontations. A CIDI anti-Semitism researcher said perpetrators came from different parts of society, including the far left and right, soccer fans, and segments of the Muslim population.

The SCP published its second report, entitled “Experienced Discriminations in the Netherlands,” which found that 57 percent of the more than 8,500 Muslims surveyed experienced discrimination on the basis of religion, and 68 percent because of their ethnicity.

Media reported that on February 4, unknown individuals painted swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans on several headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Dordrecht. The Organization of Jewish Communities in the Netherlands filed a police complaint. Dordrecht Mayor Wouter Kolff said on Twitter that the incident was “unacceptable” and asked anyone with information about the perpetrators to help bring them to justice.

On December 13, police arrested an individual who spray-painted swastikas on the walls of a mosque and two synagogues in Utrecht the previous day. Mosque representatives told press that the mosque’s board was concerned about the safety of mosque visitors throughout the country and called for the mosque’s community to maintain “peace and tranquility.” The CJO issued a statement that everyone must “watch out for this hatred and act against it together!”

According to its annual report on discrimination cases, covering 2019, the NIHR reported 440 complaints regarding the Nashville Statement, which was viewed as offensive to LGBTI individuals. There were also complaints from supporters of the statement who viewed criticism of the Nashville Statement as an infringement on their freedom to express their religious views. The NIHR stressed that persons have the freedoms of religion and expression in the country, which allow them to express their religious views and criticize the views of others. The NIHR stated, however, “Religious conventions are no excuse to treat people as inferior, [or] to exclude them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Yahia Bouyafa, the president of the Council of Moroccan Mosques in the Netherlands, resigned in March following protests by CIDI regarding anti-Semitic emails in which he wrote, “Hitler was a Jew,” Hamas was a “legitimate resistance,” and “all Jews should be driven out of Israel.”

On July 16, CIDI filed a complaint against an individual who hacked the Twitter account of PVV leader Wilders to disseminate anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

On February 19, the Central Netherlands District Court convicted Brian F. of making a threat with terrorist intent and sentenced him to 90 days’ imprisonment, of which 75 days were suspended. Brian F. had posted a message on Facebook approving of the 2019 attack in Christchurch, saying, “Tomorrow I do the same. I buy a gun. I will kill every [expletive] Muslim.” As he was being arrested, he shouted he planned to shoot 40 Muslims.

Although authorities, the KNVB, soccer teams, and the Anne Frank Foundation had multiple agreements in place to discourage anti-Semitic behavior at soccer matches, participants did not always carry out the terms of the agreements. For example, one agreement stipulated that if anti-Semitic chanting arose, teams would ask fans to stop immediately and if they did not, suspend the match; however, matches were rarely suspended or paused. On February 2, anti-Semitic chanting among fans of the Jong PSV football team occurred during a match with Ajax, a team whose fans and players are nicknamed “Jews.” Two supporters were arrested, and both Jong PSV and the KNVB initiated an investigation. On February 12, Vitesse team supporters engaged in anti-Semitic chanting during a match with Ajax. CIDI stated it welcomed a joint plan by the KNVB and government to address discrimination and racism but also advocated the use of stronger measures, including technology, to detect misbehaving supporters more quickly.

An Islamic secondary school, the Cornelius Haga Lyceum in Amsterdam, was the target of attempted arson and vandalism on January 6. On December 14, an unknown perpetrator damaged several windows of the Westermoskee Mosque in Amsterdam. The mosque’s closed-circuit television footage revealed the perpetrator performed a Nazi salute during the vandalism. As of year’s end, the offenders had not been identified.

The Security Pact Against Discrimination – a movement established by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian organizations to combat anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and other forms of discrimination – organized online events to promote mutual solidarity. The group’s membership included the Council of Churches in the Netherlands, the representative body of main Christian churches in the country, and several NGOs, including the Turkish Islamic Cultural Federation, Humanist Alliance, Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam, National Council of Moroccans, and Platform to Stop Racism and Exclusion.

CIDI worked with educators who conducted online programs to counter prejudice against Jews and other minorities for classrooms, working with a network of teachers to improve education on the Holocaust. CIDI organized online symposia and lectures.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, multiple initiatives to promote interfaith dialogue among Jews, Muslims, and Christians initiated by NGOs such as OJCM and Belief in Living Together continued, but on a limited in-person basis or online. For example, the Liberal Jewish Community of Amsterdam continued its youth outreach project entitled “Get to Know Your Neighbors,” which explained Jewish practices to participating students. The Mo&Moos (Mohammed and Moshe) program of the Amsterdam-based Salaam-Shalom NGO and Platform for Islamic Organizations in Rijnmond again brought together young Muslim and Jewish professionals. The NGO INS Platform maintained a website where citizens could meet “ordinary” Muslims. In Amstelveen, Jewish and Muslim groups continued to meet with local authorities and political parties to discuss issues of safety, religion, education, and discrimination involving Jews and Muslims.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In conversations with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs; Justice and Security; Social Affairs and Employment; and Education, Culture, and Science, as well as with local governments and parliamentarians, staff from the U.S. embassy and the consulate general in Amsterdam emphasized the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and discussed ritual slaughter, male circumcision, and measures to safeguard religious freedom.

The embassy and consulate general highlighted the need for religious tolerance and interfaith understanding and discussed issues of religious integration and violent extremism in outreach to youth, academics, and religious leaders from various backgrounds, including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and Falun Gong adherents, as well as community organizations such as the CJO, CIDI, CMO, Anne Frank Foundation, and SPIOR, the umbrella organization of Rotterdam mosques. Embassy representatives met with NGOs such as Femmes for Freedom to discuss religious freedom issues, including the ban on full face coverings. Embassy officials communicated with various representatives of religious communities and institutions to discuss the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on religious expression and their community members.

In January, the Ambassador participated, on behalf of the United States as a member of the IHRA, in the annual Holocaust remembrance event hosted by the Dutch Auschwitz Committee in Amsterdam to show solidarity with the Jewish community and U.S. support for religious tolerance. The Ambassador and Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands Naor Gilon met the owner of the HaCarmel Kosher Restaurant on June 29 to discuss his experiences and call for countering domestic anti-Semitism. The Ambassador participated in a podcast produced by the Israeli embassy about this discussion. The Ambassador met CJO chairman Eddo Verdoner on October 22 to discuss the importance of working with the Jewish community in Holocaust restitution and remembrance initiatives, including the national railway’s collective expression announcement.

On January 17, the Ambassador met with representatives of the local chapter of the DENK party in Schiedam to discuss discrimination against the Muslim community and compare the experiences of Muslims in the United States with those in the Netherlands. On the occasion of Ramadan, the Ambassador held a May 15 virtual teleconference with representatives of the CMO, including president Muhsin Koktas, to extend holiday greetings and discuss the importance of communication and the exchange of opinions across society to address anti-Muslim sentiment. On July 8, the Ambassador discussed with representatives of the youth party of DENK discriminatory hiring practices against Muslims and the U.S. commitment to eliminate discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of religion.

A senior embassy official met with Camp Westerbork Memorial Center director Gerdien Verschoor on June 23 to learn the history of the memorial site and the importance of Holocaust educational initiatives. The Amsterdam Consul General met with Emile Shrijver, director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam, on June 24 to discuss the challenges the quarter faced in promoting Holocaust remembrance and countering anti-Semitism. On September 14, the Consul General met with Rabbi Lody van de Kamp and Said Bensellam of the foundation Said and Lody to discuss the importance of interreligious dialogue and integration of different religious and ethnic communities.

On March 2, embassy officials met with Rotterdam-based organizations, including local political party NIDA, the Middenweg Mosque, the Islamic school Avicenna College, and SPIOR, to discuss challenges facing the Muslim community, such as religious freedom, religious education, interfaith dialogue, and civic participation.

New Zealand

Executive Summary

The constitution provides the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. In August, a court sentenced the individual convicted of committing the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, the worst mass killings in the country’s history, to life in prison with no parole – a sentence unique in the modern legal history of the country. The report by a royal commission established to investigate the Christchurch mosque attacks was published in December. In response, the government promised reforms aimed at safeguarding the country’s minority religious and ethnic communities and at improving greater social cohesion. In August, the government introduced a new law covering religious instruction in public schools, and in September, the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools designed to clarify the legal obligation of the schools’ boards of trustees when allowing religious instruction.

The government-funded Human Rights Commission (HRC) received 87 inquiries or complaints of discrimination based on religious belief for 2018-19, compared with 65 in the previous period. The New Zealand Jewish Council said that anti-Semitism increased, particularly online.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officers met with government officials to offer continuing support in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. They also met with representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2018 census data, of those responding regarding religious affiliation, 10.2 percent are Roman Catholic, 7 percent Anglican, 5 percent Presbyterian, 10 percent other Christian denominations (including Maori syncretic religions such as Ratana and Ringatu), 2.6 percent Hindu, 1.3 percent Muslim, 1.2 percent Buddhist, and 0.1 percent Jewish. More than 90 additional religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. The number of persons stating no religious affiliation increased from 42 percent to 49 percent between 2013 and 2018; 6.8 percent of the respondents to the census question on religion stated they objected to the question.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, comprising several basic laws, states that religious expression is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” According to the law, religious practices may not breach the peace.

The government does not require the licensing or registration of religious groups; however, for a religious group to collect money for any charitable purpose, including the advancement of its religion, or to obtain tax benefits, it must register with the Department of Internal Affairs as a charitable trust. The registration must provide the rules of the organization showing it is a nonprofit organization and a list of officers free from conflict of interest who will not put their own interests above the organization. There is no fee for registration.

According to the 2020 Education and Training Act, which came into force in August, individual school boards that choose to allow religious instruction in public schools must have signed consent from a parent or caregiver to include a child in that religious instruction (“opt in”). The previous legislation required parents or guardians to make their wishes known in writing if they did not wish a child to take part in religious instruction or observance (“opt out”). The national education law specifies that teaching in state primary and intermediate schools must be secular while the school is open. The law allows schools to close for up to one hour per week and no more than 20 hours per year to allow religious instruction by voluntary instructors, which must be held on an opt-in basis. To comply with human rights laws, school boards must ensure that religious instruction does not discriminate against religious or nonreligious beliefs of students. The law states this should involve boards consulting closely with the school community, offering valid alternatives to religious instruction, providing secular school and student support services, and having an adequate complaints procedure to resolve issues. Religious observance and religious instruction – when a particular religion or faith is taught or given preference in a state primary or intermediate school – differ from general religious education, which is not regulated by legislation.

Individuals may file complaints of unlawful discrimination, including on the basis of religious belief, to the HRC. The HRC’s mandate includes assuring equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, protecting the right to safety for religious individuals and communities, promoting freedom of religious expression and reasonable accommodation for religious groups, and promoting religious tolerance in education. In the event a complaint is not resolved satisfactorily with the assistance of HRC mediation, the complainant may proceed to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT). The tribunal has the authority to issue restraining orders, award monetary damages, or declare a breach of the Human Rights Act through a report to parliament. Conduct prohibited by the Human Rights Act (e.g., workplace discrimination, including that based on religion) may also be prosecuted under other applicable laws. In addition to the HRC dispute resolution mechanism, a complainant may initiate proceedings in the court system; in exceptional circumstances, HRRT cases may be transferred to the High Court.

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

Government Practices

In August, a court in Christchurch sentenced the perpetrator of the March, 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings that took 51 lives and injured 49 others to life in prison with no parole. This was the first time in the country’s history that such a sentence was handed down. A royal commission – the highest level of government inquiry – established to investigate the Christchurch mosque attacks published its findings in December. While the report found the government had made mistakes, it said the attack had been unpreventable. The government promised reforms aimed at safeguarding the country’s minority religious and ethnic communities and at improving greater social cohesion.

In August, the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools to help trustees develop best practices for religious instruction in compliance with the new Education and Training Act. The guidelines provided guidance on how to enable the closure of schools for the delivery of religious instruction in a way that would reduce the possibility of discrimination.

In September, following the entry into force of the Education and Training Act, the Secular Education Network, a local nongovernmental organization, withdrew from its long-running court case with the Ministry of Education, which had asserted that religious instruction allowances in the previous Education Act were inconsistent with the more recent Human Rights and Bill of Rights Acts. The network stated it was committed to continuing its broader efforts to end what it termed “religious indoctrination” in state primary and intermediate schools.

In June, the Justice Minister delayed any possible changes to hate speech legislation, which he had previously described as “woefully inadequate,” until after the country’s October general election. The Human Rights Commission has recommended since 2004 that police should collect specific hate crime data – a recommendation repeated in the 2019 HRC report, It Happened Here: Reports of race and religious hate crime in New Zealand 2004-2012, which brought together for the first time the HRC’s annual summaries of media reports on racially and religiously motivated crime during that period. The HRC condemned the absence of systematically collected data on these crimes, saying, “Without such data it is difficult to have an informed discussion about the prevalence of hate crimes.” It advocated that authorities gather information, including the number of complaints, prosecutions, and convictions for crimes motivated by characteristics such as race and religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The HRC received 87 complaints of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or lack of religious belief during 2018-19, compared with 65 complaints during 2017-18. Reports of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs made up 13 per cent of all complaints raised with the commission in 2018-19.

While it said that anti-Semitic incidents remained rare, the New Zealand Jewish Council said online anti-Semitism was increasing. In January, a swastika was spray-painted on the outside wall of the Temple Sinai Wellington Jewish Progressive Congregation, and supportive anti-Semitic comments later appeared online.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officers met with government officials to offer continuing support in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. Embassy and consulate general officials regularly met with officials in the HRC and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to consult on encouraging tolerance and religious freedom in the country. They also met with representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society. The embassy worked closely with an activist for equal rights for Muslim women to expand her networks and increase her public profile.

North Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, with the stipulation that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.” In July, the UN Secretary-General reported to the UN General Assembly that the country “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly.” Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK was published. The COI found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government that constituted crimes against humanity. The government reportedly continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to limit the availability of details related to individual cases of abuse. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Open Doors USA (ODUSA) estimated that at year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), a South Korea-based NGO, citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2019 and other sources, reported 1,411 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 126 killings and 94 disappearances. In October, the United Kingdom-based NGO Korea Future Initiative (KFI) released a report based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, or perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims punished for engaging in religious practice or having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, or sharing religious beliefs. The KFI report said they were subjected to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, forced abortion, execution, and public trials. For the 19th consecutive year, ODUSA ranked the country number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing family members of Christians. According to ODUSA, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they [are] deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government on April 23 reportedly extended national emergency quarantine measures until the end of the year and ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites. In October, the UN special rapporteur stated the decreased contact with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate entrenched human rights violations. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures, including imprisonment, against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. In September 2019, an NGO posted on social media a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” and calling converts “worthless people.” According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019. According to NGOs, the government used religious organizations and facilities for external propaganda and political purposes. In June, the government demolished the inter-Korean liaison office after defector groups in South Korea sent materials over the border that included Bibles and other Christian materials.

The government encouraged all citizens to report anyone engaged in religious activity or in possession of religious material. There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify. Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from family members, neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely. According to one source, the practice of consulting fortune tellers was widespread.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights” and expressed very serious concern about abuses including imposition of the death penalty for religious reasons and restrictions on the freedoms of conscience, religion, or belief. The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. In a speech delivered at the Vatican in September, the Secretary of State urged Christian leaders to support religious freedom for Christians in the DPRK.

Since 2001, the DPRK has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The North Korean government last reported religious demographics in 2002, and estimates of the number of total adherents of different religious groups vary. In 2002, the DPRK reported to the UN Human Rights Committee there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 800 Catholics, and 15,000 practitioners of Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners is considerably higher than reported by authorities. According to the Religious Characteristics of States Dataset Project, in 2015 the population was 70.9 percent atheist, 11 percent Buddhist, 1.7 percent followers of other religions, and 16.5 percent unknown. UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 100,000 Christians, and ODUSA estimates the country has 400,000 Christians. In its 2020 World Christian Database, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported 58 percent of the population is agnostic; 15 percent atheist; 13 percent “new religionists” (believers in syncretic religions); 12 percent “ethnoreligionists” (believers in folk religions); and 1.5 percent Buddhists. Christians, Muslims, and Chinese folk religionists make up less than 0.5 percent of the population collectively. The NKDB reported that among defectors practicing a religion, the majority were Protestant with a smaller number of Catholics, Buddhists, and others. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002. Consulting shamans and fortune tellers and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The NKDB reported that five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies. It further states, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes, or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling. The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

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

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make individual arrests and punishments difficult to verify. The July 30 UN Secretary-General’s report Situation of the human rights situation in the DPRK stated the DPRK “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly… During the reporting period [September 2019 to July 2020], there was no evidence of any improvement with respect to the fulfilment of these fundamental rights and freedoms.” The report stated that the government “maintains a monopoly over information and retains total control of organized social life.” Multiple sources indicated the situation in the country had not changed since publication of the 2014 COI final report, which concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded that in many instances, the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government on April 23 reportedly extended national emergency quarantine measures until the end of the year and ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites. The October 14 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea stated, “The surveillance and control over the population continue in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the decreased contact with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate entrenched human rights violations, with more freedoms being restricted, discrimination worsening, and treatment in detention, including in political prison camps aggravating.”

In October, KFI released a report entitled Persecuting Faith: Documenting Religious Freedom Violations in North Korea, Volume I. The report was based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims of religious freedom violations. Of these, 215 adhered to Christianity, 56 adhered to shamanism, and two to other beliefs. The victims ranged in age from three to older than 80 years old. Women and girls accounted for nearly 60 percent of documented victims. According to the report, the government charged individuals with engaging in religious practice, conducting religious activities in China, possessing religious items, having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, and sharing religious beliefs. In some cases, the government charged a single victim with multiple offenses. Individuals were subject to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, refoulment, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, execution, and public trials and “resident exposure meetings.” According to the report, “In many cases, a single victim experienced multiple violations.”

In December 2019, ODUSA published a report entitled North Korea: Country Dossier. The report identified Communist doctrine and the cult of personality surrounding leader Kim Jong Un as the main drivers of religious persecution. According to the report, Christians were regarded as enemies of the Workers Party of Korea’s ideology.

The NKDB, relying on reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,411 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to December 2019. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,411 cases, authorities reportedly killed 126 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 94 (6.7 percent), physically injured.79 (5.6 percent), deported or forcibly relocated 53 (3.8 percent), detained 826 (58.5 percent), restricted movement of 147 (10.4 percent), and persecuted 86 (7.9 percent) using other methods of punishment.

The NGO NK Watch estimated that 135,000 political prisoners continued to be held in four political prison camps between September 2019 and July 2020. According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2019 white paper on human rights, the government operated five political prison camps. ODUSA estimated that as of year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, CSW estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. CSW and ODUSA said the government maintained a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing relatives of Christians, meaning they could be detained regardless of their beliefs. According to one defector, an entire family was arrested when an informant revealed the family had a Bible.

In its annual World Watch List report, ODUSA for the 19th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians. The NGO stated in its dossier, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they are deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” ODUSA stated arrests and abductions of foreign missionaries and punishments for Christians increased. “Christians do not have the slightest space in society; meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.” The ODUSA dossier stated increased diplomatic activity starting with and following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018 did not improve religious freedom for Christians in the country. According to the dossier, police raids aimed at identifying and punishing citizens with “deviating thoughts,” including Christians, reportedly increased.

Religious organizations and human rights groups outside the country continued to report that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. One defector told the NKDB in 2018 that a Christian woman was beaten while in custody, denied water, and died of dehydration. Another defector told NKDB in 2017 that in 2011, a Christian woman became so ill in detention she could not feed herself, and when she asked a guard a question, he beat her to death with a ladle.

According to KFI, Christians reported experiencing various forms of torture, “including: being forced to hang on steel bars while being beaten with a wooden club; being hung by their legs; having their body tightly bound with sticks; being forced to perform “squat-jumps” and to sit and stand hundreds or thousands of times each day; having a liquid made with red pepper powder forcibly poured into their nostrils; being forced to kneel with a wooden bar inserted between their knee hollows; strangulation; being forced to witness the execution or torture of other prisoners; starvation; being forced to ingest polluted food; being forced into solitary confinement; being deprived of sleep; and being forced to remain seated and still for up to and beyond 12 hours a day.” The report also documented incidents of torture and physical assault inflicted on persons adhering to shamanism. One victim who had been imprisoned for three years for practicing shamanism sustained permanent damage to the eyes because of repeated physical assaults.

According to KFI, authorities subjected pregnant adherents to forced abortions in detention or killed their infants shortly after birth by smothering them.

KFI also reported that officials repeatedly warned citizens in lectures and “people’s unit meetings” to not read Bibles and to report anyone who owned a Bible. The report documented multiple instances in which authorities found an individual in possession of a Bible and sent the person and other household members to prison. In one case, a Korean Workers’ Party member was arrested for possessing a Bible and executed at Hyesan airfield in front of 3,000 residents. Another respondent told investigators that a relative was arrested for possessing a cross and a Bible after the relative’s partner reported the individual to authorities.

In September 2019, the Christian advocacy group Voice of the Martyrs USA (VOM) posted to YouTube what it described as a “government training video.” In the video, the narrator tells the story of a Christian named Cha Deoksun from Sariwon City who crossed the border illegally into China, where she converted to Christianity. The narrator said the pastors of the church were disguised members of the South Korean secret service and converts were “spies.” Upon returning to North Korea, Cha traveled around the country preaching and organizing an underground church. The narrator described Cha as a “religious fanatic” and “good-for-nothing.” According to the video, she converted her family and other “worthless people.” At some point, “one of our conscientious citizens” reported Cha to authorities and she was arrested. VOM stated, “It is unclear how Deoksun died, but it is possible that she was executed.”

According to KFI, authorities arrested and executed individuals for possessing and sharing religious items such as Bibles. In one case, a victim who brought Bibles into the country was arrested and executed by firing squad close to Samjiyon Hospital, Ryanggang Province, in front of approximately 300 witnesses. In another case, a victim who had been in contact with religious persons was detained and interrogated in North Hamgyong Province. During her detention, an officer shouted at her, “Hey, you [expletive]. Does God know that you are in here?” The officer ordered the woman to crawl backwards out of her cell on hands and knees and beat her with a wooden club.

According to the NKDB, in 2016, there were forced disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities.

International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report that any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps. According KINU’s 2019 white paper on human rights, authorities punished both “superstitious activities” – including fortune telling – and religious activities, but the latter more severely. In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors had studied or possessed a Bible or were involved with Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitious activity with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

KFI documented cases in which family members of persons who had been charged with crimes associated with religion were subsequently targeted. In certain incidents, this led to the arrests of children as young as three. In other incidents, entire families were arrested. Investigators also documented incidents in which the spouses of persons sentenced for religious crimes were forced to divorce victims.

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019.

The government reportedly detained foreigners who it said were engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders. There was no further information on Kim Jung-wook, detained in October 2013; Kim Guk-gi, detained in October 2014; or Choi Chun-gil, detained in December 2014 – three South Korean missionaries detained in the country and sentenced to life in prison for “spying and scheming.” In December 2018, The Korea Times reported the South Korean government tried to negotiate their release.

During the year, VOM undertook a letter-writing campaign to urge the government to release Jang Moon Seok (aka Zhang Wen Shi), an ethnic-Korean Chinese national living in Changbai, China, on the border with North Korea. VOM stated that “Deacon Jang” assisted North Koreans who crossed the border and shared his faith with them. According to VOM, in November 2014, North Korean authorities kidnapped Jang from China, imprisoned him, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

In 2019, the HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes. There were neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment. Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country. KINU’s 2019 white paper reported one defector as saying, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The 2014 COI report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded that Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

According to NGOs, the government’s policy towards religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. As it had in years past, KINU stated in its 2019 annual white paper on human rights that it was “practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2018, there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church. The 2015 KINU annual white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and reported most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities and did not regard Buddhist monks as religious figures. The temples were regarded as cultural heritage sites and tourist destinations. KINU’s 2019 annual white paper concluded no religious facilities existed outside of Pyongyang.

In its 2019 report, KINU stated the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom. In its 2020 annual report, the NKDB stated, “Although there are several churches and other religious facilities in North Korea, such as Chilgol and Bongsu Church, as well as Jangchung Cathedral, they are sponsored entirely by the state, and therefore access to the facilities for the sake of genuine religious activity, especially for regular citizens, is heavily restricted.” Less than 2.5 percent of 13,958 defectors the NDKB interviewed between 1997 and 2019 said they had visited religious facilities. The 2014 COI report concluded that authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Chilgol Church, a state-controlled Protestant church, was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. In KINU’s 2019 report, one defector said that when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals, whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held, on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, and therefore authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches. According to KINU, in years past, foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged. In its 2019 dossier on North Korea, ODUSA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely. KINU’s 2019 white paper described the example of Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, which was built in September 1988. Defectors reported that only the building guard and the guard’s family lived there, but when foreign guests came to visit, several hundred citizens between the ages of 40 and 50 were carefully selected and gathered to participate in fake church services.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2019 KINU report, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.” According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report noted the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established Korean Catholic Council continued to hold masses at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church. There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country in previous years, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were citizens or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom had reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

In 2019, United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday Mass at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral. According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items as well as other items the government deemed objectionable. ODUSA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

According to KFI, beginning in kindergarten, children were taught antireligious views, with a particular focus on Christianity. The report stated, “While Buddhism and Cheondogyo were explained as matters of historical interest, rather than as religions, it was Christianity that was singled out for attention within the public-school system. Multiple respondents spoke of textbooks containing sections on Christian missionaries that listed their “evil deeds,” which included rape, blood sucking, organ harvesting, murder, and espionage.”

In June, the government demolished the inter-Korean liaison office, a building in the city of Kaesong near the border with South Korea. Media reported that the demolition occurred in retaliation after defector groups in South Korea sent anti-DPRK government leaflets and other materials over the border. Christian media reported that items sent over the border also often contained Christian materials, including tracts and testimonies written by North Korean Christian refugees, physical Bibles, and digital copies of the Bible on flash drives. Kim Yo Jong, then first deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the sister of Kim Jong Un, denounced those who sent the material as “betrayers” and “human scum.”

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies persons on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime. The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. KINU continued to report that religious persons and their families were perceived to be “antirevolutionary elements.”

According to KINU’s 2019 report, the government continued to view religion as a means of foreign encroachment. In the report, KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s Dictionary on Philosophy as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.” KINU reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year that emphasized ways to detect individuals who engaged in spreading Christianity.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and to allege that these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly maintained tight border controls that became even stricter in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hindering relief and assistance activities.

In 2019, the Asia Times reported that South Korean-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons and that in some cases, the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

In December, the UN General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution, cosponsored by the United States, that condemned “in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity.” The General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association[.]” The UN General Assembly also strongly urged the government “to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms[.]” The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion. Travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated this inaccessibility.

The 2014 COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities. According to the ODUSA dossier, due to the constant indoctrination permeating the country, Christians were seen as hostile elements in society, and family members and neighbors were expected to report suspicious activities to the authorities, including through the network of neighborhood informers. For this reason, “many parents prefer not to tell their children anything about their Christian faith.”

In 2019, the South China Morning Post reported that a defector described her family quietly singing Christian hymns on Sundays while one person watched for informers. Another described hiding under a blanket or in the bathroom while praying. ODUSA reported that many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks to which individuals had access dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II. These were kept hidden and passed among believers. One man said persons remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported. According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible, and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

In 2019, KINU again reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated that up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. In the “government training” video released by VOM in September 2019, the narrator claimed Cha Deoksun and other believers met in the woods. Some defectors and NGOs said unapproved religious materials were available and that secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. According to The Christian Post, the NKDB stated in its annual white paper published in October that since 2000, as many as 559 defectors said they had “seen a Bible.” NKDB stated that of the 14,091 individuals who defected between 1997 and 2019, only 167 (1.2 percent) said that they had personally experienced practicing religion in secret. Only 677 (5 percent) of 13,557 individuals had witnessed others practicing in secret.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented individuals from attending weddings and funerals, KINU reported that in prior years, religious ceremonies accompanying these events were almost unknown. Other sources, however, indicated there were still shamanistic elements in weddings and funerals.

According to KFI, the government intensified its campaign against shamanism during the year. The government hung posters and issued directives warning citizens against engaging in “superstitious acts.” These directives were posted in apartment blocks. NGOs noted, however, an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. KFI stated that shamanism was illicitly practiced by both ordinary citizens and officials. Investigators documented many persons engaging both publicly and privately in shamanistic practices, including traditional rituals, fortune telling, physiognomy, exorcism, the use of talismans, the use of the Christian Bible, the use of birth charts, and tarot cards. One source told RFA it was common for individuals to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, handling health matters, or considering other important decisions. One source told Asia Press that government officials also consulted fortune tellers about their health and careers. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. According to the source, however, fortune tellers who faced punishment were those “who [made] a lot of wrong predictions” and therefore did not receive the protection of officials. The source said, “The good fortune tellers are paid by officials and therefore do not get caught.” One defector who escaped in 2019 told KFI investigators, “People who practice shamanism will be sentenced to a maximum of five years in a re-education camp if the penalty is harsh. They used to be sentenced to a labor training camp for three or six months, but the sentence has been made stricter.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence in the country.

The United States cosponsored the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights,” and it expressed very serious concern about abuses, including imposition of the death penalty for religious reasons and restrictions on the freedoms of conscience, religion, or belief.

The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. This included an October meeting of like-minded countries to coordinate actions and discuss the DPRK’s human rights record. The United States made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would significantly improve prospects for closer ties between the two countries. Senior U.S. government officials met with defectors and NGOs that focused on the country.

In a speech delivered in September at the Vatican, the Secretary of State urged Christian leaders to support religious freedom and speak up for persecuted Christians, including those in the DPRK. On October 27, on the occasion of International Religious Freedom Day, the Secretary stated North Korea was one of the world’s “most egregious religious freedom abusers.”

Since 2001, the DPRK has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Norway

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the right to choose, practice, or change one’s faith or life stance (belief in a nonreligious philosophy). It declares the Church of Norway is the country’s established church. The government continued to provide the Church of Norway with exclusive benefits, including funds for salaries and benefits of clergy and staff. The government enacted a new law governing religious life in April that outlines how faith and life stance organizations with at least 50 registered members may apply for state subsidies, which are to be prorated as a percentage of the subsidy received by the Church of Norway based on group membership. A hate crime law punishes some expressions of disrespect for religious beliefs. On June 11, the Oslo District Court sentenced Philip Manshaus to 21 years’ imprisonment for the attack on an Islamic cultural center and the killing of his stepsister in 2019. In March, the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to bring a case to the Supreme Court after a court of appeals acquitted three men of hate speech charges arising from a 2018 incident when they raised a Nazi flag outside the site of a World War II Gestapo headquarters. The government continued to implement an action plan to combat anti-Semitism, particularly hate speech, and released a similar plan to combat anti-Muslim sentiment. The government continued to provide financial support for interreligious dialogue.

A total of 807 hate-motivated crimes were reported during the year, of which 16.7 percent were religiously motivated. This was the first decline following a period of strong increase. Several groups reported that anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment remained prevalent among extremist groups and that internet hate speech against Jews and Muslims increased during the year. On September 27, Yom Kippur, three members of the Nordic Resistance Movement handed out hate propaganda outside an Oslo synagogue. Stop the Islamization of Norway (SIAN) held a number of rallies during the year in different cities that received widespread media attention.

U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the Ministry of Children and Families to discuss the draft law on faith and life stance communities and public financing for faith and life stance organizations. In addition, embassy officials discussed with officials from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the government’s efforts to prosecute religiously based hate crimes as well as to promote religious freedom. The Charge d’Affaires hosted religious leaders from the Church of Norway, Roman Catholic Church, Jewish community, and Muslim Dialogue Network (MDN) at an event to promote interfaith dialogue. Embassy representatives continued to meet with individuals from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and numerous faith and religious minority groups, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Uighur Muslims, and humanists, to discuss issues such as religious freedom and tolerance and the integration of minority groups. The embassy routinely used social media to share messages of religious tolerance and to highlight religious holidays and events.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Statistics Norway, the official government statistics office, 69 percent of the population (December 2019 figure) belongs to the Church of Norway, an evangelical Lutheran denomination, a decline of 2.8 percentage points over the previous three years.

Statistics Norway, which assesses membership in religious groups using criteria based on registration, age, and attendance, reports registered membership in religious and life stance communities other than the Church of Norway is approximately 12.6 percent of the population (December 2019 estimate); 6.7 percent belongs to other Christian denominations, of which the Roman Catholic Church is the largest, at 3 percent, and 3.2 percent is Muslim. There are approximately 21,000 Buddhists, 11,400 Hindus, 4,000 Sikhs, and 1,500 Jews registered in the country. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) has approximately 4,600 members.

According to Statistics Norway, approximately 1.8 percent of the population participates in life stance organizations. The Norwegian Humanist Association reports approximately 100,000 registered members, making it the largest life stance organization in the country.

Immigrants, whom Statistics Norway defines as those born outside the country and their children, even if born in Norway, comprise the majority of members of religious groups outside the Church of Norway. Immigrants from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Philippines have increased the number of Catholics in the country, while those from countries including Syria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia have increased the size of the Muslim community. Catholics and Muslims generally have greater representation in cities than in rural areas. Muslims are located throughout the country but are mainly concentrated in the Oslo region. Most of the Jewish community resides in or near the cities of Oslo and Trondheim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all individuals shall have the right to free exercise of religion, and all religious and philosophical communities shall be supported on equal terms. The constitution also states, “The King shall at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion,” national values “will remain our Christian and humanistic heritage,” and “The Church of Norway shall remain the country’s established church and be supported by the state.” The law further specifies the right of individuals to choose or change their faith or life stance. Any person older than age 15 has the right to join or leave a religious or life stance community. Parents have the right to decide their child’s faith or life stance community before age 15, but they must take into consideration the views of the children once they reach the age of seven and give those views priority once they reach age 12.

The penal code specifies penalties, including a fine or imprisonment for up to six months, for discrimination based on faith or life stance, or for expressions of disrespect for religious beliefs or members of religious groups.

By law, the national government and local municipalities provide direct financial support to the Church of Norway. The national government provides an annual block grant that covers the cost of salaries, benefits, and pension plans of Church employees. The national government may provide additional support for other projects. By law, municipal governments provide financial support to the Church’s local activities, including maintenance and operation of Church buildings, as well as to public but Church-related properties, such as cemeteries and parks.

All registered faith and life stance organizations are eligible to apply for financial support from the government. The government pays prorated subsidies to nearly 800 such organizations based on their membership numbers, as compared to membership numbers of the Church of Norway.

In April, parliament enacted a new law governing religious life that included suggestions from the Church of Norway and other religious and life stance communities. The law was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2021. According to its provisions, faith and life stance organizations with at least 50 registered members may apply for state subsidies. The government shall pay prorated subsidies to organizations based on their membership numbers, as compared to membership numbers of the Church of Norway. Faith and life stance organizations must provide annual reports detailing activities, opportunities for children and youth, the use of the state subsidies, marital law administration, and gender equality, as well as any funds received from abroad. The government shall continue to provide the Church of Norway with an annual block grant that pays the full cost of salaries, benefits, and pension plans of Church employees. The government must provide additional funding to the Church of Norway for maintenance of cemeteries and religious buildings.

To register, a faith or life stance organization must notify the government and provide its creed and doctrine, activities, names of board members, names and responsibilities of group leaders, operating rules – including who may become a member – voting rights, and the processes for amending statutes and dissolution. According to a 2020 amendment to the Law on the Faith and Life Stance Communities, faith and life stance organizations no longer need to register with local municipalities. Per a new law adopted during the year, faith and life stance organizations no longer register with the county (state equivalent) governor. A group must report its national tally of members annually. If a religious group does not register, it does not receive financial support from the government, but there are no restrictions on its activities except that faith and life stance communities that practice or give support to violent activities or receive funding from abroad may lose financial support following an assessment by the state. Most religious organizations and life stance communities register and receive government funding. By law, a faith or life stance organization must have a minimum of 500 members to qualify for government funding.

Public schools include a mandatory course on Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Information (CKREE) for grades one through 10. State-employed instructors teach the CKREE course, which covers world religions and philosophies and promotes tolerance and respect for all religious beliefs, as well as for atheism. Students may not opt out of this course. Schools do not permit religious ceremonies, but schools may organize religious outings, such as attending Christmas services at a local Church of Norway church. At their parents’ request, children may opt out of participating in or performing specific acts related to religion, such as a class trip to a church. Parents need not give a reason for requesting an exemption. Students may apply to be absent to celebrate certain religious holidays, such as an Eid or Passover, but there is no celebration or observance of such holidays in public schools.

Members of minority religious groups must apply for annual leave from work in order to celebrate religious holidays; many Christian religious holidays are official holidays.

The law bans clothing at educational institutions that mostly or fully covers the face. The prohibition applies to students and teachers wearing burqas or niqabs in schools and day-care centers.

Police are responsible for investigating criminal cases of discrimination, including those involving religion, such as hate crimes. The government-funded but independent Equality and Antidiscrimination Ombudsman reviews noncriminal discrimination and harassment cases, including those involving religion.

Individuals may apply for a full exemption from the required registration for a year of military service for religious reasons and are not required to perform alternative service.

According to the law, an animal must be stunned or administered anesthetics before slaughter, making most traditional kosher and halal slaughter practices illegal. Halal and kosher meat may be imported. The Ministry of Agriculture and Food routinely waives import duties on halal and kosher meat and provides guidance on import procedures to the Jewish and Muslim communities.

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

Government Practices

On June 11, in a combined case, the Oslo District Court sentenced Philip Manshaus to 21 years in prison for the attack on the al-Noor Islamic Cultural Center and the killing of his stepsister in 2019. Manshaus must serve a minimum of 14 years before he can apply for parole, the strictest sentence ever given by a Norwegian court and the maximum allowed under the penal code. According to law, he may be required to serve more than 21 years if on review of his case it is determined that he remains a threat to society. Manshaus was also ordered to pay restitution to his stepmother for the death of his stepsister and to three al-Noor members who were present on the day of the attack.

Antiterror police extradited a man to France who had lived in the country since 1991 for links to a Palestinian group that carried out a 1982 attack on a restaurant in Paris’ predominantly Jewish Marais quarter that killed six and injured 20 individuals. Norway had rejected a 2015 extradition request by France.

The government continued to implement its 2016-20 action plan to counter anti-Semitism, funding projects carried out by government, academic institutions, and the Mosaic Community (DMT), the country’s principal Jewish organization. The plan emphasizes data collection, training and education programs in schools, research on anti-Semitism and Jewish life in the country, and efforts to safeguard Jewish culture and space. For example, the government provided 400,000 kroner ($46,900) to the Dembra program of the Holocaust Center, an independent research and educational center associated with the University of Oslo, for a 2020-21 program to collaborate with teacher training institutions to counter prejudice and internal discrimination. Under the plan, police authorities continued to revise their training curriculum to improve the reporting, processing, and investigation of religiously based hate crimes and to collect statistics on hate crimes, including anti-Semitic incidents.

On September 23, the government released a multiyear plan to combat discrimination and hate toward Muslims. The plan responded to recent studies showing an increase in negative attitudes and actions toward Muslims in the country, including the 2019 attack against the al-Noor Islamic Center, and the increasing threat from right-wing extremists, as reported by the Police Security Service in its annual threat assessment. The plan contained 18 measures that focused on research and education, dialogue across religious communities, and police initiatives, such as registration of hate crimes towards Muslims as a separate category in crime statistics. The plan also outlined a new grant scheme outlining security measures for religious and life stance communities and steps to raise awareness about discrimination and racism in the business community.

During the year, the Department of Justice received proposals for a five-million-kroner ($586,000) annual fund to enhance physical security for religious and life stance communities considered potential targets by the Police Security Service’s annual national threat assessment. The fund will be administered by the Norwegian Police Directorate. The Islamic Council criticized the funding amount as too little.

The government’s 2021 budget set aside 10 million kroner ($1.17 million) to build awareness of, and support research on, hate crimes as a part of its 2020-2023 Action Plan Against Racism and Discrimination on the Basis of Ethnicity and Religion.

In June, the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to bring a case to the Supreme Court after a court of appeals acquitted three men of hate speech charges arising from a 2018 incident in which they raised a Nazi flag outside the site of a World War II Gestapo headquarters.

The police continued to prohibit officers from wearing religious symbols, including religious headwear, with police uniforms. Other uniformed organizations allowed the use of religious headwear. The military provided some religious headwear that conformed to military dress regulations.

In October, the government eliminated a requirement introduced in 2014 that citizens must show their ears in official passport and national identity photographs, thereby allowing turbans and hijabs to be worn in such photographs.

Christian, Muslim, and humanist chaplains served as officers in the military. Religious and humanist groups provided chaplains at their own expense to hospitals, universities, and prisons.

Funded by the Ministry of Local Government and Modernization, the Oslo Synagogue, in coordination with the DMT, worked with the Oslo police to coordinate security for the synagogue and Jewish heritage sites in Oslo, and acted as an intermediary between the Jewish community and police to facilitate timely reporting and monitoring of hate crimes.

The Center Against Racism continued to provide training and advisory services to police on detecting, investigating, and prosecuting racial and religiously motivated hate crimes. Police continued to assign personnel to support and coordinate these efforts, including providing resources to maintain hate crime investigators in each of the country’s 12 police districts.

The National Criminal Investigation Service continued to maintain a website for the public to contact police to report hate crimes and hate speech, including religiously motivated incidents.

The national CKREE curriculum continued to include components on Judaism and the Holocaust. In addition, the Ministry of Education and Research continued grants for school programs that raised awareness about anti-Semitism and hate speech, including religiously motivated hate speech. The government also continued to fund the Jewish Pathfinders, a life module through which young Jews engaged with high school students about Judaism and being Jewish in the country. In many instances, these grants were provided as part of the government’s action plan against anti-Semitism.

The government introduced a new curriculum beginning in the fall 2020 semester. According to the Norwegian Humanist Association, the new CKREE curriculum, introduced in September, better reflects the breadth of religions and philosophies, although it continues to prioritize Christianity.

Schools nationwide observed Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. The government allocated 15.5 million kroner ($1.82 million) to support extracurricular programs that took secondary school students to Nazi concentration camps and other sites on three-day tours to educate them about the Holocaust, but it did not conduct these tours during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two NGOs with primary responsibility for these programs, Hvite Busser (White Buses) and Aktive Fredsreiser (Travel For Peace), continued providing teaching materials, entrance fees, guided tours, and tour guide expenses for students who took day trips. Schools facilitated fundraising activities among the students as well.

State support to religious and life stance organizations from both the national and municipal governments totaled approximately six billion kroner ($703.4 million) during the year. The government provided approximately 2.215 billion kroner ($259.7 million), or 587 kroner ($69) per registered member, to the Church of Norway for salaries and operating expenses during the year, including for pensions and benefits of Church employees and clergy. The government provided other registered religious and life stance organizations approximately 414.9 million kroner ($48.64 million) in total. The Church of Jesus Christ continued to be the only major religious community choosing to decline government funding. The Norwegian Humanist Association continued to criticize state and municipal funding for the maintenance of Church of Norway property, such as Church buildings and cemeteries, which other religious communities had to fund on their own.

Consistent with previous years, the government budget provided 5.1 million kroner ($598,000) in subsidies for Church of Norway buildings and 14.9 million kroner ($1.75 million) to religious dialogue and umbrella organizations, such as the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities (STL) and the Norwegian Humanist Association, to promote dialogue and tolerance among religious and life stance organizations.

The government continued to fund workshops and other intervention programs that featured practitioners who worked with religious minorities to promote their economic and social integration into society. Efforts focused on youth education and engaging local community stakeholders. For example, the government provided financial support to Minotenk, an organization that provided opportunities for young members of minority groups to publish books that were distributed to schools to raise awareness on issues related to minority communities, including minority religious communities.

Culture Minister Abid Raja spoke out against the anti-Muslim group SIAN prior to an August 29 rally in front of the parliament building, calling on counterdemonstrators not to give SIAN the attention it sought by appearing at the rally. The Vestland Police District initiated criminal investigations against SIAN leader Lars Thorsen, his deputy Ellen Due Brynjulfsen, and secretary Fanny Braten under the hate speech law following a SIAN rally in Bergen in August, but it dropped almost all charges after determining that the remarks did not rise to the level of hate speech under the law. At year’s end, one person remained under investigation for hate speech and awaited a final determination by the public prosecutor on whether the case would move forward.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A total of 807 hate-motivated crimes were reported nationwide during the year, of which 16.7 percent were religiously motivated. The number showed the first decline following a period of strong increase.

The Kristiansand Superintendent of Police, who also serves as Violent Extremism Coordinator, reported two main religious freedom concerns: the anti-Semitic Nordic Resistance Movement and increased anti-Muslim activity by individuals.

Representatives of the MDN, which represents 30,000 Muslims in the country, said that since the shooting at the al-Noor Islamic Center in 2019, fear of violence was a greater contributor to low attendance at mosques than COVID-19.

A Muslim woman working at the national hospital in Oslo told the newspaper Aftenposten in June that one patient screamed at her that “all Muslims were terrorists” and grabbed her hijab. The elderly patient reportedly stated that he “hated hijabs” and that the woman should “go home.”

In June, the Institute for Social Research, on behalf of the Immigration and Diversity Department, released its Study on the Attitudes to Immigration and Integration in Norway – Integration Barometer 2020. In this national survey, 63 percent of the 2,968 residents polled responded that the reason for problems with integration were that “many immigrations have a religion or culture that does not fit in Norway.” Almost the same number, 60 percent, believed discrimination hindered integration. Almost two-thirds believed there would be more conflict between religious groups in the country in the future. Fifty-two percent responded that Islam is not compatible with fundamental values in Norwegian society. The number that responded that Islam is not compatible with Norwegian society has hovered between 40 and 50 percent over the last 15 years in the same survey. Forty-five percent said they were skeptical of persons who practice Islam, while 53 percent said they were not skeptical of such persons. Seven of 10 respondents were skeptical of individuals with a strong Muslim faith.

The Holocaust Center, DMT, the Center against Racism, University of Oslo, and Institute for Social Research reported religiously motivated hate speech, particularly online, remained persistent. A leader in both the DMT and the Center against Racism said that anti-Semitism was trivialized in society; the leader criticized a lack of media reporting after three members of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) handed out hate propaganda outside a synagogue on Yom Kippur in September. Media reported that the NRM conducted a series of anti-Semitic actions on Yom Kippur in coordination with NRM groups in Denmark and Iceland. As in previous years, the DMT expressed concern about what it viewed as a continued tolerance of anti-Semitic expression in national media, and it stated online anti-Semitism had increased again during the year. It said there were websites operated by SIAN, NRM, Human Rights Service, and Document.no that tended to espouse an extreme, far-right ideology, including anti-Semitic and racist positions associated with the Nazis. They said that the NRM, with an estimated 100-200 members in the country, continued to maintain a strong online presence. The NRM, Document.no, SIAN (with 2,500-3,000 members), Resett.no, and Vigrid were among the most active, according to the DMT.

Police and NGOs also stated that a small but active minority continued to participate in online chat rooms, message boards, and forums such as 4chan, 8chan, and EndChan, which regularly featured anti-Semitic and/or anti-Muslim content. Police maintained mechanisms to receive tips on online hate movements, said the Kristiansand Police Superintendent.

The Holocaust Center stated anti-Muslim organizations such as SIAN, Human Rights Service, and Document.no again increased their activity during the year, including by writing articles online or in print media. The Holocaust Center stated the groups were relatively small but maintained a strong and well-organized presence on the internet. In many instances, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views were closely linked. SIAN held a number of rallies in different cities that received widespread media attention and that also included larger groups of counterprotesters. Oslo police arrested SIAN secretary Fanny Braten and approximately 20 counterdemonstrators who broke through police barriers after Braten tore pages out of the Quran and spat on them in front of the parliament building on August 29. A number of religious groups raised concerns regarding the difficulty in enforcing provisions of the hate speech law that target religion.

In a June conference hosted by the Foundation Dialogue for Peace, an organization that described itself as working for peace, reconciliation, and the promotion of respect in areas of conflict, Imam Nemat Ali Shah, leader of the Imam Council of Norway, representing approximately 200,000 Norwegian-Muslims, presented a letter to Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who was attending the conference. The letter stated, in part, “On behalf of the Norwegian Imam Council, we are very concerned that the development of hatred and discrimination against Muslims in Norway is increasing sharply. We see that groups that increasingly spread hatred and xenophobia against Muslims in Norway are increasingly being formed by burning the Qur’an and spreading misinformation.”

In October and November, the Norwegian branch of the U.K.-based charitable organization Islamic Relief Worldwide accepted the resignations of two of its three trustees following media reports of their anti-Semitic and pro-Hamas postings on social media.

The Holocaust Center continued to conduct programs on the Holocaust and to combat anti-Semitism, with financial support from the government. The center developed instructional materials on the tolerance of religious diversity and distributed them to high schools nationwide. It published numerous articles and books documenting anti-Semitism and the persecution of religious minorities throughout the world. The center operated a website that provided a comprehensive overview of anti-Semitism and served as a foundation for the center’s educational efforts. It also screened materials used in public schools for anti-Semitic content. In addition, the center continued to operate a museum and library supported by its research organization and to offer a wide range of educational materials, programs, exhibitions, and publications. The center also organized a memorial ceremony at the Oslo monument to the victims of the Holocaust, in collaboration with the DMT.

The Holocaust Center continued to play a significant role in supporting the government’s action plan against anti-Semitism by developing educational materials and online platforms for the Ministry of Education and Research and monitoring anti-Semitic (and anti-Muslim) attitudes throughout society. It conducted research on Jewish life in the country, anti-Semitism in Scandinavia, religious extremism and radicalization, and hate crimes, both on its own initiative and on behalf of parliament and government ministries. It also advised the STL. Media frequently cited the center’s staff as legal, policy, or historical experts on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and religious issues, as well as on ethnic/religious oppression and genocide internationally.

The STL continued to foster interfaith dialogue by holding joint meetings with all its member communities, including virtual events when COVID-19 restrictions barred most public gatherings. Its mandate was to promote the equal treatment of religious and life stance communities and respect and understanding among all individuals and faith and life stance communities through dialogue. It received support from the government, as well as financial and in-kind contributions from its member organizations.

Minotenk said it believed that more research and knowledge about how Muslims live their lives in different parts of the country was important in developing a broader picture of the challenges faced by the Muslim community. Minotenk criticized the fact that only 10 of 428 communes in 2019 had action plans against discrimination against minorities. In the wake of the al-Noor attack in 2019, Minotenk highlighted the importance for mosques of local police contacts, since there were several large mosques in the greater Oslo area. Minotenk also requested that all police districts publish a report on hate crime statistics that was similar to the Oslo Police District’s annual report.

In September, the Church of Norway’s Bishop of Oslo expressed support for the country’s move toward equality for all faiths and life stances under the law following the government’s transfer of the Church Council and the Bishop’s Offices from government supervision to a newly independent and separate Church of Norway in 2017.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with officials of the Ministry of Children and Families who worked on religious issues to discuss the law on religion and public financing for faith and life stance organizations. Embassy officials regularly met with the Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss threats to religious freedom. They also met with officials from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, as well as the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman, to discuss efforts to track, investigate, and prosecute religiously based hate crimes.

The Charge d’Affaires hosted four religious leaders from the Church of Norway, Roman Catholic Church, Jewish community, and Muslim Dialogue Network at an event to promote interfaith dialogue on September 24. He underscored the importance the United States places on religious freedom, citing the President’s June 2 Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom, and shared the significant persecution of religious adherents he personally witnessed during his diplomatic work in the former Soviet Union and more recently in China.

The embassy used social media to honor a range of religious holidays celebrated by different faiths in the country. In January, the embassy commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with digital events. The government held a drive-in Eid al-Fitr feast in May that was livestreamed by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. The embassy promoted the feast and similar virtual events on social media.

During the year, embassy officials traveled to areas of historical tension for religious minority groups, including Kristiansand, to gather information on issues faced by ethnic and religious minorities, where they met with representatives of the joint Somali and Pakistani mosque.

Embassy staff engaged a wide range of religious and civil society groups to discuss religious freedom, integration of minority groups, life as a religious person, and efforts to promote religious tolerance in the country, as well as their concerns about religious discrimination and perceptions of government favoritism for the Church of Norway. These groups included the STL, DMT, MDN, Catholic Church, Church of Norway, Church of Jesus Christ, Humanist Association of Norway, Amnesty International, Sikh community, Uighur Muslim representatives, Center for Holocaust Studies and Religious Minorities, Minotenk, Norwegian Church Youth Project, Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Norwegian Christian advisory council (an umbrella organization for Christian churches in Norway), Stefanus Alliance (a Christian missions and human rights organization), Buddhist community, and Foundation Dialogue for Peace.

Philippines

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship. At year’s end, two Catholic priests continued to face charges of conspiracy to commit sedition over their alleged involvement in the production and release of a 2019 video linking President Rodrigo Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade. Muslim groups expressed objections to an antiterrorism law passed in July, citing fears that it could lead to restraints in the free practice and free expression of their faith. Several Muslim lawmakers, lawyers, and citizens who said they were arbitrarily designated as members of terrorist groups, filed petitions before the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law infringed on the freedom of religious expression. In addition, Catholic and Protestant groups expressed concern over reported cases of church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

During the year, killings, bombings, and kidnappings by ISIS-affiliated and other terrorist groups continued. In May, alleged Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) terrorists killed two children, aged 10 and seven, and injured 13 others when a mortar shell landed in a residential area in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during a BIFF attack against the Armed Forced of the Philippines (AFP) on Eid al-Fitr. ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including an August suicide bombing in Jolo that killed 15 people and wounded 75 others. Following the attack, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Bishop Charlie Inzon, called for peace.

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country where Muslims are the majority of the population, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported some tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu Province. The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country, such as private companies requiring information on religion in job applications and discriminatory comments from private citizens. Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination.

The U.S. embassy conducted a broad range of engagement throughout the year with the government to highlight the importance of international religious freedom. In June, the Ambassador met with leaders of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and assured them of continued U.S. government support. Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagements, the embassy continued to use online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths. The embassy supported a virtual iftar event with 25 former participants of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs, during which participants discussed religious tolerance and its importance in building community trust. An embassy program continued to train religious leaders and youth organizations and encourage dialogue to foster social cohesion in religiously diverse areas of Mindanao.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 109.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 census (the most recent) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), 79.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 9 percent belong to other Christian groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other Christian groups include locally established churches, such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ); Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan or IFI); Members Church of God International; The Kingdom of Jesus Christ; and The Name above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim, according to the PSA, while the NCMF estimates a figure of 10 to 11 percent. The NCMF attributes its higher estimate to a number of factors, including the reluctance of Muslims to officially register with the civil registrar office or to participate in the formal survey; the community’s transience due to internal movement for work; and the government’s failure to survey Muslim areas and communities thoroughly. According to the PSA, approximately 4 percent of those surveyed in the 2015 census did not report a religious affiliation or belonged to other faiths, such as animism or indigenous syncretic faiths.

A majority of Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups and reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Muslims constitute a majority in the BARMM. Although most are practitioners of Sunni Islam, a small minority of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur in Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila, Baguio, Dumaguete, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Cotabato, and Davao, a trend that accelerated after the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi during which local residents fled to other provinces for their security.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights. The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship as well as any person “notoriously” offending religious feelings during such services or in a place of worship.

The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status. Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and bylaws to the SEC in order to register as religious corporations. The SEC requires religious corporations to submit annual financial statements. The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC. To register as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR. The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors. The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years. The BIR may fine religious corporations for the late filing of registrations or for failing to submit registration datasheets and financial statements.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory; parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space. Students who do not attend religious instruction because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire receive normal supervised class time. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. The law mandates that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslim beliefs as well as the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples, when formulating the national history curriculum.

By law, public schools must protect the religious rights of students. Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.

The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts, all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. Sharia courts handle only cases relating to personal laws affecting family relations and property. Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.

The BARMM is a Muslim-led autonomous region, established by the central government in January 2019 following the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, with jurisdiction over five provinces and three major noncontiguous cities. The Bangsamoro Organic Law provides the framework for the transition to greater autonomy for the area’s majority Muslim population.

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

Government Practices

A report released in October by the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA) in partnership with the UCCP found that 16 Christian church leaders and members were killed between 2017 and 2020 by unknown assailants, although in some cases, witnesses accused local police of committing the killings. Of the victims, three were Catholic priests, one was a UCCP pastor, one was a Kings Glory Ministry pastor, and 11 were lay members, including five from the IFI and one from the UCCP. In August, unknown assailants on a motorbike shot and killed Zara Alvarez, a Church Workers Solidarity Group ecumenical volunteer who documented extrajudicial killings by security forces and other human rights abuses for a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report. The government had included Alvarez on a list of individuals accused of being terrorists (a list that also included a UN special rapporteur), a label which, according to the report, often led to targeting by death squads.

The UCA report also documented 29 church leaders and members who received death threats and harassment after speaking out against the Duterte government between 2017 and 2020. Incidents of harassment and intimidation included arbitrary arrests on what church groups described as false charges. The report stated that the government frequently labeled critics and human rights activists as “terrorists.” The UCA report noted that on July 9, a UCCP clergyman was arrested on accusations of involvement in a 2018 armed ambush against the military. Church members said he was presiding over a worship service at the time and could not have been involved. The clergyman was released on July 24, but soldiers continued to file charges against him.

On March 28, media reported on a video in which a Santa Ana police officer beat a member of the Golden Mosque compound for violating curfew. Philippine National Police (PNP) police chief General Archie Gamboa ordered an investigation of the incident.

Some Catholic clergy who vocally criticized extrajudicial killings attributed to the war on drugs under President Duterte or who stated their opposition to the reinstatement of the death penalty again reported being harassed, intimidated, and threatened with death by unknown perpetrators. As of the end of the year, Catholic priests Albert Alejo and Flaviano Villanueva continued to face charges of conspiracy to commit sedition. The government originally charged the two priests, as well as four bishops, a third priest, and members of the opposition, with sedition, cyberlibel, libel, and obstruction of justice in July 2019 over their alleged involvement in the production and release of a video earlier that year linking President Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade. Various ecumenical groups condemned the charges, filed through the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group. Prosecutors dropped all charges against the four bishops and the third priest for lack of evidence.

Several Muslim groups filed objections with the Supreme Court to the Antiterrorism Act of 2020, passed in July, citing fears that the law could result in arrests made due to mistaken identity and stereotyping, which could lead to restraints in the free practice and expression of their faith. Muslim lawmakers and lawyers stated that the provision in the law that punishes those “inciting” acts of terrorism specifically restrains them from teaching the concept of jihad, which they said has been erroneously related to terrorist attacks. Three Muslim citizens who said they were arbitrarily designated as members of terrorist groups filed a separate, similar petition. The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, a Catholic group, also filed a petition to the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law would lead to missionaries and Christian faithful being labeled as terrorists. They stated that church workers often work with the poor and other marginalized sectors of society – the same sectors that, they said, “overzealous” members of the national police and armed forces often accuse of having terrorist ties.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) expressed concern over reported cases of Church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the NPA, the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, also known as “red-tagging.” In May, Catholic priest Raymond Montero Ambray accused the AFP of falsely linking him to the NPA in a post on a Facebook account that was subsequently deactivated. Ambray worked with the indigenous Lumad peoples, whom the AFP frequently accused of harboring NPA fighters, and said that the post was intended to end his work with the Lumads through intimidation. The AFP denied Ambray’s allegations.

In January, the PNP Manila Police District internally released a memorandum requiring schools to identify Muslim students in all high schools, colleges, and universities in Metropolitan Manila as part of the PNP’s countering violent extremism efforts. Muslim leaders in Mindanao, including BARMM authorities, and the interfaith organization Duyog Marawi expressed outrage, saying that the move promoted Islamophobia and discrimination, particularly against the Muslim minority in Metropolitan Manila. The reactions led to the Metropolitan Manila police chief recalling the memorandum and announcing the PNP would organize a dialogue between the PNP and Muslim student leaders. As of the end of the year, the PNP had not confirmed whether the dialogue took place.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, passed in March, granted special powers to the President to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. Mass gatherings, including religious gatherings, were prohibited from March 13 through June 1. Gatherings continued to be prohibited throughout Manila and Luzon until August. Restrictions were then gradually eased to 10 percent, 20 percent, and then 30 percent of capacity as of October. Public Holy Week celebrations and travel were also prohibited. Many religious leaders stated that religious institutions were being unfairly treated, with malls and other establishments allowed to open before religious services. On June 7, Catholic Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan Socrates Villegas said, “I am very afraid that there is an implied persecution of our faith because going to Mass, attending the Eucharist, worshiping the Lord, is lumped together in the same group as going to the barber shop and going to the theater to watch a movie.”

In June, media reported that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict designated the National Council of Churches Philippines (NCCP) and two of its member churches, the UCCP and the IFI, as “open sectoral organizations” of the NPA. The NCCP, one of the largest associations of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic Christian denominations in the country, described the designation as an attack on its “right to exercise the freedom of religion.” The IFI also condemned the designation and said that red-tagging encouraged government agents and other individuals to violently attack church members.

President Duterte continued to criticize the Catholic Church despite a 2018 vow not to do so. In January, in a public speech containing explicit language, he stated that he had won the presidential election in 2016 despite insulting the Pope and Catholic bishops and said that such criticism was needed to win a “war” against the Catholic Church. Media reported that the criticism was related to the Church’s public comments about human rights abuses linked to Duterte’s antidrug campaign. Some clergy continued to raise concerns that the manner in which the President denounced the Church promoted violence against its priests and leaders.

In July, prior to the President’s State of the Nation Address, police confiscated protest materials from parishioners during a Mass at the Quiapo Catholic Church in Manila after a church security officer reported to police that attendees were holding placards. The materials protested the Antiterrorism Act. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who also attended the Mass, spoke to the PNP and said the materials were not being used during the Mass.

The Department of Education continued to support its Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or more. For the 2018-19 school year, 1,686 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 145,591 students, compared with 1,622 schools and 158,093 students the previous year. The program aims to integrate madrassahs into the public education system while preserving Islamic education for Muslim Filipinos.

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF or the Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curricula that were subject to government oversight. The Department of Education did not provide updates during the year. There were 85 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year. Many private madrassahs, however, choose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives.

The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. By law, only registered schools or madrassahs may receive financial assistance from the government. Madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The Department of Education did not provide updates during the year. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 25 percent from 2018 to 2019. During 2019, the Department of Education provided funding of 90,960,000 pesos ($1.89 million) to 18,192 private madrassah students, compared with 67,510,000 pesos ($1.4 million) allocated to 13,502 private madrassah students in 2018.

Since the inauguration of the BARMM in March 2019, the transition government suffered some setbacks and delays in establishing the permanent legal framework for a Muslim-led autonomous region due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front-led interim authority conducted consultations with Christian minority groups and indigenous peoples with the stated purpose of ensuring their concerns are addressed.

NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination continued to occur in government offices but cited no specific examples. Some Muslim leaders continued to express concern about the low percentage of Muslims in senior government and military positions. There were 13 Muslims in the 301-member House of Representatives, but no Muslims in the 24-member Senate. There was one Muslim member of the cabinet, the head of the NCMF, and President Duterte appointed Muslims to a small number of senior positions, such as commissioner of the Social Security System, member of the Board of Directors of the Cooperation Development Authority, and Undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture.

The PSA estimated during the year that 40 percent of a total of five million unregistered residents were children who were 14 or younger, primarily among Muslim and indigenous groups. Citizenship derives from birth to a citizen parent. The government initiated a pilot program in Metropolitan Manila that provided undocumented Muslim Filipinos with an identity card – the Muslim Filipino Identity Card – stating that it was intended to help them access services, since many in this population did not have a birth certificate. Sources stated that the lack of a birth certificate did not generally result in a denial of education or other services, but it could cause delays in some circumstances. Undocumented Filipinos could use this secondary identification when applying for jobs, school, and for other government services in lieu of a birth certificate or formal registry. The NCMF noted that this secondary identification helped overseas Filipino workers who found themselves in precarious labor situations. If their employers confiscated their passports, having a secondary form of identification could speed the government’s citizenship assessment, thus providing fast repatriation services. Critics expressed reservations about the potential for abuse in similar initiatives in the past.

Muslim officials continued to report that, while Muslim prison detainees were allowed to engage in religious observances, Roman Catholic Mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to both Catholic and non-Catholic prison populations.

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment is responsible for administering logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that it was at the height of its Hajj operations when the Philippine government imposed COVID-19 quarantine measures. It continued to assist Hajj travelers until the Saudi embassy informed the NCMF in June that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to Saudi citizens and foreign expatriates residing in Saudi Arabia only. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings in the south of the country to the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – both of which are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other ISIS-related terrorist groups. In May, alleged BIFF terrorists killed two children, aged 10 and seven, and injured 13 others when a mortar shell landed in a residential area in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during an attack by the BIFF against the AFP on Eid al-Fitr. ISIS claimed responsibility for an August suicide bombing in Jolo in Sulu Province that killed 15 people and wounded 75 others. The attacker detonated the bombs a few yards from a Catholic church that ISIS suicide bombers had previously attacked in January 2019, killing 20 and wounding 102. Following the attack, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Bishop Charlie Inzon, called for peace. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country where Muslims comprise the majority of the population, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity.

Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported tensions among different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu Province. Social media comments denigrating the beliefs or practices of Muslims continued to appear.

The NCMF reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country. For example, the NCMF reported that private companies often required job seekers to list their religion on job applications. The NCMF also said that private citizens made discriminatory comments linking Muslim Filipinos to violence, especially following a violent incident either in the country or abroad. Following the August suicide attack in Jolo, Sulu Province, the NCMF reported that a text message circulated among non-Muslims in Mindanao warning them to take extra precautions.

In August, the Commission on Human Rights reported that a female member of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church wearing conservative attire was denied entry to a provincial sports complex for not wearing proper sports attire.

Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. The CBCP collaborated with other Christian groups and the government Interagency Council against Human Trafficking to combat trafficking in persons and partnered with other Christian groups to campaign against the death penalty and the Antiterrorism Act of 2020. The CBCP also engaged with other faith-based organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities and to promote solidarity, peace, and harmony. In February, Equal Access International – a peace promotion NGO – hosted the OURmindaNOW 2020 peace summit in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao, which enabled interreligious dialogue among more than 400 participants. The summit encouraged participants, brought together from different faith groups, to craft a shared vision of the future of Mindanao by considering how to transform violent extremism, empower youth, and highlight positive narratives using alternative media.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy conducted a broad range of engagement throughout the year with the government to highlight the importance of international religious freedom. In June, the Ambassador met with leaders of BARMM and assured them of continued U.S. government support.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagement, the embassy continued to use online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths, including highlighting subjects such as freedom to worship and the importance of religious tolerance.

The embassy posted a series of articles and videos on social media in observance of Religious Freedom Day on January 16. In one of the posts, the embassy highlighted the work of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, who in the 1930s offered a safe haven in the country to Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Europe.

In February, embassy social media amplified the launch of the U.S.-led International Religious Freedom Alliance and also provided funding support to a Mindanao peace summit in Cagayan de Oro that enabled interreligious dialogue among more than 400 participants.

In May, the embassy supported a virtual iftar program organized by Muslim former participants of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs in Mindanao to demonstrate U.S. support for religious freedom and tolerance. The event concluded with a virtual iftar with 25 former participants of different U.S. exchange programs, including the governor of Lanao del Sur, who provided messages of support and contributed to the discussion of religious tolerance and its importance in creating community trust.

Other embassy initiatives included a series of social media postings on completion of the reconstruction of a church in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. The rehabilitation was led by the National Museum of the Philippines, with the support of the U.S. government through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.

An ongoing U.S. program continued to engage religious leaders and youth organizations to stimulate social cohesion in select religiously diverse areas of Mindanao that were vulnerable to violent conflict, including violent extremism. The program is aimed at fostering social cohesion by training and engaging religious and youth leaders to effectively represent their groups in support of peace. The project is also aimed at creating opportunities for dialogue to mitigate and address violent conflict and violent extremism.

Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). A constitutional amendment approved in a July referendum cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors, the first and only reference to God in the constitution. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, and and/or physically abuse persons or seize their property because of their religious faith, including members of groups the government classified as extremist and banned, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The human rights NGO Memorial identified 228 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation and whom it considered to be political prisoners, compared with 245 in 2019. Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities again detained hundreds of its members and physically abused some of them, including one whom law enforcement agents beat, strangled, and electrically shocked to force a confession and elicit false statements against his fellow members. Five other Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids reported that law enforcement agents beat them while in custody. Religious groups said the government continued to use antiterrorism regulations to restrict religious freedom, including proselytizing and banning religious literature. Authorities designated seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong as “undesirable” foreign organizations and barred them from working in the country. Additionally, a court in Novosibirsk declared an independent regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and prohibited it from operating there. The NGO SOVA Center said that proposed amendments to the law regulating religion, pending at year end, might allow for arbitrary government interference among minority religious groups due to vague language prohibiting religious institutions from having connections with individuals the country’s courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.” A fraud case against representatives of the Church of Scientology remained pending in St. Petersburg. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported workplace harassment of members again increased, and forced resignations continued at some of their workplaces when employers discovered their religious affiliation. The country’s chief rabbi stated anti-Semitism was at a historic low, but the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities said levels of latent anti-Semitism in the country remained high. The Russian Jewish Congress reported that authorities arrested two persons suspected of planning to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar in September. According to the SOVA Center, media continued to issue defamatory reports about minority religious groups. The same group reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism. Incidents included setting fire to a synagogue in Arkhangelsk, destroying headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, vandalizing a monument to Holocaust victims in Rostov-on-Don, and breaking a Buddhist stupa near Sukhaya. A priest and former member of the ROC hierarchy made numerous anti-Semitic remarks from the pulpit during the year; he was subsequently expelled from the ROC and a court fined him 18,000 rubles ($240).

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities. The Ambassador spoke on the importance of remembering the Holocaust and combating religious persecution at a multifaith gathering at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in January. In March, the Ambassador discussed cooperation to promote religious freedom with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. The embassy condemned the attack on the Jewish synagogue and cultural center in Arkhangelsk and called for a thorough investigation. In November, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. The Ambassador then met with Jehovah’s Witness representatives to discuss the group’s ongoing persecution and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating for religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 142.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A poll conducted in September by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim, while 26 percent reported having no religious faith. Religious groups each constituting approximately one percent or less of the population include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, members of the Church of Scientology, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is 172,500, while the Federation of Jewish Communities assesses there are approximately 1.5 million persons of Jewish heritage. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, there were 25 million Muslims in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia, which experts estimate at six to seven million, are mostly Muslim. Most Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

Among a set of constitutional amendments approved in a July referendum is one citing the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors. The new language is the first and only explicit reference to God in the constitution. In March, prior to the referendum, the Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed amendment’s reference to God did not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasized the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,400), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

Anti-extremism legislation stipulates that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities. Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred. The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,100), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($10,700) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities as well as to persons in management roles at commercial entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,400). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative and criminal penalties for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.

According to the 2017 Supreme Court ruling declaring the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, all Jehovah’s Witness activities, including the organization’s websites and all regional branches, are banned. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community. These organizations are on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ), of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with requisite notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, and “other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings and facilities or on lands owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel. Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

Federal law defines “missionary activity” as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400 to $670) and are subject to administrative deportation.

Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional board experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis. If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days. Very rarely, courts, in response to a legal challenge, may also reverse a decision to blacklist material deemed extremist. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($13 to $40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27 to $67) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If such a structure does not meet legal requirements or is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in-home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations but not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms. Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or stateless person from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism.”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.

The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse persons on account of their religious belief or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.

At year’s end, Memorial identified 228 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. The figure represented a seven percent decrease from the 245 reported in 2019. Memorial stated that the actual number of cases of persecution was likely three to four times higher, given the number of cases the organization identified as similar to those designated as political prisoners; however, the organization said it lacked the supporting, corroborating evidence to make designations in those instances. Memorial’s list of political prisoners included 61 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 142 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts.

At year’s end, a case filed in 2019 by Jehovah’s Witnesses with the ECHR stating the government violated their members’ freedom of thought, conscience, and religion remained pending.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and NGOs stated Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police continued to carry out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses and again detained hundreds of suspected members. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities had raided more than 1,100 homes of members between early 2017 and November throughout the country, including in Moscow for the first time. The group reported 477 searches of homes and apartments during the year, compared to 489 in 2019 and 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.

In February, Jehovah’s Witnesses and various media sources reported the FSB and other law enforcement personnel searched 50 houses in the city of Chita and other towns of the Transbaikal Region and committed numerous abuses. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported security forces handcuffed and beat a minor in front of his family. They also stated authorities beat and strangled Vadim Kutsenko, as well as subjected him to electric shocks while handcuffed to force a confession and elicit false statements against fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities released Kutsenko from detention after five days and placed him under house arrest. After 50 days, authorities released him on his own recognizance. At year’s end, Kutsenko remained a suspect in the ongoing investigation connected to the raids.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18 also reported authorities took five other Jehovah’s Witnesses seized in the raids in the Transbaikal Region to Orenburg Labor Camp No. 1, where they beat them. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because of the abuse, one Witness suffered a broken rib, a punctured lung, and damage to his kidneys. The European Union (EU), joined by six non-EU states, issued a statement expressing deep concern over the incident and calling upon the government to permit the peaceful expression of religion by all persons, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In April, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Viktor Malkov, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, died three months after his release from eight months in detention, during which he was denied care for chronic health problems.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that two of their members, Roman Makhnev and Dmitriy Kuzin, whom authorities had arrested and detained for six months in Kaluga in 2019, were released in late December of that year. After their release, a court sentenced the two to a further two months of house arrest. By year’s end, both were released from house arrest and were awaiting the results of a preliminary investigation.

On May 27, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the FSB conducted raids of adherents’ homes in Khabarovsk and Vyazembsky. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated one masked FSB agent entered the house of 68-year-old Yen Sen Li, struck him, and injured his hands while placing him in handcuffs. The FSB detained Li for 13 hours before releasing him after he agreed to sign a statement of self-incrimination. He was alleged to have organized a worship group among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On July 13, according to widespread media reports and an official press release from the government of the Voronezh Region, investigators, local police, and National Guard troops carried out 110 raids on the homes of dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that region. Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities physically abused adherents during the raids and that security forces tortured five Witnesses while in detention, demanding that they incriminate themselves. Jehovah’s Witnesses Yuri Galka and Anatol Yagupov stated the security forces placed bags over their heads and beat them during their interrogations, and in the case of Galka, twisted his arms behind his back, tightened the bag on his head until he began to suffocate, and broke one of his ribs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, security forces also repeatedly put a plastic bag over Alexander Korol’s head and tied it around his neck to coerce him to divulge information about other Witnesses until the bag broke. Korol said agents hit him in the face several times and threatened “to use needles” before transporting him 40 kilometers (25 miles) to another location for further interrogation and placing him in a holding cell for 48 hours. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Korol was forced to ask strangers for funds to return home when authorities released him without explanation after confiscating his phone.

On November 24, law enforcement officers carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and more than 20 other regions across the country. The Federal Investigative Committee said the raids and subsequent arrests were part of a new criminal case against Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they stated had illegally been carrying out activities at the organization’s headquarters in Moscow and at its regional branches since June 2019, charges the group denied. The committee did not say how many worshippers had been detained, stating only that they were both organizers and participants in the movement. Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were at least 10 raids and four detentions in Moscow. During one of the raids, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported law enforcement officers hit Vardan Zakaryan in the head with an automatic rifle. Zakaryan was hospitalized before being placed into custody. A court released Zakaryan from detention and placed him under house arrest on November 30.

Forum 18 reported officials tortured individuals detained for exercising freedom of religion or belief with impunity. Following accusations of torture by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Blagoveshchensk, Surgut, and Kaluga, Forum 18 said authorities had taken no steps to hold the officials accountable, as none had been arrested or tried in court.

As a result of what they described as increasing government persecution since a Supreme Court ruling banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in 2017, representatives of the group said that their members continued to flee the country but that there were still more than 150,000 adherents remaining.

The SOVA Center reported authorities had initiated criminal cases against 424 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 60 regions throughout the country since 2017; 110 new criminal cases were opened during the year, compared with 213 in 2019. Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that of those accused, 49 adherents were placed into pretrial detention and another 23 spent a few days in temporary detention facilities before being released.

The SOVA Center reported that of previously initiated cases, courts passed at least 25 sentences against 46 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses stated district courts convicted 39 adherents of extremism; of these, 21 were awaiting appellate hearings. At year’s end, the representatives said 46 adherents remained behind bars, including 36 in pretrial detention facilities and 10 in penal colonies.

Prior to the sentencing of Gennady Shpakovsky to 6.5 years in prison in February, the longest prison term given to a Jehovah’s Witness was the six-year sentence Danish citizen Dennis Christensen received in 2019, in the Kursk Region. In June, Christensen was scheduled for early release after agreeing to pay a fine in lieu of his remaining prison time. According to various media sources and NGOs, however, the prosecutor’s office, which had previously endorsed the early release, filed a last-minute appeal to reverse it, stating Christensen had violated prison rules, including by failing to wear a special prisoner’s jacket and being in the prison canteen at the wrong time – assertions Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs said were spurious. Christensen reported that during his ongoing imprisonment, he suffered from numerous health problems, including pneumonia, and was repeatedly refused treatment because his medical card was “lost.” In October, the Lgov District Court denied Christensen’s appeal for early release. Christensen, detained since May 2017, remained in prison at year’s end and was reportedly scheduled to complete his sentence in May 2022, which included time served during pretrial detention.

Forum 18 reported that on September 2, the Beryozovsky City Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years’ imprisonment at a labor camp for organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization. The two men had already spent more than 520 days in detention and 250 days under house arrest prior to the judge’s decision. They appealed the court’s decision and at year’s end were awaiting the decision while detained in Investigation Prison No. 4 in Anzhero-Sudzhensk.

On October 7, the Kabardino-Balkaria’s Maisky District Court acquitted Jehovah’s Witness Yuri Zalipaev, who had been charged with possession of extremist materials and inciting others to violence. Prosecutors appealed the decision, and, as of November, the case was pending in the appellate court. On October 9, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a court in the Kostroma Region, near Moscow, pronounced suspended jail sentences of eight and seven years, respectively, for Sergei and Valeria Rayman, a married Jehovah’s Witnesses couple. Sergei’s sentence was longer than the seven-year conditionally suspended sentence requested by the prosecutor and was the longest conditionally suspended jail sentence yet given to a Jehovah’s Witness. As part of their suspended sentences, the Raymans remained subject to multiple restrictions, including on personal travel and access to telephones and the internet. After a 2018 house raid, authorities had charged the Raymans with participating in religious extremism and holding a Bible discussion in their home.

The trial of Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin, two Jehovah’s Witnesses whom authorities arrested in 2019 and charged with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization,” remained pending. On April 16, the Krasnodar Regional Court ordered Kuzichkin released from pretrial detention and placed him under house arrest, where he was prohibited from correspondence and contact with other persons. On December 18, a district court in Sochi found Popov and Kuzichkin guilty of organizing extremist activities, sentencing Kuzichkin to 13 months and Popov to 22 months in prison. The court credited the time spent in pretrial detention and under house arrest towards both men’s sentences. Popov was subsequently released into house arrest from the pretrial detention center on December 29, where he had been held for 15 months.

Authorities charged 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses detained as a result of the July 13 raids in Voronezh with organizing an extremist community, preaching, and recruiting new members between 2018 and 2020. In December, a Voronezh city court released six of the Witnesses from pretrial detention and the other four from house arrest. The 10 Witnesses still faced restrictions on their personal travel and communication with others. At year’s end, the investigations remained open and trials had not been scheduled.

For the first time, authorities stripped a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses of his citizenship. Felix Makhammadiev had moved to Saratov from Uzbekistan with his mother as a minor and subsequently became a Russian citizen. Makhammadiev had been convicted in 2019 of organizing extremist activities. While serving his sentence, Makhammadiev reported he was tortured and had to undergo surgery to drain fluid from his lung caused by a beating. The Ministry of Internal Affairs in Saratov nullified Makhammadiev’s citizenship on April 17, citing his conviction for extremist activity. On December 31, authorities released him from prison before immediately placing him in a deportation center. Authorities in Saratov stripped Konstantin Bazhenov, who was convicted in the same case as Makhammadiev, of his citizenship on April 20. Bazhenov, who was born in Russia but moved to Ukraine as a child, had both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.

According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, at the end of the year, the group had 59 applications pending with the ECHR, 12 pending complaints under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the UN Human Rights Committee, and six complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings. On May 6, the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a nonbinding decision concerning 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, calling the cases brought against them unlawful and urging the authorities to immediately release those arrested. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said delays in the ECHR process were at least partially due to COVID-19.

According to Memorial, authorities had convicted, investigated, or charged 237 persons for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir since the Supreme Court first labeled the group a terrorist organization and banned it in 2003; of those, 199 had been tried and convicted. Human Rights Watch characterized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group that aimed to establish an Islamic caliphate, but which renounced violence. Since 2003, courts have sentenced 65 persons to between 10 and 15 years in prison, and 78 to 15 years or more. The total excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula whom Russian occupation authorities initially detained in Crimea before transferring them to Russia, where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir remained legal in Ukraine.

On February 10, Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported the Central Military District Court convicted Eduard Nizamov, whom the government stated was the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and sentenced him to 23 years in a maximum-security prison. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges and said authorities beat him and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention.

Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported that on February 5, a military court sentenced 10 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years. The prosecution asserted the members were involved in the creation of a local terrorism cell, assisted in terrorism, and distributed propaganda that supported terrorism. The prosecution did not allege the defendants planned or carried out any specific acts, but rather that they held meetings to discuss their faith and political views, printed leaflets, and organized public recruitment events. The accused all denied the charges, stating they condemned terrorism and questioned the validity of the evidence brought against them in the court.

On September 21, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and sentences of 18 defendants prosecuted for their membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to Memorial. The individuals, all originally convicted in Ufa in 2018, received sentences of between 10 and 24 years in a maximum-security prison colony.

Authorities continued to investigate and detain alleged members of other Islamic organizations. Local media reported on June 6 that FSB agents in Moscow conducted searches and detained several supporters of Tablighi Jamaat, an organization that Memorial characterized as a peaceful, international Islamic missionary movement. FSB investigators opened a criminal case against the individuals on the grounds that they were participating in a banned religious organization. On July 31, local media reported that FSB officers detained six members of Tablighi Jamaat in the Volgograd Region. Authorities said banned extremist literature was found on the individuals and opened a criminal investigation.

In September, according to press reports, the FSB, police, and other security agencies launched a raid in Krasnoyarsk Region in Siberia and arrested Sergei Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion, and two of his aides. Torop is the founder and leader of the Church of the Last Testament. The Novosibirsk Central District Court ordered the detention of Torop, and the prosecutor’s office in Krasnoyarsk Territory filed a suit seeking dissolution of the Church. Authorities alleged the Church was an illegal religious organization and that Torop had extorted money from his followers and subjected them to emotional abuse. As of the end of the year, Torop remained in custody while authorities conducted psychiatric evaluations, and his trial date remained pending.

The Times of Israel reported October 21 that Jewish prisoner Danil Beglets, sentenced to two years in a penal colony in 2019 for pushing a policeman during a Moscow protest, went on a hunger strike to protest being forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath. Beglets stated authorities punished him for declining to work on the Sabbath and did not provide him with kosher food. Beglets further appealed to Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar to intervene on his behalf.

Memorial said the average length of sentences for religious prisoners on their list continued to increase. The group stated that between 2016 and 2018, the average prison sentence for these persons increased from 6.6 to 9.1 years.

Forum 18 stated authorities also sought to prosecute citizens living abroad who exercised their freedom of religion or belief. The NGO said the government had issued three Red Notices (requests to law enforcement worldwide to locate and detain individuals) through Interpol, two during the year and one in 2018, to attempt to detain and extradite at least three citizens living abroad to face criminal charges under the extremism law. Two of the Red Notices were against followers of the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. At year’s end, none of the individuals had been detained or extradited.

The SOVA Center reported in April that Dagestan authorities arrested Ibrahim Murtazaliev for his alleged involvement in Nurdzhular (also known as Nursi Readers), a group the government listed as extremist, and placed him in pretrial detention for two months before eventually releasing him. According to the government, members of Nurdzhular are students of Nursi’s works, which are banned. The SOVA Center continued to state that it did not believe the group existed in the country.

Yevgeny Kim, whom authorities stripped of citizenship in 2019 because of what they said were actions that promoted the works of Nursi, remained stateless and in a pre-deportation detention center for foreign nationals. After Kim’s release from prison in 2019, authorities had charged him with violating immigration law and ordered his deportation to Uzbekistan. Kim was born in Uzbekistan but did not have Uzbek citizenship.

At year’s end, the Neva District Court in St. Petersburg accepted, but did not begin to hear, a case against Ivan Masitsky, head of the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, and three other church officers, Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva; authorities accused them of financial fraud. The case was initially launched in 2017 after an FSB raid on Church offices in which authorities claimed to have found evidence that the group had illegally received 276 million rubles ($3.71 million) in compensation for Church services.

Authorities also investigated individuals for violating the law prohibiting offending the feelings of religious believers. In January, for example, comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation following media reports that an audience member at one of his shows complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, apparently for making a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. Dolgopolov returned to the country in March, and the status of the investigation was unknown at year’s end.

According to the MOJ, as of December, there were 31,392 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated, compared with 31,379 in 2019 and 30,896 in 2018. In 2019, Orthodox organizations made up more than half of the new organizations, followed by Muslim and Protestant organizations. Among Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Adventists had the most newly registered organizations. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.

Forum 18 reported that between January 2019 and June 2020, authorities prosecuted 76 registered religious organizations and 22 individuals for carrying out their activities without indicating their official full name on their materials. According to the Administrative Code, a religious organization’s “official name” must include its religious affiliation and its organizational and legal form – the use of abbreviations may incur prosecution. Most of the cases resulted in guilty verdicts and fines, with a conviction rate of 72.5 percent.

The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ on which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”

The country’s 83 federal subjects (administrative divisions, excluding illegally Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) had varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Stavropol and Mordovia continued to prohibit the wearing of hijabs in schools, while Chechnya permitted schoolgirls to wear them. In September, the Education Department of Tatarstan instituted a policy permitting Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab in all primary schools of the republic after receiving complaints from Muslim parents regarding the prohibition of the hijab in one school.

Representatives of minority religious associations, human rights NGOs, and some independent scholars continued to state authorities at times employed the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments (Yarovaya package), enacted in 2016 for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, to limit religious freedom. Experts pointed to the government’s actions in revoking or suspending the licenses of Christian educational institutions, particularly those of Baptists, Pentecostals, and evangelicals. Experts also noted the government and ROC often viewed these institutions as sources of foreign influence. ROC educational and missionary institutions, by contrast, were not subjected to similar scrutiny by government authorities. NGOs, including the SOVA Center, Amnesty International, and Memorial, issued regular updates on individuals they deemed political prisoners due to what they described as the government’s overly broad application of the Yarovaya package.

The SOVA Center stated in its annual report that the persecution of religious organizations for “illegal” missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya package appeared to have increased from 2019, according to data available at the end of the year. Despite a slight decrease in 2019 compared to 2018, the 2020 numbers showed 201 cases reviewed by the courts, compared to 174 in the same period in 2019. Ninety individuals, three officials, and 39 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts was 1,581,000 rubles ($21,200), compared with 1,452,000 rubles ($19,500) for the same period in 2019.

In July, according to press reports, the MOJ barred seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong from working in the country, citing unspecified national security concerns, and designated them “undesirable” foreign organizations. Six of the NGOs were from the United States, and the seventh was from the United Kingdom. As a result, the government froze the groups’ assets and banned them from distributing informational materials, implementing projects, and creating branches in the country. On November 10, the Novosibirsk Fifth General Court of Appeal declared a regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and barred its activities in the region.

According to the Interfax news agency, the Pushkinsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared informational materials promoting deceased U.S. preacher William Branham’s teachings extremist and prohibited their circulation in the country. The materials related to The Evening Light Christian organization. In its decision, the court cited a 2017 review of Branham’s works by St. Petersburg State University in which the works were deemed to contain elements of “neurolinguistic programing” and insulted the feelings of certain religious believers.

Religious minorities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Falun Gong, said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,130, compared with 5,003 in December 2019 and 4,514 in October 2018.

The SOVA Center reported that Tartarstan’s Almetvevsk City Court banned two books by Islamic theologians as extremist. According to the center, the two books did not contain any direct appeals for violence or terrorism and, as such, were incorrectly labeled as extremist.

The SOVA Center also reported that in January, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the May 2019 Nevsky District Court decision to ban the Falun Gong book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party from distribution in the country. The center said the book did not promote violence and that there were no grounds for banning its distribution.

Amendments to the law, initially considered by the State Duma in September, would require clergy who received religious education abroad to undergo mandatory recertification in a Russian educational institution. Proponents said the amendments were intended to prevent the dissemination of “an extremism religious ideology.” However, after significant opposition from the Buddhist community, which does not have any religious educational institutions in Russia, the proposed amendments were modified so that they would apply only to clergy arriving in the country after implementation of the updated law. The proposed amendments would also prohibit religious institutions from having connections with individuals suspected of financing terrorism and those whom Russian courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.”

According to the SOVA Center, the vagueness of the proposed amendments might permit the government to arbitrarily interfere with the activities of religious minorities and unpopular religious groups. The ROC was the only religious institution to declare support for the amendments. At year’s end, the State Duma was considering the legislation, which was expected to pass sometime in 2021.

In January, the Constitutional Court upheld the right of the Church of Jesus Christ to hold religious services in an administrative building owned by the Church. The case was an affirmation of a 2019 decision by the Constitutional Court acknowledging the right of an individual to use his or her own residential property to provide a religious organization with a place to conduct worship services and other religious rituals.

Forum 18 reported in February that three Pentecostal churches in different parts of the country – Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, and Oryol – faced possible closure and demolition for what local authorities said were building code violations. While the court cases were still ongoing at year’s end, each of the churches said they had resolved any reported issues. According to Forum 18, the congregations were forced to spend time and money to challenge the charges and could lose access to their places of worship during court proceedings. The Jesus Embassy Church in Nizhny Novgorod remained closed after authorities shut it down on December 31, 2019, due to what they said were fire safety violations. Alexander Verkhovsky, SOVA Center director, challenged the idea that authorities were interested in fire safety, given what he said were discrepancies in the number of violations cited and the apparent hostility state security officials had demonstrated toward the church’s operations. The churches in Kaluga and Oryol remained open during the court proceedings.

According to press reporting, the city administration in Novorossiysk filed a lawsuit and asked a local court to order the demolition of Baptist community leader Vitaliy Bak’s home in April. The city administration accused Bak of holding illegal religious worship services in the house. Local authorities had closed the house in July 2019. Following a series of failed appeals, in December 2019, the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International filed an application with the ECHR on behalf of Pastor Bak, saying the authorities’ actions violated freedom of religion. The appeal remained pending at year’s end.

The Russian Bible Society reported that Moscow authorities on September 16 ordered the group to demolish the warehouses where it stored its publications within five days. The society said that the letter from the authorities warned the group that if they did not demolish the warehouses and remove the materials therein, the authorities would do it and charge the group for related expenses.

On January 17, members of the Yekaterinburg Muslim community held Friday prayers outside during inclement weather to bring attention to the destruction of the Nur-Usman Mosque, which the government tore down in 2019 to make room for a new ice arena. Members of the mostly migrant community stated city officials had granted a new plot of land for the construction of a mosque but that the plot was smaller than the members believed was appropriate.

According to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law that recognized the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. For example, in August, religious scholar Roman Lunkin cited the government’s interest in promoting the ROC as a source of symbolic patriotism during an interview with online news site Lenta.ru. According to Lunkin, the ROC continued to benefit from several formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC Patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations.

The Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists reopened as the Theological Seminary of Moscow following a 2019 decision by federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor to revoke the seminary’s status as a nationally licensed graduate school. Authorities allowed it to reopen as a training institution under the Russian Baptist Church. Rosobrnadzor had reported finding fault with the organization’s bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff.

In October, following the killing of teacher Samuel Paty in France by a Russian Muslim immigrant from Chechnya, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov accused French President Emmanuel Macron of inspiring terrorists by justifying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as protected by free speech rights. In an Instagram post, Kadyrov said Macron was forcing people into terrorism and creating conditions for extremism to grow.

Claims by Jehovah’s Witnesses for government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($97.18 million) remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Experts from Russia’s Jewish community had varying assessments of the level of anti-Semitism in the country. Chief Rabbi of Russia Lazar stated in January that the level of anti-Semitism was at its lowest point historically. He said the community felt comfortable openly demonstrating its religion and was respected by the state and others. President of the Federation of Jewish Communities Alexander Boroda said in June that he was concerned about the level of latent anti-Semitism in the country, citing public opinion polls showing the number of respondents who openly considered themselves anti-Semitic rose from 15 percent in 2017 to 17 percent in 2019.

The Russian Jewish Congress reported a taxi dispatcher in Tver refused to take an order from a customer in January after learning she had attended a Holocaust exhibition, telling her, “What they did to them [Jews] was all right.” The customer complained to the taxi company, and the dispatcher was fired. The congress reported that in September, authorities uncovered a plot to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar, Rabbi Yuri Tkach, and arrested suspects affiliated with the group “The USSR Citizens.” The congress also reported that it and the World Jewish Congress had received threatening emails from an internet user.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report that employers often dismissed Witnesses who had been detained by authorities, were being investigated, or received suspended sentences, and that those Witnesses were often unable to find another job, given the stigma surrounding them. Jehovah’s Witnesses also continued to report that adherents were harassed at their workplaces and, in some cases, dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious belief.

According to the SOVA Center, national and local media continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious groups were dangerous. The mass-circulation daily Izvestia, widely regarded as progovernment, published a piece against Jehovah’s Witnesses following the November raids on the group that occurred across the country. The article, citing what it described as an expert in “sectology,” stated Jehovah’s Witnesses had taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to recruit vulnerable members into the group to acquire their property. The “sectologist” concluded that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not value human life and were therefore susceptible to becoming terrorists.

The Russian Jewish Congress reported examples of anti-Semitism in media but stated that a trend toward a reduction in such content, observed in previous years, continued. According to the congress, anti-Semitic content was relatively infrequent on social media and was condemned or was the subject of administrative action when it appeared. The group cited an anti-Semitic statement on television station Russia-1 by Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine, who said that a number of Jewish opposition figures, including musician Andrei Makarevich, in the time of Hitler “could be turned either into ashes in the crematorium or into a lampshade.” According to President of the Russian Jewish Congress Yuri Kanner, none of the other participants in the program objected to Korotchenko’s remarks. The congress also pointed to anti-Semitism in publications by the North-West Political News Agency.

Some religious figures made anti-Semitic remarks publicly. Father Sergey Romanov, a former member of the ROC hierarchy, made multiple anti-Semitic statements from his pulpit during the year, calling the Jewish community an “accursed, ignorant” people and accusing the “Jewish regime” of being responsible for the closing of churches in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 20, the Verkhnepyshminsky City Court fined Romanov 18,000 rubles ($240) (of a maximum 20,000 rubles, $270) for “incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as the humiliation of human dignity” stemming from anti-Semitic remarks made during one of his sermons. In September, an ROC court expelled him from the Church, but he continued to perform services at a convent outside of Yekaterinburg, according to press reports. According to press reports, on December 29, authorities arrested him on suspicion of encouraging minors to commit suicide in a sermon he gave entitled “For Faith in Christ, Let Us Face Death” that was posted on YouTube. At year’s end, he remained in detention, and his lawyer said he was not permitted to communicate with Romanov in private.

The SOVA Center reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with at least 20 incidents (revised number) in 2019, 32 in 2018, and more than 100 such incidents at their peak in 2010.

Media reported on April 15 that police detained a woman who broke a Buddhist stupa with a sledgehammer near the village of Sukhaya. The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it would open a criminal case against her on charges of vandalism and destruction of a religious structure.

Media reported several cases of anti-Semitic vandalism. For example, on April 13, unidentified perpetrators set fire to the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk. No one was injured, but a Jewish community leader estimated property damages at 1.5 million rubles ($20,100). Two months after the incident, police detained a suspect. Authorities initiated a criminal case based on intentional damage to property rather than anti-Semitism. In July, according to press reports, vandals smashed dozens of headstones at Aleksandrovskaya Farm Avenue Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg. Police did not identify any suspects. In September, police arrested a man for painting a cross and pouring yellow paint on a monument for Holocaust victims in Aksay, a village outside the city of Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine. Also in September, the Russian Jewish Congress reported that a drunken man shouting anti-Semitic slogans tried unsuccessfully to enter the Shamir Jewish Community Center in Moscow. He then threw down a chanukiah from the front steps, tore off a nameplate, broke a mailbox, and tore off the license plate of the rabbi’s car.

A variety of religious congregations stated they pursued ties with other faith communities. For example, ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye said the ROC held regular meetings with faith leaders in the city, including with leaders from the Muslim and Jewish communities. Kirill also said the ROC regularly communicated with Protestant groups in Yekaterinburg, including the local Methodist, Baptist, and evangelical communities. The leaders of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan said they communicated and cooperated with other faiths, holding interfaith events, such as soccer tournaments, in Kazan.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities.

In January, the Ambassador spoke at a multifaith gathering hosted by the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. In his remarks, the Ambassador underscored the unwavering U.S. commitment to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and doing everything possible to prevent similar acts of genocide and religious persecution from happening again. The embassy also highlighted this message on its social media platforms.

In March, the Ambassador and Yekaterinburg Consul General met with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. During the visit, the Ambassador toured the Church on the Blood, built on the site of the 1918 killing of the Romanov family, and he relayed a message of cooperation between the people of the two countries, including in the promotion of freedom of religion.

Embassy officials continued to monitor the situation of U.S. citizens working with religious institutions and organizations in the country to ensure authorities did not improperly target them for their faith or religious work.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the embassy moved its outreach efforts online and continued to use its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom issues. On February 18, the embassy expressed concerns on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses; the embassy spokesperson posted, “We welcome news that Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko was released today, after reports that Chita law enforcement abducted & tortured him on basis of his peaceful religious beliefs. We urge Russian authorities to fully investigate incident, respect #humanrights #religiousfreedom,” and on June 9, “#JehovahsWitness Gennady Shpakovsky was sentenced today to 6.5 years in prison for reading the Bible and collecting donations for his community. Russia must stop selectively prosecuting believers and let them practice their religion in peace.” On April 14, the embassy posted about anti-Semitism on Twitter, writing, “We strongly condemn the April 13 attack on the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk, the third such attack since 2015. We urge a thorough investigation into this heinous act. #CombatAntisemitism.”

The embassy also communicated the importance of religious freedom by celebrating major religious holidays of Christians, Jews, and Muslims via its social media platforms. These messages included video greetings from the Ambassador to mark Easter and the end of Ramadan; posts marking the contributions of various religions to American history and culture; and posts highlighting events that underscored tolerance and that commemorated victims of violence motivated by religious hatred.

On September 2, the embassy sponsored a virtual commemoration concert entitled “Music of World War II: Remembering the Shared Sacrifice of the Allied Nations.” Among the repertoire were compositions by Jewish artists of the World War II era: Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, a performance by the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella Choir of the prayer “Ki lekach tov,” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed and first performed in a concentration camp. The virtual concert attracted 6,400 viewers on Facebook and 1,200 on YouTube, as well as drawing media coverage on various online and broadcast outlets. The embassy also highlighted the liberation of concentration camps during its World War II commemorations, posting videos about the Allied Forces’ liberation of Dachau and Ravensbruck.

On November 25, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning the November 24 raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. On November 30, the Ambassador met with Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives to discuss the most recent raids and the group’s ongoing persecution. The Ambassador said the United States would continue to highlight the government’s violations of the rights of members of their group and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Mohammed). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In practice, there is some limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious exercise, but religious practices at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations (of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) were marked by improved sectarian relations and public calls for mutual tolerance. Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of their community on a religious basis with security operations and legal proceedings. In July, Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that security forces raided the largely Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one injury. In September and October, rights groups reported the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics arrested in 2017, sentencing them to between three to 10 years in prison. In February, rights groups reported the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat, who was convicted on charges including disrupting security and participating in demonstrations. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” Government leaders, including the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League, continued to advocate for interreligious tolerance and dialogue and to denounce religious extremism. In September, following the UAE and Bahrain’s agreement to normalize ties with Israel, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca said in a televised sermon that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors, and he urged listeners to avoid “passionate emotions.”

The Saudi-owned MBC television network aired a historical drama series during the prime Ramadan viewing season centered on a Jewish midwife living in an unnamed multireligious Persian Gulf community in the 1930s to 1950s. Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world. Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia 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. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 34.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they are believed to constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, reportedly number several hundred, most of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering in total approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam. The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed) and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.” The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person CSS that reports to the King. By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna. The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme aut