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Brunei

Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i School of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” The government enforces the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which includes offenses, such as apostasy and blasphemy, punishable by corporal and capital punishment, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. A 2019 de facto moratorium on the death penalty continued during the year. The SPC, which is in force in parallel with the common-law-based secular penal code, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. Under the SPC, the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia. The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued its official ban of religious groups it considers “deviant,” including Ahmadi Islam, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government did not ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT), which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014, but the Foreign Minister reported the ratification process was ongoing. Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) enforcement officers deported a U.S. citizen in February for publicly proselytizing for a religion other than Islam. Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minorities reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019 but noted that the law continued to impose restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims. In March, the government announced that all places of worship would be closed to counter the spread of COVID-19. Some observers noted MORA neglected to announce the reopening of non-Islamic houses of worship when it announced the reopening of the country’s mosques in June, instead relying on the Ministry of Health to pass on the information. In September, the Sultan publicly reprimanded MORA for the slow pace of proselytizing in the country’s rural districts, where indigenous religious beliefs are prevalent, and for budget mismanagement. Members of the LGBTI community reported that MORA summoned transgender individuals to its offices and demanded that they maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of the reported cases. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation.

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, which were less prevalent than after introduction of the SPC in 2019, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments asking whether adhering so closely to Islam, the Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) national philosophy, and MORA’s policies was slowing the country’s development, and whether the large amount of required religious education was impeding secular academic studies. Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. Numerous individuals from throughout society praised the announcement that Roman Catholic Bishop Cornelius Sim had been created a Cardinal.

The Charge dAffaires and other embassy officers engaged throughout the year with senior government officials regarding the effects of the SPC, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority rights. The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities. Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy. U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC. Embassy officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of various religious groups, and facilitated discussions on the SPC and laws and policies affecting religious freedom in the country, including sharia and obstacles to practicing religions and beliefs other than Shafi’i Islam.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 464,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions, including indigenous beliefs.

There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups. According to 2019 official statistics (the most recent), ethnic Malay citizens comprise 66 percent of the population and are defined by law as Muslims from birth. The ethnic Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and stateless permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes, such as Dusun, Bisaya, Murut, and Iban, make up approximately four percent of the population and are estimated to be 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder followers of other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining 20 percent of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other South Asian countries. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one-quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.

The legal system is divided between secular law and sharia, which have parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. The civil courts are based on common law. The sharia courts follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no concept of legal precedent and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC.

The SPC spells out provisions for corporal and capital punishment for murder, theft, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, blasphemy, and other acts deemed crimes under sharia. Depending on the type and specifics of the offense, these punishments include fines, imprisonment, whipping, caning, amputation of hands or feet, or death (including by stoning). The SPC identifies murder, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, and blasphemy as capital offenses, although the law requires either a confession or the testimony of multiple pious Muslim male eyewitnesses to support a death sentence. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty, announced by the Sultan in 2019, continued during the year.

Most SPC sections apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, and are applicable to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempt from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers and pay zakat (obligatory annual almsgiving). The SPC states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation.”

The SPC incorporates longstanding domestic laws based on sharia that prohibit drinking alcohol, propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close physical proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex. It prohibits “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”

Punishments included under the SPC have different standards of proof from the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, may be supported by a confession in lieu of witness testimony at the discretion of a sharia judge. If neither qualifying testimony nor a confession is available, the possible sentences are limited to caning, imprisonment, and fines.

The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which it defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and is its main defense against “extremism.” A government body, the MIB Supreme Council, seeks to spread and strengthen the MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.

The Religious Enforcement Division under MORA leads investigations of crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. Cases involving crimes that are not covered by sharia legislation, such as human trafficking, are investigated by the RBPF. RBPF and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both the secular and sharia laws. In such cases, an “assessment committee” composed of secular and sharia prosecutors and secular and sharia law enforcement officers decides which court system will try the case. The deliberations of the assessment committee to determine whether specific cases would proceed through secular or sharia court are not public, and the government does not make public the committee’s bases for its decisions.

The government bans religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the Sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is available on MORA’s website. The SPC also bans most non-Sunni forms of Islam and any practice or display of “black magic.”

The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam. MORA officials state that the use of certain words such as “Allah” by non-Muslims does not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.

Under the SPC, Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion. Non-Muslims must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert or renounce their religion. If parents convert to Islam, their children younger than 14 years and seven months automatically become Muslim.

The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks for leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information requested by the registrar. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,600), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.

The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private places in which gatherings do not require approval.

The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 BND ($15,100), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam as well as the SPC itself.

Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith.

The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum that are administered by the Ministry of Education, and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.

Ministry of Education schools are required to teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children between the ages of seven and 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Non-Muslims are exempted from all religious study requirements and receive teaching on moral behavior. Non-Muslim students are still required to take MIB classes.

Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction in beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam as part of the school’s curriculum. Schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law requires that any person wishing to teach on matters relating to Islam must obtain official permission. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer private religious education in private settings, such as someone’s home.

All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to parents who are not both Muslim. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.

Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (close physical proximity between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.

A regulation requires businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for an exemption if serving non-Muslims.

MORA has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and describes it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification). The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM/C. In his 2017 fatwas, the State Mufti declared that both male and female circumcision are required and specified that female circumcision involves a “small cut above the vagina.”

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

Government Practices

MORA enforcement officers deported a U.S. citizen in February for publicly proselytizing for a religion other than Islam, an offense that under the SPC is punishable by a fine not exceeding 20,000 BND ($15,100), imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or both. The head of MORA’s Enforcement Division stated that MORA officers followed a precedent set by a past proselytizing case, which had also resulted in deportation, but he also said that maintaining good relations with the United States was a factor in the decision to deport the man instead of arresting him.

The government did not ratify the UNCAT, which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014. The Foreign Minister reported, however, that the government was in the ratification process.

In March, the Sharia High Court issued its first verdict in a case of “causing hurt” – an offense under the SPC roughly equivalent to assault. The court sentenced the accused, a Bruneian Muslim man, to five years’ imprisonment, and for the first time since the implementation of the SPC, the judge ordered the accused to pay “blood money” of 91,516 BND ($69,200) to compensate the victim.

In January, a sharia judge dropped the 2019 case of two Vietnamese men who were the first non-Muslim foreigners to be charged in the sharia courts for “causing hurt” after both parties reached an out-of-court settlement.

In April, all sharia courts ceased operations due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, sharia courts resumed operations mostly to hear routine cases of theft and khalwat.

Non-Muslims continued to note that the SPC imposed restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. Some non-Muslims described the existence of the SPC itself as a “scare tactic” that, alongside other government policies, would pressure non-Muslims to convert to Islam. They noted the SPC’s blasphemy provisions could be used to constrain non-Muslim groups’ activities but expressed greater concern about subtle pressure by the government than about the possibility of harsh sharia punishments.

In March, the government announced that all places of worship would be closed to counter the spread of COVID-19. Senior members of minority religions reported good communications from the Ministry of Health about the rules for closing and reopening churches and places of worship. Some observers noted MORA neglected to announce the reopening of non-Islamic houses of worship when it announced the reopening of the country’s mosques in June, instead relying on the Ministry of Health to pass on the information, which it did soon after.

The government periodically warned the population about the preaching of non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism. It permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths, including by permitting non-Islamic churches to operate and allowing non-Muslim religious minorities to gather in private churches.

MORA continued to provide all mosques with approved sermons for Friday services. The government required that the sermons be delivered by registered imams, and deviance from the approved text was forbidden. Government data from 2015, the latest available, indicated there were 99 registered mosques.

There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear a head covering (known locally as a tudong), and many women did so. When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards, Muslim females were required to wear a tudong. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.

As in past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the country’s sole Chinese Buddhist temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members. Members of the royal family publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with front-page coverage in state-influenced media.

In December, the human rights NGO Jubilee Campaign wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State to report that MORA sent officials to ensure that a ban on Christmas decorations was enforced around the country. In practice, however, people were able to celebrate Christmas and decorate their private residences. There were no reports of shops or restaurants being warned by MORA for displaying decorations.

The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic instructional materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. Authorities generally continued to ban the import of non-Islamic religious texts, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviated from the Shafi’i school of Islam. Customs officials continued to check personal packages entering the country to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or perceived sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.

Christian leaders continued to state that a longstanding fatwa discouraging Muslims from supporting non-Islamic faiths inhibited the expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities; in accordance with the fatwa, government officials slowed or did not process building plans and permits for churches. Christian religious groups said that authorities generally only permitted churches and associated schools to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety. The process for obtaining approval to renovate church buildings and associated school buildings remained lengthy and difficult, and there were continuing reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated requirements. With only six approved churches in the country, the last built in the 1960s before the country gained independence, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Several sources reported that schools associated with Christian churches had to pay government business taxes despite being nonprofit organizations. This measure was not applied to other nonprofit private schools with no religious affiliations. The Chinese temple was also subject to the same fatwa. Christian worshippers continued to report difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled.

The government reported that many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses on their transcripts could be advantageous. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.

Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. All church-associated schools were recognized by the Ministry of Education and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no warnings in the press to local restaurants not to serve dine-in customers during fasting hours for Ramadan as in past years. Throughout the year, the government enforced restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers.

Religious authorities allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but they continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.

The government continued to offer incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing and welfare assistance. The government allocated travel funding so that those who could not participate in the Hajj due to COVID-19 travel restrictions during the year could do so in the future. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. According to government statistics, 293 individuals converted to Islam during the year, approximately the same as the previous year. Converts included citizens and permanent residents as well as foreigners. Government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (one that remembers and obeys Allah).

In a rare instance, during a surprise inspection in September, the Sultan publicly admonished MORA for the slow pace of Muslim proselytization in the rural districts, budget shortfalls, general poor performance, and poor management of the zakat (annual almsgiving) fund.

Members of the LGBTI community reported in September that MORA summoned transsexual individuals to its offices and demanded that they maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of these reported cases. Other members of the LGBTI community reported family members had been contacted by MORA and questioned on the individuals’ sexuality.

Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings required approval from the sharia courts, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.

Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.

The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity and were used in part to determine whether he or she were Muslim; for example, all ethnic Malays, including those traveling in the country, were assumed to be Muslim. Malays were required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. Some male members of the Islamic community reportedly felt pressure from family and friends to attend Friday prayers despite not having strong religious beliefs. Members of the LGBTI community expressed fears about openly expressing their sexual or gender identity, since they believed it would bring shame on their families for violating religious mores.

The local press reported in November the announcement from the Holy See that the Apostolic Vicar of Brunei, Bishop Cornelius Sim, had been created a Cardinal. On social media, a cross-section of society praised the move. The government made no statement about Sim’s elevation.

In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, which were less prevalent than after introduction of the SPC in 2019, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments asking whether adhering so closely to Islam, the MIB national philosophy, and MORA’s policies was slowing the country’s development and whether the large amount of required religious education was impeding secular academic studies. Social media outlets such as Reddit and Facebook remained the only source of open public discussion on religion and the government.

Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion continued to fear social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same if they were not young enough to have been automatically converted with their parents. Some non-Muslims said they continued to feel pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam. While the SPC outlined harsh punishments for converting to another religion from Islam, there were no known cases of the government applying those penalties. Non-Muslims reported, however, that government officials observed their religious services and events to ensure that no Muslims attended and that there was no anti-Muslim messaging.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers engaged senior government officials regarding the effects of the SPC, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority rights. In these engagements, the Charge d’Affaires and other officers highlighted U.S. concerns regarding the harsh and degrading punishments included in the SPC, the criminalization of same-sex activity, and the law’s impact on the freedom to change or disseminate religious beliefs. The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials frequently met with government and religious leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC for the non-Muslim community and the limitations placed on the open practice of other religions. Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy.

U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC. Embassy officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of various religious groups, and facilitated discussions on the SPC and laws and policies affecting religious freedom in the country, including sharia and obstacles to practicing religions and beliefs other than Shafi’i Islam.

Burma

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. As during previous years, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. Violence, discrimination, and harassment in Rakhine State targeting ethnic Rohingya, nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the military’s commission of ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocities against Rohingya in August 2017 that displaced more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Burma continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Among the 163 Rohingya who reportedly fled the country between January and October, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State; others reported continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign, which they said they did not trust. During the year, several UN entities commented or released reports on the Rohingya crisis. In September, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said the government was purposefully evading accountability and making it difficult for Rohingya refugees to safely return to Rakhine State as part of the government’s goal of “exterminating their basic identity.” The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) began to interview witnesses and collect evidence for possible criminal proceedings for gross violations of human rights, including against Rohingya. Religious leaders and civil society activists reported some government and military officials continued to deploy anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech in official events. Rohingya, both in Rakhine State and those living in Bangladesh, faced mass disenfranchisement in November general elections because of discriminatory citizenship policies. The government barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on citizenship grounds, while allowing five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority to run. Non-Buddhist minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, said authorities restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minority groups, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. NGOs said the military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to continued severe hardship for religious minority groups.

According to media reports, ethnic armed organizations in the country continued to pose a threat to religious freedom. Christian pastor Tun Nu, abducted in 2019 by the Arakan Army and previously presumed dead, was found alive and was reunited with his family in March. In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government had no administrative control, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) tightened restrictions on Christian religious practice. In December 2019, 51 Baptist churches had reopened and UWSA authorities stated they were conducting assessments to determine which other churches would be allowed to reopen. In October, however, a Baptist religious leader reported that all churches were again closed and even house worship was limited to no more than four families together in some areas.

Some leaders and members of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly Ma Ba Tha) continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. Although the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, issued orders that no group or individual be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha and declared it an “illegal organization,” many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim speech in sermons and through social media. According to Burma Monitor, an NGO focused on monitoring and analyzing hate speech, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates registered to run in the 2020 general elections, mostly from nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. While local and international experts said deep-seated prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against members of religious minority groups, some civil society groups worked to improve interreligious tolerance. According to media reports, civil society activists spearheaded efforts to improve interreligious tolerance and respect for religious practices and to deepen interfaith dialogue. The interfaith “White Rose” campaign that formed after an anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist mob shut down temporary Ramadan prayer sites in Yangon in 2019 continued its efforts. Other religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador to Burma, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against members of religious minority groups, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tensions. In June, the Acting USAID Administrator noted freedom of religion was a key component of national security and that the U.S. response to promote accountability for those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya remained a top priority. U.S. financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on the Burmese military commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against members of ethnic and religious minority groups remained in place. During the year, U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religion-based abuses, including discrimination, and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 56.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately six percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately four percent of the population. The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016. According to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 remain in Rakhine State. There are an estimated 130,000 Rohingya living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, according to Human Rights Watch. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Yangon (Rangoon).

There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Magway, and Mandalay Regions, practice Islam. Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions observe traditional indigenous beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides to every citizen the right to profess and practice his or her religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings “of any class” by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities. The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs.

The law bars members of “religious orders” such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group, from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.” The election law states that a candidate’s parents must be citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth, and the citizenship of most Rohingya is denied, thus precluding Rohingya from candidate status.

Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the SSMNC, the members of which are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools. Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies may start the school day with a Buddhist prayer.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards. The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country’s penal code also criminalizes.

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

Government Practices

International organizations and NGOs reported most members of the military involved in mass atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 had not been held accountable, and the military continued to commit acts of violence against members of ethnoreligious groups. In April, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee stated that the military “may once again be committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine State.” According to Lee, the military had expanded its campaign against minorities from Rakhine to Chin States, adding, “having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity.” According to NGO Fortify Rights, two former soldiers confessed in videos recorded in July by the Arakan Army to having taken part in atrocities committed by the army against Rohingya in 2017. In the recording, the soldiers said they were involved in killing more than 180 Rohingya men, women, and children in Taung Buzar Village and surrounding villages in Buthidaung and five villages in Maungdaw during military operations in Rakhine State in late 2017. One also admitted to committing rape in Taung Buzar Village, Rakhine State. At year’s end, the two men were reportedly in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

On June 23, a Buddhist monk and military veteran stabbed to death a Muslim teenager in Magway Region’s Aung Lan Township. The victim’s brother told authorities the assailant, Tun Naing Win, called the brothers “kalar,” considered a derogatory term for persons of South Asian descent, and shouted, “You kalars do not own this country, you kalars do not own this road,” before killing the victim.

The investigation of the June 2, 2019, beating of one group of villagers by another group of villagers in Ann Myawk Village, Rakhine State continued with no reported progress through year’s end. According to the CHRO, which first documented the incident in December 2019, 25 villagers, led by Khin Aung, Myint Maung, Hwe Hla and Nyuat Maung, assaulted members of the Chawn family, who were conducting a Christian home prayer service.

In November 2019, The Gambia filed an application instituting proceedings against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a request for provisional measures, alleging Burma’s actions against Rohingya violated the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In January, the ICJ unanimously indicated provisional measures, ordering Burma to preserve any evidence of atrocities against Rohingya; ensure that government and security officials refrain from any act that could contribute to genocide; and report to the ICJ on its progress on these measures in May and every six months thereafter while the case was pending. The government submitted two reports and stated its reports would show decisively that no genocide occurred. The government also filed preliminary objections to the jurisdiction of the court and the admissibility of The Gambia’s application; proceedings on the merits were suspended while the ICJ considered the preliminary objections. In September, Canada and the Netherlands announced their intention to intervene in the case.

According to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, during the year it was in the process of organizing a fact-finding mission to gather relevant evidence for its investigation into credible allegations that crimes against humanity were committed against Rohingya in Burma. Although the country is not a party to the ICC, the court claimed it had jurisdiction over such crimes if elements of the crime were at least commissioned in Bangladesh, which is a state party, and where most displaced Rohingya fled.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the government in 2018 to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State released the executive summary of its final report in January. The summary stated the commission found no evidence of genocidal intent, but it did not address alleged crimes against humanity. It stated the abuses amounted to “war crimes.” According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary was part of the government’s attempt to portray the operation as a “legitimate armed conflict” with no element of genocide. The summary also stated there was “no evidence of gang rape committed by Burma’s security forces,” despite extensive documentation by the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights groups of widespread rape against Rohingya women and girls. According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary of the final report fell well short of creating the conditions for justice and accountability or the safe return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. As of the end of the year, the government had not released the full report. According to international and domestic human rights activists, previous government-led investigations of reports of widespread abuses by security services against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2016 had yielded no findings of responsibility by security forces and were criticized by international observers as deeply flawed.

The IIMM, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings covering human rights abuses in Burma since 2011, continued to develop protocols and procedures to balance public outreach with confidentiality and the protection of witnesses in criminal cases. Since 2018, the government has denied the IIMM permission to establish an office in the country, and during the year, the IIMM, based in Geneva, received no response to its request to travel to the country. During the year, the IIMM received evidence from the UN Fact-Finding Mission, traveled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to interview Rohingya refugees, and completed a mapping of NGOS and victims’ groups in Burma as part of planning for evidence collection there.

According to leaders of religious minority communities and human rights activists, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, communal disparities were exacerbated by inconsistent government regulations, their enforcement, and varying interpretations of the regulations around the country, with harsher outcomes for minority religious communities. The President’s Office banned public events and mass gatherings nationwide on March 13, including religious events. As of year’s end, a range of restrictions at the national and regional level remained in place, and pagodas, monasteries, mosques, and churches remained closed to the public. At least three different laws were applied to enforce limits on gatherings, including religious gatherings. The same action – for instance, a gathering of five or more persons – had the potential to result in charges and punishment under the Natural Disaster Management Law (three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine or both), the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law (six months’ imprisonment or a fine), or Article 188 of the Penal Code (one to six months’ imprisonment or a fine). According to media, the government prosecuted Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh – returning through both formal and informal channels – amid anti-Muslim sentiment and hate speech from the public, military, and religious hardliners portraying Rohingya as a vector for the coronavirus.

More than 200 residents of Sinthay Village in Dawei District’s Yebyu Township attended Buddhist funeral rites for a monk in April, despite COVID-19 restrictions. According to the Irrawaddy newspaper, the chairman and secretary of the pagoda trustee committee were fined 93,000 kyat ($70) under the penal code for defying an order issued by government officials. In contrast, 12 Muslim men in Mandalay were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a religious gathering at a house in the Aung Pin Lae quarter of Chanmyathazi Township.

According to the Myanmar Times, Christian pastor David Lah and colleague Wai Tun were sentenced to three months in prison on August 6 for organizing a prayer session in April in violation of the government’s National Disaster Management Law prohibiting mass gathering as part of a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, Ma Ba Tha members shared some of Lah’s speeches denigrating Buddhism, reportedly in an attempt to incite anti-Christian hatred.

According to Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the National League of Democracy’s (NLD) central information unit, on May 26, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein and the NLD-led Yangon regional government attended a public religious ceremony that went “against the government’s own [COVID-19] instructions.” The government took no disciplinary against the Chief Minister or cabinet members who attended the event.

Several NGOs reported authorities confined approximately 130,000 Rohingya in camps within the country, following an earlier round of violence in 2012. Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya remained extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside.

In July, newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews told the Human Rights Council, “Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are forced to live in deplorable conditions in IDP camps or in villages without basic rights, including freedom of movement.” He also noted that a proposed camp closure project the government launched as part of its National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons and Closure of IDP Camps in 2019 “not only prohibits the right of IDPs to return home but may force them into land susceptible to flooding and without access to basic services, including healthcare and education. And it may also continue to deny other basic rights, including freedom of movement.” According to local sources, authorities continued to deny IDPs the right to choose their relocation or return destination. Human Rights Watch described these IDP camps as severely limiting livelihoods, movement, education, health care, and adequate food and shelter. It stated the government closure process entailed constructing permanent structures near the current camp locations, further entrenching segregation and denying Rohingya the right to return to their land, reconstruct their homes, regain work, and reintegrate into society.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an additional 163 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and October, compared with 2,966 during the same period in 2019. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the government made no new efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees during the year. An attempt in August 2019 failed when Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship. Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back.

Starting in 2019 and continuing during the year, authorities arrested hundreds of Rohingya in Ayeyarwady, Yangon, Bago, and Magwe Regions for traveling without permission, and charged them with violations of the Immigration Act. On April 8, a court dropped charges against more than 200 of those accused of leaving Rakhine State illegally, but according to activists, hundreds more remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

On November 2, Wirathu, a monk and chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, surrendered to Yangon police on an arrest warrant issued in 2019 for criticism of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Numerous human rights groups described Wirathu’s anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric as hate speech.

According to international humanitarian NGOs, the government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State, northern Shan, southern Chin, and Kachin States during the year. NGOs stated the government’s travel authorization process for aid groups within the country effectively restricted aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations, in violation of international humanitarian law. During the year, the Red Cross Movement and World Food Program continued to maintain generally predictable access to meet life-saving emergency needs.

Multiple sources stated authorities and the military continued to single out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor, including requiring them to transport soldiers, weapons and ammunition, and food supplies, and arbitrarily arrested them and imposed restrictions impeding their ability construct houses or religious buildings. According to reports, government officials were occasionally complicit with traffickers abducting Rohingya women and children in transit while fleeing violence, selling them into sex trafficking and forced marriage in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Authorities in northern Rakhine State reportedly continued to prohibit Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons, prior to the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions. Rohingya refugees reported that exceptions to the five-person regulation applied only to marketplaces and schools.

Armed conflict between the government and ethnic armed organizations in Kachin and northern Shan States, begun in 2011, continued. It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. The United Nations reported that 107,000 persons remained displaced during the year by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where many Christians and individuals from other religious groups lived. According to the United Nations, 97,000 persons remained displaced in Kachin State and 20,000 in Shan State.

According to NGOs, both the government and nationalist monks used their influence and resources to build Buddhist infrastructure in majority Christian areas, including in Kachin and Chin States, against the wishes of the local population. Minority religious communities said they perceived these efforts to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), authorities continued practicing discriminatory and abusive policies against members of religious minority groups. The CHRO said that Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to face destruction of homes and places of worship and suffered physical violence by pro-military Buddhist nationalists, and that authorities prevented them from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings. The CHRO also said there were cases in which police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account for crimes against members of religious minority communities.

In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the situation remained unchanged from 2019, and government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya. Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considered foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks but was given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists. Sources stated obtaining travel permits often involved extortion and bribes. Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine State if they were to visit the state. According to an August report by Burma Human Rights Network, 160 cases against 1,675 individuals were documented over four years of discriminatory prosecution against Rohingya for attempting to move freely in the country.

According to NGOs, such restrictions continued to impede the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods and education, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities. Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim continued to receive additional scrutiny on their movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion; obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments. Some NGOs that tried to register reportedly found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, a leading national news organization publishing in Burmese and English, the Internal Revenue Department required an NGO categorized as an “advocacy group” to pay tax if the department determined the NGO had made a “profit,” based on its tax return. NGOs voiced concern that new tax rules could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.

According to the Irrawaddy, on July 7, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ordered the removal of sitting Buddha statues in Nay Pyi Taw donated by members of the country’s former military regime because, it said, the stone idols were sculpted according to occult practices that contravene Theravada Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.

According to the CHRO, the government continued not to issue permits for Christian religious groups to register and own land and properties. All such registration applications remained pending at year’s end, with some pending for more than 15 years.

Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings. Buddhist leaders said obtaining such permission was more difficult for non-Buddhist groups. Representatives of religious groups said the need for multiple permissions, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action, often as a result of pressure by members of other religious groups. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.

In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture continued to restrict non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes.

Along with other houses of religious worship, mosques remained closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak as of the end of the year, although some authorities allowed limited renovation work to take place. In September 2019, some Muslim leaders formed a committee to press the government to reopen shuttered mosques across the country, most of which were closed by the government in the wake of 2012 communal Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine State. The committee maintained a list of more than 40 shuttered mosques across the country. A 2019 list from the General Administration Department reported there were more than 800 mosques in Maungdaw Township, more than 400 in Buthidaung Township, and 10 in Rathedaung Township, all in northern Rakhine State. It was unknown how many of them had been shut down or destroyed. Twelve mosques and religious schools remained closed in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Regions, as well as in Shan State, according to the Burma Human Rights Network. A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thaketa Township in Yangon Region and the closure of two additional schools remained in force. Thirty-two mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Regions remained closed. Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Region, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate, in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance.

Muslims in Mandalay Region reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014. Authorities ordered mosques shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, as did mosques in Bago and Mandalay Regions. Some Hindu leaders also reported authorities continued to limit access to religious sites.

A Chin-based NGO again reported local authorities in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches seeking to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members continued to circumvent this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

According to the CHRO, the General Administration Department in Mindat, Chin State continued to require organizers of religious events and activities involving domestic and international NGOs to seek permission at least two weeks in advance from the Chin State government. COVID-19 restrictions that remained in place at the end of the year, however, stopped all events.

According to the CHRO, in January and before COVID restrictions were in place, the Chin State government prohibited a religious gathering organized by the Chin Baptist Convention, the largest Christian organization in Chin State. The event was scheduled to take place in Mindat Township, Chin State, with a focus on peace and environmental issues. Despite the convention’s having submitted a permission request in advance and having pledged not to discuss politics during the meeting, Chin State officials denied the request just prior to the scheduled start of the gathering.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented most public events, sources said the government continued restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, including requirements for advance notice of events and participants. NGOs sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues. Many religious groups and NGOs said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.

Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

The government continued to financially support Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. It continued to fund two state sangha universities in Yangon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.

Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography. According to the CHRO, Christian students were required to convert to Buddhism to access so-called “Na Ta La” schools in Chin State, which were better funded than public schools. The CHRO described Na Ta La schools as a “state-sponsored religious and cultural assimilation program.” The national elementary school curriculum included lessons and textbooks containing discriminatory and incendiary material, according to UN and NGO reports. According to sources, one high school textbook still commonly used included a poem that read, “Horse, the color of a coconut shell / slave, [the red-brown color of a] kalar.”

Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.

Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools. Rohingya and Kaman children in central Rakhine State had physical access to only one high school, located in Thet Kae Pyin, Sittwe Township, according to international observers. Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students could attend classes and take examinations but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.

A Rakhine State government university program for Rohingya and Rakhine students – launched during the 2018-2019 school year and expected to expand during the 2020-2021 school year – allowed students to attend University of Sittwe-administered courses in a limited distance education program.

In December 2019, the Center for Diversity of National Harmony (CDNH) and the embassies of the Netherlands and Denmark launched a small scholarship program in Rakhine State that allowed 100 students, both Rakhine and Rohingya, to attend East Yangon University in Yangon. Previously, Rohingya students were required to attend the University of Yangon because of stated government concerns regarding security if they attended school in Sittwe. According to CDNH, the program was set to expand in the 2020-2021 school year.

Human rights organizations again reported that schools sometimes submitted citizenship applications on behalf of non-Muslim students while denying the same privilege to Muslim students. Muslim students, after submitting the applications, sometimes had to pay bribes to immigration officials to obtain documentation. According to Rohingya rights organizations, instructors reportedly made anti-Muslim comments in university classrooms. Muslim students typically were not permitted to join institutes for professional studies. One human rights group documented the teaching of racist and anti-Muslim tenets in schools throughout the country.

According to a 2019 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017, the government continued to prevent Rohingya and other Muslims from holding congregational prayers on Friday or during religious festivities in Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees reported they were unable to freely celebrate Eid al-Fitr or other religious holidays for the past seven years.

According to media reports, Yangon authorities requested that Muslims observe Ramadan at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to additional government restrictions on all forms of worship, including Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, but sources reported punishments for violation were disproportionally meted out to religious minorities. In July, the government permitted limited worship with fewer than 30 people at a time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of public events, the White Rose campaign – which grew in response to anti-Muslim activities in 2019 – conducted food distribution and a “Peace Biker” rally in Yangon during Ramadan.

Although Muslims said government authorities had granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha in prior years, COVID-19 restrictions prevented this activity in 2020. Media and religious sources said that in previous years, local authorities in some villages had restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority of which were owned by Muslims. Community leaders stated these restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslims to celebrate Islamic holidays.

Sources continued to state that authorities generally did not enforce four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”

Although there were no public reports of military donations to Ma Ba Tha during the year, according to the weekly newsmagazine Frontier, the military and military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had a history of patronizing and funding Ma Ba Tha. In October remarks to Frontier, a monk active in Ma Ba Tha stated, “So what if Ma Ba Tha was funded by the USDP? It’s a charity organization. Everyone was welcome to support Ma Ba Tha’s mission and it is not fair to criticize the giving of donations to a Buddhist organization.”

On February 10, the military-aligned nationalist Buddhist organization Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) conferred its highest honor on the military’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing for protecting “race, language, [and] religion,” according to the newspaper Myanmar Times. On June 26, the YMBA issued a statement demanding “insults” to Buddhism, race, and religion must be stopped or be prosecuted, according to Frontier.

On January 26, Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Aung Ko said during a Myanmar Muslim Youth Gathering in Yangon that he wanted to reopen closed mosques and build a large new mosque in Yangon, but he feared the reaction of what he termed “ultranationalist thugs.”

The 2019 case against monk Myawaddy Sayadaw for defaming the military was ongoing at the end of the year. NGOs stated that Sayadaw was an active participant in various peacebuilding and interfaith efforts.

A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State remained in effect, requiring residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.

According to civil society activists, Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.

Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions continued to require the applicant to list his or her religion. Applications by Muslims for government jobs were largely rejected, according to one human rights organization.

Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians. There were 60 Christian and two Muslim members of parliament: Sithu Maung (Yangon constituency) and Win Mya (Mandalay constituency). Neither of the two was Rohingya. According to political observers, the exclusion of Rohingya in the political process was based more on animosity towards Rohingya as an ethnic group than on Rohingya as followers of Islam. Twenty-Five Muslim candidates competed in the November general elections, compared with none in 2017 and 2018. The Union Election Commission barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on the grounds that their parents did not hold citizenship. Activists noted the difficulty of attributing this to anti-Muslim (rather than anti-Rohingya ethnic group) sentiment, citing the fact that five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority were allowed to run.

According to Fortify Rights, because of discriminatory documentation requirements, Rohingya were disenfranchised en masse in the November general elections, both Rohingya still living in Rakhine State and Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.

Authorities continued to require citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards usually indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, continued to face problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on their application for a citizenship card.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs). The government said these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law. NGOs reported that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. There were reports that government officials required Rohingya to have an NVC to fish or access banking services. Many Rohingya expressed distrust of the process; they said they were already citizens and that they feared the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would grant naturalized rather than full citizenship, which carried fewer rights. Some townships in Rakhine State continued to require Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs and listed “Bengali” as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card, also known as “pink card.” At least one NGO stated that NVCs were a method used by authorities to diminish the citizenship standing and future rights of Rohingya by indicating they were foreigners. The few Rohingya who received citizenship through this process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits, and consideration of their citizenship applications usually required significant bribes at different levels of government.

State-controlled media continued to frequently depict military and government officials and their family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.

Statements from various government ministries and departments, including the President and State Counselor’s Office, highlighted discriminatory attitudes toward Rohingya, according to the NGO Progressive Voice. According to media reports, the military continued a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through fictitious Facebook accounts and other social media. After media attention in July focused on a handful of cases of COVID-19 imported into Burma by Rohingya returning from Bangladesh, Kyaw Win, director of Burma Human Rights Network, said the narrative that Rohingya brought COVID-19 into Burma was an attempt to “divide the Rakhine and Rohingya community.”

On May 4, the government ordered all civil servants to stop using hate speech on social media and required civil servants to monitor and report online behavior to the central government. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), civil society groups welcomed the move but were cautious about its intent and effect. Thet Swe Win, Executive Director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, told RFA, “We have noticed that the government has issued directives on hate speech in the past few days. This coincides with increasing international pressure, as they will soon submit a report to the ICJ. They may be politically motivated to reduce international pressure, but otherwise these measures are very good in nature.”

In January, former President Thein Sein urged voters to consider the protection of “race, religion and military” as they looked toward the November election. NGOs said this phrase was well-known coded language used to encourage discrimination against Rohingya.

The government hosted conferences and attended events with a number of interfaith groups, including Religions for Peace, to promote reconciliation, peace, and development through national and local initiatives in its interfaith councils, the Interfaith Youth Network, and Women of Faith Network. Events included multireligious, multistakeholder Community Forums for Advancing Peace and Development in Pyay, Bago Region, on February 19, and in Lashio, Shan State, on February 25. Religions for Peace participants included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh leaders.

In February, Vice President Myint Swe and other senior government officials participated in an interfaith conference organized by Religions for Peace in Loikaw, Kayah State. During the event, Myint Swe urged respect for the country’s different faiths.

According to NGOs, the government generally regulated foreign religious groups in a manner similar to nonreligious foreign aid groups. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Yangon-based religious groups to host international students and experts.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors. Many prominent civilian and religious leaders continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.

According to Muslim leaders and civil society activists, opposition from Buddhist monks in Hpa-an, Karen State, prevented the construction or repair of any mosques and blocked Muslims from purchasing homes outside the traditional Muslim quarter, despite government approval. Monks exercised influence over local officials to prevent permits or construction despite higher-level government approval, according to religious and interfaith leaders.

Despite a continuing order by the SSMNC that no group or individual operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media, including a July campaign in Mandalay that distributed stickers reading, “We don’t want the NLD to make Myanmar a kalar country.”

According to Burma Monitor, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates ran in the 2020 general election from various – mostly nationalist – parties, such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. None of the candidates was elected to office. According to RFA, the parties’ campaign posters contained three banyan leaves – a symbol used by Burma’s Buddhist majority – and the slogan “No Rohingya.”

On February 9, hundreds of individuals, characterized as anti-Muslim ultranationalists by civil society and pro-tolerance activists, protested in Yangon as part of the newly formed and Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar Nationalist Organization, accusing the NLD-led government of failing to protect the country’s Buddhist majority, according to Reuters. Speakers at the rally protested against remarks made by Religious Affairs Minister Aung Ko, blaming him for criticizing the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry for the government’s failure to arrest several nationalist figures for sedition and inciting violence. Protestors carried “No Rohingya” banners.

On December 28, “Bullet” Hla Shwe, a former USDP lawmaker and former military officer, who said in 2019 that the Prophet Mohammad would bomb the U.S. embassy if it posted “insulting images” of him, surrendered to Yangon police on a 2019 arrest warrant for sedition.

On April 3, police arrested three street artists in Kachin State for painting a mural that raised awareness about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating the law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after some Buddhists, described by interfaith activists as “hardliners,” said the mural, which portrayed a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, was wearing a robe that resembled those worn by Buddhist monks. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.

According to local and international experts, Rohingya Muslims were perceived as not truly belonging to the country, irrespective of citizenship status, and belonging to a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain. There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya. Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent. There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.

On June 15, local media outlet The Voice ran a cartoon depicting a Rohingya man crossing the border carrying COVID-19 with him, accompanied by the derogatory label “illegal interloper,” a term frequently used to describe Rohingya.

Hate speech against Muslims continued to be widespread on social media. In September, Facebook said that in the second quarter of the year it had taken action against 280,000 pieces of content in Burma that violated its community standards regarding hate speech, with 97.8 percent detected by its systems before being reported, up from the 51,000 pieces of content it took action against in the first quarter.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered activities, such as informational exchanges, although most activities were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups, including Article 19 and Free Expression Myanmar, continued advocating and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.

Monk Ashin Issariya, formerly known as “King Zero,” continued to lead the Anti-Adhamma Committee, a group of approximately 100 like-minded monks who preached against intolerance, confronted militant Buddhism from within the Buddhist clergy, and conducted interfaith outreach initiatives. According to interfaith activists, Issariya collaborated with other monks and lay activists, including Pyin Oo Lwin-based monks U Seintita and Thet Swe Win, who led the 2019 “White Rose” solidarity campaign with Muslims following a spate of communal violence in Yangon.

In Mandalay Region, civil society and interfaith leaders continued to hold meetings and public events for community leaders and youth aimed at promoting peace and religious tolerance, as in previous years, although such meetings were, in part, curtailed due to COVID-19. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the USAID Administrator, the Ambassador to Burma, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the country with senior government and military leaders. They specifically raised the plight of the overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin, northern Shan, and Chin States amid ongoing military conflicts, and the advocacy on social media of violence against religious minorities.

U.S. visa restrictions imposed in July 2019 on the armed forces commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities remained in force during the year, as did Global Magnitsky financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on these same individuals for serious human rights abuses.

In March, the then-USAID Administrator said, “We have carried out groundbreaking initiatives aimed at helping religious and ethnic minorities recover from atrocities, [providing assistance to] the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh.”

In May, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom warned that the Burmese military was denying Rohingya Muslims access to medical care and exposing them to the risk of complications in severe cases of COVID-19.

In February, when launching the International Religious Freedom Alliance to promote global religious freedom and respect human dignity, the Secretary of State noted the repression of religious freedom in Burma, stating, “We condemn terrorists and violent extremists who target religious minorities, [including] Muslims in Burma.”

The U.S. government continued to press for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.

The U.S. government advocated with senior Burmese government officials for the military to drop its legal action against a leading pro-tolerance monk for remarks critical of the military.

U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and violence in Rakhine State, including a voluntary and transparent path to provision of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services for IDPs, and unhindered access for humanitarian personnel and media in Rakhine and Kachin States. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence in Mandalay, Kachin, and elsewhere. Since August 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $820 million in humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh and Burma, including $469 million in 2020, with $78 million for programs in Burma, $314 million for programs in Bangladesh, and $29 million in regional crisis response.

Embassy officials at all levels emphasized the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the national security advisor, and the Ministers of International Cooperation; Religious Affairs; Home Affairs; Ethnic Affairs; Immigration, Population, and Labor Affairs; and Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement Affairs. Embassy officials also met with officials in the President’s Office, the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, and representatives of other governments.

Although embassy travel to ethnic and religious minority-predominant areas was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions of religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities continued. Embassy staff visited Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Shan and Karen States, areas where conflict or violence have affected religious minorities in recent years, as well as other areas that suffered from and were identified as vulnerable to ethnoreligious violence.

The embassy emphasized the need for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, in public engagements, and through its social media accounts. At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech, including at panel discussions on U.S. First Amendment rights integral to freedom of religion and communal harmony. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook to engage local audiences on the importance of religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in democratic societies and in the United States.

The Ambassador gave interviews to local media and international media in which he discussed the need for accountability for the 2017 ethnic cleansing and improved conditions for Rohingya and other minority groups. The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously-based tensions and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance.

Public programs at embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay offered a platform for community leaders, media, students, and others to discuss intercommunal tolerance and respect, often featuring individuals from minority ethnic and religious communities, including a virtual Youth Forum on tolerance. The embassy hosted programs on digital and media literacy as a way to empower participants to reject online hate speech and the spread of rumors and other misinformation. As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported numerous faith-based groups and NGOs working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Cambodia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Buddhism is the state religion, and it is promoted by the government through holiday observances, religious training, Buddhist instruction in public schools, and financial support to Buddhist institutions. The law provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The law does not allow non-Buddhist denominations to proselytize publicly. The government continued to refuse to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to accept permanently a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status. Civil society groups and some religious leaders highlighted what they stated was an increase in religious discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic and partially attributed the cause to a short-lived government policy of separating Muslims and non-Muslims in official COVID-19 infection statistics. In October, the government issued a directive that required Buddhist clergy to obtain physical land titles for pagodas and put a temporary halt on new applications to establish Christian churches. The government also said it was altering registration procedures and creating a new process to reregister existing churches.

The press reported that villagers killed a man suspected of practicing sorcery due to his animist beliefs and practices. There were local media reports that the Buddhist community continued to view the predominantly Muslim Cham and other ethnic minority groups with suspicion as purported practitioners of sorcery.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials regularly raised religious freedom and tolerance with Ministry of Cults and Religion (MCR) representatives and other government officials, including by encouraging the government to allow Christian Montagnards from Vietnam to settle permanently in the country and to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic was not used as a basis for discrimination against certain religious groups. The embassy underscored the importance of acceptance of religious diversity with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups, emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance in a democratic society. Some embassy programs continued to focus on the preservation of religious cultural sites.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the MCR, approximately 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, of whom 95 percent practice Theravada Buddhism. The remaining 5 percent of the population includes Christians, Muslims, animists, Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents. Ethnic Vietnamese traditionally practice Mahayana Buddhism, although many have adopted Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic Vietnamese practice Roman Catholicism, and these make up the vast majority of Catholics in the country. Catholics constitute 0.4 percent of the population. Nongovernmental estimates of the Protestant population, including evangelical Christians, vary but are less than 2 percent of the total population.

According to government estimates, approximately 2.1 percent of the population is Muslim, although some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimate Muslims constitute 4 to 5 percent of the population. The Muslim population is predominantly ethnic Cham, although not all Cham are Muslim. The Cham typically live in towns and rural fishing villages on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, as well as in Kampot Province. There are four main Islamic traditions represented in the country. Nearly 90 percent of Muslims are adherents to Sunni Islam, subscribing to the Shafi’i school of Islamic law. The remaining minority practice Salafist, Wahhabist, and Ahmadi doctrines. A portion of the Cham community also subscribes to the indigenous Iman-San sect of Islam, combining traditional ancestral practices with Sunni Islam.

An estimated 0.28 percent of the population is ethnic Phnong, the majority of whom follow animistic religious practices. An additional estimated 0.25 percent of the population includes Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, as long as such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The constitution establishes Buddhism as the state religion and provides for state support of Buddhist education; it also prohibits discrimination based on religion. The law requires that religious groups refrain from openly criticizing other religious groups, but it does not elaborate the legal consequences for those who violate this restriction. The law also forbids religious organizations from organizing events, rallies, meetings, and training sessions that are politically focused.

The law requires all religious groups, including Buddhist groups, to register with the MCR. The law mandates that groups must inform the government of the goals of their religious organization; describe their activities; provide biographical information for all religious leaders; describe funding sources; submit annual reports detailing all activities; and refrain from insulting other religious groups, fomenting disputes, or undermining national security. Registration requires approvals from numerous local, provincial, and national government offices, a process that can take up to 90 days. There are no penalties for failing to register, but registered religious groups receive an income tax exemption from the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The law bans non-Buddhist groups from proselytizing publicly and stipulates that non-Buddhist literature may be distributed only inside religious institutions. The law also prohibits offers of money or materials to convince persons to convert.

The law requires separate registration of all places of worship and religious schools. Authorities may temporarily shut down unregistered places of worship and religious schools until they are registered. The law also makes a legal distinction between “places of worship” and “offices of prayer.” The establishment of a place of worship requires that the founders own the structure and the land on which it is located. The facility must have a minimum capacity of 200 persons, and the permit application requires the support of at least 100 congregants. An office of prayer may be located in a rented property and has no minimum capacity requirement. The permit application for an office of prayer requires the support of at least 25 congregants. Places of worship must be located at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) from each other and may not be used for political purposes or to house criminals or fugitives. The distance requirement applies only to the construction of new places of worship and not to offices of religious organizations or offices of prayer.

Schools that focus on religious studies must be registered with the MCR and the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MOEYS). MOEYS advises religious schools to follow the ministry’s core curriculum, which does not include a religious component. Non-Buddhist religious schools are permitted and may be either public or private. Secular public schools may choose to have supplemental Buddhist lessons, but they are required to coordinate with MOEYS when doing so. Not all secular public schools offer supplemental Buddhist lessons, and non-Buddhist students may opt out of such instruction. The law does not allow non-Buddhist supplemental religious instruction in secular public schools.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to refuse to allow UNHCR to permanently accept a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status. Of the original estimated 200 Christian Montagnards who had fled Vietnam and were in Cambodia in 2017, 12 remained in the country after two traveled illegally to Thailand and 13 returned to Vietnam voluntarily during the year. The government continued to require them to live in a specific area of Phnom Penh. The adults were not permitted to work, and the children were not permitted to attend school. The remaining 13 decided to stay in the country until they are permitted to leave for a third country.

The government continued to promote Buddhist holidays by grants of official status and declarations of government holidays. The government also provided Buddhist training and education to monks and laypersons in pagodas, and it gave financial support to an institute that performed research and published materials on Khmer culture and Buddhist traditions. The government did not grant similar treatment to other religious groups, including by declaring government holidays.

On July 24, MCR Undersecretary of State Thor Koeun led a delegation from the Cambodian Buddhist Institute to visit the Chinese Cultural Center in Phnom Penh. Following the meeting, Koeun proposed hosting a joint workshop to exchange information on the two countries’ customs, with a focus on their shared Buddhist traditions.

On March 17, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a ban on all religious gatherings as part of the government’s pandemic response. After publishing health guidelines for Pchum Ben – a local Buddhist festival – gatherings on August 31, the government allowed Islamic religious gatherings to resume beginning September 5 on a trial basis and under Ministry of Health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing and a ban on sharing prayer mats. Christian churches were not allowed to convene their followers until September 11, when the government granted them permission to hold gatherings under the same health-related restrictions.

In March, when the government implemented more stringent health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Ministry of Health separated Muslim Cambodians from other Cambodian citizens – into their own “Khmer Islam” category – in official government statistics on COVID-19 infections. After receiving public criticism for singling out the religious minority group, the government began issuing official infection counts with a single “Khmer” category for all Cambodian citizens. There were subsequent reports of local merchants refusing to sell their goods to Muslims and some non-Muslims putting on a mask only when in the presence of a Muslim. Some civil society group and Muslim leaders pointed to the Ministry of Health’s “Khmer Islam” distinction – along with media reports of large numbers of Muslims returning with the disease from a religious gathering in Malaysia – as having partly caused a perception that Muslims had brought the virus to the country, sparking these incidents of discrimination. On June 9, the United Nations, in coordination with the Ministry of Health, launched a nationwide campaign to combat discrimination and hate speech during the COVID-19 pandemic. After the launch of the campaign, there were few reports of this discrimination continuing.

In October, the government issued a directive that required Buddhist clergy to obtain land titles recognized by the national government for pagodas in what it said was a move to better regulate religious institutions in the country. A spokesperson stated that pagodas had been involved in multiple land disputes in the past and said the move was meant to prevent “future consequences.” The spokesperson also said it would not cost money to obtain the titles. Some monks said they thought this new requirement would be used by the government to exercise more control over monks and pagodas. The government directive also put a temporary halt on new applications to establish Christian churches. The government said it was altering registration procedures and creating a new process to reregister existing churches. The government said this would apply to all religious groups.

Local authorities continued the process of returning 742 disputed hectares (1,800 acres) of land from an economic concession to Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) to indigenous communities in Rattanakiri Province, which predominantly practice animist beliefs. In March, local villagers and land rights NGOs accused HAGL of destroying sites on the land earmarked for return considered sacred by the local indigenous communities, including two spirit mountains, wetlands, traditional hunting areas, and burial grounds. As of the end of the year, the government had not finalized the return of the land, which remained under the control of HAGL.

For the first time in seven years, Prime Minister Hun Sen did not host an iftar due to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. The Prime Minister conveyed his regrets to Muslim communities in the country on his Facebook page. On April 24, the Prime Minister issued a public statement wishing all Muslim communities inside and outside the country a happy Ramadan.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On June 10, in Ponlork Village, Chum Tum Commune, Krokor District, Pursat Province, Nhim Thim and Pat Ly attacked and killed Prak Bonn with an axe, according to media reports. The report stated that Nhim and Pat accused Prak of having used sorcery to harm them. Local media reported that some members of the majority Buddhist community continued to view the predominantly Muslim Cham and other minority ethnic groups with suspicion as purported practitioners of sorcery.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador raised the issue of the Christian Montagnards from Vietnam on several occasions with government ministers and other representatives and encouraged the government to allow their permanent resettlement to proceed. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ambassador highlighted to government officials the vulnerability religious minority groups faced and stressed the importance of actively ensuring these groups are not discriminated against and receive all public services to which they are entitled. Embassy officials regularly raised with MCR representatives and other government officials the importance of fully integrating religious minorities into Cambodian society and highlighted the benefits of supporting religious pluralism.

The embassy underscored the importance of acceptance of religious diversity with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups, emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance in a democratic society. The Ambassador highlighted cultural and religious traditions of Muslims in the country and the benefits of religious diversity through a video posted to social media during Ramadan. The Ambassador met with the president of the Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs to discuss challenges faced by Muslim communities and encouraged him and the Council to assist any Uyghur or other Muslim refugees from Xinjiang, China, who might seek refuge in the country.

Embassy officers met periodically with ethnic Cham and other Muslim community members to support religious tolerance, respect for minority culture, equal economic opportunity, and integration of ethnic minorities into the wider culture.

Some embassy programs focused on supporting the preservation of religious cultural sites, such as the Phnom Bakheng temple in Siem Reap Province.

Indonesia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laos

Executive Summary

The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.” The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith, with Buddhism paramount. Decree 315, issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice, defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. Religious leaders said that while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religious groups, particularly Christians associated with the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC). Media reported that in March, local officials arrested LEC Pastor Sithon Thipavong for conducting religious activities in Kalum Vangkhea Village, Namdoy District, Savannakhet Province. Although he remained in detention, by year’s end authorities did not charge Sithon with a crime. According to media in July, authorities arrested four LEC members for attending a Christian family funeral in Khammouane Province. Authorities released the four Christians from jail on December 22. In February, media reported that local authorities and villagers from Tine Doi Village in Luang Namtha Province forced out of their homes 14 residents from three ethnic Hmong Christian families. Provincial leaders brokered an agreement with district authorities for the families to return, but under the condition they abandon their religious practices. Two new religious groups submitted applications for registration during the year – the Methodist Church and an unnamed Christian group. Religious leaders continued to say Decree 315 established onerous requirements sometimes used to restrict travel for religious purposes. Christian groups continued to report problems constructing churches in some areas. Members of minority religions continued to hide their religious affiliation in order to join the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the government, and military and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. Central authorities said they continued to travel to provincial areas to train officials to implement Decree 315 and other laws governing religion.

According to government and religious group sources, tensions continued in rural areas among animists, Buddhists, and growing Christian communities. Religious leaders said there were reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from their villages if they did not renounce their faith. In October, media reported that residents of Pasing Village forced seven Christians from two households from their homes in Salavan Province for refusing to renounce their faith. Villagers later tore down the Christians’ homes; as of year’s end, the Christians remained homeless. Burial ceremonies remained a point of contention in some areas, with reports of animists preventing the burial of Christians in public cemeteries.

U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases and issues regarding cumbersome regulations, including registration procedures, with the government and continued to encourage open dialogue and conflict resolution to resolve them. In exchanges with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and the LFND Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of harassment and prolonged detention. In February, Department of State officials visited Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet to meet with government officials and representatives from religious groups. They discussed implementation of Decree 315 and treatment of certain religious groups by both government and nongovernmental groups. In October, the Ambassador commemorated the completion of the U.S.-supported restoration of the oldest Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang and handed over the successful restoration project to the government and residents of the city. Embassy officials regularly met with leaders from a wide variety of religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to understand better the problems faced by members of minority religious groups. The embassy also invited religious leaders and government officials responsible for religious affairs to embassy events, including those focusing on religious freedom and related issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 national census, 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent is Christian, 31.4 percent report having no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent belong to other religions. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population. According to the Lao Front for National Development (LFND), an organization associated with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that, along with MOHA, is responsible for the administration of religious organizations, the remainder of the population comprises 50 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship. Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas.

Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha’is, Mahayana Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and followers of Confucianism together constitute less than 3 percent of the population. According to the international Catholic Church-affiliated NGO Aid to the Church in Need’s Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report, its most recent, Christians comprise 3.2 percent of the population. The Catholic Church estimates its membership at 55,200, the LEC estimates its membership at more than 200,000, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church estimates its adherents at 1,800. Muslim community leaders estimate the community has approximately 1,000 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion” and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group. The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.” It prohibits all acts that create division among religious groups and classes of persons. The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.

Decree 315 upholds “respect for the religious rights and freedom” of both believers and nonbelievers. The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.” The decree clarifies rules for religious practice and defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The decree reiterates the constitutional priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens.

The decree requires any religious group operating in the country to register with MOHA. Groups may, but are not required to, affiliate with an officially recognized religious group.

Under the decree, religious groups must present information on elected or appointed religious leaders to national, provincial, district, and village-level MOHA offices for review and certification. Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts must obtain provincial-level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district-level approval. If a group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, it must obtain approval at the corresponding level. A religious activity occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village-authority approval. Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province. Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities, including routine events, in advance for local authorities to review and approve.

The decree states that nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, travel for religious officials, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a provincial, district-level, and/or central MOHA office. MOHA may order the cessation of any religious activity or expression of beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction. It may stop any religious activity it deems threatening to national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity among tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, property, health, or reputations of others. The decree requires MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.

The decree states the government may sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.

The decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.

Per Decree 315, the building permit process for constructing houses of worship begins with an application to local authorities and then requires district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFND and MOHA permission. All houses of worship must register under the law and conform to applicable regulations. Religious organizations must own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land to construct a place of worship. MOHA officials at all levels must approve any maintenance, restoration, or construction activities at religious facilities. Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask MOHA to review and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.

According to the Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES), although there is no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in public schools, the government promotes the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture. Cultural sessions include lessons taught in Buddhist temples. Students are required to attend prayers during these lessons. MOES states that parents may remove their children from the classes if they are dissatisfied with the program. A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups exist throughout the country and accept students from any religious denomination.

Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable. For a period of less than three months, the village authority as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve. The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.

MOES and MOHA must approve the travel abroad of clergy and religious teachers for specialized studies. Students going abroad for any kind of study (including religious studies) generally require MOES approval. Domestic religious organizations that also conduct religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level.

According to the Law for LFND, the LFND may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.” LFND officials work with religious communities, police, and other authorities.

The government controls written materials for religious audiences. Decree 315 regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions. The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism and MOHA must approve religious texts or other materials before they are imported. MOHA may require religious groups to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religions, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country. The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.

A government decree adopted in March defines principles and rules for “ethnic management.” One section of the decree provides for protection and preservation of traditional burial practices.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.

Government Practices

Religious leaders said that while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, including Decree 315, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Religious leaders said many local officials were unaware of the decree’s content and how to properly apply it. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Asia News, on March 15, local officials arrested LEC Pastor Sithon Thipavong for conducting religious activities in Kalum Vangkhea Village, Namdoy District, Savannakhet Province. MOHA officials said local authorities arrested Sithon for distributing Bibles without permission, but the LFND stated that a thorough investigation was warranted to determine the final charges. Local sources said the regional prosecutor assigned to Sithon’s case stated that Sithon broke no laws, but they said local authorities used a number of justifications – including the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and the occurrence of the provincial party congress of the LPRP – to keep him detained. Local sources also said the possible charges against him changed from violating Decree 315 to political charges, given what local officials said were Sithon’s connections to foreign powers based largely on previous international travel. RFA and local sources reported that at the onset of his imprisonment, local authorities did not allow Sithon’s family to visit him. At year’s end, authorities did not formally charge Sithon, although he remained in detention with family visitation.

According to RFA, local authorities in Phousath Village, Khunkham District, Khammouane Province arrested four LEC members on July 3 for participating in a Christian family funeral. Police arrested the four Christians before they were able to conduct the funeral prayer ceremony according to their faith. One local official told RFA the reason for the individuals’ detention was because they performed ceremonies that “don’t conform with Lao culture, which creates unrest and divides community solidarity.” Local authorities released the four individuals from jail on December 22. According to local sources, authorities detained or arrested additional religious believers during the year in Attapeu, Bokeo, and Phongsali Provinces.

According to the Union of Catholic Asian News and local sources, local authorities and villagers from Tine Doi Village forced 14 residents from three ethnic Hmong Christian families out from their homes in Long District, Luang Namtha Province on February 12. Local sources reported that local authorities and villagers destroyed the families’ homes, and the families fled to the border of neighboring Bokeo Province. The LEC reported that in June, the provincial LFND and the district struck an agreement to allow the families to return to their village, but under the condition that the families give up their Christian practices and convert to Buddhism or animism. According to local sources, villagers and local authorities tore down the families’ houses on October 1, and by year’s end authorities did not resolve the dispute.

According to some minority religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, Decree 315 (or its predecessor, Decree 92), and social harmony as reasons for continuing to restrict and monitor religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic group members.

A MOHA official said two new religious groups submitted applications for registration during the year: the Methodist Church and an unnamed Christian group that separated from the LEC. MOHA requested these religious groups to explain the different practices and beliefs among various Christian denominations before approving the applications. The MOHA official also said that during the registration review process, the ministry consulted with other religious groups – including the LEC – to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups. Officials’ requests to consult with other religious groups often significantly delayed registration and other approval processes.

According to a MOHA official, during the year the ministry met with nonregistered religious groups, including representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ, to discuss the registration process. Church of Jesus Christ leaders said they were in the process of preparing documents for internal consideration.

According to an international observer of religious issues in the country, Buddhists continued to adjust to Decree 315’s regulatory changes, including the requirement that all religious groups register, a stipulation that had not previously applied to Buddhist groups.

Although the law prohibited members of religious groups not registered with MOHA or the LFND from practicing their faith, members of several groups said they continued to do so quietly and without interference, often in house churches.

While religious groups said Decree 315 helped enshrine religious freedom and further clarified processes for administrative tasks, the groups also stated that some administrative requirements mandated by the decree (that were again not fully implemented during the year) would be burdensome and restrictive if the government were to fully implement them. Among these were requirements to submit detailed travel plans and requests in advance to hold basic religious services. A number of minority religious leaders said they often traveled within the country without prior government approval because obtaining permission took too much time and officials often ultimately denied the requests. A representative from an unregistered religious group said the group considered registering as a foreign entity to circumvent the onerous requirements under Decree 315. According to some religious groups, the government also did not fully enforce the decree’s travel notice requirement.

MOHA and LFND officials continued to acknowledge that some local officials incorrectly applied regulations, created their own regulations contrary to national law, or were unaware of all the provisions in Decree 315. Several religious groups continued to recommend the government devote more resources to implementing the decree and promoting religious freedom at the district and provincial level. Central government officials said they continued to train provincial and district officials on concepts of religious freedom and implementation of Decree 315 in an attempt to protect minority religious groups but stated this was a challenge in isolated areas. According to an international religious freedom NGO that financially supported some of the sessions, while the training programs were beneficial, some local authorities used the programs to exploit gaps in Decree 315 to further restrict religious freedom.

Authorities stated that during the year the central government, in coordination with relevant local- and provincial-level officials, continued to conduct assessments of Decree 315 implementation. Officials said they invited representatives of some, but not all, religious groups in the respective areas to provide input.

Some religious groups continued not to comply with the requirement to obtain advance permission to travel to other jurisdictions. One religious leader said some of the requirements laid out in Decree 315 were so burdensome that groups often ignored them in order to carry out daily practices.

Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to the travel permission requirements. Some religious leaders stated authorities sometimes detained Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside their regular locales. According to the LEC and local sources, in October, authorities detained two LEC members for five days and fined them each 525,000 Lao kip ($57) for traveling to attend a regular monthly meeting in Bokeo Province. The LEC said numerous persons traveled without authorization to Bokeo Province that day, but authorities arrested only those identified as Christians.

The government continued to enforce rules requiring programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship to receive prior approval from local or higher authorities.

According to the Catholic Church, the government routinely surveilled members and leaders of the Catholic Church, reportedly to monitor for and protect against foreign influence. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Catholic leaders reported being frequently questioned by a mix of plainclothes and uniformed police officers. These officers sought membership statistics, a list of Church members’ names, and information regarding new members. Church leaders also said that the government often monitored foreigners who attended a service at the Catholic Church in Vientiane.

Christian religious leaders said the government continued to strictly enforce a prohibition on proselytizing in public, including by foreigners. Both the Church of Jesus Christ and Seventh-day Adventists reported they had missionaries in the country, but the government restricted their activities to teaching English and promoting good health practices, such as hygiene and sanitation. Missionaries could not engage in religious discussions. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church said they relied on word-of-mouth to attract new members.

Authorities continued to control imports of religious materials, but several religious groups said they could access most religious texts and documents online. MOHA officials said they coordinated with religious groups to review imported materials to help ensure these were in accordance with the organization’s beliefs. Due to these restrictions, Baha’i sources said they chose to produce and print their own religious documents in the country.

Several minority religious groups reported problems building and renovating places of worship, although the LFND Religious Affairs Department stated it continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible. According to religious leaders, local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal and told villagers they needed permits to worship at home. The Seventh-day Adventist Church attributed the large number of house churches to the difficulties of obtaining enough land to meet the requirements of Decree 315.

Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction and generally received no response to requests. A Catholic Church official said the Church often waited years for approval to build a new church, only to be ultimately denied, a point the Church raised again during training on the proper implementation of Decree 315 in Vientiane Province in December. According to the Catholic Church representative, the Church had been waiting since 2007 to receive approval to renovate a church building. The representative also said guidelines for the construction of religious buildings delineated in Decree 315 were unclear.

Some sources said the legal requirement that a religious organization own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land to build a church or temple limited the ability of some smaller congregations, which lacked sufficient resources, to obtain a space of that size. A Seventh-day Adventist Church leader said that while the land requirement was not an issue in rural areas, purchasing land was expensive in cities, where most Seventh-day Adventists live. He said the largest Seventh-day Adventist Church, located in Vientiane, sits on less than 3,300 square meters (35,000 square feet). As in 2019, he also said that the government sometimes facilitated access to land for Buddhist temples, while Christian churches had to purchase the land for their sites of worship. As common with Buddhist temples, he said, the government often retained the land title, which he stated could cause an issue if the church needed to prove ownership.

According to Buddhist organizations, prominent Buddhists continued to work with the government to draft legislation to ensure laws reflected the role of Buddhism in Lao culture.

Christian students continued to say they were uncomfortable with the requirement that they attend prayers in Buddhist temples during cultural classes taught there as part of the public school curriculum. In some rural areas, lessons in Buddhism remained mandatory to pass to the next grade level, despite not being a MOES requirement. This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.

Leaders of the Catholic Church and Seventh-day Adventist Church said Christian officials needed to hide their religion in order to join the LPRP, government, or military and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. Some non-Buddhists identified as Buddhist in their family book (a household registration document), including one Baha’i member who stated that his wife would encounter problems at her employment with a state-owned enterprise if the family identified as Baha’i. Seventh-day Adventist officials continued to say there was a “hidden law” mandating a citizen could not be both a Christian and a member of the LPRP. Other religious groups said it was hard for their members to join the government, advance to higher-level positions, or become village chiefs. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a member of the Church did not receive a promotion from the level of teacher to principal because he was Christian. According to the Methodist Church, some teachers were threatened with firing or denied promotions unless they renounced their faith.

A representative from the NGO Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) said that while conditions for religious freedom had previously improved steadily over the decade up to 2019, the arrest of Christians – and particularly the prolonged detention of Christians without formal charges brought against them – was a concerning development during the year.

According to government sources, due to staff turnover at the provincial and local levels, there were still some officials who were unfamiliar with the provisions and proper application of Decree 315 four years after it entered into effect. LFND and MOHA officials stated they continued to visit areas where religious freedom abuses had reportedly taken place to instruct local authorities on government policy and law and frequently traveled beyond the capital to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain their obligations under the constitution and the right of all citizens to believe or not to believe. During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFND and MOHA officials on Decree 315 and other laws governing religion and held workshops with local authorities and religious leaders that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Baha’i Faith, and Islam. Due to funding and capacity constraints, MOHA, with support from IGE, held religious freedom workshops in only four of 18 provinces during the year, compared with 12 in 2019.

At year’s end, MOHA and LFND continued disseminating the March decree that included protection and preservation of traditional burial sites.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to religious leaders, most disputes among religious communities occurred in villages and rural areas where the central government’s ability to enforce national laws was limited.

LEC leaders continued to say that growth in church membership exacerbated tensions within some communities, particularly with villagers who were wary of minority religions. According to one official, majority non-Christian neighbors often harassed new Christian members in these villages for abandoning their traditions, typically Buddhist or animist.

Religious leaders said that in some rural areas, there were again reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from their villages if they did not renounce their faith.

According to RFA, in October, villagers from Pasing Village forced out seven Lao Christians of two households from their homes in Ta-Osey District, Salavan Province, for refusing to renounce their faith. Local sources reported that villagers also damaged their homes and belongings and nailed their doors shut. According to LEC leaders, the families returned to their homes to repair the damage, but remained concerned regarding future conflicts. Villagers later tore down the Christians’ homes; as of year’s end, the Christians remained homeless.

In many villages, religious disputes continued to be referred to government-sanctioned village mediation units comprised of private citizens. According to Christian group leaders, these units often encouraged Christians to compromise their beliefs by accommodating local Buddhist or animist community practices. In dealing with local disputes regarding religious issues, MOHA and LFND officials said they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved. MOHA and LFND officials continued to say their ministries did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.

According to Christian religious leaders, Christians said burial practices remained a contentious issue. In some rural areas, Christians said that they were not allowed to use public cemeteries, were not given land for separate cemeteries, and had to resort to burying their dead on farms or in backyards. A Christian leader said that in some areas, the church was trying to buy land for cemeteries so members would not have to use public cemeteries, and some Christian churches discussed purchasing land together to build Christian cemeteries.

Several religious groups said they provided donations without regard to the religious affiliation of the recipients after floods in the southern provinces of Sekong and Savannakhet occurred in October.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to regularly advocate for religious freedom with a range of government officials, including those responsible for implementing Decree 315, to ensure compliance of the government’s activities with the country’s obligations under the ICCPR and other international instruments to which it was a signatory. In exchanges with MOHA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and the LFND Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of harassment and prolonged detention. During meetings with National Assembly members and senior government officials, the Ambassador raised the prolonged detention of LEC Pastor Sithon and called for his release. Embassy officers raised concerns with appropriate officials regarding cumbersome procedures, including registration, obtaining advance permission to hold religious services and travel for religious purposes, as well as the government’s efforts to implement Decree 315 at the provincial and local levels.

In February, Department of State officials visited Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet to meet with government officials and representatives from religious groups. They discussed the implementation of Decree 315 and the treatment of certain religious groups by both government and nongovernmental groups.

In October, the Ambassador commemorated the completion of the restoration of Wat Visoun in Luang Prabang and handed over the successful restoration project to the government and residents of Luang Prabang. The Wat Visoun Temple, a center of Buddhist study and worship for more than 500 years and the oldest Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, was restored using $347,000 of U.S. government funding. During the handover ceremony, the Ambassador said, “The work we have done here will help ensure Wat Visoun remains a culturally and spiritually significant site for many years to come.”

Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from different religious and advocacy groups, including the LEC, Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic Association of Laos, the Baha’i community, the Buddhist community, and the IGE to address religious equality concerns, such as registration, Decree 315 administrative requirements, land acquisition, and tensions with local Buddhist and animist communities. The embassy also invited religious leaders and government officials responsible for religious affairs to embassy events, including those focusing on religious freedom and related issues.

The embassy additionally amplified messages promoting religious freedom on its Facebook page, which had more than 350,000 followers.

Malaysia

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization to conduct certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers, as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque. In January, the Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) said there were 15 Shia religious centers, which JAIS considered to be a significant increase. The chairperson of JAIS said the agency would intensify efforts to monitor Shia Muslims and raid Shia religious gatherings and would also provide information on the alleged dangers of Shia Islam to schools and mosques throughout the state. In response, the NGO Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) said JAIS was promoting “an intolerant religion [Islam] in this modern age.”

In August, the Court of Appeal petitioned the High Court to determine whether 39 Ahmaddiya Muslims were to be considered Muslim following an appeal by JAIS against a 2018 High Court decision stating that the sharia court had no jurisdiction over the Ahmadi community, since JAIS had refused to recognize them as adherents of Islam. The petitioners challenged their 2014 sharia offenses charged by JAIS on the basis that Islamic authorities in Selangor State did not recognize Ahmadiyya as Muslims and that the petitioners were therefore outside JAIS jurisdiction. The High Court ruled in August, “The Ahmaddiya were, as with all other persons, entitled to freedom of religion, subject to the Federal Constitution.” The court also said the country’s dual legal system and the issuance of identity cards stating their holders’ religion as Islam compounded the ambiguity of their religious status as Muslims. The three-member bench chaired by Justice Badariah Sahamid further stated, “It is timely that all states, along with the federal government, work out a unified regime to determine the religious status of the Ahmadiyya so that they are not put at risk of sharia investigations and prosecution.”

The country’s movement control order (MCO), established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, banned gatherings of any kind from March 18 through June 4, including religious gatherings. During Ramadan, the MCO prohibited Muslims from worshiping in mosques, breaking their fast outside their homes, and visiting Ramadan bazaars, a popular tradition. The government assured Muslims that all religious obligations could be carried out at home and noted exceptions for front-line responders and those who were ill. State religious leaders, including conservative representatives from PAS, supported the federal government’s measures, noting “we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.” Non-Islamic leaders said that they were not consulted or warned by the government before restrictions were imposed.

In September, the Federal Court allowed the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) to proceed with a hearing to seek a court declaration to invalidate a Selangor State law that enabled sharia courts to review decisions made by state religious authorities. In 2019, the High Court dismissed the NGO’s application for a civil court to review a 2014 Selangor State fatwa that found the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights. The 2014 fatwa said SIS deviated from the teachings of Islam because the group subscribed to the principles of liberalism and religious pluralism. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The fatwa also ruled that the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. At year’s end, no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to function nationally.

In September, JAIS arrested Abdul Kahar Ahmad and 16 followers for spreading the teachings of a “deviant sect” that had been banned in 1991. JAIS confiscated books, cell phones, laptops, and other materials. Following the arrest, the Minister of Religious Affairs said the government will consider distributing reading materials on “deviant” teachings to imams and religious teachers appointed by religious authorities in order to warn the public of the dangers of such teachings. Abdul Kahar and three of those arrested were released on bail, while the other 13 remained in custody. Abdul Kahar, who proclaimed himself a Rasul Melayu (Malay prophet), was previously arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, six strokes of caning, and a fine of 16,500 ringgit ($4,100).

There were restrictions on the use of the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words by non-Muslims. These restrictions included saying certain words, such as “Allah,” “al Quran,” or “fatwa” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.”

In October, the Court of Appeal dismissed a discovery application by Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the documents the Home Affairs Ministry used to support its ban on the Church’s and its Malay-language speaking congregation’s right to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The ministry argued that the documents sought by the Church fell under the Official Secrets Act 1972.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.” In February, the Court of Appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books written by IRF. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017 for content that did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam, a decision the High Court upheld in 2019. IRF representatives welcomed the court’s decision, stating it fulfilled its role as “the last bastion for the protection of freedom of expression.”

A 2019 investigation into the book Unveiling Choices by Maryam Lee remained open. The book was alleged by JAIS to “insult or bring into contempt the religion of Islam.” It narrates Lee’s personal reasons for removing her hijab as well as the sociopolitical relationship between Muslim women and the Malaysian state. Lee would be subject to a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both, if found guilty.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said this practice remained largely tolerated but left the religious groups vulnerable. In March, authorities demolished the 100-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman Temple located within the Kamunting detention center in Taiping, Perak State. According to media reports, authorities did not inform the temple’s leaders of the impending demolition. Facebook later removed a post by Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy questioning whether the demolition was in part organized by a federal government dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims. “I think the title of the post, which asserted that the structure was probably the first Hindu temple demolished under the Perikatan National [ruling coalition] government, irked the powers that be,” Ramasamy commented to the media.

PAS party leader Hadi said during a September speech at the annual general meeting of party that only Malay-Muslim unity could lead and save the country. According to media reports, Hadi said, “The nation that is with Islam must rise so that it is not swept away by the influence of non-Muslims, who lose their identity.” In January, Hadi described choosing between Muslim and non-Muslim rule: “If we [Muslims] are patient with each other, and even if [the leadership] is cruel, we can at least be cow herders, but under other people’s rule, we will become pig herders.” Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Democratic Action Party, which is part of the opposition coalition but has the most seats in the lower house of parliament, responded, “The advocates of this version of politics are gambling with the future of a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural nation.”

The Prime Minister’s office tasked government agencies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. That department’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($68.41 million), while 1.4 billion ringgit ($348.3 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In April, the government allocated 21 million ringgit ($5.22 million) to assist private Islamic schools whose operations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said the assistance was part of 100 million ringgit ($24.88 million) allocated to JAKIM under the 2020 budget supplement intended to finance the maintenance and upgrading of Islamic schools. Non-Islamic schools did not receive this funding.

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

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

There were continued complaints concerning what critics said were religious overtones and symbols in public schools. In January, family members of children enrolled in government residential schools questioned what they said was an overemphasis on religious practices: schools frequently compelled students to attend group prayers and rituals, causing the studies of other subjects to be neglected. In response, the schools stated the rituals were intended to obtain “blessings” that would ensure that students excelled academically, and that would elevate the status of the school. “They are competing on which school is more Islamic instead of being better academically,” said one parent. Another parent told the online news portal Free Malaysia Today that her daughter was compelled to attend a “ruqyah” (exorcism) session to be cured from the possession of “bad spirits” after skipping Islamic instruction to attend biology classes.

An effort by the government to revive Jawi, an archaic Arabic script, in lessons on Bahasa Melayu in vernacular primary schools sparked tensions along ethnic and religious fault lines. Following an outcry from Chinese groups that the Jawi revival was an attempt at Islamization, the Ministry of Education pared down the pages to be taught on Jawi from six to three. Then Deputy Minister of Education Teo Nie Ching later clarified that Jawi lessons in vernacular schools could only be introduced with majority approval from parent-teacher associations.

In January, Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, vice president of Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, a Malay nationalist political party, wrote that a public school in Puchong, Selangor State, was propagating religion to its students through decorations for Lunar New Year. He stated, “The complaints we’ve received show unease at the excessive Chinese New Year 2020 decorations….This is distressing for Muslim students and is also against Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution.” In a sign of support for the school, the then Deputy Prime Minister and six other cabinet ministers visited it and helped put up Lunar New Year decorations.

In the same month, the Ministry of Education issued a circular stating that JAKIM advised that Ponggal, a Tamil harvest festival, is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Responding to a public outcry, then Minister of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that JAKIM had not prohibited schools from celebrating the festival, since, “It was permissible for Muslims to take part in the celebration as long as Islamic ethics were observed.” Mujahid called for stern action against the Ministry of Education official responsible for the circular in question.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. In a February ruling, the Federal Court determined that a Muslim child conceived or born out of what the state determined to be wedlock could not bear his or her father’s name, even if requested by the father. The court said the law “does not enable Muslim children to be named with the personal name of a person acknowledged to be the father” because ethnic Malays do not use surnames. The NGO SIS praised the court’s other ruling that children born out of wedlock do not have to automatically use the surname “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” which carries a social stigma in the country where children with these surnames are often “ridiculed, attacked, bullied, or targeted.”

Then Minister for Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said he would ask the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself wearing a prayer garment on pilgrimage in Mecca in February. Muhajid said Nur Sajat’s actions were an “offense” and could compromise the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. JAKIM circulated copies of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents were circulated on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety. The NGO Justice for Sisters condemned the government’s action, stating, “The real concern is not the telekung (prayer garment), but her safety and security, the breach of privacy, and the lack of rights and evidence-based response by the government.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in years past, local human rights organizations and religious leaders said society continued to become less tolerant of religious diversity. In September, the interfaith organization Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST) released a press statement to express “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.” NGOs also cited some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic” as well as heavily publicized statements targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.

In January, the NGO ILMU, whose members were closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party and who have in the past spoken out against Shia Islam, hosted a national convention on “Knowledge of the Hadith,” in Kuala Lumpur. Sheikh Abdurrahman Ibrahim al-Rubai’in, the religious attache of the Saudi Arabian embassy, in his keynote speech, said it was useless to include Shia Muslims in any efforts to unite Muslims, since “They are deviant.” He added, “The difference between Sunnis and Shias is not merely over jurisprudence, but also between truth and falsehood.”

Hundreds of Muslim students gathered in January outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur to demand the government ban the Chinese educational group Dong Zong, on the grounds that Dong Zong opposed the inclusion of Jawi lessons in the national school syllabus. The PAS youth chief spoke at the protest and blamed Chinese majority political parties in the ruling and opposition coalitions for perpetuating baseless fears against Islam. The Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition said Dong Zong was attempting to foment a repeat of the country’s bloody 1969 race riots. Also in January, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad labeled Dong Zong as “racist” against the Malay-Muslim majority after the group petitioned against the government’s move to introduce Jawi lessons in schools on grounds that the measure would be a form of “Islamization.”

The leader of the apolitical group of Malay-Muslim NGOs Pertubuhan Pembela Islam (Pembela), Aminuddin Yahaya, called on the new Perikatan Nasional coalition government to appoint an ethnic Malay attorney general and to “take action” against insults to Islam. “We have to take this seriously because Malays don’t insult other religions or other races, but other races insult Malays and Islam. Therefore, there must be enforcement.”

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former cobelievers, including friends and relatives.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear the headscarf or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming in public and on social media.

In March, the Malaysian rock band Bunkface released its song “The End of Times,” which caused controversy over lyrics that urged the LGBTQ community to “go and die.” In a statement, the band defended the lyrics as a criticism of the growing Muslim LGBTQ movement in the country and indicated its rejection of any rights for LGBTQ Muslims, describing the LGBTQ community as haram. “What has been set as haram will always remain haram,” the band said in its press released. YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music removed the song from their platforms following international media attention.

In April, a video of a local man harassing a Rohingya individual from Burma surfaced on Facebook amid an increase in comments online aimed at the Rohingya community. In the four-minute video, the man demanded the Rohingya prove his Islamic faith. In April, activist Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi of the European Rohingya Council rights group said in response, “There is harassment [of Rohingya] on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before.” In the same month, Tengku Emma was threatened with rape on social media, including the online group “32 Million Malaysians Reject Rohingya,” after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers to land.

Religious groups hosted virtual interfaith dialogues and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. In September, the Dalai Lama and a professor from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, Osman Bakar, discussed compassion and mercy as common values in Islam and Buddhism in a virtual forum organized by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious groups’ taking the opportunity to discuss different ways of promoting people’s right to pursue different ways of life. In an interfaith dialogue in December, Council of Churches Malaysia secretary general Hermen Shastri said the establishment of a “truly interfaith council” was hindered by a “majority vs. minority” mentality, since interfaith groups in the country have yet to form an entity that engages with the majority Islamic community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as with other agencies, on religious freedom and tolerance issues throughout the year, including concerns about the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children, and the disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, and Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu.

Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, who described heavy government restrictions on their religious activities and continued societal discrimination. The embassy also met with Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as those from SIS, G25, and the Islamic Renaissance Front, and with MCCBCHST to discuss strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.

The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.

The embassy nominated Susanna Liew, wife of missing pastor Raymond Koh, for the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award and facilitated her travel to the United States to attend the annual IWOC ceremony in Washington D.C. in March.

Philippines

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship. At year’s end, two Catholic priests continued to face charges of conspiracy to commit sedition over their alleged involvement in the production and release of a 2019 video linking President Rodrigo Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade. Muslim groups expressed objections to an antiterrorism law passed in July, citing fears that it could lead to restraints in the free practice and free expression of their faith. Several Muslim lawmakers, lawyers, and citizens who said they were arbitrarily designated as members of terrorist groups, filed petitions before the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law infringed on the freedom of religious expression. In addition, Catholic and Protestant groups expressed concern over reported cases of church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

During the year, killings, bombings, and kidnappings by ISIS-affiliated and other terrorist groups continued. In May, alleged Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) terrorists killed two children, aged 10 and seven, and injured 13 others when a mortar shell landed in a residential area in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during a BIFF attack against the Armed Forced of the Philippines (AFP) on Eid al-Fitr. ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including an August suicide bombing in Jolo that killed 15 people and wounded 75 others. Following the attack, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Bishop Charlie Inzon, called for peace.

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country where Muslims are the majority of the population, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported some tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu Province. The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country, such as private companies requiring information on religion in job applications and discriminatory comments from private citizens. Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination.

The U.S. embassy conducted a broad range of engagement throughout the year with the government to highlight the importance of international religious freedom. In June, the Ambassador met with leaders of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and assured them of continued U.S. government support. Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagements, the embassy continued to use online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths. The embassy supported a virtual iftar event with 25 former participants of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs, during which participants discussed religious tolerance and its importance in building community trust. An embassy program continued to train religious leaders and youth organizations and encourage dialogue to foster social cohesion in religiously diverse areas of Mindanao.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 109.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2015 census (the most recent) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), 79.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 9 percent belong to other Christian groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other Christian groups include locally established churches, such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ); Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan or IFI); Members Church of God International; The Kingdom of Jesus Christ; and The Name above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim, according to the PSA, while the NCMF estimates a figure of 10 to 11 percent. The NCMF attributes its higher estimate to a number of factors, including the reluctance of Muslims to officially register with the civil registrar office or to participate in the formal survey; the community’s transience due to internal movement for work; and the government’s failure to survey Muslim areas and communities thoroughly. According to the PSA, approximately 4 percent of those surveyed in the 2015 census did not report a religious affiliation or belonged to other faiths, such as animism or indigenous syncretic faiths.

A majority of Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups and reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Muslims constitute a majority in the BARMM. Although most are practitioners of Sunni Islam, a small minority of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur in Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila, Baguio, Dumaguete, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Cotabato, and Davao, a trend that accelerated after the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi during which local residents fled to other provinces for their security.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights. The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship as well as any person “notoriously” offending religious feelings during such services or in a place of worship.

The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status. Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and bylaws to the SEC in order to register as religious corporations. The SEC requires religious corporations to submit annual financial statements. The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC. To register as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR. The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors. The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years. The BIR may fine religious corporations for the late filing of registrations or for failing to submit registration datasheets and financial statements.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory; parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space. Students who do not attend religious instruction because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire receive normal supervised class time. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. The law mandates that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslim beliefs as well as the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples, when formulating the national history curriculum.

By law, public schools must protect the religious rights of students. Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.

The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts, all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. Sharia courts handle only cases relating to personal laws affecting family relations and property. Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.

The BARMM is a Muslim-led autonomous region, established by the central government in January 2019 following the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law, with jurisdiction over five provinces and three major noncontiguous cities. The Bangsamoro Organic Law provides the framework for the transition to greater autonomy for the area’s majority Muslim population.

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

Government Practices

A report released in October by the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA) in partnership with the UCCP found that 16 Christian church leaders and members were killed between 2017 and 2020 by unknown assailants, although in some cases, witnesses accused local police of committing the killings. Of the victims, three were Catholic priests, one was a UCCP pastor, one was a Kings Glory Ministry pastor, and 11 were lay members, including five from the IFI and one from the UCCP. In August, unknown assailants on a motorbike shot and killed Zara Alvarez, a Church Workers Solidarity Group ecumenical volunteer who documented extrajudicial killings by security forces and other human rights abuses for a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report. The government had included Alvarez on a list of individuals accused of being terrorists (a list that also included a UN special rapporteur), a label which, according to the report, often led to targeting by death squads.

The UCA report also documented 29 church leaders and members who received death threats and harassment after speaking out against the Duterte government between 2017 and 2020. Incidents of harassment and intimidation included arbitrary arrests on what church groups described as false charges. The report stated that the government frequently labeled critics and human rights activists as “terrorists.” The UCA report noted that on July 9, a UCCP clergyman was arrested on accusations of involvement in a 2018 armed ambush against the military. Church members said he was presiding over a worship service at the time and could not have been involved. The clergyman was released on July 24, but soldiers continued to file charges against him.

On March 28, media reported on a video in which a Santa Ana police officer beat a member of the Golden Mosque compound for violating curfew. Philippine National Police (PNP) police chief General Archie Gamboa ordered an investigation of the incident.

Some Catholic clergy who vocally criticized extrajudicial killings attributed to the war on drugs under President Duterte or who stated their opposition to the reinstatement of the death penalty again reported being harassed, intimidated, and threatened with death by unknown perpetrators. As of the end of the year, Catholic priests Albert Alejo and Flaviano Villanueva continued to face charges of conspiracy to commit sedition. The government originally charged the two priests, as well as four bishops, a third priest, and members of the opposition, with sedition, cyberlibel, libel, and obstruction of justice in July 2019 over their alleged involvement in the production and release of a video earlier that year linking President Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade. Various ecumenical groups condemned the charges, filed through the PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group. Prosecutors dropped all charges against the four bishops and the third priest for lack of evidence.

Several Muslim groups filed objections with the Supreme Court to the Antiterrorism Act of 2020, passed in July, citing fears that the law could result in arrests made due to mistaken identity and stereotyping, which could lead to restraints in the free practice and expression of their faith. Muslim lawmakers and lawyers stated that the provision in the law that punishes those “inciting” acts of terrorism specifically restrains them from teaching the concept of jihad, which they said has been erroneously related to terrorist attacks. Three Muslim citizens who said they were arbitrarily designated as members of terrorist groups filed a separate, similar petition. The Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, a Catholic group, also filed a petition to the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law would lead to missionaries and Christian faithful being labeled as terrorists. They stated that church workers often work with the poor and other marginalized sectors of society – the same sectors that, they said, “overzealous” members of the national police and armed forces often accuse of having terrorist ties.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) expressed concern over reported cases of Church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the NPA, the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, also known as “red-tagging.” In May, Catholic priest Raymond Montero Ambray accused the AFP of falsely linking him to the NPA in a post on a Facebook account that was subsequently deactivated. Ambray worked with the indigenous Lumad peoples, whom the AFP frequently accused of harboring NPA fighters, and said that the post was intended to end his work with the Lumads through intimidation. The AFP denied Ambray’s allegations.

In January, the PNP Manila Police District internally released a memorandum requiring schools to identify Muslim students in all high schools, colleges, and universities in Metropolitan Manila as part of the PNP’s countering violent extremism efforts. Muslim leaders in Mindanao, including BARMM authorities, and the interfaith organization Duyog Marawi expressed outrage, saying that the move promoted Islamophobia and discrimination, particularly against the Muslim minority in Metropolitan Manila. The reactions led to the Metropolitan Manila police chief recalling the memorandum and announcing the PNP would organize a dialogue between the PNP and Muslim student leaders. As of the end of the year, the PNP had not confirmed whether the dialogue took place.

The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, passed in March, granted special powers to the President to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. Mass gatherings, including religious gatherings, were prohibited from March 13 through June 1. Gatherings continued to be prohibited throughout Manila and Luzon until August. Restrictions were then gradually eased to 10 percent, 20 percent, and then 30 percent of capacity as of October. Public Holy Week celebrations and travel were also prohibited. Many religious leaders stated that religious institutions were being unfairly treated, with malls and other establishments allowed to open before religious services. On June 7, Catholic Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan Socrates Villegas said, “I am very afraid that there is an implied persecution of our faith because going to Mass, attending the Eucharist, worshiping the Lord, is lumped together in the same group as going to the barber shop and going to the theater to watch a movie.”

In June, media reported that the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict designated the National Council of Churches Philippines (NCCP) and two of its member churches, the UCCP and the IFI, as “open sectoral organizations” of the NPA. The NCCP, one of the largest associations of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic Christian denominations in the country, described the designation as an attack on its “right to exercise the freedom of religion.” The IFI also condemned the designation and said that red-tagging encouraged government agents and other individuals to violently attack church members.

President Duterte continued to criticize the Catholic Church despite a 2018 vow not to do so. In January, in a public speech containing explicit language, he stated that he had won the presidential election in 2016 despite insulting the Pope and Catholic bishops and said that such criticism was needed to win a “war” against the Catholic Church. Media reported that the criticism was related to the Church’s public comments about human rights abuses linked to Duterte’s antidrug campaign. Some clergy continued to raise concerns that the manner in which the President denounced the Church promoted violence against its priests and leaders.

In July, prior to the President’s State of the Nation Address, police confiscated protest materials from parishioners during a Mass at the Quiapo Catholic Church in Manila after a church security officer reported to police that attendees were holding placards. The materials protested the Antiterrorism Act. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who also attended the Mass, spoke to the PNP and said the materials were not being used during the Mass.

The Department of Education continued to support its Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or more. For the 2018-19 school year, 1,686 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 145,591 students, compared with 1,622 schools and 158,093 students the previous year. The program aims to integrate madrassahs into the public education system while preserving Islamic education for Muslim Filipinos.

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF or the Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curricula that were subject to government oversight. The Department of Education did not provide updates during the year. There were 85 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year. Many private madrassahs, however, choose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives.

The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. By law, only registered schools or madrassahs may receive financial assistance from the government. Madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The Department of Education did not provide updates during the year. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 25 percent from 2018 to 2019. During 2019, the Department of Education provided funding of 90,960,000 pesos ($1.89 million) to 18,192 private madrassah students, compared with 67,510,000 pesos ($1.4 million) allocated to 13,502 private madrassah students in 2018.

Since the inauguration of the BARMM in March 2019, the transition government suffered some setbacks and delays in establishing the permanent legal framework for a Muslim-led autonomous region due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front-led interim authority conducted consultations with Christian minority groups and indigenous peoples with the stated purpose of ensuring their concerns are addressed.

NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination continued to occur in government offices but cited no specific examples. Some Muslim leaders continued to express concern about the low percentage of Muslims in senior government and military positions. There were 13 Muslims in the 301-member House of Representatives, but no Muslims in the 24-member Senate. There was one Muslim member of the cabinet, the head of the NCMF, and President Duterte appointed Muslims to a small number of senior positions, such as commissioner of the Social Security System, member of the Board of Directors of the Cooperation Development Authority, and Undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture.

The PSA estimated during the year that 40 percent of a total of five million unregistered residents were children who were 14 or younger, primarily among Muslim and indigenous groups. Citizenship derives from birth to a citizen parent. The government initiated a pilot program in Metropolitan Manila that provided undocumented Muslim Filipinos with an identity card – the Muslim Filipino Identity Card – stating that it was intended to help them access services, since many in this population did not have a birth certificate. Sources stated that the lack of a birth certificate did not generally result in a denial of education or other services, but it could cause delays in some circumstances. Undocumented Filipinos could use this secondary identification when applying for jobs, school, and for other government services in lieu of a birth certificate or formal registry. The NCMF noted that this secondary identification helped overseas Filipino workers who found themselves in precarious labor situations. If their employers confiscated their passports, having a secondary form of identification could speed the government’s citizenship assessment, thus providing fast repatriation services. Critics expressed reservations about the potential for abuse in similar initiatives in the past.

Muslim officials continued to report that, while Muslim prison detainees were allowed to engage in religious observances, Roman Catholic Mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to both Catholic and non-Catholic prison populations.

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment is responsible for administering logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that it was at the height of its Hajj operations when the Philippine government imposed COVID-19 quarantine measures. It continued to assist Hajj travelers until the Saudi embassy informed the NCMF in June that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to Saudi citizens and foreign expatriates residing in Saudi Arabia only. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings in the south of the country to the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – both of which are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other ISIS-related terrorist groups. In May, alleged BIFF terrorists killed two children, aged 10 and seven, and injured 13 others when a mortar shell landed in a residential area in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during an attack by the BIFF against the AFP on Eid al-Fitr. ISIS claimed responsibility for an August suicide bombing in Jolo in Sulu Province that killed 15 people and wounded 75 others. The attacker detonated the bombs a few yards from a Catholic church that ISIS suicide bombers had previously attacked in January 2019, killing 20 and wounding 102. Following the attack, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Bishop Charlie Inzon, called for peace. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country where Muslims comprise the majority of the population, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity.

Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported tensions among different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu Province. Social media comments denigrating the beliefs or practices of Muslims continued to appear.

The NCMF reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country. For example, the NCMF reported that private companies often required job seekers to list their religion on job applications. The NCMF also said that private citizens made discriminatory comments linking Muslim Filipinos to violence, especially following a violent incident either in the country or abroad. Following the August suicide attack in Jolo, Sulu Province, the NCMF reported that a text message circulated among non-Muslims in Mindanao warning them to take extra precautions.

In August, the Commission on Human Rights reported that a female member of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church wearing conservative attire was denied entry to a provincial sports complex for not wearing proper sports attire.

Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. The CBCP collaborated with other Christian groups and the government Interagency Council against Human Trafficking to combat trafficking in persons and partnered with other Christian groups to campaign against the death penalty and the Antiterrorism Act of 2020. The CBCP also engaged with other faith-based organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable communities and to promote solidarity, peace, and harmony. In February, Equal Access International – a peace promotion NGO – hosted the OURmindaNOW 2020 peace summit in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao, which enabled interreligious dialogue among more than 400 participants. The summit encouraged participants, brought together from different faith groups, to craft a shared vision of the future of Mindanao by considering how to transform violent extremism, empower youth, and highlight positive narratives using alternative media.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy conducted a broad range of engagement throughout the year with the government to highlight the importance of international religious freedom. In June, the Ambassador met with leaders of BARMM and assured them of continued U.S. government support.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagement, the embassy continued to use online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths, including highlighting subjects such as freedom to worship and the importance of religious tolerance.

The embassy posted a series of articles and videos on social media in observance of Religious Freedom Day on January 16. In one of the posts, the embassy highlighted the work of Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, who in the 1930s offered a safe haven in the country to Jews fleeing the Holocaust in Europe.

In February, embassy social media amplified the launch of the U.S.-led International Religious Freedom Alliance and also provided funding support to a Mindanao peace summit in Cagayan de Oro that enabled interreligious dialogue among more than 400 participants.

In May, the embassy supported a virtual iftar program organized by Muslim former participants of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs in Mindanao to demonstrate U.S. support for religious freedom and tolerance. The event concluded with a virtual iftar with 25 former participants of different U.S. exchange programs, including the governor of Lanao del Sur, who provided messages of support and contributed to the discussion of religious tolerance and its importance in creating community trust.

Other embassy initiatives included a series of social media postings on completion of the reconstruction of a church in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. The rehabilitation was led by the National Museum of the Philippines, with the support of the U.S. government through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.

An ongoing U.S. program continued to engage religious leaders and youth organizations to stimulate social cohesion in select religiously diverse areas of Mindanao that were vulnerable to violent conflict, including violent extremism. The program is aimed at fostering social cohesion by training and engaging religious and youth leaders to effectively represent their groups in support of peace. The project is also aimed at creating opportunities for dialogue to mitigate and address violent conflict and violent extremism.

Singapore

Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). It restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” The government held 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete mandatory national service. In December, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) detained a 16-year-old Christian male for planning to attack two mosques using a machete on the anniversary of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings. According to the ministry, the individual had been self-radicalized through online material, including the Christchurch attacker’s manifesto and ISIS videos of violence against Christians. The government stated the individual acted alone and did not try to influence or involve others in his attack plans. In February, the MHA launched an investigation into a local, unregistered chapter of the South Korean Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (Shincheonji Church), which resulted in the deportation of five South Koreans and the dissolution of affiliated organizations. In November, authorities arrested 21 individuals for resuming activities of the church “covertly.” In June, police detained a permanent resident for posting comments to Instagram about wanting to kill Muslims. In September, police issued a warning to Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan for social media posts she made in 2018 and May 2020, before she was a candidate for parliament, accusing the government of discrimination against religious and racial minorities. Authorities investigated messages individuals posted to social media that were considered offensive to Muslims and Christians, for which the individuals later apologized. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences. It actively reached out to religious communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasized the role of faith leaders in promoting solidarity during the pandemic. Government organizations initiated interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.

Multiple religious groups held virtual interfaith events and celebrations during the year. Religious groups and civil society organizations continued to promote interfaith and intrafaith understanding. In April, the then-Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth joined 100 members of the nongovernmental organization Inter-Religious Organization (IRO) to celebrate the annual IRO Day virtually and pledged to maintain interfaith solidarity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officers promoted religious diversity and tolerance throughout the year. In November, the Charge d’Affaires met with Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communication and Information and Health and chairman of the community-level organization OnePeople.sg, to discuss religious harmony and diversity. Throughout the year, the embassy used its website and social media channels to highlight outreach and demonstrate respect for the country’s religious diversity. The Charge d’Affaires delivered video speeches and best wishes for Ramadan in May, Deepavali in November, and the Christmas and Hanukkah season in December. Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups, including the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), to support religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Of the four million individuals the local government counts as citizens or permanent residents, 81.5 percent stated a religious affiliation in the 2015 General Household Survey. According to the data, approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian (including 6.7 percent Catholic), 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, 5 percent Hindu, and 18.5 percent identify as having no religion. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Unification Church. Although estimates varied widely, the government estimates there are 2,500 members in the Jewish community.

According to a 2020 report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.5 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent Muslim, and 12.1 percent Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief, as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to, or employment in, any office under a public authority. It states every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs, and it does not prohibit restrictions on employment by a religious institution. The constitution states no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own.

The government maintains a decades-long ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the religion was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the ban and stated that individuals (including members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) have the right to profess, practice, and propagate their own beliefs, but may not act as members of an unlawful society or attend meetings of same. In practice, the government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish or import their literature. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on the grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.

The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) authorizes the Minister for Home Affairs to issue a “restraining order” (RO) against a person in a position of authority within a religious group if the Minister ascertains the person is causing feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promoting political causes, carrying out subversive activities, or encouraging disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. An RO places various restrictions on public activities in which a religious authority can participate. Under the MRHA, the Minister must provide individuals or religious groups 14 days to make written representations before an RO may be issued against them, and the Minister must also consult and take into consideration the views of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) as to whether an RO should be issued. In addition, under the penal code, “Wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” may result in detention or imprisonment. Imprisonment may last up to five years. Since passing the MRHA in 1990, the government has never invoked the law or issued an RO.

The PCRH reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred to it by the MHA or by parliament. The President appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires that two-thirds of PCRH members be representatives of the major religions in the country.

The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore,” and it requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY), administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and Hajj arrangements. The MUIS includes representatives from the Sunni majority and Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated by the government if there are complaints.

The government appoints all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board and nominates four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards manage various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.

The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows registered groups to own property, hold public meetings, and conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enables them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemptions. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered group may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 SGD ($3,800), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.

Prisoners, including those in solitary confinement, are allowed access to chaplains of registered religious groups. Members of unregistered religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Christian Conference of Asia, and Shincheonji Church, do not have this right.

Citizens require a permit to speak at indoor gatherings open to the public that are outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests or they can be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.

By law, a publication is considered objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or deals with, among other things, matters of race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility among racial or religious groups. The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. For offenses involving the publication of objectionable material, an individual may be liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding 5,000 SGD ($3,800), imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both. A person in possession of a prohibited publication may be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and imprisoned for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.

The Ministry of National Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The ministry and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone or not exceeding the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups; they apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organizations or limited to religious use and must also be available to rent out for nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.

Registration with the MUIS is compulsory for all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning. Registration requires adherence to minimum standards and a code of ethics, as well as the fulfilment of certain training requirements.

The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law is used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has exclusive jurisdiction over marriage issues where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including divorce, nullification, or judicial separation. The sharia court has concurrent jurisdiction with the family court and family division of the high court over disputes related to custody of minors and disposition of property upon divorce. The President of the country appoints the president of the sharia court. A breach of sharia court orders is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment of up to six months, and an individual may file a complaint about a breach in the family justice courts. The sharia court does not have jurisdiction over personal protection orders or applications for maintenance payments, as these are treated as orders made by a secular family court. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeals board, which is composed of three members selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of at least seven Muslims nominated every three years by the President of the country. The ruling of the appeals board is final and may not be appealed to any other court.

The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives, reviewing the husband’s financial capability, and evaluating his ability to treat the wives and families fairly and equitably. By law, the President of the country appoints a “male Muslim of good character and suitable attainments” as the Registrar of Muslim Marriages.

Under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam. This includes publicly teaching or expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law, which carries a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both. It is also a criminal offense for Muslims to cohabit outside of marriage, but that law has not been enforced in decades.

Under the law, Muslim couples in which one or both parties are under the age of 21 must complete a marriage preparation program and obtain parental or guardian consent before applying for marriage. Each party to the marriage must be at least 18.

According to legal experts in inheritance, Islamic law governs Muslims in the context of inheritance issues by default, but under certain circumstances, civil law takes precedence when invoked. Islamic law may result in a man receiving twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. A man may also incur financial responsibilities for his female next of kin, although this provision is not codified in the country’s law.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools (mostly Christian but including three Buddhist schools). Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have the right to opt out and be given alternatives, such as civics and moral education, in lieu of religious instruction. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not subsidized by the government. At the primary level, however, the law allows only seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to provide religious education to citizen students; these schools must also continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools. Public schools finish early on Fridays, which enables Muslim students to attend Friday prayers, or administrators allow Muslim students to leave early to attend prayers. Secondary school students learn about the diversity of the country’s religious practices as a component of their character and citizenship education.

The law empowers the Ministry of Education (MOE) to regulate primary and secondary schools. MOE rules prohibit students (but not teachers) in public schools from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform, including hijabs or headscarves. Schools have discretion to grant a child dispensation from wearing the official uniform based on health but not religious requirements. International and other private schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, which are all under the purview of the MUIS, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning.

The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, including for religious reasons. Male citizens or second-generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service. Conscientious objectors are generally court-martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remain technically liable for national service, men who refuse to serve on religious grounds are generally not called up for reservist duties. They do not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharges them from reservist duties.

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group the parliament or the government refers to it.

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

Government Practices

The official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that at year’s end, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses were held in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete national service.

In December, the MHA detained a 16-year-old male under the Internal Security Act for planning to attack two mosques using a machete on the anniversary of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings. According to the ministry, the minor, identified as a Protestant Christian, had been self-radicalized through online material, including through the Christchurch attacker’s manifesto and ISIS videos of violence against Christians. Reportedly, the suspect was writing a manifesto detailing his hatred of Islam, as well as a document drafted after the October 2020 church stabbings in Nice, France, calling on the French to “stand up” against Muslims. The government stated the individual acted alone and did not try to influence or involve others in his attack plans.

In February, the MHA announced it was investigating a local unregistered chapter of the South Korean Shincheonji Church under the authority of national security legislation that would ban the organization’s activities in the country. The ministry then repatriated five South Korean nationals for holding key positions in the local chapter and dissolved the group’s affiliated organizations. The ministry said the group had used deceptive recruitment methods and misled individuals. Because of the group’s links to COVID-19 clusters in South Korea, the ministry said it would accelerate its investigations, given potential local health risks. In November, the ministry announced police arrested 21 members of the organization for being members of an “unlawful society” under the Societies Act and for resuming activities “covertly” despite warnings from the ministry to cease. The ministry said it “will not allow members of unlawful societies or persons associated with them to threaten Singapore’s public safety, peace and good order.”

In June, police arrested a 19-year-old permanent resident for inciting violence and posting comments with the deliberate intent to wound religious feelings. The man had posted comments on Instagram about wanting to kill Muslims. A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

Media reported that on September 17, police issued a “stern warning” to Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan for promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion or race. This came after a police report was filed against then-parliamentary candidate Khan during the general election campaign in July for social media posts she made in 2018 and 2020, before she was a candidate, accusing the government, law enforcement authorities, and courts of racial and religious discrimination against minorities, including Muslims. After the police reports were filed, Khan and the Workers’ Party leadership gave a press conference on July 5 at which Khan apologized to any racial group or community hurt by her comments and said she did not mean to cause social division, but rather wanted to raise awareness about minority concerns. On September 17, Khan posted to Facebook that she had learned to be “more considerate” in framing difficult conversations and apologized once again.

Media reported that on March 18, a group calling itself the NUS Atheist Society posted to its Facebook page an image of the Bible and Quran with a caption reading, “For use during toilet paper shortages.” Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam publicly criticized the post as “very offensive” to two religions and the police began an investigation, which remained ongoing at year’s end. On March 20, Shanmugam wrote on his Facebook page, “We [the government] take a serious view of these type of statements….We highlighted [for Facebook] how such offensive remarks have no place in multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore.” Facebook blocked domestic access to the post, per the government’s request. Media reported the Progress Singapore Party expelled Jan Chan, who was responsible for the Facebook page, from the party, saying the party “will not tolerate any of its members showing disrespect to any religion.” In a separate post to its official Facebook page, the National University of Singapore (NUS) said it was not linked to the NUS Atheist Society or the group’s Facebook page and said the page’s contents “do not represent the views, opinions and position” of the university. Chan told media he did not have malicious intent and regretted making the posting.

In January, the MHA and MUIS investigated Abdul Halim Abdul Karim, a Muslim religious teacher, for posting offensive comments on Facebook. Abdul Halim called COVID-19 “Allah’s retribution” against the Chinese for the oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, China. In a separate private post, Abdul Halim said Chinese did not wash properly after defecating and were less hygienic than Muslims. Minister Shanmugam called the posts “simply unacceptable,” and MUIS said the posts “express…views that do not represent the Muslim community.” Abdul Halim apologized for the posts, saying his meaning had been misunderstood and the government took no further action against him.

The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and to prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.

Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab and President Halimah Yacob also wore it. Some in the Muslim community continued to petition for a change in government policy and called the practice discriminatory.

The government continued to prohibit religious content from being broadcast on television “in order to maintain a secular public broadcast service.”

The government denied the request of members of the Malay Muslim community that the communal call to prayer call and special sermon at the end of Ramadan be broadcast on television during COVID-19 restrictions. The communal call to prayer and Ramadan sermon continued to be broadcast on radio and available on the internet.

While there was no law prohibiting proselytization, the government continued to discourage its practice through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly, based on what authorities said were concerns that proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.

As part of the MOE’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. Secondary school students visited diverse religious sites, including Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, churches, and synagogues. All schools celebrated the annual Racial Harmony Day in July, which was intended to promote understanding and acceptance of all races and religions within the country. On that day, children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were also encouraged to recite a “Declaration of Religious Harmony,” which repeatedly affirmed the importance of religious harmony for the country.

The MOE announced it was training more teachers to facilitate discussions on contemporary issues, including religion, and then-Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung encouraged principals to hold more in-depth conversations in schools on these topics.

President Halimah, Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong, and government ministers regularly stressed the government’s commitment to the country as a multiracial and multireligious society and cited religious harmony as an important policy goal.

Cabinet members repeatedly acknowledged that COVID-19 affected religious groups and emphasized the importance of religious harmony during the pandemic. PM Lee released a video as the country entered its COVID-19 lockdown on April 9, on the eve of Good Friday, in which he acknowledged sacrifices required to contain the pandemic. In the video, he said, “For Christians, it is a special time to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ. For Singaporeans, it is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices of our frontline workers since COVID-19 broke out in Singapore.” PM Lee also posted a message to the Muslim community on Facebook on April 23, at the beginning of Ramadan, and participated in a virtual breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan. On May 23, PM Lee posted a video message telling Muslims, “This pandemic will eventually pass, but the spirit of Hari Raya [Eid al-Fitr] will endure.” In November, he wished Hindus a happy Diwali on his Facebook page and reminded people that the COVID-19 pandemic was not over. Ministers frequently gave speeches on strengthening religious pluralism and participated in virtual interfaith dialogues led by societal organizations.

The government issued strong condemnations and emphasized the importance of religious harmony in response to foreign incidents of terrorism, including terrorist attacks in France in October and in Austria in November. Following the attacks in France, Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said in a speech, “Singapore is fortunate that its religious teachers guide Muslims here to understand the true principles of Islam in the way they practice the religion.”

During her opening speech to the new parliament in September, President Halimah said multiracialism and diversity would remain core elements of society. Halimah said, “Younger Singaporeans prefer to talk about these issues more candidly and openly, which is a positive development. But the conversation needs to be conducted with restraint and mutual respect, because race, language, and religion will always be visceral subjects.”

Under the auspices of the MCCY, local government and government-affiliated organizations advocated for interreligious understanding and support for followers of other religions.

Interfaith activities occurred in each of the country’s five mayoral districts through programs such as Common Sense for Common Spaces, while 89 Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) continued to operate in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs conducted a variety of local interreligious dialogues, counseling, and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities.

The government continued to work with religious groups through the Community Engagement Program, which trained community leaders in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. In January, the MCCY launched a new Crisis Preparedness for Religious Organizations (CPRO) program, also managed by the IRCCS, to help prepare religious organizations for terror threats and other crises by improving their ability to protect their premises and congregants, prepare emergency plans, and help the larger community during a crisis. The CPRO formed a key component of the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response and its coordination with religious groups, providing guidelines on allowed religious activities during the pandemic. The MCCY also consulted religious leaders and the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony when planning the introduction and relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions. It also worked through the BRIDGE initiative (Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education), which provided financial support for community-based initiatives that fostered understanding of different religious practices and beliefs.

The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was established to promote greater interfaith understanding. The Harmony Center housed artifacts and information about Islam and nine other major religious groups in the country. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from different religious groups.

In September, all 10 members of the PCRH were reappointed to a new, three-year term. Seven members represented the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Sikh communities, and three members, including the chair, were laypersons.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In July, employees at a local shopping center reportedly told a part-time employee to remove her hijab while working. After public pressure, the shopping center announced it would standardize its practice to allow all employees to wear religious headgear while working. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, compromising the Ministry of Manpower, the National Trades Union Congress, and the Singapore National Employers Federation, investigated the case for possible workplace discrimination. Several Malay Muslim policymakers and political office holders criticized the shopping center for its behavior, and President Halimah said, “Discrimination of any form and against anyone has no place at all in our society and, most certainly, not at the workplace.”

In February, approximately 11,500 Hindus took part in the live Thaipusam festival. Subsequently, due to COVID-19 safe-distancing measures, many interfaith activities and religious festivals were conducted virtually, but still proceeded. In September, the Muslim volunteer welfare organization Jamiyah Singapore held a webinar on the role of faith leaders in helping communities during the COVID-19 pandemic that included leaders from different religious groups inside and outside the country. President Halimah said at the event that faith can be a source of strength, solace, and solidarity during the pandemic.

In July, OnePeople.sg held its annual HarmonyWorks! conference virtually to engage different communities and youth. In June, IRO held a virtual interreligious prayer for the safe reopening of the country after a two-month partial COVID-19 lockdown that ended June 1.

In April, then-Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu joined 100 IRO members to celebrate the annual IRO Day virtually, and she pledged to maintain interreligious solidarity amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The IRO, which included leaders of the 10 major religious groups in the country, had the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among various religious groups by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year. IRO released a public statement in April urging citizens and residents to stay united, safeguard social cohesion, and remain connected with people from other faiths amid the pandemic.

Religious groups and civil society organizations continued to promote interfaith and intrafaith understanding. Ahead of Easter and Ramadan, Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir and Bishop Terry Kee, president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, exchanged letters conveying the well wishes of their communities to the other community as they celebrated these holidays. Throughout the year, the Center for Interfaith Understanding, chaired by a Muslim and a Taoist, hosted a range of webinars, including on such subjects as Christian-Muslim relations and interfaith dialogue.

Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques. The interfaith organization Roses of Peace released a Facebook video in cooperation with the local community organization Interfaith Youth Circle to promote harmony amid the COVID-19 pandemic and cooperated with OnePeople.sg on a “Regardless of Race” webinar series. Interfaith Youth Circle organized virtual meetings throughout the year to provide support to vulnerable communities and to offer interfaith exchanges while in-person meetings were not possible. Throughout the year, the Harmony Center promoted religious diversity through its #knowyoursingapore series on Facebook, where it featured different religious sites in the country.

The SGUnited Buka Puasa initiative, coordinated by MUIS and involving mosques, Roses of Peace, the chamber of commerce, and other organizations, provided 20,000 meals daily to healthcare frontline workers and families in need throughout the month of Ramadan. In April, IRO donated 10,000 masks to the Migrant Workers’ Center to fight the COVID-19 outbreak among migrant workers.

Following terrorist attacks in France in October, Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir wrote an open letter to leaders of the Christian community condemning the attacks and reinforcing the importance of interfaith harmony and shared values, saying, “We will continue to work tirelessly with the Christian community to affirm our commitment to the bonds of faith and friendship. We are confident that by strengthening the trust and confidence in each other, we will be able to prevent such incidents from ever taking place here.” Christian churches responded with individual letters to the mufti in which they said they appreciated the religious harmony and peace in the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other the embassy officials promoted religious diversity and tolerance throughout the year. In November, the Charge d’Affaires met with Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communication and Information and Health and chairman of the community-level organization OnePeople.sg, to discuss religious harmony, diversity, and inclusion in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The embassy engaged with religious communities on multiple virtual events to promote religious freedom and tolerance. In June, embassy officials participated in a Hari Raya Puasa event hosted by the country’s main association for Muslim women, the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), and they shared information about the embassy’s cross-cultural programs to engage local Muslim communities.

Throughout the year, the embassy used its website and social media channels to promote religious diversity and interfaith dialogue. At the start of Ramadan, the Charge d’Affaires released a video wishing Muslims in the country, the United States, and around the world a blessed Ramadan and Selamat Berpuasa. In November, he released a video wishing Hindus and others a happy Deepavali. In December, the embassy released a video celebrating the Christmas and Hanukkah season. The embassy featured the November meeting between the Charge d’Affaires and Senior Minister Puthucheary in a posting on its Twitter account. The embassy also posted social media messages around International Religious Freedom Day. Throughout the month of Ramadan, the embassy published a series of “porridge stories” celebrating the local Islamic tradition of breaking the daily fast with porridge. The program featured individuals from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds sharing recipes and family stories about different types of porridge, demonstrating shared values and respect for Islamic traditions.

Thailand

Executive Summary

The constitution “prohibits discrimination based on religious belief” and protects religious liberty, as long as the exercise of religious freedom is not “harmful to the security of the State.” The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process outside the national civil code for Muslim residents of the “Deep South” – described as the four southernmost provinces near the Malaysian border, including three with a Muslim majority – for family law, including inheritance. Ethnic Malay insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where religious and ethnic identity are closely linked in a longstanding separatist conflict. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Deep South Watch, violence during the year resulted in at least 116 deaths – among them 83 Muslims, 29 Buddhists and four individuals with unidentified religious affiliation – compared with 180 deaths, including 123 Muslims, 54 Buddhists, and three with unidentified religious affiliation, in the same period in 2019. Observers attributed the decline to a combination of the resumption of peace talks, improved security operations, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Muslim community in the Deep South continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what they said was a judicial system that lacked adequate checks and balances. On July 16, a group of activists from the Federation of Patani Students and Youths (PERMAS) submitted a petition to the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice and Human Rights asking that the military stop collecting DNA from military conscripts in the Deep South, who were predominantly Muslim, as this practice was not conducted in other regions. Compared to previous years, immigration authorities conducted fewer raids to detain refugees (including those fleeing religious persecution) registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as a part of what the government said were routine measures against illegal immigration. Media and NGOs reported during the year that several dozen Uyghur Muslims from China remained in immigrant detention centers (IDCs) across the country, most of them detained since 2015.

Authorities blamed Muslim insurgents for a February 24 bomb attack in Songkhla Province that injured at least 10 people, including nine Buddhists and one Muslim. Authorities said they believed the attack was in retaliation for the killing of five Muslim villagers in Narathiwat Province on February 23. In contrast to previous years, there were no reports of attacks on monks or temples during the year.

U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the National Buddhism Bureau (NBB) and the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) at the Ministry of Culture, as well as a broad range of religious leaders, academics and members of civil society, to discuss efforts to promote religious pluralism, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. The Ambassador met the country’s highest Buddhist official, gave a speech on religious freedom at the country’s oldest Buddhist academic institution, hosted a religious freedom roundtable, and released an op-ed commemorating the country’s promulgation of the 1878 Edict of Religious Tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 69.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The 2010 population census, the most recent available, indicated 93 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 percent Muslim. NGOs, academics, and religious groups state that 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim. Other groups, including animists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, and Taoists, constitute the remainder of the population.

Most Buddhists incorporate Hindu and animist practices into their worship. The Buddhist clergy (sangha) consists of two main schools of Theravada Buddhism: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community.

Islam is the dominant religion in three of the four southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani) near the Malaysian border, commonly referred to as the Deep South. The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population nationwide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as ethnic Thai. Statistics provided by the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture indicate that 99 percent of Muslims are Sunni.

The majority of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese practice either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese, as well as members of the Mien hill tribe, also practice forms of Taoism.

The majority of Christians are ethnic Chinese, and more than half of the Christian community is Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice as long as the exercise of these freedoms is not “harmful to the security of the State.” The constitution empowers the state to patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but it also provides for special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”

A special order issued by the former military government in 2016 and still in effect guarantees the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country, but mandates that all state agencies monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.” Defaming or insulting Buddhism and Buddhist clergy is specifically prohibited by law. Violators may face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($670), or both. The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups. Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 20,000 to 140,000 baht ($670-$4,700), or both.

The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. While there is no official state religion, the constitution requires the King to be Buddhist and declares he is the “upholder of religions.”

Religious groups associated with one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income taxes, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s foreign officials. Registration as a religious group is not mandatory, and religious groups may operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized. The RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which are overseen by the NBB, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the Prime Minister.

The RAD may register a new religious denomination outside one of the five recognized religious groups only if it meets the following qualifications: the national census indicates the group has at least 5,000 adherents, it possesses a uniquely recognizable theology, it is not politically active, and it obtains formal approval in a RAD-organized meeting of representatives from the concerned ministries and the five recognized umbrella religious groups. To register with the RAD, a religious group’s leader also must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, and locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites. In practice, however, the government as a matter of policy will not recognize any new religious groups outside the five umbrella groups.

The constitution prohibits Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election, running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate, or taking public positions on political matters. According to the NBB, as of August, there were 239,023 clergy who were thus ineligible to vote or run for office. Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress. Except for the Chularatchamontri (Grand Mufti), imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.

The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body. The King has unilateral authority to appoint or remove members from the Sangha Supreme Council irrespective of the monk’s rank and without consent or consultation with the Supreme Patriarch, whom the King also has legal authority to appoint.

The law requires religious education for all students at both the primary and secondary levels; students may not opt out. The curriculum must contain information about all of the five recognized umbrella religious groups. More instruction time is dedicated to teaching Buddhism than other religions. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of a particular religion may study at private religious schools and may transfer credits to public schools. Individual schools, working in conjunction with their local administrative boards, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. There are two private Christian universities and one Catholic-run college, which provide religious instruction open to the public. There are approximately 350 Catholic- and Protestant-run primary and secondary schools, whose curricula and registration the Ministry of Education oversees. The Sangha Supreme Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand, respectively, create special curricula for Buddhist and Islamic studies required in public schools.

The Central Islamic Council of Thailand, whose members are Muslims appointed by royal proclamation, advises the Ministries of Education and Interior on Islamic issues. The government provides funding for Islamic educational institutions, the construction of mosques, and participation in the Hajj. There are several hundred primary and secondary Islamic schools throughout the country. There are four options for students to obtain Islamic education in the Deep South: government-subsidized schools offering Islamic education in conjunction with the national curriculum; private Islamic schools that may offer non-Quranic subjects such as foreign languages (Arabic and English) but whose curriculum may not be approved by the government; private Islamic day schools offering Islamic education according to their own curriculum to students of all ages; and after-school religious courses for children in grades one through six, often held in mosques.

The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process outside the national civil code for Muslim residents of the Deep South for issues involving family law, including inheritance. Provincial courts apply this law, and a sharia expert advises the judge. The law officially lays out the administrative structure of Muslim communities in the Deep South, including the process for appointing the Chularatchamontri, whom the King appoints as the state advisor on Islamic affairs.

The RAD sets a quota for the number of foreign missionaries permitted to register and operate in the country: 1,357 Christian, six Muslim, 20 Hindu, and 41 Sikh. Registration confers some benefits, such as longer visa validity. Representatives of the five officially recognized religious groups may apply for one-year visas that are renewable. Foreign missionaries from other religious groups must renew their visas every 90 days.

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

Government Practices

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of violence due to the Malay Muslim insurgency as being primarily based on religious identity.

According to Deep South Watch, during the year violence in the country resulted in at least 116 deaths – among them 83 Muslims, 29 Buddhists, and four individuals with unidentified religious affiliation – compared with 180 deaths, including 123 Muslims, 54 Buddhists, and three with unidentified religious affiliation, in 2019. Observers attributed the decline to a combination of the resumption of peace talks, improved security operations, and the impact of COVID-19. Local NGOs reported insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to statistics collected from the daily reports of the Provincial Police Region 9, no teachers or students were killed in insurgent attacks during the year. There were insurgent attacks in July and August on teacher protection units, however, that resulted in the deaths of three army rangers.

In February, a paramilitary unit exchanged gunfire with a group of suspected Muslim insurgents, killing five of them, during a raid in Narathiwat Province. Deep South Watch described the incident as an extrajudicial killing. A bomb attack the following day, reportedly in retaliation, left 10 people – mostly Buddhists – injured.

According to Radio Free Asia, authorities sentenced seven Uyghurs who broke out of a Mukdaharn immigration detention center in January to two years in prison. The seven had also attempted to escape in February 2019. The article stated they were among approximately 50 Uyghurs remaining in the country from among the more than 400 who fled persecution from China around 2014. Chalida, the head of the Thai NGO that worked to assist Uyghurs in the country, said the seven broke out because they could no longer tolerate living conditions at the center.

The Muslim community in the Deep South continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what they said was a judicial system lacking adequate checks and balances. On July 16, a group of activists from PERMAS submitted a petition to the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice and Human Rights asking that the military stop collecting DNA from military conscripts in the Deep South, who were predominantly Muslim. In the previous year, the military collected DNA from conscripts in the Deep South, but not from conscripts in other regions. A spokesperson for the Internal Security Operation Command for Region 4, which is in charge of the Deep South, said the military would continue to collect DNA from military conscripts on what he called a voluntary basis.

Authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including extending pretrial detention and expanding warrantless searches. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment by Muslims – such as disproportionate searches of vehicles with Muslim passengers.

In June, members of the Muslim community in the Deep South expressed frustration concerning a search of an Islamic school in Saba Yoi District, Songkhla Province, in which the military seized a large number of unused gas tanks. The military stated it was concerned the gas tanks might be used to make bombs for insurgent attacks. The school said the tanks were discarded fuel canisters, and that it did not support insurgent movements.

According to human rights groups and media reports, many of the refugees and asylum seekers in the country were fleeing religious persecution in their countries of origin. According to UNHCR, local law considered refugees and asylum seekers who entered the country without valid visas to be illegal aliens, and thus they faced the possibility of arrest, detention, and deportation, regardless of whether they had registered with the agency. Compared with previous years, immigration authorities conducted fewer raids to detain persons living illegally in the country, including some UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers, according to UNHCR. According to refugee advocates, during the year authorities conducted sporadic immigration raids, arresting at least 10 Pakistani Christians and 13 Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims, several of whom had asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government and UNHCR said the raids did not target any specific religious group and that the arrests were part of ongoing immigration enforcement against illegal aliens.

Authorities generally did not deport persons holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government generally allowed UNHCR access to detained asylum seekers and refugees. In some cases, UNHCR-recognized refugees, including those fleeing religious persecution, reported staying in immigrant detention centers (IDCs) in crowded conditions for multiple years. The government, in many cases, placed mothers and children in shelters, in accordance with a policy to cease detention of migrant children; in practice, such shelters provided greater space than IDCs, but still severely restricted freedom of movement. There were multiple instances during the year, however, of the government detaining refugee and asylum seeking minors, including Rohingya Muslims fleeing religious and ethnic persecution in Burma, in IDCs or local police stations.

Human rights activists reported during the year that police periodically monitored or detained Falun Gong practitioners, who were recognized refugees from China. UNHCR assessed the majority of asylum seekers and refugees from China, including those in detention, were not at risk of refoulement to China.

Media and NGOs reported during the year that several dozen Uyghur Muslims from China remained in IDCs across the country, most of them in detention since 2015. Humanitarian organizations reported that Chinese authorities continued to pressure the government to return the Uyghurs to China against their will. The humanitarian groups called on the government to allow these individuals to relocate to a safe country of their choosing.

The government continued to investigate and prosecute embezzlement crimes allegedly committed by senior Buddhist monks and government officials from the NBB. In March, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) announced it had completed 11 cases and that there were ongoing ones involving the theft of 26.7 million baht ($892,000). By the end of the year, NACC said it had forwarded 27 cases to the police for further investigation and 25 additional cases to public prosecutors and the courts for prosecution. It said more than 30 cases were still under NACC review.

The government did not recognize any new religious groups and has not done so since 1984. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society organizations continued to report that unregistered religious groups operated freely and that the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities. A leading member of Falun Gong, however, reported security authorities continued to closely monitor and sometimes intimidate practitioners distributing Falun Gong materials. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference.

Monks and temple authorities continued to comply with a 2018 Sangha Supreme Council order prohibiting the use of temple land for political activities or rallies, meetings, or seminars for purposes that violated the law or affected national security, social order, or public morals. While there were no media reports of monks defying the council order, a small number of monks participated in anti-government street protests.

The law denying legal recognition to female monks (bhikkhunis) remained in effect despite the National Human Rights Commission’s 2015 recommendation that the government amend the law. The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the approximately 239,023 Buddhist clergy in the country, between 250 and 300 were women. Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” bhikkhunis were excluded from gender equality protection by the government. Officials continued to neither formally oppose nor support female ordination. Officials allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples – primarily tax exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Unlike male monks, bhikkhunis continued to receive no special government protection from verbal and physical attacks.

The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu; a mandatory peace studies course; and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings. At year’s end, approximately 3,000 students and 250 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.

Muslim students attending a public school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Muslim-majority Pattani Province in the Deep South continued to wear religious head scarves, pending the outcome of a case before the Yala Administrative Court on the legality of their attire that was ongoing at year’s end. The case was based on a 2018 challenge by Muslim parents to a new Ministry of Education regulation that barred students from dressing in accordance with their religious belief and required them to wear the uniform agreed to by the school and temple, without accommodation for personal religious attire.

For the October 1, 2019-September 30, 2020 fiscal year, the government allocated the RAD a budget of approximately 435 million baht ($14.54 million) to support non-Buddhist initiatives, compared with 415 million baht ($13.87 million) the previous fiscal year. Approximately 341.8 million baht ($11.42 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, artistic, and cultural development, including promotion of interfaith cooperation through peace-building projects in the Deep South, compared with 341.5 million baht ($11.41 million) the previous fiscal year. The government also allocated approximately 22.7 million baht ($759,000) for dissemination in honor of the previous King, Rama IX. The NBB, funded separately from the RAD, received 4.85 billion baht ($162.1 million) in government funding, the same amount as the previous fiscal year. Of that amount, 1.87 billion baht ($62.5 million) went to empowerment and human capital development projects, 1.6 billion baht ($53.48 million) to personnel administration, 1.1 billion baht ($36.76 million) to education projects, and 242 million baht ($8.09 million) for Deep South conflict resolution and development projects.

The government continued to recognize elected provincial Islamic committees. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the Deep South continued to report some acted as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnonationalist and religious tensions.

Buddhist monks worked as missionaries, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the NBB, 5,383 Buddhist missionaries worked nationwide. Buddhist missionaries were required to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University or Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.

During the year, there were 11 registered foreign missionary groups with visas operating in the country: six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups, unchanged from the previous year. There were 1,357 registered foreign Christian missionaries. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of foreign missionaries in the country. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization. Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), which is not an officially recognized religious group, continued to fill its special quota of 200 foreign missionaries, granted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent immigration restrictions significantly reduced the number of Church of Jesus Christ missionaries entering the country during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Reports of violence against religious groups were largely confined to the Deep South, where ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims. Authorities blamed Muslim insurgents for a February 24 bomb attack in Songkhla Province that injured at least 10 persons, including nine Buddhists and one Muslim. The victims included a deputy district chief, security volunteers, villagers, and students. Authorities said they believed the attack was retaliation for the killing of five Muslim villagers in Narathiwat Province on February 23, which Deep South Watch said was extrajudicial. There were no reports of attacks on monks or temples, and no reports of major attacks on security checkpoints, in contrast to previous years.

Some Buddhist groups expressed frustration with perceived special allowances for Muslims, such as financial assistance, job placement, and lower testing standards for Muslim university students.

In February, the Chiang Mai Provincial Islamic Committee petitioned authorities regarding anti-Muslim activities in Chiang Mai and Lamphun by “the Buddhism Protection Organization for Peace,” which the committee called an extremist movement. During a June parliamentary session, a member of the coalition Democrat Party raised a motion with the Prime Minister against the group, citing its efforts to organize anti-Muslim events and materials and to obstruct the construction and registration of mosques. In June, Deputy House Speaker Supachai Phosu and Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office Tewan Liptapanlop, whose responsibilities included overseeing religious affairs, responded by stating the NBB and the Supreme Sangha Council had already instructed monks and temples not to associate with the movement.

Buddhist activists continued to campaign to designate Buddhism as the country’s official religion. The Pandin Dharma (Land of Dharma) Party, led by Buddhist nationalist Korn Meedee, had a platform that advocated making Buddhism the state religion and called for the establishment of segregated, Buddhist-only communities in the country’s three southern Muslim-majority provinces. As of October, the party had 8,573 members with five regional party offices, according to the Election Commission of Thailand.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with officials from the National Buddhism Bureau (NBB) and the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) at the Ministry of Culture, as well as diverse groups of religious leaders, academics, and members of civil society, to discuss efforts to promote religious pluralism, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. In September, the Ambassador hosted 16 religious leaders, government officials, and representatives of civil society and academia for a roundtable discussion commemorating the 142nd anniversary of the country’s 1878 Edict of Religious Tolerance. Participants discussed religious tolerance in the context of the country’s cultural, legal, and economic history, and considered how religious freedom could promote social and economic development. The embassy published an op-ed by the Ambassador in both English and Thai language news outlets emphasizing religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation.

In August, the Ambassador addressed a group of monks at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), the country’s oldest Buddhist university. The audience included “diplomat” monks who would eventually pursue residencies in Thai Buddhist temples around the world, including in over 100 Thai Buddhist temples in the United States. The speech highlighted religious freedom in both the United States and Thailand and the positive role religious freedom can play in a country’s social and economic prosperity. The visit also supported the ongoing partnership between MCU and the embassy in promoting interfaith dialogue, including between the Buddhist majority and the Thai Muslim community.

In June, the Ambassador met with Supreme Patriarch Somdej Phra Ariyavamsagatanana, the most senior Thai Buddhist figure, and discussed the potential for joint activities to promote religious freedom.

Vietnam

Executive Summary

The constitution states that all individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion. The law provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. The Law on Belief and Religion (LBR) maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups, without which groups’ activities are strictly limited. Some religious leaders, particularly those representing groups that either did not request or receive official recognition or certificates of registration reported various forms of government harassment – including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and property seizure – and denials or no response to requests for registration and other permissions. Authorities did not recognize any new religious organizations during the year. Religious leaders across the country reported some improving conditions compared with prior years, such as better relations between unregistered religious groups and local authorities, while also reporting incidents of harassment, including police questioning and brief periods of detention. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration said they were generally more able to practice their beliefs with less government interference, although some recognized groups, including the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) (ECVN), reported harassment in gathering in certain provinces, including Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, and Ha Giang. While the United Presbyterian Church reported harassment in some provinces, the Vietnam Baptist Convention (VBC) stated it worked with the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) to register more than 20 local congregations and places of worship (known locally as “meeting points”) in a number of northern provinces. Members of some religious groups continued to report that some local and provincial authorities used noncompliance with the required registration procedures to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities.

There were reports of conflicts, at times violent, between members of unregistered and registered or recognized religious groups or between believers and nonbelievers. Religious activists blamed authorities for manipulating recognized religious groups and accused their agents or proxies of causing conflicts to suppress the activities of unregistered groups. On September 11 and 13, for example, members of the recognized Cao Dai Sect (Cao Dai 1997) disrupted the rite of unregistered Cao Dai members (Cao Dai 1926) at a private residence in Ben Cau District, Tay Ninh Province.

The U.S. Ambassador and other senior embassy and consulate general officials regularly urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely. They sought reduced levels of government intervention in the affairs of the recognized and registered religious groups and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. The Ambassador, Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and other senior U.S. government and embassy officers advocated religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Northern and Northwest Highlands, the Central Highlands, the North Central region, and Central Coast. Embassy and consulate general officials raised specific cases of abuses as well as government harassment against Catholics, Protestant groups, the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), independent Hoa Hao groups, and ethnic minority house churches with the GCRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and provincial and local authorities. U.S. government officials called for the increased registration of church congregations around the country and for improvement in registration policies by making them more uniform and transparent. U.S. government officials urged the government to peacefully resolve outstanding land rights disputes with religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 98.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The government’s 2019 National Population and Housing Census reported approximately 13 million religious adherents, accounting for 14 percent of the total population. The census noted Catholics represented the largest number of adherents, with six million followers, accounting for 45 percent of the total number of believers nationwide and six percent of the overall population. The census recorded Buddhists as the second largest religious group, accounting for five million followers or 35 percent of the total number of religious adherents nationwide and five percent of the overall population. Protestants were the third largest group with nearly one million followers, accounting for seven percent of the total number of believers nationwide and one percent of the overall population. The census results contrast with January 2018 statistics released by the GCRA in which 26 percent of the population is categorized as religious believers participating in registered activities, with 15 percent of the population Buddhist, seven percent Roman Catholic, two percent Hoa Hao Buddhist, one percent Cao Dai, and one percent Protestant. GCRA officials, however, also estimate 90 percent of the population follows some sort of faith tradition, registered or otherwise. According to observers, many religious adherents choose not to make their religious affiliation public for fear of adverse consequences, resulting in substantial discrepancies among various estimates.

According to government statistics, the total number of religious adherents reportedly decreased by roughly 2.5 million and the ratio of religious adherents dropped from more than 18 percent to 14 percent of the total population between the 2009 and 2019 censuses. Catholics and Protestants saw increases in membership, while Buddhists and religious groups based on local traditions saw a declining number of adherents, according to census data. Anecdotal reporting from provincial Vietnam Buddhist Sangha (VBS), Catholic, and Protestant leaders, however, indicates membership in all religious traditions continues to grow.

According to census data, VBS membership decreased from more than nearly seven million in 2009 to approximately five million in 2019. The GCRA estimates that the number of Buddhist followers is more than 10 million. The VBS notes that this number only counts those officially registered to sanghas (community of monks and nuns) and does not account for potentially tens of millions of others who believe in and observe Buddhist practices to various degrees without formal participation in a registered Buddhist religious group.

Within the Buddhist community, Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant affiliation of the Kinh (Viet) ethnic majority, while approximately 1 percent of the total population, almost all from the ethnic minority Khmer group, practices Theravada Buddhism.

Smaller religious groups combined constitute less than 0.16 percent of the population and include Hindus (mostly an estimated 70,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area); approximately 80,000 Muslims scattered throughout the country (approximately 40 percent are Sunnis; the remaining 60 percent practice Bani Islam); an estimated 3,000 members of the Baha’i Faith; and approximately 1,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). Religious groups originating in the country (Buu Son Ky Huong, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, and Phat Giao Hieu Nghia Ta Lon) comprise a total of 0.34 percent of the population. A small, mostly foreign, Jewish population resides in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. National statistics on religious adherents from the GCRA and the Vietnam Fatherland Front are considered less comprehensive, as they do not account for members of unregistered religious groups.

Other individuals have no religious affiliation or practice animism or the veneration of ancestors, tutelary and protective saints, national heroes, or local, respected persons. Many individuals blend traditional practices with religious teachings, particularly Buddhism and Christianity. Research institutions, including the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, estimate there are approximately 100 “new religions,” mostly in the North and Central Highlands.

Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 14 percent of the population. Based on adherents’ estimates, two-thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including groups in the Northwest Highlands (H’mong, Dzao, Thai, and others) and in the Central Highlands (Ede, Jarai, Sedang, and M’nong, among others). The Khmer Krom ethnic group overwhelmingly practices Theravada Buddhism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion, including the freedom to follow no religion. The constitution acknowledges the right to freedom of religion or belief of those whose rights are limited, including inmates or any foreigners and stateless persons. It states all religions are equal before the law, and the state must respect and protect freedom of belief and religion. The constitution prohibits citizens from violating the freedom of belief and religion or taking advantage of a belief or religion to violate the law.

The LBR and implementing Decree 162 serve as the primary documents governing religious groups and their activities. At year’s end, the government did not promulgate a decree prescribing penalties for noncompliance with the 2018 law. The GCRA has stated, however, that the decree prescribing penalties is not vital, as at least 11 other laws and decrees mandate civil compliance with national law. The LBR reiterates citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion and states that individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; proselytize in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder; infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor or property of others; impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct “superstitious activities” or otherwise violate the law.

The government recognizes 38 religious organizations that affiliate with 16 distinct religious “traditions,” as defined by the government: Buddhism, Islam, the Baha’i Faith, Catholicism, Protestantism, Church of Jesus Christ, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Phat Duong Nam Tong Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao Tam Tong Mieu, Cham Brahmanism, Hieu Nghia Ta Lon Buddhism, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Distinct denominations within these religious traditions must seek their own registration and/or recognition. Four additional groups – the Assemblies of God, Ta Lon Dutiful and Loyal Buddhism, Vietnam Full Gospel Church, and Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church – have “registrations for religious operation” but are not recognized as official organizations.

The law specifies that recognized religious organizations and their affiliates are noncommercial legal entities. The law also stipulates that religious organizations are allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with relevant laws. The government does not allow unauthorized organizations to raise funds or distribute aid without seeking approval and registration from authorities.

The GCRA, one of 18 “ministerial units” under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), is responsible for implementing religious laws and decrees; it maintains offices at the central, provincial, and, in some areas, district levels. The law lays out specific responsibilities for central-, provincial-, and local-level GCRA offices and delegates certain religion-related management tasks to provincial- and local-level people’s committees (i.e., local leaders). The central-level GCRA is charged with disseminating information to authorities and assuring uniform compliance with the legal framework on religion at the provincial, district, commune, and village levels.

By law, forcing others to follow or renounce a religion or belief is prohibited.

Military conscription is universal and mandatory for males between 18 and 25 years of age, although there are exceptions. None of the exceptions is related to religious belief.

The law requires believers to register religious activities with communal authorities where the “lawful premises for the religious practice is based” and prescribes two stages of institutionalization for religious organizations seeking to gather at a specified location to “practice worship rituals, pray, or express their religious faith.” The first stage is “registration for religious operation” with the provincial- or national-level GCRA, depending on the geographic extent of the group’s activities. Registration for religious operation allows a group to organize religious ceremonies and religious practice; preach and conduct religious classes at approved locations; elect, appoint, or designate officials; repair or renovate the headquarters; engage in charitable or humanitarian activities; and organize congresses to approve its charter. To obtain registration, the group must submit a detailed application with information about its doctrine, history, bylaws, leaders, and members as well as proof it has a legal meeting location. The relevant provincial GCRA office or the MHA – depending on whether the group in question is operating in one or more provinces – is responsible for approving a valid application for registration within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial GCRA office or the MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing.

The second stage of institutionalization is recognition. A religious group may apply for recognition after it has operated continuously for at least five years following the date it received approval of its “registration for religious operation.” A religious group is required to have a legal charter and bylaws, leaders in good standing without criminal records, and to have managed assets and conducted transactions autonomously. To obtain recognition, a group must submit a detailed application to the provincial- or national-level GCRA, depending on the geographic extent of the organization. The application must include a written request specifying the group’s structure, membership, geographical scope of operation and headquarters location; a summary of its history, dogmas, canon laws, and rites; a list and the resumes, judicial records, and summaries of the religious activities of the organization’s representative and tentative leaders; the group’s charter; a declaration of the organization’s lawful assets; and proof of lawful premises to serve as a headquarters. The relevant provincial people’s committee or the MHA is responsible for approving a valid application for recognition within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial people’s committee or MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing. Recognition allows the religious group to conduct religious activities in accordance with the organization’s charter; organize religious practice; publish religious texts, books, and other publications; produce, export, and import religious cultural products and religious articles; renovate, upgrade, or construct new religious establishments; and receive lawful donations from domestic and foreign sources, among other rights.

The law states religious organizations and their affiliates, clergy, and believers may file complaints or civil and administrative lawsuits against government officials or agencies under the relevant laws and decrees. The law also states organizations and individuals have the right to bring civil lawsuits in court regarding the actions of religious groups or believers. There were no analogous provisions in previous laws.

Under the law, a religious organization is defined as “a religious group that has received legal recognition” by authorities. The law provides a separate process for unregistered, unrecognized religious groups to receive permission for specific religious activities by applying to the commune-level people’s committee. Regulations require the people’s committee to respond in writing to an application within 20 working days of receipt. The law specifies that a wide variety of religious activities require advance approval or registration from authorities at the central and/or local levels. These activities include “belief activities” (defined as traditional communal practices of ancestor, hero, or folk worship); “belief festivals” held for the first time; the establishment, division, or merger of religious affiliates; the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); establishment of a religious training facility; conducting religious training classes; holding major religious congresses; organizing religious events, preaching or evangelizing outside of approved locations; traveling abroad to conduct religious activities or training; and joining a foreign religious organization.

Certain religious activities do not need advance approval but instead require notification to the appropriate authorities. Activities requiring notification include recurring or periodic “belief festivals;” dismissal of clergy; conducting fundraising activities; reporting enrollment figures at a seminary or religious school; the repair or renovation of religious facilities not considered cultural-historical relics; ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious clergy (such as monks); transfers or dismissals of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); conducting operations at an approved religious training facility; routine religious activities (defined as “religious preaching, practicing religious tenets and rites, and management of a religious organization”); and internal conferences of a religious organization.

The law provides prisoners access to religious counsel as well as religious materials, with conditions, while in detention. It reserves authority for the government to restrict the “assurance” of that right. Decree 162 states detainees may use religious documents that are legally published and circulated, in line with legal provisions on custody, detention, prison, and other types of confinement. Prisoner access to religious counsel and materials must not, however, affect the rights of others to freedom of religion and belief or nonbelief or contravene other relevant laws. The decree states the Ministries of Public Security, Defense, and Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs shall be responsible for providing guidelines on the management of religious documents and the time and venue for the use of these documents.

The law specifies that religious organizations must follow numerous other laws for certain activities. Religious organizations are allowed to conduct educational, health, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the law, but the law does not provide clarification as to which activities are permitted. In addition, construction or renovation of religious facilities must occur in accordance with laws and regulations on construction, and foreigners participating in religious activities must abide by immigration laws.

Publishing, producing, exporting, or importing religious texts must occur in accordance with laws and regulations related to publishing. Legislation requires all publishers be licensed public entities or state-owned enterprises. Publishers must receive prior government approval to publish all documents, including religious texts. By decree, only the Religious Publishing House may publish religious books. Any bookstore may sell legally published religious texts and other religious materials.

The constitution states the government owns and manages all land on behalf of the people. According to the law, land use by religious organizations must conform to the land law and its related decrees. The land law recognizes that licensed religious institutions and schools may acquire land-use rights and be allocated or leased land. The law specifies religious institutions are eligible for state compensation if their land is seized under eminent domain. The law allows provincial-level people’s committees to seize land via eminent domain to facilitate the construction of religious facilities.

Under the law, provincial-level people’s committees may grant land use certificates for a “long and stable term” to religious institutions if they have permission to operate, the land is dispute-free, and the land was not acquired via transfer or donation after July 1, 2004. Religious institutions are not permitted to exchange, transfer, lease, donate, or mortgage their land-use rights. In land disputes involving a religious institution, the chairperson of the provincial-level people’s committee has authority to settle disputes. Parties may dispute the chairperson’s decision by appealing to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment or filing a lawsuit in court.

In practice, if a religious organization has not obtained recognition, members of the congregation may acquire a land-use title individually.

The renovation or upgrade of facilities owned by religious groups requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public and private schools. This prohibition extends to private schools run by religious organizations.

There are separate provisions of the law that permit foreigners legally residing in the country to request permission to conduct religious activities, teach, attend local religious training, or preach in local religious institutions. The law requires religious organizations or citizens to receive government permission in advance of hosting or conducting any religious activities involving foreign organizations, foreign individuals, or travel abroad. Regulations also contain requirements for foreigners conducting religious activities within the country, including those involved in religious training, ordination, and leadership, to seek permission for their activities.

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

Government Practices

During the year, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported cases of government officials physically abusing individuals from religious minority groups, particularly ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands, although it was not clear the reported cases were related to religious affiliation. Government officials in different parts of the country reportedly continued to monitor, interrogate, arbitrarily detain, and discriminate against some individuals, at least in part, because of their religious beliefs or affiliation. The majority of the victims of the reported incidents were members of unregistered groups engaged in political or human rights advocacy activities or with ties to overseas individuals and organizations that were outspoken and critical of authorities. Because religion, ethnicity, and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of harassment as being solely based on religious identity.

Local authorities in some parts of the Central Highlands reportedly intimidated and threatened violence against members of certain unregistered Protestant groups that had reported human rights violations to international bodies or attempted to force these groups’ members to recant their faith or join a registered religious organization. According to Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a U.S.-based NGO, authorities in the Central Highlands threatened to kill church leaders and members for reporting incidents of abuse to foreign diplomatic missions and accused them of belonging to separatist groups. In July, BPSOS reported authorities in Dak Lak Province threatened to kill church elders from the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ in Buon Ma Thuot City and Good News Mission Church in Cu Kuin District during interrogations conducted following meetings between the elders and diplomats in June. Authorities reportedly pressured the church elders to recant their faith, stop their activities, and join the registered Evangelical Church of Vietnam. Dak Lak Province police reportedly threatened to kill a member of the Good News Mission Church unless he revealed what he reported to U.S. diplomats. In August, Krong Ana District police, Dak Lak Province, interrogated a Good News Mission Church pastor and threatened him for suspicion of association with the long-defunct separatist organization United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, known by its French acronym FULRO. The government considered the group an insurgent militia. According to Degar Christian groups, authorities repeatedly accused them of belonging to FULRO, which they denied.

According to BPSOS reports, during the year local police in Dak Lak and Phu Yen Provinces questioned at least 30 members of the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ, Good News Mission Church, and International Degar Church at local police stations or their residences. In some cases, local police coerced individuals to report to local police stations and then interrogated them for hours before releasing them without charges. Authorities reportedly demanded they cease affiliation with unregistered religious groups and refrain from providing “negative” reports to international organizations. Local police in some cases demanded some religious adherents request permission from authorities prior to traveling outside of their communes. According to members of a house church in Chu Se District, Gia Lai Province, Bo Ngoong Commune police in December confiscated from the church 300 million dong ($13,000) in Christmas funds, Bibles, and other property, and said if the villagers carried on with Christmas celebrations they would be fined or arrested.

In May, according to observers, local police of Quynh Luu District, Nghe An Province, “invited” a number of Catholic converts who were baptized by Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc to local police stations, threatening to withhold their social benefits and preventing them from attending Easter masses. Religious activists stated, however, authorities did not carry out these threats. The converts were harassed reportedly because of their connection to Thuc, who, according to human rights organizations, had been harassed for many years due to his human rights advocacy efforts, particularly for helping victims of Formosa toxic spills and supporting human rights activists.

On March 19, state media reported that Gia Lai police, in association with the Ministry of Public Security, detained Kunh, Lup, and Jur who were ethnic minorities belonging to the Catholic “Ha Mon” group founded in Kon Tum in 1999. Authorities had labeled the Ha Mon group an “evil-way religion” due to its alleged association with FULRO. All three were released in June.

According to reports from BPSOS, on August 27, local authorities of Hoa Thang Commune, Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province, questioned church member Y Nguyet Bkrong about pictures on his Facebook page showing local police officers at his residence during religious services of the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ. The local officials threatened to punish him if he did not remove the pictures and ordered him to stop hosting gatherings of unregistered religious groups. On January 14, according to BPSOS, local authorities of Krong Buk District, Dak Lak Province questioned Y Khiu Nie and Y Blon Nie, members of the unregistered Good News Mission Church, about their sharing reports critical of the government internationally and pressured them to stop accessing and posting negative reports on human rights websites and Facebook pages. BPSOS reported other similar incidents in Dak Lak Province during the year.

On September 18, authorities released Pastor A Dao of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ from prison 11 months earlier than his expected release date of August 18, 2021. He was arrested in 2016 and charged with “organizing for individuals to flee abroad” under Article 275 of the 1999 penal code.

Nineteen members of the An Dan Dai Dao Buddhist group remained in prison on sentences ranging from 10 years to life on 2013 convictions of “activities aimed at overthrowing the government.” On October 8 and November 13, respectively, authorities released An Dan Dai Dao Buddhists Phan Thanh Tuong 16 months earlier than his expected release date and Do Thi Hong four years earlier than her expected release date.

There were multiple reports of government discrimination against individual religious believers and religious groups across the country. Members of some religious groups whose members were poor or ethnic minorities said authorities denied some of the legal benefits to which the members were entitled.

The VBC, an unregistered group, reported that authorities stopped disrupting its gatherings but harassed its congregants in different ways. For example, according to BPSOS, local authorities of Thach Loi Commune, Thach Thanh District, Thanh Hoa Province, denied state financial assistance for COVID-19 to Church members.

In June, a crowd of approximately 60 members of the government-organized Cao Dai 1997, supported by Phu Yen provincial authorities, confronted members of the unregistered Hieu Xuong Cao Dai (1926) Temple and attempted to breach the building to force the congregants out of the temple and take control of the property. Hieu Xuong Cao Dai members reported they were able to prevent the mob from occupying the temple but that the crowd threatened to return and try again.

BPSOS reported authorities continued to harass UBCV communities in an effort to seize their temples and facilities and force the UBCV to join the government-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Church.

There were no clear regulations for religious expression in the military, leaving individual unit commanders to exercise significant discretion. According to religious leaders of multiple faiths, the government did not permit members of the military to practice religious rites at any time while on active duty; military members were required to take personal leave to do so. State-run media, however, reported military officials praying for peace and happiness while visiting pagodas.

Khmer Krom Buddhists, whose males traditionally enter the monastery for a period of training lasting at least one month before the age of 20, reported that mandatory conscription into the military with no possibility of alternative service hampered their traditional religious rite of passage.

According to family members of some imprisoned individuals, authorities continued to deny some prisoners and detainees the right to religious practice. Detention officers continued to deny visits by priests to Catholic prisoners, including Ho Duc Hoa, Le Dinh Luong, and Nguyen Nang Tinh, who were detained in Nam Ha, Ba Sao, and Nghi Kim Prisons, respectively. Prison authorities stated this was due to the lack of appropriate facilities inside the prisons for Catholic services. In a number of cases, prison authorities restricted or hindered religious prisoners’ access to religious texts, despite provisions in the law for providing such access. According to BPSOS, independent Hoa Hao adherent Bui Van Trung was able to have a censored version of the Hoa Hao scripture in prison.

Protestant and Catholic groups continued to say that legal restrictions and lack of legal clarity on operating faith-based medical and educational facilities made them wary of attempting to open hospitals or parochial schools, despite government statements welcoming religious groups expanding their participation in health, education, and charitable activities. Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools it seized in 1954 and 1975.

According to the GCRA, in northern mountainous provinces, local authorities granted registration for nearly 800 local congregations known as “meeting-points,” and recognized 14 local congregations, out of more than 1,600 Protestant local congregations. The registrations and recognitions impacted approximately 250,000 members in total (of which 95 percent were ethnic minorities, mostly H’Mong). In the Central Highlands, local authorities granted registration to more than 1,400 local congregations and recognized 311 local congregations, together impacting nearly 584,000 members.

The Ministry of Public Security estimated there were approximately 70 Protestant groups with nearly 200,000 members operating outside of the legal framework mandated by the LBR. These groups neither sought nor received registration certificates or recognition.

Authorities did not recognize any new religious organizations during the year. The GCRA registered approximately 70 local congregations during the year to include four Protestant local congregations, approximately 50 Catholic parishes, and 12 Cao Dai local congregations. The VBC stated it worked with the GCRA to register more than 20 local congregations and “meeting points” in a number of northern provinces. Registered and unregistered religious groups continued to state that government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, if at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals as required by law. In other cases, religious groups were unaware they had been granted local registration of religious activities. Some local authorities reportedly requested documents or information beyond what was stipulated by law. Several religious leaders said authorities sometimes solicited bribes to facilitate approvals. Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the applicants’ failure to complete forms correctly or provide complete information. Religious groups said the process of registering groups or notifying authorities of activities in new or remote locations was particularly difficult. Some religious groups reported that authorities urged them to register as affiliates of recognized religious groups.

Although the GCRA recognized Chieu Minh Tam Thanh Vo Vi Cao Dai Dharma Practice in 2009, during the year, the GCRA downgraded its status from recognized to registered. In 2019, the GCRA upgraded the registration status of the Church of Jesus Christ from registration of the church’s representative committee to the more formal “registration of religious operation.”

GCRA officials stated that government officials assisted unregistered religious groups with navigating the bureaucratic procedures required for registration. In 2019, the GCRA created a website with an interactive portal to provide access to forms required for registration of religious activities. By the end of the year, 62 religious organizations had established accounts on the website. The portal also allowed religious organizations to track the status of their document submissions. The GCRA, however, acknowledged the web portal designed to expedite this process did not prove useful for remote religious groups that often lacked the technical skills to utilize the digital forms provided by the government. The GCRA continued to provide provincial-level training to facilitate local registration.

Local authorities continued obstructing the assignment and transfer of religious leaders to unregistered local congregations, particularly those who were from other localities. In several cases, local authorities harassed members of these unregistered local congregations. The ECVN also reported the recognition of its local congregations was still time consuming, although many of them had been operating stably for many years and, from their perspective, fully met the registration requirements. According to the ECVN, authorities recognized 23 local congregations and granted registration to approximately 500 out of 1,200 local congregations and houses of worship (meeting points). The ECVN reported that it continued to experience difficulties obtaining registration of its meeting points with local authorities in Quang Binh and Nghe An Provinces.

The VBC said it tested a new approach to achieve local registrations of congregations, in coordination with the GCRA. Unlike earlier applications, in which representatives of local congregations completed the relevant paperwork for local authorities in relative isolation, the VBC chief pastor completed multiple registration packages under his name for submission to the GCRA. By year’s end, the VBC registered meeting points in Phu Yen District, Son La Province, and Nam Po District, Dien Bien Province. Local authorities previously denied registration packages for these local congregations. According to the VBC, the GCRA worked with local authorities to advance these registrations.

Authorities required most, if not all, applicants for registration of religious operation or recognition to include in their applications language stating the religious organization would be in harmony with the nation and serve the Vietnamese people. For example, the Catholic Church used the slogan “live the gospel amidst the nation” while the VBC used “dharma, nation, and socialism.”

According to local religious leaders, authorities continued to impose a rigid upper management structure on religious organizations. According to religious community representatives, authorities preferred a two-level, top-down hierarchy to better control the religious organization and its affiliates through the religious group’s internal administrative structure.

According to several Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas or with majority ethnic minority populations continued to face difficulty registering with provincial authorities due to their inconsistent application of national laws. Catholic leaders reported that the most problematic regions were in the Central Highlands (Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Kon Tum, and Lam Dong Provinces), and the Northwest Highlands, including Son La Lao Cai and Yen Bai Provinces. In August, Lai Chau authorities approved the establishment of Lai Chau Parish. The recognition reportedly came after more than 13 years of paperwork and discussions between the authorities and church leaders.

According to local religious leaders, Protestant groups also experienced authorities’ inconsistent interpretation and enforcement of the law when attempting to register their local congregations. Local authorities in Dien Bien Province, for example, continued to deny the registration applications of an independent Pentecostal congregation at Noong Luong Commune, Dien Bien District, Dien Bien Province, stating that the congregation was affiliated with an unrecognized religious group. The Pentecostal group’s religious leader, however, said the law did not require a local congregation to be affiliated with a recognized organization to receive registration. The leader also noted that members had practiced their faith at the local congregation for nearly 30 years and had begun filing registration applications in April 2017. Dien Bien authorities also denied registration of a group called Assembly of God of Vietnamese People (Hoi Thanh Phuc Am Ngu Tuan Nguoi Viet), reasoning that the applicant’s dogma was indistinguishable from that of the recognized Assembly of God of Vietnam (Giao hoi Phuc Am Ngu Tuan Viet Nam).

During the year, authorities continued monitoring, preventing, or disrupting the gatherings of some unregistered groups and harassed their members in different ways. In most cases, members of these religious groups were also involved in human rights advocacy activities or had links to individuals and organizations that were critical of the government. Religious leaders in urban areas and among ethnic-majority Kinh adherents largely reported the ability to practice without significant restrictions, so long as they acted transparently to official oversight. This remained true for both officially registered and unregistered religious groups. Unrecognized religious denominations operating in the Central and Northwest Highlands and in certain parts of the Mekong Delta – especially those that had a predominantly ethnic minority following – were more likely to report harassment from government officials. Recognized religious denominations in these areas reported rapid growth and generally fewer problems with officials.

On March 15 and 29, BPSOS reported that local police in Hoa Thang Commune, Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province disrupted the gathering of dozens of adherents at a house church of the Evangelical Church of Christ due to Church members’ political activities. According to BPSOS, many members of the Church attended a civil society training session in Thailand and met with representatives of UN agencies and foreign diplomats, to whom they expressed concern about the human rights situation in Vietnam. Police also accused them of having links to human rights activists in exile.

According to local religious leaders, authorities harassed members of recognized and well-established religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, the ECVN, and the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), for their engagement in human rights advocacy activities or land disputes. On January 7, Ho Chi Minh City police threatened to disrupt a Catholic Mass if Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc led the service. In June, the Vinh Diocese suspended Father Dang Huu Nam from doing pastoral work. Both Thuc and Nam have faced persistent harassment for many years for their roles in supporting victims of the 2016 Formosa toxic spill and their advocacy on human rights conditions across the country.

On June 17, public security officials of Dak Lak Province prevented Pastor Yjol Bkrong of the Evangelical Church of Christ of Vietnam from meeting with diplomatic officials, forcibly turning him away when he approached the meeting point.

Some religious leaders faced external travel restrictions, and leaders and followers of certain religious groups faced other restrictions on their movements by government authorities. The Catholic Redemptorist Order stated authorities still held passports confiscated in 2018 of at least two priests of the order. Some pastors who were outspoken and critical of authorities expressed concerns about traveling abroad for fear of being stopped at the border or being detained upon return to the country. In May, authorities denied the passport renewal request of Redemptorist Father Nguyen Van Toan, citing his conduct of “activities against the state.”

According to various reports, the government allowed Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s potential successors from Thailand and some European countries to enter the country and gather with the Zen master on his Continuation Day at Tu Hieu pagoda in Thua Thien in Hue Province.

Multiple civil society organizations expressed concern about possible government interference in the Catholic Church’s decisions regarding the assignment or reassignment of priests who had been particularly outspoken on a variety of human rights issues. Among controversial cases during the year were the transfers of Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc and Father Dang Huu Nam, both from the Vinh Diocese, following a June announcement that Father Dang would be restricted from pastoral work in the diocese. Both priests were well known for their support of victims of the 2016 Formosa toxic waste spill as well as a variety of human rights advocacy activities. In October, the Xuan Loc Diocese in Dong Nai Province reassigned outspoken priest Nguyen Duy Tan, suspending him from pastoral work. Tan began criticizing human rights conditions in Vietnam following the 2016 Formosa toxic waste spill. According to the monks of Thien An Monastery in Thua Thien in Hue Province, authorities continue to prevent Father Nguyen Van Duc, the monastery’s head abbot-elect, from returning to assume his role after seeking medical treatment abroad.

Many ordained pastors conducted pastoral work, despite not having completed the paperwork mandated by law to be recognized as clergy by the government. For example, the ECVN reported only approximately one-fifth of its pastors had applied to be officially recognized by the government.

Some pastors of unregistered groups stated that authorities did not interfere with their clerical training, despite their lack of legal authorization.

Leaders of some unregistered groups reported that government officials urged unregistered groups to affiliate with registered or recognized organizations. Some stated authorities did so, knowing that unregistered groups would never accept affiliation, while others said authorities sought increased control over the groups through affiliation with other organizations.

Media sources continued to report tension and disputes between Catholics and authorities in the Vinh and Ha Tinh Dioceses in the central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, mostly over land disputes or relating to human and environmental rights advocacy activities. BPSOS reported that on March 22, local authorities of Binh Loc Commune, Loc Ha District, Ha Tinh Province prevented My Loc parishioners from building a fence separating a statue of Jesus from a communal compound and public space. According to nongovernmental sources, the construction was on parish-owned land. Understanding that local authorities were planning a “new rural area,” the parishioners reportedly sought an explanation for the authorities’ refusal to permit fence construction but failed to get a clear response in writing. Progovernment websites blamed parishioners for obstructing local authorities from building public works, including a community center and a sports field, and for occupying public land for use by the parish

According to a local NGO, Phu Yen authorities requested the executive board of the SECV reassign Pastor Luong Manh Ha from Phu Yen Province, given his outspokenness against the government during a land dispute between Tuy Hoa Evangelical Church and authorities. The GCRA reported that on September 10, the Tuy Hoa City People’s Committee, Phu Yen Province and the SECV resolved the property dispute.

Leaders of the unregistered Protestant Duong Van Minh group reported local authorities allowed the construction of a small number of Nha Don structures for storing funeral-related items. Authorities had demolished 13 of the structures in 2019. The group, which the government considers an “evil-way” religion, reported local authorities monitored key members, stating that local police officials “visited” their residences from time to time or “invited” them to local authorities’ headquarters. Those who refused such “invitations,” however, said they were not subjected to reprisals. An NGO reported Tuyen Quang authorities destroyed as many as 30 Nha Don structures during the year, accounting for all but one example of structure destruction for the year.

Provincial and local authorities continued to exercise eminent domain over land belonging to individuals and religious organizations in the name of social and economic development projects. Authorities continued many such projects that required the revocation of land rights and demolition of properties of religious organizations or individuals across the country. Authorities also reportedly did not intervene effectively in many land disputes that involved religious organizations or believers, and in most of these cases, the religious organizations or believers were unsuccessful in retaining land use rights. Such actions resulted in land disputes involving both recognized, registered, and unregistered religious organizations.

State media and progovernment websites alleged that Catholic priests in many parishes occupied – or urged their parishioners to use or illegally occupy – land legally used by nonbelievers or authorities. There were also cases in which Catholics were alleged to have “misused” their land, for example, by turning an agricultural plot into a soccer field without the approval of the proper authorities. In June, local authorities of Son Tien Commune, Huong District, Ha Tinh Province, accused Ke Dong parishioners of the Ha Tinh Diocese of illegal construction on agricultural land. Catholic priests in turn pointed to examples of land confiscated from the Catholic Church by the government in 1954 or 1975 being subdivided and sold for commercial purposes.

From June to October, independent Hoa Hao followers in An Giang reported that local authorities and state-recognized Hoa Hao Buddhist groups in Phu Tan District, An Giang Province advocated tearing down the 100-year-old An Hoa Tu Pagoda, one of the first independent Hoa Hao pagodas built by Prophet Huynh Phu So, founder of the Hoa Hao religious tradition, citing a need to build a new pagoda. Independent Hoa Hao followers opposed the pagoda’s demolition due to its religious importance and proposed it be renovated instead. Plainclothes police reportedly assaulted independent Hoa Hao Buddhists who tried to prevent the pagoda’s demolition. The government temporarily halted demolition of the pagoda, and it remained intact at year’s end.

State-run media and progovernment blogs continued to accuse religious leaders and members who were vocal in their opposition to the government of exploiting religion for personal gain or “colluding with hostile forces with the purpose of inciting public disorder and acting against the Communist Party and State.” Progovernment blogs and at times state-run media continued publishing stories stating that some in the ranks of the Catholic clergy led a depraved life and misappropriated donations for personal use. On April 6, the People’s Police Newspaper, a publication of the Ministry of Public Security, published an article criticizing members of the Vietnam Interfaith Council, whose members included leaders of five unregistered religious denominations, specifically unregistered Protestant and Catholic churches, the UBCV, Cao Dai 1926, and independent Hoa Hao Buddhists. In June, the progovernment website Dau Truong Dan Chu (Democracy Battlefield) accused outspoken priest Father Dang Huu Nam of having a child and accused Fathers Nguyen Dinh Thuc and Nguyen Duy Tan of “living a luxurious life” with “fancy” villas, vehicles, and parties.

State-run media and progovernment websites sometimes equated particular Christian denominations and other religious groups, often ones associated with ethnic groups such as the Vang Chu H’Mong in the Northwest Highlands, Ha Mon Catholics and Degar Montagnard Protestants in the Central Highlands, and Khmers Krom in the southwestern region, with separatist movements, blaming them for political, economic, and social problems.

State media reported local and provincial authorities in the northern mountainous provinces, including Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, Bac Can, and Thai Nguyen, continued to call the Duong Van Minh religious group a threat to national security, political stability, and social order. State media and progovernment websites continued referring to the group as “an evil-way religion” or “an illegal religious group.”

The GCRA website and several provincial government websites, including those of Hung Yen, Dak Lak, and Binh Thuan Provinces, referred to Falun Gong as an “evil-way religion” or an “extremist religious group.” Many progovernment websites associated Falun Gong with acts against the Communist Party and the state and other hostile political agendas. Some accused Falun Gong of doing harm to traditional culture and disrupting the social order and public safety. According to state-run media, in July, a court in Binh Duong stated there were links to Falun Gong when it sentenced Pham Thi Thien Ha to death and sentenced three others to prison sentences of between 13 and 22 years for murder. State-run media and progovernment websites portrayed the defendants as fanatic Falun Gong practitioners who killed other practitioners over disputes relating to practicing their beliefs.

In April, Ha Tinh authorities imposed a fine of 42 million dong ($1,880) on Pham Hung Cuong for possessing approximately 600 Falun Gong-related masks and nearly 600 publications. He was charged with “storing publications without evidence for their legal origin.” In a number of cases, state officials received punishment for practicing or supporting Falun Gong. In June, the People’s Committee of Vinh Linh District, Quang Tri Province, dismissed Tran Huu Duc, rector of Cua Tung High School, from all his Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) positions for distributing Falun Gong texts and hosting Falun Gong gatherings at his residence.

From August 10 to August 12, approximately 40 protesters demonstrated at the Catholic Thien An Monastery in Thua Thien in Hue Province, requesting the monastery to “give back their land,” according to various sources and social media. The dispute over Thien An’s land extended back more than 20 years. The group, described in Catholic media as “land grabbers” sponsored by the provincial government, reportedly fenced the claimed area with wire on August 13. Some of the online videos showed the protesters wearing masks and shouting at the Benedictine monks, who were praying in front of the remains of a cross they said was torn down by individuals affiliated with the local government. The monastery had set up a stone slab that depicted the history of the cross, including when it was removed by the government in 2017.

On August 17, a Thua Thien television station in Hue reportedly broadcast a video in which it accused priests from the Thien An Monastery of illegally occupying 265 acres of land and reporting “distorted truths” on social media regarding the land dispute. The Thien An Monastery protested the video, stating the television station had defamed and insulted priests of the monastery.

The government continued efforts to deepen knowledge about the 2018 LBR among government officials and religious adherents. Some religious groups also reported that they could engage in charitable activities, particularly in response to severe flooding during the year in Central Vietnam. According to the UBCV and some Catholic and VBS groups, however, authorities prevented religious organizations from distributing humanitarian aid to those affected by flooding in Central Vietnam in October and November.

According to the UBCV, authorities in Thua Thien in Hue Province reportedly confiscated relief vouchers and prevented flood victims from coming to UBCV temples to receive aid. According to other UBCV temples, humanitarian missions to deliver flood relief were conducted successfully with minimal interference from authorities.

In several other cases in a growing trend, local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services and to gather for training. For example, in Hanoi and surrounding areas, city officials continued to allow Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers.

Most representatives of religious groups continued to report anecdotally that adherence to a registered religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental, civil, economic, and secular life, but that adherence to an unregistered group was more disadvantageous. Religious leaders said that actual religious belief was not a cause of official discrimination, but rather it was the implication of being affiliated with any type of extralegal group that could attract additional scrutiny from authorities. Practitioners of various registered religious groups served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly. Many nationally recognized religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government-affiliated organizations under the guidance of the CPV. High-ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha. The official resumes of the top three CPV leaders stated they followed no religion; however, while many senior CPV leaders were reported to hold strong religious beliefs, particularly Buddhist, they generally did not publicly discuss their religious affiliation.

During calendar year 2019 and the first nine months of 2020, the GCRA conducted 46 training sessions nationwide, in which more than 8,800 state officials and religious leaders participated, to assist with the continued implementation of the LBR. Local GCRAs, in association with local authorities, also conducted hundreds of similar training sessions for local officials, religious leaders, and believers. During the year, the GCRA conducted inspections in Ho Chi Minh City, Nghe An, Quang Ninh, and Thanh Hoa Provinces to monitor implementation of the law and trained provincial government officials to conduct their own local inspections. The National Assembly Committee for Culture, Education, Youth, Adolescence and Children and the Vietnam Fatherland Front also met with local authorities and leaders of religious organizations to oversee implementation of the law.

Although the law prohibits publishing all materials, including religious materials, without government approval, some private, unlicensed publishing houses continued to unofficially print and distribute religious texts without active government interference. Other licensed publishers printed books on religion. Publishers had permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English. Other published texts included works pertaining to ancestor worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai.

The Church of Jesus Christ continued to report authorities permitted it to import sufficient copies of the Book of Mormon, although the church was still working with the GCRA to import additional faith-based periodicals.

Authorities permitted Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Baha’i, and Buddhist groups to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities, and religious leaders noted increased enrollment in these education programs in recent years. Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of conflicts, at times violent, between members of unregistered and registered or recognized religious groups or between religious adherents and nonbelievers. Religious activists blamed the authorities for manipulating members of recognized religious groups and accused their agents in disguise and proxies of causing these conflicts to intimidate or suppress the activities of unregistered groups. On September 11 and 13, for example, members of the recognized Cao Dai Sect (Cao Dai 1997) disrupted a gathering of unregistered Cao Dai members (Cao Dai 1926) at a private residence in Ben Cau District, Tay Ninh Province.

Individuals who converted to another faith outside of their family faced ostracism and societal stigma for their conversions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Representatives of the embassy and the consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City regularly raised concerns about religious freedom with a wide range of government officials and CPV leaders, including the President, Prime Minister, and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Public Security, the GCRA, and other offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and various provinces and cities. They stressed to government officials that progress on religious freedom and human rights was critical to an improved bilateral relationship.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups; sought greater freedom for recognized and registered religious groups; advocated for access to religious materials and clergy for persons who were incarcerated; and urged an end to restrictions on unregistered groups. Embassy and consulate general officials raised specific cases of abuses as well as government harassment against Catholics, Protestant groups, the UBCV, independent Hoa Hao groups, independent Cao Dai, and ethnic minority house churches with the GCRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and provincial and local authorities. U.S. government officials called for increased registration of church congregations around the country and for improvement in registration policies to make them more uniform and transparent. In addition, U.S. officials urged the government to peacefully resolve outstanding land rights disputes with religious groups.

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom raised these issues during the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in October, held virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, and raised specific concerns about implementation of the LBR, the status of religious believers detained or imprisoned, property issues involving religious groups, and the situation of ethnic religious minority groups.

In September, embassy officials met with government officials of the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the GCRA as well as with registered and unregistered religious groups to discuss implementation of the LBR and advocate for increased religious freedom, including allowing both registered and unregistered groups to exercise their rights freely, seeking accountability for reports of government harassment, and resolving lands rights issues.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious leaders of both registered and unregistered religious groups and attended religious ceremonies to demonstrate support for religious freedom. On February 24, the Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City paid respects at the funeral of the late Patriarch of UBCV Thich Quang Do and on June 1, offered incense on the 100th day of the Passing of the Patriarch at Tu Hieu UBCV Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. On June 11, the Consul General hosted an event with leaders of registered and unregistered Protestant and Baptist groups to learn about the impact of COVID-19 on these religious groups and how they responded to the government’s policies combating theCOVID-19 pandemic. On October 27, the Consul General hosted an event with Muslim leaders from southern Vietnam that aimed to advance religious freedom goals among this important minority religious group. In September, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom had telephone discussions with registered and unregistered religious organizations about religious freedom in the country.

On October 9, the Ambassador sent a congratulatory letter to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh on his 94th Continuation Day.

Embassy and consulate general officials at every level traveled throughout the country, including to the Northwest and Central Highlands, to monitor religious liberty and meet with religious leaders. Representatives of the embassy and consulate general maintained frequent contact with leaders of numerous religious communities, including recognized, registered, and unregistered organizations. In June, embassy officials met with more than 150 individuals on a visit to Gia Lai and Dak Lak Provinces and with 100 individuals on a subsequent visit to Dien Bien Province to examine issues of religious freedom and ethnic minorities in remote areas.