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Canada

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The government does not require religious groups to register, but some registered groups may receive tax-exempt status. On December 7, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian Church of Atheism did not qualify as a religion for purposes of obtaining charitable status. In June the Quebec government passed and implemented a law prohibiting certain categories of provincial government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions, while requiring individuals seeking certain provincial government services to do so with the “face uncovered.” Observers said the legislation targeted Muslim women and would also effectively exclude some religious Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from positions of authority, including positions in the national legislature, education, the courts, and law enforcement. The National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff filed a legal challenge to the law in the Quebec Superior Court. In May an Ontario court dismissed the appeal of Ontario physicians who objected on religious and/or moral grounds to a provincial policy requiring them to refer patients for “medical services such as medical assistance in dying, abortion and reproductive health services.” In conjunction with a new antiracism strategy addressing all forms of discrimination, including based on religion, in June the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. In March the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard the appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling in a decade-long case concerning whether the province could fund non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. The appeal process continued through year’s end.

Reports continued of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic activity, including cases of violence, hate speech, harassment, discrimination, and vandalism. In July Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2018 showing the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes was approximately 24 percent lower in 2018 than 2017, dropping to a total of 639; reported crimes against Muslims decreased by 50 percent, while those against Jews decreased by 4 percent. In 2018, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights reported in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic occurrences there were 11 cases of anti-Semitic violence nationwide, 221 reports of anti-Semitic vandalism, and 1809 occurrences of harassment, approximately 90 percent of which reportedly occurred online; physical location and identities of those posting the online messages are unknown. B’nai Brith received a total of 2,041 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2018, compared with 1,752 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2017 and 1,728 cases in 2016. In February a Quebec judge sentenced a man to a minimum term of 40 years after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for killing six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec in 2017. In August a taxi driver was arrested and charged with assaulting a Jewish man wearing a kippah, who reportedly wanted to take a photograph of the taxi to file a complaint about the taxi driver’s anti-Semitic comments. In November the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s adult population. It said 8 percent harbored anti-Semitic views, down from 14 percent in its previous 2014 survey which it stated represented the percentage of persons who agreed that a majority of the 11 statements were “probably true.”

The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial government. They also raised how we might partner to promote religious freedom around the world, better support individuals persecuted for their religion, and counter rising threats to religious freedom. Embassy officials discussed strategies to combat religious intolerance through engagement with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious minority groups. The embassy sponsored and participated in public programs and events encouraging interfaith dialogue and freedom of religion. In October the Quebec City Consul General held a breakfast with faith leaders to discuss interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The embassy amplified these activities through social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, which has the most recent data available on religion, approximately 67 percent of the population self-identifies as Christian. Roman Catholics constitute the largest Christian group (38 percent of the total population), followed by the United Church of Canada (6 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Baptists (1.9 percent), and Christian Orthodox (1.7 percent). Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal groups each constitute less than 2 percent of the population. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates its membership at approximately 190,000. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS Church) estimates its membership at 1,000. Approximately 3 percent of the population is Muslim, and 1 percent is Jewish. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Scientologists, Baha’is, and adherents of Shintoism, Taoism, and aboriginal spirituality together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Approximately 24 percent of the population lists no religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

On December 7, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian Church of Atheism of Central Canada did not qualify as a charity under the Income Tax Act in part because it could not be found to be a “religion” in a charitable sense. The court based its finding on the Church’s failure to “demonstrate that its belief system was based on a particular and comprehensive system of doctrine and observances.” In its ruling, the court also noted that registration of an organization as a charity under the Income Tax Act is a privilege, and not a right.

In June the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff filed a legal challenge in Quebec Superior Court against the provincial law prohibiting certain categories of government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. According to press reports, observers said the legislation would exclude some religious Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from positions of authority, including in education and law enforcement. The observers also said the legislation unfairly targeted Muslim women in the province who wear hijabs or other head coverings. The challenged law was the third attempt by a Quebec government to pass such legislation regarding the delivery of provincial services; a Parti Quebecois government introduced a bill in 2013 but did not pass it before the 2014 Quebec election, and a Liberal government passed a bill in 2017 that never entered into effect because a series of judicial injunctions suspended its application. The plaintiffs also challenged portions of the newly passed law prohibiting individuals from receiving certain government services with their faces covered. The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction against implementation of the law, but the Quebec Superior Court declined the request in July. In August the Quebec Court of Appeal agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal of that decision, and in October the court declined to temporarily stay imposition of the law pending a ruling on its constitutionality; as a result, the law remained in force. In September a multifaith organization filed a separate challenge to the law on behalf of three teachers – a Roman Catholic and two Muslims – who wore religious symbols. In October the English Montreal School Board, the largest English language school board in Quebec, challenged the law in court. In November a Quebec teachers union representing 45,000 teachers also filed suit. In total, four different lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Quebec law remained pending at year’s end.

In May an Ontario court dismissed the appeal of Ontario physicians who objected on religious and/or moral grounds to a provincial policy that required them to provide patients with referrals for “medical services such as medical assistance in dying, abortion, and reproductive health services.” Federal law permits assisted death and abortion but specifies doctors have the right to freedom of conscience and the right not to perform or assist in providing the procedures. Ontario is the only province requiring referral directly to another individual physician if the treating physician has a religious or moral objection to providing the specified service. Ontario physicians had appealed a lower court ruling upholding the referral requirement. The Ontario Court of Appeals found that the physician referral mechanism struck the appropriate balance between a physician’s right to freedom of religion and a patient’s right to medical services.

In April a British Colombia (B.C.) court retried James Oler, a member of the FLDS Church, on charges that he unlawfully removed his underage daughter from Canada in 2004 to marry her to a 24-year-old U.S. citizen in Nevada. The court found Oler guilty after retrial, and in August sentenced him to 12 months in prison. A trial judge had acquitted Oler of the same charges following a trial in 2017 based on what the B.C Court of Appeal deemed to be the trial court’s erroneous interpretation of the required elements of the offense. The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal in 2018 and ordered a new trial after the government appealed.

In February a federal trial court, which sits below the Supreme Court, stayed on procedural grounds seven of eight cases brought in 2018 by religious and other organizations seeking to reverse the denial of their federal grant applications. The federal government denied their applications over issues regarding an attestation the federal government imposed as a condition of receiving funding for the Canada Summer Jobs Program that year. For the first time, organizations were required to attest that their core mandate and the job for which they planned to use the federal funds respected the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as other rights and associated case law. The plaintiffs stated the attestation infringed on their rights to freedom of religion and of expression. The attestation included language that such rights “include reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, color, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” The court stayed seven of the cases until the first case, filed by Toronto and Area Right to Life (TRTL), is heard, based on a finding that there was “substantial overlap” of the legal issues involved in the eight cases.

In late 2018, the federal government made changes to the 2019 summer jobs application’s attestation, with new language focusing on activities for which the funds could not be used, rather than on the values of any given organization. According to media reports, TRTL filed a second lawsuit after it was also denied a grant in 2019. The cases were pending at year’s end.

In March the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard the appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling in a decade-long case concerning whether the province could fund non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. In 2017, the lower court had ruled that providing public funding for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools discriminated against secular schools and those of other religious groups in favor of Catholic education; it ordered the province to stop funding those students by the end of June 2018. The court had also ordered the government of Saskatchewan and the provincial Catholic School Boards Association to pay 960,000 Canadian dollars (C$) ($738,000) toward the opposing public school board’s legal costs. The Court of Appeal stayed the imposition of the funding order pending resolution of the appeal. At year’s end, the appeal remained pending.

On January 27, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement for International Holocaust Memorial Day, stating that Canada must also acknowledge its “own history of anti-Semitism, and its devastating results.” He pledged to “stand guard and speak out against anti-Semitism in our communities, to embrace our differences, and to find strength in our diversity.” On May 1, the prime minister issued a statement for Holocaust Memorial Day in which he said anti-Semitism was on the rise and stating, “We will not be silent in the face of oppression, or indifferent in the face of hate. We will always speak out against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and hatred in all its forms, and together, we will counter them.”

On May 7, Prime Minister Trudeau attended the National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony and delivered remarks in which he noted that “once again, people filled with hate are emerging from the shadows. Hateful words and speeches are spreading on social media and spreading across our daily lives.” He also stated, “The lessons of the Holocaust are at risk of being forgotten if we stand idly by, if we remain silent in the face of these events,” and that “it is our solemn duty as politicians, as leaders, as human beings, to stand united with one voice, and to say without equivocation, that anti-Semitic hatred has no place in Canada, or anywhere else.”

In June the government announced a new anti-racism strategy for 2019-2022 with the stated objective of combating systemic racism and discrimination of all kinds, including discrimination based on religion. The strategy also envisaged providing funding to empower religious minorities and others with expertise in addressing various forms of racism and discrimination and changing attitudes by increasing awareness of the historical roots of racism and discrimination. As part of that strategy, the country adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of physical violence, vandalism, hate speech, and harassment directed at religious groups, in particular against Jews and Muslims. In July Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2018, which showed a 24 percent decline in the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes, from 842 in 2017 to 639 in 2018. Hate crimes targeting Muslims decreased by 50 percent. Hate crimes targeting Jews were down 4 percent, accounting for 19 percent of total police-reported hate crimes in 2018.

In February a Quebec judge sentenced a man to a minimum term of 40 years after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for killing six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec in 2017. The defendant had said he planned the assault after hearing news that Canada was prepared to accept more refugees from Muslim countries. He said he believed that Muslims posed a threat to his family’s safety. In June government prosecutors recommended the country’s longest sentence in history, 150 years, but the court rejected that request on the grounds that sentences exceeding a defendant’s life expectancy constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In March both the prosecution and the defense appealed the sentence. The case remained pending at year’s end.

In July a taxi driver reportedly assaulted a Jewish man wearing a kippah after an altercation in a parking lot in Montreal. The taxi driver allegedly yelled anti-Semitic statements at the man during the incident, which the Jewish man recorded on video. In August authorities arrested and charged the taxi driver. According to media reports, the victim was not seriously injured. The taxi company employing the driver fired him immediately after learning of the incident and issued a statement that “we don’t tolerate assaults, anti-Semitism, or racism.” The case remained pending at year’s end.

In January an Ontario court found two men who served as the editor and the publisher of a free Toronto newspaper guilty of using the publication for years to repeatedly promote hatred of Jews and of women. In August an Ontario court sentenced the editor of the newspaper to one year in prison. In August the same judge also sentenced the paper’s publisher, an indigenous person, to one year of house arrest. The judge said he took the publisher’s indigenous status, poor health, and expression of remorse into account at sentencing. The law requires judges to consider adverse cultural factors faced by indigenous persons as mitigating factors when sentencing indigenous offenders. According to news reports, both men were appealing their sentences. The cases remained pending at year’s end.

In August The Edmonton Journal apologized after running a cartoon some viewed as anti-Semitic.

In August a medical regulatory authority in British Columbia determined that a physician committed no wrongdoing when she participated in the medically assisted death of an elderly patient who had requested it but was a resident of an Orthodox Jewish nursing home that prohibited the practice on its premises. To provide medical assistance in the patient’s death as permitted by law, the doctor concealed her actions from the nursing home. The regulatory authority found the doctor had complied with all legal requirements. According to news reports, the case was believed to be the first where a medical regulator had opined on whether a physician could be punished for defying the wishes of a faith-based healthcare facility in order to satisfy the legal right to a medically assisted death.

In 2018, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights reported 11 cases of anti-Semitic violence, compared with 16 in 2017; there were 221 reports of vandalism, including the painting of swastikas on buildings, and 1,809 reports of harassment, compared with 327 and 1409, respectively, in 2017. The league received 2,041 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2018, compared with 1,752 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2017, and 1,728 cases in 2016. Nearly 90 percent of the occurrences (1,809) involved harassment. Eighty percent of all incidents reported in 2018 occurred online or had an online component; the physical location and identities of those posting the online messages were unknown. The greatest number of reports (709) came from Quebec, which saw a 49.6 percent increase in the total number of incidents in 2018 – from 474 reports in 2017 to 709 in 2018. In 2018, two of the cases involved violence, 30 vandalism, and 677 harassment. B’nai Brith recorded a 40.5 percent decrease in the total number of reports in Ontario, from 808 incidents in 2017 to 481 incidents in 2018. In 2018 the greatest number of violent incidents, eight, occurred in Ontario, down from 13 the previous year.

In March the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of two Muslim students barred from praying at their nondenominational private school. In 2011, the students had been allowed to perform Islamic prayers for several weeks after enrolling there. According to media reports, however, the school subsequently told them they would not be allowed to pray because it was “too obvious and went against the academy’s nondenominational nature.” When the boys continued to pray, the school expelled them. The boys filed a religious discrimination action, and in 2015 the Alberta Human Rights Commission found in the boys’ favor and ordered the school to pay a C$26,000 ($20,000) fine. The school appealed, and the Alberta Court of Appeal eventually overturned the commission’s finding. In its ruling, the appeal court ordered a new hearing before the Alberta Human Rights Commission, which the commission then appealed to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, the Human Rights Commission held a new hearing in October and agreed to accept written closing arguments post-hearing. The hearing proceedings were not final by year’s end, and as a result, no decision had been rendered by the commission.

In March airport security screening agents in Halifax refused to allow an indigenous elder’s traditional herbal medicine pouch to be x-rayed, instead requiring the elder to open it for review, according to media reports. The elder wore the pouch around her neck and said it contained several grams of tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, and cedar. She said opening the pouch desecrated the contents and was contrary to her indigenous spirituality but opened the pouch so she could travel. According to media reports, Canadian airport screening policy states that if a traveler informs officers that the individual is carrying an item of religious significance, the officers may provide travelers with “screening options for the item based on the nature of the item” and the traveler’s preference.

In June an Ontario court ruled that a town council acted lawfully when it decided not to rename a street named “Swastika Trail.” Two residents of the Ontario town of Puslinch had petitioned the court to intervene in 2018 to implement the name change, according to media reports, after residents voted by a slim margin to keep the name.

According to media reports, in September an individual filmed himself heckling Sikh politician Gurratan Singh while Singh was giving a speech about discrimination against Muslims at Muslimfest, a two-day annual summer festival in Ontario. The man sought out Singh after the speech, reportedly to film himself yelling that “Islamophobia was created by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1990” and to otherwise harass Singh. Organizers of the event escorted the individual out of the venue.

In November the ADL released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 25 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Canada; 17 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 28 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

Numerous interfaith and ecumenical organizations at the national, provincial, and local levels continued to sponsor programs to foster respect for religious diversity, tolerance, and equal treatment for all religious groups. The groups included the Canadian Council of Churches, United Church of Canada, Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, other Protestant communities, as well as Jewish and Muslim associations. The Canadian Interfaith Conversation, a collaboration of 41 faith communities and faith-based organizations that collectively “advocate for religion in a pluralistic society and in Canadian public life,” continued to spotlight religious inclusion events held across the country throughout the year on its website, such as interfaith dialogues; a weeklong event exploring 11 world religions; and “Meet your Neighbor” dinners featuring different religious traditions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial governments. They also raised how we might partner to promote religious freedom around the world, better support individuals persecuted for their religion, and counter rising threats to religious freedom. Embassy and other U.S. government officials met with representatives from Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to discuss issues of religious freedom in the country, including issues raised in this report. The U.S. Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities visited Ottawa in May for meetings with Global Affairs Canada and civil society in which he discussed religious freedom, including our mutual efforts to promote religious freedom around the world.

Embassy and consulate officials conducted outreach to religious leaders, NGOs, and religious groups to discuss strategies for combating religious intolerance. In May the Quebec City consulate hosted an interfaith iftar that brought together interfaith leaders, youth, and government representatives. In June the Quebec City consulate hosted an event with a U.S. delegation, interfaith leaders, and community workers who promote interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding. In August an officer from the Toronto consulate delivered remarks at Pakistan Minority Day in Brampton, Ontario, where she emphasized religious freedom as a fundamental right. In September the Toronto consulate partnered with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, a nonprofit organization that works to counter anti-Semitism and promote tolerance, to host a Rosh Hashanah event for guests in Toronto from the religious, civil society, and government spheres. In October the Quebec City Consul General held an event with faith leaders to discuss interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

The embassy and consulates amplified these events through social media and used their social media platforms to highlight messages of religious tolerance from senior Department of State officials in Washington.

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

Read A Section: China

Tibet →     Xinjiang →     Hong Kong →     Macau 

Executive Summary

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

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.” Despite Chairman Xi Jinping’s decree that all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must be “unyielding Marxist atheists,” the government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. There were several reports of individuals committing suicide in detention, or, according to sources, as a result of being threatened and surveilled. In December Pastor Wang Yi was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in connection to his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. There was one self-immolation by a former Tibetan Buddhist monk reported during the year. According to The Church of Almighty God, a Christian group established in the country in 1991 and which the government considers an “evil cult,” authorities in Shandong Province arrested more than 6,000 members during the year as part of a nationwide crackdown. Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program. According to <i>Minghui, </i>a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. <i>Bitter Winter</i><i>,</i><i> </i>an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, beaten, and forced to take medication. The government continued a campaign begun in 2016 to evict thousands of monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Authorities in many provinces targeted religious groups with overseas ties, particularly Christian groups. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued a campaign of religious Sinicization to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, adopting a formal five-year plan on January 7. Officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, and placed surveillance cameras in houses of worship as a condition of allowing these venues to continue operating. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, and other houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country, including the last remaining crosses in Xiayi County, Henan Province, and all Jewish symbols identifying the site of the former Kaifeng Synagogue, also in Henan Province. Nationwide, the government prohibited individuals under aged 18 from participating in most religious activities. The Holy See maintained its 2018 provisional agreement with the government that reportedly addressed a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama.

The government continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang. The U.S. government estimates that since April 2017, the PRC government arbitrarily detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as Uighur Christians, in specially built or converted internment camps in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. There were reports of individuals dying as a result of injuries sustained during interrogations. In November <i>The New York Times</i> and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported on leaked internal government documents that included descriptions of the government’s mass internment program in Xinjiang and a manual for operating internment camps with instructions on how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camp’s existence, and methods of forced indoctrination. A third document, the “Karakax List,” originally leaked in November and later made public, presented evidence the government initially interned or extended the internment of individuals on religious grounds in four reeducation centers in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture. Authorities in Xinjiang restricted access to mosques and barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan. According to human rights groups and international media, authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. This surveillance included forcing Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities to install spyware on their mobile phones and accept government officials and CCP members living in their homes. Satellite imagery and other sources indicated the government destroyed mosques, cemeteries, and other religious sites. Nearly 40 percent of all elementary and middle school students – approximately half a million children – lived in boarding schools where they studied Han culture, Mandarin, and CCP ideology. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur and other Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uighur language, culture, and religion and the promotion of the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread

The President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other U.S. embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom throughout the country. At the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, the United States and other nations issued a statement calling on the government to cease its crackdown on religious groups. In a September 23 speech at the UN General Assembly, the Vice President said, “The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than one million Muslim Uighurs.” On September 24 the United States co-sponsored a panel discussion on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang during the United Nations General Assembly session, hosted by the Deputy Secretary of State. During a press conference on November 26, the Secretary of State said, “We call on the Chinese government to immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.” The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of Chinese officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance and the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

In October the U.S. government added 28 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List and imposed visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing these measures, the Secretary of State said, “The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region that includes mass detentions in internment camps; pervasive, high-tech surveillance; draconian controls of expressions of cultural and religious identities; and coercion of individuals to return from abroad to an often perilous fate in China.”

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

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

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the four officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimated in 2010 that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, and followers of folk religions 21.9 percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185-250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60-80 million Protestants, 21-23 million Muslims, 7-20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, 6-8 million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2017 data from the Jewish Virtual Library, the country’s Jewish population is 2,700.

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

According to the SCIO report, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons in which Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uighur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uighur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

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

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

Some ethnic minorities retain traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Media sources report Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, is growing in popularity among the Han Chinese population. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states citizens have “freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities.” The constitution does not define “normal.” It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.” The constitution states “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

The 2018 Regulations on Religious Affairs state that registered religious organizations may possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations. Religious and other regulations permit official patriotic religious associations to engage in activities such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities. The CCP’s UFWD, including SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

The SCIO April 2018 white paper states there are approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 are Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 Islamic mosques, 6,000 Catholic churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 Protestant churches and places of assembly.

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

The law requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad.

The regulations specify all religious structures, including clergy housing, may not be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. In December SARA issued regulations that place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating any such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions and state any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($14,400) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” must not accept donations from foreign sources with conditions attached. If authorities find a group has illegally accepted a donation, they may confiscate the donation and fine the recipient group between one to three times the value of the unlawful donations or, if the amount cannot be determined, a fine of RMB 50,000 ($7,200).

The Regulations on Religious Affairs require that religious activity “must not harm national security.” This includes support for “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling clergy credentials.

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

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

According to the law, inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious beliefs while in custody.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states “Any state units, social organizations and individuals must not force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion.” Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

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

Regulations restrict the publication and distribution of literature with religious content to guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. The regulations limit the online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups by requiring prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

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

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

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

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools.

The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students.

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

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

Government Practices

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

There were reports of deaths in custody and forced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom, according to sources, authorities targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported some previously detained individuals were released but still denied freedom of movement.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation contained the following number of imprisoned religious practitioners at year’s end: 121 “non-cult” Protestants, 487 “cult” Protestants, including members of The Church of Almighty God, 114 Muslims, 22 Buddhists, and four Catholics, compared with 119 “non-cult” Protestants, 316 ”cult” Protestants, 136 Muslims, 22 Buddhists, and nine Catholics at the end of 2018. According to Dui Hua, these numbers were based on Dui Hua’s classification system for inclusion in the PPDB and were not the total number of religious prisoners. The number of Muslim prisoners did not include Uighur and ethnic Kazakh prisoners, which Dui Hua classified as “ethnic prisoners.” According to Dui Hua, these figures did not account for Muslims in detention centers, which the government referred to as “vocational skill education training centers.” The PPDB listed 2,979 Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned at year’s end, compared with 3,486 at the end of 2018. Dui Hua defined imprisoned religious practitioners as “people persecuted for holding religious beliefs that are not officially sanctioned.”

According to a report released by The Church of Almighty God, during the year at least 32,815 Church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 23,567 in 2018. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 26,683 church members (at least 12,456 in 2018), arrested 6,132 (11,111 in 2018), detained 4,161 (6,757 in 2018), tortured 3,824 (685 in 2018), sentenced 1,355 (392 in 2018), and seized at least RMB 390 million ($56 million) in Church and personal assets. At least 19 Church members died as a result of abuse (20 in 2018). These 19 included two who died as a result of undergoing physical abuse and forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and 11 who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the annual report of The Church of Almighty God, in January Ren Cuifang of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region died 12 days after being arrested. The report stated that on her remains there was bruising around her eyes and the left side of her chest. There was a burn scar on her thigh and lacerations with blood marks on her wrists and heels. The report also stated that on May 30, police arrested a couple in Xinmi City, Henan Province. During questioning, police struck the husband repeatedly across the face, kicked him in the lower back, clubbed his toes with an iron bar, and forced him to take off his clothes and kneel on an iron rod. He suffered two broken ribs on his left side. They stomped on the wife’s toes and instep, struck her in the face with a ruler, and handcuffed her behind her back with one arm twisted up over her shoulder and one arm twisted from below. In August Liu Jun of Jiangxi Province, who suffered from kidney disease, died in custody of uremia after authorities delayed his treatment. In July Cheng Dongzhu of Hubei Province, under the pressure of constant surveillance by authorities, drowned herself in a lake. The NGO Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Religious Freedom said that in May police attempted to arrest Li Sulian, a member of The Church of Almighty God, in her apartment, but before they entered she died from a fall in an attempt to escape out the window using a bed sheet. On November 22, Bitter Winter described the arrests, detentions, and seizure of assets of The Church of Almighty God members as part of the government’s nationwide campaign to “clean up gang crime and eliminate evil.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout Shandong Province arrested more than 50 members of The Church of Almighty God. According to the family of one of the individuals arrested in Dezhou City on April 17, eight police officers suddenly broke into his home and, without presenting any credentials, searched the dwelling, seizing RMB 6,000 ($860), two computers, and other items. The man’s wife was later taken away as well and held in detention. In another instance, according to Bitter Winter, police knocked on the door under the false pretense of checking the home’s electricity circuit. When the owner opened her door, more than one dozen police officers entered, searched the house, and seized spiritual books and other faith-related items and two computers. Police arrested her and took her away in handcuffs with a hood over her head.

The Church of Almighty God reported that in May 52 members were arrested in coordinated raids in Chongqing, Sichuan Province. Some detainees reported they were put in a “tiger chair,” a device used to create stress positions during interrogations, and others said authorities denied them medical treatment and prevented them from sleeping. During the raid police seized RMB 190,000 ($27,000) of Church and personal property

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,109 and harassed 3,582 Falun Gong practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith. At year’s end, 3,400 practitioners remained in custody. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Eighteen provinces, including Shandong, Hubei, Sichuan, Jilin, and Liaoning, reported hundreds of cases of harassment and arrests. According to Minghui, those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, and dancers. On April 17, more than 100 officers arrested 10 members of a family in Bozhou City, Anhui Province, including a mother, her five daughters, three sons-in-law, and a 12-year-old grandson. Four of the sisters stood trial on December 5 and were awaiting verdicts at year’s end. Wang Shaoqing of Hubei Province and 12 other practitioners, including Zhou Xiuwu (aged 79) were arrested on March 7 for talking to others about Falun Gong in a park. According to her daughter, as of November, Wang was being held at the Wuhan City No. 1 Detention Center and denied access to her attorney.

Minghui reported that during the year, authorities were responsible for the deaths of 96 individuals on account of their beliefs or affiliations, 19 of them while being held in prisons, police stations, or detention. In the early morning on January 11, Guo Zhenxiang (aged 82) of Zhaoyuan City, Shandong Province, was arrested for passing out leaflets at a bus station. At approximately 10 AM authorities informed her family that she had died after becoming ill at the station and being taken to a local hospital. Yang Shengjun of Jiamusi City, Heilongjiang Province, was arrested on August 2 and died on August 11. Authorities told Yang’s family that he had vomited blood at the detention center early that morning and been sent to Jiamusi Central Hospital for emergency treatment. According to the family, they were charged RMB 30,000 ($4,300) for Yang’s medical treatment. On December 7, Li Yanjie of Heilongjiang Province fell to her death while trying to escape out the window of her 6th floor apartment as police attempted to force open the front door.

During the year, two international academic studies examined the country’s transplant system. These studies revealed new information about reports of the government’s practice of forcibly extracting organs from prisoners, including religious adherents, and noted ethical lapses on the part of the government and scientific research papers examining the country’s transplant system which the authors of the studies said left doubt about how voluntary the system actually was. On February 6 the peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ Open published the findings from an Australian-led academic study examining 445 scientific research papers that drew on Chinese transplant recipient data reported by the government and domestic hospitals. The academic study found 440 of the papers (99 percent) knowingly “failed to report whether organ donors had given consent for transplantation,” resulting in unethically published research. The Guardian reported the study found that some of the research papers stated organs were procured from volunteer deceased donors rather than from executed prisoners. The study concluded, however, that the government’s voluntary deceased donor program, instituted in 2010, was not in place at the time the research for the scientific papers took place, suggesting the government and hospitals had manipulated and falsified the data. The study further concluded the only source for organs at the time was executed prisoners, including prisoners of conscience. In an op-ed published in The Conversation on February 6, the study’s authors said, “[A] growing body of credible evidence suggests that organ harvesting is not limited to condemned prisoners, but also includes prisoners of conscience. It is possible therefore – though not verifiable in any particular case – that peer reviewed publications may contain data obtained from prisoners of conscience killed for the purpose of organ acquisition.”

In November a second Australian-led academic study reported in BMC Medical Ethics found the government and medical bureaucracy manipulated and falsified data on organ transplants. The study concluded that rather than the “untarnished voluntary system promised by officials,” a “voluntary system appears to operate alongside the continued use of nonvoluntary donors (most plausibly prisoners) who are misclassified as ‘voluntary.’” The study also said the goal of the manufactured data was “to create a misleading impression to the international transplantation community about the successes of China’s voluntary organ donation reform, and to neutralize the criticism of activists who allege that crimes against humanity have been committed in the acquisition of organs for transplant.” The study noted the government formalized regulations on organ transplantation in 2006, shortly after witnesses alleged Falun Gong practitioners were being used as an organ source, which the government denied.

In June an independent tribunal established by the international NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China issued its final judgment that “forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply.” The tribunal presented its finding to the United Nations in September.

Minghui reported that He Lifang, a Falun Gong practitioner from Qingdao City, Shandong Province, was arrested in May and died in custody on July 2. According to Minghui, his family observed a sewn-up incision on his chest and an open incision on his back. The police first said the incisions were a result of an autopsy, but his family suspected his organs had been harvested either while he was alive or shortly after his death. In November Wang Dechen of Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, died after serving four years of a 10-year prison term. According to the family, prison authorities would not allow them to get close to Wang’s body and pressured them to consent to have his body cremated two days after his death. His family said they suspected he had been a victim of organ harvesting.

In December Bitter Winter published an article describing instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. One member of an unregistered Christian house church said he was held in a mental asylum twice for evangelizing, spending a total of 248 days there. A member of The Church of Almighty God from Hunan Province said she was held for 154 days because of her faith. Both individuals described being forced to take medication. The woman said beatings for disobedience were commonplace and that staff used sticks and electric batons to force inmates to take medication.

International religious media outlets and watchdog groups reported local authorities in several districts around the country implemented rules awarding compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners of certain affiliations or confiscating donation money. Local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, media outlets reported in January that in Dalian, the second largest city in Liaoning Province, the National Security Bureau implemented a quota system in which police officers’ performances were evaluated based on the number of Christians they arrested. One Dalian police officer reportedly told the Gospel Herald magazine that senior officers risked losing their jobs if the quotas were not met. Bitter Winter reported the government of Qingdao, Shandong Province, launched a three-month operation in September and set quotas for the arrest of 100 to 200 adherents from various denominations and religious movements.

The whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups.

In June Bitter Winter reported that at least 45 of its correspondents and contributors in the country were detained, and some physically abused, as a result of the government’s retaliation against reporting on religious freedom.

Sources reported Pastor Yang Hua was detained several times throughout the year for his religious work. Yang was the pastor of the Livingstone Church, which was the largest unregistered church in Guizhou Province before the government shut it down in 2015.

In April AsiaNews reported national security agents took Father Paul Zhang Guangjun, a Catholic priest, into custody in Xuanhua, Hebei Province. Zhang had refused to join the government-run CCPA. According to AsiaNews, authorities stopped Zhang’s car, smashed the window, and beat him before taking him away. Another man in the car was also beaten but not taken into custody. Fifteen days prior to this event, police raided a house in which Zhang was leading Mass. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

On July 25, media reported authorities in Yunnan Province denied the appeal of Protestant pastor Cao “John” Sanqiang, a U.S. lawful permanent resident and Christian leader, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence for “organizing others to illegally cross the border.” In 2017 authorities arrested Cao and a fellow Christian teacher when they traveled by waterway from Burma to Yunnan Province. His lawyer was told of the hearing only days before it was scheduled and was denied contact with Cao before the appeal was heard.

According to Bitter Winter, on June 17, authorities arrested and interrogated a local pastor at a branch of the South Korea-based Sungrak Church (“Sacred Music Church”) in Liaoning Province. The police repeatedly asked the pastor whether the church accepted money from South Korean sources and pressured him for information about church members. Police released him after forcing him to write a statement promising not to hold gatherings anymore.

Minghui reported that in April authorities in separate cases sentenced 38 Falun Gong practitioners to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years. Authorities also fined 16 of the 38 practitioners a total of RMB 249,000 ($35,800). One man was convicted of “subverting state power” by mailing letters about the group. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined RMB 100,000 ($14,400). According to Minghui, authorities surveilled the man for several months before arresting him in August 2017. Authorities sentenced two Falun Gong practitioners in the town of Luodai in Sichuan Province to two years and eight months in prison for removing anti-Falun Gong posters from their neighborhood. Minghui reported one 76-year-old man from Ji’nan City, Shandong Province, was sentence to three years and fined RMB 5,000 ($720) for refusing to renounce his faith.

Minghui reported that on May 12, police arrested eight elderly practitioners in Zhuhai City, Guangdong Province, while studying Falun Gong books. The police recorded detailed information about each practitioner, including his or her children’s employment information and phone numbers, before taking them home and ransacking their residences.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 15, authorities arrested 150 pastors, elders, and leaders from Henan Province’s China Gospel Fellowship, a network of unregistered house churches. According to a source, the pastors, elders, and leaders had been under surveillance for an extended period of time. Authorities confiscated their mobile phones and recorded their personal information before transporting each individual to the police station in the municipality of his or her registered residence. Authorities forced each pastor to sign a “statement of repentance” prior to being released. One of the pastors said authorities placed a surveillance camera in front of her house and ordered her to report to the police station every day. According to sources, one pastor suffered a heart attack during the raid and was taken to the hospital.

According to the religious freedom advocacy NGO ChinaAid, most of the 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church – the church with the most members among Chengdu’s unregistered churches – who were arrested during a violent raid in December 2018, were released during the year. AsiaNews reported authorities released church elder Li Yingqiang in August. According to ChinaAid, authorities sentenced elder Qin Defu to four years in prison for “illegal business activity.” In December Pastor Wang Yi was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in connection with his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. According to a statement posted on the court’s website, the court also deprived Wang of his political rights for three years and confiscated RMB 50,000 ($7,200) of his personal property. Prior to his conviction, on July 15, authorities informed Wang’s lawyer that Wang was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activity,” which carry the possibility of a life sentence. ChinaAid reported that Wang’s lawyer was prevented from meeting his client, was subjected to surveillance, and had other difficulties representing his client.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern, a member of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan Province said he was forced to move houses several times during the year. He had been detained for two weeks in February and then evicted from his home in September. Police threatened to arrest the member and his wife and to send his child to an orphanage if he did not immediately leave his home. The man said this was the third time he had been forced to move due to his religious beliefs.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that human rights attorney Jiang Tianyong, who had previously represented Falun Gong adherents and Tibetans, was released from prison in Henan Province in February at the end of his two-year prison term on charges of “inciting state subversion.” The U.S.-based NGO Human Rights in China said that, according to Jiang’s relatives, he was allowed to visit his parents’ home in Xinyang City, Henan Province, following his release. Jiang remained in his parents’ village throughout the year under house arrest, unable to see doctors for medical conditions that began when he was in prison, which included discoloration on his legs and swollen feet.

In its annual report, ChinaAid stated Jiang Rong, the wife of Early Rain Covenant Church Pastor Wang Yi, was released on bail in June after five months in detention, but authorities immediately placed her under house arrest and prohibited contact with all but family members. According to ChinaAid, while in detention authorities tortured Jiang, prohibited her from brushing her teeth for 50 days, and forced her to sit on a stool for long hours with her body bent at a 30 degree angle.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities compelling members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. ChinaAid, Bitter Winter, and other sources reported authorities pressured family members to encourage believers to renounce their faith, threatening to withdraw employment and educational opportunities from them and their family members, and to withhold social welfare benefits. According to ChinaAid, on January 31, Early Rain Covenant Church member Pan Fei was fired from his job at Yonghui Supermarket in Chengdu because he refused to stop attending church and renounce his faith.

The Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Religious Freedom reported that in April a long-time CCP member named Ms. Zhang committed suicide after the Sichuan Province CCP pressured her to renounce her faith and made multiple threats against her family. Zhang joined the TSPM True Jesus Church in 2011. The report stated that during the year, Zhang was subjected to a criticism session in front of 100 party officials, home visits from party leaders, and threats to remove social benefits from her children.

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

UCA News reported that on December 30, the government approved the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups, scheduled to take effect on February 1, 2020. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures emphasize that only registered groups could operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must adhere to the leadership of the CCP and implement the values of socialism. According to UCA News, if enforced, article 34, which governs money and finances, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to a 2014 SARA statistic, more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. According to a SCIO report on religious policies and practice released in September 2017, there were 21 officially recognized Protestant seminaries, 57,000 clerical personnel, and 60,000 churches and other meeting places. This report stated there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA, including nine Catholic schools, although students under 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as the CCPA’s propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were 35,000 mosques, 57,000 imams, and 10 Quran institutes (religious seminaries under the auspices of the state-sanctioned IAC) in the country.

The government did not recognize religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups, and continued to close down or hinder their activities. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered and other times because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate, but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader.

ChinaAid reported in June that authorities in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, shut down Dao’en Church, stating the Church had not registered with the government. Authorities had previously closed three of the Church’s five branches and pressured landlords to not renew leases for the Church. ChinaAid earlier reported authorities had fined the pastor and another minister of Dao’en Church RMB 10,000 ($1,400) and threatened to confiscate the Church’s offerings.

The government kept Zion Church closed, one of Beijing’s largest unregistered Protestant churches, led by Pastor Jin “Ezra” Mingzhi, saying it had broken rules by organizing mass gatherings without registering with authorities.

International media and NGOs reported the government continued a nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” across all faith traditions. On January 7, the government announced a formal five-year plan for this campaign.

From June 24 to 29, the Guangdong UFWD and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission jointly hosted a training session in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, on religious Sinicization. More than 70 individuals above the vice president level from provincial religious groups from the five officially recognized faiths attended. In his opening remarks, Deputy Director General of Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission Huang Zhongxing said religious Sinicization taught socialist core values to religious professionals and believers. He urged participants to study in depth and implement “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” the eponymous 30-year doctrine developed by Chairman Xi and the CCP in their religious work.

Gospel Times reported that on July 8, the Sichuan Provincial Party Committee held training to promote the “Sinicization of Christianity” for 178 church leaders. Lecture topics included how to implement Chairman Xi’s goal of guiding religious adherents to adapt to socialist society and the importance of church leaders keeping church members “politically reliable.” Similar events were held in other provinces.

Bitter Winter reported that in mid-July Liaoning provincial authorities launched a training course for TSPM church pastors at Shenyang Seminary. The director of the provincial religious affairs bureau was one of the instructors. A pastor who attended the mandatory training said the course focused on the Sinicization of Christianity. The pastor said authorities strongly emphasized the importance of wearing traditional Chinese clothing while delivering sermons; replacing European style church buildings with Chinese style buildings; and incorporating CCP policies and ideology into sermons. Training sessions on the Bible or Christian theology were not offered. Additionally, authorities reportedly told pastors their religious qualifications and preaching certificates would immediately be revoked if they preached that biblical teachings carried greater authority than CCP policies and ideology. One pastor told Bitter Winter that in Liaoyang City a police chief told a group of Christians at a local church, “We must regard the Party as God, just like God.”

According to international media and the state-run news agency Xinhua, on November 26 in Beijing at a symposium of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, officials reaffirmed efforts to update religious texts to conform to “the core values of socialism.” Xinhua reported participants stressed the need to gradually form a religious ideological system with Chinese characteristics. According to Xinhua, “Participants suggested conducting a systematic study of the thoughts of various religions, and making accurate and authoritative interpretations of classical doctrines to keep pace with the times, so as to effectively resist the erosion of extreme thoughts and heresy.”

State media reported that in August Guangzhou’s Guangxiao Buddhist Temple and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government research institute and academic organization organized under the State Council, jointly established the “Buddhist Sinicization Research Base” in Guangzhou. At its inaugural meeting, multiple speakers said Buddhist philosophy and practice must be based on political identity and adapt to society and culture.

Media reported that in cities throughout Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, as well as in Henan Province, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere, authorities replaced Islamic structures and symbols with traditional Chinese iconography as part of the nationwide “Sinicization” campaign. In the Ningxia Region authorities took down structures with “Arabic domes,” destroying minarets in the process, and replaced them with curving Chinese roofs. Sources told media that authorities prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians walking about wearing skull caps or veils.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating the Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clergy attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating one’s loyalty to the CCP over the church.

Bitter Winter reported that at a church in Shenyang during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC on October 1, authorities hung national flags throughout the church, covering religious paintings and images. Authorities forced congregants to sing patriotic songs such as “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” During the event there were a total of 11 performances, most of which were secular programs promoting the CCP.

Bitter Winter and the website Aboluowang reported that on October 1, Buddhist monks at the Wanshan Temple in Lushan, Jiangxi Province, raised the national flag while fellow monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists waived small national flags and sang the national anthem. A Buddhist master led the group in shouting patriotic slogans such as “Long Live the motherland, Amitabha” and singing patriotic songs. One monk sang “My Chinese Heart,” and 16 nuns danced to the song “The Chinese Flag.” According to Bitter Winter, on September 26, the Jinxiang Temple in the Yindu District of Anyang, Henan Province, organized a National Day commemoration. An adherent asked to be allowed to sing a Buddhist song, but government officials told him “all Buddhist songs are forbidden, only songs advocating the Party are allowed.”

In October the website for the state-sponsored China Taoist Association reported its Sinicization efforts continued, promoting Taoism’s “advancing with the times” and “developing on the basis of maintaining its own Chinese characteristics.” Taoist ideology would, according to the website, use “new thinking, new ideas, and new theories to answer contemporary social life issues of social concern, public concern, and believers’ concerns, so that Taoism can better adapt to new society, serve the new era, and help push new developments.”

In October Bitter Winter reported the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau in Xiaoshan District in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, issued a “Scoring Form for the Standardized Management and Assessment of Buddhist and Taoist Activity Venues in Xiaoshan District.” Religious organizations could lose points for not promoting “core socialist values,” as well as for having religious publications that were not published by state-designated publishing houses. Groups could also lose points if they failed to raise the national flag, when video surveillance equipment inside the church did not work properly, or if clergy failed to give “Sinicized” sermons. According to Bitter Winter, a similar scoring plan went into effect in March in Henan Province. Under that plan, in addition to losing points, places of worship could gain points for “proactively reporting illegal religious activities” and “foreign infiltration.”

In September National Public Radio reported Hui residents of Tongxin said local officials offered rewards between $700 and $2,820 to those who reported suspicious religious behavior, such as proselytizing Islam or secretly teaching Islamic texts.

In August the pro-CCP media outlet Global Times stated 11,000 Uighur and other Muslims were expected to take part in the Hajj during the year, compared with 11,500 in 2018, although official statistics confirming this number was accurate were unavailable at year’s end.

Bitter Winter reported in early February authorities in Suiyang District, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, convened a meeting at which government personnel were ordered to collect the times and locations of house church gatherings and record that information in a newly established database operating 24 hours a day. According to Bitter Winter, officials said government informants would be rewarded for passing on information.

Bitter Winter reported that on May 12 in Gulou District in Fuzhou City, the capital of Fujian Province, more than 30 government personnel stood guard outside a meeting venue for the Fuzhou Reformed House Church. More than 20 police officers disrupted the meeting and ordered all individuals in attendance to leave. Police confiscated more than 200 books, including Bibles and hymnals. The police took the church’s elders into custody and threatened to arrest congregants who did not leave. According to one source, an official from the Religious Affairs Bureau told the congregants, “You should change your boss [referring to God] and join the Communist Party.” Police later posted a sign on the entrance stating the church had been shut down.

According to the South China Morning Post, Guangzhou officials from the Religious Affairs Bureau in March announced a new policy offering financial rewards to people who reported “illegal religious activities,” in an ongoing crackdown on underground gatherings. The new policy would also allow members of the public to earn up to RMB 10,000 ($1,400) for providing information leading to the arrest of a non-Chinese religious leader. Other payment incentives included RMB 3,000 to 5,000 ($430-$720) for tips about locally organized gatherings and their leaders. Some examples of “illegal religious activities” included building unauthorized temples and monasteries, organizing unauthorized pilgrimages, worshipping at unauthorized churches, and printing unauthorized religious publications. According to the solicitation, cash rewards for “whistleblowers” helped limit foreign infiltration through religion.

In July ChinaAid reported that in Guiyang City, the capital of Guizhou Province, officials announced cash awards for information related to illegal religious activity, missionary work, and foreign interference in religious affairs. Authorities placed posters advertising the program throughout the city, especially near Livingstone Church meeting locations. The program offered cash rewards of $1,000.

Bitter Winter reported that according to a foreign Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Church members in Shandong Province worshipped in secret, holding gatherings in small groups at constantly changing venues. One of their meeting venues was in a residential building. They placed a surveillance camera at the entrance to watch for government authorities. The missionary said they drew the curtains and sang hymns quietly to avoid being heard, and spoke in code when making plans over the phone for meetings, among other measures taken to ensure secrecy.

Bitter Winter reported that in March the UFWD in multiple counties in Jiangxi Province issued documents calling for a sweeping crackdown on private Christian venues. The documents stated that high-level government officials would conduct random inspections and that low-level government officials who did not shut down enough venues would be held accountable. On May 19, the Religious Affairs Bureau shut down Xunsiding Church in Siming District, Xiamen City, Fujian Province. and fined the priest, Yang Xibo, RMB 25,000 ($3,600). According to Bitter Winter, authorities also shut down government approved TSPM venues, closing at least 14 in Yuangzhou District, Yichun City, Jiangxi Province, in March and April.

Members of the Early Rain Covenant Church said they experienced routine harassment and arbitrary detention in the wake of a violent raid conducted by police in December 2018. ChinaAid reported 15 members of the Chengdu-based house church were arrested while gathering at a home in January. Among those detained were three children aged two to seven. One church member detained in the house raid was allowed to return home to her children when authorities realized they had already detained her the week before. The woman, who had been arrested six times in 2018, said she was severely beaten by police during the December 2018 raid.

Bitter Winter reported that on February 24, local government officials closed a house church in the Xincheng Sub-district of Suiyang District, Henan Province. Officials told church members gatherings of three people or more were not permitted and that holding meetings in their home was against the law. According to sources, during the raid one official said, “What’s more, several children are present. Allowing minors to believe in God is also against the law.” An officer from the local security services told the preacher, “If we find people coming to your home again to worship God, you will be treated as a criminal.” Authorities registered the names and addresses of attendees and photographed them. The report also stated security officials destroyed all religious symbols in the home and confiscated Bibles, hymnals, and other religious texts. Officials additionally forced the house’s landlord to terminate the rental agreement with the pastor.

According to Bitter Winter, on March 6, the local Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs in Zhengzhou City’s Erqi District accused the Panshi Church of setting up a meeting place in violation of the law and shut down the church. During their raid, officials confiscated church items valued at RMB 70,000 ($10,100) and sealed off the venue with barricade tape. Government officials warned the landlord she would be fined RMB 200,000 ($28,700) if she allowed the group to hold additional meetings there.

According to RFA, on March 23, Beijing authorities banned the Shouwang Church (one of the largest Beijing churches by number of congregants), stating the church’s unregistered activities had violated the Regulations of Religious Affairs and the Regulations of Registration Management of Social Groups. According to one announcement from the church after the government ban, more than 30 police, along with officers and staff from the district-level civil affairs bureau and the Religious Affairs Bureau, interrupted Bible study class and other church activities at two sites in Beijing’s Haidian District. RFA reported the church members at the two sites were taken to a school and instructed to sign a document promising to no longer participate in Shouwang Church activities, but refused to do so. Police released them after several hours. Local authorities also replaced the locks at the two church venues.

According to RFA, on May 12, officers from provincial religious affairs bureaus interrupted religious services in at least eight house churches across six jurisdictions (Xiamen, Fujian Province; Chengdu, Sichuan Province; Guiyang, Guizhou Province; Xiangtan, Hunan Province; Nanchang, Jiangxi Province; and Shanghai) and accused those present of gathering illegally. In Guiyang, police raided a meeting of the Guiyang Reform Church taking place in a hotel room, removed the cross from the room and confiscated computers for further investigation.

According to Sound of Hope, a radio station operated by Falun Gong practitioners in the United States, Xiamen authorities shut down more than 40 house churches in the city in a May-June campaign.

Bitter Winter reported that on May 12, 30 to 40 enforcement officers from the Guangzhou Religious Affairs Bureau and the Public Security Bureau entered the Enzhu Church during a service, and registered the identity of the pastor and 70 worshipers. On the same day, more than 10 law enforcement officers raided a house church in Foshan and confiscated more than RMB 600 ($86) from the church’s donation box, claiming the money was “illegally raised.”

In May Bitter Winter reported that the government of Liaoning Province launched a campaign to intensify its crackdown on foreign religious activities as part of the national campaign to implement the “Work Plan for the Investigation and Handling of Special Actions and Activities of Overseas Christian Churches.” The plan, issued by UFWD and the Ministry of Public Security, specifically identified some Christian churches in the United States and South Korea, including the Young Disciples of Jesus, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Cru, the Bo’ai Church, the Loving Heart Church, and the Canaan Church. It also called for the further suppression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Korean Christian churches that authorities had previously targeted. The document stated the purposes of the plan included: “resolutely cracking down on foreign religious believers; resolutely destroying the religious activities of foreign religious groups in the local area; and resolutely preventing organizations from attending trainings in neighboring countries and regions.” The plan also required supervision of foreign-related missions on the Internet, including social media apps QQ and WeChat. According to Bitter Winter, the plan called for cultivating foreigners and local individuals to act as informants.

Bitter Winter reported in August that provincial, city, and county officials in Jilin Province engaged in similar crackdowns on foreign churches and organizations. A confidential plan issued by Jilin government officials called for setting up an “Office for Resisting Infiltration by Foreign Christian Forces” to shut down meeting venues and underground seminaries founded by foreign religious groups, collect and analyze intelligence on foreign-related religious activities, surveil and control public opinion online, and monitor foreign-related religious activities at universities. A document issued by the UFWD called for launching a “Joint Alliance on Religious Work,” under which more than 20 government institutions would coordinate long-term control over religion, especially foreign-related religious activities. In addition to security services, the joint alliance would include government bodies such as the Civil Affairs Bureau, Women’s Federation, Bureau of Commerce, Hygiene and Health Committee, and customs enforcement.

According to Bitter Winter, in February authorities in the Huaiyin District of Huai’an, Jiangsu Province, reported they had installed surveillance equipment in 155 of the district’s 170 TSPM churches. Authorities said in the official report they had connected some of the cameras to the government’s public security system network. The cameras covered the gates, main entrance, worship halls, podium, and even the toilets of the churches. One of the church directors told Bitter Winter, “They can see every move in the church. If we didn’t follow their demands, the church would have to be shut down.”

According to religious community representatives, authorities continued to unofficially tolerate some members of foreign groups meeting for private religious celebrations. Churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

According to Bitter Winter, in September the government in a city in Liaoning Province told the person in charge of a local TSPM church to stop allowing 80 African international students to participate in gatherings at the church as part of efforts at “preventing foreign infiltration through religion.”

The Catholic News Agency reported that in July and August authorities shut down at least five Catholic churches in Yujiang Diocese because of their refusal to join the state-approved CCPA. There were reports the government placed informants in CCPA churches to monitor the content of sermons and other Church activities.

According to The Independent, Hui Muslims feared the high levels of government surveillance and oppression in Xinjiang, primarily targeting Uighur and other Muslims – including some Hui Muslims living there – could spread to other parts of the country, including their own communities.

Bitter Winter reported that in February the Urban Management Bureau of Lushi County in Sanmenxia, Henan Province, issued a document entitled “Statement of Commitment for Consciously Resisting Illegal Religious Activities.” The document prohibited organizing celebrations with religious overtones in public places, including posting, hanging, or selling goods (such as couplets [paired banners with poetry], calligraphy, ceramic tiles, and murals) with religious themes. Authorities seized calendars with Christian symbols on them from churches and vendors. One vendor said authorities conducted rigorous inspections and shut down vendors who were caught selling items with religious content, and as a result, “In the entire market, no one dares to sell them.”

Bitter Winter reported during the Spring Festival some local governments required churches and private homes to replace Christian couplets with couplets advising citizens to “love the Party.” The fine for posting a Christian couplet was RMB 2,000 ($290). The pastor of a TSPM church in Yongcheng City, Henan Province, said, “It is against our faith to post Spring Festival couplets that praise the Communist Party. But if we don’t post them, the CCP might use this as an excuse to seal off the church.” Authorities gave residents in Kaifeng City’s Weishi County couplets stating “love the Party” and wall calendars with portraits of Xi Jinping. Some officials personally posted the “love the Party” couplets in religious adherents’ homes.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 13, the leader of Enhui Church in Yanji town, Yongcheng City, Henan Province, attempted to distribute a calendar that included the image of a cross. Police demanded the church recover each of the 1,000 calendars it had distributed or the church would be shut down. The leader of Enhui Church and one of its clergy were detained by police and required to “study the policies of the CCP for one week.” The government reportedly also fined the church RMB 28,000 ($4,000).

According to the NGO Tibet Watch, on May 13, local authorities informed leaders of the Anfu Buddhist Temple in Guangxi Province that the temple’s main hall “violated Han Buddhist principles” and needed to be “rectified.” The monastery is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from neighboring provinces. Authorities threatened legal action if the temple did not remove its Tibetan-style prayer wheels and stupa within a week, and banned prayer flags, bells, and other traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious items. On May 23, the Weibin District Buddhist Association issued similar restrictions for monasteries in Shaanxi Province.

Reuters reported in July that as part of the government’s expanded efforts to Sincize the country’s Muslim population, authorities in Beijing ordered halal restaurants and food stalls to remove signs containing Arabic script and Islamic symbols such as the crescent moon. According to the manager of a local noodle shop, “They said this [the sign in Arabic over the shop reading ‘halal’] is foreign culture and you should use more Chinese culture.” Reuters reported several larger shops in Beijing had replaced Arabic signs with ones reading “qing zhen,” the Chinese term for halal.

Bitter Winter reported that in January local government officials in Hebei Province issued a document entitled, “Notice on Comprehensively Investigating and Regulating Arabic Symbols and Religious Elements in Public Places and the Issue of ‘Generalization of Halal.’” The document set forth a policy requiring central, provincial, and municipal governments to remove Arabic-language symbols and religious elements from public places. “Generalization of halal” practices such as the use of Arabic-language symbols at halal restaurants, in school canteens for Muslim students, on halal foods, and in Muslim households were also banned.

Bitter Winter reported that in January authorities demolished a large outdoor Buddha statue and 11 small Buddha statues located in the Xiantang Mountain Scenic Area of Xiangyuan County in Shanxi Province. Officials cited a prohibition on construction of large outdoor religious statues outside of temple and church grounds.

During the year, authorities destroyed several Buddhist statues in Zhejiang Province. Bitter Winter reported in January authorities in Taizhou, Zhejiang, destroyed a 92-foot statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin inside a local temple. In March Taizhou authorities demolished a 59-foot Guanyin statue. In May authorities in Linhai dismantled a 48-foot tall Guanyin statue. Authorities told the local abbot in Linhai that “religious statues cannot be located outdoors.” In September authorities dismantled a 69-foot Guanyin statue at the Mingshan Temple in Wenzhou stating that the statue was too tall and would obstruct the view of airplane pilots. In Ningbo authorities ordered a Buddhist abbot to dismantle 500 statues embedded in a mountain behind his temple.

According to a February ChinaAid article, authorities in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, removed the cross of Chengdong Christian Church, a large TSPM church with approximately 3,000 worshipers.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 4, the government of Xiayi County in Henan Province sent 100 security officials to remove three crosses from the roof of the Wangzhai Church in Wangzhai Village. According to a local official, the Wangzhai Church crosses were the last remaining crosses to be destroyed under the CCP’s years-long campaign to remove all public displays of crosses in the county. Eyewitnesses said authorities used a crane to remove the large cross atop the center of the roof. They also dismantled two small crosses on the left and right side of the church roof as well as 12 small crosses on the perimeter wall. They then used a bulldozer to tear down the church gate and sections of the perimeter wall. Officials also confiscated the church’s donation box and pictures of the cross on display inside the church.

According to Bitter Winter, in April officials in Kaifeng City, Henan Province, entered the site of the Kaifeng Synagogue, the oldest Jewish cultural site in East Asia, now a Jewish learning center. They removed the name of the synagogue from the exterior door, and Stars of David and the Israeli flag from the windows. On the building’s exterior, officials placed antireligious signs, including one that read, “Management of religious affairs should be in accordance with the principle of protecting the lawful and banning the unlawful, boycotting infiltration and fighting crime.” Authorities installed a surveillance camera at the entrance as part of what one neighborhood resident said were efforts to monitor and discourage foreign visitors. Bitter Winter reported that in the summer, the government rented a house next to the site, where personnel assigned by the government monitored the activities in the site and the movements of passersby. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Persian Jews emigrated to Kaifeng in the 12th century and a Jewish synagogue has existed in that location since 1163; the current structure dates from 1653. In February The Jewish Post reported the community had approximately 1,000 members.

Bitter Winter and the website Abolouwang reported in November that authorities forced Buddhist temples in Henan Province to fly the national flag during the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. The government maintained 2018 directives mandating that the national flag be raised at religious venues during national holidays and during each religion’s important festivals and celebrations.

In its annual report, ChinaAid stated authorities limited Christians’ ability to celebrate Christmas. ChinaAid reported that SARA ordered Christmas Eve services held by churches in large cities be reserved for adherents with admission tickets only. Sources said in some municipalities they were told not to hold Christmas celebrations in November and December. One local source said his congregation held its Christmas celebration in October. On December 17, a property management company in Yunnan’s Kunming Economic Development Zone issued a notice to local businesses and merchants banning any celebration of Christmas as well as Christmas-related messages and decorations, citing a police restriction. In Guizhou Province, the Qianxi County Education Bureau and the Science and Technology Bureau issued a notice banning celebrations of Christmas, Christmas Eve, and any “foreign holidays” among school students. Students were strictly prohibited from playing “angels” in church shows, joining church choirs, and singing hymns. Schools were also required to keep the parents of students from attending Christmas-related events.

During the year, there were reports of foreign missionaries being extensively surveilled, detained, and deported. On July 12, the government of Huaiying District, Huai’An City, Jiangsu Province, published a notice on its website about the establishment of a group in Sanshu Town “to carry out the special action of investigating and punishing overseas Christian infiltration in accordance with the law.” The standing committee of Wenxi County, Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, published on its website information about action being taken to investigate and punish the infiltration of foreign Christianity. Bitter Winter reported that in April a municipality in Jilin Province issued “The Plan for Jointly Investigating Religious Infiltration Activities.” According to Bitter Winter, on July 4, government officials in Dongfeng County of Liaoyuan, Jilin Province, held a meeting about the suppression of “foreign religious infiltration” from the United States and South Korea. More than 700 personnel – including officials from the local religious affairs bureau and the UFWD, as well as CCP secretaries from each township and village – attended the meeting “to coordinate the crackdown operation.”

According to Bitter Winter, in August authorities in Jiangxi Province raided an apartment where two Taiwanese church leaders were holding a church meeting. The authorities arrested the leaders and nearly 30 Chinese Christians. The two leaders were subsequently deported.

Bitter Winter reported that in May authorities in Qingdao, Shandong Province, arrested and deported a foreign Jehovah’s Witnesses elder. Also in May police in Jiangxi Province arrested a South Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary. They confiscated the woman’s passport, religious books, and computer. Authorities then interrogated her and a local member of Jehovah’s Witnesses for seven hours before releasing them. The missionary was deported soon after. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, deported foreign missionaries may return after five years, but church elders are barred from the country for life.

Bitter Winter reported that in May two female Japanese Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries returned to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province after a short trip abroad. The day after they returned, police arrested them at their residence. The police interrogated them for 10 hours and gave them statements to sign promising not to return to preach in the country. The women refused to sign because the statement said, “I regret coming to China to preach.” Authorities deported one of the missionaries that day, while the other was released and deported three days later.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups.

The government continued to allow only the national TSPM, China Christian Council (CCC), and CCPA to publish and sell Bibles legally. There were approximately 11 provincial TSPM Christian publishers. Bitter Winter reported, however, that according to local sources, between November 2018 and January 2019 authorities confiscated Bibles and other religious works at approximately 11 TSPM churches in multiple regions in northern Heilongjiang Province.

The government limited distribution of Bibles to CCPA and TSPM/Chinese Christian Council entities such as churches, church bookshops inside churches, and seminaries. Individuals could not order Bibles directly from publishing houses. Members of unregistered churches reported the supply and distribution of Bibles was inadequate, particularly in rural locations. According to reports, while there were no independent domestic Christian booksellers, publishers without a religious affiliation could publish Christian books. Approximately 20 distribution centers and bookstores were linked to the national TSPM. In addition, authorities reportedly allowed churches with more than 2,000 members to sell books at their church facilities. Approximately 700 churches had such bookstores. During the year, authorities continued to limit the number of Christian titles that could be published annually, with draft manuscripts closely reviewed by the local religious affairs bureau.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. World Magazine reported in March online retailers such as Taobao and Jd.com stopped selling Bibles to the domestic market after authorities began enforcing the 2018 revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs. According to World Magazine, authorities restricted Christian channels on WeChat and other social networking apps and websites. In July government censors blocked domestic access to the Christian website WeDevote and scrubbed the WeDevote Bible app from most domestic app stores.

Bitter Winter reported Li Liang of the Anhui Provincial Church in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, remained under surveillance following his release from five years in prison for photocopying Bible chapters to distribute to individuals in his home. Li Wenqiang, librarian for the Seventh-day Adventist church in Shenzhen, also remained under surveillance. In 2017, authorities convicted Li of “conducting illegal business activities” when the library was found to have more than 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian books. Li was sentenced to three years in prison with a five-year suspension of the sentence, during which he was forbidden to leave the city.

Sources said the Nanping Culture and Tourism Administration in Fujian Province raided the library of the Nanping Christian Association in February and found the association had sold 253 copies of the Bible and gained a net profit of RMB 628 ($90). On July 9, the administration confiscated the profits and fined the association RMB 10,000 ($1,400) for selling publications without a license.

Bitter Winter reported that in April authorities fined the Fengyang Road Three-Self Great Church in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, RMB 10,000 ($1,400) for having Bibles that were printed in South Korea. Authorities also prohibited the church from selling Bibles of any kind.

Media reported in August authorities investigated a printing house in Shenyang, for printing Buddhist materials. According to Bitter Winter, the printing house avoided government restrictions by bribing the officials.

According to Bitter Winter, in August authorities in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, required the Fengzhuang Three-Self Church to display banners and panels promoting the campaign to “eradicate pornography and illegal publications” in the church. In Hubei Province, the Chongyang County government issued an open letter stating “dark forces” and “pornography and illegal publications” are associated with religious belief.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons for TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and praised government leaders. In March local authorities in Shangqiu City, Henan Province, withheld approval of a TSPM pastor’s sermon, indicating it was too religious and did not contain enough CCP ideology.

In March one pastor told Bitter Winter, “There is a lot of pressure on us when giving sermons now. If we don’t say the right thing, personnel from the State Security Bureau can say we’re anti-government[.] All sermon topics must be submitted to the Religious Affairs Bureau for review…Chinese culture must be incorporated into the sermon as per the government’s requirements. At Three-Self churches, this is how we have to talk about the Bible, because there are CCP spies in the churches. As soon as they discover that the sermon’s content is not in line with national requirements, we will be severely punished. We might have our pastoral duties revoked for life, so that we cannot serve as pastors at any church.”

Bitter Winter reported destruction of religious structures and symbols was widespread throughout the country. According to the publication, in March authorities in Ji’an City, Jiangxi Province, initially sought to destroy a 16-meter (52 feet) wide 23-meter (75 feet) high statue of Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, that was carved into the Wugong Mountain in the scenic area of Yangshimu in Anfu County. After local administrators objected that demolition would excessively damage the surroundings, authorities instead erected a large-scale plant-covered barrier in front of the sculpture to completely block it from view.

According to Bitter Winter, in April authorities in Dalian, Liaoning Province, sealed off a Taoist temple and forced the head of the temple to sign a statement saying he would not sell incense or hold Taoist ceremonies. In May authorities sealed off another Taoist temple in Dalian and destroyed the scriptures, calligraphy, and paintings inside.

According to Bitter Winter, on March 14, approximately 100 government officials and police officers in Henan Province, led by the secretary of Xianglushan Town, demolished a state-controlled TSPM church for allegedly violating building laws.

According to Bitter Winter, in June local officials dismantled and repurposed five churches as “cultural activity centers” in Xingyang County in Zhengzhou Prefecture, Henan Province. Local government officials threatened to demolish the churches if the congregation did not agree to let the government take possession of the property.

Bitter Winter reported that on March 1, local government officials demolished all but the main hall of Taoist Nainai Temple, located on Hou Mountain in Yi County, under the jurisdiction of Baoqing City, Hebei Province. Within 20 days, authorities also demolished 32 temples and at least 164 faith-related buildings in the surrounding area. Authorities hung signs along the path leading up to Hou Mountain, warning “illegal buildings will be demolished.”

According to Bitter Winter, in March authorities in Gaoyao, Jiangsu Province, destroyed nearly 6,000 Tudi temples dedicated to the local land god. Authorities from the Gaoyou Department of Land and Resources stated the temples were illegal buildings that occupied arable land or public spaces. In April authorities in Xianju, Zhejiang Province, destroyed 21 folk temples as part of a “rectification” campaign.

Bitter Winter reported that in August authorities in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, forcibly converted two Buddhist temples into elderly care activity centers. In one of the temples, which was 800 years old, authorities removed Bodhisattva statues and transformed rooms into areas to play chess, watch television, and read. In another temple, mahjong tables were placed in the prayer room that contained Bodhisattva statues.

The government continued limitations on religious education.

At the county level, religious affairs bureaus in provinces including Henan, Shandong, Guangxi, Hunan, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Guizhou released open letters during the year instructing parents not to take their children under 18 to religious activities or education. Media reported authorities increased pressure against churches to prevent children under 18 years old from studying the Bible.

Bitter Winter reported local UFWD and SARA officials in July raided a TSPM church in Weinan, Shaanxi Province, and found a notebook with Bible verses, including some transcribed by children. Authorities closed the church for 10 days for “rectification.” The city’s Education Bureau sent notices to primary schools and kindergartens stating that religion was dangerous for minors, and they were prohibited from participating in any religion-related activities “so as to help them establish a correct worldview, outlook on life, and system of values and form a healthy mind.” One Sunday school teacher in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, said as a result of the government’s strict control over minors in places of worship, the school held sessions in secret and the number of children attending the Sunday school had dropped from more than 100 to just over 20.

UCA News reported local authorities continued to issue warnings to Catholic dioceses throughout the country prohibiting summer camps designed as faith-building activities for school-age children. One diocese member said the government would not allow churches to organize educational activities for children. Bitter Winter reported police raids on church-run summer camps in Jiyuan City in Henan Province and Foshan City in Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported in July that some primary schools’ curricula taught kindergarten and primary school children to resist religion as heterodox teaching. In late April a primary school in Xinzheng City, Henan Province, held a meeting to instruct students to be atheists and never believe in the existence of deities. “If your mom goes to church and believes in God, she doesn’t want you as her child anymore,” the teacher reportedly said. Another primary school teacher in Xinzheng City showed students an animated antireligion propaganda film depicting religious adherents as black monsters. The teacher reportedly told students religious people might hex them and they should report to the police any “believers” they encounter.

According to AsiaNews, authorities expunged words such as “God,” “Bible,” and “Christ” from textbooks for elementary school children. These words and any other reference to religion were removed from a fifth-grade textbook containing stories by foreign writers and classical Chinese authors printed by the government-linked Publishers for the Education of People. For example, in the original story The Little Match Girl, a girl’s dead grandmother appears to her in a vision and says, “When a star falls, a soul goes to be with God,” but in the textbook version the grandmother says, “When a star falls, a person leaves this world.”

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

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

National Public Radio reported in September that sources said imams in Henan and Ningxia Provinces were required to attend monthly training sessions in which they learned Communist ideology and state ethnic policy and discussed Chairman Xi’s speeches. According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge in order to renew their license each year.

In September Bitter Winter reported that, according to an imam in Qinghai Province, the CCP frequently required imams to undergo mandatory political training. University professors covered topics such as CCP history, policy, regulations, and international relations. An imam from Sanmenxia, Henan Province, said authorities required him to study prominent CCP historical figures. He said there were surveillance cameras in mosques to ensure he and other imams promoted CCP ideology during sermons. An imam in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, said, “Every day, we have to say, ‘The Communist Party is good and great.’ Otherwise, we’ll get in trouble with the government!” According to a members of a congregation at a mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, authorities closed the mosque because the community refused to accept a government-appointed imam, although authorities said the mosque was closed due to “inadequate fire-control measures.”

Approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized on April 16 by the Hainan United Front Work Department, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School on April 16. Participants studied the principles of the 19th Communist Party Congress, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creating of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the 2018 revised Regulations on Religious Affairs Regulations. Deputy Director General Liu Geng of the Hainan UFWD in his opening remarks requested the religious professionals “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.”

A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. The government and the Holy See remained without diplomatic relations, and the Holy See had no official representative in the country.

In March the Catholic Herald wrote that, in his blog, retired Archbishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun continued his criticisms of the September 2018 two-year provisional agreement between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Holy See that addressed a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops, stating it gave too much power to government and CCP authorities. Similar to the previous year, neither side provided details of the provisional agreement, such as how the Holy See and the government would make decisions regarding appointment of bishops. The existing government regulation on the election and consecration of PRC-appointed bishops required candidates to publicly pledge to support the CCP. To also be accepted by the Holy See, these bishops normally would later seek “reconciliation” with the pope. Under the provisional agreement, however, the Holy See agreed to recognize seven bishops who had been previously ordained by the PRC without papal recognition. The seven were granted this reconciliation and joint approval in the 2018 provisional agreement, an irregular occurrence within the Catholic Church.

In August the Holy See appointed its first two bishops in the country who were not among the seven individuals named in the 2018 provisional agreement. Monsignor Antonio Yao Shun took up his position in Ulanqab, Inner Mongolia, and Monsignor Stefano Xu Hongwei took up his position in Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province.

At year’s end, Bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin, an underground bishop recognized by the Holy See, remained in a subordinate position under Bishop Zhan Silu, who was originally ordained without Holy See approval. The Holy See had previously excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province. Zhan was one of the seven individuals whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. Police had detained Guo, who had been appointed by the Holy See, earlier in 2018 for his refusal to jointly lead Easter services with Zhan, who at the time was not recognized by the Holy See. Cardinal Zen criticized the Holy See for agreeing to compel Guo and one other bishop to step aside to make room for state-approved bishops.

According to Bitter Winter, the government-run CCPA attempted to force 57 underground Catholic priests from Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 complied, three resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. The local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it identified as “cults” and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities.

Bitter Winter reported in March on a leaked notice from 2018 in which officials instructed a military unit in Shandong Province to investigate the religious status of all military personnel “to resist political infiltration, prevent political sabotage, and purify the political ecosystem.” The notice included strict instructions to check the religious status of each individual, including those omitted from previous investigations, such as new recruits, retirees, or those on vacation or hospitalized. All results of the probe were to be entered into the “military personnel religious status registration system.”

In March Bitter Winter reported teachers in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region who belonged to religious groups faced extra scrutiny from education authorities compared to nonreligious teachers. Party members were assigned to “assist” these teachers to ensure they taught in a way that conformed to CCP ideology. Authorities required teachers to fill out a document that read, in part, “[I must] align my thinking with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism [with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era]…No person or organization is allowed to promote religious ideology on campus.”

In August Bitter Winter reported religious adherents faced official discrimination when receiving medical treatment. Residents in Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Henan, and other provinces reported being asked questions about religious beliefs before being admitted seeing a doctor. Hospital staff stated the government required them to ask about their patients’ religious status. Religious adherents were not allowed to pray with ill relatives who had been admitted to the hospital.

Multiple provincial governments included their work against religions and “cults” in their annual work reports. At a meeting of the 13th People’s Congress of Guizhou Province on January 27, leaders extolled the provincial government’s efforts to “strike down on illegal religious and cult activities” and to increase public safety through social control, supervision, and surveillance.

Media reported that on September 17, Chongqing authorities held a ceremony to mark the 20th year of the municipality’s “cult prevention propaganda” program. Senior party leaders spoke at the event, pointing to the program’s success at helping “the broad masses of cadres to recognize, prevent, and reject evil,” in addition to raising “awareness of conformity” for people in the city.

Media reported that on September 19, the Guangdong Political and Legal Affairs Commission and Guangdong Anti-Cult Association jointly hosted an anticult event in Foshan City, Guangdong Province. More than 700 residents, including students, attended. At the event, awards were given for top anticult propaganda posters.

Media reported the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, United Front Work Department, and Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Huidong County, Guangdong Province, hosted a program on April 13 at the Qingyun Temple to “strengthen management of religious venues and resist penetration by the occult.” Religious community representatives read aloud a “Letter of Advocacy on the Work of Anticult,” and more than 100 religious adherents signed a “Say No to Cult” declaration. More than 200 copies of anticult leaflets were distributed at the event.

There were reports that government-run hospitals in Xinyu, Jiangxi Province continued to post banners and notices characterizing religious beliefs as cults.

AsiaNews reported that from July 21-27, the Central Institute of Socialism in Fujian Province organized a course on the work of the Catholic Church in the province. Thirty-three priests, all members of the CCPA, and more than 20 religious affairs officials participated. The lessons and activities centered on the theme of “guiding the Catholic Church to follow a path conforming to socialist society.” AsiaNews noted the course seemed to focus almost entirely on political doctrine with very little mention of Christian teachings.

According to the Catholic News Agency, Catholics on the mainland faced increased harassment and abuse as a result of the role Catholics played in Hong Kong protests during the year, which reportedly raised concerns with mainland authorities that Catholics there would inspire similar protests in other parts of the country. Authorities reportedly banned some Catholics from traveling to Hong Kong.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

In December the Journal of Comparative Economics published the results of a study done in 2017, in which the researchers submitted over 4,000 resumes of fictitious male candidates to job advertisements for accounting and administrative positions posted by private firms, state-owned firms, and foreign firms. The results showed that a Muslim job seeker was more than 50 percent less likely to receive a callback than a non-Muslim Han job seeker, even when the Muslim applicant had higher academic credentials. The study found “state-owned enterprises are equally likely to discriminate against Muslim job seekers, despite their political mandate to increase diversity.”

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers. In April the Hong Kong-based NGO China Labor Bulletin wrote, “Ethnic and religious minorities routinely face discrimination in the service sector, especially in low-level retail and restaurant positions where employers prefer to hire staff who appear more ‘familiar’ and less ‘threatening’ to Han customers. Very often minorities are effectively restricted to working within their own communities or in ethnically-themed restaurants.” Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities. Bitter Winter reported in September that police pressured the employer of a woman identified as “Ms. Yu” to dismiss her from her job in the northern part of the country because 13 years prior she had participated in a gathering of The Church of Almighty God.

Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread, despite the government’s announcement in September 2017 that it would censor some anti-Muslim expression on the internet. Columbia Journalism Review reported that following the March attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, anti-Muslim postings increased on Weibo and WeChat. Some users expressed support for the shooter. One user on WeChat likened Muslims to “cancer cells.” Many Weibo users, however, posted rebuttals, and some wrote articles decrying anti-Muslim sentiment.

In some instances, landlords discriminated against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs. Falun Gong practitioners reported having continued difficulty finding landlords who would rent them apartments.

In May a Hui Muslim said on social media she and her sister were not given jobs because of their religion. The post attracted commentators who defended employers for rejecting Hui job applicants. A job recruitment agency in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, expressly excluded ethnic minority jobseekers, including Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, from applying, according to media reports.

There were reports that Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other religious minorities continued to face difficulty in finding accommodation when they traveled. Wired Magazine reported in May that it found 35 individual Airbnb listings throughout the country with clauses expressly barring religious minorities from renting rooms. One listing for a two-bedroom apartment in the city of Chongqing said, “We do not have the permission of the police [to host Uighurs] please do not book.” A listing for a condominium rental in Chengdu stated in English that Uighur and Tibetan guests were not allowed “[d]ue to local regulation.” Other listings also said Hui Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs should not apply.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other embassy and consulate representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. The President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with survivors of religiously motivated persecution or their family members from the Uighur Muslim, Tibetan Buddhist, Protestant, and Falun Gong communities at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., from July 16 to 18. Muslim, Buddhist, Protestant, and Falun Gong survivors of religious persecution gave presentations at the ministerial and some met the President during a visit to the White House. At the ministerial there was a general session with government officials from around the world on “Religious Freedom Challenges in China.” On July 18 at the ministerial, the Vice President said, “[T]he American people will always stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People’s Republic of China.” In addressing the ministerial, the Secretary said the human rights crisis in Xinjiang “is truly the stain of the century.” At the ministerial, the United States and other countries issued a statement that read, in part: “As representatives of the international community, we are deeply concerned about China’s escalating, widespread, and undue restrictions on religious freedom, and call on the Chinese government to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all individuals. Many members of religious groups in China – including ethnic Uighur, Kazakh and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, and Falun Gong – face severe repression and discrimination because of their religious beliefs. These communities regularly report incidents in which authorities have tortured, physically abused, sexually abused, arbitrarily arrested, detained, and tried and sentenced without legal safeguards adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs, affiliations, and peaceful practices.” In a September 23 speech at the UN General Assembly session, the Vice President said, “The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than one million Muslim Uighurs.” On September 24 the United States co-sponsored a panel discussion on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang during the United Nations General Assembly session, hosted by the Deputy Secretary of State.

In March the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom gave remarks on religious freedom in China at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong. He also met with local religious leaders, members of faith communities, and cultural and religious studies students and faculty to discuss efforts to advance religious freedom. He also visited Taiwan and delivered keynote remarks at the 2019 Regional Religious Freedom Forum: A Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region.

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

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

Throughout the year, the embassy and consulates general reached large local audiences with messages promoting respect, understanding, and tolerance for religious diversity. The Embassy and consulate generals organized a series of lectures by American academics and U.S. government officials to engage audiences on a number of religious freedom topics. In August the Consulate General in Shanghai hosted a public discussion on freedom of religion, including the U.S. government’s efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy hosted multiple events at the Beijing American Center for the general public and target audiences of professors, students, and lawyers to highlight religious freedom in the United States. Through events that included legal analysis of the separation of religion and state, presentations on Jewish-American identity, discussions of citizen-responsive governance, and screening films containing religious themes, the embassy spurred dynamic conversations among the public about topics that were otherwise difficult to address.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 100 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 100,000 citizens engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy officials – including the Ambassador – and with each other. For example, for International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the Ambassador published on the embassy website a statement supporting respect for religious freedom, which the embassy then shared via Weibo and WeChat social media platforms, where the statement garnered 750,000 views and more than 5,000 engagements. In the week surrounding the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, more than two million social media users viewed the embassy’s dissemination of the Secretary of State’s remarks, with 17,600 choosing to engage on the topic. The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments and questions such as, “Respecting different religious beliefs is for the good of all mankind,” and “Is there a religious department in the United States that manages religion?” During the course of the year, the embassy and consulates general regularly addressed questions of religious tolerance raised by some of the millions of online followers, offering them uniquely U.S. perspectives on religious freedom and tolerance.

Authorities continually harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities prevented diplomats in Chengdu from meeting with state-authorized religious leaders, including the Abbot of Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute and the Catholic Bishop of Chengdu. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend.

On October 7, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, 18 of its subordinate public security bureaus and one other subordinate institute, and eight Chinese companies to the Entity List for engaging in or enabling activities contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests. This action constricts the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On October 8, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, or other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. Family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions. In making his announcement, the Secretary said, “The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region that includes mass detentions in internment camps; pervasive, high-tech surveillance; draconian controls of expressions of cultural and religious identities; and coercion of individuals to return from abroad to an often perilous fate in China…The United States calls on the People’s Republic of China to immediately end its campaign of repression in Xinjiang, release all those arbitrarily detained, and cease efforts to coerce members of Chinese Muslim minority groups residing abroad to return to China to face an uncertain fate.”

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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Djibouti

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but mandates equality for persons of all faiths. The government maintained its authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including assets and personnel of all mosques. Non-Muslim groups register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which conducts lengthy background checks as part of the registration process. The government continued to implement a decree for state control of mosques, and the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs’ High Islamic Council closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons. The ministry did not take any disciplinary action against imams deemed extremist. In September the government began to introduce the new mandatory Civic and Moral Education curriculum, based on Islam, in public schools across the country.

Norms and customs continued to discourage conversion from Islam. Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

In April the Ambassador hosted a lunch to connect religious leaders with their counterparts of different faiths. U.S. embassy officials met regularly with religious minority leaders to discuss equitable treatment of religious groups by the government.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 903,000 (midyear 2019 estimate), of which 94 percent is Sunni Muslim. According to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Shia Muslims, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is, and atheists constitute the remaining 6 percent. Non-Muslims are generally foreign-born citizens and expatriates, highly concentrated in Djibouti City.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the registered refugee population at 30,000, of whom 44 percent are from Somalia, 36 percent from Ethiopia, 17 percent from Yemen, and 3 percent from Eritrea. Refugees are both Muslim and non-Muslim, but no data exists on their religious breakdown.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Islam is the religion of the state, according to the constitution. The constitution mandates the government respect all faiths and guarantees equality before the law, regardless of one’s religion. The law does not impose sanctions on those who do not observe Islamic teachings or who practice other religious beliefs. The constitution prohibits religiously based political parties.

It is illegal for any faith to proselytize in public.

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs has authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including mosques, religious events, and private Islamic schools. The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education jointly oversee the school curricula and teacher certification of approximately 40 Islamic schools. The public school system is secular. Private schools run by religious organizations have the option to offer civic education courses based on Islam.

The president swears an Islamic religious oath.

Muslims may bring personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance either to family courts, whose code includes elements of civil and Islamic law, or to civil courts. Civil courts address the same matters for non-Muslims. Citizens are officially considered Muslims if they do not specifically identify with another religious group. The family courts, referred to as sharia courts, have two stages. The complainant first brings their grievance to the neighborhood council (Qadi), which either issues a judgment or transmits the case to the family court. If the complainant is not satisfied with the decision of the Qadi or the family court, he or she may appeal to the court of first instance of the family court or the supreme Sharia Council.

The government requires all foreign and domestic non-Muslim religious groups to register by submitting an application to the Ministry of Interior, which conducts a lengthy background investigation of the group. The investigation reviews group leadership, religious affiliation, sources of finance, and the group’s objectives within the country. Ties to religious groups considered extremist, strong political agendas, and relations with unfriendly foreign nations are factors that could cause a group’s application to be rejected. Domestic and foreign Muslim religious groups must inform the High Islamic Council at the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs of their existence and intent to operate. Muslim and non-Muslim foreign religious groups must also gain approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to operate in the country. Once approved, every foreign religious group signs a one-year agreement detailing the scope of its activities. Foreign religious groups must submit quarterly reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and renew their agreements every year. The quarterly report details activities, origin of funding for activities, and scope of work completed, and it identifies beneficiaries. Non-Muslim religious groups may not operate in the interim while awaiting registration.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The country has declared a reservation regarding proselytizing in open public spaces.

Government Practices

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs continued its efforts to implement a 2014 decree executing a law on state control of mosques, which converted the status of imams, including refugee imams, to civil service employees of the ministry and transferred ownership of mosque properties and other assets to the government. The government completed implementation of the decree for all mosques in Djibouti City but had not done so in outlying regions due to financial constraints. In July the government announced its intention to give all registered religious leaders utilities subsidies for water and electricity. In August government officials reiterated a decree aimed at eliminating political activity from mosques, providing greater government oversight of mosque assets and activities, and countering foreign influence. Although imams remained under the direction of the government, mosques’ properties continued to be controlled by individual congregations, since the government department designated to manage these assets still was not operational. The ministry’s High Islamic Council continued to send instructions on and closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons. The ministry disciplined one imam for criticizing the government over a salary dispute. During the year, however, the ministry reported no cases involving polarizing or political speech from imams, unlike the previous year.

The government continued to permit registered non-Islamic groups, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, to operate freely, according to Christian leaders. Religious signage was permitted at the Catholic Church. Muslim citizens were permitted to enter Christian churches, although societal pressure discouraged conversion. There were no limitations on the importation of religious literature for registered non-Islamic groups. No other Christian groups and no non-Christian groups had legal recognition from the government. The government subsidized the cost of utilities at some church properties of registered non-Islamic groups, since it considered some church properties to be part of the national patrimony. Religious groups not registered with the government, such as Ethiopian Protestant and non-Sunni Muslim congregations, operated under the auspices of registered groups. Smaller groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’is, were not registered with the government but operated privately without incident, according to Christian leaders. Observers stated these groups and other religious minorities hosted worship gatherings in private housing and usually at night, in part because of reduced police presence at that time. The groups coordinated loosely with the country’s security forces, which continued to impose curfews and noise restrictions.

The government continued to allow non-Islamic religious groups to host events and proselytize on the groups’ private property; in practice, groups refrained from proselytizing in public spaces, such as hotels or street corners, due to cultural sensitivities and the threat of government intervention. Government officials noted that any violation of the law forbidding public proselytizing would summon the police. The government continued to permit a limited number of Christian missionaries to sell religious books and pamphlets at a bookstore in Djibouti City.

The government continued to issue visas to foreign Islamic and non-Islamic clergy and missionaries but required they belong to registered religious groups before they could work in the country or operate nongovernmental organizations. The government required foreign religious leaders to regularize their status by purchasing a residency card for 24,000 Djiboutian francs ($140).

Local public schools continued to observe only Islamic holidays, but under the direction of the Ministry of Education, schools in refugee camps continued to permit students of other religious groups to miss class for their respective religious holidays. The ministry continued work on revising the national curriculum, including reforming civic and moral education courses to promote religious inclusivity.

In September the government began to introduce the new mandatory Civic and Moral Education curriculum, based on Islam, in public schools across the country.

In July the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs organized logistics for 1,500 individuals to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca. As part of the official mandate, the ministry applied for visas, gathered information for health cards, including arranging vaccination appointments, and coordinated with travel agencies to organize food and lodging.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Societal norms and customs discouraged conversion from Islam, but conversions reportedly occurred, particularly for marriages with non-Muslim partners. Christian groups reported continued discrimination in employment and education against converts to Christianity who changed their names. Non-Muslims reportedly hid their religious status for increased job options and societal acceptance. Both Muslim and Christian leaders acknowledged conversion from Islam was detrimental to a person’s social status; Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with Ministry of Education and Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs representatives to ensure that religious minorities within refugee camps would continue to be allowed to observe their respective holidays.

The Ambassador hosted three iftars, two in Djibouti City and one in Obock, to highlight religious plurality and religious diversity. The embassy again welcomed a U.S. military Muslim chaplain as a special guest to speak on the importance of religious tolerance.

In October and November in connection with International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy shared a series of stories from survivors of religious persecution on its Facebook page to highlight the importance of religious tolerance.

In April the Ambassador hosted a lunch to connect religious leaders with their counterparts of different faiths. Attendees represented the Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox faith communities. The leaders discussed areas for mutual understanding and greater collaboration.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in 2017. In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prisons terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in a suburb south of Cairo. On February 9, authorities arrested Muslim students at Al-Azhar for posting video footage mocking Christian religious practices. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 814 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings, bringing the cumulative total to 1412 of 5,415 applications for licensure. In April the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the Anba Karas Church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. Local authorities continued to periodically rely on customary reconciliation sessions instead of the official judicial system to resolve sectarian disputes. In April security officials closed a church in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib in response to threats of an attack by Muslim villagers. In November Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of Hgara were directed to rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village following a customary reconciliation session related to a dispute with the local Muslim population. According to an international NGO, there were no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) or houses of worship in the country. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi.

On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat to the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian based on his religious affiliation at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in Northern Sinai on January 17. His fate was unknown at year’s end. In January a religious sheikh at a mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City, Cairo, to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police later discovered an improvised explosive device (IED). One police officer died and two others were injured as they attempted to defuse the bomb. Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019. According to human rights groups and religious communities, discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports. Of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian. Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.

U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador, and former Charge d’Affaires, as well as visiting senior-level delegations from Washington and embassy representatives and officials of the former consulate general in Alexandria met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 101.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Most experts and media sources state that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and approximately 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population and include Anglican/Episcopalian and other Protestant denominations, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches. The Protestant community includes Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (Al-Mithaal Al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (Al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (Al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), Grace (An-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (Ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-day Adventist. Jehovah’s Witnesses account for 1,000-1,500 persons, according to media estimates, and there are also an estimated 150 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates. Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population. Baha’i representatives estimate the size of the community to be between 1,000 and 2,000. There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and expatriate members of various groups.

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are six to 10 Jews. There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The grand imam is elected by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term. The president does not have the authority to dismiss him. While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion Egyptian pounds ($1 billion).

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

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

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

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. A woman in this situation can continue to live with her husband until she has a legal need to prove her marriage, at which time the marriage may be considered void. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

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

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

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

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar Al Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar Al Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

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

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

The government appoints and monitors imams, who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,100). The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines. Any imam who does not follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including losing his preaching license. The ministry also issues prewritten sermons as an obligatory guide for imams to draw from, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques. Imams are subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal, for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

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

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

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1900 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

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

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,300)

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit Al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations convene opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Sources say in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo, it has become inactive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail, who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in December 2017.

In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for the bombings of Coptic churches between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 persons. The court commuted the sentences of 19 other defendants to life imprisonment, eight to 15 years, and another to 10 years. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and said the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prison terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017 in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.

On July 1, the Court of Cassation upheld a death sentence issued against a suspect convicted of killing two Copts, terrorizing the Christian community of Shamiya village in Assiut, and imposing taxes on the village in 2013-14.

On March 30, a Cairo court sentenced 30 men to prison terms of 10 years to life for planning a suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria as well as other charges, including the bombing of a liquor store in Damietta. Eighteen defendants received life terms, eight received 15 years in prison, and four received 10 years. Ten of those convicted remained at large, and the court sentenced them in absentia. Authorities said the defendants had embraced ISIS ideology.

On December 11, a group of UN special rapporteurs publicly called on the government to end the detention and ill treatment of Ramy Kamel Saied Salid, who worked to defend the rights of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. According to a December press release issued by the UN Human Rights Council, as well as NGO and media sources, authorities arrested, questioned, and tortured Kamel on November 4 and November 23. They charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. His arrest coincided with his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a Geneva UN forum on November 28 and 29, where, in the past, he discussed issues relating to the Coptic community. According to the statement, police broke into Kamel’s home on November 23 and confiscated personal documents, a laptop, camera, and mobile phone before taking him to an unknown location.

On February 7, Christian activists circulated a video depicting a group of Al-Azhar students mocking Christian religious practices. Al-Azhar University referred the students to a disciplinary board at the university and in a statement said Al-Azhar strongly condemned such actions. On February 9, authorities arrested the students for “inciting sectarian strife” and subsequently released them on bail on February 27. At year’s end the case was still pending.

In January atheist blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to purchase another nationality so he could leave the country. Authorities banned Gaber from travel abroad in 2018 and accused him of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube. On September 16, Gaber posted on his Facebook page that he was sentenced to three years in prison for contempt of religions and disturbing the public peace.

Efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support, including from multiple members of parliament, although in late 2018 President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing.” On March 22, Al-Azhar announced the formation of a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa that would focus on “counter(ing) atheism” and preventing youth from “falling into disbelief.”

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of crimes targeting Christians and instances of sectarian violence. Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities charged four individuals with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. In June, after the court in Beni Suef referred the case to the Minya Criminal Court, the Minya court postponed hearing the case, which was still pending at year’s end. On February 17, the Ain Shams Misdemeanors Court sentenced a man who had stormed a church and attacked security officers in November 2018 to three years’ imprisonment.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities interrogated several of their members due to their status as a “banned group” during the year. In February security officials twice “violently interrogated” a Jehovah’s Witness in Upper Egypt, threatening, blindfolding, and beating him and confiscating his cell phone and personal identification. In April, October, and November, police officials in Cairo summoned individual Jehovah’s Witnesses to their office for questioning. In April officials summoned a Jehovah’s Witness in Minya for interrogation. In September security officials allowed more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a religious meeting in a private home.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests and sometimes failing to extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, particularly in Upper Egypt. On January 7, following a Mass celebrating Coptic Christmas, a crowd of Muslims protested the presence of the unlicensed Mar Girgis Church in the village of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya in Upper Egypt. On January 11, a crowd reportedly gathered again and chanted anti-Christian slogans until police and security forces intervened to disperse the crowd and closed the church. The Coptic Diocese of Minya subsequently released a video and statement that indicated security forces aided Muslim residents seeking to close the church. The Wall Street Journal quoted the Coptic Diocese of Minya, “Every time, the extremists are able to impose their demands.”

In February press reported local Christians had conducted three funerals of church congregants in the streets of Kom el-Raheb due to their continued denial of access to the church, which authorities closed in 2018. In July press reported Copts from Kom el-Raheb stormed into the closed church and staged a sit-in protesting the church’s continued closure. According to press reports, unknown persons burned down three Christian-owned properties following the sit-in. According to press reports, the church and individual church members blamed local government authorities and security forces for siding with anti-Christian “hard-liners.”

On April 12, a mob protesting the unlicensed expansion of the Anba Karas Church in the village of Nagaa el-Ghafir in Sohag Governorate attacked the church with rocks and wounded two Christians. Security forces intervened to stop the attack and ordered the church closed. In April EIPR condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. EIPR reported there had been 32 sectarian incidents between 2016 and April 2019 and stated security forces were responsible for the closure of 22 unlicensed churches, with up to four closed during the year.

According to official statistics, the government approved 814 applications to license churches and related buildings during the year, and, since September 2017, approved 1,412 of the 5,415 pending applications to license of churches and related buildings. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) quoted Coptic Orthodox Bishop Makarios of Minya as saying his diocese had approximately 150 villages and neighborhoods in need of a church or other religious buildings.

As it did in previous years, the government in September closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura. Although in previous years the government explained the closure was due to construction, reports in media stated the Ministry of Al-Awqaf circulated internal correspondence affirming the ministry would not allow any “sectarian practices,” and any attempts of sectarian “parades,” especially around the mosques of the Prophet’s family, would be confronted.

According to Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no husseiniyahs in the country and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. MRGI reported in January, “The state has failed to respect the right of the Shia to practice their religious rituals” and that security services often subjected Shia citizens traveling on religious pilgrimages to interrogations, sometimes including torture. According to MRGI, Shia risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services and security and intelligence services.

In July the Ministry of Awqaf announced a 12-day closure of the Imam Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo for maintenance. Community members said the actual reason for the closure was a call from Sufi groups to gather in the mosque square in response to an Al-Dostour newspaper article critical of Imam Hussein, entitled “Hussein Unjust,” that Sufi adherents deemed insulting to religion.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. In an October 7 press conference, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki announced the government was dismissing 1,070 public school teachers because of “extremist ideas.” A former senior official in the Ministry of Education (MOE) told the press the Muslim Brotherhood was targeting primary school students to continue to propagate its ideology.

According to June press reports, a mob attacked the homes of a Christian and his two relatives in the village of Ashnin in Upper Egypt. The mob forced its way into the homes and destroyed furniture and appliances before being dispersed by local police. Following an investigation, police arrested three Christians but none of the attackers. After a customary reconciliation session, the Christians were released and charges were dropped. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, on April 30, a customary reconciliation meeting was held in the Upper Egypt village of Nagib after threats of a potential mob attack by Muslim villagers led security officials to close the village’s church. The NGO also stated that a November customary reconciliation session in Hgara village, located in Upper Egypt, resulted in local Christians being told that they must rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. While at least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt refused to participate in reconciliation sessions due to criticism that they frequently were substitutes for criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches, Orthodox Church leaders took part in two customary reconciliation sessions in other dioceses, according to EIPR. Although other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions, human rights groups and many Christian community representatives said the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship and pressured Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On January 25, MRGI released a report, Justice Denied, Promises Broken: The Situation of Egypt’s Minorities Since 2014, which stated, “A key factor in the prevalence of sectarian attacks against Christian communities is the continued practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’ between communities, often with the active encouragement of police and officials. This reliance on informal justice approaches that are usually weighted heavily in favor of the Muslim majority is further entrenched by the failure of security forces and the formal judiciary to discharge their responsibilities to prevent and punish targeted attacks on Christians…The dominance of this partial system of informal justice is accompanied by the failure of the formal justice system to protect Christian and other minority victims.”

As it has in previous years prior to Ramadan, the Ministry of Awqaf in April announced restrictions on the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents to spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan. As in previous years, authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

In May the Ministry of Awqaf ordered imams limit the length of Ramadan night prayers (tarawih) to 10 minutes, and banned mention of political topics, the government, or political figures in prayers. At the start of Ramadan in May, Minister of Awqaf Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa announced the ministry had decided to close zawiyas (small prayer rooms used as mosques) during Ramadan and to restrict the use of loudspeakers.

In April the Ministry of Awqaf announced its intention to permanently close unauthorized mosques. There was no coordinated implementation of a policy of closures during the year.

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims from worshiping privately in small numbers, according to community representatives. The government, however, continued to refuse their requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 23, the High Administrative Court rejected an appeal by the Witnesses to overturn a 1985 law that prevents their members from registering property ownership and marriages. The court ruled the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses contradict the public order and morals in the country.

In August the Ministry of Awqaf gave Yasser Borhami, the deputy head of the Salafist Call, the umbrella organization of the country’s Salafi movements, approval to deliver sermons during Friday prayers at an Alexandria mosque. Borhami had previously stated Muslims should not send holiday greetings to Christians or watch soccer games and had described Christianity as polytheism, said churches should not be allowed in the country, and Muslim taxi and bus drivers should not transport Christian clergy. Critics said Borhami’s past comments reflected hostility towards Christians and non-Salafi Muslims; they condemned the ministry’s decision allowing him to return to preaching.

On August 29, the Anti-Defamation League published a report, Anti-Semitic Show Does Not Belong on Egyptian State Television, detailing how a program, Blue Line, which aired on the government-run Channel Two, propagated a broad range of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The claims included Holocaust denial, Jewish control of U.S. banking, media, and government, and blood libel.

The UN Human Rights Council began its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s commitments under the ICCPR in November. Previous UPRs took place in 2010 and 2014. In submissions for the UPR, NGOs stated discrimination and sectarian violence against Copts persisted at the local level, often with inadequate intervention from security services to prevent it; many religious minorities lived in fear of societal persecution; Christians still faced discrimination in education and workplaces, and the law on the Construction and Reparation of Churches placed many restrictions on Christians attempting to restore or build new churches, while defining them as a “sect,” contrary to their right to equal citizenship. In its submission, the government stated, “certain practical steps have been taken to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, and incitement to violence on the basis of religion or belief.” The government cited several initiatives that it had undertaken in this regard, including the circulation of pamphlets and brochures, changes to the educational system, new classes, and employing the authority and expertise of Al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions to promote tolerance, moderation, and a culture of dialogue.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. In 2018, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011, when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests. The new governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services. Christians admitted at the entry level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks, according to sources.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers to enter the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The MOE continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, second grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum after it was introduced in first grade and kindergarten in 2018.

The president established a Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents in 2018, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent such incidents, addressing them as they occur, and applying the rule of law. The committee, headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs, is composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the National Security Sector (NSS), and the Administrative Oversight Agency. TIMEP said the committee did not include representatives of the judiciary, legislature, human rights groups, or of any minority communities. According to press, however, the committee is entitled to invite ministers, officials, and religious leaders to its meetings when considering topics relevant to them. The committee held its inaugural meeting on January 16 to look into a January 11 attack by a crowd of approximately 1,000 Muslim villagers on Coptic villagers of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya. Coptic parliamentarian Emad Gad observed the committee did not issue any statement on the incident, even though it was formed to combat sectarian violence. Since the inaugural meeting, EIPR reported the committee had not announced any subsequent meetings.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance. On March 10, the Al-Azhar Center for Interfaith Dialogue and the Episcopal Church co-organized a conference on equal citizenship to promote interreligious tolerance and a shared sense of belonging, according to media reports. In May the Center for Interfaith Dialogue launched a new campaign entitled “God Hears Your Dialogue” to increase awareness among youth of the importance and necessity of dialogue to promote peaceful coexistence. In September Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf participated in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

In a January 7 statement, the Al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced its introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance in the 11,000 schools under its purview. The statement read that the new texts would focus on unity between Muslims and Christians and would stress the concept of citizenship without distinction on the basis of religious belief.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff grew to approximately 100 employees, who monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the Al-Azhar International Academy, also began offering courses on a wide range of subjects related to Islam to imams and preachers in 20 countries. Prominent members of parliament strongly criticized Al-Azhar for failing to rapidly institute the president’s directive to launch a renewal of religious discourse as a means to combat extremism, and for exercising excessive independence from the government. An EIPR analyst reported that President al-Sisi insisted Al-Azhar exert greater efforts to combat extremist ideas. Another EIPR analyst said Al-Azhar’s overseas programs were part of “Al-Azhar’s vision of itself as the guardian of Islam around the world and as a partner – rather than an affiliated institution – to the Egyptian state.”

On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi. The document condemned practices “detrimental to human life and freedom,” and pledged cooperation to combat extremism and promote peace.

In June President al-Sisi delivered a speech during a ceremony in Cairo for Laylat al-Qadr (the 27th day of Ramadan that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran) in which he said, “When we wish our Christian brothers a happy feast and (congratulate them) on building new churches, we represent our religion.” President al-Sisi added that the country’s main goal was to preserve the essence of religion, to raise religious awareness, and combat extremist threats among youth.

Dar al-Iftaa and Al-Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays. At the January 7 inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the largest church in the region, and the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque in the New Administrative Capital, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar said Islam obliged Muslims to safeguard houses of worship for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. President al-Sisi also attended the opening of the newly built mosque and the cathedral, where for the fifth consecutive year he celebrated Christmas services with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros.

In February the Jerusalem Post reported President al-Sisi met with a visiting delegation of private U.S. citizens and told them the government would welcome a resurgence of the Jewish community in the country and that it would support such a resurgence with the construction of synagogues and help with related services. According to the report, the president also promised to address concerns about the ancient Jewish Bassatine Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair. Following the meeting, the government facilitated a brief trash cleanup effort of the cemetery involving work crews from multiple municipalities; however, NGO representatives said the government did not contribute to the rehabilitation of the cemetery.

The Ministry of Antiquities (MOA) engaged in a multimillion dollar effort to restore the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue, one of two remaining in the greater Alexandria area. Authorities stated progress at the synagogue underscored the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage and very small remaining community, and that this was a reflection of a broader policy of stressing the government’s commitment to safeguarding religious diversity and freedom.

On February 7, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country. The ministry said it would conduct a design competition to decide on details and that only mosques designed in accordance with the new guidance would be granted construction permits in the future.

In July the state-run University of Alexandria and state-run University of Damanhour announced the establishment of centers of Coptic studies, in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes will include courses in the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat on the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in northern Sinai on January 17 based on his religious affiliation. The men had been checking the identification of motorists and abducted the man after learning he was Christian. On January 25, ISIS released a statement that read, “the soldiers of the Islamic State in Sinai set up an ambush to target the apostates.” According to media reports, the man had still not been located at the end of the year and his fate was unknown.

On January 5, a sheikh at a neighboring mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police discovered an IED. One police officer died and two others were injured when the IED exploded while it was being defused. While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, in December the NSS arrested three students of Al Azhar University and accused them of planting the explosives. The investigation continued through year’s end.

Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities. According to a Coptic Christian advocacy group, of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian.

In May EIPR called on authorities to provide followers of unrecognized religions the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. In January Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim posted a video in which he criticized Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb for participating in the opening ceremony of the cathedral in the New Administrative Capital. Ghoneim said Islam considers Copts infidels, and that those who accept the Christian religion or assist them in practicing it are nonbelievers.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued. Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned television endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy. In May Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud received heavy criticism in the press and on various social media platforms for his interview with a prominent Israeli online news site. In August commentators and local anti-Zionist organizations strongly criticized a theatre performance on the Holocaust performed by university students and accused members of the cast of glorifying Zionism and insulting Muslims.

On January 28, attorney and activist Samir Sabri brought suit on behalf of a group of Muslim scholars seeking to ban the movie, The Guest, for misrepresenting Islam. The Cairo Court of Urgent Cases scheduled a hearing for February 23, and then postponed it until April 6. The case remained open through year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and the then-Charge d’Affaires, raised religious freedom concerns with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Awqaf, as well as with members of parliament, governors, and representatives of Islamic institutions, church communities, religious minority groups, and civil society groups. In their meetings with government officials, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Throughout the year, embassy officers met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant churches. Issues raised included cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations, including on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues, such as issuance of permits for, and new construction of, churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the restoration of Jewish religious sites. The then-Charge visited Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue in October and met with MOA officials to discuss the ministry’s ongoing efforts to restore the synagogue, part of a public effort by the government to preserve the legacy of the Jewish community and to support religious diversity.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in government engagements. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts on the 2018 International Religious Freedom Report that reached 20,000 persons and five posts on the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that reached 65,000 readers.

France

Executive Summary

The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced that since 2018 authorities had closed 159 institutions open to the public, including 13 places of worship, to combat Islamism and secluded communities. President Emmanuel Macron and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government augmented from 7,000 to 10,000 the number of security forces it deployed to protect religious and other sensitive sites. President Macron publicly stated anti-Semitism had grown and reached its worst level since World War II. He called anti-Zionism a modern form of anti-Semitism and said it was why the government would implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The National Assembly separately passed a resolution adopting the IHRA definition. Interior Minister Castaner and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet announced additional measures to combat anti-Semitism, including enhanced security for religious sites and improved guidance for prosecutors evaluating hate crimes. As part of the 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism, the government awarded the first annual national anti-racism prize and dedicated 2.3 million euros ($2.58 million) for local projects on the issue. The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools and by officials offering public services. Police in Grenoble fined female Muslim protesters for bathing in burkinis in a public swimming pool. An assemblyman in Dijon turned away a Muslim woman accompanying her son to the regional legislature for refusing to remove her hijab. Interior Minister Castaner included “rigid religious practice, particularly exacerbated in Ramadan,” and “regular and ostentatious practice of ritual prayer” in a list of possible indicators of Islamist radicalization. The minister of the armed forces acknowledged government responsibility for the 1942 roundup of 13,000 French Jews deported to extermination camps.

Religiously motivated crimes included attempted murder, assault, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. The government reported 1,052 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries, compared with 1,063 in 2018; 154 incidents targeting Muslims, including attempted murder, compared with 100 in 2018; and 687 anti-Semitic incidents, including a violent assault against a Jewish taxi driver, death threats against a mayor, harassment of a prominent Jewish philosopher, and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, an increase of 27 percent compared with the 541 incidents recorded in 2018. The rise in anti-Semitic incidents stemmed from a 50 percent increase in threats; other incidents, including attacks on persons – which fell by 44 percent – declined by 15 percent. Authorities charged a man with attempted murder for shooting outside a mosque two persons who caught him as he tried to set fire to the mosque. A court ruled the confessed killer of a Jewish woman in 2017 could not be held criminally responsible because he was in a delusional state from smoking marijuana before the killing. Lawyers for the family announced their intention to appeal the ruling. A Paris court of appeals convicted Abdelkader Merah of complicity in the 2012 killings by his brother of seven persons outside a Jewish school. A study found 42 percent of Muslims reported experiencing religious discrimination at least once in the previous five years. A European Commission (EC) survey found 72 percent of respondents thought anti-Semitism was a problem in the country and another EC survey found 69 percent believed religious discrimination was widespread. A sports retailer cancelled plans to sell a hijab for runners after widespread criticism of the measure.

The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Interministerial Delegation to Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH). The Ambassador and embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and religiously-motivated hate crimes. The embassy sponsored the participation of interfaith representatives in a U.S. program with themes of religious cooperation and pluralism. It also funded religious tolerance workshops for youths led jointly by Jewish and Muslim organizations in Bordeaux.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The law prohibits government collection of data based on race, ethnicity, or religion. However, a wide range of unofficial statistics and studies circulate.

A report released in July by the Observatory for Secularism, a government-appointed commission, in cooperation with polling company Viavoice, presented estimated figures of those who identified as part of a religion or felt tied to a religion. According to the report, whose figures are consistent with other estimates, 48 percent of respondents identify as Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 2 percent Buddhist, 0.7 percent Jewish, 0.6 percent, and 1 percent other religion; 34 percent said they have no religious affiliation and 7 percent preferred not to respond. The same report estimates “other” religions’ numbers as follows: Jehovah’s Witnesses, 140,000-250,000, and Hindus, 150,000-300,000. In addition, the observatory’s report stated 31 percent consider themselves nonbelievers or atheists.

The report stated the number of residents linked to Islam in the poll was likely underestimated, as some Muslim and Muslim-affiliated residents may have declined to state their religion. According to the report, the “most precise” estimate of the Muslim population, based on multiple polls and demographic extrapolation, is likely between 3.3 and 5.0 million residents. The report stated the Muslim population corresponds with the arrival of immigrant populations, particularly from the Mediterranean and West Africa. The report also tied Hindu and Buddhist populations to immigrant communities.

The report attributes the growth in the Protestant community, from 2.5 percent of the population in 2010 to 3.1 percent during the year, to the growing number of Evangelical Christians, who number approximately one million.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and shall respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.

The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,700) and imprisonment of one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.

Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($50,600-$84,300), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($50,600). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.

Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.

Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. In order to qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order. Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. To apply for this tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association. In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status. The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently. Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website. Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition.

The law states, “Detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They may practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”

Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,400). The core provisions of the legislation will expire at the end of 2020 unless renewed by parliament.

The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($33,700) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.

The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross. The prohibition applies during working hours and at the place of employment.

By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.

The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the interior ministry, and the country’s president, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The prime minister appoints the chief rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories in Alsace-Moselle, and the interior minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.

Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state. Elsewhere in the country, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.

By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.

Missionaries from countries not exempt from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from non-exempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.

The law criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”

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

Government Practices

On November 28, at a conference of the country’s prefects, Interior Minister Castaner announced the nationwide expansion of an initial program authorities had implemented since February 2018 to counter “Islamism and communitarianism,” the latter term referencing, according to the Observatory for Secularism, a trend for community withdrawal and separation from the rest of society, up to and including enforcement of rules specific to that community. The initial project targeted 15 communities “particularly touched by the phenomenon of political Islam,” according to Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Laurent Nunez in a November 15 interview. In these communities, the MOI had conducted 1,030 inspections of establishments open to the public, including pubs, cafes, and liquor stores; cultural and sports establishments; private schools; and places of worship. As a result of the inspections, during that period the MOI closed 133 drinking establishments, 13 places of worship, four schools, and nine cultural establishments because, according to Nunez in his interview, those establishments employed a “communitarian” or “political Islam” discourse that put “the laws of God before the laws of the Republic.” The government did not identify the specific sites it closed under the initial program.

The prefect of Isere, who is subordinate to the minister of interior, closed the Al-Kawthar Mosque in Grenoble for six months starting February 7. The MOI stated it closed the mosque because it posted videos on its YouTube channel that incited hatred and violence towards Christians and Jews; its imam’s sermons justified armed jihad; and the mosque was frequented by known extremists. There were no reports the mosque reopened after the six-month period. The government said it closed one other mosque and monitored 63 mosques during the year but did not identify them or provide other details. On June 13, the association Action Muslim Rights (ADM) released a report criticizing the MOI’s closures of mosques. ADM stated that while the mosques were shut down, the government did not investigate them for terrorist ties. According to the report, none of the mosques had reopened, although the law limits the closures to a period not to exceed six months.

Between January 1 and July 18, the interior ministry expelled 44 foreigners it considered radicalized, a new record, Le Point magazine reported. While the article did not cite 2018 deportations, it reported that in 2017 the country deported a total of 20 radicalized foreigners. (A 2018 report the country had expelled 300 radical imams since 2017 was incorrect.)

On October 8, as President Macron paid tribute to four victims of an insider knife attack at the Paris police headquarters, he stated the country must develop a “society of vigilance” in which citizens look out for signs of individuals being influenced by Islamist extremist networks in the fight against the “hydra” of Islamist militancy. The attacker, a police employee who had converted to Islam, had contacts with individuals believed to be linked to an Islamist Salafist movement, according to prosecutors, who also said they believed the attacker harbored work-related grievances linked to his disabilities.

In response to the same knife attack, Interior Minister Castaner spoke before the National Assembly October 8 and articulated several signs that might indicate a person’s radicalization through changes in behavior, including “rigorous religious practice, particularly exacerbated during the period of Ramadan,” “wearing a beard,” whether or not he greets a woman with a traditional kiss on the cheek, if the person “has a regular and ostentatious practice of ritual prayer,” and the presence of hyperpigmentation on the forehead, widely interpreted as a reference to the zabiba, a mark often resulting from repeated contact of the forehead with a prayer rug.

The government maintained the deployment of security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship, and increased their number from 7,000 to 10,000. After the March terrorist attacks against mosques in New Zealand, the MOI increased patrols around religious sites.

At year’s end, the Paris Appeals Court had not issued a ruling in the case of Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four and injuring 40. In 2018 investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Diab and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed the case’s dismissal, and the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. Upon his release in 2018, Diab returned to Canada where he remained at year’s end.

In June police fined a group of Muslim women 35 euros ($39) each for bathing in burkinis at a municipal swimming pool in Grenoble in protest of local regulations banning the garment. Women from the same association reported the Citizen Alliance of Grenoble had carried out a similar protest “Operation Burkini” in May, which they called an “act of civil disobedience.” One of the women told the BBC they were being deprived of their civil rights and that “We must fight against discriminatory policies and prejudice in France….” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed support for the mayor of Grenoble and the regulations, saying, “No citizen can be released from the respect of the law or the common regulation on the basis of his religious convictions.” Marlene Schiappa, Junior Minister of State for Gender Equality and the Fight against Discrimination, said, “There is a political message” behind the burkini, which is: “cover up.” She added, however, “Women, whatever their religion or their way of life, must be able to access municipal swimming pools.” In 2016 the Council of State, the country’s highest court on administrative matters, overturned several burkini bans on the basis that local authorities could only restrict individual liberties if there was a “proven risk” to public order. The court ruling did not overturn other anti-burkini regulations nor did it make them illegal; other anti-burkini regulations thus remained in force unless mayors or prefectures suspended them. The ruling did, however, set a legal precedent upon which persons could contest those regulations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported three cases in which authorities had interfered with proselytizing during the year. They did not provide additional details on the incidents.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as of August 2017, the latest year for which statistics were available, the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains: 695 Catholic, 347 Protestant, 224 Muslim, 76 Jewish, 54 Orthodox Christian, 170 Jehovah’s Witness, and 19 Buddhist. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.

At year’s end, the government did not respond to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) following the latter’s October 2018 finding that French authorities violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqabs in two separate cases in 2012. The UNHRC gave the government a deadline of 180 days to report to it action taken to respond to the violation and prevent other such violations. According to a statement the government issued on the same day as the UNHRC ruling, the law prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces was legitimate and did not infringe upon freedom of religion. The government added it would convey its views to the UNHRC in a follow-on report.

During an October 11 meeting of the Burgundy-Franche-Comte Regional Assembly in the central-eastern part of the country, Julien Odoul, an elected official representing the National Rally (RN) Party, told a woman who was accompanying her son on a school outing to the legislature to remove her hijab or leave. The law does not prohibit women from wearing hijabs while attending an assembly session. In response, Junior Minister Schiappa said that “it is by publicly humiliating mothers in front of their children that we create divisions” in society. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, however, said, “The law does not prohibit veiled women from accompanying children, but we do not wish to encourage the phenomenon,” which is “not in agreement with our values.” Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire stated the veil “is legal, but not necessarily desirable.” The woman filed one legal complaint against Odoul with the Dijon public prosecutor’s office for violence of a racial nature by persons of authority, and a separate legal complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office for “incitement of racial hatred by elected officials.” The complaints were pending at year’s end.

In April the Ministry of Culture created a five-person Mission for Research and Restitution of Spoliated Cultural Property in April to seek out the rightful owners or heirs of artworks, including those in museums and galleries, stolen or sold under duress during the country’s occupation. In the spring the government transferred authority for final decisions on art restitution claims from the Ministry of Culture to the Commission for the Compensation for Victims of Spoliation, a separate administrative body reporting directly to the prime minister, in order to address criticism that museum officials would be reluctant to hand over valuable artwork. On April 1, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended a ceremony returning artwork to its pre-WWII owners at the French consulate in New York.

The government continued to implement a 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the country, with a strong focus on countering online hate content. As part of the plan, Prime Minister Philippe awarded the first annual national anti-racism prize, named for Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man tortured and killed in 2006. In October DILCRAH dedicated 2.3 million euros ($2.58 million) and announced a call for local projects addressing education, prevention, training, and aid for victims of racism and anti-Semitism. The government also continued with an initiative for European Union legislation to require faster removal of illegal content online; created a national reaction team to improve education countering racist and anti-Semitic behavior; funded two thesis grants annually to finance work on racism and anti-Semitism; and established an online precomplaint system for victims of discrimination or racist or anti-Semitic acts.

Prime Minister Philippe advocated for a bill requiring websites to remove “obviously hateful” content, specifically racist or anti-Semitic content, within 24 hours. Deputy Laetitia Avia introduced the draft bill at the direction of Prime Minister Philippe and as part of the 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. The National Assembly passed the bill in July, but the senate did not vote on it by year’s end. Among other critiques on freedom of expression grounds, the European Commission published a letter November 22 raising concerns about the bill’s impact on freedom of expression and its potential conflict with European Union free speech directives. Facebook and others questioned the 24-hour window to remove content, citing the legal analysis needed to evaluate posts.

On April 2, Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet introduced a circular, which she said was part of the effort to combat anti-Semitism, urging prosecutors to use simplified, faster procedures (such as civil referrals to block access to “hate sites”) and criminal orders (trial without a hearing) to prosecute and convict authors of “racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” writings.

In a September 12 speech before the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) in Bordeaux, Interior Minister Castaner detailed several government measures to fight what he called “the poison of anti-Semitism,” including enhanced surveillance of 800 places of worship, the dissolution by decree of the Council of Ministers of several neo-Nazi groups, including Bastion Social and six affiliated associations, Combat 18, and Blood and Honor Hexagon, and an increase in the government contribution for the Shoah Memorial. He repeated President Macron’s February statement that the National Assembly would take up a proposal to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and said, “Anti-Zionism often has nothing to do with criticism of the foreign policy of the State of Israel; it is too often aimed at people of Jewish faith. It has become a disguised anti-Semitism.”

On July 10, the Observatory for Secularism, a body composed of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its sixth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals. According to the report, the subject of secularism remained a sensitive one, although “direct attacks on secularism” appeared better contained, for the third year in a row. The report credited a proliferation of training on secularism and treatment of religious subjects, as well as improved targeting of implementing partners for the training. Since 2013, the Observatory for Secularism said it had directly or indirectly contributed to training more than 250,000 persons to respond to questions of secularism in the workplace.

On April 14, a fire broke out at the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, destroying the roof and spire and causing extensive damage to the windows and vaulted ceilings. President Macron, Prime Minister Philippe, and Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Nunez visited the cathedral, which is government-owned, while the fire still burned. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said in a statement June 26 that a preliminary investigation found no signs the blaze was started deliberately, and that it was likely due to negligence. Macron vowed in a televised address on April 16 that the country would rebuild the cathedral in five years.

Interior Minister Castaner did not attend the iftar hosted by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), but attended an iftar in Strasbourg hosted by the Alsace Regional Council of Muslim Faith (Alsace CRCM) on May 29. At that event, Castaner, whose ministry oversees government relations with religious communities, expressed his disappointment with CFCM for its “reluctant” approach to implementing reforms. He praised the Alsace CRCM, however, as a “laboratory of ideas for the future of Islam in France.” He lauded the “peaceful and constructive approach” of the Alsace CRCM, specifically its work on prevention of radicalization, creation of a council of imams and religious leaders, and interreligious dialogue. Attendees at the event included regional Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, other government officials, and the mayor of Strasbourg.

Interior Minister Castaner continued a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the structure and the funding of Islam in the country. In his New Year’s address to CFCM at the Grand Mosque of Paris on January 23, he called for “powerful representatives” of Islam in the country, and stated, referencing the recurring “Yellow Vest” cost of living protests in the country, that he counted on Muslim leaders “to influence public debates including on nonreligious issues such as the protests”. “Islam,” he said, “like every organized religion, has its place in France. There is no incompatibility between praying to Allah and loving the Republic.” In December prefects in each department held a second round of listening sessions with local representatives from the Muslim community on issues related to institutional representation, financing of Islamic places of worship, and training of imams.

On October 28, President Macron met with Muslim leaders of the CFCM and called on them to fight Islamism and “communitarianism,” which he called a form of “separatism” in the country. He urged the CFCM to adopt clear position on issues including public wearing of the veil, women’s roles, and education in the Muslim community.

On August 29, President Macron met with the newly elected President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, to discuss reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, migration, relations between religions and the state, and proposed legislation on access to medically-assisted reproduction treatments. Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort expressed his concern about the proposed legislation, but said it was not the role of the bishops to prescribe political actions to Catholics. In September the archbishop stated those who were concerned about the law should protest it, but did not call on Catholics to do so. At year’s end, the national assembly passed the legislation, but the senate did not vote on it.

On September 19, Interior Minister Castaner attended the inauguration of the French Institute of Muslim Civilization (IFCM), a new national Islamic cultural center in Lyon. At the opening ceremony, Castaner spoke out against anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and all types of hate, and called the organization an essential initiative to fight prejudice and make Islam better understood in the country. Secretary General of the Muslim World League Mohammed al-Issa and Lyon Mayor Gerard Collomb also delivered remarks at the event. Collomb expressed his expectation that the IFCM would be “an instrument of peace.” The project was funded by one million-euro ($1.12 million) grants each from the central government, the city of Lyon, and the greater metropolitan region of Lyon, in addition to 1.5 million euros ($1.69 million) from the Muslim World League.

On January 9, Interior Minister Castaner, Justice Minister Belloubet, then-government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux, and Junior Minister for the Disabled Sophie Cluzel attended a CRIF-organized memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where four years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other persons hostage.

On February 20, President Macron delivered a televised speech at the annual CRIF dinner. Among the guests in attendance – who all wore badges reading “All united against Anti-Semitism” – were First Lady Brigitte Macron, former president Francois Hollande, former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve, 10 current cabinet members, the U.S. Ambassador, and the Israeli Ambassador. Macron stated anti-Semitism had grown and reached its worst level since World War II in the country and Europe and had gotten “worse in recent weeks.” He said he was drawing “new red lines” in the fight against hatred of Jews and announced a package of measures – some previously announced, some new – to combat the rise of anti-Semitism. Among these were that the country would define “anti-Zionism as a modern-day form of anti-Semitism,” putting it in line with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The government adopted the IHRA definition based on this direction, and the National Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution adopting the definition on December 3. Macron also announced the Ministry of Education would investigate the phenomenon of parents pulling their Jewish children out of public school over fears of anti-Semitism, and the government would dissolve several far-right extremist groups.

In response to a May 13 written request from Parliamentarian Meyer Habib of the Union of Democrats and Independents Party, Interior Minister Castaner declined to prohibit regular protests in favor of BDS in Paris. The minister cited as justification the right of assembly and protest enshrined in the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Before the July 25 Europa League match between Strasbourg Racing and Haifa Maccabi (professional soccer teams from France and Israel, respectively), the local police subprefecture announced a ban on any display that could serve to identify someone as a supporter of Haifa Maccabi in key areas of Strasbourg – including in all areas in and around the stadium. The ban included not only team logos, clothing, and paraphernalia, but any “national flag” associated with the team, widely accepted as a reference to the Israeli flag. The police notice specifically stated the risk for violence, referencing that contact had been established between “violent supporters of both teams, some of whom are politicized or identified as being at the origin of manifestations of anti-Semitism.” The notice, which stated identifying as a Haifa supporter “implicated risk” to that person, was followed by an outcry on social media in both France and Israel. Critics said the ban limited freedom of expression of the potential victims of anti-Semitism rather than demanding and enforcing law-abiding behavior from all fans. Following outreach to the interior ministry by leaders of the Jewish community and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Israeli Embassy in Paris, the subprefecture issued a new notice on July 25 – just before the match – rescinding the rules.

On July 21, Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in which 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “France betrayed its own children,” Parly said in her statements, adding, “The roundup … was the work of the French government, accomplished by the French.” She also promised to take up the late 19th century Dreyfus Affair, where authorities wrongly convicted Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason before eventually pardoning and reinstating him in the army. Parly said it was time to posthumously recognize the honor and years taken from Dreyfus and said she would take up the case “personally.”

President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions, including a February 19 visit to the Shoah Memorial, the same day thousands marched in Paris and elsewhere in protest of anti-Semitic acts; the February 20 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 Judaism Day observance. On October 29, President Macron, along with several government officials, attended the inauguration of the European Center of Judaism in Paris. “Judaism has played a key role across the continent to build all that is thought and all that is European civilization, to fundamentally forge who we are,” said President Macron in his speech.

As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities. The imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries. During Ramadan, when there was an increased number of worshippers, between 250 and 300 imams came to the country temporarily, including 164 from Morocco.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The MOI reported 154 registered incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 100 in 2018. Of the 154, 91 were threats and 63 were other acts, two of which involved shootings in front of a mosque in Brest in June and in front of a mosque in Bayonne in October. The government had not yet released figures on the number of acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship (there were 45 in 2018) and of desecration against Muslim cemeteries (six in 2018) that occurred during the year. Reported anti-Semitic incidents (threats or acts) totaled 687, of which 536 were threats and 151 other acts, compared with 541 total incidents in the previous year. The rise in anti-Semitic incidents came entirely from an increase (of 50 percent) in anti-Semitic threats, whereas other acts – including attacks against persons, which fell by 44 percent – declined by 15 percent from 2018. The government also reported 1,052 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property, compared with 1,063 in 2018. Of the anti-Christian incidents, 56 were threats and 996 other acts, primarily of vandalism or arson against churches and cemeteries.

On October 28, police arrested an 84-year-old man, Claude Sinke, suspected of shooting and seriously injuring two elderly Muslim men as they approached after spotting him trying to set fire to the door of the mosque in the southwestern city of Bayonne. Sinke ran in 2015 as a local candidate in Seignanx for the National Rally Party, the party confirmed in a statement. President Macron condemned the “odious attack” in a tweet and vowed to “do everything” to punish attackers “and protect our Muslim compatriots.” The country “will never tolerate hate,” he said. Interior Minister Castaner called for “solidarity and support for the Muslim community.” National Rally leader Marine Le Pen tweeted, “These crimes must be treated with the most total severity.” At year’s end, police placed Sinke in custody for attempted murder, and judicial police opened an investigation, but the national anti-terrorism prosecutor declined to investigate the case as a terrorist incident.

On May 22, perpetrators mugged and beat a Jewish driver working for a ride-sharing company in a Paris suburb because of his Jewish-sounding name, according to authorities. The victim reported a man in his 20s was waiting for him at the appointed place and asked to sit in the front seat. Then a group of approximately 10 young men surrounded the car. One of the perpetrators told him, “You must have money, we’re going to need to frisk you.” The men then beat the driver, causing him to lose consciousness. He sustained injuries and a concussion. In July authorities charged four persons with the attack and placed one teenager in pretrial detention, stating they considered the anti-Semitic nature of the attack to be an aggravating circumstance. The others were not held in pretrial detention, either because they were minors or because of the level of charges against them. There was no further information on the case at year’s end.

On September 21, a man crashed a car into a mosque in Colmar, in the eastern part of the country, breaking down the gate and doorway of the mosque before hitting a wall. Police subdued the man, who was shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”), in the prayer hall. No one was injured in the attack, although the former president of the Grand Mosque of Colmar stated approximately 60 persons were about to arrive for prayer. At year’s end, the attacker was in pretrial detention, and his motive was still under investigation. The public prosecutor of Colmar stated he charged him with attempted murder, degrading a place of worship, and willful violence with a weapon.

Authorities continued to investigate the 2018 killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, which they were treating as a hate crime, but had not set a trial date by year’s end. The two individuals arrested in connection with the killing remained in pretrial detention.

On December 19, the investigative chamber of the Paris Court of Appeals determined that Kobili Traore, charged with the 2017 killing of his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, Sarah Halimi, was “criminally irresponsible” for her killing. In a reversal of a 2018 ruling, the court ruled Traore could not be held criminally responsible because he was in a delusional state from smoking marijuana heavily in the hours before the killing. The court maintained anti-Semitism as an aggravating circumstance. Traore, who confessed to killing Halimi, was reportedly heard yelling in Arabic, “Allahu Akbar” and “Shaitan” (“Satan”) as he beat Halimi. Psychiatric evaluations of Traore differed in their assessment of his mental state. The third evaluation, released March 18, judged he acted during a “delusional state” caused by cannabis use. Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism (BNVCA), said, “There has been a series of failures” in police and judiciary handling of the case. He added, “Today I no longer have full confidence that anti-Semitic hate crimes in France are handled properly.” CRIF President Francis Kalifat called the decision “unsurprising but difficult to justify.” He criticized a system that “renders a murderer, who is voluntarily under the influence of drugs, unfit for trial, while condemning with greater severity a motorist who has committed an accident under the influence of the same drug.” In April 39 intellectuals wrote an opinion piece in Le Figaro newspaper expressing outrage over the possibility Traore would not stand trial. On December 20, lawyers for the family said they would appeal the ruling. At year’s end, Traore was held in a psychiatric hospital.

On April 18, the Paris Special Criminal Court convicted Abdelkader Merah of complicity in the killing by his brother, Mohammed Merah (who was killed by police), of seven persons outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. The court overturned the 2017 acquittal of Abdelkader Merah on the complicity charge by a Paris criminal court, which convicted him on the lesser charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy. The Special Criminal Court ordered Abdelkader Merah to serve his existing 20-year prison sentence on that lesser conspiracy charge concurrently with the 30-year sentence for complicity.

On July 16, the BNVCA reported the judge in charge of investigating the September 2017 attack on a Jewish family in Livry Gargan did not order anti-Semitism be added to the case as an aggravating circumstance. The suspects are accused of breaking into the home of Roger Pinto, the president of Siona, a group that represents Sephardic Jews, and beating Pinto’s son and wife. One of the burglars said, “You Jews have money,” according to family members.

Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported four incidents of physical assault against their members and two cases of vandalism during the year. In one case, Church officials reported a man punched a Jehovah’s Witness in the chest and stated he “did not want to see” Jehovah’s Witnesses. In another, a man apparently under the influence of alcohol interrupted two Jehovah’s Witnesses while they were evangelizing and asked what they were doing. Church officials said the man then held a knife to the throat of one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and threated to kill him if he returned. In both cases, the individuals filed complaints with the police. As of year’s end, law enforcement did not file charges in either case.

On February 2, police arrested 19 persons in Strasbourg when approximately 50 Yellow Vest protesters threw rocks at police and tried to damage local property, including the main synagogue. Some protesters shouted anti-Semitic insults and launched firecrackers toward the synagogue entrance.

On June 21, authorities found death threats and racist and anti-Semitic graffiti targeting Thal-Marmoutier Mayor Jean-Claude Distel on the walls of the city hall of the nearby town of Schirrhoffen in the Bas-Rhin Department. Schirrhoffen has a large Jewish population, and Distel is a supporter of refugees and migrants. The graffiti included swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs, and the threats included, “A stabbing is coming quickly,” and “Distel you are going to die.” Another threat, “Distel-Lubcke,” referred to a pro-immigrant German leader who was assassinated in early June.

On March 21, Education Minister Blanquer announced that among 130 racist and anti-Semitic acts teachers reported occurring in schools during the first three months of the year, 16 percent were anti-Semitic. The figures were the result of the online platform the government established in late 2018 to enable teachers to report these cases. The ministry did not release figures of anti-Semitic acts in schools that occurred later in the year.

In a joint study released November 6, the French Institute of Public Opinion and the Jean Jaures Foundation found that 42 percent of Muslims in the country reported being targets of discrimination due to their religion at some point during their life, and 32 percent said they had been targeted in the previous five years. The study reported the most common contexts for discrimination were in interactions with police (28 percent), while searching for employment (24 percent), and while seeking housing (22 percent). The study, commissioned by the DILCRAH, was the first time the government publicly researched the experiences of the Muslim community. According to the survey, 45 percent of women – and 60 percent of those who regularly wore a veil – reported experiencing discrimination, compared with 35 percent of men.

The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, released in April, included the results of an Ipsos poll conducted in November 2018 and involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,007 residents over the age of 18. The results were almost identical to a poll Ipsos conducted a year earlier. According to the poll, 36 percent of the respondents (2 percentage points fewer than in 2017) believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 20 percent thought Jews had too much power in the country. The poll found 29 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 44 percent of them considered it a threat to national identity. The commission’s report again cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as women wearing a veil. It also stated there was an increase in anti-Semitic acts, which numbered 541, up 74 percent from 311 acts in 2017.

In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 32 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France; 29 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 31 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

In January the EC issued a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 72 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in France, and 51 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 78 percent; on the internet, 74 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 80 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 80 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 84 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 83 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 73 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 59 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 63 percent.

In May the EC carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 69 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 27 percent said it was rare; 83 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 95 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 95 percent said they would be with an atheist, 94 percent with a Jew, 93 percent with a Buddhist, and 92 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if a child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups , 94 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 93 percent if atheist, 90 percent if Jewish, 87 percent if Buddhist, and 81 percent if Muslim.

A Pew Research Center survey released in October found 22 percent of residents had an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, down 7 percentage points from 29 percent in 2016. Individuals aged 60 and older were much more likely to hold an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, at 38 percent, than those aged 18 to 34 (11 percent). The same survey found that 6 percent of persons had an unfavorable opinion of Jews.

On October 2, a Paris criminal court convicted Alain Bonnet, known as Alain Soral, of public anti-Semitic insults and “provocation to discrimination, hatred, or violence against Jews” and sentenced him to one year in prison for referring to the Pantheon, a national mausoleum of French notables, as a “kosher wasteland” in a video posted on his website. The court stated his language evoked the dehumanization and suffering Jews faced in concentration and death camps. The court also ordered Soral to take down the video and pay 1,000 euros ($1,100) in damages to the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, as well as one euro ($1) in symbolic damages to three other civil society organizations. It was Soral’s fourth conviction of the year, following previous violations for Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic insults, and publishing an anti-Semitic video, for which he was sentenced to one year, one year, and 18 months, respectively, in addition to multiple earlier convictions on similar charges. Soral remained free while he appealed all four convictions.

In February a Muslim convert, Benjamin Weller, shouted anti-Semitic epithets, such as “Go back to Tel Aviv,” and “We are the French people, France is ours,” at Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut during a Yellow Vest protest. Finkielkraut is a member of the Academie Francaise, the country’s preeminent intellectual institution, and the son of a survivor of Auschwitz. In response, President Macron tweeted, “The anti-Semitic insults he was subjected to are the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation. We will not tolerate them.” Interior Minister Castaner and then-government Spokesperson Griveaux, among others, also condemned the incident. On July 12, the Paris Criminal Court convicted Weller of making public insults based on “origins, ethnic origin, country, race, or religion” and sentenced him to a suspended two-month prison sentence.

On February 10, unknown persons wrote the word “Juden” (German for “Jew”) on the window of a bagel shop in central Paris. Minister of Interior Castaner and then-government spokesperson Griveaux both condemned the act. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation for “aggravated voluntary damage” and “provocation to racial hatred.” At year’s end, authorities did not identify any suspects.

On February 11, unknown persons chopped down a tree planted in a Paris suburb in memory Ilan Halimi, the Jewish man killed in 2006. Police opened an investigation, and DILCRAH Head Prefect Frederic Potier described the incident as “ignominious.” Interior Minister Castaner said anti-Semitism was spreading like poison, and the attack on Halimi’s memory was an attack on the republic.

In February in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, vandals defaced more than 90 graves at a Jewish cemetery. President Macron and Interior Minister Castaner visited the site on February 19, and prefecture and local politicians condemned the attack. On December 2, vandals desecrated more than 100 graves in the Jewish cemetery of Westhoffen, a town near Strasbourg. Spray-painted swastikas and the number “14,” associated with white supremacy, covered headstones. On the same day, residents found similar graffiti scrawled on the synagogue and the mayor’s office in the town of Schaffhouse-sur-Zorn, approximately 12 miles from Westhoffen. Both President Macron and Interior Minister Castaner condemned the acts, and Castaner visited the Westhoffen cemetery with community leaders on December 4. The gendarmerie in Westhoffen opened an investigation into the incident there, led by a special investigative unit.

Following a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the eastern part of the country, in April the Departmental Council in the Lower Rhine Department approved a list of 10 initiatives, mostly aimed at youth, to counter anti-Semitism and foster a culture of mutual understanding and respect. Citizen volunteers, Jewish and non-Jewish, also organized a Jewish cemetery watch in the Upper Rhine Department.

In March workers building a mosque in the southwestern town of Bergerac found a pig’s head and animal blood at the entrance to the site. The Bergerac police commissioner condemned the act.

In April two persons filmed themselves urinating on the property of UEJF at Dauphine University in Paris and streamed it live on social media. The UEJF called the act anti-Semitic and filed a police complaint against the men.

In late December 2018, according to press reports, a car belonging to a Jewish family in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles was broken into, filled up with trash, and had a mezuzah glued to its windshield. The mezuzah had been stolen from the family’s home months earlier. The family filed a complaint with police for a hate crime.

On May 13, police opened an investigation into the vandalism of a commemorative plaque in Paris devoted to Jewish children arrested by the Vichy government in the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup and deported to Nazi death camps. The graffiti included the number 4,115, representing the number of Jewish children arrested by the Vichy police and the word “extermination.” Paris 15th District Mayor Philippe Goujon denounced the act, and Paris City Hall and BNVCA filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office. At year’s end, authorities did not identify any suspects.

In February there were reports of at least 10 incidents of vandalism and desecration of Catholic churches. Incidents included smashing statues, knocking down tabernacles, scattering or destroying the Eucharist host, burning altar cloths, and tearing down crosses. Individuals vandalized five churches in separate incidents over the span of a week in Dijon, Nimes, Lavaur (Tarn Department), Maisons-Laffitte, and Houilles (Yvelines Department). At the Notre-Dame-Des-Enfants Church in the southern city of Nimes, vandals broke the tabernacle, damaged religious objects, and smeared excrement in the shape of a cross on the interior walls. In May police arrested a 21-year-old local resident, who admitted involvement in the Nimes incident. His trial was scheduled for March 2020. In response to the acts, Prime Minister Philippe said, “In our secular republic, we respect places of worship. Such acts shock me and must be unanimously condemned.” He also discussed the incidents with the Conference of Bishops. In June unknown persons toppled more than 100 tombstones in the main Catholic cemetery in Toulouse, The Catholic Herald reported.

A Jewish school in southern Paris received a letter in February with anti-Semitic messages, including “France is the base for Zionism in Europe” and “If Adolf Hitler had exterminated all the Jews, the Arab countries would live in peace.” The school filed a complaint with the police, who opened an investigation. At year’s end, they did not identify any suspects.

After reports that an administrator at an Orthodox Jewish high school leaked national exam materials to students in an effort to boost the school’s results, users posted hundreds of anti-Semitic posts on Twitter. The tweets included accusations that the students would avoid punishment because of their “protected community” status and that Jews “control everything” in the country.

On October 27, nearly 100 graves in a Christian cemetery in Cognac were vandalized and Christian symbols, including crosses, crucifixes, and angels, were damaged. Police arrested an 18-year-old man in connection with the incident. In online postings, the suspect had written about being a “Satanist” and “hating religion,” and also stated that “voices tell [him] to do certain things.” Prosecutors said he would undergo psychiatric evaluation before facing trial. Authorities placed him under a curfew and judicial control (similar to parole), pending trial.

On November 4, three burglars gained access to the Oloron-Sainte-Marie Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques Region, by ramming and destroying its medieval wooden door with their car. They then stole art and artifacts from the cathedral’s treasury, including gold and silver works, a chalice, and a monstrance. Local police launched an investigation.

In December France 24 reported the country’s Uighur Association said the Chinese government was threatening members of the Muslim Uighur community in France to induce it to spy on fellow Uighurs. The report cited a spokesperson for the association, who said a French Uighur provided personal information to Chinese police on her Uighur work colleagues out of fear of reprisals against her family in Xinjiang. Another Uighur testified his family in Xinjiang was arrested because he refused to return to China. The spokesperson added the Chinese government had successfully sowed distrust within the local Uighur community.

In November CRIF held its tenth annual convention in Paris, titling it, “Fractured France: Can We Unite Against Anti-Semitism?” CRIF President Francis Kalifat cited the challenges of growing anti-Semitism and stated 12 Jews had been killed in the country in the previous 20 years because they were Jewish. Education Minister Blanquer outlined the government’s strategy to combat anti-Semitism in schools and Interior Minister Castaner said, “I want zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism,” adding that the government was committed to combating online hate speech.

On June 16, Strasbourg celebrated the 12th anniversary of its interfaith dialogue initiative, which continued to bring together religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.

In August for the third consecutive year, young Christians and Muslims from across the country, Europe, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East participated in a three-day “weekend of friendship” event at the Taize Ecumenical Community in the Department of Saone-et-Loire. The approximately 200 participants attended panels and shared religious experiences. The conference focused on two themes: hospitality; and the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” a joint statement signed in February by Pope Francis and Egypt’s Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar.

The Council of Christian Churches in France, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to serve as a forum for dialogue. One observer represented the Anglican Communion on the council. The council met twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with relevant government officials, including at the religious affairs offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. The Ambassador met with Interior Minister Castaner and DILCRAH Head Prefect Potier. Topics discussed included religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, the BDS movement, Holocaust-related compensation, and bilateral cooperation on these issues.

In November embassy personnel and the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Counselor for Religious Affairs Ambassador Jean-Christophe Peaucelle, Ambassador at Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues Francois Croquette, and other government, religious, and civil society leaders to discuss means of countering anti-Semitism. The Ambassador met in Paris with Rector of Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris Patrick Chauvet to exchange views on religious freedom and tolerance and to express support for the reconstruction of the cathedral.

On November 26, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable dinner of civil society, business, and government leaders, and the Israeli Ambassador to solicit recommendations and share best practices on combating anti-Semitism. On November 23, the Ambassador spoke at the 75th anniversary of the discovery of the Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp on the issue of religious freedom and combatting religiously based hate crimes.

Staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs met regularly with religious community leaders, activists, and private citizens throughout the country to discuss issues of discrimination and to advocate tolerance for diversity. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and interfaith dialogue and tolerance with senior Christian, Muslim, and Jewish representatives and NGOs such as Coexister and AJC Europe. They also hosted meetings with representatives from CRIF, the Israelite Central Consistory of France (the main Jewish administrative governance body), the CFCM, and the Paris Great Mosque, Catholic priests, and Protestant representatives working on interfaith dialogue.

The Ambassador and mission personnel engaged regularly with senior Israeli embassy representatives on efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in the country. Embassy officials closely monitored and reported on the official government position on the BDS movement and anti-Semitic incidents. The embassy highlighted such incidents on embassy social media platforms to bring more visibility to the issue and to publicly express U.S. concern.

The embassy continued to support Coexister, a local association promoting interfaith dialogue and social cohesion, with funding assistance for the association’s Interfaith World Tour. With some embassy funding, four young interfaith representatives began an eight-month world tour in August to meet and conduct interviews with interfaith leaders in 25 countries, including the United States. The team will produce a documentary film from the tour to be used for presentations at French public schools and conferences with the aim of deepening awareness of, and interest in, international initiatives on interfaith dialogue.

The embassy also funded the participation of a representative from the Hozes Institute – which, among other activities, provides civic and French language classes for imams – in an exchange program in the United States to examine the role and impact of religion in society and bridge gaps among faith groups.

Through a grant, the embassy and the APP in Bordeaux supported a film shown in November and December on national television channel ARTE. The film, the story of an imam in Mont-de-Marsan, was shown to youth audiences and associations in and around Bordeaux to encourage dialogue and religious tolerance.

Through a grant for past participants in U.S. government-funded exchange programs, one Jewish organization and one Muslim organization in Bordeaux began a series of workshops in September to promote religious tolerance among youth.

In September the Consulate General in Marseille hosted an interfaith lunch with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox clergy, where participants discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, and local, private efforts to increase communication and interfaith social engagement.

Also in September the Consulate General in Strasbourg hosted an interfaith lunch with key local government, civil society, and religious authorities to present key points from the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington in July and to solicit recommendations for actions the United States could take to combat the rise in anti-Semitic acts in eastern France.

On October 25, the embassy hosted a ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack in Pittsburgh. Addressing an audience that included France’s Grand Rabbi Haim Korsia, government officials, and Jewish, Muslim, and Christian community representatives, the Ambassador noted the rise of anti-Semitic attacks around the world, including locally. She used the event to condemn acts of intolerance and call for unity and action against hate.

The embassy regularly amplified messages from the Secretary of State and Department of State on religious freedom via embassy social media platforms in French and in English. The embassy also complemented Washington messaging with original content in French, for example in marking the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief and the International Day of Religious Freedom. Embassy social media outreach highlighted the importance of religious freedom as a core American value and demonstrated how France and the United States worked together on the issue.

Hong Kong

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Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states that residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In February, the SAR government introduced a bill that would have allowed for extradition of SAR residents to other jurisdictions worldwide, including mainland China. Protests against this bill took place regularly throughout the latter half of the year. Some Christian groups used the broader protest movement to highlight what they stated was the high degree of religious freedom in Hong Kong, contrasted with the lack of religious freedom in mainland China and strongly supported the SAR government’s eventual withdrawal of the extradition bill. While Christian sources did not express concern about Hong Kong’s current level of religious freedom, foreign-based religious freedom advocates expressed fears for the potential future of religious freedom in Hong Kong if the mainland government further encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Falun Gong practitioners reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and difficulty renting venues for large events, including from the SAR government. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in July with the stated purpose of raising awareness of 20 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in mainland China.

In September two assailants attacked a Falun Gong practitioner after she met with police to discuss a planned Falun Gong demonstration. In November a printing warehouse for the Epoch Times Hong Kong Edition, a Falun Gong-associated media outlet, was subject to an arson attack by four masked assailants armed with batons. According to media reports, some Hong Kong Christian churches reduced their physical assistance to counterparts in mainland China for fear of endangering those counterparts but continued to travel there to dine and pray with them. Christian media sources reported that Christian protesters received anonymous messages threatening them and their families with physical violence if they did not stop speaking out against the government. Other sources stated that many other people on both sides of Hong Kong’s political divide received similar messages.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government. The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Hong Kong in March to meet with religious leaders and promote religious freedom in China.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 389,000 Roman Catholics (The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes the pope and maintains links to the Vatican.); 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. According to the World Jewish Congress, approximately 2,500 Jews live in Hong Kong. According to a 2017 South China Morning Post article, there are approximately 25,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. SAR government statistics estimate there are approximately 300,000 Muslims. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Gong estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

Protests, including several with over a million participants, took place regularly throughout the latter half of the year. The protests began in response to the SAR government’s introduction of a bill in February that would have allowed for extradition of SAR residents to other jurisdictions worldwide, including mainland China. Participants included a wide variety of civic groups, including some religious groups. Observers said that while the protesters did not highlight religious issues and the majority of the protesters did not claim affiliation to any religious groups, some Christian advocates used the protest movement to highlight what they stated was the high degree of religious freedom in Hong Kong, which they contrasted with the lack of religious freedom in mainland China, also expressing strong support for the SAR government’s eventual withdrawal of the extradition bill. While Christian activists did not express concern about Hong Kong’s current level of religious freedom, foreign based religious freedom advocates expressed fears for the potential future of religious freedom in Hong Kong if the mainland government further encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature and conducting public exhibitions. A court in November heard the government’s appeal of a 2018 decision overturning the government’s confiscation of Falun Gong banners based on a requirement to obtain prior government approval for such displays. The court’s decision remained pending at year’s end. Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at public events. Practitioners also reported continuing difficulties renting venues for large meetings and cultural events from both government and private businesses. According to Falun Gong practitioners, the SAR government, which controls a significant number of large venues in the city, denied Falun Gong members’ applications to rent venues, often telling practitioners that the venues were fully booked. In April a private camping ground agreed to rent space for a Falun Gong conference with more than 1200 participants, of which 800 had planned to stay at the campsite; however, two days before the event, the private venue cancelled.

Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in July with the stated purpose of raising awareness of 20 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in mainland China.

In October police sprayed the front of a mosque with blue dye using a water cannon during a police response to protest activity in the vicinity of the mosque. Government officials, including the chief executive and chief of police, apologized for the incident.

In December Hong Kong police pepper-sprayed prodemocracy protestors who demonstrated in support of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim minority groups in mainland China. The police said the protesters assaulted police officers and threw hard objects at police officers.

Senior government leaders often participated in large-scale events held by religious organizations. The SAR government and Legislative Council representatives participated in Confucian and Buddhist commemorative activities, Taoist festivals, and other religious events throughout the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In September two assailants attacked a Falun Gong practitioner after she met with police to discuss a planned Falun Gong demonstration.

In November a printing warehouse for the Epoch Times Hong Kong Edition, a Falun Gong-associated media outlet, was subject to an arson attack by four masked assailants armed with batons. The fire was extinguished with no casualties reported, but a printing press was damaged.

Christian media sources reported that more than 40 Christian protestors received anonymous messages on their WhatsApp accounts threatening them and their families with physical violence if they did not stop speaking out against the government. One of these messages reportedly said, “If you don’t stop voicing your opinion, all the members of your family will die,” and another, “your limbs will be chopped off.” One Christian who received the messages said the anonymous sender or senders knew a great deal of personal information about those to whom they sent the messages. He said he and other recipients did not report the messages to the police because they have lost confidence in the police due to what they perceived as brutality against protestors throughout the year. During the year, many protesters and police officers were anonymously threatened or had their personal information posted online. It was difficult to categorize these incidents as being solely or primarily based on religious identity, as opposed to political activity.

Media reported that Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with monetary support, Bibles, blacklisted Christian literature, theological training, and assistance in founding new churches. Under new regulations in mainland China, however, many Hong Kong pastors were suspending or canceling their work in the mainland to avoid endangering contacts there, according to media reports. Some churches continued to provide support by sending members to dine and pray with Christians across the border, rather than providing more tangible assistance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Hong Kong in March where he spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to discuss religious freedom abuses in mainland China. In his remarks, the Ambassador stated that persons in mainland China do not enjoy religious freedom in the way that the people of Hong Kong do, noting that “the Chinese government is at war with faith…It is a war they will not win.” During his visit to Hong Kong, he met with religious leaders, NGO representatives, and religious and cultural studies students and faculty.

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. The Consul General hosted an annual iftar at his residence. Consulate officers participated in other festival celebrations with the Buddhist, Confucian, and Muslim communities. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

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Iceland

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice, as long as it is not prejudicial to good morals or public order, and it protects the right to form religious associations. It names the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the state church, to which the government provided financial support and benefits not available to other religious groups, including treating ELC ministers and general staff as civil servants. According to a September agreement, effective on January 1, 2020, ELC clergy and staff will no longer have civil service status; instead, the government will make an annual lump-sum payment to the ELC, which will then pay salaries and benefits to clergy. Other religious and humanist “life-stance” groups must register to receive state subsidies. The government registered one Buddhist and one life-stance group during the year. In November the government announced a change in the implementation of a data protection law to allow all religious groups, not just the ELC, to access a list of their members.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) cited five religiously motivated incidents in the country during the year, three of which occurred in the Reykjavik region. One incident resulted in formal charges. In July an unknown perpetrator spat on three Muslim women and attempted to remove the hijab of one of them. According to a September Gallup Iceland poll, 34 percent of the public expressed trust in the ELC, a result virtually unchanged from 2018 and down from 41 percent 10 years earlier.

U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the MOJ and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, and the local authority responsible for registering religious groups to discuss the status and rights of religious groups. Embassy officials also maintained contact with representatives of religious groups and life-stance organizations, and expanded contacts with minority religious groups, to discuss their views on religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee integration.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 347,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to January figures from Statistics Iceland, members of the ELC make up 65.2 percent of the population; Roman Catholic Church 3.9 percent; Free Lutheran Church in Reykjavik 2.0 percent; Free Lutheran Church in Hafnarfjordur 2.8 percent; Asatruarfelagid 1.3 percent; non-Christian, life-stance, and other Christian groups 5.0 percent; other or unspecified groups 13.0 percent; and persons not belonging to any religious group 7.0 percent. The Association of Muslims in Iceland estimates there are 1,000-1,500 resident Muslims, primarily of immigrant origin. The Jewish community reports there are approximately 250 resident Jews.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes the ELC as the national church and stipulates the government shall support and protect it. The constitution states all individuals have the right to form religious associations and practice religion in accordance with their personal beliefs, as long as nothing is “preached or practiced which is prejudicial to good morals or public order.” It stipulates everyone has the right to remain outside religious associations and no one shall be required to pay personal dues to any religious association of which he or she is not a member. The constitution also specifies individuals may not lose their civil or national rights and may not refuse to perform civic duties on religious grounds. The constitution bans only religious teachings or practices harmful to good morals or the public order. The law further specifies the right of individuals to choose or change their religion.

The law grants the ELC official legal status, and the government directly funds it from the state budget. The state treats the ELC bishop, vice bishop, the 135 other ELC ministers, and general ELC staff as civil servants under the MOJ and pays their salaries and retirement benefits as well as the operating costs of the bishop’s office. Effective in 2020, ELC clergy and staff will cease to have civil service status, and the government will no longer pay them directly but instead make an annual lump-sum payment to the ELC. The ELC also receives funding from government-levied church taxes, as do other registered religious and life-stance groups.

The penal code establishes fines of no specified amount and up to two years’ imprisonment for hate speech, including mocking, defaming, denigrating, or threatening a person or group based on religion by comments, pictures, or symbols.

Religious groups other than the ELC and life-stance organizations may apply for recognition and registration. Only registered groups are eligible for state funding and entitled to legal recognition of religious ceremonies, such as marriages, that they perform. Groups apply for recognition to a district commissioner’s office (at present, designated as the district commissioner of Northeast Iceland), who forwards the application to a four-member panel that the minister of justice appoints by law to review applications. The University of Iceland faculty of law nominates the chairman of the panel, and the university’s Departments of Social and Human Sciences, Theology and Religious Studies, and History and Philosophy, respectively, nominate the other three members. The district commissioner then approves or rejects the application in accordance with the panel’s decision. Applicants may appeal rejections to the MOJ, resubmitting their application to the district commissioner with additional information. The same four-member panel reviews appeals.

To register, a religious group must “practice a creed or religion,” and a life-stance organization must operate in accordance with certain ethical values and “deal with ethics or epistemology in a prescribed manner.” The law does not define “certain ethical values” or the prescribed manner in which groups must deal with ethics or epistemology. Religious groups and life-stance organizations must also “be well established,” “be active and stable,” “not have a purpose that violates the law or is prejudicial to good morals or public order,” and have “a core group of members who participate in its operations, support the values of the organization in compliance with the teachings it was founded on, and pay church taxes in accordance with the law on church taxes.” The law does not define “well established” or “active and stable.”

According to the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland, any unregistered religious group or organization may work in the same way as any company or association, provided it has, as these other organizations do, a social security number. Unregistered religious groups may, for example, open bank accounts and own real estate. Members are free to worship and practice their beliefs without restriction, as long as their activities do not cause a public disturbance, incite discrimination, or otherwise conflict with the law.

The law specifies the leader of a registered religious group or a life-stance organization must be at least 25 years of age and fulfill the general requirements for holding a public position. These include being physically and mentally healthy and financially independent, not having been sentenced for a criminal offense as a civil servant, and possessing the general and specialized education legally required for the position. Unlike the requirements for most public positions, the religious or life-stance group leader need not be a citizen, but he or she must have legal domicile in the country. All registered religious groups and life-stance organizations must submit an annual report to a district commissioner’s office (currently the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland) describing the group’s operations during the previous year. Registered religious groups and life-stance organizations are required to perform state-sanctioned functions, such as marriages and the official naming of children, and preside over other ceremonies such as funerals.

The law provides state subsidies to registered religious groups and life-stance organizations. For each individual 16 years of age or older who belongs to any of the officially registered and recognized religious groups or life-stance organizations, the government allocates an annual payment out of income taxes, called the “church tax,” to the individual’s respective, registered organization. The per capita payment amount varies every year according to the annual budget bill. The government allocates the payment regardless of whether the individual pays any income tax. The government registrar’s office maintains a tally of the number of members of each registered group, recording the religious affiliation or nonaffiliation of each citizen at birth and adjusting the information if individuals report a change.

Persons who are not members of registered organizations are still required to pay the church tax, but the government retains their contributions as general revenue rather than allocating them to religious or life-stance organizations.

By law, a child’s affiliation or nonaffiliation with a registered religious or life-stance group is as follows: (1) if the parents are married or in registered cohabitation and both belong to either the same registered organization or no organization, then the child’s affiliation shall be the same as its parents; (2) if the parents are married or in registered cohabitation, but have different affiliations or if one parent is nonaffiliated, then the parents shall make a joint decision on what organization, if any, the child should be affiliated with, and until the parents make this decision, the child shall remain nonaffiliated; (3) if the parents are not married or in registered cohabitation when the child is born, the child shall be affiliated with the same registered organization, if any, as the parent who has custody over the child. Change in affiliation of children younger than age 16 requires the consent of both parents if both have custody; if only one parent has custody, the consent of the noncustodial parent is not required. The law requires parents to consult their children about any changes in the child’s affiliation between ages 12 and 16. After turning 16, children may choose affiliation on their own.

By law, schools must operate in such a manner as to prevent discrimination on the basis of religion. Grades one through 10 (ages six to 15) in public and private schools must provide instruction, by regular teaching staff, in social studies, which includes Christianity, ethics, and theology, as well as some content on other world religions. The law specifies the curriculum for these classes must adopt a multicultural approach to religious education, encompassing a variety of beliefs. The law also mandates that “the Christian heritage of Icelandic culture, equality, responsibility, concern, tolerance, and respect for human value” shape general teaching practices.

Parents wishing to exempt pupils from compulsory instruction in Christianity, ethics, and theology must submit a written application to the school principal. The principal may request additional information, if necessary. The principal then registers the application as a “special case” and writes an official response to the parents, accepting or denying the request. School authorities are not required to offer other religious or secular instruction in place of these classes.

Of the 12 largest municipalities in the country, eight have adopted guidelines or rules governing the interaction between public schools and religious and life-stance groups. The Reykjavik City Council prohibits religious and life-stance groups from conducting any activities, including the distribution of proselytizing material, in municipal preschools and compulsory schools (grades one through 10) during school hours or during afterschool programs. Reykjavik school administrators, however, may invite the representatives of religious and life-stance groups to visit the compulsory classes on Christianity, ethics, and theology, and on life skills. These visits must be under the guidance of a teacher and in accordance with the curriculum. Any student visits to the gathering places of religious and life-stance groups during school hours must be under the guidance of a teacher as part of a class on religion and life-stance views. During such classes or visits, students may only observe rituals, not participate in them. The municipality of Hafnarfjordur has similar rules governing the interaction between schools and religious/life-stance organizations. The municipalities of Kopavogur, Gardabaer, Mosfellsbaer, Arborg, Fjardarbyggd, and Seltjarnarnes have either adopted or adapted guidelines on these interactions that the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture has set. The ministry’s guidelines are broadly similar to those of Reykjavik and Hafnarfjordur.

Private schools must follow the same curriculum as public schools, including the Christianity, ethics, and theology taught in social studies classes. Private schools are free, however, to offer additional classes not in the public-school curriculum, including classes in specific religious faiths.

The law prohibits all forms of discrimination in all fields of society, including that based on religious beliefs. The Equality Complaints Committee reviews complaints and issues fines in cases of violations, unless other applicable statutes specify more severe penalties.

In June parliament enacted legislation eliminating restrictions on the ability of businesses providing recreational services, such as clubs, bars, and movie theaters, to operate during ELC religious holidays.

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

Government Practices

In September the government and the ELC signed a subsidiary agreement to their existing agreement that, according to an MOJ press release, would give the ELC more fiscal autonomy. In the ELC’s assembly, 28 of 29 members voted in favor of the subsidiary agreement. On December 17, parliament passed the required amendments to three laws. According to the agreement, which will become effective on January 1, 2020, ELC clergy and staff will no longer have civil service status. Instead, the government will make a lump-sum annual payment to the ELC equivalent to what the government previously paid in salaries and benefits of Church clergy and staff. The ELC will then assume responsibility for paying those salaries and benefits directly.

The government church tax payment to registered religious and life-stance groups was 11,110 kronur ($92) for each member age 16 or older. The church tax in 2020, according to the government budget bill enacted in November, will be 11,700 kronur ($97) per member.

According to the official state bill, in 2018, the latest year for which data were available, the government allocated approximately 6.9 billion kronur ($57.14 million) to the ELC, of which 4.8 billion kronur ($39.75 million) was in direct subsidies, and 2.1 billion kronur ($17.39 million) was in church tax. The other 47 recognized religious and life-stance groups received a total of 452 million kronur ($3.74 million) in church tax.

The government said it had approved the registration of Buddhist organization Demantsleid Buddismans and life-stance organization Vitund during the year, bringing the number of registered groups to 50. At year’s end, according to the government, the district commissioner in Northeast Iceland was reviewing the applications of life-stance organizations Lakuish Yoga and the Theosophical Society. The country’s only rabbi stated the Jewish community was preparing its registration application and expected to complete it in 2020.

The life-stance organization Sidmennt (Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association), Islamic foundation, and Baha’i community all expressed concerns that, following implementation of a data protection law in 2018, the government had blocked access to official group membership lists. Sidmennt also expressed concerns that the same restriction had not been applied to the ELC, which received a limited exemption allowing it to access the list of its members after complaining to the registrar’s office. On November 19, the registrar’s office announced in a press release that, effective December 1, religious organizations would regain access to their membership lists. The press release added the Icelandic Data Protection Authority could overturn the decision if it found the change violated privacy rights, but absent such a finding, the lists would be made available.

The ELC continued to operate all cemeteries, and all religious and life-stance groups had equal access to them. Gufunes Cemetery had a special area designated for burials of Muslims and persons of other faiths.

The ELC and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the public University of Iceland continued to train theology students for positions within the ELC.

State radio continued to broadcast Lutheran worship services every Sunday morning as well as a Lutheran daily morning devotion. According to the station’s chief of programming, other religious groups could also broadcast their religious services, but none had sought to do so.

The government continued to require persons applying for a passport to present proof of religion from a religious organization if they wished to receive a religious exemption allowing them to wear a head covering for their passport photographs.

During the drafting of the legislation removing limitations on the ability of businesses to operate during ELC religious holidays, parliament invited all registered religious and life-stance organizations to submit their views. The ELC was the only group to submit a review of the draft legislation and expressed support for it.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The MOJ cited five instances of religiously motivated incidents in the country, three of which were in the Reykjavik region. One incident resulted in a police investigation and formal charges. In an instance in May, a man yelled derogatory comments at Muslims. In a separate incident in July, an unknown person spat on three Muslim women and attempted to remove the hijab of one of them. None of the victims chose to pursue further action after giving their reports to police, and authorities did not file any charges. According to police, victims sometimes refrained from further action due to fear of retribution from the perpetrator.

In February a member of the Jewish community spoke to students at the University of Reykjavik about the Jewish concepts of leadership and tolerance and posted about it on social media. In September, according to the Jewish community, individuals – most using non-Icelandic names – added several anti-Semitic comments to the then-seven-month-old post. Members of the Jewish community said they had not reported the incident to law enforcement for further action.

A Gallup Iceland poll, conducted in September and released on October 28, found 34 percent of the public expressed trust in the ELC, compared with 33 percent in 2018, 41 percent in 2009, and 61 percent in 1999. The poll found 55 percent supported the separation of church of state, compared with 54 percent in the previous year. Support for ELC Bishop Agnes Sigurdardottir grew from 14 percent in 2018 to 19 percent.

The Forum for Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation, whose membership consisted of registered religious and life-stance groups – including the ELC; Protestant, Catholic, and other Christian groups; Muslims; and Buddhists – met nine times. The forum facilitated the first-ever visit by ELC Bishop Sigurdardottir to the Grand Mosque of Iceland to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and respect following March 15 attacks against two mosques in New Zealand. Although the interfaith forum allowed unregistered groups to apply to join it, none had done so.

The Islamic Foundation of Iceland organized community information and integration programs for Muslim migrants with representatives from local government and legal offices on such issues as voting and women’s rights in the country. The foundation also provided translation assistance to asylum seekers.

In April the Ahmadiyya Muslim community organized an annual peace conference on promoting religious freedom and tolerance, which included participation by leaders of other religious groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with representatives from the MOJ, MFA, members of parliament, and the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland to discuss the roles of religious equality and religious tolerance in the country. Specific topics included the status and rights of religious groups in the country, the effect of the data protection law on religious and life-stance organizations, the impact of the subsidiary agreement between the government and the ELC, and the incidence of religiously motivated hate crimes and their prosecution.

Embassy officials established or maintained contact with leaders of several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Baha’i Center in Iceland, and Jewish community. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the ELC, Islamic Foundation of Iceland, and life-stance organization Sidmennt to discuss such issues as their relations with the government, religious tolerance, the extent of their involvement in interfaith dialogue, their views about the implementation of data protection legislation, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee resettlement.

Embassy representatives also met with other members of civil society, including attending a meeting by the Interfaith Forum, a nongovernmental organization.

In April embassy officials attended and spoke at the fourth Ahmadiyya Muslim annual peace conference in Reykjavik, stressing the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and protecting religious rights.

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of “enmity against God,” including two Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority prisoners at Fajr Prison on August 4. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, beatings in custody, forced confessions, poor prison conditions, and denials of access to legal counsel. International media and human rights activists reported authorities in Qarchak Prison for Women routinely targeted Gonabadi Sufi inmates for mistreatment and denied them access to legal counsel. In January the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi Order in Iran, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. Human rights organizations, as well as UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman, widely decried Ahmadi’s mistreatment, along with that of 10 Gonabadi Sufi women serving prison sentences at Qarchak. They also deplored the high number of deaths and arrests in ethnic and religious minority provinces that, according to the organizations, resulted from the government’s excessive use of force against protesters during November demonstrations. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. In March CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms of up to 26 years each on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to media, these individuals were among the more than 300 Gonabadi Sufis arrested in 2018 for protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader and the arrest of a fellow devotee, Nematollah Riah. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, non-Armenian Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported in September authorities sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term for charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “supporting opposition groups,” and “propaganda against the state.” The website IranWire reported that between March and October judiciary officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is, and during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial in various cities across the country. According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati to serve a one-year prison sentence after he was tried in absentia for defending the “false Baha’i Faith.” On February 10, according to NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents arrested a pastor from Rasht and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to his congregants. Yarsanis stated authorities continued to discriminate against and harass them. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher education opportunities for members of religious minorities and confiscated or restricted their use of religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on businesses owned by Baha’is or forcing them to shut down. The government continued to crack down on public displays of protest of the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. In August international media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to a May report by CHRI, state agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of minority religious groups, particularly those of Gonabadi Sufis. The Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported Baha’is remained barred from government employment at the local, provincial, and national levels, not only in the civil service but also in such fields as education and law.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. At the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom…We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs, and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.” On August 2, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz, whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.” The United States supported the rights of members of minority religious groups in the country through actions in the United Nations. In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 84 million (midyear 2019). Muslims are estimated to constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of which 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers above 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and CHRI estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 – significantly reduced from a peak of approximately 300,000 prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to one international NGO, includes 5,000-10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are areligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s (AI) report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims. These activities are considered proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. Some exceptions are made for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for “enmity against God” (which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi schools of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. Any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups, or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, is considered Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahle Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with the authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or unregistered individuals attend services. Individuals who convert to Christianity are not recognized as Christian under the law. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The supreme leader, the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The IRGC also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The MOE supervises the private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulation states Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than Baha’i (e.g., Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian). To pass the entrance examination, university applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and supreme leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the supreme leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or “Majles”) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, president, and parliament and supervises elections for those bodies.

The constitution bans the parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of the codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents, and not for other categories of death such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the supreme leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Rehman expressed deep concern about the government’s use of “excessive” force during the November protests in provinces with a majority population of ethnic minorities. The report pointed to the highest number of deaths in these provinces, with at least 84 persons killed in Khuzestan (predominantly Sunni Arab) and 52 in Kermanshah (predominantly Kurdish). IranWire, citing an unnamed Khuzestan official, reported on December 17 that the total number of protester fatalities in Mahshahr, a major city and residence for Ahwazi Arabs in the region, was 148 over five days. On December 1, The New York Times reported IRGC forces killed as many as 100 protestors on a single day, many of whom were local Sunni Arab citizens, by machine gun fire in a marshland in Mahshahr. The special rapporteur also reported officials arrested dozens of activists from ethnic minorities, including Kurds and Azerbaijani-Turks, as well as 10 Baha’is who were arrested in Baharestan on November 29 and 30.

According to AI, authorities executed Abdullah Karmollah Chab and Ghassem Abdullah, two Sunni Ahwazi Arab-minority prisoners, at Fajr Prison on August 4, after they were convicted on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with an armed attack on a Shia religious ceremony in Safiabad. The convictions and executions proceeded despite AI’s and other human rights NGOs’ concerns regarding what they stated was the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.

The NGO Iran Human Rights reported on May 23 that authorities hanged Mehdi Cheraghi on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with the robbery of a jewelry shop in April 2015. According to the report, authorities hanged Cheraghi in public, in the city of Hamadan, during Ramadan. Iran Human Rights also reported authorities executed two prisoners, Hossein Roshan and Mohsen Konani, at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj on charges of “enmity against God” on October 2. Authorities originally arrested and convicted the two prisoners for armed robbery.

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 27, international media reported police in Sistan and Baluchistan Province shot and killed a young Sunni Baluchi man, Mousa Shahbakhsh, after he did not follow orders to stop following a police pursuit because he did not have a driver’s license. Following his death, protests broke out at the governor’s office in the provincial capital of Zahedan; authorities arrested approximately 30 protesters. Media reports noted a tense relationship between the Sunni Baluchi population and the Shia authorities.

AI reported on June 26, Benyamin Alboghbiesh, a Sunni Ahwazi Arab arrested on May 26, died under suspicious circumstances at a detention center believed to be under the control of the IRGC in Ahvaz, Khuzestan. Alboghbiesh’s mother and brother were arrested with him and remained detained at year’s end. Intelligence agents notified Alboghbiesh’s family on June 26 of his death. AI raised concerns that he might have been tortured. AI urged authorities to undertake immediately an impartial investigation into Alboghbiesh’s death and to hold accountable anyone found responsible.

According to HRANA and AI, after arresting Kurdish singer Peyman Mirzazadeh in February, authorities sentenced him to a two-year prison term in May and flogged him 100 times on July 28 for sabb al-nabi, or “insulting the prophet” (80 lashes) and drinking alcohol (20 lashes). AI said the flogging left Mirzazadeh “in agonizing pain with a severely swollen back and legs.”

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards routinely targeting Gonabadi Sufi prisoners for mistreatment, such as encouraging other inmates to physically abuse them. In January CHRI reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi order, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. She reportedly had said that another imprisoned Gonabadi Sufi, Shahnaz Kianasl, did not receive proper medical attention.

In his July report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran commented on Ahmadi’s case and those of other Gonabadi Sufis at Qarchak Prison. According to the report, “The special rapporteur is deeply concerned about the situation of members of the Gonabadi Dervish community who remain in detention in Qarchak Prison without access to their lawyers since the protests of 2018. This includes at least 10 women serving prison sentences of up to five years.” CHRI and the special rapporteur reported that in April, according to an unnamed source, a fellow inmate beat Sima Entesari, a Gonabadi Sufi detainee at Qarchak Prison, after prison authorities promised the attacker a case review if she assaulted her fellow prisoner, and they promised to consider her request for conditional release if she attacked Sufi dervishes. The special rapporteur also reported the authorities placed Entesari and four other Gonabadi Sufi detainees sentenced on national security charges in the same ward as prisoners convicted of drug-related charges, theft, and social crimes, in contravention of the prison’s regulations.

Human rights NGOs also reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities in Great Tehran Penitentiary. On January 28, CHRI reported two Gonabadi Sufi dervishes – Hassan Shahreza and Vahid Khamoushi – were denied medical treatment for infected wounds received when security forces shot them with pellet guns during protests in 2018. According to CHRI, Shahreza reportedly retained 200 pellets in his body, which had led to the infections. In addition to pellet gun wounds, Khamoushi had a broken ankle. CHRI reported authorities denied both men access to medical care.

CHRI reported Mitra Badrnejad, a Baha’i woman arrested in March 2018 during a raid by security agents on her home, began her one-year prison sentence on September 22. The revolutionary court in Ahvaz convicted Badrnejad of “membership in the Baha’i Organization” and “propaganda against the state,” with a sentence of five years in prison and two years in exile. Upon appeal, the sentenced was reduced to one year. According to her son, authorities held Badrnejad in solitary confinement for 50 days in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center and in Ahwaz’s Sepidar Prison. Her son also said authorities blindfolded her during interrogation and subjected her to threats and other forms of psychological abuse.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Mohabat News reported that on January 23, eight security officers raided the Isfahan home of Christian convert Sina Moloudian and arrested and beat him, leaving bruise marks on his face. The officers also confiscated cellphones, computers, Bibles, and other religious materials. Authorities emphasized they had been monitoring Moloudian for months prior to the arrest. He was released on bail on February 4.

On February 7, HRANA reported special forces agents beat several Sunni prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison. According to HRANA, the beatings came in retaliation for Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi’s refusal to attend his court hearing. Ghoreishi, Hamzeh Darvish, Marivan Karkuki, and Namegh Deldel were among the Sunni inmates severely injured in the beatings.

On February 12, a Baloch NGO reported security guards in the city of Iranshahr, in Sistan and Balochistan Province, shot and killed a young Baluchi man, Davood Zahroozah, while he was transporting fuel in his personal vehicle. HRANA reported a Balochi man, Muhammad Kurd, was shot and killed on February 9 by security forces when they opened fire on his vehicle without warning as he was transporting fuel for sale, a common activity in that region that the government viewed as “smuggling.” According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, at least 103 were imprisoned on charges of “enmity against God”, 49 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 15 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam,” and 15 for “corruption on earth.” At least 10 were arrested for a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (“baghi”), which officials have used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.”

Noor Ali Tabandeh, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Surfi order, died on December 24 after almost two years of house arrest and denial of urgent medical care. He was under house arrest resulting from 2018 protests in Tehran. According to the Majzooban Noor website, as of March, approximately 110 dervishes remained imprisoned in inhumane conditions in Great Tehran Penitentiary and Qarchak Prison. On March 15, CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms ranging from six to 26 years each, which included 74 lashes, two years in exile, a two-year ban on social media and interviews, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad for each. Charges included “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to the November CHRI report, Gonabadi Sufi religious centers remained closed following the 2018 protests.

According to the July report to the UN General Assembly from the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, on March 13 Amir Noori, a member of the Gonabadi Dervish community, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “acting against the internal security of the country, and disrupting public order.” Noori lost a finger during the 2018 protests, when authorities initially arrested him.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. In January IranWire reported security agents detained and threatened at least three Sunni seminary students and clergymen traveling from Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Mashhad and banned them from entering Sunni seminaries and mosques. Similarly, according to the same report, intelligence agents detained another group of Sunni seminary students traveling from Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Khaf, in Khorasan Province. The agents inspected their phones, notebooks, and cars and forced them to return to Zahedan.

HRANA reported that on September 24, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term. Ghoreishi, the former imam of Friday prayers at Imam Shafi’i Mosque in Talesh, was originally arrested in April 2014 and had just completed a five-year sentence. The 16-year sentence was based on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security (10 years), “supporting opposition groups” (five years), and “[disseminating] propaganda against the state” (one year).

IranWire reported the arrest of several Baha’is in late November, noting the reasons for the arrests were unclear but appeared related to claims Baha’is had led and spurred on the nationwide protests. On November 27 and 29, security officers in Baharestan, a satellite city of Isfahan, arrested at least ten Baha’is – Soroush Azadi, Shahab Ferdowsian, Nasim Jaberi, Mehranollah Daddy, Shahbaz Bashi, Vahid Niazmand, Naser Lotfi, Ghodus Lotfi, Saghar Manouchehrzadeh, and Homa Manouchehrzadeh – and took them to an unknown location. Following Friday prayers, residents of Baharestan held up signs calling for the arrest of Baha’is and protesters. On November 30, a social media application, Telegraph, reported the arrestees in Baharestan were of Baha’is involved in the unrest and called for them to receive the worst possible punishment.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

According to the Geneva-based Baha’i International Community (BIC) and the UN special rapporteur’s June report, more than 49 Baha’is remained in prison. According to BIC, the Baha’i citizens were arbitrarily detained, and some were subsequently given harsh sentences due to their professed faith and religious identity. IranWire reported between March and October, officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is since the appointment of a new chief justice earlier in the year. It said during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial. According to media and NGO reports, Baha’is continued to face charges that included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” “espionage and collaboration with foreign entities,” and “actions against national security.” Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution offering mainly distance learning, that the government considered illegal. According to BIC, in many cases, authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRANA, IranWire, and Iran Press Watch (IPW) reported that on April 30, MOIS masked agents arrested three Baha’is in Semnan – Ardeshir Fanaeian, Behnam Eskandarian, and Yalda Firoozian – following a search of their homes. According to the reports, the three were initially held at an unknown location without the right to legal counsel and were accused of “propaganda against the regime.” According to an updated October Iran Wire report, the three were detained in the central prison of Semnan and the judge handling the case held them without clear reason, despite the completion of their interrogations three months prior. In August Iran Wire and IPW reported prison officials allowed inmates to beat Eskandarian, resulting in a ruptured ear, blood clots, and severe inflammation of the inner ear. According to the report, guards observed the attack but did nothing to intervene. On December 16, following an initial ruling by the revolutionary court in Semnan in October, the Semnan Court of Appeals sentenced Fanaeian to a prison term of six years, Eskandarian to three years and six months, and Firouzian to two years and six months.

According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati in his home. Hajati’s wife stated the day before, Hajati had received a text message notifying him authorities had sentenced him in absentia to one year in prison and two years of exile. On June 19, IPW reported 29 prominent political and civil rights activists issued a statement strongly condemning Hajati’s imprisonment. International media and human rights NGOs reported the government previously detained him for 10 days in 2018 for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. Following that detention, the judiciary placed Hajati under surveillance and banned him from holding his seat on the council for approximately three months.

CHRI and international media reported authorities in February sentenced Mehdi Moghaddari, a member of the Isfahan City Council, to six months in prison for his social media support of Hajati and Baha’i rights. An appeals court upheld the sentence, but authorities did not summon him to prison by year’s end. On April 15, the revolutionary court in Isfahan handed down a six-month suspension from the city council.

In January IPW reported authorities arrested four Baha’is in Isfahan stemming from 2017 convictions of “membership in illegal Baha’i organizations with the intention of acting against national security.” Sohrab Naghipoor was sentenced to five years, while Farzad Homayooni, Mohsen Mehregani, and Manouchehr Rahmani each received 20-month sentences. All remained imprisoned at year’s end.

IPW reported in January the Isfahan Court of Appeals sentenced, in separate judgments, nine Baha’is to prison sentences averaging more than five years each. Authorities charged them with “membership in the illegal Baha’i community and disseminating propaganda against the regime by spreading the Baha’i faith in society.”

CHRI and BIC reported that on May 6, a revolutionary court in Bushehr sentenced seven Baha’is – Asadollah Jaberi, Ehteram Sheikhi, Emad Jaberi, Farideh Jaberi, Minoo Riyazati, Farrokh Faramarzi, and Pooneh Nasheri – to three years in prison each for answering questions about their religious beliefs to Muslim guests in their homes and for “membership in an organization against national security.” According to the report, intelligence ministry agents arrested the seven in February 2018.

HRANA reported that on July 6, the revolutionary court in Birjand sentenced nine Baha’i residents to six years each in prison. According to the report, the court authorities did not allow the defendants to have their lawyer present during the hearing. The nine – Sheida Abedi, Firouz Ahmadi, Khalil Maleki, Simin Mohammadi, Bijan Ahmadi, Maryam Mokhtari, Saghar Mohammadi, Sohrab Malaki, and Bahman Salehi – were convicted of “membership in an illegal…Baha’i group” and “propaganda against the state by promoting Baha’ism.” Authorities also confiscated funds the Baha’i community raised to support the needs of Baha’i residents of Birjand.

IPW reported that in June the revolutionary court in Isfahan sentenced Negin Tadrisi, a Baha’i resident, to a five-year prison term on charges of “collusion and assembly against national security.” According to the report, authorities arrested Tadrisi in October 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day. HRANA and IPW reported that on March 6, judicial authorities sentenced Baha’i Ghazaleh Bagheri Tari to five years in prison for “acting against the security of the country through membership in and administration of Baha’i institutions.” Security forces arrested Bagheri Tari in 2017 during a celebration held in her home marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. According to the report, security forces required each of the participants in the celebration to sign a pledge not to attend Baha’i gatherings.

On June 25, HRANA reported the revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Baha’i resident Sofia Mobini to 10 years in prison for “establishing and organizing an illegal Baha’i group with intentions to threaten the national security.” Authorities arrested Mobini in October 2017 during the celebration of the 200th birthday of Baha’u’llah and transferred her to Evin Prison, from which she was later released on bail. According to the report, the maximum allowable penalty for such charges under the relevant article of the penal code is no more than five years imprisonment.

In August BIC and international media reported a wave of arrests of Baha’is in various cities. On August 10, MOIS agents arrested Monireh Bavil Saqlaei, Minou Zamanipour, and Gholamhossein Mazloumi in their homes in Tehran and transferred them to Evin Prison. Simultaneously, authorities arrested Sohaila Haqiqat, a Baha’i resident of Shiraz, in her home and took her to an unknown location, as well as Farid Moqaddam in Birjand. On August 3, according to the reports, authorities detained two Baha’is from Karaj: Abolfazl Ansari and Rouhollah Zibaei. Security agents reportedly ransacked the homes of all the detained Baha’is, confiscating their laptops, smartphones, identification cards, bank statements, and other personal effects. Authorities did not cite charges at the time of the arrests. While confirming these reports, the Geneva-based BIC said it was not yet clear which state-run entity was behind the arrests or what the charges were.

According to HRANA and IPW, on January 21, eight MOIS agents arrested and imprisoned a Baha’i woman living in Tehran, Atousa Ahamadayi, following a search of her house and the confiscation of some of her personal belongings, including books, laptops, and religious material. The agents accused Ahamadayi of committing acts against national security. On March 11, IranWire, HRANA, and IPW reported security agents arrested two Baha’i brothers and residents of Tehran, Hamid Nasseri, at his place of business, and Saeed Nasseri, who had gone to the Evin prosecutor’s office to inquire about on his wife’s detention. According to the report, security forces arrested Nasseri’s wife, Afsaneh Emami, on February 2; authorities transferred all three Baha’i family members to Evin Prison.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and arrests of teachers associated with the program. Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation. According to IPW, on October 9, authorities released BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh after she completed a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution. Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a fiveyear sentence. According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while he was visiting his wife, who was imprisoned at Evin Prison. The Tehran revolutionary court sentenced the two on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”

Since the government did not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces, Baha’i activists said this situation often left women facing irreconcilable differences with their partners, including in cases involving domestic violence, without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

On November 2, BIC reported authorities harassed Baha’is around the time of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Baha’u’llah. Authorities raided Baha’i homes and celebrations in Shiraz, arresting at least five Baha’is. In the days leading to the anniversary, perpetrators vandalized a Baha’i cemetery. Authorities sealed five shops belonging to Baha’is because owners had observed the Baha’i holy days.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the most generous rights among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

In May, according to Christian Post, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi stated authorities were “summoning” Christian converts from Islam to explain their conversions. In a speech to Shia clerics, Alavi cited “evangelical propaganda” as one of the government’s concerns about the spread of Christianity and local Muslims’ converting to it. According to the Post report, Alavi said the Ministry of Intelligence and the Qom Seminary had dispatched officials to counter “the advocates of Christianity” and to question converts.

According to al-Arabiya English news service, authorities began increasing their surveillance of evangelical Christians in the days preceding Christmas. Christmas celebrations made it easier for authorities to arrest a group of Christians at one time, according to Dabrina Tamraz, a religious rights activist. According to reports, at least 109 evangelical Christians were arrested during the year. On February 10, according to CSW, IRGC agents arrested Matthias Haghnejad, the pastor of an underground Christian church, in Rasht following a church service and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to church attendees. Agents also confiscated the pastor’s books and his wife’s phone from their home. On September 23, the Tehran revolutionary court sentenced Haghnejad and eight members of the church to five years in prison after a short trial. Media reported the supreme leader intervened in Pastor Haghnejad’s case to ensure the court upheld the charges against him; he was subsequently transferred to Evin Prison without trial and remained in detention at year’s end.

According to media reports and Article 18, an NGO promoting religious freedom and supporting Iranian Christians, MOIS agents raided the homes of eight converts to Christianity on July 1 in Bushehr, placing them in solitary confinement and denying them access to legal counsel. During the raids, agents reportedly confiscated Bibles, religious literature, wooden crosses, pictures of Christian symbols, laptops, phones, identity cards, bank cards, and other personal belongings.

On August 1, international media and Christian NGOs reported that in late July, the revolutionary court in Karaj sentenced 65-year-old Mahrokh Kanbari, a Christian convert, to one year in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and engaging in “propaganda against the system.” According to the reports, three MOIS agents initially arrested Kanbari at her home on Christmas Eve in 2018, after which she was released on 105 million rials ($2,500) bail. Authorities reportedly directed Kanbari, while released on bail, to be instructed by an Islamic religious leader on how to return to Islam.

According to a September report from Mohabat News, the Bukan Revolutionary Court sentenced Mustafa Rahimi to six months and one day in prison on charges related to selling the Bible at his bookstore. Intelligence agents arrested Rahimi in June and released him on bail, but authorities detained him a few days later and imprisoned him at Bukan Central Prison.

HRANA reported on December 20, Mohammad Moghisseh, Presiding Judge of Branch 28 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, sentenced nine converts to Christianity to five years in prison each for “acting against national security” on October 13. According to HRANA, the trial reportedly took place on September 23; the individuals appealed the sentences. All were reportedly arrested by IRGC intelligence agents.

According to Article 18 and Mohabat News, on October 26, authorities released Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert imprisoned in Rajai Shahr Prison since 2013. On November 12, he reported to Sarbaz to begin the two years of internal exile included in his 2013 sentence for “collusion against national security,” for converting to and practicing Christianity, and related missionary activities.

Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church; his wife, Shamiram Isavi; and their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, continued to appeal prison sentences handed down to them because of their religious activities. According to Article 18 and Christian religious freedom NGO Middle East Concern, the judge postponed a hearing for Victor Bet Tamraz and Isavi on November 13, stating the court was “too crowded” and there was not time to hear their cases.

According to a report by NGOs Article 18, Open Doors International, CSW, and Middle East Concern, at least 17 Christians were in prison on charges related to their religion at year’s end.

NGO reports said the Erfan-e Halgeh group, followers of the spiritual doctrine of Interuniversalism, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Taheri, continued to be subject to frequent arrests, detentions, harassment, and surveillance. According to HRANA, in February authorities arrested and sentenced an Interuniveralism believer and member of the Erfan-e Halgheh group to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security.” In April authorities released Taheri from prison after he served nearly eight years following his arrest in 2011, according to media and NGO reports. According to CHRI, a state media outlet reported authorities granted him a furlough for the Iranian new year, but he faced more time in prison because the appeals court in Tehran upheld a 2018 five-year prison sentence based on the charge of “corruption on earth.” According to social media reports, Taheri remained out of prison on furlough but was banned from leaving the country.

CHRI reported that on May 15, an appeals court upheld the 91-day prison sentences of 18 persons whom authorities arrested on charges of “disrupting public order” while they were peacefully protesting on behalf of Taheri outside Evin Prison in 2015. Sixteen of the defendants in the case are followers of Taheri and the Erfan-e Halgheh group.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.

Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics, as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

On January 12, HRANA reported authorities sentenced Shia cleric Seyed Hassan Aghamiri to two years of suspended imprisonment and stripped him of his clerical office as a result of his interviews and speeches in government media. According to Radio Farda, Aghamiri was charged with “undermining clerics’ prestige and insulting sanctities”. NHK English News Service reported in February Aghamiri was very popular among youth because he called for younger generations to “think on their own” by telling them, “God gives you talent. Nothing will stop you. You don’t have any limits.”

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials. In January BIC, HRANA, and IPW reported authorities denied the renewal of a business license to Farshid Deimi, a Baha’i resident of Birjand, because of his Baha’i faith. According to the report, on January 5, officials sealed Deimi’s business of 20 years without providing any specific reason for doing so. HRANA also reported in May authorities raided the Kashan home of Heshmatollah Ehsani and confiscated his equipment for producing rosewater because he was a Baha’i business owner. BIC similarly reported in May the intelligence ministry office in Kermanshah summoned Baha’i resident Sasan Ghaghchi for eight hours of interrogation and intimidation related to an inventory of goods authorities had confiscated from his shop and warehouse.

In September IPW reported agents from the state agency The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) forcibly entered the residence of Sharareh Farrokhzadi and Sirous Irannejad, a Baha’i family in the Niavaran region of Tehran, and within seven hours, cleared the residence of all furniture and other belongings and transferred ownership of the house to EIKO. In 2017 a revolutionary court order stated, “Since it has been established that the above-named are…members of the perverse sect of Baha’ism, all their assets may be seized by EIKO.”

HRANA and Iran Wire reported that between June 9 and 15, security forces searched the homes and businesses of nine Baha’i families in Shahin Shahr – Arshad Afshar, Aziz Afshar, Peyman Imani, Mahboubeh Hosseini, Bahram Safaei, Mehran Yazdani, Mesbah Karambakhsh, Sirous Golzar, and Naieem Haghiri – and confiscated their belongings, including cell phones, laptops, tablets, satellite devices, books, photographs, carpets, identification documents, tools, and other business equipment. Judicial authorities summoned the Baha’is, along with three others, to the local intelligence ministry office. According to the report, a group of seven security agents confiscated belongings valued at approximately one billion rials ($23,800). According to HRANA, under pressure from intelligence agents, Haghiri’s employer fired him.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan Provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize Christian private churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

International media and the Assyrian International News Agency reported authorities closed a 100-year-old Presbyterian church belonging to the Assyrian community in Tabriz on May 9. According to Article 18, agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader, stormed the church. The agents then changed all the locks, tore down a cross from the church tower, ordered the church warden to leave the premises while they installed closed circuit television and other monitoring systems, and barred the congregants from holding services in the building. According to Article 18, a cross was reinstalled on top of the church in July.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. International media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence on August 27 of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to an August 27 report by HRANA, on June 1, security forces arrested Afshari on charges of “collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “promoting corruption and prostitution by appearing without a headscarf in public.”

In April authorities arrested three anti-forced-hijab activists, Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi, and her daughter Yasaman Ariyani, for their widely shared video via various social media networks on March 8, International Women’s Day, depicting the women handing out flowers in the Tehran metro while suggesting to passengers that the hijab should be a choice. According to HRW, on July 31, branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced each of them to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state,” and 10 years for “encouraging and enabling [moral] corruption and prostitution.” Keshavarz received an additional seven-and-a-half years for “insulting the sacred.” On August 16, six UN human rights experts issued a statement calling for the release of the women These included the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran; the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences; the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the chair of the working group on discrimination against women and girls; the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The experts stated, “We call upon the Iranian authorities to quash these convictions and immediately release all human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their work in advocating women’s rights, and to ensure full respect for the rights of women to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and nondiscrimination.”

International media and human rights organizations widely reported the March 11 sentencing of female human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. According to AI, Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing came as a result of her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s degrading forced-hijab laws.” In June 2018 authorities arrested Sotoudeh, who represented opposition activists, including women prosecuted for removing their mandatory headscarf, and she remained in Evin Prison at year’s end. UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed alarm at the news of Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing. “We are deeply concerned about Ms. Sotoudeh’s conviction and the prison sentence imposed. Her detention and the charges against her appear to relate to her work as a human rights lawyer, especially representing Iranian women human rights defenders arrested for peacefully protesting against laws making the wearing of veils compulsory for women,” the experts said. The Los Angeles Times reported Sahar Khodarayi, also known as “Blue Girl,” was arrested in March for violating the government ban on women entering soccer stadiums by donning a blue wig and an overcoat to watch her favorite soccer team Esteghlal, known for their blue jerseys, play against a team from the United Arab Emirates. She was released on bail and charged with “harming public decency” and “insulting law enforcement agents” for not wearing a hijab. In September, when informed she faced six months in prison, she doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire in front of a courthouse, dying from her burns a few days later. In October women flooded Azadi Stadium in Tehran to attend a FIFA soccer match chanting “Blue Girl” as they defied the longstanding de facto ban on women attending sporting events in stadiums, where they could mix openly with the opposite sex.

The government continued to suppress public displays it deemed counter to Shia Islamic laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public. In May international media reported the arrest of 30 persons in the city of Gorgan for taking part in a private, mixed-gender yoga class. A local justice department official said the participants wore “inappropriate clothing” and “behaved inappropriately.” According to CHRI, these types of arrests were common but rarely acknowledged publicly by government officials. In March international media reported police in Arak arrested a couple on charges of “undermining Islamic chastity” after an individual posted a video on social media of the young man proposing to the young woman. According to the reports, clerics accused the couple of promoting an illicit relationship and living together without being married. The reports, however, indicated that according to local police, the couple was already legally married.

According to a May 20 CHRI report, government agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of religious minority groups, with the aim of stealing private information in the individuals’ accounts. There were nearly 100 documented accounts that authorities hacked, according to CHRI. CHRI identified accounts of the Gonabadi Sufi community in particular as key targets of the government’s hacking efforts.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsan religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. In September Iran Wire, IHRDC, and international media reported that Minister of Education Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei described a new ministry initiative, Project Mehr, which allowed schools increased authority to deny education to religious minority students. The minister was quoted as saying, “If students say they follow a faith other than the country’s official religions and this is seen as proselytizing, they cannot continue attending school.” He further stated all of the ministry’s provincial and local offices were taking part in the initiative and the human resources necessary for its implementation had been organized.

In June HRANA and IHRDC reported a new directive issued by The Welfare Organization, the country’s social welfare ministry, banning the employment of religious minorities in preschools. The directive states, “Employment of personnel belonging to religious minorities in any capacity in kindergartens is prohibited, except in kindergartens specific to religious minorities.” Director of the Office of Children and Adolescents in the State Welfare Organization Seyed Montazer Shobbar issued the directive on May 27.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. In September HRANA reported at least 22 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs, even though they passed the entrance exam. Officials stated the students had “incomplete files” or their names were not in the registration list. Applicants received a short message stating, “…There is a flaw in your dossier. Please contact the Response Unit of the Appraisal Agency.”

On January 19, media and NGOs reported a wave of expulsions of Baha’is from universities because of their religion. HRANA reported authorities at Azad University in Sama expelled Shirin Bani Nejad, a fifthterm Baha’i studying applied computer science, one month before she was to complete her associate degree. According to the reports, Bani Nejad’s expulsion came after she had paid her full tuition and taken one of her exams. Similarly, according to BIC, authorities expelled Shadi Shogi, a Baha’i student at Najafabad University of Applied Science and Technology, after four terms of study. Officials also expelled Elmira Sayyar Mahdavi, an undergraduate student in photo advertising, from Karaj University of Applied Science and Technology during her third term for being Baha’i. HRANA reported the expulsion of Baha’i Sama Nazifi, a student of architecture at Azad University in Shahriar. According to the reports, Nazifi had received awards and recognition the prior year for her academic achievement. According to Radio Zamaneh, authorities expelled Badi Safajou, a Baha’i student in chemical engineering at Azad University of Sciences and Research in Tehran with a high gradepoint average, during his seventh term. According to the report, supporters of Safajou conducted a poll that showed 81 percent of respondents disapproved of his expulsion. After nine days, security agents ordered the removal of the poll from the university’s Instagram page.

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed them “unclean.”

According to Mazjooban Noor, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and to bar them from university studies because of their affiliation with the Sufi order.

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented the building of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their faith. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored anti-Christian propaganda to deter the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. A July report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of government-sanctioned discrimination and human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests of community leaders. The report noted the continuing practice of firing Yarsanis from employment after it was discovered they were Yarsani, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the report noted the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, including during military service.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community. The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of books about Christianity already on the market, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsan religion remained banned. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representative Siamak Moreh-Sedegh, the sole Jewish Member of Parliament, stating there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but there was little interference with Jewish religious practices. He ran the Sapir Hospital in Tehran, which played a key role in treating revolutionaries throughout 1978-79 and which continued to have a Hebrew phrase from the Torah over its entrance. Speaking as a government official during a human rights meeting in Geneva on November 9, Morseh-Sedegh, according to government media, said, “Like other Iranians, we religious minorities are free to perform our religious ceremonies.” According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. In an October 2 speech, IRGC Chief General Hossein Salami said Israel would be “wiped off the world’s political geography.” Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “Death to Israel,” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel. Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region. For example, Jam-e Jam daily newspaper in September published an editorial cartoon that suggested Israel’s participation in international sports “was a Jewish plot to crush Palestine.”

The government continued to maintain separate election processes for the five seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament.

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and certain self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and/or charitable associations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity. Even when arrested, perpetrators faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries. According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years. In April BIC reported residents in Shiraz held a town-hall-style meeting against the Baha’i Faith and posted related banners promoting anti-Baha’i sentiment and publications.

Yarsanis outside the country reported widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements. On September 25, local media reported several government sources criticized Sufi beliefs in reaction to announced plans to produce a film about the life of Sufi Persian poet Shams Tabrizi. Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi said, “Considering that this [film] will promote the deviant Sufi sect, it is religiously forbidden and should be avoided.” Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani said, “According to Imam Sadeq, the Sufi sect is our enemy and promoting it in any way is not permitted and is religiously forbidden [haram].”

Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

The U.S. government continued to call for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials and reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom. In Iran, blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and proselytization of Muslims are crimes punishable by death. Many Iranians are languishing in jails, including the Great Tehran Penitentiary and Evin Prison, simply for exercising their fundamental freedom to worship, observe, practice, and teach their faiths. Unrecognized religious minorities, including Baha’is and Christian converts, are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment. …Last year, the Iranian government sentenced more than 200 Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms and other harsh punishments after security forces cracked down on Gonabadi Sufis peacefully protesting the detention of one of their fellow faith members. We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.”

During the Secretary of State’s July 18 keynote remarks, he said, “In the Islamic Republic of Iran, authorities ban religious minorities from possessing religious books and they deny them access to education…In May, the Iranian government prohibited religious minorities from working at childcare centers where there are Muslim children. And as we know too well, beatings and imprisonments are common. Iranians who dare stand up for their religious freedom, for their neighbors, face abuse. Last month, the regime threw a city councilman in prison for calling for something so simple as the release of two Baha’is.”

On August 2, in response to media reports of Christian convert Mahrokh Kanbari’s prison sentence, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “I am appalled to hear reports that Iran’s despotic rulers have punished yet another Christian woman for exercising her freedom to worship. Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.”

On October 3, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran delivered a video message in which he stated, “Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other religious minorities are denied the most basic rights enjoyed by the Shia majority today. And believers are routinely fined, flogged, and arrested in Iran. Worse off yet are the members of unrecognized religious minorities like the Baha’is or others in Iran who are met with brutal subjugation including prison, torture, intimidation and even death due to their faith. Today, there are dozens of Baha’is arbitrarily detained in Iran for practicing their faith.”

In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, although the law is generally not enforced. The law bans “takfiri” sects such as Wahhabism that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not enforce the federal ban on Baha’i practitioners and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion. Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 600 demonstrators were killed in protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. The protesters were mostly young Shia Muslims, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement, according to news reports. Sunni Muslims in Anbar were detained by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for expressing their support of the protests on social media, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting. According to human rights organizations, although the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and Ministry of Interior security forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law to detain individuals without due process. Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018. In June a Sunni parliamentarian (MP) from Diyala Province stated Sunnis in his province were being forcibly displaced by government-affiliated Shia militia groups, resulting in systematic demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Community leaders continued to state the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, including children born of rape, be listed as Muslim resulted in forced designation as Muslim. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.

According to security sources in Khanaqin, in May ISIS attacked a Kurdish village and killed four individuals in two attacks. According to the Directorate General of Yezidi Affairs in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, approximately 3,000 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced that during the year, 18 more mass graves had been discovered throughout the country; they contained victims of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, some remains dating back decades. In March the Directorate of Mass Graves, with the support of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims, discovered in 2017, in the village of Kocho, the first such exhumation in the majority-Yezidi district of Sinjar.

Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the youth-led reformist protests that began in October, many demonstrators were kidnapped, wounded, and killed by masked individuals and armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade (30th Brigade), reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On July 18, speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, the Vice President announced the U.S. government had provided $340 million for assistance in northern Iraq, focusing on helping minority religious communities previously targeted by ISIS. He said an additional $3 million would provide shelter and clean water to communities victimized by ISIS. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR in the north of the country. According to Christian leaders, the Christian population has declined over the past 17 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders continue to report that most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary. According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south, with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians. According to Kaka’i (known as Yarsani or Ahl al-Haq in Iran) activists, their distinct ethnic and religious community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members and has long been located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.

There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are 70 to 80 Jewish families, according to the Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA). There are possibly more, as some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG MERA, and NGO sources. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR.

According to the International Organization for Migration, as of December, nearly 1.5 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Erbil, Dohuk, and Ninewa Provinces, compared with 1.8 million persons at the end of 2018. Population movements are multidirectional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center in the KRG, 40 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurd (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation. It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, such as Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Law 105 of 1970 prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 year’s imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. The KRG, however, does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion, while in other parts of the country the law generally is not enforced.

Law 32 of 2016 bans the Baath Party, and also prohibits “takfiri” organizations, such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. A 2001 resolution prohibits the practice of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions. The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and they require the administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape. Civil status law allows all non-Muslim women who are identified in their official documents as non-Muslims to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government: Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups in the country, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country: the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan. The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i Faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

Outside the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA. To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam. Eight faiths are recognized and registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other five registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (25 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia. The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj. The council, attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, organizes a lottery to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas. Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel: 3.7 million dinars ($3,300) for Hajj travel by land and 4.8 million dinars ($4,200) for travel by air. In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 48 Syriac and 18 Turkoman language schools. The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and charitable donations. Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith. The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court. In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between members of the same religion while the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Immigration Service. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim. There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian. Without an official identity card, one may not register a marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion. IKR law forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of religious and ethnic minority communities: five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit. Usually one of the Council of Representatives (COR) rapporteur (administrative) positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other for a Turkoman. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities: five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR. Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The antiterrorism law defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.” Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

More than 600 demonstrators were killed in mass protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. According to news reports, the protesters were mostly young Shia, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement. Human Rights Watch also documented examples of Sunnis in Anbar being detained by ISF for expressing their support of the protests on social media. The reports stated, however, that there was no evidence that members of minority religions taking part in the protests were specifically targeted by security forces suppressing the protests. According to human rights organizations, including HRW, although the PMC and Ministry of Interior forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. In October journalists reported that authorities issued arrest warrants for 130 activists and journalists for covering the demonstrations. The warrants were based on the terrorism law; however, reportedly the real reason for the arrest warrants was their coverage of the demonstrations taking place in Shia-dominant provinces of the country.

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were again implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced abuses by PMF and ISF that included violence and forced displacement by PMF and ISF.

In June MP Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala. Al-Dahlaki stated government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in a systematic demographic change along the border with Iran. There were reports that gunmen attacked the village of Abu Al-Khanzir in the province, killing three members of the same family and prompting a wave of displacement from the village.

Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartalla Subdistrict, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, there were 14 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the KRG, compared with 11 in 2018: Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.

Representatives of minority religious communities continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities. Christians again reported abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the 30th Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in Bartalla said they felt threatened by the actions of the Shabak 30th Brigade, such as deploying forces in Christian areas, establishing its headquarters in the Christian sub-district of Bartalla, controlling the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain by establishing check points, forcing merchants to pay bribes, controlling real estate in Christian areas, and other forms of harassment of Christians and Sunni Arabs.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartalla said activities of the 30th Brigade threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias posted pictures of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani on shops in Bartalla, as well as Iraqi militia leaders such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. They also stated that the 30th Brigade refused to comply with government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak individuals threatened priests over social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the brigade from the area on social media. Local sources said six Shabak Sunni families left their home in Bashiqa District because the 30th Brigade verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their lands. Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported continued verbal harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.

Yezidi community leaders continued to report that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered Yezidi. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of the Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, there were no reported cases of discrimination against them in the IKR during the year. They continued to state, however, that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by non-Christian religious minorities.

According to Christian leaders, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith continued to be forced to either register their child as Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depend on family size. Larger families with legally registered children receive higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, some Shabak MPs, including Hunain Qado, with the support of some of some Shia elements in the central government, continued to direct the 30th Brigade to harass Christians, drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population, and allow Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers. Christians in Tal Kayf said the nominally Christian but majority Shia Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively continued to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town, but it no longer blocked Christians from returning to the area.

In Ninewa Province, some Shabak MPs in the COR continued to advocate for the provision of land grants in accordance with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF victims who fought ISIS. Throughout the year, according to media and local news reports, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya. In 2018 Behnam suspended the grants in a historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change. During the year, government construction of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla continued. Christian community leaders continued to express concern that all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

During the year, the Office of the Prime Minister created a committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders to return all Christian properties in Ninewa to their Christian owners. The committee returned tens of houses to their Christian owners and remained active as of the end of year. Reportedly, no similar committee was formed to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian MP Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders worked individually to help Christians return to their homes; he said he managed to return 180 homes during the year.

During the year, the PMF Imam Ali Brigade continued to block the return of the members of the Yezidi Sinjar District Council and the mayor to Sinjar City from their temporary location in Dohuk, notwithstanding an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister provided in 2018 that ordered their return.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report physical abuse and verbal harassment by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated more by territorial disputes rather than religious discrimination.

According to multiple sources, many alleged Sunni ISIS sympathizers or their families whom government forces and militia groups had expelled in 2018 from their homes in several provinces had not returned home by year’s end. Some of these IDPs said PMF groups, including Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib Hezballah, continued to block their return.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported between 2,900 and 3,000 Yezidis, mainly women and children, remained missing in and outside the country. Approximately 150 Christians also remained missing. According to the KRG MERA, as of October more than 3,500 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or were released from ISIS captivity since 2014.

As of August the KRG Yezidi Rescue Office, established by then-KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, had spent approximately $5 million since its inauguration in 2014 to rescue captive Yezidis from ISIS. Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs. According to Yezidis activists and officials, the Yezidis were afraid to return to Sinjar because of the continuing Turkish airstrikes targeting the PKK. In November a Turkish airstrike hit the local headquarters of Yezidi PKK fighters in Sinjar, called the People’s Protection Units (also known as YBS), killing or injuring 20 of them.

According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported the ISF returned to the Sunni Endowment the property of a Sunni mosque in Mosul, confiscated by PMF militia in 2018. The Shia Endowment’s seizure of property owned by the Sunni Endowment continued to create tension with Sunnis in Mosul. One unidentified group placed banners throughout Mosul with the hashtag #OurWaqf [religious endowment] is our Red Line.

At year’s end, the central government had not opened an investigation of the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharaf in 2017. According to Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Sharaf, the government had neglected to address the issue.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration. According to estimates, including those cited by several Christian MPs, the monthly number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22. A director of an Assyrian NGO reported four Syriac language schools remained closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.

Some Yezidis and Christians continued to maintain their own militias. According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some received support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they needed to have a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.

NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate the laws, and no legislation proposed to repeal them.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them without interference or intimidation to observe their religious holidays and festivals. Provincial governments also continued to designate festivals as religious holidays in their localities.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula continued to include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660-$1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. The KRG subsidized tuition by approximately 25 percent. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end, some schools still did not utilize elements of the universally adopted 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Other than making small changes to the curriculum, observers stated that the Ministry of Education did not have a clear strategy to implement the rest of the religious tolerance curriculum.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students. The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies. The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education continued to partner with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes – an effort that continued through year’s end.

The central government again extended by two years the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010. They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were again reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG MERA built four churches and one Christian center during the year.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous two years. Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’is and Sabean-Mandeans, continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian. Although there were no reliable statistics available, minorities stated they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime. Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible. Some Sunnis said they were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts by the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP had 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law did not restrict who could vote in quota seat races. Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority populations said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government. Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Brigade. Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits. The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol. Community sources reported the continuing practice of Muslim businessmen using Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

During the year, the Kaka’i community reported it controlled all of its places of worship. In 2018 Kaka’i leaders had reported that the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad, converting them into mosques.

In September the KRG announced the closure of a restaurant named the “Hitler Restaurant,” located outside Dohuk. The KRG stated that “Nazism and racism would not be tolerated in the autonomous Kurdish region and such actions are against the law.” The KRG’s Department of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs later released a statement calling for expanded laws to punish genocide denial in the KRG.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the protests that began in October, many activists were killed, wounded, and kidnapped reportedly for political reasons by masked individuals and armed groups affiliated with Iran, such as AAH, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Shia religious and government leaders continued to urge PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses. Religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Shia Marjaiya in Najaf, called for the protection of minorities in a Friday sermon. Political and religious leader Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of the Hikma Party, also called for the protection of religious minorities.

According to media, the Yezidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a statement in April appearing to accept children born of ISIS rape into the community; days later, however, the council issued a second statement clarifying it was referring to children born of Yezidi parents and kidnapped by ISIS, but not children born of rape.

Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the 30th Brigade, reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura. There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment. According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

In an August 6 interview with the National Review on the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil said, “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction…Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”

Based on Iraqi media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place two consecutive years in a row. The KRG marked the genocide’s anniversary with a commemoration ceremony in Dohuk with participants including then-IKR president Barzani, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, Yezidi leader Mir Hazim Beg, KRG ministers, diplomats, and genocide survivors. The same day, the Ninewa Provincial Council also commemorated the anniversary of the genocide in Sinjar. The IKR parliament passed a resolution recognizing August 3 as Yezidi Genocide Remembrance Day.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.

Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

During the year, with the stated purpose “To support the faithful and encourage them to stay in their homeland,” the Syriac Catholic Church re-established a diocese for the Kurdistan region. To mark the occasion, the Syriac Catholic patriarch celebrated Mass at the Queen of Peace Syriac Catholic Church in Erbil on August 24.

In Baghdad on February 18, the University of London’s SOAS Jewish Music Institute featured Baghdadi folk songs and lullabies with British-born musician Carol Isaacs, of Iraqi Jewish origin. Titled “The Wolf of Baghdad,” the presentation was a personal familial audiovisual journey, an effort to revive Iraq’s vanishing Jewish community that formed one-third of Baghdad’s population in the 1940s. In December members of the Jewish community from the IKR and abroad gathered in the town of Al-Qosh in the Nineveh Plains to celebrate Hanukkah.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including then-prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of minorities into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and the embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, medical supplies, psychosocial support and other protection interventions, education, and livelihoods.

On July 18, the Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two militia figures pursuant to Executive Order 13818: Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the PMF 50th Brigade, and Waad Qado, the leader of the 30th Brigade, along with two former Iraqi governors, Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan and Ahmed al-Jabouri. The OFAC press release stated, “Many of the corruption- and abuse-related actions committed by these sanctioned individuals occurred in areas where persecuted religious communities are struggling to recover from the horrors inflicted on them by ISIS. Therefore, today’s sanctions demonstrate solidarity with all Iraqis who oppose corruption and human rights abuse undertaken by public officials and underscore the Administration’s commitment to support the recovery of persecuted religious communities in Iraq.”

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional ministries of education, justice (which includes the functions of the former national Ministry of Human Rights), labor, and social affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.

Working with the local business sector, the U.S. Agency for International Development organized the Ninewa Investment Forum on December 4-5 in Erbil to connect local businesses with investors from around the world, including the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The event featured panel discussions that raised awareness of the business opportunities and challenges that exist in Ninewa, including among religious minority communities.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Ireland

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion. It references Jesus Christ and God and stipulates the state shall respect religion. On December 21, President Michael Higgins signed a law entering into force in January 2020 which ends the prohibition on blasphemy after it was eliminated from the constitution following a 2018 referendum. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, the government barred “national” (publicly funded, primary) Catholic schools from making admission decisions based on students’ religion; other national religious schools could continue to do so if they are oversubscribed. The national police announced in April it would allow male Sikh and female Muslim members of the force to wear, respectively, turbans and hijabs on the job. There were reports some school authorities in national Catholic schools gave preferential treatment to students for participating in religious activities and told parents that, contrary to law, their children could not opt out of religion classes. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to urge the government to adopt hate crime legislation, including for religiously motivated crimes, and improve monitoring of such incidents. In October the government launched a public consultation on hate speech as part of a planned update of the criminal law prohibiting incitement to hatred. In October police introduced a working hate crime definition that included religiously motivated crime. In December the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) cited a high level of hate crime in the country, including against women wearing headscarves in public, and called on the government to make a “clear time-bound commitment” to reform its legal framework on hate crime. President Higgins and other senior government officials participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration.

In May media reported two separate attacks on Muslim men in Limerick during Ramadan in which a total of three men were beaten and hospitalized. Media reported in August teenagers pushed a Muslim girl to the ground and forcibly removed her hijab in Dublin. A group in Dublin worked to establish a network of safe spaces in the city for Muslim women encountering harassment. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), an independent statutory body, reported from January to June it received 15 complaints of employment discrimination based on religion. A European Commission (EC) survey on perceptions of discrimination published in September found 42 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country. In January another EC survey reported that 69 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in the country. In July a mosque was vandalized in Galway. In August Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson wrote an open letter to imams and other Muslim leaders in the city, expressing sorrow and solidarity with victims of attacks in the country targeting Muslims.

U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Education and Skills, and the police. Embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs to discuss their concerns over religious tolerance, secularism, and religion in the national school system.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2016 census (the most recent) indicates the population is approximately 78 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Church of Ireland (Anglican), 1 percent Muslim, 1 percent Orthodox Christian (including Greek, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox), 1 percent unspecified Christian, and 2 percent other religions, while 10 percent stated no religious affiliation, and 3 percent did not specify their religion. There are small numbers of Presbyterians, Hindus, Apostolic Pentecostals, Pentecostals, and Jews. The census estimates the Jewish population to be 2,500. The number of Christians and Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, Muslims and Hindus from South Asia, and Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe continues to grow, especially in larger urban areas. NGOs such as Atheist Ireland and the Humanists Association of Ireland said the census overestimates religious affiliation by asking, “What is your religion?” which they said was a leading question.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the free profession and practice of religion, subject to public order and morality. The constitution references “the Most Holy Trinity” and “our divine Lord, Jesus Christ,” and stipulates the state shall hold the name of God in reverence and honor and respect religion. The constitution requires the president, judges, and members of the council of state to swear a religious oath, which begins with a reference to “Almighty God.” It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and guarantees not to endow any religion.

The constitution stipulates every religious denomination has the right to manage its own affairs, own and acquire property, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes. It prohibits the diversion of property of any religious denomination except for necessary works of public utility and upon payment of compensation. The constitution states legislation providing for government aid to schools shall not discriminate among schools under the management of different religious denominations nor affect the right of a child to attend any school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.

The constitution was amended in November 2018 to remove blasphemy as an offense following an October 2018 referendum approving the change. On December 21, President Higgins signed legislation entering into force on January 17, 2020 to revoke the law making blasphemy a crime. The constitution had been amended in November 2018 to remove blasphemy as an offense following an October 2018 referendum. Until its repeal, the law defined blasphemy as uttering or publishing language “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion,” when the intent and result are “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” Violations were punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($28,100), but the government had last prosecuted blasphemy in 1855.

The law forbids incitement to hatred based on religion, among other categories, and carries a maximum penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 25,400 euros ($28,500). The law does not address or define hate crimes other than incitement.

There is no legal requirement for religious groups to register with the government, nor is there any formal mechanism for government recognition of a religious group. Religious groups may apply to the Office of the Revenue Commissioners (the tax authority) as a charity to receive tax exemptions, and the groups must operate exclusively for charitable purposes, which under the law may include “the advancement of religion.” The law requires all charitable organizations carrying out activities in the country to register with and provide certain information relating to their organization to the Charities Regulator, a government-appointed independent authority. The regulator maintains a public register of charitable organizations and ensures their compliance with the law. Organizations must apply their income and property solely toward the promotion of their main charitable object, as set out in their governing instruments (such as constitution, memorandum and articles of association, deed of trust, or rules).

Under the law, individual medical professionals are able to opt out of participating in certain legal procedures, such as abortion, on conscience grounds; however, institutions may not refuse to perform such procedures.

Under the constitution, the Department of Education and Skills provides funding to privately owned and managed primary schools – most of which are affiliated with religious groups, particularly the Catholic Church – referred to as national or just primary schools. Most children receive their elementary-level education at these privately-owned schools. The government pays most of the building and administrative costs, teachers’ salaries, and a set amount per pupil.

Ninety percent of all national schools are Catholic, 6 percent Church of Ireland, 2 percent multidenominational, 1 percent other religious groups, and 1 percent not religiously affiliated. Patrons, who are usually members of the religious groups and affiliated with religious organizations with which the school is associated, manage the schools themselves or appoint a board of management to do so. Patrons often provide land for schools and contribute to building and administrative costs.

According to legislation enacted in 2018 that became effective with the 2019-2020 school year, Catholic national schools are no longer allowed to discriminate on religious grounds when making admissions decisions. National schools under the patronage of other religious groups may continue to discriminate in admissions on religious grounds in order to preserve, according to the law, their distinct religious identities, but only in schools which are oversubscribed. The law prohibits discrimination in admissions based on religious beliefs in secondary schools.

In funding schools, the constitution stipulates the state shall have due regard “for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.” The government permits, but does not require, religious instruction, faith-based classes, or general religion classes in national schools. Although religious instruction is part of the curriculum of most schools, parents may exempt their children from such instruction. Religious schools teach about their religion, while multidenominational schools generally teach about religion in a broader context. Students may opt out and sit in a classroom where religious instruction is not being conducted. The Catholic Church certifies teachers of religion classes in Catholic schools.

Approximately half of secondary schools are religiously affiliated. The government funds religiously affiliated secondary schools.

Vocational schools are state run and nonreligious.

The WRC hears cases of reported workplace discrimination, including claims based on religion. The WRC may refer cases for mediation, investigate these cases, or decide the case itself. If the adjudication officer finds there has been discrimination, he or she can order compensation for the effects of discrimination and/or corrective action. Litigants may appeal WRC decisions in the courts.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) is an independent public body accountable to parliament, whose stated purpose is to protect and promote human rights and equality and to build a culture of respect for human rights, including religious freedom. The commission works at the policy level to review the effectiveness of human rights and equality law, as well as public policy and practice. It also works with communities, including religious and other civil society groups to monitor and report on the public’s experience of human rights, religious freedom, and equality.

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

Government Practices

In April the police announced Commissioner Drew Harris had decided the force would allow Sikh members to wear turbans and Muslim women members to wear the hijab while on the job. The Muslim Sisters of Eire said they wished to “acknowledge and celebrate the decision” and the Immigrant Council of Ireland tweeted it was “encouraging news.” The police representative association called it “a useful measure.”

Atheist Ireland, the main secularist advocacy group in the country, said Catholic charities engaged in political activities, but government authorities overlooked their actions.

School patrons, generally affiliated with religious denominations, continued to define the ethos of schools and to determine the development and implementation of the religious education curriculum in primary schools. Curricula varied by school and could include teaching about the patron’s religion, the religious history of the country, or an overview of world religions. Atheist Ireland criticized the government for primarily delivering moral formation through religion and not offering students moral education outside of religion classes.

Atheist Ireland and the media reported incidents of school authorities giving preferential treatment, such as homework exemptions, to students in national Catholic schools that engaged in activities such as singing in religious choirs or preforming altar services in church. According to media reports, in September the Yellow Furze National School (Catholic) in County Meath had a policy of allowing children who attended religious ceremonies to skip their homework. School authorities said they were “rewarding positive behavior” by issuing church-going children a “homework pass.” The school said students were still free to opt out of religious events but would not be “rewarded” for it.

In September The Irish Times newspaper reported Atheist Ireland said it was aware of dozens of cases where school authorities told parents religion was a core subject from which their children could not opt out. According to the article, one mother had twice requested in writing that a school exempt her child from religion classes. The woman said school officials told her verbally that religion was compulsory and the child could leave the premises during religion classes or go to another school.

The government continued to encourage patrons to open more schools with nonreligious or multidenominational patronage. Seventeen new multidenominational national schools opened during the year as part of the government’s plan, announced in 2018, to encourage the establishment of 42 nonreligious or multidenominational national schools in 2019-22. The Department of Education and Skills said it would poll parents for their preferences among a list of potential patrons in regions where the department perceived a need for new schools, and encourage the preferred patrons to sponsor the new schools. The department said it expected in most cases parents would express a preference for nonreligious or multidenominational patronage. On November 19, the department issued an invitation for patronage applications for four new primary schools scheduled to open in September 2020.

In November Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland made a joint submission to CERD, arguing the government was moving too slowly in establishing new nondenominational schools and divesting existing schools from religious bodies. The submission argued, “The state should stop ceding control of almost all schools to private patron bodies, the vast majority of which have a self-interested religious prejudice while providing an essentially public service.” CERD recommended the government monitor school admissions, to encourage diversity and tolerance of other faiths and beliefs in the education system, and incidents of discrimination on the basis of belief.

There were no reports of complaints by parents or others about the law forbidding Catholic national schools from taking students’ religion into account when making admissions decisions, while allowing other national schools to continue to do so. In rural areas, parents said finding non-Catholic national schools was especially difficult.

Catholic religious orders remained affiliated with 20 of the country’s 45 hospitals.

In May the media reported Minister of Justice and Equality Charles Flanagan invoked for the first time a 20-year-old immigration power to bar a U.S. preacher from entering the country “in the interest of public policy,” following an online petition signed by 14,000 individuals calling for the government to ban his visit. According to the petitioners and some media reports, the preacher, the founder of an independent Christian group, had made anti-Semitic statements, including Holocaust denial, and denounced homosexuality and Hinduism.

In February a commission established by Minister for Health Simon Harris issued a report on the role and status of voluntary organizations providing health and personal social services. The report said the state was legally entitled to attach reasonable conditions to any funding it provided and was free to refrain from funding organizations that refused to provide certain lawful services, such as abortion or prescriptions for contraceptives. The report also said health services run by religious organizations should be “cognizant of the impact of decor” (e.g., religious symbols, icons, or the presence of chapels) on patients and “strive to ensure their personal preferences in this regard are met to the greatest extent possible.” Media reported Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in an interview the report was not a recommendation to force hospitals to remove religious symbols from public areas, but it was “a message to charities and voluntary bodies that do run hospitals and schools just to have regard to these things.” The prime minister said he wanted to see more diversity in religious symbols in publicly funded healthcare institutions, to reflect that many patients were not Roman Catholic. Harris stated the findings required “further deliberation.” The government had not taken action on the report by year’s end.

In June the WRC found the National Transport Authority (NTA) had not discriminated against John Hamill, a member of the Congregationalist Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pastafarians), whom The Irish Times described as “a prominent atheist,” when it denied him free travel to a park to attend a ceremony of his group in 2018, while providing free travel to Catholics attending a papal mass at the same park on that day. According to media, Pastafarians were meeting to celebrate their non-Catholicism and discuss the benefits of not being Catholic. The man had requested the transit benefit in advance. NTA responded via letter that it was not able to provide free travel to the event, stating, “The primary reason for making travel free for those attending the papal Mass is crowd safety at the main boarding locations.” The Irish Times reported the WRC found the man’s complaint, despite its satirical tone, raised a serious point and was not “frivolous, vexations, or misconceived,” but determined it failed on procedural grounds.

Several state agencies, including IHREC, WRC, and the police’s National Diversity and Integration Unit (GNDIU) continued to enforce equality legislation and work on behalf of minority religious groups. These agencies helped to organize community events to educate the public on interfaith issues. In September the Dublin City Interfaith Forum, which received state and European Investment Fund funding, and the Dublin City Council organized a free festival involving up to 15 different faith communities, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. According to GNDIU representatives, GNDIU’s liaison officers continued to engage regularly with immigrant minority religious groups to inform them of police services and educate them on their rights. In October the police launched its 2019-21 Diversity and Integration Strategy, with the stated aim of protecting all minorities and diverse groups (including religious groups) in society. The strategy focused on improving the identification, reporting, investigation, and prosecution of hate crimes. It introduced a working definition of hate crime for the police; emphasized human rights as a foundation for providing policing services; and initiated diversity, integration, and hate crime training within the police.

Although there were no laws addressing hate crimes, in October the police introduced a working hate crime definition as part of its diversity and integration strategy, with the goal of ensuring a uniform response to dealing with reported incidents. The strategy defined a hate crime as: “Any criminal offense which is perceived by the victim or any other person to, in whole or in part, be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on actual or perceived age, disability, race, color, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender.” The police’s official website further clarified that “[r]eligion includes ‘non-believers.’” According to a report in August by The Irish Times, in August the government’s Central Statistics Office stated it had seen “no objective proof” the police had addressed the concerns the office had cited in 2018, when it estimated the police underestimated hate crimes by at least 27 percent.

NGOs, including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), Immigrant Council of Ireland, Anti-Racism Network Ireland, National Steering Group Against Hate Crime, and European Network Against Racism Ireland (ENAR-I), as well as IHREC again advocated better monitoring of hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents, legislation against hate crimes and more stringent laws against hate speech, and action to ensure authorities took prejudice into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing criminals.

In October Justice and Equality Minister Flanagan and Minister of State for Equality, Immigration, and Integration David Stanton launched a seven-week consultation of the public’s views as the government prepared to update the criminal law prohibiting incitement to hatred. Several NGOs, including ICCL and ENAR-I, said the consultation resulted in part from their efforts.

In a review in December, CERD said the level of hate crimes in the country was high, “in particular against women wearing headscarves in public,” and criticized the government for failing to reform its legal framework on hate crime. CERD called for a “clear time-bound commitment” to make the necessary changes in law. CERD also praised NGO Holocaust Education Trust Ireland and its efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

On January 27, President Higgins, Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney, Minister for Justice and Equality Flanagan, and other senior government officials participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration. In his remarks, the president paid tribute to Holocaust survivors and said the world needed to “work together to ensure that hatred and inhumanity is not allowed to once again spread its dark shadow across Europe and the world.” The NGO Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, in association with the Department of Justice and Equality, Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration, and Dublin City Council, organized the event, which included readings, survivors’ remembrances, and music, as well as the lighting of six candles symbolizing the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May media reported two separate attacks on Muslim men in Limerick during Ramadan. In one attack, three individuals punched and kicked two Muslim men walking towards a mosque. Both were hospitalized. Separately, a man approached a Muslim who was walking towards a mosque and hit him in the face. Two other men joined in beating the Muslim man, who was hospitalized. Police were investigating both assaults.

In August online footage showed teenagers pushing a 14-year-old girl to the ground and forcibly removing her hijab in Dublin. Police said they were investigating but had no evidence the incident was religiously motivated. Minister of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan condemned the assault. Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland told The Irish Sun newspaper the incident was “an attack on this girl’s religious identity.” Selim said he did not think anti-Muslim sentiment was on the rise, but called for hate crime legislation to protect the increasingly multicultural and multifaith nature of society.

In February the WRC found that a print company had discriminated against a gay man by refusing to print invitations for his civil partnership ceremony in 2015 on the grounds of his sexual orientation and ordered it to pay the man 2,500 euros ($2,800). In a statement issued after the WRC ruling, the print company said, “We are not against people who choose to practice homosexuality, but as Bible-believing Christians, we cannot in good conscience go along with printing invitations for same-sex unions.”

The WRC reported that from January to June it received 15 complaints of employment discrimination based on religion.

In May the EC carried out a study in each European Union (EU) member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 42 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Ireland, while 52 percent said it was rare; 92 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 98 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 96 percent said they would be with an atheist, 95 percent with a Jew, 93 percent with a Buddhist, and 91 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 96 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 89 percent if atheist, 88 percent if Jewish, 84 percent if Buddhist, and 80 percent if Muslim.

In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 69 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in Ireland, and 53 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 21 percent; on the internet, 29 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 18 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 20 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 18 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 18 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 19 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 20 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 23 percent.

In a survey of residents of the country IHREC published in October 2018, 7 percent of respondents said they believed members “of a certain religion” (the question did not identify any religious groups) were those most likely to have their human rights infringed or experience discrimination.

In October CNN reported that in July unknown individuals vandalized the Ahmadiyya Maryam Mosque in Galway, breaking windows, wrecking an office, and destroying the mosque’s video security system. The mosque’s imam, Ibrahim Noonan, said that prior to the incident, he had received an anonymous phone call warning him that individuals planned to attack the mosque and harm him. Following the break-in, a police spokesperson told CNN that police were “investigating a burglary.” Noonan stated that, since nothing was stolen, treating the incident as a burglary was insulting to the Muslim community. He added that the vandalism was targeted and premeditated. Mahmoud Rashid, President of Galway’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community, told CNN there was a wider anti-Muslim current in society and that the narrative was applied to Muslims and other migrant groups.

The same CNN report cited another incident during the summer in which a senior lecturer on contemporary Islam at University College Cork said he received a voice mail calling him a “scumbag and terrorist” and adding, “I hope you are executed.”

In March The Irish Times reported that abusive and threatening behavior towards Muslim women had prompted a group of Muslim women from the Dublin Mosque to establish a network of safe spaces in the city, where Muslim women could seek immediate shelter if harassed. The women said they were designing a large yellow sticker reading, “Ask for Help,” which they hoped participating establishments would post prominently.

In August Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson wrote an open letter to imams and other Muslim leaders in the city, expressing sorrow and solidarity with victims of attacks in the country targeting Muslims.

According to media, in March the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference objected to an advertisement for two consultants at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin. The job announcement said candidates for consultant positions in obstetrics/gynecology and anesthesia must be willing to participate in elective abortions. The bishops’ conference said this precondition denied some candidates employment on the basis of conscience. According to the media, the hospital responded that the positions in question were specifically for providing abortion services and were therefore for individuals willing to provide those services. The hospital said the conscientious objection guidelines for staff remained unchanged.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Human Rights Unit, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Education and Skills, and the police. Embassy officials also met with representatives of religious groups, interfaith organizations, and NGOs to discuss their concerns over religious tolerance, secularism, and religion in the national school system.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: Israel

West Bank and Gaza 

Executive Summary

This section covers Israel, including Jerusalem. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem. In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.

The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights. In 2018, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” According to the government, that “law determines, among other things, that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” The government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temple and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among the government, Jordan, and the Jerusalem Waqf (which under the status quo in place since 1967 remains a Jordanian government institution; the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem). Violence occurred between Muslims and the police on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and Israeli control over the Old City, after hundreds of Jews were allowed into the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan. It was the first time these two holidays overlapped in years and the first time in three decades that non-Muslims entered the site during the final days of Ramadan. Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including Members of the Knesset (MKs), whose presence authorities said they feared would inflame tensions. The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Local authorities sought to change the status quo regarding prohibitions on public transportation on Shabbat by operating bus lines sponsored by the municipality. Press reporting cited a growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. Some minority religious groups complained about what they said was lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups, but stated that members of unrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.

On June 8, Jewish youths and seminary students of the Armenian Church each stated that they had been attacked by the other in Jerusalem near the Armenian Church’s seminary in Jerusalem. On May 16, religiously observant Jewish teenagers shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Muslim teen from East Jerusalem, who was subsequently hospitalized after being knocked unconscious. Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing and spitting on them. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, according to press reports. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August a man attacked two of their members, during a door to door activity in Bat Yam and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion.

Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including residents and citizens. According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other” – mostly persons, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who identify themselves as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures – as well as relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes approximately 78 percent of the country’s 175,000 Christians, according to the CBS, as of December. Non-Arab Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members, and their descendants.

According to a poll by the local NGO Hiddush published in September, 58 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious stream, 18 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 6 percent “Conservative.”

Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located throughout the country. For example, in the Galilee region, some communities are homogenous, while others feature a mix of these groups. There are also dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev. In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.

The CBS estimates 546,100 Jews, 328,600 Muslims, and 15,900 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 901,300, as of 2018.

According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 350,000 foreign workers in the country, including 100,000 documented Palestinian workers; 40,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 102,000 migrant workers with permits, 75,000 undocumented workers; and 30,000 asylum seekers. Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 30,000 Filipinos, 8,000 Indians, 2,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from South American countries.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Although the country has no constitution, a series of “Basic Laws” enumerate fundamental rights, which are country’s constitutional foundation. The 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law, which applies to citizens and non-Israeli residents.

The 2018 “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People” recognizes only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” in “the Land of Israel. The law recommends – but does not require – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment. Government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups. The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism. The infliction of “injury to religious sentiments” constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by one year’s imprisonment. Such injury includes publishing or saying something that is liable to offend the religious sentiment or faith of others.

The “Nakba Law,” passed in 2011, prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the prime minister for travel to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Hajj travel to Saudi Arabia; the government issues these permits in the vast majority of cases. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century).

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women may request an exemption from military service. For most ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption. A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Arab Muslims and Christians, as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service. Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for civil-national service.

Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion. Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.

All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion). Approximately 400,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish,” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.

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

There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. The Equal Employment Opportunities Law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment.

On January 10, the Knesset approved an amendment to the penal code that includes a motive of racism or hostility based on the victim’s religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation, or on racism toward or hate for foreign workers as an aggravated circumstance in a murder offense. In the explanatory notes of this amendment, the Knesset noted that murder committed out of racism or hostility justifies severe treatment in the form of mandatory life imprisonment.

The law states public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

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

The Muslim Mufti of Jerusalem, who has no legal status vis-a-vis Israeli authorities, has issued “fatwas” (religious edicts) prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of land by Palestinians to Israelis.

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

Government Practices

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

The government continued to allow controlled access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif allows non-Muslim visitors but prohibits non-Islamic worship on the compound. According to the AP, violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the AP, the incident occurred after large numbers of Muslims had gathered at the site’s gates in response to rumors that police would allow Jewish visitors to enter the site. The protestors threw stones at police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. After clashes broke out, police allowed access to “several dozen” Jews and provided a police escort. Muslims responded by throwing chairs and other objects at the group, which left shortly thereafter.

According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among Israel, Jordan, and the Waqf. The Jordanian government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintains the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The Waqf opened the building, which media reported had not been open or used for prayers since 2003, on February 14 when worshippers began using it as a prayer hall. The government issued restraining orders against more than 20 Waqf guards and arrested 19 Muslims, including two minors who confessed to throwing a Molotov cocktail into a police post at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which resulted in a one-day closing of the site on March 12. According to the government, this closure was done in order to allow the police investigate the incidents and check the scene. Police also closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Tensions continued at the site, although Muslim worshipers continued to have access to it at the end of the year.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including MKs, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. According to Makor Rishon journalist Arnon Segal, 152 persons were arrested between September 10, 2018 and August 25, 2019. The government stated the police banned individuals from accessing the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. According to the government, 334 individuals were banned from Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for different time periods. While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem residents, as well as Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. In addition, these organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted Muslim males under a certain age from entering the site during periods of tension.

Israeli authorities allowed West Bank Muslims to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif during Ramadan and facilitated transportation for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshipers. Israeli authorities allowed men over 40 years old, boys under 16, and women of all ages to enter Jerusalem without permits issued by the Israeli military on the four Fridays of the month. Married men between 30 and 40 were eligible to apply for military permits valid Sunday-Thursday during the month – normally, only men over 50 and women over 45 may transit Israeli checkpoints from the West Bank for worship without military permits.

On April 15, Israeli authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in Jerusalem’s Old City. On April 18, the police detained at least two suspects who allegedly sought to make a Passover sacrifice at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, as well as two journalists who were with them. According to media reports, the suspects were interrogated on offenses of behavior which might disturb public order, and for animal abuse.

On August 6, a police officer detained an ultra-Orthodox protester and pulled him by his earlock. The police suspended the officer, and authorities continued to investigate the case as of November.

On July 24, the state prosecutor’s office announced it would indict, pending a hearing, a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for bribery and breach of trust regarding the expediting of kashrut certificates. A 2017 report from the state comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.

Press reported that prosecutors dropped a case against two Jewish activists, Yinon Reuveni and another man who was a minor at the time of his arrest, for membership in a terror organization and vandalizing the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem in 2016, due to lack of evidence. A court had previously dismissed as inadmissible the second defendant’s confession, ruling that authorities obtained it illegally. The vandalism of the abbey, considered by some Christians the site of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, included graffiti that said “death to Christians” and “Jesus is a monkey.” A spokesman for the church said the decision to acquit the two men was “unacceptable.”

According to the Times of Israel, Muslims and police clashed violently on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan, after police allowed hundreds of Jews onto the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. It was the first time in three decades that non-Muslims were able to enter the site during the final 10 days of Ramadan. The government stated that each year police assess the security situation and decide whether it is necessary to close the site to non-Muslims during this period, “in order to allow for a proper course of prayer for Muslim worshipers during Ramadan.” Prior to the incident, police had announced the compound would be closed to Jews and tourists after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition to overturn the closure. The court subsequently rejected a case that sought to change the route of the “flag march” marking Jerusalem Day, when thousands of Jews participate in the annual parade through Jerusalem’s Old City, where the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is located, including its Muslim quarter. According to the Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Day has been embraced by the “national religious” community. The paper said marchers consisted mostly of young people singing songs of praise and prayer for the unification of the city and the capture of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in the 1967 Six Day War. One Muslim bakery worker said that the march through the Muslim Quarter was a provocation. Another stated that he objected to the staging of the parade during Ramadan, and that the march was disrespectful to Muslims.

According to press and NGO reports, following an appeal of a decision by the Central Elections Committee, the High Court of Justice barred the leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, Michael Ben Ari, from running in Knesset elections because of expressed anti-Arab ideology and incitement. The attorney general had urged the court to ban Ben Ari for his “severe and extreme” racism. The Otzma Yehudit party has described itself as proud disciples of Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in 1988 for being racist and antidemocratic. The appeal cited a 2019 statement by Ben Ari, “We have to change the equation regarding anyone who dares to speak against a Jew…. [Such a person] is a dead man. He must not come out alive. No expelling him, no stripping him of his citizenship. He does not live! A firing squad takes him out as the Arabs understand [best].” Ben Ari later said he was talking about Hamas leaders and not all Arabs.

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

According to data from the MRS, of 70,326 individuals who registered for a Jewish marriage in 2018, rabbinical courts instructed 3,996 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. Of these, 122 were unsuccessful. On November 6, the Jerusalem Post reported on new rabbinate regulations allowing marriage registrars to approve marriage applications of converts based on the list of rabbinical courts approved by the Chief Rabbinate, clarifying the criteria for recognition of conversions.

According to the Jerusalem Post, data compiled by the religious freedom NGO Hiddush, which was based on multiple surveys conducted in recent years through the Smith Polling Institute, showed that 70 percent of the country’s adult Jewish population supported recognition by the state of freedom of choice in marriage, doing away with the rabbinate’s monopoly, and equally recognizing civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages. According to the same sources, 53 percent of the public stated that had they been allowed a choice, they would not have married in an Orthodox ceremony, compared with 35 percent who expressed the same sentiment in 2009, 39 percent in 2013, and 47 percent in 2016.

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

On April 7, a magistrate court convicted an individual who refused to give a get to his wife of violating a legal order and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment and seven months’ probation. On August 20, President of the Rabbinical Courts Chief Rabbi David Lau instructed authorities to delay the burial of a get refuser’s mother as a means to pressure him. The refuser then agreed to give a get to his wife.

Local authorities circumnavigated the ban on public transportation on Shabbat by funding privately operated bus lines. On July 7, the municipal council in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, approved the operation of two bus lines on Shabbat in central areas of the city as long as they did not enter residential neighborhoods. In November the Tel Aviv city council approved and funded free bus lines on Shabbat for the entire city as well as other major cities in the central area of the country. MK Uri Maklev of the United Torah Party denounced the initiative and called on the transportation minister to stop the service. The orthodox organization Hotam criticized the proposal as “harming Shabbat,” while the secular group Be Free Israel said that the initiative recognized public transportation as a “basic right.” On December 11, the nearby city of Bat Yam decided against offering public transportation on the Sabbath. In a poll released by Hiddush on December 9, 71 percent of Jewish citizens were favor of transportation on weekends, including 94 percent of citizens who described themselves as secular.

Some observant Jews, based on their religious beliefs, may only attend concerts and other entertainment events in venues that allow for the separation of genders. As permitted by attorney general directives until August, cities and municipalities with significant population groups of observant Jews were able to plan and execute events with these guidelines observed. Some women’s rights organizations, including the Israel Women’s Action Network (IWN), expressed concern about gender segregation in any publicly funded or sponsored events, arguing that gender segregation as supported by Orthodox Jews violated antidiscrimination laws and attorney general directives. On August 14, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an NGO petition objecting to a gender-segregated concert held by the Afula municipality in accordance with the religious practices of a large percentage of its population. The event went forward prior to the Supreme Court ruling as a lower court had initially ruled in favor of the municipality. Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri made an appearance onstage at the concert and criticized the NGO for attempting to impose requirements on all Afula residents irrespective of their beliefs. On August 18, the Office of the Attorney General issued a directive stipulating certain circumstances in which gender-segregated events could be held, pending further examination of the issue. The new guidelines deviated from a previous directive that permitted segregation only in events of a religious nature, under which many observant Jews were not able to participate in municipality events.

In June MK Bezalel Smotrich said the justice system should adhere to religious law, and the country should run itself as “in the days of King David” and “restore the Torah justice system.” Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu responded to Smotrich’s remarks by saying that the country “will not be a halacha state.” On August 5, Smotrich, who had then been appointed as minister of transportation, told a conference of rabbis in Jerusalem “We would all like the state to act according to the Torah and halacha.” Smotrich also said that he would work to prevent construction, infrastructure, and maintenance work on Shabbat. On August 6, after criticism, Smotrich said that while his comments reflected the “religious will of any observant Jew,” they also made clear that “we all understand we cannot, nor do we want to, force our beliefs on others” and that policy solutions must consider the views of the entire public.

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

On May 3, Walla News reported that in a new book, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called reform synagogues idolatrous.

The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for early 2020 on its 2018 injunction that required the government to explain why it had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu for allegedly making racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community, following a 2016 petition by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access, citing “security concerns.” Local media, the Waqf, and Jewish Temple Mount groups reported that Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas without coordinating with Waqf guards inside. Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that changes in relations between police and the Temple Mount advocacy movement created a more permissive environment for non-Muslim religious acts on the site. In response, the government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter the site with police escort.

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

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

In August 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within 60 days to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing as of the years’ end.

Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for reasons of ritual purity. Some MKs, however, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors. Some Knesset members continued to call on the government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif by setting aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank.

The government continued to allow MKs and ministers to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and after reviewing police security assessments. This was in accordance with a 2018 decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site. MKs also must inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the visit with the police.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to enforce a regulation prohibiting the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies not conforming to Orthodox Judaism.

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

Authorities allowed the group Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza but in a barricaded area. In March and October, Jerusalem Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on people to arrive at the Western Wall to oppose Women of the Wall during their monthly prayer service, referring to their activities as an effort to “hurt the sanctity of the place.” Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. In response to an ongoing Supreme Court case from 2013 on the issue of prayer access at the Western Wall, the government stated in January it intended to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space. In June 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In August 2018 a special government committee approved expansion of the platform. According to the government, the renovation of the platform has not been accomplished due to regulatory procedures. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

On June 3, the National Infrastructure Committee approved, in an expedited process, a plan for the establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City. On November 4, the Housing Cabinet approved the plan. The cable car route would pass over a Karaite cemetery, something opposed by the Karaite community and which, according to the Karaite belief would desecrate the cemetery, preventing its further use. While the original plan included a physical roof over the cemetery, which contradicted Karaite customs, the approved plan does not include a roof. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, although some NGOs said the project was meant to promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem. The plan was pending final approval from the government at year’s end.

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

Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the 2018 Nation State Law. During the April and September general election campaigns, members of the Druze community, as well as others, demonstrated in front of the residences of party candidates and demanded a promise to amend the law by adding an equality clause, or to rescind it. Several politicians, including Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, voiced support. As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court. In the campaign for the April election, PM Netanyahu wrote on Instagram, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … it is the nation-state of the Jewish people only.” In November the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released observations stating that it was “deeply concerned about the possible discriminatory effect” of the Nation State Basic Law on non-Jews.

Press reporting cited growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. According to the August 23 issue of the New Yorker, “manifestations of hadata appear throughout civic life,” but “nowhere have those changes been more pronounced or more influential than in the public school system.” According to the article, “much of the curriculum these days is being taught through the narrow prism of religious orthodoxy.” A November report in Haaretz noted, “According to the Education Ministry, Jewish-Israeli culture is taught in a pluralistic and sometimes critical fashion. But countless examples prove otherwise.”

On April 16, six orthodox female halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that women be allowed to register for the Halachic exams of the State of Israel. This petition followed a rejection of their registration by the Chief Rabbinate, which the petitioners stated they viewed as wrongful discrimination. In May 2018, the government began recruiting women as legal advisors in rabbinical courts, following a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

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

A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.

A series of Supreme Court cases on conversion rights, including a petition demanding immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country, continued through year’s end.

According to ITIM, some individuals from the former Soviet-Union were asked by the rabbinate to take DNA tests in order to prove their Judaism. While the Supreme rabbinical court overturned two such requests, in a response to a Supreme Court petition, the government stated on September 16 that it supported consensual DNA tests as a last resort. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

According to a June report in Haaretz, a “large majority” of Jews in the country would strip the Chief Rabbinate of its authority to determine who qualified as Jewish in the country, according to a survey published July 2 by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.

District courts declared two Jewish men as “lacking religion” due to their requests in January and March to change to this status and demanded that the MOI change their status in the civil population registry.

Petitions of four municipalities against Interior Minister Deri’s rejection of their bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat were pending at the Supreme Court. An additional petition was dismissed without prejudice on July 23.

The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and the West Bank for persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only two were available for use to the broader general public regardless of residence. The one MRS-administered cemetery in the West Bank was available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. Additionally, 13 MRS-administered cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial (i.e., not affiliated to a religion) for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial for a relative reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the distant location of such cemeteries made it difficult to arrange and attend burials. In 2018, the MRS published a call for proposals to develop or expand cemeteries for civil burials, following a 2016 report by the state comptroller that criticized the MRS for not implementing the civil burial law and thereby preventing the right of citizens to civil burial. On July 18, Hiddush petitioned the Supreme Court demanding the state to allow civil burial in agricultural localities. On July 4, following another Hiddush petition, the IDF announced it would change its orders to allow for non-Orthodox military burial ceremonies.

The government again did not propose new draft legislation to respond to the 2017 Supreme Court decision striking down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service and setting a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews. The government requested additional time to pass a new draft law and received a postponement until January 2020. Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs; however, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument. Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from “national religious” Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox “Eda Haredit” community did not receive an exemption from military service based on its members’ conscientious objection on religious grounds. Because its yeshivas were not recognized by the state, they did not receive the same postponement and exemption from military service as other yeshiva students. As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, according to representatives of the community.

In December, the IDF stated that it had made a counting mistake in recent years in the number of ultra-Orthodox in the military. According to media reports, numbers were doubled and even tripled to meet the objectives set by the law. The IDF stated data was not skewed intentionally and the Chief of Staff appointed a committee to inquire regarding the gaps in the figures.

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

The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.

On June 13, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Supreme Court that requested official recognition as a religious community. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite repeated requests, the government had not taken action on their 2017 application. The panel did not make a decision by year’s end.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on January 16, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal to the Supreme Court in connection with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ efforts to obtain recognition of the Watchtower Association of Israel as a “public institution” under the Land Taxation Law. The Jehovah’s Witnesses made their original application in 2012 and although the tax authority approved the application, the Finance Committee of the Knesset, which has the authority to grant such exemptions, placed the application on hold. In response to a 2017 lawsuit by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the committee stated it was within its rights to deny tax exemptions to “missionary associations.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses then appealed to the Supreme Court. The judicial panel gave the tax authority additional time for further review and investigation and ordered it to present a final position on whether or not the Watchtower Association met the requirements for an exemption. After a hearing on May 22, the tax authority informed the Supreme Court on November 7 that it approved the application for tax exemption. At year’s end, the Knesset Finance Committee had not reviewed that decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MOI continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country. Muslim leaders criticized the MOI for appointing non-Muslims to head the Muslim Affairs Department at the ministry, mostly Druze former military officials. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. According to the government, the government did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were not state employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.

No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders rejected this assertion, stating the institutes in Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Baraa, operated by an NGO that teaches some Islamic studies, were not recognized as educational institutions by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. The Muslim leaders also said Al-Qasemi College in Baqa’a al-Gharbia was a teachers’ college that included a program for teaching Islam in schools. The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.

The government continued to promote measures to encourage increased Israeli residence and economic development in the thinly populated Negev Desert in the south of the country, including development plans for military industries, railways, the expansion of Road 6, and a phosphate mine. Civil society organizations criticized the government for these plans, stating they could lead to the displacement of 36,000 Bedouins. The government made more funding available for government-approved Bedouin cities and towns to relocate Bedouins displaced by the economic expansion.

The government also took measures aimed at strengthening the nine Bedouin municipalities in the Negev by improving the municipalities’ management to better utilize the three billion shekels ($870 million) provided through the Ministry of Agriculture’s (MOA) Socioeconomic Development Plan for Negev Bedouin 2017-2021 to improve infrastructure, education, public services, and employment in government-approved Negev Bedouin cities and towns. The government held joint planning forums to address violence, women’s employment, strategic planning, and education in Bedouin municipalities, with the stated intention of improving communication between the Bedouin municipalities and the government. According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, 115 of 126 communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, which the NGO stated effectively excluded non-Jewish residents. Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion that would have replaced existing Bedouin villages.

As of year’s end, Bedouin residents in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran had not fulfilled the agreement they reached in 2018 with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to self-demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. This agreement followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a community called Hiran. Families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Israeli population of the Negev and Galilee regions) to move to Hiran remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.

Some former mosques and Islamic cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonged to a defunct prestate Waqf (distinct from the Jerusalem Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. In December 2018, following a decades-long legal battle between the Jaffa Muslim community and a real estate developer, the government approved a request from the Tel Aviv Municipality to recognize Tasou Cemetery in Jaffa as an Islamic cemetery. This decision included authority for the Muslim community to manage the cemetery but did not transfer its ownership. The Islamic Council in Jaffa welcomed the decision, publicly calling it “a just decision that’s been waiting for more than 70 years.”

Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities.

On June 6, the Karaite community submitted a second petition to the Supreme Court, which remained pending at year’s end, to block the expropriation of land, previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramla, for the construction of a highway interchange. The Karaites stated that the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. In 2018, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of the land, and the Karaites subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. Later in 2018, the Supreme Court dismissed the Karaites’ appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court. The government subsequently reported it had reached an agreement with the Karaite community that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs. The Karaites, however, denied an agreement had been reached and submitted the second petition to the Supreme Court.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian clergy of different faiths as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals for Muslim soldiers according to Islamic customs.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from 2015 and 2016 to remove the signs, and the Jerusalem District Court ruled in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted. Following the municipality’s refusal to remove the signs, the Supreme Court ruled in November 2018 that authorities must comply with the order by December 31, 2018 or start paying fines. The Supreme Court later extended the deadline until August 30. According to the government, the municipality did not fully implement the ruling by the end of the year, and some signs that were taken down were replaced by new ones. Vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.

NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum organized petitions against a ban on bringing non-kosher-for-Passover foods (known as hametz) into public hospitals during Passover. On March 5, the Supreme Court issued an injunction demanding that the government explain why it could not implement “proportional solutions” to the problem, such as the use of disposable plates and utensils at the hospital. In response, on July 15, the government maintained its support for establishing “hametz zones” on hospital premises but outside of hospital buildings and explained that solutions such as the use of disposable utensils were technically problematic. In October, the Chief Rabbinate told the Supreme Court it opposed the use of disposable utensils as well as the establishing “hametz zones.” It stated that bringing hametz into hospitals during Passover would violate religious freedom and the right to life, as it would lead some individuals to avoid going to the hospital during Passover.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of non-Israeli residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some non-Israeli residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities.

In a May 20 statement, leaders of the Catholic churches in Jerusalem said the failure of international diplomacy and the peace process led many residents to feel “their lives have become more and more unbearable,” causing some to emigrate, with “many more consider leaving … [while] some are resorting to violence.” According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, other factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community.

While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. Arab citizens are allowed to participate in bids for JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA will grant the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel wins a bid.

On June 11, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court 2017 decision in favor of Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish pro-settlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease through three companies in 2004 for three properties owned by the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Church had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. In a July 11 protest of the court’s ruling, Christian leaders prayed outside the disputed buildings and, according to the Times of Israel, the Greek Orthodox patriarch said that “extremist groups [were] trying to weaken the unity and identity of the Christian neighborhood.” In August the Greek Orthodox Church filed a new lawsuit seeking to overturn the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. After filing the case, the patriarchate said that changing Jerusalem’s status quo “threatens the continuous hundreds-of-years old mosaic and balance that shores [up] the good relations between Jerusalemites of different faiths.” In November, after representatives of the three companies used by Ateret Cohanim failed to respond to the Church’s lawsuit, the Jerusalem District Court ordered the case reopened.

Some NGOs reported incidents in which they said authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military. For example, the Secular Forum continued to criticize the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in the first to ninth grades, referring to it as “religious indoctrination to young children.” The Secular Forum also opposed religious programs in those schools by private religious organizations, such as presentations about Passover in March by the Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. The government denied students were subjected to religious indoctrination or coercion, stating the secular public school curriculum included lessons “on the culture of the Jewish people,” including elements of the Jewish faith and traditions, such as the Jewish calendar and holidays. According to Haaretz, in May the minister of education canceled a regulation that required schools to inform parents of activities of religious NGOs in schools and the option to allow children to opt out of participation.

In November the Secular Forum and Hiddush filed a freedom of information petition to a district court in order to obtain information regarding the repeated cancelation of visits of families in some IDF bases on Shabbat, according to the Secular Forum, in order not to discriminate against religiously observant soldiers. The IDF responded to the petition, admitting that some bases were not holding visits on Shabbat, and established a committee to offer recommendations. The recommendations were pending as of the year’s end. In some instances, IDF soldiers were punished for keeping non-kosher foods in their rooms.

Women’s rights organizations cited a growing trend of gender segregation reflecting increased incorporation of Jewish religious observance in government institutions, including in the IDF, as accommodation to increase the enlistment of participants who follow strict interpretations of Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. On April 14, following a wave of protests by national religious rabbis, the IDF stopped allowing women to serve in combat positions in the armored corps despite a successful pilot program, citing economic and logistical reasons. Many observers, however, stated that the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.

Following a petition by Tebeka, a human rights group focusing on issues involving the Ethiopian Jewish community, the Chief Rabbinate Council adopted recommendations on October 31 according to which it would be prohibited to verify a person’s Judaism based on their origin or skin color. Tebeka petitioned the Supreme Court to object to a demand by the Kiryat Gat rabbinate to verify the Judaism of Ethiopian workers of a catering company in order for the business to receive a certificate for the most stringent level of kosher supervision.

Certain NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. Archeologists from the NGO Emek Shave disputed the government’s representation of the “pilgrim’s road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan on June 30, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple; Emek Shemek said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road. NGOs such as the Ir David Foundation and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies supported the government’s position.

According to the AP, the government was trying to end the custom of polygamy among Bedouins in the Negev and, for the first time, prosecuted suspected polygamists. Many Bedouins stated they saw this new policy as a means to curb their population growth and criminalize community members. Emi Palmor, the former director general of the Ministry of Justice, stated she was determined to enforce the law but was trying to do so with input from the community, and said she spent two years researching the issue and discussing solutions with Bedouin activists. Although the country outlawed polygamy decades ago, approximately 20 to 30 percent of Bedouin men practiced polygamy, according to government figures, with the rate as high as 60 percent in some villages. On September 20, the Beer Sheva District Court convicted Amin Abu Sakik from the Bedouin town of Rahat of polygamy and sentenced him to seven months in prison. The decision superseded a lighter sentence issued by the Beer Sheva Magistrate’s Court of community service, one-year suspended sentence, and a fine. Abu Sakik was the first person to be convicted of polygamy since enforcement of the law was renewed in 2017.

At the beginning of the year, the 120-member Knesset had 16 members from religious minorities (12 Muslims, three Druze, and one Christian). At year’s end, following two elections, the Knesset had 14 members from religious minorities (nine Muslims, three Druze, and two Christians). As of June, the 23-member cabinet included one Druze minister; there were no Muslim or Christian cabinet members. At year’s end, there were no Druze, Muslim, or Christian members of the cabinet.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

According to an article in the Jewish Press, a U.S. weekly newspaper, on June 8, 60 seminary students from the Armenian Church punched and kicked two Jewish youths in Jerusalem. Both victims required medical treatment, and one was hospitalized. Subsequently, the Armenian Patriarchate said the newspaper’s article about the incident was “a pure lie and malicious slander.” In its statement, the patriarchate stated that a group of 20 seminarians and the seminary’s dean were attacked by three Jews and their dog, which, after its muzzle was removed, was ordered to attack the dean. According to the patriarchate, the three Jews also attacked the group, while the seminarians shielded the priest from the dog. One seminarian’s hand was broken in the attack. Both sides filed complaints at the local police station.

According to Haaretz, on May 16, five or six religiously observant Jews shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem. The attackers hit the youth, identified as Ibrahim Sawilam, knocking him unconscious and requiring that he be taken to the hospital. Although his family filed a complaint with the police, who said they would open an investigation, Haaretz reported that they had not followed up with either Sawilam or any of his friends who were with him at the time of the attack.

Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews. For example, approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, cursing, screaming, using pepper spray, and tossing live frogs at them, according to Haaretz. Several eyewitnesses said the police did not respond appropriately in defense of the concertgoers and organizers. The police detained two persons for questioning and later released them without charges. In a written response, the Israel National Police said it denounces all violence and closed the case for lack of evidence.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August that a man in Bat Yam attacked two of their members during door-to-door activity and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. The police closed the investigation four days after it was opened, and Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision on September 23. The case remained pending at year’s end.

Lehava members continued to criticize or assault Arab men who were in relationships with Jewish women and to harass “mixed” couples. In May Lehava Director Ben-Tzion Gopstein sent a letter to MK Gideon Saar of the Likud Party demanding he put a stop to a relationship between Saar’s daughter and her Arab partner. Another organization, Yad L’Achim, continued to stop instances of cohabitation between Jewish women and Arab men by sometimes “launching military-like rescues from ‘hostile’ Arab villages,” according to its website. Following a 2017 petition from the Israel Religious Action Center, which represents the Reform Movement, to the High Court demanding Ben-Tzion Gopstein be indicted on a series of offenses, the Jerusalem district attorney held a pre-indictment hearing in 2018 and indicted him on November 26, 2019 for incitement to terrorism, violence and racism. In August the Central Elections Committee disqualified Gopstein’s Knesset candidacy due to incitement to racism.

There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of their neighborhoods harassing individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by driving on Shabbat or not wearing modest dress. The harassment included verbal abuse, spitting, and throwing stones.

On January 30, unknown individuals removed the cross from a church in the Golan Heights, abandoned since 1967. According to Kan News, the police received a complaint alleging a hate crime.

According to media reports, on November 15, unknown individuals spray painted a swastika on a Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance whose staff were treating a patient in Tel Aviv. The MDA team filed a police complaint.

Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women experiencing harassment by non-Muslims. According to a September report in Haaretz, a dental clinic in Netanya would not hire a dentist because she wore a hijab. In a conversation with the dentist, which the applicant recorded, the clinic director conceded that the Muslim woman had made a positive impression on the clinic’s staff members but said patients would not want her to treat them because of her hijab. In a subsequent lawsuit, the Tel Aviv Regional Labor Court awarded the dentist 40,000 shekels ($11,000) in compensation, finding that employer’s refusal to hire her constituted illegal discrimination.

On June 4 a group of Muslim students at David Yellin College of Education, a teachers’ college in Jerusalem, wrote “Ramadan Kareem” (“Blessed Ramadan”) on a communal student chalkboard. This same chalkboard was being used for commemorative notes recognizing Israel’s Day of Remembrance. Other members of the community who filmed the incident said the Muslim students had “desecrated the memory” of fallen Israeli soldiers. The college punished the students for “inappropriate conduct,” and banned two students, Reem Jouabra and Maram Abu Sneineh, from entering the college campus until August and revoked academic honors and grades awarded to them. The college also ordered the students to complete community service and to apologize to the community and the college president. Following an appeal by the NGO Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the college rescinded most of the penalties imposed on the two students.

Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce. On January 26, unknown individuals burned Torah scrolls and spray-painted graffiti on a Conservative synagogue in Netanya, following several vandalism cases at the same synagogue in 2018. On January 29, unknown individuals vandalized an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, cut the ark in which Torah scrolls are kept, destroyed Torah scrolls, and broke into the safe. On June 11, unknown individuals broke into the safe of an Orthodox synagogue in Bnei-Brak and stole Torah scrolls.

The most common “price tag” offenses, according to police, included attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, damage to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands. For example, on July 27, vandals sprayed graffiti on a truck and walls in Kfar Qasim referring to marriages between Jews and Arabs that said: “the daughter of Israel to the people of Israel,” and “enough with the intermarriage.” On December 12, unknown individuals sprayed Stars of David and sayings including “Muhammad is a pig” and damaged a car in the village of Manshiya Zabda in northern Israel.

The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and to sponsor activities promoting tolerance in response to the attacks.

Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site due to concerns relating to Jewish religious beliefs regarding the ongoing halakhic debate about whether it is permissible or forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible. Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site. Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there, as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site. In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them; in other cases reported on social media and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the activity. According to local media, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. According to the Jerusalem Waqf and Temple Mount activist groups, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement increased during the year to record levels, including a single-day record of 1,451 visits on “Jerusalem Day” in May. According to Temple Mount activist groups and the Waqf, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 3,009 visits, a 25 percent increase over 2017. According to Yareah, an organization that promotes Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, 30,416 Jews visited the site during the year, the first time the number of Jewish visitors exceeded 30,000 since Israel’s founding.

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

In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion. On January 11, hundreds protested the exhibit and police arrested one man on suspicion of assault and searched for two other persons who had thrown firebombs at the museum. Police said that three police officers were hurt as dozens of demonstrators tried to forcibly enter the museum. On January 17, Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem said the sculpture would be taken out of the exhibition following consultations with church leaders, noting that it was due to return to the Finnish museum from which it was borrowed at the end of January. The Association for Civil Rights condemned the move, stating that the decision was “a capitulation to violence and a severe violation of artistic freedom of expression.”

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

Some religious figures and politicians spoke against LGBTI individuals. On July 18, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and former Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar called on religious LGBTI individuals to throw away their kippahs and Shabbat observance, saying they were sinning against the Jewish people with their bodies.

Several religious NGOs, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, sought to break the rabbinate’s monopoly over issues that included kashrut certificates for burial, marriage, and divorce. In its first year, the unofficial kashrut certification of Tzohar, a network of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, gained 150 businesses.

According to the NGO Panim, more than 2,610 weddings took place outside of the Rabbinate’s authority in 2018, compared with 2,400 in 2017. These included unofficial orthodox, conservative, reform and secular ceremonies. The Chuppot initiative, an effort by some Orthodox Jews to challenge the Rabbinate’s exclusive supervision of Jewish religious ceremonies and practices, held 216 unofficial Orthodox weddings during 2019. The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Rabbinate Orthodox wedding remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI.

According to the Rackman Center, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get refusals, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice. A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the Jewish community. In February, Mavoi Satum, an organization that deals with issues of divorce in Israel, tried to set a precedent through an appeal to the High Rabbinical Court, which demanded that the court not close cases until a get is issued. The court did not take up the issue.

A rabbinical court in September ruled that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship was entitled to only 20 percent of joint property, accumulated from the date of her infidelity. On June 6, the president of the Supreme Court ordered an additional hearing for April 2020 on a 2018 Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling which found that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship had no rights to her and her husband’s home.

In an October decision, a rabbinical court moved the custody of children from their mother to their father because the mother stopped observing Judaism, although the father had been previously convicted in violent offenses, according to Haaretz. Haaretz reported that state social services were against the move but could not intervene because the divorce case was taking place in a rabbinical court. As a part of the custody agreement, the mother had to sign an agreement tying custody to a religious lifestyle, in order to obtain a get.

A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). For example, IEA held 384 interfaith encounters throughout the year. The number of children studying at integrated Yad BeYad Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,800, up from 1,700 in the previous year.

The Tomb of the Kings, a 2,000-year-old archaeological site in Jerusalem owned by the government of France, reopened to the public two days a week in October for the first time since 2010. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were seeking unrestricted worship at the ancient Jewish tomb and challenged French ownership of the site.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with government officials, embassy officials stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups. The Ambassador spoke at the Christian Media Summit‎ hosted by the government to promote religious freedom in the region, and the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith reception for representatives of the country’s diverse religious groups. Additionally, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism represented the U.S. government at President Reuven Rivlin’s emergency conference on combating anti-Semitism.

Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The embassy continued to support workshops at the American Center in Jerusalem that addressed topics including religion in public schools, democracy and religious freedom, and prevention of societal attacks on religious minorities.

Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations. Embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.

Throughout the year, embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i communities and used embassy social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.

In March the Ambassador visited the Beit Jimal Monastery to condemn the vandalism of the monastery’s cemetery. The embassy produced a video that included the Ambassador’s remarks and amplified the video on Twitter and Facebook.

In July the embassy held a roundtable discussion on religious freedom issues hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute and livestreamed by the Jerusalem Post, with the participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NGOs.

Embassy-hosted events included an interfaith iftar, an interfaith Rosh Hashanah reception, and an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner. The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience. Embassy programs supported mixed Jewish-Arab educational and community initiatives to reduce societal tensions and violence through sports, the arts, environmental projects, and entrepreneurship. Initiatives included a continuing project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together ultra-Orthodox, Muslim, and Christian citizens to create a shared civic agenda and language to deal with common issues and concerns in their communities. Another project supported joint training sessions for Muslim and Jewish teachers of religion.

The embassy worked to mitigate interreligious and intercommunal tensions between the country’s non-Jewish and Jewish citizens through the greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy – especially the high-tech sector. An ongoing grant supported efforts by Arab, ultra-Orthodox, and Ethiopian Jewish NGOs to break down social and religious barriers and better integrate their communities into the technical workforce.

The embassy awarded a grant to the Mosaica religious peace initiative to establish a mechanism for crisis prevention and management in Jerusalem, with particular focus on Islamic and Jewish holy sites in the Old City.

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West Bank and Gaza 

Italy

Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of religion and the right of religious communities to establish their own institutions. The constitution specifies the state and the Roman Catholic Church are independent, with their relations governed by treaties, including a concordat granting the Church a number of specific privileges and benefits, and financial support. Twelve other religious groups have accords granting many of the same benefits in exchange for a degree of government monitoring. Religious groups must register to request an accord. On July 30, the government signed an accord with the Church of England; at year’s end, it was awaiting parliamentary approval. Unregistered religious groups operate freely but are not eligible for the same benefits as groups with accords; however, they may apply separately for benefits. In October the senate approved a proposal from Senator for Life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre to establish an extraordinary committee to fight intolerance, anti-Semitism, and hate crimes; 98 center-right senators abstained in the vote. In November the Milan prefect granted Segre a police escort after she received threatening anti-Semitic messages, and a prosecutor opened an investigation. The Muslim community, which does not have an accord, continued to experience difficulties in acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques or to continue operating existing ones. According to a weekly newspaper, Panorama, there were 1,200 unofficial Muslim places of worship. Politicians from several political parties, including leader of the League (Lega) Party Matteo Salvini, who served as deputy prime minister and minister of interior from June 2018 until September 2019, again made statements critical of Islam and against the construction of new mosques. In March the Union of Islamic Communities of Italy (UCOII) President Yassine Lafram told the general assembly in Bologna that Islamic communities were not able to open “dignified” places of worship and said it was “inconceivable” that Muslims had to worship in “basements.”

There were reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents, including harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism. The Anti-Semitism Observatory of the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center Foundation (CDEC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), identified 251 anti-Semitic reported incidents during the year, compared with 181 in 2018 and 130 in 2017. Of those incidents, 172 involved hate speech on social media or the internet. The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters, including depictions of swastikas on walls, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and praise of neo-Nazi groups in cities such as Rome, Milan, and Pisa. While there is no official government data from institutions or public agencies on anti-Muslim incidents, local and European NGOs reported physical and verbal attacks against Muslims, especially involving hate speech, on social media, and in the press. The NGO Vox Diritti reported 22,523 tweets containing negative messages targeting Muslims between March-May, compared with 26,783 from March-May 2018. On March 21, a woman forcibly removed a Muslim woman’s hijab on a public bus in Turin and taunted her, according to press reports.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with national and local government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and equal treatment for all faiths. They also discussed the efforts to integrate new migrants, many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu, and second-generation Muslims. Embassy, consulate, and Department of State representatives met with religious leaders and civil society representatives to promote interfaith dialogue and awareness, social inclusion of immigrants, the empowerment of faith groups through social media, and the mobilization of youth leaders among faith groups. The embassy and consulates continued to use their social media platforms to acknowledge major Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays as well as to amplify initiatives that promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue at the local level. Embassy officials met with the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI) and Rome Jewish community leaders to discuss how to support their efforts to counter anti-Semitism among self-defined far-right groups and civil society.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 62.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2019 survey by Doxa, an independent Italian research center, approximately 67 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. According to government officials, religious groups together accounting for less than 10 percent of the population include other Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the Union of Pentecostal Churches (UCP), and Ananda Marga Pracaraka Samgha, an Indian spiritual movement. Non-Catholic Christian groups account for approximately 16 percent of the population and include Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, the Methodist and Waldensian Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and several smaller Protestant groups. According to the national branch of the Church of Jesus Christ, there are approximately 26,000 adherents in the country. According to national newspaper La Repubblica, most followers are in Lombardy, Sicily, and Lazio Regions. The UCEI estimates the Jewish population numbers 28,000. According to the legal counsel of the Italian Federation of Progressive Judaism (FIEP), FIEP has approximately 600 members, and includes both Jews who are registered and unregistered in the local communities. The country’s progressive Jews are organized into four congregations in Rome, Florence, and Milan and represented by the Italian Federation of Progressive Judaism, part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Doxa reports 15 percent of the population are nonbelievers or have no religious affiliation.

According to the UCOII, approximately 2.5 million Muslims – approximately 4 percent of the population – live in the country. According to the Ministry of interior (MOI) and the national agency for statistics, the Muslim population is composed of native-born citizens, immigrants, and resident foreigners, but most of its growth comes from large numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the majority of whom live in the north. Moroccan and Albanian-origin Muslims make up the largest established groups, while Tunisia and Pakistan are increasingly important sources of seaborne migrant arrivals. The MOI reports Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law regardless of religion and are free to profess their beliefs in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality. According to the constitution, each religious community has the right to establish its own institutions according to its own statutes as long as these do not conflict with the law. The constitution stipulates the state may not impose special limitations or taxes on the establishment or activities of groups because of their religious nature or aims. The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent of each other, and treaties, which include a concordat between the government and the Holy See, govern their relations.

By law, insulting any divinity is blasphemy, a crime punishable by a fine ranging from 51 to 309 euros ($57-$350).

The constitution states all religious groups are equally free, and relations between the state and non-Catholic groups are governed by law based on agreements (“accords”) between them. Representatives of a non-Catholic faith requesting an accord must first submit their request to the Office of the Prime Minister. The government and the group’s representatives then negotiate a draft agreement, which the Council of Ministers must approve. The prime minister then signs and submits the agreement to parliament for final approval. Once parliament approves the implementing legislation, the accord governs the relationship between the government and the religious group, including state support. Twelve groups have an accord: The Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, Church of Jesus Christ, Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, the Italian Apostolic Church, Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and Hindus.

The law provides religious groups with tax-exempt status and the right to recognition as legal entities, once they have completed a registration process with the MOI. Legal registration is a prerequisite for any group seeking an accord with the government. A religious group may apply for registration by submitting to a prefect, the local representative of the MOI, an official request that includes the group’s statutes; a report on its goals and activities; information on its administrative offices; a three-year budget; certification of its credit status by a bank; and certification of the Italian citizenship or legal residency of its head. To be approved, a group’s statutes must not conflict with the law. Once approved, the group must submit to MOI monitoring, including oversight of its budget and internal organization. The MOI may appoint a commissioner to administer the group if it identifies irregularities in its activities. Religious groups not registered may still operate legally as NGOs and obtain tax-exempt status, legal recognition of marriages, access to hospitals and prisons, and other benefits, but having an accord with the government facilitates the process. The Catholic Church is the only legally recognized group exempted from MOI monitoring, in accordance with the concordat between the government and the Holy See.

An accord grants clergy automatic access to state hospitals, prisons, and military barracks; allows for civil registry of religious marriages; facilitates special religious practices regarding funerals; and exempts students from school attendance on religious holidays. Any religious group without an accord may request these benefits from the MOI on a case-by-case basis. An accord also allows a religious group to receive funds collected by the state through a voluntary 0.8 percent of personal income tax set-aside on taxpayer returns. Taxpayers may specify to which eligible religious group they would like to direct these funds.

National law does not restrict religious face coverings, but some local authorities impose restrictions. Regional laws in Liguria and Veneto prohibit the use of burqas and niqabs in public buildings and institutions, including hospitals.

The concordat with the Holy See provides for the Catholic Church to select teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in weekly “hour of religion” courses taught in public schools. The courses are optional, and students who do not wish to attend may study other subjects or, in certain cases, leave school early with parental consent. Church-selected instructors are lay or religious, and the instruction includes material determined by the state and relevant to non-Catholic religious groups. Government funding is available for only these Catholic Church-approved teachers. If a student requests a religion class from a non-Catholic religious group, that group must provide the teacher and cover the cost of instruction; it is not required to seek government approval for the content of the class. Some local laws provide scholarship funding for students to attend private, religiously affiliated schools, usually but not always Catholic, that meet government educational standards.

Schools are divided into “state-owned” and “state-equivalent” categories. The “state equivalent” school includes public (municipality, provinces, regions or other public institutions owned) or private, of which the private ones may be religiously affiliated. All state-equivalent schools receive government funding, if they meet criteria and standards published every year by the Ministry of Education. The funding is released through the regional offices for education.

According to law, hate speech, including instances motivated by religious hatred, is punishable by up to four years in prison. This law also applies to denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.

All missionaries and other foreign religious workers from countries that are not European Union members or signatories to the Schengen Agreement must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country. An applicant must attach an invitation letter from his or her religious group to the application.

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

Government Practices

Although the government generally does not enforce offenses of blasphemy, local leaders called for enforcement of the law as part of a larger effort for measures to promote “civility.” In July the city council in the small northern town of Saonara enacted a local law prohibiting 75 types of “uncivil” behaviors, including blasphemy “against any faith or religion” and using foul language in public. Those found guilty of blasphemy face a fine up to 400 euros ($450).

According to leaders of the Rome Islamic Cultural Center, the government again did not make significant progress on an accord despite ongoing dialogue with Muslim religious communities. On May 4, Catholic daily newspaper Avvenire reported sociologist Maurizio Ambrosini of Milan University commenting on the lack of an agreement between the government and the country’s Muslim communities, stating, “In several cities Muslims cannot access legal and proper places of worship and meet in semi-clandestine temporary venues difficult to monitor.” The MOI continued to only legally recognize as a religious entity the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, in charge of the Great Mosque of Rome. The government recognized other Muslim groups only as nonprofit organizations.

On July 30, the government signed an accord with the Church of England that at year’s end was awaiting parliamentary approval.

On July 31, the Council of Ministers legally recognized the following religious entities: ISKCON, UCP, the Baha’i Community of Italy, and Ananda Marga Pracaraka Samgha. The Office of the President approved the recognitions on August 8. Legal recognition by the government is one of the steps required before formally applying for an accord.

On October 30, the senate approved a proposal from Senator for Life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre to establish an extraordinary committee to fight intolerance, anti-Semitism, and hate crimes; however, 98 center-right senators abstained in the vote. Segre, who was expelled from school for her religion in 1938 and sent to Auschwitz in 1943, stated, “There is a mounting wave of racism and intolerance that should be stopped in all possible ways.” Lega leader Salvini urged the far right to abstain on the vote stating, “We are against racism, violence, hate, and anti-Semitism, but we don’t want somebody on the left to stigmatize as racism something that for us is belief and right: [the principle of] Italian first.” In November the Milan prefect granted Segre a police escort after she received a wave of threats and anti-Semitic hate speech on social media, including statements of Holocaust denial. An Italian prosecutor opened an investigation of the threats.

According to press reports, on November 28, police detained 19 suspects linked to a group seeking to build a new Nazi party in the country. Media reported some members of the group, which calls itself the “Partito Nazional Socialista Italiano dei Lavoratori” (Italian National Socialist Workers’ Party), had weapons, access to explosives, and conducted recruitment activities on social media. The group frequently engaged in hate speech against Jews and center-left politicians, including Laura Boldrini and Emanuele Fiano, the latter a prominent Jewish MP of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, or PD). Prosecutors in Caltanissetta, Sicily, led the countrywide investigation of the network through the end of the year.

In June a Palermo principal of a public school reported its art teacher, Gino Giannetti, to national authorities for Holocaust denial under a 2016 anti-Semitism law. Giannetti reportedly told his students concentration camps contained “swimming pools for Jews’ amusement” and said he doubted the veracity of Holocaust accounts. A female student reported receiving anti-Semitic Facebook messages from Giannetti. In a June 29 Facebook post Giannetti denied being an anti-Semite, saying he had exposed students to factual accounts of the Holocaust in class.

According to the FIEO’s legal counsel, because relations between the government and the country’s Jews are governed by an accord between the state and UCEI, the UCEI defined the terms of Jewish identity and practice in the country. The counsel said the growth of progressive Judaism in the country had encountered resistance from the largely orthodox-Jewish UCEI. For example, progressive Jewish rabbis were not recognized by the UCEI and were therefore ineligible for Italian visas and residence permits, and they could not perform marriages having civil validity.

Regional governments and Muslim religious authorities recognized five mosques, one each in Colle Val d’Elsa in Tuscany, Milan, Rome, and two in Emilia-Romagna Region, in Ravenna and Forli, respectively. In addition, there were many sites recognized as places of worship by local governments but not considered full-fledged mosques by Muslim authorities because they lacked minarets or other key architectural features.

There were 800-1,200 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims, known colloquially as “garage” mosques. According to the press, authorities allowed most of these unofficial sites to operate, but they did not officially recognize them as places of worship.

According to media reports, Muslims continued to encounter difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits.

On May 19, under a legal provision entitling national and local governments to purchase certain types of facilities as “cultural assets,” the Lombardy regional administration and its governor announced plans and allocated funds to buy a chapel building from a Muslim association that planned to convert it into a mosque, according to the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. The Association of Muslims of Bergamo, Lombardy Region, bought the chapel at auction in October 2018 from the main public hospital in Bergamo owned by regional authorities. The building had initially been assigned to a Christian Orthodox group as a place of worship but was not being used as such when it was sold. After the Association of Muslims of Bergamo bought the former chapel, the governor, a member of the League Party, required the association to sell it back under a law allowing public authorities to buy assets deemed to be of cultural significance. Later, the governor said he would allow the Christian Orthodox community to use the church building because it would not require any structural changes.

In April police in Rome closed the Masjeed-e-Rome Mosque and cultural center in Topignattara, a neighborhood with a sizable Bangladeshi Muslim community, citing administrative and criminal violations. On May 6, the president of the local association for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian Muslims Dhuumcatu, Siddique Nure Alam, said the city did not provide the mosque due warning to address violations raised in the closure order, as the city had done in the past.

In April the Como City Council refused a local Turkish association use of public space for Ramadan iftars. Vice Mayor Alessandra Locatelli, a member of the League Party, said in a statement, “[Islam] does not respect the fundamental rights of our society and culture,” and that “men and women are not equal” in the Islamic faith.

In June the Lombardy Regional Administrative Court ordered the closing of an unlicensed mosque and cultural center in a former workshop located in the courtyard of an apartment building in Milan, rejecting a petition submitted by the Sri Lanka Muslim community that would allow the area to be used as a place of worship. The cultural center opened in 2015 without a regular permit to use the workshop as a place of worship. The court ruled that changing the use of a property would require a permit issued by the city administration.

In September the Court of Cassation in Milan upheld a six-month prison sentence and 9,000 euro ($10,100) fine against a representative of the Bangladesh Cultural and Welfare Association, who was charged with violating city regulations by contracting a construction company to convert a storage site into a place of worship without prior approval. By law, no appeal was possible. This was the first time the court considered it as a criminal matter; in previous cases this type of violation generally incurred administrative penalties.

The Islamic association in Pisa appealed to the Tuscany regional administrative tribunal a September 10 decision of the city council to amend the zoning plan preventing the association from building a mosque on a piece of land it had bought. In July the Pisa Islamic Association had organized a sit-in in the town square after the Pisa City Council blocked the construction of the mosque and debated the possibility of turning the planned site into a parking area. City officials stated the lot was not large enough for the planned building. Imam Mohammad Khalil said the city council had always been hostile to the mosque and noted the city government had not met with the association since August 2018.

On December 5, the Constitutional Court ruled that two provisions of a law adopted by the Lombardy Regional Council in 2015 were unconstitutional because “… freedom of religion includes the freedom of worship, authorities cannot obstruct the establishment of religious sites.” The two measures the court considered unconstitutional required a specific procedure for obtaining authorization to establish all places of worship regardless of their impact on the sites and the discretionary authority of local authorities to adopt a zoning plan that would reflect their decisions to permit or prohibit the establishment of new places of worship. The president of the House of Islamic Culture of Milan, Benaissa Bounegab, characterized the ruling as “a step toward normality,” while the president of the National Evangelical Conference, Riccardo Tocco, noted that based on regional law, 27 places of worship had been closed down; however, the decision opened up negotiations for a new policy with the local authorities. In October 2018, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy had accepted an appeal by the Muslim community of Varese of a denial of a permit to build a mosque in Sesto Calende, requesting the Constitutional Court re-examine the constitutionality of the 2015 regional law.

According to Catholic daily newspaper Avvenire, on December 5, the Council of State (the highest administrative court) upheld the March 2018 ruling of the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy annulling the 2017 decision of the city council of Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan. The ruling blocked the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque on the grounds the center did not comply with all the requirements agreed to by the city council and the Muslim community. The president of the local Islamic cultural center, Gueddouda Boubakeur, said, “The ruling guarantees the right to worship that is a basic need, not a luxury.” In April 2018 local authorities had appealed the regional court’s ruling to the Regional Administrative Court.

On October 11, the Milan City Council approved a zoning plan authorizing two Buddhist temples, seven evangelical Christian and Baptist churches, three Orthodox churches, four Islamic places of worship (a designation determined by Islamic authorities in the country), and seven Catholic churches. Only places of worship authorized in the zoning plan have legal status; Milan has 25 Islamic places of worship and approximately 100 evangelical Protestant churches. Muslim leader and member of the municipal council Sumaya Abdel Qader called the decision “a historic step, even if not fully satisfactory, for the rights to worship of all minorities.” She noted that the center-right opposition in the municipal council had requested additional requirements that only applied to Muslim communities, but its proposal was rejected as inconsistent with the regional law on zoning.

Muslim associations said in Lombardy dedicated areas for Muslim burials in cemeteries were insufficient to meet the needs of the communities.

In February the League Party, other center-right parties, and the Five Star Movement (M5S) members of the Lombardy Regional Council approved an amendment that negated a provision of the 2009 funerary law compelling private associations to allow burials in their allocated spaces in public cemeteries regardless of sex or religion. League Party member Andrea Monti sponsored the bill and said the law would stop “predominantly Muslim ghettoization” of cemeteries. Muslim leaders said the law likely would limit cemetery space for Islamic burials.

On July 4, the council of the Commune of San Donato Milanese, a Milan suburb, reserved 25 spaces for Islamic burials in the Monticello public cemetery. Muslim leaders stated this was an insufficient number of spots for the Muslim community.

Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to religious groups, usually Catholic, for constructing places of worship. Government funding also helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship, which were almost all Catholic.

Politicians from several parties, including League, Brothers of Italy (FdI), and Casa Pound, a far-right political association established in 2003 and named after the anti-Semitic poet Ezra Pound, again made statements critical of Islam. In March OCOII President Lafram wrote to then deputy prime minister and interior minister Salvini, leader of the League Party, requesting increased protection of mosques following the March 15 terrorist attacks on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. According to press reports, Salvini publicly condemned the New Zealand attacks as “odious,” but also stated, “The only extremism that merits attention is the Islamic kind.” Lafram also told the general assembly in Bologna that Islamic communities were not able to open “dignified” places of worship and said it was “inconceivable” that Muslims had to worship in “basements.”

On January 21, M5S Senator Elio Lanutti referenced the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and an online anti-Semitic article in a tweet that said, “Even today [the Rothschild family] controls the banking system.” PD party leader Nicola Zingaretti condemned the statement on Twitter and PD Senate Vice President Ettore Rosato requested M5S to expel Lanutti. In a Facebook post, M5S party leader and then deputy prime minister Luigi di Maio wrote, “On behalf of the M5S I distance myself from the comments made by Senator Lanutti.” President of the Jewish Community Ruth Dureghello reported Lanutti to the Rome Public Prosecutor’s office, which opened an investigation in February.

Brothers of Italy party leader Giorgia Meloni criticized a U.S. Jewish philanthropist for his contributions to European election campaigns. In a March 24 tweet, she called him a “usurer,” a term with anti-Semitic connotations in Italian.

In April a Muslim woman, Nasry Assiya, ran as M5S candidate for Montoro City Council. Media reported Brothers of Italy Senator Antonio Iannone said her candidacy was an endorsement of “cultural expressions distant from our West” such as sharia, child marriage, and polygamy. Online comments protested her wearing a veil in official campaign photographs.

In May then Ministry of the Interior undersecretary Nicola Molteni stated he opposed the Lombardy Regional Court’s decision to permit prayer in a space owned by Asslam, an Islamic Cultural Association in Cantu, Lombardy Region. Molteni cited an MOI April 30 directive that warned mass migration and Islamic cultural centers were potential vectors for extremism, citing this concern as justification for his opposition to allowing prayer space. Molteni also made statements calling for the suspension of all mosque construction until the government approved an accord with Muslim leaders.

On April 9, the Council of the State, the country’s highest administrative court, upheld the city of Genoa’s order to remove a billboard erected by the Union of Atheists, Agnostics, and Rationalists protesting laws allowing doctors to refuse to conduct medical procedures for reasons of religion or conscience. The city said the billboard violated religious liberty and personal expression.

In June the Islamic Cultural Center of Bologna held the first Muslim summer camp in the country. According to the press, League Counselor of the Commune Umberto Bosco said the camp was the start of “auto-ghettozation,” and political party Italian Force (Forza Italia) parliamentarian Galeazzo Bignami stated, “Wake up Bologna, before it’s too late.” The presidents of two Christian associations, Christian Associations of Italian Workers and Christian Action, made public statements supporting the camp.

On October 6, the New Force Party (Forza Nuova), commonly identified as far right, held a protest in Bologna against a local decree granting a Muslim association the right to use a piece of land for 99 years on which it had already established an Islamic cultural center. Protestors carried banners reading, “Christian Bologna, never Muslim” and “No Mosque.”

Amnesty International reported 79 tweets from the country’s political party leaders during the April 15-May 24 European parliamentary election campaign were anti-Islamic, representing 0.9 percent of the tweets.

On January 24, Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and stressed the need to remain vigilant, stating, “The evils of Auschwitz and the Shoah can come back as a lethal virus.” He concluded, “We should monitor and fight all forms of racism.”

On October 30, parliament approved the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate intolerance, racism, and anti-Semitism proposed by Italian-Jewish Holocaust survivor and Senator for Life Liliana Segre, modeled on the Council of Europe’s No Hate Parliamentary Alliance that would replace the now-suspended Jo Cox Commission.

In November Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi held a contest among high school students to rename two streets originally named after two 1930s fascist-era scientists who promoted anti-Semitic race laws. The streets were renamed in honor of scientists from the same era who were Jewish or who opposed fascism.

In November the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan announced it would establish a project to monitor anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other types of hate speech based on religious and cultural affiliations. According to the university, the project will be partially funded by the National Office Against Racial Discrimination and will work with CDEC and the Italian Young Muslim Association to identify and analyze trends in hate speech. While the CDEC previously primarily focused on trends in anti-Semitism and online hate speech targeting Jews, this project will be the first independent research center to track and report on trends in hate speech against Muslims and anti-Muslim sentiment.

In May the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that affirmed the rights of patients to grant power of attorney to an agent who will uphold the patient’s decision to refuse a blood transfusion, in accordance with the position advocated by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On June 23, Badar Eddine Mennani became the first Muslim national police officer (carabiniere) which media said was a sign of increased government openness to diversity.

The city of Rome continued to foster collaboration among the Jewish community, Waldensian Evangelical Church, Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, and Italian Buddhist Union to promote better knowledge of different faiths, primarily among students. Rome officials and leaders of these religious groups signed an agreement on interfaith cooperation in 2001. During the year, religious leaders organized several cultural events and presentations in public schools to increase awareness of religious diversity.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The CDEC recorded 251 incidents of anti-Semitism over the year, compared with 181 in 2018. Reports of anti-Semitic incidents published on CDEC’s website included discrimination, verbal harassment, particularly at soccer matches and other sporting events, online hate speech, and derogatory graffiti. Internet and social media hate speech and bullying were the most common forms of anti-Semitic incidents, according to CDEC, which continued to operate an anti-Semitism hotline for victims of, and witnesses to, anti-Semitic incidents.

On March 21, a woman forcibly removed a Muslim woman’s hijab on a public bus in Turin and taunted her, according to press reports. Seeing the Muslim woman was uncomfortable sitting near a dog on the bus, the woman also reportedly said, “You’re afraid of a dog but not to blow yourself up.” Other passengers reportedly voiced their support for the Muslim woman, chanting, “We [are all] Italy.”

On September 20, the Bangladeshi community organized a demonstration to protest racism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Naples following an incident in August in which attackers threw stones at two Bangladeshi street vendors. Demonstrators told media they wanted more protection and said they felt unsafe in Naples and throughout the country.

According to NGO Italian Observatory on Human Rights, 76 percent of tweets (15,196) sent in the country about Jews during the European parliamentary election campaign were negative. The NGO Vox Diritti reported 15,196 tweets containing anti-Semitic messages between March and May compared with 26,783 in the same period of 2018. Many anti-Semitic tweets came from Rome, Milan, and Turin. The NGO said spikes in tweet traffic correlated with national media stories involving Jews, including the harassment of journalist Gad Lerner at a New Force rally in Prato March 23 (700 tweets), and Georgia Meloni’s “usurer” tweet March 27 (approximately 500 tweets). The largest spike (approximately 3,150 tweets) occurred on April 16, the day media reported a Ferrara public middle school student threatened to “reopen Auschwitz” to a Jewish classmate student. The principal told a local newspaper he would review the incident with teachers. Jewish Community of Ferrara President Andrea Persano told the Association of Italian Journalists anti-Semitism was on the rise. The same organization said 74 percent of all tweets (22,532) regarding Muslims were negative during the same period, a 6.9 percent increase from 2018. Most anti-Muslim tweets originated in Turin, Bologna, Milan, and Venice.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 76 percent of Italians supported some restrictions or a total ban on female Muslim religious clothing, including the hijab. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey on “Being a Christian in Western Europe,” 53 percent of respondents in the country agreed with the statement that Islam is “fundamentally incompatible with [Italy’s] culture and values.” Sixty-three percent of practicing Christians in the country concurred.

According to a 2018 survey from the National Statistics Agency of Italy, 18 percent of second-generation Muslims (20 percent of men and 18 percent of women) experienced faith-based workplace discrimination. Of immigrants arriving in the country before 12 years of age, Muslim respondents stated they experienced religious discrimination more frequently than other kinds of discrimination (20 percent) compared with the Christian Orthodox (16 percent) and Catholic (14 percent) faiths. Twenty-nine percent of respondents belonging to other Christian denominations and Jews reported they most frequently experienced societal discrimination for not being Catholic.

In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 48 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Italy, while 47 percent said it was rare; 81 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 92 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 91 percent said they would be with an atheist, 86 percent with a Jew, 83 percent with a Buddhist, and 79 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 90 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 91 percent if atheist, 82 percent if Jewish, 77 percent if Buddhist, and 66 percent if Muslim.

In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 58 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Italy, and 38 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 61 percent; on the internet, 59 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 60 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 61 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 59 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 60 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 58 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 50 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 53 percent.

In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 51 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Italy; 31 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 45 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters, including depictions of swastikas on walls, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and praise of neo-Nazi groups in Rome, Milan, Pisa and other cities.

On May 30, media reported unknown individuals in Rome’s former Jewish ghetto defaced a stolperstein or “stumbling block,” an engraved brass plaque placed on a cobblestone in front of the original place of residence of Holocaust victims. Unidentified individuals defaced the plaque with a sticker in German that said, “A murderer always returns to the scene of the crime.” Jewish community leaders said a police surveillance camera protecting the site was disabled before the incident.

On August 12 and 21, members of animal activist groups Animal Front and Animal Revolution protested outside a halal butcher shop during Eid al-Adha in the town of Robecca sul Navaglio in Lombardy. Media reported protesters called Muslims “assassins” and encouraged Muslims to “sacrifice their kids” instead of animals. Photographs from the demonstration showed banners reading “bloodthirsty Muslims.”

On January 14, in Rome, the Church of Jesus Christ inaugurated its first temple and cultural center in the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Representatives from the embassy and consulates general met with representatives of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Ministry of Interior, and local government officials in Rome, Sicily, Naples, Milan, Turin, Bologna, Florence, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Pisa to discuss the establishment of new places of worship requested by religious groups, relations between the government and Muslim religious communities, anti-Semitic incidents, and assistance in tracing the contents of the Jewish communal library of Rome, which the Nazis looted in 1943. During these meetings, embassy and government officials also discussed the integration of asylum seekers and migrants, many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu.

The embassy and consulates general and visiting Department of State officials met with the Muslim and Jewish communities to stress the importance of interfaith dialogue and to share U.S. best practices regarding education, integration of second-generation Muslims, and social media networking.

In May the embassy and consulate general in Milan hosted iftars that included representatives from Muslim communities, government officials, and youth leaders promoting interfaith dialogue.

Embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet with representatives of civil society groups, including Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and Anolf, as well as Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in cities throughout the country. U.S. officials urged the social inclusion of immigrants, many of whom were Muslim, and dialogue among various religious groups, and monitored groups’ ability to practice their religion freely.

The Consulate General in Milan awarded a grant to a Muslim youth group in Turin to support a three-day workshop to foster greater community dialogue among persons of different religions and respect for religious diversity. The event was hosted in an Islamic cultural center located in one of the city’s most religiously diverse neighborhoods and included youth trainers from the Muslim and Catholic communities.

The embassy and consulates continued to use their social media platforms to acknowledge major Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays as well as amplify initiatives that promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue at the local level. They also retweeted Department of State statements and tweets on the International Religious Freedom Act and related topics.

Embassy officials met with the president of UCEI and Rome Jewish community leaders to discuss how to support their efforts to counter anti-Semitism among far-right groups and civil society.

The Ambassador attended a November 21 ceremony led by Rome Mayor Raggi of the M5S to change the names of two Rome streets named after fascist-era scientists who signed the “Race Manifesto” of 1938 that became the basis of Mussolini’s Race Laws. Also present were the UCEI chair, the president of Rome’s Jewish community, and the Israeli ambassador.

Jordan

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. It does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Seven of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such personal status matters for their members. In April parliament ratified amendments to the Personal Status Law (PSL), stipulating that mothers, regardless of religious background, should retain custody of their children until age 18. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses. On August 1, the government temporarily closed Aaron’s Tomb, a religious site near Petra popular with tourists, after photographs and videos appeared on social media showing a group of Jewish tourists praying at the site. Members of some unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children, and also renewing their residency permits. The government continued to monitor mosque sermons and required that preachers refrain from political commentary and adhere to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their “true” religious beliefs and practices. Security forces increased their presence in Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays. Several Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers. A few members of the Christian community, however, said they felt intimidated and targeted by these extra precautionary measures.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced. Some converts reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor. The Jordanian Philosophical Society hosted a lecture by physics professor Hisham Ghassib in which he described Judaism as a “primitive” and “despicable” religion. Observers reported occasional friction between Christian denominations officially recognized by the government and evangelical churches that are not.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, grand mufti, minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of religious workers and volunteers. Embassy officers also engaged with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to promote interfaith tolerance and dialogue. The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance, as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population. Some church leaders estimate that Christians make up approximately 1.8 percent of the country’s population. Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are treated as Muslims by the government). According to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS), there is also a small community (consisting of a few families) of Zoroastrians. The Ministry of Labor issued more than 300,000 work permits to foreign workers during the year, but civil society sources note that the number of migrant workers exceeds 800,000. Most of the migrant workers are from Egypt, South and East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and South and East Asia are often Christian or Hindu. There are more than 744,000 refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including more than 654,000 Syrians and 66,000 Iraqis. The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim. Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion and states the king must be a Muslim. The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and ecclesiastical courts for Christian denominations recognized by the government. According to the General Ifta’ Department, in adjudicating personal status cases, sharia courts follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims; these courts do not recognize converts from Islam to other religions. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy. Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the case of a will that states otherwise. Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution. The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations, before converting a Christian to Islam, in order to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction. The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying citizens in a manner that violates their dignity. The penal code criminalizes insulting the Prophet Muhammad, punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment. The law also provides a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding 20 Jordanian dinars ($28) for anyone who publishes anything that offends religious feelings or beliefs.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.” Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).

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

Religious groups not recognized as denominations or associations lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff. Individuals may exercise such activities on behalf of the unrecognized group, however. To register as a recognized religious denomination, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine. In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) and the CCL. Although the practice is not explicitly mandated by the law, church leaders have stated that the CCL must endorse recognition for new Christian groups prior to the prime minister’s approval. To achieve official recognition as denominations, Christian groups must be recommended by the MOI and approved by the cabinet. The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups: the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

An annex to the 2014 Law for Councils of Christian Denominations lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic. In 2018 five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the MOI as associations, but none have been permitted to establish an ecclesiastical court: the Free Evangelical Church, Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptist Church. The government granted legal status as an association to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father. Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife would lose custody of the children when they reached seven years of age. In April parliament ratified amendments to the PSL, stipulating that mothers, regardless of religious background, should retain custody of their children until age 18. Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion. (Like citizenship, religion is transmitted only via the father). In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise. All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to the PSL, which mostly follows Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion. In practice, Christian ecclesiastical courts use sharia-based rules to adjudicate inheritance.

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

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine of 130 parliamentary seats. Christians may not run for additional seats. No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups. The law stipulates that Muslims must hold all parliamentary seats not specifically reserved for Christians. There are no reserved seats for the Druze population. The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office as Muslims.

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

Government Practices

On August 1, the minister of awqaf temporarily closed Aaron’s Tomb, a religious site near Petra popular with tourists, after photographs and videos appeared on social media showing a group of Jewish tourists praying at the site. In an August 2 statement, a local tourism official said the government would not allow non-Islamic religious ceremonies at the site and that the tomb had nothing to do with Judaism historically or archaeologically. Upon reopening the site to non-Israeli visitors after nine days, the minister of awqaf issued a statement calling on visitors to obey all rules and regulations at the shrine. Following bilateral discussions between Jordan and Israel in November, an announcement was made on December 1 that the site would reopen to Israeli tourists in prior coordination and with on-site guides and security.

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits. Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials. Because of the sharia ban on conversion, government officials generally refused to change the religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion. Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The government’s Media Commission regulates the publishing and distribution of all books and media. If the Media Commission deems that passages “violate public norms and values, are religiously offensive, or are insulting” to the king, it can request a court order to prohibit the distribution of the book. During the year, the commission banned distribution of 55 books for insulting religion as well as displaying pornographic images and promoting homosexuality.

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

The Ministry of Awqaf continued to monitor sermons at mosques and required that preachers refrain from political commentary. Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons. Imams who violated these rules risked being fined or banned from preaching. Unofficial mosques continued to operate outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, and imams outside of government employment preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision. According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques in 2018. In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam. In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called in 2018 for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight, a practice that was implemented partially in major cities. During the year, the Ministry of Awqaf allowed smaller mosques to continue Friday sermons along with their area’s central mosque after identifying accessibility and commuting difficulties, especially for the elderly.

The Ministry of Awqaf continued to provide official government support for religious travel for Muslims. During the year, in support of the Hajj pilgrimage, the ministry implemented an electronic tracking system for buses carrying pilgrims to follow up on vehicle breakdowns and ensure carriers met safety standards. The government received a quota from the Saudi government of approximately 7,000 visas for the Hajj, excluding guides, controllers, and drivers. The government assigned the visas to citizens based on military or government service, age (the elderly are granted preference), and a national lottery.

During the year, expatriate religious volunteers from the evangelical Christian community continued to report bureaucratic delays in the renewal of residency permits. In 2018 the government began enforcing a new residency policy to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency. Observers suggested that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims. Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the MOI and a letter of sponsorship from the church. Volunteers now obtained additional approvals, including from the Ministry of Labor, lengthening the average renewal process by several months, according to church officials.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to privately practice their religion and included them in interfaith events. Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security. The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim. In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in family books and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school. The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees that sometimes amounted to more than 500 Jordanian dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five Jordanian dinars ($7) through religious courts. Kamel Abu Jaber, the director of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies and former foreign minister, stated in an August report on Al-Monitor, a U.S. website focusing on Middle East news, that a law recognizing the Baha’i Faith would be hard to pass in parliament. Abu Jaber said that during his tenure as foreign minister, he relayed a request from the Baha’i community for official recognition. According to Abu Jaber, the government declined to take action, fearing reactions in both the parliament and across society.

There continued to be two recognized cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government. Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is. In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process that created a large financial burden. Baha’i leaders said they were using the civil courts to challenge their group’s property registration restrictions. The Baha’i community’s request for religious exemptions for property registration fees remained pending.

The government continued to deny official recognition to other religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other nonrecognized religious groups reported that they continued to operate schools and hospitals and that they were able to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after a 2018 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais. Several Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government’s effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including for religious worshippers. These church leaders stated they appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and at large events, although a few members of the Christian community said they felt intimidated and targeted by these extra measures.

Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, continued to serve in parliament and as cabinet ministers. Christians served as deputy prime minister, cabinet ministers, senators, and ambassadors. There was one Druze cabinet member.

Druze continued to worship and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community. The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze. Druze continued to report discrimination hindered their coreligionists from reaching high positions in government and official departments.

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

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

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

Amendments to the cybercrimes law remain pending with parliament. The new amendments define hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”

On October 7, King Abdullah presented awards to a number of leading international Islamic scholars at the 18th General Conference of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in recognition of their efforts to promote religious understanding and interfaith dialogue. On May 7, the king announced plans to help fund the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from his personal funds. Church leaders in Jerusalem previously could not decide on funding the renovation because of competing Christian claims regarding administration of the site. In April the king hosted a number of Muslim and Christian religious leaders at the World Interfaith Harmony Week prize ceremony.

On March 29, King Abdullah received the “Lamp of Peace” award from the Catholic Franciscan order in Assisi, Italy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 2018 honoree, presented the king with the award. The Franciscans bestowed the award to the king for promoting human rights and interfaith dialogue, as well as his support of Middle East peace and Syrian refugees. In his acceptance speech, the king stated, “The principles of coexistence and interfaith harmony are deeply embedded in Jordan’s heritage.” He added, “Our country is home to a historic Christian community. All our citizens actively share in building our strong nation. Indeed, Christians have been part of Middle East societies for thousands of years and are vital to the future of our region.”

A London-based NGO, the Minority Rights Group, noted on its website that the acceptance of Christianity in the midst of a Muslim majority has been the “norm” in the country’s modern history and that the government has been “overwhelmingly tolerant” of its Christian minority.

The National Center for Human Rights, a quasi-independent institution established by law, received both government and international funding. The prime minister nominates its board of trustees, and the king ratifies their appointment by royal decree. In August a new board of trustees was appointed, to include Islamists, former ministers, former judges, current members of parliament, religious leaders, and civil society representatives.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation, from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members. Some reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts, while others reported persistent and credible threats of violence from family members protecting traditional honor. According to international NGOs, female converts from Islam were particularly vulnerable to harassment. NGOs also reported cases of forced marriage to Muslims by female converts from Islam in order to “retain family honor.” Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and persons in interfaith romantic relationships; the latter continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward those involved. Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence. Converts from Christianity also reported social stigma from the church and Christian society. Nonbelievers reported societal intolerance and discrimination.

Religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media. A well-known religious scholar and television host reported such negative reactions on social media to his televised programs, in which he advocated religious moderation and interfaith understanding.

On September 7, in an open lecture hosted by the Jordanian Philosophical Society, physics professor Hisham Ghassib described Judaism as a “primitive” and “despicable” religion, adding that that the concept of a Jewish nation was a “myth.” A video of the lecture posted on social media received a muted local response, but numerous Israeli newspapers criticized the remarks. The government did not respond to the criticism or issue an official condemnation.

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

Observers reported occasional friction between Christian denominations on the CCL and evangelical churches not recognized by the government. Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches said there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.

During the year, the RIIFS hosted two events on religious pluralism and interfaith understanding. RIIFS also produced manuals for imams and female religious leaders focused on human rights and religious freedom. The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies also continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups. Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.

In an August report, Arab Barometer, an international research consortium focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, found that only 22 percent of individuals between ages 15 and 29 in the country identified as religious. This represented a decline of 7 percentage points since the last survey in 2017. In a December 2019 poll, Arab Barometer also found a decline in trust in Islamist parties since 2013.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, grand mufti, minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of expatriate religious workers and volunteers. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith iftar to highlight religious diversity, increase engagement with civil society about tolerance and religious freedom, and build partnerships to advance minority rights. The gathering brought together a diverse set of religious leaders, including evangelical Christian pastors, the director of the Baha’i Faith community, heads of NGOs specializing in interfaith cooperation, sharia judges, and the grand mufti. In August the Charge hosted a luncheon for participants in the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., to hear feedback from the conference and discuss general religious freedom trends in the country.

Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, and interfaith institutions such as RIIFS, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.

The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and understanding. The embassy awarded a two-year, $265,000 grant to upgrade a revenue-generating cheese production business in Karak operated by women from religious minorities. The embassy continued to administer a $750,000 grant awarded in 2018 for a project to preserve religious and cultural heritage, focusing on protecting the country’s interfaith tradition and highlighting the heritage of religious minorities. The U.S. NGO Search for Common Ground was implementing the project, building interfaith youth coalitions in six communities to promote and preserve religious heritage sites. The project aims to empower local communities, increase mutual respect, preserve religious-cultural heritage, and foster interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The embassy used social media posts to promote religious tolerance and mark religious holidays, including through posting video messages. The Charge d’Affaires appeared in a video for Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan that showed her participating in the tradition of handing out date-filled cookies to friends and colleagues. In mid-December, dozens of embassy staff and their family members participated in the filming of a Christmas greeting video that was disseminated on social media.

Macau

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Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. Falun Gong practitioners continued to hold rallies and protests against Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China. According to Asia News, from September 29 to October 1, the Government Tourism Office projected a slideshow of CCP symbols onto the Ruins of Saint Paul’s facade to mark the 70th anniversary of communist rule in China. In response, the Catholic Diocese of Macau stated concerns over the government’s use of historically religious sites for secular purposes.

In September the Catholic diocese opened the Redemptoris Mater College for Evangelization to train new seminary students from the region.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 611,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a Pew Research Center 2010 estimate, 58.9 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 7.2 percent Christian, 1.2 percent other religions (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent unaffiliated. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2019 yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists but states they are numerous and that individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. According to the yearbook, the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 5.2 percent of the population (approximately 31,700 individuals) are Roman Catholics, of whom more than half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 1.3 percent of the population (more than 8,000 individuals) are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education.

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

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

Most public schools do not require religious education. Nonreligious public schools do not offer religious or world religion courses. A small number of religious organizations receive public funding for schools, and under the law, these schools may require religious education. Students may not opt out of taking a religious class if they attend a public institution that has it in the required curriculum.

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

Government Practices

Falun Gong practitioners continued to hold rallies and set up informational sites at public venues without incident. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, in April outside the Ruins of St. Paul’s, Falun Gong practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group and used megaphones to play recorded messages about persecution of practitioners on the mainland. On July 19, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally and a candlelight vigil to mark the 20th anniversary of the CCP’s ban on Falun Gong.

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

According to Asia News, from September 29 to October 1, the Government Tourism Office projected a slideshow of CCP symbols onto the Ruins of Saint Paul’s facade to mark the 70th anniversary of communist rule in China. In response, the diocese issued a declaration that “the use of historical monuments ought to correspond to its intended character.” According to the article, while the Catholic Church no longer owns the ruins, St. Paul’s remains a symbol of Catholic faith in the country for the Church and Catholic believers. In December, during the week prior to the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty from Portugal to the PRC, the government projected a light show onto the facade, which drew no reaction from the diocese.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions. In September Redemptoris Mater College for Evangelization in Asia opened. According to Vatican media outlets, the college has a mandate to train new seminary students from all over the region, including from the mainland.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Throughout the year, authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that banned and criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” by raiding homes, seizing personal property, detaining hundreds of suspected members, and sentencing individuals to prison. There were reports that authorities physically abused Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious minority groups in detention. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media reports, on February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. The detainees said that during their interrogation, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied the men’s hands behind their backs, beat them, stripped them naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns. Authorities continued to fine, detain, and imprison members of other religious minority groups and organizations for alleged extremism, including individuals belonging to the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. As of the end of the year, the human rights NGO Memorial identified 245 persons who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs or affiliation, an increase from 177 in 2018. The majority were Muslim, including 157 detained as of October for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated between 5,000 to 10,000 members had fled the country since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including private homes, for religious services. On November 14, the Constitutional Court ruled providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” Critics said the court’s ruling, which included limitations based on the rights of neighbors and health and safety requirements, was vague and gave law enforcement too much discretion to stop home worship activities. Authorities continued to fine, arrest, and prosecute individuals under the Yarovaya Package, a set of legislative amendments passed in 2016 that prohibits, among other things, “unauthorized missionary activity.” Authorities fined a Buddhist man for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit, and a Baptist pastor for publicly baptizing a new congregant in a river. Officials continued to delay and/or prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and denied renovation or construction permits for houses of worship. They also continued to deny religious organizations ownership of property expropriated during the Soviet era, such as churches and church-affiliated schools. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions. The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals, including a Baptist pastor from Germany, for what authorities said was illegal religious activity.

A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center, however, found that approximately 10 percent of the population held negative views about Jews. According to the Levada Center poll, approximately 15 percent held negative views about Muslims. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they were harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. According to the NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), there were 19 reported cases of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 in 2018. These included individuals setting fire to Russia’s largest yeshiva, located in the Moscow Region, as well as unknown individuals knocking down a cross at the site of a tenth century Christian church near Stavropol, defacing the grave of a 19th century rabbi in Kaliningrad, and damaging 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the Astrakhan Region. According to the SOVA Center, national and local media, including state-run media, continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious minorities were dangerous.

During the year, the U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict their activities. The Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In June senior officials from the Department of State met with the chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country. Representatives from the embassy and consulates general in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss legislation impacting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases. The embassy organized speakers and programs designed to promote religious tolerance and used its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom concerns. On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on two members of the Investigative Committee in Surgut for their involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention there in February.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 141.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). A poll conducted during the year by the Public Opinion Foundation found that 65 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, and 7 percent identify as Muslim. Religious groups constituting approximately 1 percent or less of the population each include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, Scientologists, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000; however, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia states the number of Jews is approximately one million, most of whom live in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is nearly 1.5 million. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, the Muslim population reached 25 million in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the total population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia are mostly Muslim. The majority of Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and provides equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate religious freedom will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,200) or 500,000 rubles ($8,000), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

In December 2018, the government amended anti-extremism legislation, stipulating speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” on the basis of group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative, rather than criminal, penalties for first-time offenses. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($320) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000) for legal entities. Individuals who commit multiple offenses within a one-year period are subject to criminal penalties, including fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to four years, or imprisonment of up to five years.

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,800), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($12,800) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities, as well as to persons in management roles at commercial or nongovernment entities, the prescribed prison term is seven to twelve years, or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($11,200). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several regions, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” in the territories of these republics but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative penalties for violating these laws.

A Supreme Court 2017 ruling declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closed the organization on those grounds, and banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses activities, including the organization’s website and all regional branches. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious beliefs, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2003; Nurdzhular (a russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”) in 2008; and Tablighi Jamaat in 2009. In 2015 the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) added the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to its Federal List of Extremist Organizations.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional MOJ, of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with proper notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body, with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, “and other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, established by the MOJ, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings, lands, and facilities owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned, but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. Currently, there are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

The country’s 83 federal subjects (excluding Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) have varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Hijabs are banned in public schools in Stavropol and Mordovia, rulings that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. The law in Chechnya permits schoolgirls to wear hijabs.

Federal law, as amended by the Yarovaya Package, defines missionary activity as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, in order to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document authorizing him or her to share beliefs from a religious group or registered organization. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Engaging in missionary activity prohibited by law carries a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($80 to $800) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($480 to $800) and are subject to administrative deportation.

The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist sua sponte, i.e., of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. There is no legal procedure for removal from the list, even if a court declares an item should no longer be classified as extremist, but lists are reviewed and reissued on a regular basis and publications may be dropped from lists. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($16 to $48), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($32 to $80) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If a structure (e.g., the warehouse) does not meet legal requirements and is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses, and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from an 80,000 rubles ($1,300) fine to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activity of political parties or movements, or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations and not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, but individuals from both traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber, initially by the president. Subsequently, the selectees themselves choose additional members to serve in the group. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or person without citizenship from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism[.]”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require both a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.

Amendments to the law enacted in May and July grant religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities, both on a paid and free-of-charge basis.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.

As of December 31, Memorial identified 245 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. This was an increase from 177 in 2018. In October Memorial’s list of persons it identified as political prisoners included 66 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 157 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts. In October Memorial also identified an additional 140 Jehovah’s Witnesses as “victims of politically motivated prosecutions” whom it did not consider to be political prisoners because they had not been placed in custody.

Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist. Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs reported authorities raided homes, seized personal property, and detained hundreds of suspected members. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights NGOs, and media, authorities physically abused adherents while in detention. On February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut in west Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiysk Region detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the men, during their interrogation at the police station, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied their hands behind their backs, and beat them. Authorities stripped the men naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns for two hours. Authorities demanded to know where local Jehovah’s Witnesses met and who attended the meetings. Multiple domestic and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses called for an investigation into the accusations of abuse. In March the Khanty-Mansiysk Investigative Committee division said after an internal investigation it found no evidence its staff had used unlawful force. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a case with the ECHR.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on June 26, law enforcement officers in Kaluga raided the home of Roman Makhnev and took him and Dmitriy Kuzin into custody. At the station, officers handcuffed Makhnev to a pipe and left him there overnight. For the next three days, officers denied him food while they interrogated him. Authorities charged Makhnev and Kuzin with organizing extremist activity and held them in pretrial detention for six months. On December 25, a judge approved their release from the facility, but according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the case remained pending at year’s end.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 6, authorities in Uray conducted searches of eight Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes and took Andrey Sazonov into custody. The officers beat the man on the palms of his hands, forced him to kneel during his interrogation, and threatened him. According to Sazonov, when he would not answer questions about fellow believers, investigators turned off the recording machine, beat him more severely, and then resumed the interrogation. Two days after the search, Sazonov’s mother was expelled from the marketplace where she sold goods and her market stand was destroyed. On August 22, an appellate court banned Sazonov from participating in Jehovah’s Witnesses religious activities.

According to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while exact numbers were unavailable, 5,000 to 10,000 adherents had fled the country in fear of persecution since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. The association estimated more than 150,000 adherents remained in the country. One source estimated there were at least 26,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia continuing to worship clandestinely.

The SOVA Center reported criminal charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses were initiated in 21 new regions, meaning criminal prosecutions were ongoing in 52 regions at year’s end. The SOVA Center stated authorities accused 313 individuals of belonging to the group and filed charges against 213 of them during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported as of November, 287 members were subject to ongoing criminal prosecution. Of these, 46 adherents were in pretrial detention, 23 were under house arrest, and at least 135 were under travel restrictions.

According to the SOVA Center and Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of extremism for practicing their religion during the year in criminal cases; nine of them were sentenced to prison, including three who received six years in a penal colony. The remainder received suspended sentences, probation, fines, and/or community service. According to media and Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, on February 6, a judge in Oryol sentenced Danish citizen Dennis Christensen to six years in prison, making him the first Jehovah’s Witness to receive a prison term for “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Authorities had detained Christensen since May 2017. On May 23, the Oryol Regional Court denied his appeal and on June 6 authorities transferred him to a penal colony in Lgov, Kursk Region.

Media and Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that in September the Leninsky District Court in Saratov sentenced six Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison terms of between two and 3.5 years for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization. In November a judge in Tomsk sentenced local resident Sergei Klimov to a six-year prison sentence for the same offense. Klimov had been held in pretrial detention since June 2018. In December a court in Penza sentenced Vladimir Alushkin to six years in prison, also for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.

According to the international human rights NGO Forum 18, a court in Khabarovsk sentenced Valery Moskalenko to two years’ forced labor followed by six months’ probation for “participating in the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Forum 18 reported the prosecution based its argument on a 10-minute recording of Moskalenko reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount at a Jehovah’s Witnesses gathering.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the Investigative Committee, Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police carried out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 44 regions between January 2018 and October 2019. Citing Jehovah’s Witness sources, Human Rights Watch reported 491 raids on homes and apartments during the year, compared to 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witness sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, and conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered the residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on April 19, agents from the Center for Countering Extremism and FSB agents disrupted a religious meeting in the home of an 81-year-old adherent and searched her home for five hours, during which the woman fell ill and required medical attention. On April 3 in Porkhov, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported masked FSB agents dressed in camouflage broke into the apartment of one Jehovah’s Witness couple. They struck the man several times on the head and legs and knocked him to the floor. Officers accessed his online accounts and seized electronic devices and money. They took the couple into custody and interrogated them. Authorities charged the man with participating in the activities of an extremist organization. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that on October 10 in Sochi, groups of armed and masked security officers, some with dogs, conducted 36 home searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities took Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin into custody and charged them with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.”

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, at year’s end the group had 49 applications pending with the ECHR and five complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings.

According to Memorial, during the year, the government detained, arrested, and/or sentenced at least 25 individuals it accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. This number excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula who were initially detained by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea before being transferred to Russia where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir was legal in Ukraine.

On September 12, media reported authorities completed a criminal investigation of Eduard Nizamov, whom the government alleged to be the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and, according to Memorial, beat and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention. As of year’s end, his trial was pending.

Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to the human rights monitoring and reporting outlet OVD-Info, on March 13, the Volga District Military Court sentenced five men from Tatarstan to between 14 and 22 years in a maximum-security prison. The judge found one of the men guilty of participating in the activities of a terrorist organization and the others guilty of organizing the activities of a terrorist organization.

The courts continued to sentence individuals for what authorities said was membership in other Islamic organizations. Local media reported that on September 25, a court in Tatarstan sentenced three persons to prison terms of between two and six years for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, which Memorial characterized as a peaceful international Islamic missionary movement. On October 4, the FSB detained a Kyrgyz preacher whom authorities said was linked to Tablighi Jamaat. A court in Smolensk subsequently ruled that the man, a Kyrgyz national, be deported to the Kyrgyz Republic.

Although the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi continued to be banned, authorities did not pursue any new cases against his followers during the year. Experts from the SOVA Center continued to state that Nurdzhular, an organization purportedly based on Nursi’s teachings and banned as extremist by the authorities, did not actually exist in the country, and a number of individuals accused of belonging to the organization also denied its existence as part of their defense.

Several individuals continued to serve out prison sentences for what authorities said was their adherence to Nursi’s teachings. According to Forum 18, Ziyavdin Dapayev, Sukhrab Kaltuyev, Artur Kaltuyev, and Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev continued to serve prison sentences ranging from three to eight years for organizing the activities of a banned religious organization. Imam Komil Odilov was released in March after serving nine months of a two-year sentence in a labor camp, but was ordered to spend the next eight years on probation and under curfew (not allowed to leave his home between 10 PM and 6 AM). According to Forum 18, Odilov remained on the government’s list of terrorists and extremists.

In May the SOVA Center reported authorities stripped Yevgeny Kim, a naturalized Russian citizen since 2005, of his citizenship due to what they said was his allegiance to Nursi. This decision rendered Kim, who was nearing the end of a four-year prison sentence, stateless, since he had previously given up his Uzbek citizenship. At year’s end it was unclear whether authorities deported him; experts believed he remained in a detention center in Russia.

On June 19, a district court in Kazan sentenced five members of the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to five to seven years in prison. Although the Fayzrakhmani group was considered an extremist organization, the SOVA Center described it as a “typical closed religious community” that lives a secluded life and maintains religious practices different from traditional Islam.

Media reported in May that Sahib Aliyev, an accountant in the St. Petersburg branch of the Church of Scientology (COS), pled guilty to organizing an extremist community, illegal entrepreneurship, and “humiliation of human dignity.” Authorities arrested Aliyev and four other members of the COS in June 2017 as part of a probe into what police said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship,” incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy. According to Newsweek, in March police raided the offices of the COS in Moscow and St. Petersburg in connection with fraud investigations. Authorities accused the COS of raising approximately 2.8 billion rubles ($45 million) in seminars and other events around the country and sending the money to the United States. They also said the group stole money from investors. The state news agency TASS reported that in November authorities released from custody Ivan Masitsky, the head of the COS in St. Petersburg, after he spent more than two years in a pretrial detention facility. At year’s end, the case against Masitsky and COS officers Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva remained pending.

Media continued to report official harassment against Muslims. Moskovskaya Gazeta reported on March 27 that police detained 27 Muslims praying at a mall in Moscow and accused them of violating the rules for holding public events. According to the SOVA Center, the men received administrative fines.

Authorities continued to refuse to register the St. Petersburg and Moscow COS branches as religious organizations despite a 2014 ECHR ruling that the government’s refusal was a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

According to the Ministry of Justice, at the end of 2018 (the latest year for which information was available) there were 30,896 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.

The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say the Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ about which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”

Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, was employed by authorities to limit religious freedom. They said officials often cited concerns about missionaries being sources of foreign influence. They said the broad definition of missionary activity in the legislation included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences, without prior authorization. In 2018, Forum 18 said the legal framework for an individual exercising his or her beliefs outside a designated place of worship was unclear and authorities applied the law inconsistently.

The SOVA Center stated in its annual report, “Persecution of religious organizations for ‘illegal’ missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments package continued, although, judging by the Supreme Court data for the first half of 2019 [the time period for which data was available], its intensity ha[d] slightly diminished.” The majority of the 174 cases initiated under “violation of the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations” during the first six months of the year were for missionary activity. Seventy-four individuals, two officials, and 26 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts in the first six months was 1,899,100 rubles ($30,500), compared with 2,471,000 rubles ($39,700) for the same period in 2018.

Forum 18 and the SOVA Center reported that on January 15, authorities in Yoshkar-Ola fined Sergei Roshchin and Valery Turkin, members of an unregistered Baptist group, 5,000 rubles ($80) each for passing out literature at a bus stop in Ryazan without a permit; on March 6, a district court ruled their actions constituted illegal missionary activity and upheld the fine. On February 7, authorities fined a Buddhist man in Sochi 5,000 rubles ($80) for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit.

According to the SOVA Center, in November a municipal court in Ryazan fined a man identified as Oleg Alekseyevich K. 5,000 rubles ($80) for illegal missionary activity for distributing Bibles at Ryazan State Radio Engineering University. The SOVA Center also reported that in August, the Mufti of Moscow, Ildar Alyautdinov, and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Moscow were fined 30,000 rubles ($480) each for distributing literature without proper markings. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, in February authorities in Novosibirsk fined two Jewish lecturers, one from the United States and one from Israel, 2,000 rubles ($32) each for conducting missionary work while on tourist visas. The men spoke at a seminar for Jewish youth hosted by the Beit Menachem Jewish Community Cultural Center. The SOVA Center and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that on April 7, authorities, including police and FSB officers, firefighters, and representatives of the city administration, disrupted services in a house in Verkhnebakansky, a town near the Black Sea, at which Pastor Yuri Korniyenko and 50 Baptist congregants were celebrating the Annunciation. On April 9, the prosecutor charged Korniyenko with engaging in illegal missionary work. Authorities sealed the house and banned the pastor and congregants from using it for religious purposes.

RFE/RL also reported that in November authorities fined a Baptist pastor in Tatarstan 20,000 rubles ($320) for organizing an unsanctioned public gathering in June at which a group of adherents assembled to watch him baptize a new member in the Kama River. On December 11, Kommersant reported a judge in the city of Satka fined the New Generation Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) 50,000 rubles ($800) for holding weekly meetings in a cafe without proper documentation.

On October 10, the Constitutional Court overturned a lower court 2018 decision imposing a fine on the Reconciliation Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, registered in Yoshkar-Ola, for illegal missionary activities for distributing printed materials outside the borders of the municipality in which the group was registered. The Constitutional Court ruled the scope of missionary activities of religious associations was wider than the territorial scope of their main religious activities.

In December the Russian Union of Evangelical Christina-Baptist reported that a Baptist pastor from Germany who had lived in Sverdlovsk Region since 1994 was deported after the regional office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs revoked his residence permit. The group said that without evidence, the FSB alleged he “advocated a violent change of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation” and “urged citizens to refuse to fulfill their legal duties and to confront the Russian Orthodox Church.” According to media reports, in March two American volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ were detained in Novorossiysk, fined 30,000 rubles ($480), and deported for teaching English without a license and violating the terms of their visas.

Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,003 as of December, compared to 4,514 as of October 2018. There were reportedly no new Islamic or Jehovah’s Witnesses materials added to the list during the year but there were additions of anti-Semitic and anti-Orthodox Christian materials. During the first six months of the year, authorities imposed 1,964 sanctions for distribution of extremist materials, compared with 1,133 during the same period in 2018. According to Forum 18, in some cases, those in charge of places of worship and other public or semipublic spaces were held responsible for distribution of banned religious publications, which could have been left at the site by anyone at any time, including before the ban. The government’s ban on all Jehovah’s Witnesses websites, imposed in 2017, remained in effect.

As of year’s end, the government did not act on the 2018 ECHR finding that court decisions to prohibit Nursi’s books violated the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ECHR ruled the country’s courts did not provide sufficient and relevant grounds for interfering with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression, and their intervention could not be considered necessary in a democratic society. The court further ruled the government should pay one of the plaintiffs 7,500 euros ($8,400) in compensation for non-pecuniary damages.

The SOVA Center reported that on September 11, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree requiring religious organizations to alter their places of worship to conform with specific counterterrorism measures in order to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities had to be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 had to have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 had to be guarded by private security guards or Rosgvardiya (National Guard) personnel. The SOVA Center stated, “It is obvious that few religious organizations have the financial ability to meet these requirements, and the penalty for noncompliance is high: fines of up to 100,000 rubles [$1,600].”

Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including their homes, “not for its intended purpose,” i.e., for religious services. Officials reportedly continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship. Forum 18 stated in September, “Since municipal authorities are usually unwilling to permit the construction of purpose-built churches and mosques, congregations can be obliged to meet in residential, agricultural, or commercial buildings. This leaves them vulnerable to the complexities and contradictions of the legislation which regulates the use of land.” Forum 18 reported that between January and October there were 21 known instances of individuals being fined for using homes as places of worship, compared with 10 in 2018. Forum 18 reported on November 14, however, that the Constitutional Court ruled that providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship and/or for use as a legal address “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” The court stated religious use of residential premises must take into account the rights and legitimate interests of residents and neighbors, as well as health, safety, and environmental requirements. The court further stated it would be “unacceptable” for a dwelling to lose the features of a residential premises and acquire those of a religious or administrative building. The case involved a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rostov who allowed the congregation to use her home as its legal address and meet there for four hours per week for religious purposes. According to Forum 18, on November 20, human rights lawyer Vasily Nichik said in a blogpost, “Some words in the ruling do not have regulatory certainty, which leaves ample room for interpretation by law enforcement.”

Authorities continued to demolish houses of worship. According to Forum 18, on May 22, authorities demolished an Islamic prayer house located on private farmland in Chernyakhovsk District of Kaliningrad Region after several raids by FSB agents. Officials said the mosque violated planning regulations by being used for nonagricultural purposes.

Authorities continued to confiscate the property of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center. In February the Syktyvkar City Court seized a house of worship after ruling the real estate agreement concluded in 2007 transferring the property to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was void, and returned the building to the municipality.

Media in August reported Sverdlovsk regional authorities rejected proposals made by members of the Buddhist Shedrub Ling Monastery to preserve the stupas and outdoor Buddha statues around the monastery on Mount Kachkanar. A court ordered the religious buildings and statues to be demolished to allow for mining operations in the area. On October 18, the Sverdlovsk Region vice governor announced the mining company and the Buddhist community had signed an agreement whereby the community would relocate to a different area but would have periodic access to the religious structures on Mount Kachkanar until their demolition. A Buddhist leader interviewed by Novaya Gazeta stated the agreement was contrary to his community’s interests but there was no other way to avoid conflict with the company and the local population. Under the agreement, the Buddhists must leave the area permanently by November 2020, after which the company plans to demolish most of the religious structures.

Forum 18 reported that on January 25, a Moscow court ordered the Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists to suspend all activities for 60 days after the federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor found fault with the organization’s theological bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff. In February the seminary was prohibited from admitting new students. Representatives of the seminary told Forum 18 Rosobrnadzor inspectors said staff had not undergone required medical examinations and the seminary was not following approved curricula. The seminary stated it was allowed under the education law and the religion law to develop nonaccredited courses that were not subject to the same requirements as state-accredited equivalents. The court subsequently suspended the seminary’s license to engage in educational activities indefinitely. At year’s end, the case was pending.

In December media reported Rosobrnadzor posted on its website that it had prohibited the Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg from admitting new students for “failing to comply with requests in a timely manner.” Rosobrnadzor did not provide further details.

As in years past, according to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law recognizing the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. The ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations. During the year, Saratov Region authorities transferred the former Old Believers Kazanskaya (Gorinskaya) Church to the Russian Orthodox Gymnasium after refusing to return it to the Old Believers community. Per a decision by the Property Relations Committee of St. Petersburg, authorities gave the building housing the School of Olympic Reserve Specializing in Nordic Combined to the Orthodox Spaso-Pargolovsky parish over the objection of school staff and parents. No archival documents confirming that the ROC had previously owned the building were presented to the parents or school staff.

Some government officials continued to make anti-Semitic statements publicly. According to media, during a visit to Jordan in August, Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov told a group of expatriate ethnic Chechens that Jews were “the main enemies of Islam.” The meeting was broadcast on Chechen state television. The month prior, he told a group of Chechen police that Israel was a “terrorist organization.” In an op-ed published on the Zavtra news website on May 6, Sergey Glazyev, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, wrote that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, together with American and “extreme right-wing forces in Israel,” could orchestrate a “massive relocation” to replace the ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine with “inhabitants of the Promised Land.” Glazyev denied the op-ed was anti-Semitic, saying it did not mention Jews. On April 24, the acting mayor of Lipetsk, Yevgeniya Uvarkina, responded to a question at a public hearing from a local resident seeking to halt local stadium construction by wondering aloud whether the resident had a “Jewish last name.” She apologized for the remark the next day.

Multiple officials supported the construction of Orthodox churches, stating the country was an Orthodox nation. According to the Moscow Times, Yekaterinburg City Deputy Alexander Kolesnikov expressed public support for a proposed plan to build a new cathedral in a popular central park. Kolesnikov said, “If there is no cathedral, there will be mosques, and you will get another Switzerland. The government will work better if church bells are ringing.” According to media, in May thousands demonstrated for several days to protest the municipal government’s unilateral decision to locate the cathedral in the park without consulting local residents. Following a referendum, municipal authorities made plans to construct the cathedral at an alternate location.

The government continued to withhold property expropriated during the Soviet Union from minority Christian groups. Media reported Father Grigory Zvolinsky, a Catholic priest in the city of Kirov, had lost five court appeals since 2011 for the return of the Alexander Church, a Catholic church built by the Polish community in 1903. For several years, the church has been used as a concert hall. The city administration allowed Zvolinsky to rent the church for Mass on certain days but informed his lawyer near the end of the year that he would be allowed to continue doing this only if he dropped his court case altogether. Zvolinsky refused and declared his intention to continue trying to reclaim the church, despite being subject to official harassment and surveillance.

The SOVA Center reported authorities returned some properties to religious communities during the year. In June in the Altai Region, following lengthy litigation with the Barnaul city administration, the Catholic community regained ownership rights to its church building that had for many years housed a pharmacy. Media reported that in August the municipality of Syzran in the Volga Region returned a synagogue to the local Jewish community approximately 90 years after Soviet authorities had closed it. The community of approximately 150 members requested the return of the synagogue in 1943. Its request was denied at the time and the synagogue became a cultural center. The reports stated the community planned to rededicate the synagogue within two years.

Among issues cited by the Jehovah’s Witnesses were government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($89 million), which remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 39 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Russia; 50 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 50 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center concluded that attitudes toward various religious denominations remained relatively unchanged over the past 10 years. Nearly all Russians held positive views about Christians, and the majority held positive or neutral views about members of the other religions included in the survey (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus). Approximately 10 percent admitted to holding negative views about Jews and approximately 15 percent admitted to holding negative views about Muslims.

Media reported that in August a group of Krasnodar residents entered a synagogue and interrogated a rabbi for an hour, accusing him of spreading alien religious practices. The group’s leader later announced that she would commence “partisan actions” against a Jewish community center.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report adherents were increasingly harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in April a Jehovah’s Witness working as a psychotherapist in Chelyabinsk was forced to resign after a woman posted on the website of the city’s health department that the therapist had used her professional role to promote a banned organization. In February authorities dismissed a firefighter in Surgut after two decades on the job due to his religious affiliation as a Jehovah’s Witness.

The SOVA Center reported 19 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 incidents in 2018, continuing the general downward trend of such vandalism over the past decade (from a high of 177 incidents in 2010).

The SOVA Center reported that on April 18, the day before the beginning of Passover, unidentified individuals set fire to the country’s largest yeshiva, Torat Haim, located in the Ramensky District of Moscow Region, and drew swastikas on the walls. No one was injured, but a storehouse burned down. In March unknown individuals in Kaliningrad defaced the grave of Israel Salanter, a 19th century rabbi, drawing on the tombstone a swastika and abbreviations associated with a neo-Nazi movement. The same month, unknown persons near Stavropol knocked down a granite cross erected on the site of a tenth century Christian church; the cross had been previously defaced with swastikas and pagan runes in October 2018. On June 2, unknown individuals set fire to a building belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kabardino-Balkaria. In September police arrested a man accused of setting fire to an Orthodox church in St. Petersburg. On June 18, unknown individuals damaged 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the village of Osypnoy Hill in Astrakhan Region. On June 17, police arrested a woman who attempted to set fire to the door of a Catholic church in St. Petersburg.

According to the SOVA Center, national and local media continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious groups were dangerous. The state-owned television channels Rossiya-1 and Zvezda broadcast negative stories about Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology, respectively. In April the St. Petersburg TV channel 78 broadcast a story about Falun Gong practitioners, accusing them of extremism and espionage. According to the SOVA Center, in October the Tatarstan-based internet information agency Sobytiya made defamatory and xenophobic statements about Jehovah’s Witnesses when announcing an upcoming October trial of the organization’s members in Naberezhnye Chelny. The former head of the Department of Religious Studies at Kazan State University, Larisa Astakhova, invited as one of the experts, said that Jehovah’s Witnesses “had to be disposed of” since the government had made the decision to ban them.

Many congregations said they pursued ties with other faith communities. A leader in the Catholic Church in Yekaterinburg said his church had ongoing relationships with local ROC, Muslim, and Protestant communities, as well as with immigrant communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with a range of government officials throughout the year and expressed concern regarding the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities. They also urged authorities to investigate the credible claims of torture and abuse that Jehovah’s Witnesses and alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir made against local law enforcement officials.

In June senior officials from the Department of State met with Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country.

Consular officials attended many administrative hearings of U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administrative requirements. Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases stated they believed the government targeted them for being members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities.

The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with members of religious and nongovernmental organizations and held discussions with leaders from multiple religious organizations to emphasize a commitment to religious freedom and the value of interfaith dialogue. In April the Ambassador met with Dr. Yuri Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, to discuss interfaith relations and combating anti-Semitism. The Ambassador also participated in events with other Jewish leaders, including Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar, emphasizing the U.S. commitment to combating anti-Semitism, and discussing the challenges the Jewish community faced. Throughout the year, the Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC, representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses, legal representatives of the COS, and a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In November the Charge d’Affaires held a roundtable with representatives from Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, and Orthodox Christian organizations to explore how the embassy could facilitate better cooperation among them. The embassy also partnered with religious organizations, such as the Russian Jewish Congress, for a number of events, including one honoring American citizens recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

Representatives from the Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with the ROC, rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community, muftis and other Islamic leaders, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, and representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These discussions covered developments related to legislation affecting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.

The embassy used its social media platforms during the year to highlight issues related to religious freedom, including expressing specific concern on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On February 6, the embassy spokesperson posted on Twitter, “Deeply concerned by the six-year sentence imposed on Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Christensen. We agree with President Putin that persecuting peaceful believers is utter nonsense, and call on Russia to respect freedom of religion. #ReligiousFreedom.” The embassy also invited speakers and organized programs designed to promote religious tolerance and interfaith understanding, especially through art and music. In June the embassy funded the visit of the Chicago-based theater company Silk Road Rising to Moscow and St. Petersburg to perform American playwright Jamil Khoury’s play Mosque Alert in Russian. The play addressed the topics of anti-Muslim sentiment and Muslim-American relations. In November the embassy sponsored performances by Joseph Malovany, a leading American cantor, at the Moscow Conservatory to promote the importance of Jewish musical traditions.

On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on Vladimir Petrovich Yermolayev, Head of the Investigative Committee in Surgut, and Stepan Vladimirovich Tkach, Senior Investigator at the Investigative Committee in Surgut, and their immediate family members, for Yermalayev and Tkach’s involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention in Surgut in February. When making the announcement, the Department of State spokesperson said, “Russia should end its unjust campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and immediately release the over 200 individuals it currently has imprisoned for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.”

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Tibet

Read A Section: Tibet

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Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” Central government regulations control all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools. They stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security.” Regulations prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities said included Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, including sexual abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices. Former detainees reported being beaten until they lost consciousness and being shocked with electric batons. There were reports that monks and nuns were forced to wear military clothing and undergo political indoctrination in detention centers. The nongovernment organization (NGO) Free Tibet and local sources reported that on November 26, a 24-year-old former monk from the Kirti Monastery set himself on fire in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), Sichuan Province, and died of his injuries on the same day. Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform on anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” The government continued to restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries and prohibit them from practicing elsewhere. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain, according to multiple sources, since 2016 authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Satellite imagery showed thousands of dwellings at these locations had been destroyed since 2018. Authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, including by appointing government and CCP personnel and government-approved monks to manage religious institutions. “Sinicization” policies, which aimed to interpret religious ideas in accordance with CCP ideology and to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state, were pursued more intensely. Media reported that on January 7, the government announced a formal five-year plan to Sinicize all religions in the country, including Tibetan Buddhism. Despite a decree by President Xi Jinping, chairman of the CCP, that all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must be “unyielding Marxist atheists,” the government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervised their religious and political education. Authorities forced monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag, and in some cases went door to door insisting laypersons replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas in their home shrines with those of CCP leaders, including Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao Zedong. Travel restrictions hindered monastics and laypersons from engaging in traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression, including arbitrary surveillance, increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Sources reported local authorities increased scrutiny of social media postings regarding religious belief. Authorities restricted children from participating in many traditional religious festivals and from receiving religious education. The government continued to force monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Religious leaders and government employees were often required to denounce the Dalai Lama and express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. Authorities continued in state media to justify interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In a July interview, Wang Neng Shang, vice minister of the TAR and director general of the People’s Government Information Office, said the selection of the next Dalai Lama was not the current Dalai Lama’s decision to make, and instead must be recognized by the central government in Beijing, adding, “The centrality of the central government must be recognized.”

Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources.

While diplomatic access to the TAR remained tightly controlled, officials from the U.S. embassy and consulate general in Chengdu made five visits there during the year, during which they met with both government and religious leaders and emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in Tibet. The Ambassador visited the TAR in May, the first U.S. ambassador to do so since 2015. While there, he visited several religious sites and met with local leaders, religious figures, and students. In July the Vice President told attendees at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., “China’s oppression of Tibetan Buddhists goes back decades… [T]he American people will always stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People’s Republic of China.” At the U.S. government’s invitation, Tibetan exile and survivor of religious persecution Nyima Lhamo met with the President and addressed the ministerial, describing how the harsh treatment by government authorities of her uncle, Lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, led to his 2015 death in captivity. The U.S. government repeatedly urged the Chinese government to end policies that threaten Tibet’s distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including the continuing demolition campaigns at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the succession of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and also raised concerns about the continued disappearance of the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The embassy and consulates used social media to deliver direct messaging about religious freedom in Tibet to millions of citizens.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to official data from China’s most recent census in November 2010, 2,716,400 Tibetans make up 90 percent of the TAR’s total population. Han Chinese make up approximately 8 percent. Other ethnicities comprise the remainder. Some experts, however, believe the number of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans living there is significantly underreported. Outside the TAR, official census data show Tibetans constitute 24.4 percent of the total population in Qinghai Province, 2.1 percent in Sichuan Province, 1.8 percent in Gansu Province, and 0.3 percent in Yunnan Province, although the percentage of Tibetans is much higher within prefectures and counties of these provinces designated as autonomous for Tibetans.

Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion. Small minorities practice Islam, Catholicism, or Protestantism. Some scholars estimate there are as many as 400,000 Bon followers across the Tibetan Plateau, some of whom also follow the Dalai Lama and consider themselves also to be Tibetan Buddhists. Scholars estimate there are up to 5,000 Tibetan Muslims and 700 Tibetan Catholics in the TAR. Other residents of traditionally Tibetan areas include Han Chinese, many of whom practice Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism), Taoism, Confucianism, or traditional folk religions, or profess atheism, as well as Hui Muslims and non-Tibetan Catholics and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The United States recognizes the TAR, TAPs, and counties in other provinces to be part of the PRC. The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” The constitution bans the state, public organizations, and individuals from compelling citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution states religious bodies and affairs are not to be “subject to any foreign control.” The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services or other religious ceremonies and activities.

Central government regulations regarding religion are issued by the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD’s Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Work manages religious affairs through the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). While technically a state agency, SARA was subsumed into the UFWD under the State Council’s 2018 revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs.

The UFWD controls the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including lamas. Regulations stipulate that, depending on the perceived geographic area of influence of the lama, relevant administrative entities may deny permission for a lama to be recognized as reincarnated and these administrative entities must approve reincarnations. The State Council has the right to deny the recognition of reincarnations of high lamas of “especially great influence.” The regulations also state no foreign organization or individual may interfere in the selection of reincarnate lamas, and all reincarnate lamas must be reborn within China. The government maintains a registry of officially recognized reincarnate lamas.

Regulations issued by the UFWD assert state control over all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools. Through local regulations issued under the framework of the national-level Management Regulation of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, governments of the TAR and other autonomous Tibetan areas control the registration of monasteries, nunneries, and other Tibetan Buddhist religious centers. The regulations also give the government formal control over building and managing religious structures, and require monasteries to obtain official permission to hold large-scale religious events or gatherings.

The central government’s Regulations on Religious Affairs require religious groups to register with the government, impose fines on landlords for providing facilities for unauthorized religious activities, and restrict contact with overseas religious institutions, including requirements for religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.” The regulations submit religious schools to the same oversight as places of worship and impose restrictions on religious groups conducting business or investments, including placing limits on the amount of donations they may receive, thereby constraining property ownership and development. Publication of religious material must conform to guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration.

The regulations also require that religious activity “must not harm national security.” While the regulations stipulate the obligations of religious groups to abide by the law, safeguard national unity, and respond to “religious extremism,” the term “extremism” is undefined. Measures to safeguard unity and respond to “religious extremism” include monitoring groups, individuals, and institutions, and recommending penalties such as suspending groups and canceling clergy credentials. The regulations stipulate that the online activities of religious groups be approved by the provincial Religious Affairs Bureau.

A government policy introduced in 2018 requires Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Monks and nuns must demonstrate – in addition to competence in religious studies – “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and a willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.”

Self-immolation is considered homicide, and family members, teachers, and religious leaders may be charged as accessories to homicide if a relative, pupil, or follower chooses to self-immolate.

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

Individuals must apply to take up religious orders and the TAR CCP Committee may deny any application. Regulations also require monks and nuns to obtain permission from officials in both the originating and receiving counties before traveling to other prefectures or “county-level cities” within the TAR to “practice their religion,” engage in religious activities, study, or teach. TAPs outside the TAR have similar regulations.

At the central government level, the CCP Central Committee’s Central Tibet Work Coordination Group and the UFWD are responsible for developing and implementing religious management policies, which are carried out with support from the five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations – Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, and the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). At local levels, party leaders and branches of the UFWD, SARA, and the BAC are required to coordinate implementation of religious policies in monasteries.

CCP members, including Tibetans and retired officials, are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. CCP members who belong to religious organizations are subject to various types of punishment, including termination of their employment and expulsion from the CCP.

Government Practices

There was one reported case of a Tibetan self-immolating as a means of protesting against government policies, compared to four individuals in 2018. According to the NGO International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), from 2009 to December, 156 Tibetans had set themselves on fire in protest against what they said was the occupation of Tibet and abuses of Tibetans’ religion and culture under PRC rule. The NGO Free Tibet and media reported that on November 26, a 24-year-old man identified as Yonten set himself on fire in Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province. He died of his injuries on the same day. According to Free Tibet, Yonten had previously been a monk in the Kirti Monastery and left the monastery sometime prior to his self-immolation. Radio Free Asia reported that shortly after his death, authorities detained family members for questioning and kept them isolated from outside contact for a period of time. Some experts and local sources attributed the decrease in the number of self-immolations to tighter control measures by authorities and the fear that family members and associates of self-immolators might be punished, including by being charged as accessories to homicide.

The whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama and most Tibetan Buddhists, remained unknown since his 1995 forced disappearance by Chinese authorities. Nyima was six years old at the time he and his parents were reportedly abducted. Authorities did not provide information on his whereabouts, and stated previously that he was “living a normal life” and did “not wish to be disturbed.” The Panchen Lama is considered by the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism to be the second-most-prominent leader after the Dalai Lama. On April 25, Tibetans in exile marked the occasion of Nyima’s 30th birthday. Advocacy groups called on the government to release him and allow him to resume his religious duties.

In August the ICT reported that in late July authorities sentenced Buddhist monk Lobsang Thapke, from Kirti Monastery, Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province, to four years in prison. As of year’s end, the location of his incarceration and the details of his charges remained unknown. According to the ICT, on September 3, authorities sentenced Lobsang Dorje, also a monk from Kirti Monastery, to three years in prison on unknown charges. Fellow monks said he may have been arrested for having contact with persons outside Tibet. Prior to the sentencing, Dorje had been held incommunicado for more than a year.

The whereabouts and condition of Sangay (also spelled Sanggye) Gyatso remained unknown throughout the year. Sources said police beat and arrested Sangay, a monk at the Kirti Monastery, in December 2018 after he demonstrated for Tibetan freedom on the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

The location and condition of many other Tibetans detained in 2018 remained unknown, including Karma, a village leader in the TAR who refused to allow local authorities to conduct mining activities near the sacred Sebra Zagyen mountain, and Gangye, a man from Sog (Suoxian) County, Nagchu (Nagqu) Prefecture, TAR, detained in May 2018 for possessing religious books written by the Dalai Lama and CDs featuring the religious leader’s teachings. Sources reported the whereabouts of several monks also remained unknown, including Dorje Rabten, who in September 2018 protested against government policies restricting young people from becoming monks; Tenzin Gelek, who protested Dorje’s detention; Lobsant Thamke, who was arrested in 2018 and sentenced on July 30 to four years in prison on unknown charges; Lobsang Dorje, who was arrested sometime in August 2018; and Thubpa, whom police took from the Trotsik Monastery in Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province, sometime toward the end of 2017.

Human rights groups stated individuals arrested in the 2008 protests reportedly experienced ongoing physical and mental health problems related to abusive treatment in prison. Free Tibet reported that on May 1, activist Yeshi Gyatso died. According to the NGO Tibet Watch, he suffered frequent and severe beatings, torture, and interrogation during his time in prison from 2008 to 2018 that led to persistent mental and physical ailments after his release. According to Free Tibet, Buddhist monk Thapkay Gyatso was arrested in 2008, reportedly for taking a leading role in 2008 protests in Sangchu (Xiahe) County, Gansu Province, and became partially paralyzed as a result of being beaten during an interrogation soon after his arrest. His condition subsequently deteriorated and during the year he was being held at a prison medical facility in a condition of “half paralysis” and with damage in both eyes. Sources told Free Tibet that Buddhist monk Tsultrim Gyatso, arrested in 2008, suffered permanent eye damage and trauma after being beaten severely during prison interrogations, and that he was transferred to a hospital for emergency surgery.

In May the Voice of America Tibetan Service reported on a journal it obtained from a former inmate of the Sog County “reform through re-education center” in Nagchu Prefecture, TAR. The former inmate wrote, “Those whom officials didn’t like would be captured and tortured with electric devices. When they became unconscious, [the torturers] would splash water on their faces until their victims regained consciousness. After doing that for a long time, they would use a black rubber tube as well as an electric baton to torture people.”

In July Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan Service reported that between May and July authorities removed approximately 3,500 monks and nuns from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute in Sichuan Province to undergo political indoctrination at detention centers in their home counties in the TAR. A Tibetan exile told the news service some nuns were being held in Jomda (Jiangda) County, Chamdo (Changdu) Prefecture, TAR, where they learned and performed patriotic songs and dances praising the CCP and watched propaganda films each day. Authorities forced the nuns to wear military clothing. If the nuns wept, authorities considered it evidence of disloyalty to the state and subjected them to severe punishments, including beatings, extending their confinement in the detention centers, and refusing permission for the nuns to receive gifts of food or clothing from visiting family members.

According to Radio Free Asia, Ngawang Gyaltsen, a monk from Sog County, Nagchu Prefecture, TAR, was released from prison in March. Local sources reported Ngawang, arrested in 2015, was repeatedly beaten and deprived of sleep and food while incarcerated on unknown charges. Following his release, he was forbidden to return to his monastery.

Nuns who had been released from detention told the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy there were instances in which authorities subjected nuns who had been forcibly removed from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute to sexual assault and sexual violence. Voice of America reported that in a journal it obtained from a former inmate of the Sog County detention center in Nagchu Prefecture, TAR, the writer wrote that officers fondled the breasts of nuns who had fainted during military training and lay in the nuns’ cells “pressing unconscious nuns underneath.”

Limited access to information made it difficult to ascertain the exact number of individuals imprisoned because of their religious beliefs or affiliation, or to determine the charges brought against them or assess the extent and severity of abuses they suffered. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China examined publicly available information and, as of November 7, its Political Prisoner Database (PPD) contained 273 records of Tibetans known or believed to be currently detained or imprisoned by authorities in violation of international human rights standards. Of those, 122 were reported to be current or former monks, nuns, or lamas. Of the 115 cases for which there was information on sentencing, punishments ranged from one year and three months to life imprisonment. Observers, including commission staff, stated they believed the actual number of Tibetan political prisoners and detainees to be much higher, but the lack of access to prisoners and prisons, as well as the lack of reliable official statistics, made a precise determination difficult. Authorities continued to hold an unknown number of persons in pretrial detention facilities and in “reeducation centers” rather than prisons. Human rights groups reported extensions of pretrial detention periods were common for Tibetans accused of engaging in prohibited political activities and on national security grounds, resulting in suspects spending long periods of time in jail without being formally charged or brought to trial. Security officials could confine citizens to reeducation centers without formal legal procedures. Local sources said stays in reeducation centers could last more than one year.

Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program, and that Tibetans were told to inform on anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” In September a Tibetan living in exile told Radio Free Asia that authorities in Qinghai Province had expanded the government’s “anti-gang” campaign to include wider suppression of political activities by Tibetans.

According to the ICT, Choekyi, a monk from Phugu Monastery in Kardze (Ganzi) TAP, Sichuan Province, was released on January 18, five months before the end of his four-year sentence, due to poor health. During his imprisonment, authorities reportedly subjected Choekyi to hard labor and solitary confinement and denied him healthcare. Choekyi was arrested in 2015 for wearing a t-shirt with Tibetan writing celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday and posting birthday wishes on social media, and charged with conducting “separatist activities.” According to local sources, following his release, authorities allowed him to receive medical treatment but kept him under surveillance and barred him from returning to his monastery.

The Indian news outlet The Print reported on February 12 that satellite imagery from September, October, and November 2018 showed what it said were three large-scale reeducation centers under construction in the TAR. The report said that the imagery showed that these centers included high walls, double-wire fencing, guard posts, and large barracks-style buildings.

According to Radio Free Asia, authorities detained a Tibetan man identified as Wangchen on April 29 after he recited prayers and shouted slogans calling for the release of the 11th Panchen Lama. Wangchen was accused of making “a conspicuous protest in public” and sentenced to four years and six months in prison. In addition, Wangchen’s aunt, Acha Dolkar, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for helping to share news of Wangchen’s protest with contacts outside the region, while two other Tibetans identified as Lobsang and Yonten were each fined renminbi (RMB) 15,000 ($2,200) and ordered to attend political reeducation classes on “issues of national security” for six months.

According to Free Tibet, authorities sentenced Lodoe Gyatso (also spelled Gyamtso) to 18 years in prison in March for praising the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach during a protest in Lhasa in 2018. The Middle Way Approach is the Dalai Lama’s proposal that Tibet remain part of the PRC while giving Tibetans what the Dalai Lama described as “a means to achieve a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China.” Free Tibet reported that Lodoe, who was sentenced in a secret trial after being held in pretrial detention for 15 months, had previously served a total of 23 years in prison for two previous convictions related to dissident activities. His wife, who filmed the protest, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

In July sources told Radio Free Asia that approximately 70 monks and nuns who had been evicted from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute during the year were being held in a detention center in Jomda County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, where they were “undergoing thorough political reeducation.” The sources said, “As soon as they are brought to the detention centers, their cellphones are confiscated, rendering them incommunicado with the outside world…The monks and nuns are forced to wear the clothes of laypersons at the detention center and the Chinese authorities make them denounce the Dalai Lama on a daily basis, as well as memorize political propaganda, which they are later tested on.”

The government continued to place restrictions on the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain, human rights groups and local sources said that since 2016 authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes, both in Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. Monastics expelled from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes were specifically prohibited from transferring to other monasteries to continue their religious education.

According to the NGO Human Rights Watch and local sources, since 2016, the government evicted approximately three-quarters of the 20,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns who lived at Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institute. Radio Free Asia reported that since 2001, authorities have demolished an estimated 7,000 residences in what the government reportedly stated were efforts to prevent fires and promote crowd control. According to the online media source Buddhistdoor Global, in June 2017, a senior abbot at Larung Gar said 4,725 monastic dwellings had been torn down over the course of one year. Local sources stated the destruction was to clear the way for tourist infrastructure and to prevent nuns, monks, and laypersons, particularly ethnic Han Chinese, from studying at the institute. Reportedly, in hopes of saving the institute, Larung Gar’s monastic leadership continued to advise residents not to protest the demolitions and urged them to “behave appropriately in their actions and their speech.”

The government continued its program of evicting residents and destroying dwellings at Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. In July Radio Free Asia reported that according to one source, “The Chinese authorities have ordered that the number of monks and nuns staying at Yachen Gar not exceed more than 4,700, and because of that many monks and nuns have been evicted from the institute.” Local sources estimated that 3,500 monastics were removed in May and an additional 3,600 removed by July. Another source said, “Those monks and nuns who were forcefully returned to their birthplaces have now been rounded up by local Chinese police and made to attend political re-education classes [at detention centers] in their hometowns.” Local sources reported authorities prohibited monks and nuns expelled from Yachen Gar from joining any other monastery or nunnery in the area or participating in any public religious practices.

Exact figures of the extent of destruction could not be obtained because authorities denied visitors, including foreign diplomats, access to the Yachen Gar complex. Satellite images taken August 24 obtained by Free Tibet and photos from local sources obtained by Radio Free Asia both showed nearly half the residences of Yachen Gar destroyed since previous images were taken in April 2018. A local source told Radio Free Asia that starting on July 19, within a few days authorities demolished at least 100 dwellings that had previously housed nuns.

The government continued its policy of resettling previously nomadic Tibetans in government-subsidized housing units. In many areas, these were located near township and county government seats or along major roads, and had no nearby monasteries where resettled villagers could worship. The government prohibited construction of new temples in these areas without prior approval. Traditionally, Tibetan villages were clustered around monasteries, which provided religious and other services to members of the community. Many Tibetans reportedly continued to view such measures as CCP and government efforts to dilute religious belief and weaken the ties between monasteries and communities. According to Tibetan author Tsering Woeser, the absence of “temples, stupas, or resident monks in these ‘modern’ settlements prevents Tibetans from overcoming their feelings of emptiness and dislocation following resettlement.”

Media and human rights groups reported that on January 7, the government announced a formal five-year plan to continue to “Sinicize” all religious groups in China by emphasizing loyalty to the CCP and the state. This plan includes Tibetan Buddhism, with the involvement of the state-run BAC. ICT president Matteo Mecacci said in July, “The five-year campaign to ‘Sinicize’ Buddhism is a much more systematic imposition of Communist Party priorities than we have seen before, striking at the very core of a religious philosophy based on moral, compassionate values. Sinicization not only targets the trappings of religious practice, such as large teachings, but also represents a far-reaching intrusion into people’s inner lives by a repressive government, contracting the space for genuine religious practice and freedom.”

The government continued a policy introduced in 2018 requiring Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Monks and nuns were required to demonstrate – in addition to competence in religious studies – “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.” Since the policy’s inception, many major monasteries and religious institutes implemented political training programs.

Local authorities invoked regulations concerning safeguarding national unity and responding to “religious extremism” to monitor individuals, groups, and institutions, and to punish adherents of religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama.

One local source told the ICT the Sinicization campaign had intensified in recent years and was “unbearable” for monks and nuns. The source said, “It is now much stronger and penetrates religious life more deeply, bring[ing] immense difficulties for the religious community, for instance the legal education exams that involve thousands of monks and nuns, and which involve study and questions, and a whole process.”

The government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervision of their religious and political education. According to media and NGO reports, the CCP maintained a list of state-approved “living buddhas.” Such individuals reportedly continued to undergo training on patriotism and the CCP’s socialist political system. In 2018 the BAC announced its database contained 1,311 “living buddhas” that it deemed “authentic.” In September a Tibetan academic told The Irish Times that to be included in the database, monks were required to go through an indoctrination process in which they were trained to promote love of the CCP and social harmony, and fight against the Dalai Lama and other “splittists.” In 2018 the BAC announced its database of 1,311 “living buddhas” that it deemed “authentic” was nearly complete. The Dalai Lama was reportedly not on the list.

According to one Tibetan source, “every single individual now on the official reincarnation database has to go through an entire political procedure, entirely separate to a religious training, in which they are advised about the need for their career and role in the religious community to motivate religious believers to love the party, love the country and social stability maintenance work, as well as fight against ‘separatism’ and the Dalai Lama…. This means that now the Tibetan reincarnations are becoming Communist-trained talents rather than religious leaders.” Religious leaders continued to report that authorities were incentivizing lamas and monks to leave monastic life voluntarily by emphasizing the attributes of secular life as compared to the more disciplined and austere religious life. Monastery leaders cited continued revisions to education policies, religion regulations, and government control of monastery management as reasons for declining numbers of young monks. Religious leaders and scholars said these and other means of interference continued to cause them concern about the ability of religious traditions to survive for successive generations.

Multiple sources reported open veneration of the Dalai Lama, including the display of his photograph, remained prohibited in almost all areas. The government continued also to ban pictures of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama and nearly all Tibetan Buddhists recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama. In certain counties of the TAR, punishments for displaying images of the Dalai Lama included expulsion from monasteries. In October the India-based Tibetan magazine Contact reported authorities routinely detained individuals for possessing a photo of the Dalai Lama.

The TAR CCP committee and the government required all monasteries to display prominently the Chinese flag and the portraits of five CCP chairmen, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. Local sources told Radio Free Asia that officials from government bureaus monitoring religious practice visited Tibetan schools and warned teachers and students not to keep or display photos of the Dalai Lama.

According to Free Tibet, following a January 9-13 meeting of the People’s Congress of the TAR, officials ordered citizens to place shrines to Chairman Xi and other CCP leaders in their homes, replacing altars venerating religious figures, and also required them to prostrate themselves in front of those portraits. Authorities reportedly told Tibetans government subsidies and aid – including money for school fees and groceries – would cease if they failed to comply.

According to Tibet Watch and local sources, while households in more remote areas had previously generally been able to circumvent the prohibition against displaying the Dalai Lama’s portrait, authorities were increasingly demanding they replace it with portraits of Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao as part of the Sinicization drive. According to Tibet Watch, “In certain areas, officials go house to house to check that [the CCP portraits] are on the altar.” In January Free Tibet reproduced photographs originally posted on state media of home shrines displaying portraits of CCP leaders. One photograph showed a Tibetan family smiling in their home in front of a shrine to CCP leaders. Another showed a Tibetan man holding up a khata (prayer scarf) before a home shrine displaying CCP leaders, including Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao.

A Tibetan living in exile told Radio Free Asia in June that in Arte village in Tsolho (Hainan) TAP, Qinghai Province, authorities promised RMB 6,000 ($860) to more than 30 families to hang Chairman Xi’s portrait in a prominent place in their homes. According to the source, Xi’s portrait must be placed as high as any picture of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the traditional winter home of the Dalai Lama. The source said, “The families are choosing to do this because they need the money to survive, but they regret this immensely.”

NGO groups and other sources reported that in August TAR government officials hung a banner outside Shalu Temple in Shigatse (Xigaze) Prefecture, TAR, prohibiting CCP members and all persons under age 18 from entering. Officials also required the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa to hang a banner wishing the CCP to last 10,000 years. A Tibetan exile living in Great Britain posted a photograph of the banner on Twitter on September 16. Monasteries and schools throughout the region were required to display additional Chinese flags and patriotic banners throughout the year.

Chinese official state media released a video on September 22 showing monks at Jambaling Monastery in Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, participating in a choreographed ceremony celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. In the video, the monks and worshipers waived Chinese flags and sang patriotic songs praising the CCP. The video showed monks hoisting a Chinese flag on the rooftop of the monastery and hanging thangkas (devotional wall hangings) with images of five Chinese leaders on the monastery wall. According to Free Tibet, at an event marking the release of the video, Tsering Norbu, Secretary of the Party Committee of Jambaling Monastery’s Management Committee, said all monks “should be grateful, feel the party, listen to the party, and go with the party,” in addition to adhering to the socialist system and the party’s vision for Tibetan Buddhism. Free Tibet reported that at the same event, Tsunglo-Shamba Khedu, Vice Chairman of the TAR and abbot of the Jambaling Monastery, told the monks present “they should bravely stand up and expose the 14th Dalai Lama’s reactionary thoughts,” and that monks should be a model of patriotism and love for the party. Students and monks across Tibetan areas were instructed to participate in national day events praising the CCP. NGOs reported at least five Tibetans were arrested for refusing to take part in official National Day events.

The CCP continued to forbid its members from participating in religious activities of any kind, despite reports that many local government officials and CCP members held religious beliefs. The TAR regional government punished CCP members who followed the Dalai Lama, secretly harbored religious beliefs, made pilgrimages to India, or sent their children to study with exiled Tibetans.

In accordance with official guidelines for monastery management, the leadership of and membership in committees and working groups remained restricted to individuals the guidelines described as “politically reliable, patriotic, and devoted monks, nuns, and party and government officials.” General administrative affairs in TAR monasteries, which monks traditionally managed, were instead overseen by monastery management committees and monastic government working groups, both of which were composed primarily of government officials and CCP members, in addition to a few government-approved monks. Since 2011, the government has established such groups in all monasteries in the TAR and in many major monasteries in other Tibetan areas.

The traditional monastic system reportedly continued to decline as many senior Buddhist teachers remained in exile or died in India or elsewhere. The heads of most major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – including the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, Sakya Trizin, and Khatok Getse Rinpoche, as well as Bon leader Kyabje Menr Trizin – all continued to reside in exile. The government also banned India-trained Tibetan monks, most of whom received their education from the Dalai Lama or those with ties to him, from teaching in Tibetan monasteries in China, although there were reportedly rare exceptions made for pro-government monks.

As in previous years, senior monks at some monasteries continued to report informal agreements with local officials whereby resident monks would not stage protests or commit self-immolations as long as the government adopted a hands-off approach to the management of their monasteries.

Sources said authorities monitored all financial transactions involving monasteries inside Tibet and entities abroad.

The government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, whom it selected in 1995, was the Panchen Lama’s true reincarnation, and not Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom authorities had disappeared that same year. Norbu remained the vice president of, and highest ranking Tibetan in, the government-affiliated BAC. The state media outlet Xinhua News Agency reported that on June 22, Norbu was elected president of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Branch of the BAC. According to numerous Tibetan Buddhist monks and scholars, SARA and provincial religious affairs bureau officials frequently pressured monks and laypersons, including government officials, to attend religious study sessions presided over by Gyaltsen Norbu.

The pro-government media outlet Global Times reported that in August in Lhasa approximately 100 monks from 73 monasteries attended a training session on reincarnation of a living Buddha, presided over by Norbu and organized by the government-sponsored TAR branch of the BAC, the Institute of Socialism, and regional authorities in charge of religious affairs. According to Global Times, at the session, Suolang Renzeng, deputy chief of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee, told trainees the reincarnation system “is never a religious-only issue or a living Buddha’s personal right,” but an important representation of the CCP’s strategies and policies in the region. Bianba Lamu (Tibetan: Pempa Lhamo), head of the South Asia Institute of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, told Global Times the training could educate key figures in Tibetan Buddhism to lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with socialist society. The ICT said the training was part of the government’s efforts to control the succession of the Dalai Lama.

Reuters reported that in March foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “[R]eincarnations, including that of the Dalai Lama, should observe the country’s laws and regulations and follow the rituals and history of religion.” In a July interview with the India-based media outlet Daily News and Analysis, Wang Neng Shang, vice minister of the TAR and director general of the People’s Government Information Office, said the selection of the next Dalai Lama was not the current Dalai Lama’s to make, but must be recognized by the central government in Beijing, adding, “The centrality of the central government must be recognized.” Human rights groups said these comments reflected the CCP’s continued efforts to interfere with the succession of the Dalai Lama.

Sources continued to report that while authorities permitted some traditional religious ceremonies and practices, they continued to exercise control over the activities of religious leaders and religious gatherings of laypersons, confining many such activities to officially designated places of worship, restricting or canceling religious festivals, and preventing monks from traveling to villages for politically sensitive events and religious ceremonies. Sources said clergy could not travel freely between monasteries or go on pilgrimages.

Local sources said the government continued to suppress religious activities it viewed as vehicles for political dissent. There were reports that local authorities again ordered many monasteries and laypersons not to celebrate or organize any public gatherings to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 84th birthday on July 6, or to commemorate the anniversary of the March 10, 1959, Tibetan uprising or the March 14, 2008, outbreak of unrest across the Tibetan Plateau. TAR authorities banned monks and nuns from leaving their monasteries and nunneries during such times, and pilgrimage sites were heavily policed. According to local sources, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provincial authorities warned major monasteries in Tibetan areas, including Labrang, Amchok, and Bora Monasteries, that those holding special events or celebrations would face unspecified “severe consequences.” Local sources reported that in July religious affairs officials instructed senior monks at Kirti, Karzdze, Draggo, and Tawu Monasteries in Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, not to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. As a result, the monks did not organize any public celebrations. One source told Radio Free Asia that authorities forced students to attend classes on March 10, a Sunday, and on July 6, a Saturday, as part of efforts to keep them from marking these anniversaries. The source said, “Preventing Tibetan students from visiting places of worship and from taking part in religious festivals is a deliberate attempt by the Chinese government to separate them from the influence of Tibetan religion and culture[.] This is an effort to Sinicize young Tibetans at an early age.”

According to local sources, authorities deployed the military to monitor pilgrims and worshipers at prayer festivals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. A man told Radio Free Asia the presence of armed, uniformed police and plain-clothes officers during sensitive political and religious anniversaries was so pervasive that Tibetans considered it “a part of their daily lives.” During Lunar New Year celebrations in February, multiple local sources reported authorities again deployed military forces at prayer ceremonies at Drephung, Sera, and Gandan Monasteries in the TAR, and at Draggo, Kirti, and Tawu Monasteries in Sichuan Province. In August the government again banned the annual Dechen Shedrub prayer festival from occurring at Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. As they did in 2018, authorities cited overcrowding, unfinished reconstruction of the partially demolished site, and fire safety concerns as reasons for the ban. The ban marked the fourth consecutive year the government prohibited the 22-year-old festival from taking place.

Radio Free Asia reported that authorities in Lhasa banned students, schools officials, and government employees from taking part in the Ganden Ngachoe festival on December 20-21. The festival commemorated the 600th anniversary of the death of Tsongkhapa, the 14th century founder of the Gelugpa school of Buddhism, of which the Dalai Lama is now the leader. One source told Radio Free Asia parents were being held responsible for their children’s compliance with the ban.

The TAR government reportedly maintained tight control over the use of Tibetan Buddhist religious relics and declared them, religious buildings, and religious institutions to be state property.

According to Human Rights Watch, the department under the TAR party committee in charge of overseeing retired government employees issued an official notice requiring TAR party and government officials, including nonparty members, to submit a list by August 18 of any retired personnel performing the kora, a Tibetan practice of circumambulating a sacred site or temple while reciting prayers or mantras. The practice is a standard form of religious devotion among Tibetan Buddhists, particularly the elderly, for whom it is often a daily religious practice as well as a form of exercise. Those named faced potential loss of pensions and social benefits.

According to sources, security forces continued to block access to and from important monasteries during politically sensitive events and religious anniversaries. Radio Free Asia reported police maintained heavy security during the Shoton festival held from August 30 through September 5 in Lhasa. There were large numbers of uniformed and plain-clothes police monitoring crowds of worshippers.