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Egypt

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation.  The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime.  It describes freedom of belief as absolute.  The constitution limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world.  The grand imam is elected by Al Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term.  The president does not have the authority to dismiss him.  While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its 2018 budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 13 billion Egyptian pounds ($726.66 million).

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the grand mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out.  The mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the death sentence.

The constitution also stipulates that the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.  Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), depending upon their official religious designation.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) issues national identity cards that include official religious designations.  Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens.  Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash.  The minister of interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize.  The law states individuals may change their religion.  However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but not from Islam to any other religion.  In a 2008 ruling on a lawsuit against the government for not recognizing a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the government asserting its duty to “protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam.”  The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order.  Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints.  After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation.  In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims.  When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity, and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates that Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men.  Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam.  Christian and Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men.  A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert.  If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved.  Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance.  In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled that applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that the rules of the Christians and Jewish communities govern in personal status matters.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature.  To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of Interior Religious Affairs Department.  The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace.  As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar.  The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities.  Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities.  The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries.  According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($2,800).  The penalty doubles for repeat offenders.  Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law.  A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines.  Any imam who fails to follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.  The ministry also issues prewritten sermons, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques.  Imams are subject to disciplinary action including dismissal for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

The prime minister has authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.”  Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art.  The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace.  The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates rather than the president.  The governor is to respond within four months; any refusal must include a written justification.  The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe.  The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches.  It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented.  Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area.  Construction of new churches must meet stringent land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques.  A 2001 cabinet decree includes a provision requiring that new mosques built after that date must be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.”  The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades.  Determinations of religious identity are based on official designations, not personal or parental decisions.  Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other.  A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including Christian-owned schools.  Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system which serves some two million students from elementary through secondary school using its own separate curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.”  The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,700) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) as penalties for discrimination.  If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($5,600).

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric.  Since the state does not recognize Baha’i marriage, married Baha’is are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence.  Baha’is, in practice, file individual demands for recognition of marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws.  In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens.  The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program entitled “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain requirements are met.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom.  It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights.  The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “no political activity may be exercised or political parties formed on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location, nor may any activity be practiced that is hostile to democracy, secretive, or which possesses a military or quasi-military nature.”

The constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament.  However, by year’s end, parliament had not yet established such a commission.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

In February security forces launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS, in part to respond to a November 2017 attack on a mosque in Al-Rawda village in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals at worship; the mosque was reportedly attacked because it was frequented by Sufis.  Although the government reported significant successes in the campaign, ISIS attacks continued in North Sinai.

In November a court sentenced an alleged ISIS supporter to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  Authorities did not identify the defendant.

On July 12, police thwarted an attempted suicide bombing at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Qalioubiya, near Cairo.  After encountering security forces, the attacker detonated an explosive vest in the vicinity of the church, killing a police officer and civilian.  On August 11, security forces foiled a suicide bombing at the Coptic Virgin Mary Church in the Cairo suburb of Mostorod.  After being denied entry to the church, the bomber died when he exploded his suicide belt; no one else was injured.

During the year, courts imposed death sentences on several people convicted of killing Christians.  On February 12, a court confirmed a death sentence against the killer of Semaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest from Beni Suef.  The killer stabbed Shehata to death in the Cairo suburb of El-Salaam City in 2017 and carved a cross on his forehead.  On April 1, the Cassation Court upheld the death sentence of the killer of liquor storeowner Youssef Lamei, who had confessed to slitting Lamei’s throat outside his store for selling alcohol in January 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 people.  ISIS claimed responsibility.  International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and asserted the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In March media reported that Matthew Habib, a Christian military conscript who had complained to his family of persecution from superiors due to his religion, committed suicide while on duty.  Although the official cause of death was determined to be multiple self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the family alleged that Habib had been killed by a more senior officer.

On January 31, the Giza misdemeanor court sentenced 20 individuals to one-year suspended jail sentences for an attack on an unlicensed Coptic church in Kafr al-Waslin village south of Cairo, carried out on December 22, 2017.  Each was fined 500 pounds ($28) on charges of inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity, and vandalizing private property.  The court also fined the owner of the unlicensed church 360,000 pounds ($20,100) for building without a permit.  The Archdiocese of Atfih has reportedly applied for the Kafr al-Waslin Church to be legalized.

On January 2, press reported that the public prosecutor filed murder charges against an individual accused of killing 11 people on December 29, 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.  On December 1, the prosecutor general referred 11 additional suspects to trial for forming a terrorist group, murder, attempted murder, and other charges related to the attack.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, citing its 2016 report, reported in October that 41 percent of all blasphemy charges had been brought by authorities against the country’s Christian population

March 14, police in Beni Suef Governorate arrested social studies teacher Magdy Farag Samir on charges of denigrating Islam after he included wordplays in a set of questions for students about the Prophet Muhammad.  Samir was detained for 15 days while police investigated the charges.  A court acquitted him on April 19.

In December a court in Upper Egypt upheld a three-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Christian Abd Adel Bebawy for a Facebook post that allegedly insulted Islam.  Authorities arrested Bebawy in his home village of Minbal on July 6 and the original court passed the prison sentence in November.  Bebawy’s lawyers stated that he reported the hacking of his Facebook account in July and that the post was immediately deleted.  On July 9, reportedly in response to Bebawy’s social media posts, a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian-owned homes in Minbal.  Police arrested over 90 Muslim attackers, charging 39 with a variety of crimes related to the attack.

On May 3, police arrested atheist blogger Sherif Gaber and detained him for four days.  Authorities accused Gaber of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube.  Police had earlier arrested Gaber on similar charges in 2015 and 2013.  In October Gaber tweeted that he had been prevented from leaving the country and that authorities had charged him with three additional felonies and that the charges now included blasphemy, contempt of religion, supporting homosexuality, and religious extremism.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), during several incidents of interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt from August 22 to 25, security forces delayed providing protection to Christians.  On August 22, in the village of Esna in Luxor Governorate, a crowd of Muslims gathered to protest Christian worship in a church that was seeking legalization.  Following Friday prayers on August 24, the crowd gathered a second time.  While the police prevented this second gathering from escalating, local sources report that authorities arrested five Christians, who were charged with conducting religious rituals in an unlicensed church and incitement, and 15 Muslims.  All those arrested were released in September.  Also on August 24, a crowd gathered in the village of Sultan in Minya Governorate to protest efforts by a local church to seek official legalization.

Security forces arrested members of what they described as a terrorist cell in Nag’ Hammadi in Qena Governorate during Coptic celebrations for Easter in April.  Security forces increased their presence in Coptic institutions and communities around Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays.

Religious freedom and human rights activists said government officials sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, including by closing churches in violation of the 2016 church construction law.  On April 14, a group of Muslim villagers hurled stones and bricks, breaking the windows of a building used as a church in Beni Meinin in Beni Suef Governorate.  The attack followed a government inspection of the building, a step toward legalizing the church.  Authorities arrested 45 Muslim and Christian residents of the village, and, following an agreement according to customary reconciliation procedures (a binding arbitration process, often criticized by Christians as discriminatory), all arrestees were released and the church remained unlicensed and closed.

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of sectarian violence committed in previous years.  Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  Authorities charged four people with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six others owned by Christians.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests, particularly in Upper Egypt.  In November the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reported that from September 28, 2016, when the church construction law was issued, to October, authorities shuttered nine churches that hosted religious services prior to the closure orders.  Four of these churches were closed during the year, with Copts denied access and religious services in them prohibited.  In July media reported that police closed a church in Ezbet Sultan after a series of protests and the destruction of Christian-owned property.  During one protest, Muslims reportedly chanted, “We don’t want a church.”

In a November report, EIPR documented 15 instances of sectarian violence related to the legalization of 15 previously unlicensed churches from September 2017 to October 2018.  The churches had been functioning for several years and were well known to both state institutions and local residents.  EIPR’s report also documented 35 cases of violence since the church construction law was issued, not including incidents associated with the construction of new churches.

On August 22, in Zeneiqa village in Upper Egypt, police closed a church following protests by local Muslims against legalization of the church.  They arrested five Copts and five Muslims, plus an additional 10 Muslim residents during protests held a week later.  In March local mosque personnel in Al-Tod village near Luxor encouraged Muslims to protest the licensing of a church that had been in use for a decade.  Protestors built a wall to block access to the church.  Christians and Muslims took part in a customary reconciliation session led by Muslim elders and, reportedly under pressure, the Christians agreed to abandon their application for a church license.

According to official statistics, from September 2017 the government approved 783 of the 5,415 applications for licensure of churches.  According to a local human rights organization, the increased pace of legalization and construction of churches was causing sectarian tensions in some communities where Muslim citizens did not want a legal church in their village.

As it did in recent years, the government in October closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura.  The government explained the closure was due to construction, but multiple news reports described it as an attempt to discourage the celebration of Shia religious rituals.  The main area of the mosque remained open; only the room containing the shrine was closed.

In September the Ministry of Awqaf cancelled the preaching permit of prominent Salafi cleric Mohamed Raslan and banned him from delivering sermons for refusing to recite the official sermon written by the ministry.  The ministry reinstated his license after he apologized publicly and committed to follow the government’s weekly sermon.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.

In May the government announced a policy to ban imams from preaching on Fridays at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques and restricted their use to daily prayers.  In a statement, the Ministry of Awqaf said the measure would prevent “fundamentalist” preaching during Ramadan.  The May announcement repeated a policy first announced in 2015 that resulted in the closure of 27,000 zawiyas and forbade preaching in them.  Authorities also increased the penalties for mosques using their loudspeakers for anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

In October the Ministry of Awqaf announced that the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse in the country and cited the ministry’s “complete” control of Islam as expressed through “the media, lessons, seminars and [public] forums.”  Public issuances of fatwas were, according to a senior advisor at the Dar al-Iftaa, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, restricted to Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar University, 40 clerics from Dar al-Iftaa, and a small number of clerics affiliated with the Ministry of Awqaf.  The ministry announced that any unauthorized cleric offering religious sermons or issuing fatwas would be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution for “carrying out a job without a license.”

In September the Court of Urgent Matters suspended a July ruling by an administrative court that had allowed policemen with long beards to return to work.  The court upheld MOI regulations on facial hair and stated the government had an obligation to keep the police force a “secular organizational entity.”

During Ramadan in May the government put in place regulations governing the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan.  Authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

On June 22, a video showing adherents performing Sufi religious rituals in a mosque sparked demands on social media to ban Sufi rituals inside mosques.  In response, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended the mosque attendant for participating in the incident, and announced a public campaign to raise awareness of “correct Islam.”

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from worshiping privately in small numbers.  However, Baha’i sources said the government refused requests for public religious gatherings.  According to members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, security officials engaged in surveillance and frequent home visits during which adherents were interrogated and sometimes threatened.  The National Security Services (NSS) also summoned members to their offices for interrogations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on April 3, a security officer who has interrogated and threatened its members in the past questioned a male Witness at length, asking numerous probing questions about the operations and activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.  In July NSS officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Beni Suef and confiscated their religious materials.  NSS officers did the same with two other Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived later.

Twelve Baha’i couples filed lawsuits requesting recognition of their civil marriages, four of which were approved by October.  While Baha’i sources hailed the first issuance of a civil marriage license that took place in 2017, they reported that courts remained inconsistent in their rulings on the matter.  By year’s end, standardized procedures for issuing civil marriage licenses to couples with no religious affiliation designated had not been developed.

In May the country’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that regulators must block the YouTube service for one month because of the availability of a video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.  A lower court had ordered in 2013 the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to block YouTube because of the video, but the decision had been appealed and the court’s ruling has not been implemented.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet.  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011 when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests.  The new Governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services.  Christians admitted at the entry-level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks of government entities, according to sources.  According to a press report, a senior Christian judge in line for promotion to the leadership of the Administrative Prosecution was reportedly denied the position in May due to her religion.  When a Muslim judge challenged the failure to promote her, he was dismissed.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities.  In January for the first time, a Christian was appointed as dean of the dental school of Cairo University.  The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country.  Sources reported, however, some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) stated that it continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In the fall, kindergarten and first grade students began instruction under the new curriculum.  According to the MOE, the new curriculum for subsequent grade levels would be introduced yearly.  Local English-language press reported in May that curriculum reform plans, aimed at encouraging tolerance, included a textbook for use in religious studies classes to be attended jointly by Muslim and Coptic Christian students.  Muslim and Christian students previously attended separate religion classes.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa, whose ministry oversees Islamic studies courses in the country’s schools, announced the plan.  The press reported that the planned textbook drew criticism from conservative Muslims.

In January the grand mufti issued a fatwa that defined greeting Christians on Coptic Christmas as an act of righteousness.  During the same month, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church were “martyrs.”

In August Al-Azhar issued a statement criticizing ISIS for issuing fatwas justifying the killing of non-Muslims and stressed its prohibition.

In June the Ministry of Awqaf completed training in Quranic interpretation and other Islamic texts for 300 female preachers (wa’ezaat).  In July the government published an action plan for “renewing religious discourse” that included hiring and training imams and expanding the role of women in religious preaching.  The ministry opened a new training academy for preachers in October and announced that women could begin to serve as preachers in mosques and schools, serve on governing boards of mosques, and sing in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

In December President al-Sisi decreed that the government create an agency tasked with countering sectarian strife.  The new Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents would be headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs and composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the NSS, and the Administrative Oversight Agency.  The new committee was charged with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents, address them as they occur, and apply all antidiscrimination and antihate laws in carrying out these responsibilities.  The committee had the authority to invite ministers, their representatives, or representatives of concerned bodies to meetings.  The government stated that the strategy would include awareness-raising campaigns, promotion of religious tolerance, and possible mechanisms for dealing with individual incidents.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance.  In February the grand imam received a delegation from the Anglican Communion and stressed the importance of dialogue between religions.  In July the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury organized an interfaith conference in London for young Muslims and Christians.  In October Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, where they stressed their commitment to religious dialogue.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Media reported the attackers used automatic weapons to spray the buses indiscriminately, targeting men, women, and children.  The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.  Media reported that ISIS repeatedly vowed to attack the country’s Christians as punishment for their support of the government.  Following the attack, authorities stated they killed 19 individuals suspected of involvement in the assault in a shootout west of Minya.  The government did not present evidence to link these individuals to the attack, and a local human rights activist argued these shootings might have constituted extrajudicial killings.

On January 14, armed assailants killed a man in North Sinai upon discovering he was Christian, according to press.  Following a series of attacks against Christians in North Sinai that began in January 2017, more than 250 Christian families left the region, according to EIPR.  Displaced families reported they remained unable to return to their homes.

On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf in Beheira while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  The church had been used for religious services for three years, and had applied for a license in January 2017.  According to the press, calls to attack the church had come from a nearby mosque.  Police arrested 11 Muslims and nine Christians.  All of those arrested were released following a customary reconciliation session, and the church remained open.

There were reported incidents of mob action against, and collective punishment of, Christians.

On January 17, Muslim villagers attacked the houses of three Christian families in the village of Al-Dawar in Beheira after a Christian man was accused of attempting to sexually assault a Muslim woman, according to press.  Muslim villagers used stones and Molotov cocktails to attack local Christian property.  Police arrested the Christian accused of sexual assault and two of his relatives, but none of the Muslim attackers.  Following a customary reconciliation session attended by a number of parliamentarians, the village mayor and elders, it was agreed that the accused Christian would pay a fine and be expelled from the village.

In late August and early September local press reported Muslim residents of the village of Dimshaw Hashem in Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt protested Christian religious services held in an unlicensed church, and looted four Christian-owned houses before setting them on fire.  The attack injured two Coptic villagers and a firefighter.  Coptic Orthodox Bishop Macarius told the press numerous Christian villagers had informed local police about an imminent attack and that the police failed to take action.  After the attack, police arrested and criminally charged multiple protesters, releasing them on September 27.  EIPR subsequently criticized authorities for pressuring Copts to accept customary reconciliation in addressing the attacks.  Referring to this case, Human Rights Watch stated that customary reconciliation “allows perpetrators to evade prosecution, while authorities offered no concrete future protections to the worshippers and their families.”

Similar to the previous year, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in government-sponsored customary reconciliation as a substitute to criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches.  However, customary reconciliation continued to take place without its participation.  Human rights groups and Christian community representatives said that the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system.  Human rights activists said that, as part of the process, Christians were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities.  According to the press, the country’s participation in the World Cup highlighted the absence of Christian players from the national team and major club teams.  The Christian community told the press clubs excluded Christian players from tryouts.  Press reported there were no Christian players on the national soccer team for more than 15 years.  A single Christian player played for one of the 18 top clubs the previous season.  Coptic Pope Tawadros II told the press that the lack of Christians in Egyptian soccer was “extraordinary.”

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.  In March exiled Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim told the press senior officials who maintained good relations with Christians were kafirs (infidels).  Dar Al-Iftaa condemned the statement, and said Ghoneim wrongly interpreted Islamic texts.  Television preacher Abdullah Roshdi said that “It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief.”  Dar al Iftaa and Al Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued.  Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned TV endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  In a June interview on a state-owned channel, law professor Nabil Hilmi said, “Jews control the money and the media,” adding that they have a 50-year plan to reach Mecca and Medina.

In May Chair of the Hebrew Language Department at Menoufia University, Professor Amr Allam, said on a weekly show on a state-owned channel that “Israeli violence…is embedded in the Jewish genes.”

Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements continued in the wake of the December 2017 U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent move of the embassy to Jerusalem.  According to a MEMRI report, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb blamed Israel for terrorism in the Middle East in a January interview on a state-owned channel.  He described Israel as a “dagger plunged into the body of the Arab world,” and said that were it not for “Zionist entity abuse…the Middle East would have progressed.”  He said Arab infighting worked to the advantage of Israel, which he claimed would “march on the Kaaba and on the Prophet’s Mosque [in Medina].”

In January Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church co-sponsored a conference addressing terrorism.  Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, secretary general of the Egyptian Family House, an Al-Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church initiative created to send religious leaders to defuse community tensions following sectarian violence, called for religious scholars to challenge terrorism and include education to protect future generations from what he termed the mistaken ideas of extremism.  He stated that all Muslims suffered from the consequences of terrorism.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Although the country has no constitution, the unicameral 120-member Knesset enacted a series of “Basic Laws” that enumerate fundamental rights, which it states will become the country’s constitutional foundation.  The “Basic Law:  Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion.  The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law.  Authorities subject non-Israeli residents to the same laws it applies to Israeli citizens.  Detention of Palestinians  on security grounds falls under military jurisdiction as applied by Israel to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (see “West Bank and Gaza” section), even if detained inside Israel.

On June 19, the Knesset passed a new basic law referred to as the “Nation State Law.”  The new law changed the status of Arabic from an official language, a standing it held since Israel adopted then prevailing British Mandate law in 1948, to a language with a “special status.”  The law also recognized only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and called for promotion of “Jewish settlement” within Israel.

On April 30, the Knesset passed a law recommending – but not requiring – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedents.

The Chief Rabbinate retains the authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law.  The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.

The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs.  Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of male or female converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.

The law recognizes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze Faith, and the Baha’i Faith.  Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include:  Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal.  The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government.  The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities.  There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period:  by petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office according to the Order in Council or the Ministry of Interior (MOI).  Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.

Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status law.  Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.

Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze.  The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities.  The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder.  The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze.  The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.

The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions to “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment).  Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law.  The Ministry of Tourism (MOT) is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites.  The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” with regard to their religious sites.  The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.

The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting.  It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment.

The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups.  The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism.

The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the Prime Minister for travel to “hostile” countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is the destination for those participating in the Hajj.  Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.

It is illegal to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of both parents.  The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.

The government provides separate public schools for Jewish children, conducted in Hebrew, and Arab children, conducted in Arabic.  For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families.  Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance.  Minors have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference.  By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semi-private) ultra-Orthodox religious schools, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System.  Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools.  Palestinian residents of Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction.  Israeli education authorities use the PA curriculum in some public schools in Jerusalem.  Religious education is part of the PA curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians.  Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.

The law provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children.  The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status, but are not automatically granted citizenship.  Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration.  Under the Law of Return, those who completed an Orthodox conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry.  Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism.  Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised.  The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and as adults converted to another religion, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.

The 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards.  The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony, and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country.  The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.

Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial.  The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country, or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry.  A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.

The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities.  Members of nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agree.

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct, or are married in, a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.

Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion.  Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce.  Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts.  Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.

Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under parallel jurisdiction of both religious courts and civil courts.  The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it.

In accordance with halacha (Jewish religious law), a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country.  While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses.  In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public.  On June 25, the Knesset passed a law allowing rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for instance, if the couple live abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).

Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement.  Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review.  The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century).  Orthodox Jewish women and Arab Christian and Muslim citizens remain exempt from mandatory military service, although they may voluntarily enlist.

Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion.  Approximately 400,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law, as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.”  The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.  All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion).  Of the approximately 30,000 immigrants who arrived to Israel during the year, 17,700 of them did not qualify as Jewish under the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria, according to a press report citing CBS data.

For those who did not wish to be identified with a religion, there was no mechanism to change one’s registration to “lacking religion.”

Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.

There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays.  The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest.  The law criminalizes those who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat but not workers, except those who are self-employed.  There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries.  On June 18, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting hiring discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.  The law takes effect on January 1, 2019.  An existing law instructs the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat.

On January 8, following 2013 and 2017 court rulings permitting municipalities to legislate bylaws allowing commercial activity on Shabbat, the Knesset passed a law granting the minister of interior wider discretion to approve or reject bylaws on this matter.

The law states public transportation may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.  Halacha prohibits the use of motorized vehicles on Shabbat, except in emergencies.

The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws.  Alternatively, restaurants are permitted to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance” without using the word kashrut.

The Mufti of Jerusalem issued “fatwas” (religious edicts) prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of land by Palestinians to the Israelis.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned, and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the Covenant.

Government Practices

On July 27, Muslim protestors threw rocks and fireworks at Israeli police officers near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.  According to the government, violent acts and danger to Israeli security forces forced police to “use appropriate means to scatter the riots” and keep the peace and the public safety.  Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours.  These clashes led to the arrest of more than 20 individuals and injuries to four police officers, according to media reports.

Following an investigation for more than one year, State Attorney Shai Nitzan announced on May 1 he was closing, without charges, the government’s investigation into a January 2017 incident in which a police officer and a Muslim citizen died during a police action to demolish homes in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran.  Nitzan wrote he decided not to bring criminal charges against police officers after concluding police shot Abu al-Qian because they feared for their lives; however, he recommended disciplinary action against some officers due to “professional mistakes,” according to media reports.  In votes on May 9 and June 13, the Knesset rejected a proposal by MK Taleb Abu Arar, one of three Bedouins in the Knesset, to establish a Knesset inquiry into the events and all subsequent investigations leading up to Nitzan’s decision.  The Arab legal rights organization Adalah stated the decision was evidence of “whitewashing” and that the government treated Arab citizens’ lives as unequal to those of Jewish citizens.

On August 16, following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who burned and vandalized a large section of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha in 2015.

On April 4 in Jerusalem, two police officers reportedly hit an ultra-Orthodox man with a mental disability on the head after he briefly stopped in the road and waved his hands while walking with a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters toward a demonstration, according to the NGO Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.

On November 22, the Jerusalem District Court acquitted Jerusalem police officer Gil Zaken of charges he choked and hit in the head an ultra-Orthodox demonstrator in 2016.

Christian clergy in Jerusalem said police officers treated them with unnecessary force on two occasions.  First, in June an Ethiopian monk sustained injuries from police officers when they were they evicting him and other monks from their church.  According to media reports, police had suspected the monks of trespassing because they did not provide identification cards.  Second, on October 24, police physically removed several Coptic monks from outside a chapel in the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, arresting one of them when the monks refused to allow the IAA to enter and perform restoration work.  The government stated the injured monk’s refusal to obey police instructions left police with no choice but to remove him, using necessary and appropriate physical force.  Ownership of the monastery remained the subject of an ongoing dispute between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

On August 13, police arrested a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for allegedly accepting a bribe to expedite issuance of kashrut certificates.  A 2017 report from the state comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.

On July 6, a court ordered the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, released to house arrest.  In 2017, police had arrested him on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization.

Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities.  Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.

On July 19, police in Haifa briefly detained and questioned Conservative Rabbi Dov Hayun on suspicion he conducted Jewish marriage ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.  The attorney general subsequently instructed police to stop investigating the rabbi before they had determined “whether his actions raise suspicion of a criminal offense.”  As of year’s end, police had not taken any further action against the rabbi.

According to data from the MRS, out of 70,326 individuals who registered for a Jewish marriage in 2018, rabbinical courts instructed 3,996 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage.  Of these, 122 were unsuccessful.

Prior to marriage, the Chief Rabbinate required Jewish women to complete bridal counseling sessions.  Existing instructions from the Chief Rabbinate required these sessions address only the wedding ceremony, but in practice the content varied widely and often included marital relations and “family purity” in accordance with halacha, according to a report in Ma’ariv newspaper.  Neither halacha nor civil law mandated such counselling sessions, according to the NGO ITIM.

On May 3, the rabbinical courts, which are government institutions, reported they had issued nine arrest warrants against men who refused to give a get and succeeded in securing 216 gets from intransigent husbands in 2017.  In a speech to new rabbinical court judges on October 15, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef urged them to “have the courage to render judgment” in cases of get refusal, stating, “Do whatever is necessary to make sure a divorce is granted.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties continued to block legislative changes to the status quo regarding issues of halacha and state, which opponents said perpetuated practices that infringed on religious freedom.  For example, on November 21, the Knesset defeated a bill to allow limited public transportation on Shabbat for municipalities that so chose.  Bus cooperatives, however, continued to operate lines on Shabbat in several cities.

The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage.  As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country.  Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate.  Likewise, the government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.

On October 29, the Supreme Court ordered Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to explain, within 60 days, why the government had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, a government employee.  This order followed a 2016 petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs to initiate disciplinary hearings against Eliyahu, alleging he made a series of racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community.  The government did not hold a disciplinary hearing for Eliyahu by the end of the year, and the case was ongoing.

The government continued to control access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.  The post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif allows non-Muslim visitors but prohibits non-Islamic worship on the compound, despite the fact that no law or published policy prohibits non-Islamic prayer there.  The Jordanian Government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintained the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem.  The 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.  Supporters of the status quo stated that, while not perfect, the post-1967 arrangement allowed the holy sites to be open to visitors from all faiths for the first time in Jerusalem’s millennia-old history.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance.  Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site.  Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance, the entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access due to security concerns.  Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas, but they did not coordinate with Waqf guards inside.  Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the ban on non-Muslim prayer.  NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that changes in relations between police and the Temple Mount advocacy movement created a more permissive environment for non-Muslim religious acts on the site.  In response, the government reiterated that non-Muslim prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including MKs, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.  The government stated that police have no specific policy regarding barring individuals from entering, but police respond both to intelligence information they receive in advance as well as events that unfolding on the ground, without distinguishing between Muslim and non-Muslim visitors.  The government added it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site.  Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles.  Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter the site with police escort.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the Al-Qibli/Al-Aqsa Mosque.  It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing.  Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site.  Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site.  Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a limited oversight role.  The Waqf reportedly objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals who dressed immodestly or caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site.  The government stated that most of the time, police and the Waqf worked in full coordination, including regular joint sessions regarding routine activities.

On August 20, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within 60 days to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site.  The court later granted government requests to extend the deadline for a response into 2019.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again reiterated his support for the post-1967 status quo understandings at holy sites in Jerusalem, including in a statement following his meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan on June 18.  Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for reasons of ritual purity.  Some MKs, however, including members of the governing coalition, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.  Some government coalition Knesset members continued to call on the Israeli government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to set aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.  MK Yehuda Glick and other members of the Temple Mount movement continued to advocate for reversing the status quo prohibition on non-Muslim prayer at the site, describing it as a restriction on religious freedom.

In accordance with previously instituted practices, Israeli police announced a temporary closure of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to non-Muslim visitors during the last 10 days of Ramadan; however, the police permitted non-Muslim visits to the site during the first two days of this period.  The government stated that each year police assess the security situation and decide whether it is necessary to close the site to non-Muslims during this period, “in order to allow for a proper course of prayer for Muslim worshipers during Ramadan.”  In July Prime Minister Netanyahu rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site and allowed these officials to visit once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and according to police  security assessments.

The Waqf expressed its continued concern over calls by some Jewish activists to build a third Jewish temple on the site, as well as increased numbers of visits by Jews whom the Waqf described as Jewish “Temple Mount activists.”  The Waqf also objected to increased attempts by activists to pray on the site or conduct other religious activity on the site in violation of the status quo.  Waqf officials also stated Israeli police restricted the Waqf’s administration of the site by prohibiting building and infrastructure repairs.  For example, police prevented the Waqf from carrying out repairs without advance approval and oversight from the IAA and refused to permit the entry of most maintenance equipment onto the site, according to the Waqf.  The government stated maintenance of the site was supervised by police and coordinated in advance, adding that larger scale renovations required approval and supervision by the IAA and of a ministerial committee to ensure the site is properly preserved and no archeological findings are destroyed or covered by the renovators.  In August Israeli authorities briefly detained four Waqf employees attempting to carry out repairs, but they subsequently permitted the repairs.

Waqf officials reported Israeli police on occasion detained Waqf employees (typically guards) or expelled them from the site and from the vicinity of visiting non-Muslim groups.  The government stated that on some occasions, Waqf employees with suspected connections to terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Shabab al-Aqsa, instigated “provocations,” which police handled either by issuing a directive limiting the proximity of the Waqf employees to visiting Jewish groups, or in extreme cases, removing them from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

The Temple Mount Sifting Project and other group and individuals criticized the Waqf for the “destruction of the heritage of Jews as well as Christians and Muslims” for moving soil, stones, and artifacts from dirt mounds in the courtyard the Waqf had previously dug up during controversial excavations.  According to a media report, the mixed pile of dirt had limited archaeological value because it was already out of its original archeological strata; however, artifacts in the dirt could be of historical value.

On March 26, for the first time, authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in the Davidson Center Archaeological Park, below the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to permit persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups, with separation of women and men.  The government, however, continued to prohibit at the main plaza the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.”  Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies not conforming to Orthodox Judaism.

Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women may pray at the Western Wall.  Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site.  Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.

Police continued to allow the group Women of the Wall to enter the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza for its monthly service.  In June, following a request from the police and the government-sponsored Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Attorney General’s Office ruled the Women of the Wall must hold their monthly service in a barricaded area in the women’s section, which police set up on a side of the women’s section not touching the Western Wall.  Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing.  In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there.  Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services.  The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox egalitarian (mixed gender) Jewish prayers.  Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs.  In response to an ongoing Supreme Court case from 2013 on the issue of prayer access at the Western Wall, the government stated in January it intended to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space.  In June 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space.  The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement.  In August a special government committee approved expansion of the platform through a fast-track planning process.  The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

On May 13, the government allocated 200 million shekels ($53.35 million) to the MOT for the planning and establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City.  The plan included building a roof over a Karaite cemetery under the path of the cable car to resolve Orthodox Jewish concerns about use of the cable car by Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim), for whom it is halachically forbidden to contract ritual impurity by “sheltering” over a corpse.  The Karaite community objected to the plan, saying building a roof over the cemetery would render it ritually impure according to Karaite beliefs, preventing further use of the cemetery.

The security barrier dividing most of the West Bank from Israel also divided some Palestinian communities in Jerusalem, affecting access to places of worship.  The Israeli government previously stated the barrier was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.

Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, criticized the July passage of the new Nation State Law.  The law called for promoting “Jewish settlement,” which non-Jewish organizations and leaders said they feared would lead to increased discrimination in housing and land issues.  Druze leaders decried the law for relegating what they termed a loyal minority that serves in the military to second-class-citizen status.  Opponents, including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, also criticized the law for failing to mention the principle of equality in order to prevent harm to the rights of non-Jewish minorities.  Supporters stated it was necessary to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law to balance the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, which anchored the country’s democratic character with protection of individual rights, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality.  According to press reports, on August 4, a demonstration in Tel Aviv comprised of approximately 90,000 members of the Druze community and Jewish supporters protested the law.  A week later, press reported that 30,000 Arab citizen protestors and their Jewish supporters also took part in a protest against the law in Tel Aviv.  Political leaders conceded the need to address the criticisms of the Druze community.  As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court.

On May 5, the government announced it had begun recruiting women as legal advisors in rabbinical courts, following a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women.  In 2017, the Rabbinical Courts Administration named a female deputy director-general for the first time.  Because only men may become rabbis under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, there were no female judges in rabbinical courts, although some women have acted as rabbinic pleaders (equivalent to lawyers) since 1995.

The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew.  The government continued to deny applications from individuals whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs.

A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews.  In August, for the first time, the Jerusalem District Court recognized a non-Rabbinate Orthodox conversion through the NGO Giyur k’Halacha.  The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.

A Supreme Court case to grant immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country continued through year’s end.

On June 3, a committee headed by former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim made recommendations for proposed legislation on a new conversion law.  Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed the committee in 2017 in response to the 2005 Supreme Court petition by the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements for recognition of non-Orthodox conversions inside the country.  The recommendations did not receive political support from any of the Jewish Knesset factions, and the government did not act on them by the end of the year.  At a Supreme Court hearing on December 17, the government requested a six-month extension for the presentation of its plan.  By year’s end, the court had not rendered a decision on the extension request.

On January 15, the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs discussed incidents in which the Population and Immigration Authority incorrectly registered as Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union who self-identified as Jewish.  Ha’aretz reported in September 2017 that the Chief Rabbinate had changed the registration status of 900 persons from Jewish to non-Jewish or “pending clarification” in 2015 and 2016.  ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court against these changes and the case continued at year’s end.

In October an individual petitioned the District Court in Haifa to change his registration from Jewish to “lacking religion.”  The court scheduled a hearing for January 2019.

Several municipalities filed legal challenges in the Supreme Court against the January 8 law granting the minister of interior wider discretion to approve or reject bylaws allowing commercial activity on Shabbat.  These challenges followed Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s rejection from June to August of five municipalities’ bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat, according to media reports.  Sources stated some non-kosher restaurants that opened on Shabbat paid fines that varied according to local laws.

On July 19, Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev signed a regulation conditioning government funding of Israeli sports associations, except soccer associations, on their accommodation of Shabbat-observant athletes.

The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and the West Bank for persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only two were available for use to the broader general public regardless of residence.  The one MRS-administered cemetery in the West Bank was available only for the burial of Israel citizens.  Additionally, 13 MRS-administered cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial (i.e., not affiliated to a religion) for these localities and nearby residents.  Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial for a relative reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents.  On May 29, the MRS published a call for proposals to develop or expand cemeteries for civil burials, following a 2016 report by the state comptroller that criticized the MRS for not implementing the civil burial law and thereby preventing the right of citizens to civil burial.

On February 19, the government passed a motion to recognize more Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders (keisim) and integrate them into Jewish religious councils.  According to recommendations published November 7 by a special government committee, keisim would be allowed to conduct some community religious functions but not marriages and funerals, unless they underwent the rabbinical ordination process and applied individually to the Chief Rabbinate.  On October 7, the cabinet approved a plan to facilitate immigration of approximately 1,000 parents from Ethiopia’s Falash Mura community whose children were already in Israel.

In 2017, the government cable and satellite-broadcasting regulator fined Channel 20, the “Heritage Channel,” 100,800 shekels ($26,900) for excluding the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements from its programming, because its license described the outlet as a platform for all streams of Judaism.  Channel 20 appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.  On May 9, the court ruled an administrative court would adjudicate the appeal.  The case was ongoing in the Court for Administrative Affairs in Jerusalem as of the end of the year.

In June, following a Supreme Court challenge by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the government announced attendance at a presentation to introduce an expedited Orthodox Jewish conversion course would no longer be mandatory for IDF soldiers who self-identified as Jewish but were not recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish.  The government stated the IDF would instead send invitations to IDF soldiers for the presentation; those who do not wish to participate could be excused.

In September 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the existing arrangement to exempt ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and it set a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews.  Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs.  On October 14, the Ministry of Defense sent a letter to the Eda Haredit community rejecting this argument.  Following a request from the government for more time to pass a new draft law, on December 2, the Supreme Court agreed to postpone the deadline to 2019.

Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs.  According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from “national religious” Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.

The government continued to operate a special police unit for the investigation of “ideology-based offenses” in Israel and the West Bank, including “price tag” attacks, which refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests.  The government continued to classify any association using the phrase “price tag” as an illegal association and a price tag attack as a security (as opposed to criminal) offense.  On March 29, the Lod District Court convicted one person of “membership in a terrorist organization” for a 2015 price tag attack, according to media reports.

The government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, according to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center.  Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.

In April the Watchtower Association of Israel (Jehovah’s Witnesses) sued the government in the Supreme Court to process its application for a tax exemption from capital gains transactions, which it submitted in 2012.  In 2016, the tax authority had approved its application and forwarded it to the Knesset Finance Committee, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for January 16, 2019.

Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts.  Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, math, and science curriculum.  However, the government included the basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools.  This category included 43 schools with 5,652 students in the 2017-2018 school year, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year, according to media reports.  Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students.  A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes.  For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand:  Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

According to the NGO Noar Kahalacha, dozens of Jewish school girls were unable to attend ultra-Orthodox schools due to discrimination based on their Mizrahi ethnicity (those with ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East), despite a 2009 court ruling prohibiting ethnic segregation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi schoolgirls.  A 2017 report from the state comptroller criticized the Ministry of Education (MOE) for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools.  The government stated the MOE did not tolerate any form of discrimination, and schools that refused to accept students for discriminatory reasons were summoned to hearings, sometimes leading to delays and denial of their budgets until the schools resolved the discrimination.

The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools have autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials.  The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fund fully Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but the churches rejected this option, stating they would lose autonomy over those decisions.  Church leaders criticized the disparity in government funding between their school system and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.

The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year.  In April the Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting official recognition as a religious community.  A hearing was scheduled for January 2019.  The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.

Seventh-day Adventists stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem.  Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not.  The government has stated local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religions in accordance with the law.  The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship in Israel was not granted a property tax exemption.

In February the Jerusalem municipality began to enforce collection of taxes on church properties used for nonworship activities, such as friars’ residences and parish halls, issuing retroactive fines and placing liens on bank accounts belonging to several churches.  Then-Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat said the city was owed 650 million shekels ($173.4 million) in uncollected taxes on church assets.  On February 25, leaders of 14 Christian churches in Jerusalem, including the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox Churches, issued a joint letter condemning the decision, after the Jerusalem municipality announced it would start collecting back taxes on church-owned property and freeze financial accounts used by churches for their day-to-day operations.  Church leaders also expressed concern over the introduction of a draft Knesset bill that would allow the government to expropriate lands sold by a church to private investors, with compensation to the investors for the price they paid for the land.  In their joint statement, the church leaders accused the government of a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.”  The bill’s sponsor stated the purpose of the bill was to protect thousands of residents living in buildings built on church lands that private developers purchased from a church.  Those residents reportedly feared massive price hikes or eviction when their leases expired.

In protest against the tax collection and the property expropriation bill, church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on February 25, the first such closure since 1990.  They reopened the church on February 28 after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the government would freeze the tax collection and suspend consideration of the property expropriation bill and establish a working group led by Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi to examine the two issues.  In a statement following Minister Hanegbi’s meeting with the working group on October 23, the MFA stated the government “has no intention to confiscate church lands or to cause any economic damage to the churches.”  When church leaders learned the bill would come before the Knesset on November 11, they pressured the government, which again froze debate on the bill.  Church leaders again expressed outrage when the bill was scheduled to be read in the Knesset on December 24, Christmas Eve.  The bill did not progress further before the Knesset voted to dissolve itself on December 26.

Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays and periodic denials of their visa applications.  The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world.  The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from states that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel.  Church officials noted the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who have served in the country for more than 30 years.

The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with their religious community, although without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection.  Because members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.

On June 28, the Supreme Court rejected a petition from the organization Yesh Gvul demanding the government give equal weight to military exemption requests based on conscientious objection as for those based on religious beliefs.  The court ruled the two kinds of exemptions were based on different parts of the Security Service Law; exemption for Orthodox Jewish women based on their religious beliefs was a right, while exemption of conscientious objectors was at the discretion of the defense minister.

The MOI continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries.  The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country.  Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies.  According to the government, the government did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.”  The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were nonstate employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget.  Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.  No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study.  The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa.  Muslim leaders rejected this assertion, stating the institutes in Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Baraa, operated by an NGO that teaches some Islamic studies, were not recognized as educational institutions by the Israeli Council for Higher Education.  The Muslim leaders also said Al-Qasemi College in Baqa’a al-Gharbia was a teachers’ college that includes a program for teaching Islam in schools.  The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.

According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), 115 of the 126 Jewish communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, effectively excluding non-Jewish residents.  Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new Jewish communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion to replace existing Bedouin villages.  In August the National Planning and Building Council recommended that the government proceed with the establishment of a town called Ir Ovot, which was to include a zone for approximately 50 Bedouin Israelis to remain in their current locations.

On April 11, Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran signed an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to self-demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura.  This decision followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a Jewish community called Hiran.  Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Jewish population of the Negev region), who planned to move to Hiran, remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.

Some former mosques and cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims.  These sites belonging to the defunct prestate Waqf (not to be confused with the Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence.  Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes.  On December 5, following a decades-long legal battle between the Jaffa Muslim community and a real estate developer, the government approved a request from the Tel Aviv Municipality to recognize Tasou cemetery in Jaffa as a Muslim cemetery.  This decision included authority for the Muslim community to manage the cemetery but did not transfer its ownership.  The Islamic Council in Jaffa welcomed the decision, publicly calling it “a just decision that’s been waiting for more than 70 years.”  In November MK Ayman Odeh raised 160,000 shekels ($42,700) to help the Haifa Muslim community repurchase a section of the Independence Mosque in Haifa that government-appointed trustees had previously sold.

Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities.  For example, Be’er Sheva’s Muslim population of approximately 10,000 continued to travel to nearby Bedouin towns to pray because e they could not use an Ottoman-era Be’er Sheva mosque the government previously converted to a museum of Islamic culture and the government would not authorize the construction of another mosque.

On July 30, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of land previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramle for the purpose of building a highway interchange.  The Karaites said the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity.  On December 11, the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court.  The government subsequently reported the government and community reached an agreement that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service.  The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals according to Islamic customs.  In 2017, the IDF issued new regulations allowing secular military funerals.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men.  The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from 2015 and 2016 to remove the signs, leading the Jerusalem District Court to rule in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted.  In December 2017, the municipality took down six of the eight signs, but did not then remove the remaining two due to a protest.  Local residents put up new signs to replace those the municipality removed.  On February 18, the Supreme Court ordered the municipality to install security cameras and take action against individuals posting the signs.  As of September police had not made any arrests.  The municipality had not installed cameras as of November, according to media reports.  The court case continued through December.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.  In July police arrested six ultra-Orthodox men for vandalizing campaign signs of a female candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, according to media reports.

In response to NGO Secular Forum’s petition against a ban on bringing leavened bread and similar foods into public hospitals during Passover, the government told the Supreme Court in July that it would expand the role of hospital security guards on Passover to include checking visitors’ belongings for such foods.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

The government continued to enforce the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry prohibiting non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, from obtaining resident status unless the MOI made a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.  The government stated it has extended the law annually due to government reports that Palestinian family reunification allowed entry to a disproportionate number of persons who were later involved in acts of terrorism.  The NGO HaMoked said that statistics from government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests contradicted these terrorism allegations, and the denial of residency to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza for the purposes of family reunification led to cases of family separation.

According to HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families.  There were also cases of Palestinian residents’ Palestinian spouses living in East Jerusalem without legal status.  Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency.  According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry foreign Christians (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency).  Christian religious leaders expressed concern this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities.  Other factors included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions.  The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restriction on the Christian community.

While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.  The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem.  In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that during the year the government positively addressed two longstanding visa cases involving foreigners married to citizens.

NGOs reported incidents in which authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military.  For example, the Secular Forum criticized the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in first to ninth grade, referring to it as “religious indoctrination to young children.”  The Secular Forum also opposed religious programs in those schools by private religious organizations, such as presentations about Passover in March by the Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement.  The government denied students were subjected to religious indoctrination or coercion, stating the secular public school curriculum included lessons “on the culture of the Jewish people,” including elements of the Jewish faith and traditions, such as the Jewish calendar and holidays.

In some instances, the IDF did not permit soldiers to cook or heat water for a shower on Shabbat, according to media reports.  The government stated soldiers were expected to respect Shabbat and kashrut in IDF base kitchens “in order to accommodate religious and kosher-observant soldiers.”  The government said it was not aware of limitations on heating water for showers on bases.

Women’s rights organizations cited a growing trend of gender segregation reflecting increased incorporation of Jewish religious observance in government institutions, including in the IDF, as accommodation to increase the enlistment of participants who follow strict interpretations of Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes.  For example, IDF commanders sometimes asked female soldiers serving in leadership or instructor positions to allow a male colleague to assume their duties when religious soldiers who objected to interacting with females were present, according to the Israel Women’s Network.  In response to this claim and similar allegations in media reports, IDF Chief of Personnel Director Major General Almoz said such practices “are in violation of Army orders and policy, do unnecessary harm to large groups serving in the Army, and are inconsistent with IDF commanders’ responsibility.”  According to many observers, the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.

NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions.  In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the MRS’ declaration that the Western Wall tunnels were an exclusively Jewish holy site, but ruled that the MRS and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must ensure those sections of the tunnels significant to Muslims and Christians – including excavations of a Christian chapel, an Islamic school, and Islamic Mamluk-era buildings – were properly managed to protect the antiquities and to ensure access for members of other religions.  The government stated the IAA conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds and by law the IAA must document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations.  It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research of ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.”

The interreligious council convened on May 8 and discussed the integration of Bedouin Muslims into the Israeli economy and higher education, according to the government.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative.  Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews.  For example, security camera footage showed ultra-Orthodox men vandalizing the Beit Hallel Messianic Jewish house of worship in Ashdod in September, and members of the Ashdod Messianic Jewish community complained of stalking, verbal abuse, and harassment from anti-missionary organizations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on February 17, a man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses who had knocked on the door of his home in Ashdod.  Police closed the case on the grounds the suspect was unknown, even though the victims provided police with the address of the house where the attack occurred.  Jehovah’s Witnesses said a television reporter conducted an “ambush interview” on June 14 in front of a Jehovah’s Witnesses literature display in Tel Aviv, selecting a member of Yad L’Achim, a Jewish group that opposes conversion of Jews to other religions, to comment about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Yad L’Achim activist made numerous discriminatory and derogatory statements about them.

Lehava, described by press as a radical right-wing Jewish group opposing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, continued to assault Arab men whom they perceived to be consorting with Jewish women, according to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).  Following a 2017 IRAC petition to the High Court demanding Lehava leader Ben-Tzion Gopstein be indicted on a series of offenses, the Jerusalem District Attorney held a pre-indictment hearing for Gopstein on March 8 on charges of incitement to violence, racism, terrorism, and obstruction of justice.  On March 14, IRAC withdrew its petition after the government stated to the court that it would decide whether to indict Gopstein.  In August IRAC wrote a letter to the state attorney requesting a decision regarding an indictment.  Prosecutors had not filed an indictment as of the end of the year.

In April authorities indicted seven Jewish Israelis on charges of terrorism targeting Arab (Muslim or Christian) citizens of Israel in a series of attacks, including a stabbing, in Be’er Sheva that began in 2016, according to media reports.  According to the indictment, on several occasions the defendants assaulted men whom they believed were Arab to deter them from dating Jewish women.  In a plea bargain, the Be’er Sheva District Court issued a five and a half year sentence to Raz Amitzur, the “main spirit of a group that perpetrated these attacks with a racist motive,” according to prosecutors.  The court sentenced four other members of the group to community service, according to media reports.

There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods harassing, with verbal abuse, spitting, or throwing stones, individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by not wearing modest dress or driving on Shabbat.  For example, on July 15, a widely publicized video showed a group of ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh chasing and yelling at a girl for dressing in a way they perceived as immodest.  There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting at individuals wearing Christian clerical clothing, according to church leaders.  In Jerusalem, these incidents often occurred in the Old City and near the shared holy site of the Cenacle (devotional site of the Last Supper)/David’s Tomb outside the southeastern wall of the Old City.

Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women sometimes experienced harassment by non-Muslims on public buses in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce.  On March 22, in a demonstration by the ultra-Orthodox Hapeleg Hayerushalmi group against the arrest of a military deserter, clashes broke out between demonstrators and police.  According to media reports, demonstrators threw stones and other objects at police, used tear gas against police officers, and vandalized cars.  Police dispersed protesters with “skunk water” (a foul-smelling, nonlethal liquid used by the government for crowd control) and arrested more than 30 protesters.  In a separate incident on April 4, police used stun grenades against ultra-Orthodox protestors who threw objects at cars, according to media reports.

In June Yad L’Achim posted videos of their activists harassing alleged proselytizers.  The organization also claimed to have “rescued” individuals from Messianic Jewish congregations and continued to offer assistance to Jewish women and their children to “escape” cohabitation with Arab men, sometimes by “launching military-like rescues from hostile Arab villages,” according to Yad L’Achim’s website.  Media reported in October, in the context of municipal elections, that the Ramle branch of the Jewish Home party posted billboards warning against marriages between Jews and Muslims.  The national Jewish Home party reportedly disavowed the billboards.  The October wedding of Muslim news anchor Lucy Aharish and Jewish actor Tzahi Halevi drew rebukes from Jewish politicians who opposed marriage between Jews and non-Jews.

Unknown suspects vandalized a Conservative synagogue in Netanya in three incidents in May.  According to media reports, an unidentified individual spray-painted Nazi symbols on the Mikdash Moshe Synagogue in Petakh Tikva on August 13, and vandals placed a pig’s head at the entrance to the Sukkat Shaul Synagogue in Ramat Hasharon on November 9.

The most common “price tag” offenses, according to police, were attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, damage to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands.  For example, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years.  An October 18 statement from the Latin Patriarchate criticized Israeli authorities for failing to apprehend the culprits in any of the preceding cases.  The same day, the MFA condemned the desecration of the cemetery.  The MOI offered to pay for the repair of the damaged cemetery markers and headstones.

On April 25, vandals burned two cars and spray-painted anti-Arab graffiti in the village of Iksal in the northern part of the country in a suspected “price tag” attack.  Police had not arrested any suspects as of October.  On October 26, vandals punctured tires and spray-painted “revenge” and “price tag” in Hebrew on 20 cars in Yafia, near Nazareth, according to media reports.  The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and sponsored activities to promote tolerance in response to the attacks.

Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site due to concerns relating to Jewish religious beliefs, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible .  Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site.  Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there, as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site.  In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them, but in other cases reported on social media and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the acts.  Some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers, wedding rituals, and prostration.  According to the Jerusalem Waqf and Temple Mount activist groups, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement increased during the year to record levels, including a single day record of 1,451 visits on “Jerusalem Day” in May, a national holiday commemorating Israel’s establishment of control over all Jerusalem in the 1967 war.  According to Temple Mount activist groups and the Waqf, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 3,009 visits, a 25 percent increase over 2017.

Individuals affiliated with the Northern Islamic Movement, which the government declared illegal in 2015, continued to speak of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as being “under attack” by Israeli authorities and an increasing number of Jewish visitors.  Some small Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple.

In October, following press reports Jews had purchased property in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter owned by Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, the representative of a Muslim family historically entrusted with safeguarding the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, members of the Palestinian community called on al-Husseini to relinquish the keys to the church.  According to Ha’aretz, in November every cemetery in East Jerusalem refused to bury a victim of a car accident because his name was associated with the sale of a house to Jews.

NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization from rabbis as suffering from mental illness, leading some to attempt suicide.  Other NGOs noted increasing numbers of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.

On February 6, Tzohar, a network of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, announced it was opening a nongovernmental certification authority for businesses adhering to Jewish dietary laws.  Tzohar’s decision followed a September 2017 Supreme Court ruling allowing a business to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance,” but without using the word “kashrut,” which the court affirmed only the Chief Rabbinate had authority to determine.

In June media reported the Barkan kosher winery had removed workers of Ethiopian descent from their positions in the production of wine after the NGO Badatz Eda Haredit expressed doubt that Ethiopian-Israelis were Jewish.  Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef criticized the winery and the Badatz Eda Haredit, and stated categorically that Jews of Ethiopian descent were Jewish.  Barkan Winery subsequently issued a statement that their products with a Badatz Eda Haredit kashrut certificate would be destroyed, according to Kan Radio.

According to sources who conducted Jewish weddings outside the Rabbinate’s authority (i.e., did not register them), the vague wording of the law dealing with those who conducted such weddings and the government’s nonenforcement of the law enabled non-Rabbinate Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish weddings to occur openly, often as an act of protest against the Rabbinate’s authority.  According to the NGO Panim, more than 2,400 Jewish weddings took place outside of the Rabbinate’s authority in 2017, an increase of 8 percent from 2016.  Most Jewish citizens, including those who were secular, continued to use Rabbinate-approved Orthodox rabbis to conduct their weddings.  The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Orthodox wedding or a non-Rabbinate Orthodox wedding, however, remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI.  Approximately 15 percent of marriages registered with the MOI in 2016, the most recent year available, occurred abroad, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.  According to data from the MRS, most of these weddings involved Israelis who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

In July, after police detained and questioned a Conservative rabbi in Haifa for conducting weddings outside of the Rabbinate, dozens of officiants and couples who had married outside of the Rabbinate turned themselves in at police stations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and others “confessed” their crime on social media.  Police declined to arrest any of the individuals involved.

According to the Rackman Center, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get refusal, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.  In two cases of get refusal, the NGOs Center for Women’s Justice and Mavoi Satum helped women receive marriage nullification decrees from nongovernmental Orthodox rabbinical courts in June and July.

The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody.  One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice.  A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the Jewish community.

In June the Israel Women’s Network asked the Tel Aviv Municipality and the deputy attorney general not to allow an ultra-Orthodox group to hold a gender-segregated event in Tel Aviv.  The municipality canceled the event, and then accepted a Tel Aviv District Court suggestion to allow the event with partial gender segregation on June 24.  According to a media report citing government data, the Office for Development of the Periphery, Negev, and Galilee funded more than 80 gender-segregated events during the year to accommodate strict interpretations of halacha.

A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA).  For example, IEA held 245 interfaith encounters in Israel (including Jerusalem), of which 120 included Palestinians residents of the West Bank.  The number of children studying at integrated Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,700, up from 1,100 five years earlier, according to media reports.

Jordan

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion.  It states the king must be a Muslim.  The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and courts for non-Muslim for religious communities recognized by the government.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy.  Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the presence of a will that states otherwise.  Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution.  The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Churches before converting a Christian to Islam, to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction.  The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying Jordanians in a manner that violates their dignity, according to government statements.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.”  Although these prosecutions may occur in the State Security Court, cases are usually tried in other courts.  Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).

Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register.  Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration.  If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage (there is no provision for civil marriage).  They may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts.  Religious groups may also be registered as “associations” and if so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but may own property and open bank accounts.  They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding.  Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.

Nonrecognized religious groups lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff.  Individuals may exercise such activities and as such may designate an individual to perform these functions on behalf of the unrecognized group, however.  To register as a recognized religious group, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine.  In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the minister of the interior and the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations.  The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups:  the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

The law lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups:  Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.  In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the Ministry of Interior as well, but have not been permitted to establish a court:  the Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptists.  The government has continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The government granted legal status to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

The CCL consists of the heads of the country’s 11 historically recognized Christian denominations and serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents (marriage or inheritance).  In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries.  Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task.  Nonrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.

According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments).  Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs manages mosques, including appointing imams, paying mosque staff salaries, managing Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizing certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances.  Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, which is headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and is in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Ifta’ Department, which issues fatwas.

Since 2017, the government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons.  According to the law, Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from Ministry of Awqaf employment.  In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month, or be given a fine not to exceed 20 dinars ($28).

The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless officially authorized by an official committee headed by the grand mufti in the General Ifta’ Department.  This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf with the rank of mufti being equal to that of a minister.

The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 dinars ($28,200).

By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out.  Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction.  The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but legally including religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) with the right to establish their own schools provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.”  In order to operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards.  The Ministry of Education does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship.  In several cities, recognized Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity.  The schools are open to adherents of all religions.

Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools, but it is optional for non-Muslims.  Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in his or her final year of high school, which includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran.  Islamic religion is an optional subject for university entrance exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum or for Muslim students following international curricula.

The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other recognized religious communities.  According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts.  Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  A personal or family status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court.  Per the constitution, matters of personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities.  Such courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities.  According to the law, members of recognized denominations lacking their own courts must take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court.  There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of nonrecognized religious groups.  Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.

The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Muslim religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal.  The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Muslim religious (known as ecclesiastical) courts.  All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.

According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf.  Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.

Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status.  Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.

According to sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal.  If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert for their marriage to remain legal.  There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of nonrecognized religious groups.  Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, may obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination such as the Anglican Church, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father.  Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife loses custody of the children when they reach seven years of age.  In December an amendment to the Personal Status Law was passed, stipulating that mothers should retain custody of their children until age 18.  The new amendment contains no mention of religious affiliation.  Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion.  In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise.  All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion.

National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records.  Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion.  Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their families as their own.  Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam to Christianity are not allowed to change their religion on the electronic records.  Converts from Christianity to Islam may change their religion on their civil documents such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family), and on electronic records.

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine out of 130 parliamentary seats or 6.9 percent.  Christians may not run for additional seats.  No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups.  The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Attorney General ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  Authorities charged the men with sectarian incitement and causing religious strife per the article of the penal code stipulating hate speech, as well as with violations of the cybercrimes law and the press and publications law.  The cartoon, posted on December 8, depicted Turkish chef “Salt Bae” – real name Nusret Gokce – sprinkling salt on the food at the Last Supper of Jesus.  Social media users commented to the website that the drawing was religiously insensitive and would cause strife between Muslims and Christians in the country.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released Al-Wakeel and the editor, Ghadeer Rbeihat, two days later.

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials.  Because of the ban on conversion under sharia, government officials generally refused to change religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion.  Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  During the year, several adult Christians reported discovering that because of a parent’s subsequent conversion to Islam, the individuals had been automatically re-registered as Muslims in some government files, leading to inconsistencies in their records and causing bureaucratic obstacles and administrative holdups when trying to apply for marriage licenses or register for university.

Members of religious groups who were unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the Ministry of Justice.  The chief of the OSJ reportedly continued to try to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce.  The OSJ reportedly continued to enforce the interview requirement, introduced in 2017, for converts to Islam to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.

According to journalists who cover religious topics, the government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require that preachers refrain from political commentary, which the government deemed could instigate social or political unrest, and to counter radicalization.  Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons.  Imams who violated these rules continued to risk being fined or banned from preaching.  According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year.  In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam.  In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight.  There continued to be unofficial mosques operating outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, as well as imams outside of government employment who preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision.

In March the government began enforcing a new residency policy enacted in October 2017 to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency, suggesting that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims.  Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the Ministry of Interior and a letter of sponsorship from the church.  Volunteers must now obtain additional approvals, including the MOL, lengthening the average renewal process by several months.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to practice their religion and included them in interfaith events.  Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue to Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security.  The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim.  In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in the family and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school.  The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees which sometimes amounted to more than 500 dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five dinars ($7) through religious courts.

Other nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals, and also to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

According to observers, recognized Christian denominations with the rights and privileges associated with membership in the CCL guarded this status, and continued to foster a degree of competition among other religious groups hoping to attain membership.  Despite efforts to alter their status, some evangelical Christian groups remained unrecognized either as denominations or as associations.  Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches continued to say that there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.

Some Christian leaders continued to express concern the CCL did not meet regularly and lacked the capacity to manage the affairs of both recognized and nonrecognized Christian groups effectively and fairly, especially in relation to their daily lives.  Most CCL leaders remained based in Jerusalem.

Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after an August 10 attack targeting Jordanian security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for religious worshippers.  The church leaders stated they especially appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and large events.

Druze continued to worship at and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community.  The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze.  Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, served in parliament and as cabinet ministers.  Druze continued to report discrimination in reaching high positions in government and official departments.

The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion.  Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.

Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for violating the public order if they proselytized Muslims.  Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers living in the country after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks.  Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations and additional requirements were imposed on residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.

There continued to be two recognized Baha’i cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government.  Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is.  In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said, they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process constituting a large financial burden.

The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rolling back of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017.  Intended to promote tolerance, parents and teachers’ groups stated that the changes were distancing students from Islamic values and promoted normalization of relations with Israel.  The curriculum continued the past practice of omitting mention of the Holocaust.

In August amendments to the cybercrimes law were introduced to parliament including increased penalties for a broadened definition of online hate speech, defined as “any statement or act that would provoke religious, sectarian, ethnic, or regional sedition; calling for violence and justifying it; or spreading rumors against people with the aim of causing them, as a result, physical harm or damage to their assets or reputation.”  After sustained public protest, the amendments were withdrawn and re-submitted to parliament with a tighter definition that excluded mention of religion.  The new amendment, still under consideration by parliament at the end of the year, defines hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke “sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”

In June the Templeton Foundation announced that King Abdullah would receive the 2018 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.  In the award announcement, the foundation said the king “has done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader.”  The king received the award in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral on November 13.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members.  Some converts from Islam to Christianity reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts.  Some converts from Islam reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media.  Mohammad Nuh al-Qudah, a member of parliament and prominent Muslim preacher, on his online television show criticized females, especially young women, who did not wear the hijab, calling them blasphemous and stupid.

There was also an uptick in hate speech in social media and in the press directed at the Jewish faith after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Articles frequently appeared in mainstream media outlets such as Al Ghad that referred to Judaism in Arabic as “the heresy of the Zionist people,” described estimates of the number of Jews as fabricated, celebrated a perceived decline in the number of Jews, and ended with statements such as “the future is ours.”

Some social media users defended religious freedom, including a mostly critical reaction to al-Qudah’s remarks and calls for his show to be cancelled.  Thousands of Christians and Muslims also left comments online condemning a University of Jordan professor’s lecture in March which criticized the Bible along with the Christian and Jewish faiths.  Following this incident, which provoked condemnation from Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarawneh and other members of parliament, the professor ended his many-year practice of posting lectures online.   

Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions.  Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance; Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.

Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and individuals in interfaith romantic relationships.  Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence.  Individuals in interfaith romantic relationships continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward the individuals involved.

The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups.  In September the JICRC and National Council for Family Affairs hosted a Family and Societal Harmony Conference, which compared the family and institutional experiences of Muslims and Christians in Jordan and explored ways to work together to counter violence, extremism, and terrorism.  Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.

West Bank and Gaza

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

West Bank and the Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities.  Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordnances enacted by the Israeli Military Commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, PA law.  Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordnances enacted by the Military Commander and Israeli law and Israeli legislation.  Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordnances enacted by the Military Commander.  Palestinians who live in Area B fall under PA civil and criminal law, while Israel retains the overriding responsibility for security.  Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies military ordnances enacted by the Military Commander whenever its military enters Area A, as part of its overriding responsibility for security.  The city of Hebron in the West Bank – an important city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians due to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs – is divided into two separate areas:  area H1 under PA control and area H2, where approximately 800 Israeli settlers live and where internal security, public order and civil authorities relating to Israelis and their property are under Israeli military control.  In 2007, Hamas staged a violent takeover of PA government installations in the Gaza Strip and has since maintained a de facto government in the territory, although the area nominally comes under PA jurisdiction.

An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction.  The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion, but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.”  It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality.  The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law.  The law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation.  It contains language adopted from the pre-1967 criminal code of Jordanian rule criminalizing “defaming religion,” with a maximum penalty of life in prison.  Since 2007, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas, has not convened.  The Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in December and called for new elections.  The President of the PA promulgates executive decrees that have legal authority.

There is no specified process by which religious organizations gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA.  The PA observes nineteenth century status quo arrangements reached with the Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches.  The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) and Evangelical Lutheran Churches.  The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities.  The PA’s Ministry of Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.

Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support.  For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians.  By law, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.

The PA maintains some unwritten understandings with churches that are not officially recognized, based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including the Assemblies of God, Nazarene Church, and some evangelical Christian churches, which may operate freely.  Some of these groups may perform some official functions such as issuing marriage licenses.  Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA.  These churches may not proselytize.

By law, the PA provides financial support to Islamic institutions and places of worship.

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates, as well as some Palestinian schools in Jerusalem that use PA curriculum.  There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians.  Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religious courses.  Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank, which include religious instruction.  Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank.

Palestinian law provides that in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats.  There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group.  A presidential decree requires that Christians head 10 municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for 10 West Bank municipal councils.

PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.”  While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of Israeli land in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.

Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards issued since 2014, older identity cards continue to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.

Government Practices

In October Palestinian authorities detained a Palestinian-U.S. citizen Jerusalem identification card holder and investigated him for involvement in brokering the sale of Palestinian property to Jewish Israelis.  After a one-week trial, the Palestinian Grand Criminal Court found him guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign State” and sentenced him to life in prison with hard labor.  Authorities also froze his bank accounts as well as those of the owners of the property, according to media.

Israeli police and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) reported investigating known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible.  In general, however, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions.  Israeli NGO Yesh Din also reported Palestinian victims generally feared reprisals by perpetrators or their associates.  Both of these factors increased Palestinian victims’ reluctance to file official complaints, according to Yesh Din.

The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against Israeli extremists’ attacks on Palestinians and have made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through taskforces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members.  During the first six months of the year, Israeli police had investigated 115 allegations of nationalistic-based offenses committed by Israelis in the West Bank and 405 allegations against Palestinians.  In all of 2017, Israeli police investigated 183 and 609 allegations, respectively.  At the end of June, Israeli authorities had opened 35 new investigations of ideologically-based offenses and disturbances of public order by Israelis against Palestinians, compared with 29 in all of 2017.  By June Israeli authorities issued four indictments in these cases, two of which were from prior years’ investigations, while in 2017 four indictments were issued, including three from prior years’ investigations.  Offenses against property constituted 65 percent of these cases.  Israeli authorities investigated 15 cases of Israelis allegedly committing bodily harm against Palestinians.  As of the end of June, however, Israeli authorities had not investigated any cases involving Israeli stone-throwing at Palestinians in the West Bank.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 21 incidents of Israelis throwing stones at Palestinian homes and vehicles during the same six-month period.

As of October, Israeli authorities had issued 27 restraining orders against 25 Israelis from entering the West Bank and four orders prohibiting Israelis from entering specific areas in the West Bank.  In 2017, Israeli authorities issued one detention order and 55 restraining orders against 41 Israelis, including minors, prohibiting their presence in the West Bank to deter and prevent ideologically based offenses.  The Israeli government stated the special unit it established in 2013 in the West Bank’s Judea and Samaria Police District to combat nationalist crimes was fully operational, with 60 police officers, and 20 auxiliary officers.

The PA continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.  The Mufti of Jerusalem issued fatwas prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of Palestinian-owned lands to Israelis.  In April the Palestinian Supreme Fatwa Council reiterated an Islamic legal ruling (fatwa) reemphasizing previous rulings that sale of Palestinian-owned lands, including in Jerusalem, to “enemies such as the state of Israel,” is forbidden to Muslims according to sharia.

Nonrecognized churches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups, faced a continued PA ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered by the PA.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by nonrecognized churches.  The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these nonrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples.  Many nonrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad to register the action officially in that location.  Some converts to nonrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces.  Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs.  During the year, Palestinian authorities established a procedure for registering future marriages involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, which would also enable couples to register their children and protect the children’s inheritance rights.  Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis documents from a small number of churches that were relatively recently established in the West Bank and whose legal status remained uncertain.

Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the security barrier that was begun by Israel during the second Intifada (2000-2005), impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in the West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem.  Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship.  Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier.  Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier.  The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense, and that it was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.

In addition, Bethlehem residents said political instability affected tourism, Bethlehem’s key economic sector.  Christians also criticized the PA for failing to better protect their communities and way of life, which was under pressure from lack of economic opportunities and other drivers of emigration.  During the year, Bethlehem had the highest unemployment rate among West Bank cities, which sources stated was a factor compelling many young Christians to emigrate.  Community leaders estimated Bethlehem and surrounding communities were only 12 percent Christian, compared with more than 70 percent in 1950.

Palestinian leaders often did not publicly condemn individual terrorist attacks or speak out publicly against members of their institutions who advocated for violence.  Media and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with Israeli security forces.  Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, terrorist organizations, and individuals glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.”  Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as martyrs and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers.  The Fatah branch in the city of Tubas and the Fatah youth organization posted a photograph on March 11 of Wafa Idreis, a suicide bomber who carried out an attack during the second Intifada, and which killed one Israeli and injured 90 others.

The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinian individuals killed during the commission of a terrorist act.  The PA and the PLO also continued to provide payments to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism against Israelis.  These payments and separate stipends for prisoners were first initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the Oslo Accords with Israel.  President Abbas said he would use his last penny “on the families of the prisoners and martyrs.”

The PA Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank.  The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.

The Israeli government and the PA sometimes prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting Jewish religious sites in PA-controlled territory in the West Bank for security reasons.

The Israeli government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A).  While these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting several Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several Jewish religious sites in the West Bank, including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination.  IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety.  Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank.

Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, remained separated from the West Bank by the security barrier built during the second Intifada, and Palestinians could only access it if Israeli authorities permitted them to cross the barrier.  Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access.  Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays, for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).

The IDF continued to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham.  Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared administrative responsibility for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for the site.  Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site.  The IDF again restricted Muslim access on 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access on 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays.  The Israeli government said these restrictions allowed a greater number of worshipers to access the site on special days for the two faiths.  The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point with IDF security screening.  The IDF granted Jews access via several entry points without security screening.  The Israeli government said police guard posts were located at both crossings, and manned by soldiers and equipped with metal detectors.  Entrance was denied to individuals identified as posing a threat to the security of the site or its worshipers.  Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site, and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles.  The Israeli government said the road closure was to prevent confrontations.  Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF following a 1994 attack by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians.  Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron regarding the needs of Jewish worshippers at the site.

Following the September fatal stabbing of a Jewish settler in the West Bank by a Palestinian, President Abbas told Israeli government leaders that “everybody loses from violence.”  On April 30, however, Abbas spoke at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, stating the  massacres of Jews, including during the Holocaust, were related to their “social behavior, [charging] interest, and financial matters,” and not their religion.  He issued a statement on May 4 apologizing to those offended by his remarks, condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms, and called the Holocaust the most heinous crime in history.

Religiously intolerant and anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media.  On October 5, the official Palestinian TV aired a speech by PA Islamic Law Judge Muhannad Abu Roomi describing Jews as “fabricators of history” who “dance and live on the body parts and blood of others.”  In another instance, a guest on a Palestinian TV program on April 10 stated that the Holocaust was a lie, and that many Jews “colluded with Hitler to create a gateway to bring settlers to Palestine.”  On December 14, Osama al-Tibi delivered a Friday sermon at the Taqwa mosque in al-Tira, near Ramallah, broadcast on Palestine TV.  In his sermon, al-Tibi said he was not able to mention all of the Jews’ despicable traits, and that “Allah … turned them into apes and pigs.”

There continued to be anti-Semitic and militaristic and adversarial content directed against Israel in Palestinian textbooks as well as the absence of references to Judaism alongside Christianity and Islam when discussing religion, according to Palestinian Media Watch and the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education.  The two NGOs also reported that PA schoolbooks for the 2017-2018 school year contained material glorifying terror and promoting violence.  In September media reported a European Parliament committee voted to freeze more than $17 million in aid to the PA over incitement against Israel in its textbooks.

NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), an Israeli government entity, exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds of other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites.  Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the ministers of culture, justice, and religious affairs.  The government stated that the IAA conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds, and the IAA was obligated by law to document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations.  It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research of ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.”

The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy from entering and working.  The Israeli government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank to single entry visas, which local parish leaders in the West Bank said complicated needed travel to other areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem, such as Jordan.  Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications.  The Israeli government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing, and visitors from states without diplomatic relations with Israeli could face delays.  Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa renewal applicants also faced long delays.  Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy for individuals wishing to work and reside in the West Bank adversely impacted faith-based operations in the West Bank.  While clergy generally were able to obtain visas, Christian leaders said this policy adversely affected school teachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank.  NGOs and religious leaders said this policy did not appear to specifically target faith based organizations, but rather, appeared to be part of a broader Israeli tightening of visa issuance in response to the international “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.”  Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians in Gaza to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank.  Christian leaders said Israel issued insufficient permits to meet the full demand, and the process was lengthy and time consuming.

According to some church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy from entering Gaza, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority.  Israel facilitated visits by clergy, including bishops from non-Arab countries, to Gaza on multiple occasions, including delegations from Europe, North America, and South Africa.

At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance, Economy, and Tourism) and the cabinet-level office of deputy prime minister for public information.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hamas, PIJ, and other militant and terrorist groups continued to be active in Gaza.  Hamas remained in de facto political control of Gaza.

Hamas leaders continued to call for the elimination of the state of Israel, and some Hamas leaders called for the killing of Zionist Jews.  Some Hamas leaders condemned, however, the terrorist attack on a U.S. synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia, including a separate judicial system from the PA courts.  At times Hamas courts prohibited women from departing Gaza due to ongoing divorce or family court proceedings, despite having Israeli authorization to travel.  Human Rights Watch issued a report in October regarding accusation of torture and abuse of detainees in PA and Hamas detention, based on 86 cases and dozens of interviews with former detainees, lawyers, and family members.  The report included an example from 2017 of Hamas police detaining a social worker and investigating him for “offending religious feelings.”  Media reported the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University of Gaza required hijabs for all females.  Gazan civil society leaders said Hamas in recent years had moderated its restrictions on dress and gender segregation in public.

Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law.  According to media accounts, Hamas continued to neither investigate nor prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment.  Media quoted Gazan Christians as saying that Hamas generally did not impede private and communal religious activities for the Christian minority in Gaza, but continued to not celebrate Christmas as a public holiday, unlike in the West Bank.

Some Muslim students continued to attend schools run by Christian institutions and NGOs in Gaza.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were incidents of deadly violence that perpetrators said was justified at least partly on religious grounds.  Because religion and ethnicity or nationality were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity.  Actions included killings, physical and verbal attacks on worshipers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites.  There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and anti-Semitic content in media.

On January 9, a member of Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades shot and killed Rabbi Raziel Shevach at a traffic junction near the Israeli settlement outpost of Havat Gilad, west of Nablus in the West Bank.  On March 28, an Arab Israeli, Abed al-Hakim Asi, was charged in Central District Court for the February 5 fatal stabbing of Rabbi Itamar Ben Gal at a bus stop near the Ariel settlement, located between Nablus and Ramallah.  Following these two attacks, Israeli settlers from neighboring areas threw stones at Palestinian vehicles and houses, destroyed olive orchards, sprayed anti-Palestinian graffiti, and blocked road access to Nablus.

On October 12, Aysha al-Rabi, a Palestinian resident of Bidya village, died when an unidentified individual threw a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through her car windshield.  Israeli police opened an investigation and at year’s end continued to investigate the possible involvement of yeshiva students from the nearby Israeli settlement of Rehelim.

In July a Palestinian teenager climbed over the wall of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank near Ramallah and stabbed three Israelis, killing one.  Neighbors of the victim killed the 17-year-old.  In response, the Israeli defense minister tweeted, “The best answer to terror is the accelerated settlement of Judea and Samaria.”

Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites in the West Bank, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.  Palestinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails and clashed with IDF escorts during visits of Jewish groups to Joseph’s Tomb (located in Area A) on several days during the year.  The IDF used tear gas, rubber bullets, and live fire to disperse Palestinian protesters, secure the site, and/or evacuate Jewish worshippers.

According to local press and social media, some Israeli settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, or “price tag” attacks, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, as necessary for the defense of Judaism.  NGO Tag Meir reported that in April unknown assailants attempted to set a mosque near Nablus on fire, leaving graffiti on the building that stated “price tag and revenge.”

According to local human rights groups and media, Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted Jewish attacks against Muslims and Christians successfully, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence.  The Israeli government stated it maintained a zero-tolerance policy towards “price-tag” offenses by Israeli extremists and other violence against Palestinians in areas of the West Bank under its responsibility.  It also stated it had made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, which led to a decrease in ideologically-based offences, and an increase in the numbers of investigations and rates of prosecution.

A crowd of Christian Palestinians threw stones, bottles, and eggs at Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III on January 6-7 when he arrived in Bethlehem’s Manger Square to preside over midnight Mass on Orthodox Christmas.  Members of the crowd, who also pounded the patriarch’s car with their fists, chanting “traitor, traitor,” accused the Greek Orthodox Church of selling Palestinian-owned property and land to Israeli Jewish groups.  According to media, the controversy dated back to 2004, when three companies associated with a settler group obtained a long-term lease on three buildings belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The church launched a legal battle against the agreement, calling it “illegal” and “unauthorized.”  In 2017, a district court in Israel rejected the church’s argument.  The church appealed the decision to the Israeli Supreme Court in November 2017, and the appeal was still pending at year’s end.

According to members of more recently arrived faith communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem, established Christian groups opposed their efforts to obtain official recognition from the PA because of the newcomers’ proselytizing.

Political and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza continued to call on members to “defend” Al-Aqsa Mosque.

According to Palestinian sources, most Christian and Muslim families in the West Bank and Gaza Strip pressured their children, especially their daughters, to marry within their respective religious groups.  Couples who challenged this societal norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who sought to marry Jews, encountered considerable societal and family opposition.  Families sometimes reportedly disowned Muslim and Christian women who married outside their faith.

In an article published by the independent Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, former Hamas official Mustafa al-Lidawi invoked the blood libel to describe how Jews prepared pastries for the Purim holiday.

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