Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, occupation authorities continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory.

Government Practices

In December the UN General Assembly issued a resolution condemning the Russian occupation authorities for “ongoing pressure exerted upon religious minority communities, including through frequent police raids, undue registration requirements that have affected legal status and property rights and threats against and persecution of those belonging to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Protestant Church, mosques and Muslim religious schools, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and condemning also the baseless prosecution of dozens of peaceful Muslims for allegedly belonging to Islamic organizations” The United Nations also condemned the “baseless prosecution of dozens of peaceful Muslims for allegedly belonging to Islamic organizations.” Such prosecutions were primarily of Muslims occupation authorities said were members of the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, banned in Russia, but legal in Ukraine.

According to the Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG) with offices in Kyiv, 86 individuals were unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned due to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea as of September 7. Thirty-four of them had received prison sentences.

Human rights groups said occupation authorities continued to restrict the rights of Crimean Tatars, who are predominantly Muslim, following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of the Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.” Detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. charged the detainees with participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Krym Realii news website quoted human rights attorney Edem Semedlyaev, stating that that the three detainees had been placed in a psychiatric hospital for forced examinations due to their refusal to plead guilty to terrorism charges. Krym Realii is an independent news service focusing on human rights issues in Crimea.

According to the NGO Krymska Solidarnist, on April 15, armed FSB representatives detained Imam Rustem Abilev on charges of extremism during a raid of his mosque and home in Shturmove Village near Sevastopol. On June 7, occupation authorities changed his pretrial detention to house arrest. On October 10 the Balaklava District Court ordered him to pay a fine of 100,000 Russian rubles ($1,600).

On December 5, a Russian military court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Enver Seytosmanov, another prisoner in the 2015 Sevastopol Hizb ut-Tahrir case, to 17 years in a maximum security penal colony for managing a “terrorist” organization. Seytsomanov said authorities applied physical and psychological pressure to force him into giving false testimony. His lawyer said the occupation authorities toughened the charge against Seytosmanov, stating he was an organizer rather than a participant in a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell.

According to Krym Realii, on October 2, the North Caucuses Military Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Tatar blogger Nariman Memedeminov to two-and-a-half-years in prison. Human rights activists linked the verdict to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea. Occupation authorities detained Memedeminov on terrorist charges in 2018, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in the 2016 Bakhchisarai Hizb ut-Tahrir case – Ernes Ametov, Marlen Asanov, Seyran Saliyev, Memet Belialov, Timur Ibragimov, Server Zakiryayev, Server Mustafayev, and Edem Smailov – continued pretrial detention in Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don until August. According to Krymska Solidarnist, on August 26 the North Caucasus District Military Court extended until February 13, 2020 the detention of Ametov, Asanov, Saliyev, Belyalov, Ibragimov, Zekiryayev, Mustafayev, and Smailov for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on July 11 the Russian Supreme Court altered the sentences of other defendants in the Bakhchisarai Hizb ut-Tahrir case, reducing Enver Mamutov’s maximum-security prison term from 17 years to 16 years and nine months; Remzi Memetov, Zevri Abseitov, and Rustem Abiltarov each receiving reduced sentences of eight years and nine months; and Ruslan Abiltarov, Remzi Memetov, and Zevri Abseitov each receiving reduced nine-year prison sentences. Krym Realii reported that the prisoners began serving their sentences in Russia’s Stavropol Krai in Russia. Their lawyer, Rustem Kyamilev, said the Kochubeyevskoye Prison administration’s decision to place Abseitov in an isolation cell upon his arrival was unlawful and arbitrary, although Kyamile attributed the move to the fact Abseitov had been “convicted of a serious crime.”

According to Krym Realii, on November 12, the Southern District Military court sentenced defendants Muslim Aliyev to 19 years, Іnver Bekirov to 18 years, Emir Usein Kuku and Vadim Siruk to 12 years, Refat Alimov to eight years, and Arsen Dzhepparov to seven years in a maximum security prison for their supposed involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir in Yalta. The suspects were arrested in a series of armed raids in February 2016 by Russian occupation authorities.

Krym Realii reported that on June 18, the North Caucasus District Military Court convicted five detainees arrested in October 2016 in Simferopol for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The court found them guilty of organizing or participating in the activities of a terrorist organization and sentenced them to high security prison terms of 17 years for Teymur Abdullaev, 14 years for Rustem Ismailov, and 13 years for Uzeir Abdullaev. Aider Saledinov and Emil Dzhemadenov each received 12-year sentences.

According to Krymska Solidarnist, on March 27 armed representatives of the FSB, National Guard, and police searched 30 Crimean Tatar homes in Simferopol, Volodymyrivka, Strohanivka, Kamyanka, Bile, Akropolis, and Alkavan, detaining 23 individuals for their alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. During the searches, law enforcement representatives reportedly planted and “found” Hizb ut-Tahrir materials. The detainees’ lawyers were not allowed to be present during the searches. Krymska Solidarnist reported that on March 27 and 28, courts in Simferopol ordered the arrest of the following detainees: Imam Bilyal Adilov, Erfan Osmanov, Seyran Murtaza, Server Gaziyev, Mejit Abdurakhmanov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Akim Bekirov, Farkhat Bazarov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, Alim Karimov, Yashar Muyedinov, Izet Abdulayev, Asan Yanikov, Enver Ametov, Raim Aivazov, and Ruslan Suleimanov.

On March 28, Russian authorities detained and beat Krymska Solidarnist activists Remzi Bekirov, Osman Arifmemetov, and Vladlen Abdulkadyrov in Rostov-on-Don following searches at their homes in Crimea for suspected involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol had ordered their arrest on charges related to “terrorism.” Law enforcement officers reportedly beat Abdulkadyrov while he was in detention.

According to a July 12 Human Rights Watch report, on April 16, FSB agents detained Raim Aivazov on the Russian-imposed “border” with Ukraine and “forced him to incriminate himself and others under torture.” According to Aivazov’s independent lawyer, Maria Eismont, who visited the detainee before his second pretrial custody hearing in May, Aivazov told her that three FSB agents had forced him into a car at the crossing check point and drove to a nearby forest. They then kicked him and forced him to his knees. One put a gun to Aivazov’s head as the others fired shots next to him, threatening to kill him and dump his body in a pond. The agents told him the only way he could save his life was by “cooperating” with them. They took him to the FSB office in Simferopol, where “officials” wrote up a detention report stating he was detained at 1:30 p.m. on April 17 in the office of an FSB investigator. The report made no mention of Aivazov having been seized at the crossing point. The investigator provided a state-appointed lawyer who advised Aivazov it was in his “best interest” to sign documents the investigator presented him. Aivazov signed a confession stating he was a member of a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell, along with the recently arrested men.”

Krym Realii reported that on November 11, the Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol extended until February 15, 2020 the arrest of Tatar Muslims Bilyal Adilov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Farkhod Bazarov, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, and Raim Aivazov on charges of “extremism.” On November 12, the Kyivsky District Court extended until February 15, 2020 the detention of Tatar Muslims Remzi Bekirov, Enver Ametov, Osman Arifmemetov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Riza Izetov, Alim Karimov, and Erfan Osmanov.

In December the Crimean Human Rights Group estimated the total number of Crimean residents imprisoned for their participation in “extremist” Muslim groups had reached 65.

An OHCHR report covering November 2018 to February 2019 found that, consistent with previous OHCHR findings, the pattern of criminalization of affiliation to or sympathy towards religious Muslim groups, banned in the Russian Federation, continued to disproportionately affect Crimean Tatars. According to an OHCHR quarterly report issued in September, since the beginning of the Russian occupation, at least 33 Crimean residents were arrested for alleged ties with radical Muslim groups. OHCHR reported four of them were convicted in the absence of “any credible evidence that the defendants called for the use of force, violated public order, or engaged in any unlawful activity in Crimea.”

According to CHRG, on December 24, Inna Semenets, magistrate of the Evpatoriya Judicial District, fined the Karaite Jewish religious community for failing to place an identifying sign on the building of a religious organization.

In December Crimean magistrates reviewed at least five cases pertaining to “illegal missionary activity.” During the year, 30 of these cases were reviewed, and the magistrates imposed an administrative penalty, fines of 5,000 to 30,000 Russian rubles ($80-$480), and a warning in at least 18 cases. According to Forum 18, the cases involved Protestants, Muslims, adherents of the Society of Krishna Consciousness, Falun Gong, as well as groups with unspecified affiliations.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, local authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under the 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. Forum 18 reported that on September 6, the Dzhankoy District Court began the trial of Jehovah’s Witness Sergei Filatov on extremism-related charges. The FSB had arrested Filatov, a former head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, in Dzhankoy in 2018.

According to Forum 18, on March 15, the FSB opened a criminal case against Jehovah’s Witnesses Artem Gerasimov and Taras Kuzio in Yalta, accusing them of conducting religious services in defiance of the occupation authorities’ ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses’ “extremist” activity. Occupation authorities made both of them sign a pledge not to leave the area. Five days later, the FSB raided eight Jehovah’s Witness family homes in and around the city. According to Forum 18, on June 4, the FSB opened a criminal case against Jehovah’s Witness Viktor Stashevsky in Sevastopol. The FSB required him to sign a pledge not to leave the city. That same day, FSB officers raided at least nine local homes. Another raid occurred on July 7.

According to Forum 18, administrative court hearings under Russian law imposed on Crimea for “missionary activity” were “at the same rate” compared with the previous year. There were 24 prosecutions for such activity, compared with 23 in 2018, 17 of which ended in convictions with some type of monetary fine. Many of those prosecuted had been sharing their faith on the street or holding worship at unapproved venues. According to Forum 18, 17 Russian citizens were fined approximately 5 days’ average local wages. Six Ukrainian citizens were given higher fines of up to nearly two months’ average local wages. Forum 18 stated these six cases, in addition to the case of another Ukrainian who was prosecuted, appear to be the first use in Crimea of a Russian Administrative Code on “foreigners conducting missionary activity” that is “specifically aimed at non-Russians.”

Forum 18 reported that occupation authorities brought 11 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community. Four of those cases involved fines of 30,000 Russian rubles ($480) (one month’s average local wage), and two defendants received a warning. The other five cases involved no punishment.

According to Krymska Solidarnist and Forum 18, local authorities continued the ban on the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. The movement is legal in Ukraine. On January 22, the Supreme Court of Crimea found Crimean Tatars Renat Suleymanov guilty of organizing an “extremist” group, and Talyat Andurakhmanov, Seiran Mustafayev and Arsen Kubedinov, whom the FSB had detained in 2017, guilty of membership in “extremist” groups because of their affiliation with Tabligh Jamaat. The court sentenced Suleymanov to four years in prison. Andurakhmanov, Mustafayev, and Kubedinov each received two-and-a-half-year suspended sentences. Forum 18 reported that the FSB initiated the case “based on secret recordings of meetings in mosques, testimony from unidentified witnesses, and books seized from the men’s homes.” On May 18, occupation authorities transferred Suleymanov to a prison in Russia.

Krymska Solidarnist reported that on October 11, masked law enforcement officials in an armored vehicle arrived at a mosque in Kurtsy Village, stating they had to inspect “electricity meters and mosque documents.” Following Friday prayers, the officials questioned members of the congregation. The Simferopol-based organization Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea and Sevastopol, which started collaborating with occupation authorities in 2014, justified the visit, stating that “in violation of the law,” the congregation had not officially registered and was not led by an imam appointed by the directorate. According to the directorate, the mosque had not provided information on the contents of its sermons, as required by law.

The Ministry of Justice of Russia said 891 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 105 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end, compared with 831 and 69, respectively, in 2018. These included the two largest religious organizations – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (SAMC) – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.

According to data collected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), there were 2,083 religious organizations (a term including parishes, congregations, theological schools, monasteries, and other constituent parts of a church or religious group) in the ARC and 137 in Sevastopol. The numbers included organizations both with and without legal entity status. Muslim religious organizations constituted the largest number of religious organizations in the ARC, most of which were affiliated with the SAMC, Ukraine’s largest Muslim group.

According to a 2018 OHCHR report, religious communities indicated more than 1,000 religious communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered. According to the OHCHR, stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation continued to prevent or discourage reregistration of many religious communities.

Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.

The Roman Catholic Church reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. Polish and Ukrainian Roman Catholic Church priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and required to leave Crimea for 90 days before returning.

UGCC representatives said it could still only operate as a part of the pastoral district of the Roman Catholic Church.

According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued pressure on the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Only six of the 15 churches, identifying as OCU but required to register as independent following the separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, were functioning at the end of the year, compared with five in 2018 and eight in 2017. The CHRG reported that on June 28, Crimea’s “Arbitration Court” terminated a pre-annexation lease agreement between the local government and OCU for Saints Volodymyr and Olga Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration. The “court” ordered the congregation to return the premises to Crimea’s “Ministry of Property and Land Relations.” Before issuing the ruling, occupation authorities had removed a section of the church roof, citing the need to repair it; as a result, rainwater flooded part of the premises. According to the NGO Krym-SOS, on April 12, the Crimean branch of Russia’s Justice Ministry turned down OCU Archbishop Klyment’s request to register his Simferopol-based St. Volodymyr of Kyiv and Olga parish as an independent Orthodox congregation. In October according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, the UN Human Rights Committee invoked the UN Charter to halt the eviction of the congregation. Congregation members reported they had been effectively evicted, with no access to the church building due to a series of bureaucratic administrative rulings.

On March 3, police in Simferopol briefly detained Archbishop Klyment as he was boarding a bus to visit Ukrainian political prisoner Pavlo Hryb, who was held in Rostov-on-Don. The Russian government released Hryb during a prisoner swap in September. The archbishop said the incident was part of the occupation authorities’ continuing efforts to deny him access to Hryb.

On September 5, Ukraine’s Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons denounced the occupation authorities’ plans to lay a pipeline through an ancient Muslim cemetery in Kirovske District. Workers unearthed human remains at the site during preparatory excavations for the project. After receiving complaints from the Muslim community, authorities suspended the excavations to allow reburial of the remains.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 6, the website reported that unidentified individuals had destroyed crosses at a cemetery in Feodosia.

According to Crimean Tatar activist Zair Smedlyaev, in November unidentified individuals destroyed a tombstone at a Muslim cemetery in Petrivka Village, in Krasnohvardiysk District.

Krym Realii news website, in May unidentified individuals destroyed newly installed slabs etched with the names of 64 fallen Soviet Army soldiers, including 57 Crimean Tatars, at a World War II memorial in Orlovka Village, in Sevastopol.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russian forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Christians and Muslims. U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of minority religious congregations, including Christians and Muslim Crimean Tatars. On March 4, the embassy wrote, “We remain deeply concerned about Archbishop Klyment’s detention in Crimea yesterday. Despite his subsequent release, this kind of harassment is unacceptable. We expect Russia to respect freedom of religion and stop detaining innocent Ukrainians in Crimea.” On July 25, the embassy wrote, “We are concerned by media reports of looting of the Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral in Simferopol, Ukraine. Residents of Crimea deserve to be able to worship freely, without intimidation, if they so choose. We call upon Russia to end its occupation of Crimea.”

Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders from Crimea. The leaders discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by the occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. Embassy officials told religious leaders the United States would continue to support religious freedom in Crimea and press the occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.

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Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state shall recognize and guarantee all citizens the right to preserve, develop, and express their religious identity. It provides for equal treatment for all citizens regardless of religion, and guarantees freedom of conscience, manifested in “a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect,” and of religious worship. It stipulates religious groups are independent from the state and free to organize and operate according to their own statutes. The constitution prohibits all religious groups, in their mutual relationships, from using, expressing, or inciting hatred or enmity. The constitution stipulates the state shall support religious worship, including facilitating religious assistance in the army, hospitals, penitentiaries, nursing homes, and orphanages.

The law states every person has the right to belong or not belong to a religion, to have or not have individual beliefs, to change religion or beliefs, and to practice religion or beliefs independently or as a group, in public or in private, through teaching, religious practices, or rituals. According to the law, religious freedom may be restricted only if necessary to ensure public order and security, to protect public health and morality, or to protect a person’s rights and freedoms. The law also prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation.

The law stipulates that the state recognizes the “exceptional importance and fundamental role” of Orthodox Christianity and particularly the MOC, in the life, history, and culture of the country.

The law does not require religious groups to register, and members of unregistered groups may worship freely. However, only registered religious groups possess status as legal entities, allowing them to build houses of worship, own land in cemeteries or other property, publish or import religious literature, open bank accounts, or employ staff. Registration also exempts registered religious groups from land taxes and property taxes and allows them to establish associations and foundations. The law permits local, registered religious groups to change their denominational affiliation or dissolve themselves.

The law allows individuals to redirect 2 percent of their income tax to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) or religious groups. Religious groups wanting to benefit from the provisions must: be officially registered and active for a minimum of one year before applying for the income tax benefit; register with the government’s Public Services Agency (PSA); use the amounts received only for social, moral, cultural, and/or charitable activities and certain administrative costs; and present reports on the use of the funds. The law exempts religious organizations from registration fees and from paying tax on the income received as donations under the 2 percent law.

Under the law, a religious group wishing to register must present to the PSA a declaration including its exact name, fundamental principles of belief, organizational structure, scope of activities, financing sources, and rights and obligations of membership. The law also requires a group to show it has at least 100 founding members. A religious group must present proof of having access to premises where it can conduct its religious activities, but it does not need to own this property. The PSA is required by law to register a religious group within 15 days if the registration request is made according to law. The applicant may request an extension if the government determines the documentation submitted is insufficient.

Under the law, the Ministry of Justice has the right to request a suspension of the registered status of a religious group if it “carries out activities that harm the constitution or laws” or “affects state security, public order, [or] the life and security of the people.” The law also provides for suspension or revocation of a religious group’s registration in case of violation of international agreements or for political activity.

The law bans religious entities from engaging in political activity and prohibits “abusive proselytism,” defined as the action of changing religious beliefs through coercion.

The constitution provides for freedom of religious education and stipulates the state educational system should be secular. According to the law, religion classes in state educational institutions are optional. Students may submit a written request to the school’s administration to enroll in a religion class. Religion classes are offered in grades one through nine. The religious curriculum offers two types of courses: one for Orthodox denominations and Roman Catholics; and the second for evangelical Christians and Seventh-day Adventists. The religious curriculum for Orthodox and Catholic groups derives from instructional manuals developed by the Ministry of Education with input from the MOC and includes teaching guidelines developed with the support of the BOC. Regular teachers and MOC and BOC priests teach these optional courses, which focus on Orthodox Christianity. Regular teachers and representatives of the Evangelical Christian Church teach the second course, which is based on translated religious manuals and literature from Romania, the United States, and Germany.

The law mandates immunization of all children before they may enroll in kindergarten. It does not provide an exception for religious reasons.

The Anti-Discrimination Council, established by law, is an independent institution charged with reviewing complaints of discrimination, including discrimination of a religious character or based on religious affiliation. Parliament chooses members through a competitive process, appointing them to five-year terms. The council does not have sanctioning powers; however, it may determine if an act of discrimination took place, offer advice on how to remedy the situation, and send requests to prosecutors to initiate criminal proceedings. It may also suggest pertinent legislative amendments or participate in working groups authoring legislative initiatives.

According to the law, male citizens ages 18 to 27 have the right to choose alternative civilian service over military service if the latter runs counter to their religious beliefs. Those who choose civilian service may complete it at public institutions or enterprises specializing in areas such as social assistance, healthcare, industrial engineering, urban planning, road construction, environmental protection, agriculture or agricultural processing, town management, and fire rescue. There are no blanket exemptions for religious groups from alternative civilian service, but higher-ranking clergy, monks, and theology students are exempted from such service. Refusal to enroll in civilian service is punishable by a fine up to 32,500 lei ($1,900) or between 100 and 150 hours of community service, and those punished are still obliged to enroll in civilian service.

The law mandates restoration of rights and compensation for material damages for victims of the totalitarian regimes which controlled Moldovan territory between 1917 and 1992 and for citizens who were subject to reprisals based on political, national, religious, or social grounds. The law specifically refers to private property restoration for victims of the Soviet regime but makes no mention of Holocaust-era property confiscations. The law does not apply to communal property confiscated from religious groups.

The law defines as “extremist” and makes illegal any document or information justifying war crimes or the complete or partial annihilation of a religious or other kind of societal group, as well as any document calling for or supporting activities in pursuit of those goals.

Foreign missionaries may submit work contracts or volunteer agreements to apply for temporary residency permits and may reside and work in paid status or as unpaid volunteers. Only missionaries working with registered religious groups may apply for temporary residency permits. Foreign religious workers with these permits must register with the National Agency for the Occupation of the Workforce and the Bureau for Migration and Asylum. They must present documents confirming the official status of the registered religious group for which they will work, papers confirming their temporary residence, and proof of valid local health insurance. Other foreign missionaries belonging to registered religious groups may remain for 90 days on a tourist visa.

In separatist Transnistria, Transnistrian “law” affirms the special role of the Orthodox Church in the region’s culture and spirituality. The de facto law “recognizes respect” for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religious groups historically present in the region. All religious groups, whether registered or not, officially have freedom to worship, but the law permits restrictions on the right to freedom of conscience and religion “if necessary to protect the constitutional order, morality, health, citizens’ rights and interests, or state defense and security.” Foreign citizens also have the freedom to worship.

Transnistrian “law” prohibits proselytizing in private homes and limits distribution of religious literature to houses of worship and special premises designated by the authorities. The law requires the reregistration of religious groups to operate legally in the region. The 2009 law required the reregistration of all religious communities by December 31, 2010 with groups that failed to reregister by this deadline “subject to liquidation.” The region’s registration body registers religious groups and monitors their adherence to the goals and activities set forth in their statutes. Registration provides several advantages to religious groups, including the ability to own and build places of worship, open religious schools, and publish literature.

To register, a local religious group must present: proof of activity in the region for at least 10 years; a list comprising at least 10 members ages 18 years or older who have Transnistrian “citizenship” and permanent residence in one of the seven administrative-territorial units in the region; a list of founders and governing members and their personal details; the group’s charter, statutes, and minutes of its constituent assembly; basic religious doctrine; contact details of its governing body; and a receipt indicating payment of the registration fee. Local religious groups may also register as part of a centralized religious organization, which must consist of at least three local religious groups that have previously registered separately as legal entities. In that case, their application must additionally include a copy of the registration papers of the centralized organization. The central religious organizations must inform the registration authority on a yearly basis about intentions to extend their activities.

The de facto authorities must decide to register a religious group within 30 days of the application. If they decide to conduct a religious assessment, which is a law enforcement investigation of the group’s background and activities, registration may be postponed for up to six months or denied if the investigating authorities determine the group poses a threat to the security or morality of the region, or if foreign religious groups are involved in its activities.

Foreign religious groups may not register or undertake religious activities. Foreigners may only worship individually; they may not be founders or members of religious groups.

Religious groups disband on their own decision or upon a “court’s” decision. The “prosecutor’s office” or the region’s de facto executive, city, or district authorities may request the courts to disband or suspend a religious group on multiple grounds. Such grounds include: disturbing public order or violating public security; conducting extremist activities; coercing persons into breaking up their families; infringing on citizens’ identity, rights, and freedoms; violating citizens’ morality and well-being; using psychotropic substances, drugs, hypnosis, or perverse activities during religious activities; encouraging suicide or the refusal of medical treatment for religious reasons; obstructing compulsory education; using coercion for alienation of property to the benefit of the religious community; and encouraging refusal to fulfill civic duties.

The “law” allows the use of private homes and apartments to hold religious services. It does not, however, allow religious groups to use homes and apartments as their officially registered addresses. The “law” also allows such groups to hold religious services and rituals in public places such as hospitals, clinics, orphanages, geriatric homes, and prisons.

The authorities screen and may ban the import or export of religious printed materials, audio and video recordings, and other religious items.

According to the “law,” citizens have the right to choose alternative civilian service over military service if the latter contradicts an individual’s religion and beliefs. The government prioritizes alternative civilian service in armed forces units, so it may assign conscientious objectors to perform their civilian service in military units. Another alternative is service at institutions subordinate to the “executive bodies of the state or local administration.”

The de facto authorities do not allow religious groups to participate in elections or other political party activities or to support NGOs involved in elections.

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

Government Practices

The PSA registered 34 religious entities during the year, consisting of new religious subgroups that are part of existing religious denominations, including the Baptist Church, MOC, BOC, Evangelical Church, Union of Pentecostal Churches, Old Rite Russian Orthodox Church, and Rabbinate of the Jewish community in Moldova. The PSA did not reject any registration applications, and religious groups reported the process was simplified and efficient.

An appeal against the government’s decision to liquidate the Falun Gong Association remained pending at the Supreme Court of Justice at year’s end. The order to liquidate the association derived from a 2013 court decision that the group violated the law on extremist activity by using swastikas as symbols, which Falun Gong use based on Buddhist and Chinese tradition. Following previous court rulings against the Falun Gong Association by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Justice, the association appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2015. During the year the ECHR asked the government to come to an amicable resolution with the Falun Gong. In July the government agent at the ECHR requested a review of the case by the Supreme Court of Justice of Moldova. The court ruled in October that previous rulings had violated the Falun Gong Association’s rights and ordered the case be retried. The ECHR appeal also remained pending at year’s end.

The second case before the ECHR involved the authorities’ 2010 cancelation of a performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts, a Falun Gong affiliated performance group from New York, reportedly because of pressure from the Chinese government. This case also remained pending at year’s end.

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Research developed an optional high school curriculum on the Holocaust, which it introduced during the academic year. Contrary to what it announced in 2018, the government failed to establish a Jewish museum in Chisinau and a Yad Vashem-style Jewish historical and cultural center. The two initiatives were part of a government action plan to implement recommendations of the report of the Elie Wiesel International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust. According to the Jewish community, authorities failed to reach an agreement with it on the site for the new museum.

The government began work on another part of the action plan, the renovation of the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe, with more than 40,000 graves. The near-total removal of trees and other vegetation in the first stage of the state-sponsored restoration revealed the extent of damage to the site. According to Jewish Heritage Europe, the state damaged 80 to 100 grave markers during this initial process. These included “several of the graves of the Kishinev Pogrom 1903 victims – the oldest on the extant part and, probably, historically the most valuable ones,” Irina Sikhova, a researcher with the Cultural Heritage Institute of the Moldovan Academy of Science, told Jewish Heritage Europe.

Responding to media criticism, the JCM stated on March 21 that clearing the vegetation was only the first stage of the rehabilitation and “the restoration phase and necessary repairs have not yet begun.” It said the “long-awaited decision of the authorities [to restore the cemetery] was perceived positively by the Jewish community, which expressed willingness to provide methodological support and expertise for the restoration and conservation of monuments.” The government approved a new contract for the maintenance of the cemetery in June, but it did not initiate any further renovation work. The JCM said the government did not properly maintain most Jewish cemeteries across the country or protect them from acts of vandalism. In January Irina Sikhova told Balkan Insight that “Jewish cemeteries continued to be vandalized. Swastikas appear on graves, tombstones are destroyed or simply ruined over time.” Sikhova added that “the cemetery in Chisinau is in a terrible state.”

Minority religious groups, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they faced a burdensome process of obtaining construction permits for houses of worship from local authorities. According to representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baptist Church, Orthodox priests, mostly from the MOC, continued to successfully pressure local mayors or councilors to refuse the permit applications and to impede the religious groups’ public activities.

Under previous agreement between the Ministry of Culture and the MOC, the government transferred control of most churches and monasteries confiscated during the Soviet era to the MOC. The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research remained responsible for the remaining churches and monasteries not under the control of the MOC. Local authorities working through the Ministry of Education, Culture and Research could arrange with local parishes to return or lease those churches or monasteries to religious groups. Other religious groups, including the Lutheran and Jewish communities, reported they had not benefitted from a similar agreement with the government to reclaim religious property confiscated during the Soviet era. The government rejected the Jewish and Lutheran communities’ renewed attempts to regain title to previously confiscated property and their requests to the government and parliament to adopt a law enabling restitution of historically owned properties and sites remained unheeded.

Jehovah’s Witness leaders reported that several cases related to obtaining zoning permits for Kingdom Halls, including in Olanesti, Mereni, and Ceadir-Lunga, were resolved, while others remained ongoing. In Olanesti and Mereni, the community was able to commission and use the Kingdom Halls following favorable court decisions. The Ceadir-Lunga case was partially resolved after the Supreme Court of Justice upheld a decision in July recognizing the validity of a building permit for a Kingdom Hall in that city. After more than two years of opposition from local authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to finalize the building’s construction. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, were still contesting a fine for unauthorized construction (building without a permit) issued in 2018 by the chief architect of Ceadir-Lunga, responsible for urban planning and issuing building permits. The chief architect failed to attend scheduled hearings several times during the year. In December, following the recusal of a Ceadir-Lunga judge, the case was transferred to the Vulcanesti city court in the absence of qualified judges. The case remained pending at year’s end. The next hearing was scheduled for April 2020.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders said police failed to investigate individuals who threatened or verbally abused members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in rural localities. They also reported an increase in opposition to their activity in Firladeni Village, Hincesti Raion (Region), where the local Orthodox priest was reported to have expressed hostility towards the community on numerous occasions. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders, each time the group arrived in the village to preach, a group of local residents led by the priest gathered with the purpose of intimidating them. During one of those confrontations, a Jehovah’s Witness member was physically assaulted by a local villager. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint against the priest, but the police reportedly refused to take any action. In July following several complaints, the Hincesti police department fined the priest on a charge of obstructing religious freedom. In August, however, the Jehovah’s Witness member who was assaulted received a citation under the Administrative Code (insulting the religious feelings of individuals, abuse of venerated objects, premises, monuments, conceptual symbols) and was fined $40. According to the citation, the victim in this case was the local priest. In September the Jehovah’s Witness member submitted a complaint against the police in the Hincesti City Court. The case remained pending at year’s end.

The Union of Pentecostal Churches stated that representatives of the Calarasi branch office of the PSA unjustifiably refused to rezone a house in Sipoteni Village, Calarasi for use as a prayer house. The rezoning was approved only after the lawyer representing the Union of Pentecostal Churches sent a request to the PSA headquarters in Chisinau, which ordered resolution of the case and issued the necessary documentation. The Union reported that it remained unable to obtain a zoning permit for a building in Copceac Village it bought in 2006 and used for religious services. In 2018 the Union challenged the local authorities’ refusal to issue the zoning permit in the Ceadir-Lunga court, but the case remained pending after it was transferred to the Comrat court. The Comrat court scheduled a new court hearing on the case for April 2020.

Through an earlier agreement with the Ministry of Labor, Social Protection, and Family, the MOC maintained a network of social assistance sites, including daycare centers and temporary shelters within churches and monasteries. The MOC also maintained agreements with other state institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Penitentiary Administration to provide spiritual guidance and services to police officers, state workers, and prison inmates. Other registered religious groups, including the BOC, Baptists, Pentecostals and others had access to state facilities upon request.

According to minority religious groups, including the JCM, the Islamic League, the Baptist and Pentecostal Churches, and civil society leaders, authorities continued to exhibit preferential treatment toward the MOC compared with other religious groups. The government invited MOC priests to officiate at state-sponsored events, national holidays, and blessing ceremonies at schools. On several occasions, the government also invited leaders of the BOC and the Roman Catholic Church to official events.

In January the cabinet issued a proclamation on “Condemning Anti-Semitism and Promotion of Tolerance,” and officially adopted the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism for all government purposes.

The government strictly enforced requirements that children receive certain mandatory immunizations prior to enrolling in school, and could not attend classes until the school received certification that they received the required vaccines. There remained no religious exemption to this requirement.

The Islamic League said there were instances in which authorities denied or delayed, without explanation, the naturalization applications of Muslim residents, even though the applications met all the necessary criteria. The Attorneys’ Legal Center, an NGO working with immigrants and refugees, stated the Security and Intelligence Service was holding up many naturalization applications on what the service said was security-related grounds.

On multiple occasions during the year, President Dodon voiced support for the Orthodox faith and the MOC. For example, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Russian Patriarch Kirill’s enthronement in Moscow, President Dodon said, “Moldovan people would always keep unity with the Russian Orthodox Church….” In most of his trips outside of Chisinau, Dodon visited MOC churches, provided contributions for the churches’ construction, and reiterated the need to preserve Orthodox traditional values. In his address in July during a ceremonial service at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau, President Dodon stated “Over 90 percent of Moldova’s citizens are Christian Orthodox and the country has a future only by keeping and promoting the Orthodox faith – a pillar of statehood.” During his meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Moscow in April President Dodon said, “Orthodoxy was and will always be one of Moldovan statehood’s pillars and keeping and strengthening traditional values is our primary task.”

During the year, 97 religious groups (versus 83 in 2018), received funds from income tax payments voluntarily directed toward religious groups.

Several religious groups were denied registration or reregistration, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Salvation Army. Jehovah’s Witnesses said the Transnistrian de facto authorities continued to refuse to reregister two local Jehovah’s Witnesses groups, in Tiraspol and Rybnitsa. They said local authorities refused several times to accept the required documents. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses report, on April 10, Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted a revised charter to the de facto ministry of justice, after the de facto ministry “found new reasons to deny” registration in February. The report did not specify what those reasons were. On April 12, 2018, the de facto Ministry of Justice filed a claim in the Rybnitsa city court against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and requested that the community be liquidated. The two cases were still pending in court at year’s end. The Salvation Army reported that de facto authorities refused registration of a corps (parish) in Tiraspol but had allowed it to register a corps in Dubasari.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report instances of members’ being conscripted into the Transnistrian de facto armed forces or forced to undertake alternative civilian service within the Transnistrian “Ministry of Defense.” On May 25, three Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors filed complaints in courts in their respective places of residence against military service to which the Military Enrolment Committee assigned them, contrary to their religious beliefs, for failure to submit a request for civilian service in due time. Their cases were ongoing at year’s end.

In contrast with previous years, in February the Muslim community was able to obtain a permit from the Transnistrian de facto authorities to build a mosque and a Muslim educational and cultural center in Tiraspol. In July Tiraspol municipal authorities offered land for the site in the city center, but later rescinded provision and did not offer an alternative location.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Minority religious groups, including the Muslim community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Pentecostal Churches, reported fewer cases of verbal aggression than in previous years and no cases of physical aggression during the year, but said cases of verbal abuse persisted, mostly in rural areas. The Islamic Community noted that negative portrayals of Muslims by the media remained common. Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the Baptist and Pentecostal Churches also said there were instances in which priests and other MOC members directly harassed their communities’ religious leaders or members. For example, the Baptist Church reported conflicts between community members and local Orthodox priests in Drasliceni, Hruseva, Dimitrovca, and Chiriet-Lunga Villages. Orthodox priests, often regarded as authority figures in rural areas, reportedly instigated residents against minority religious groups and led residents in physically impeding these groups’ religious activities.

Property disputes between the MOC and BOC continued; however, there were no new cases initiated during the year. Legal proceedings continued between the BOC and the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research and the MOC over lease contracts signed by the MOC with the then Ministry of Culture (in 2003 and 2008) under which the MOC obtained the exclusive, indefinite right to use all historic religious properties (more than 800 churches and monasteries). According to the BOC lawyer, those agreements led to numerous property disputes between the BOC and the MOC, including the most recent in Ursoaia Village, Cahul, Olanesti, Dereneu, Gavanoasa, and others. Several cases submitted by the BOC in previous years were still pending before the ECHR.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated there were incidents of societal abuse against their members, consisting mainly of verbal intimidation, cases of property destruction, and obstruction by local residents of Jehovah’s Witnesses activities. They did not cite the number of incidents or specific examples but said there were fewer such instances than in 2018.

Leaders of the Pentecostal Church reported several cases of harassment by Orthodox priests of community members in rural areas. For example, in Petresti Village, Ungheni Raion, community members were reported to have faced harassment by the local MOC priest. In September, with an authorization from the mayor’s office, local Pentecostal Church leaders organized religious activities involving adult residents and social activities for children at the village stadium. A total of 600 people attended the events. The local priest reportedly used all means to prevent people from taking part in the event, threatening those attending with retaliation and the denial of Orthodox funeral services. The harassment continued in December, when the Pentecostal Church finalized the construction of a prayer house and began using it for religious services and educational activities. The priest, supported by several local councilors, requested that the mayor’s office “remove the Pentecostal church” from the village, a request the local mayor rejected.

According to the Islamic League, societal attitudes toward Muslims (which they characterized as cautious and at times unwelcoming) remained unchanged, and local media continued to exhibit a critical attitude and bias against Islam. The league reported Muslims, particularly women, faced discrimination when seeking employment. Employers, they said, were often reluctant to employ Muslim women wearing a hijab. They said in one case, after repeated attempts to get a job, a Muslim woman had to give up wearing a hijab in order to get employed. No one went to court, even though discrimination in employment based on religious affiliation is banned by law. Muslim women, particularly in rural areas, were subject to societal prejudice and verbal harassment, according to the league. Negative attitudes and bias against women wearing a hijab continued in public places, including passers-by shouting insults or mockingly yelling “Allahu Akbar.” League officials said the women reporting these instances of discrimination and harassment did not want their names or details of the incidents disclosed. The league also reported incidents and verbal harassment of Muslim students by schoolmates but again declined to provide details to protect the students from further harassment.

The JCM reported in July that three tombstones at the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau were vandalized and damaged. The perpetrators were not found by year’s end. In December unknown vandals destroyed the historical information board about the Chisinau Pogrom of 1903 near the monument to the pogrom victims in Chisinau.

The Jewish community reported instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric on social media and in certain online publications, particularly in the form of comments on news related to Israel or the case of politician of Jewish descent Ilan Shor, charged with involvement in a major bank fraud case who fled the country in June. The JCM released a statement in August 2018 condemning “hate speech’s use as an instrument of political struggle” following the controversial Facebook post made by former sports minister Octavian Ticu, reported The Times of Israel. The post called Shor a “thief” who “drinks wine and eats the bread of a country that has received him and many others generously, yet he curses us in Russian and considers us a herd of sheep.” He also wrote that Shor “didn’t bother to learn” the local language, Romanian. According to The Times of Israel, “the reference to Russian provoked outrage in Moldova, where nearly all of the country’s some 2,000 Jews and about 20 percent of the general population speak Russian as a mother tongue.” In August Evgheni Bric, director of the country’s Judaica Institute, told the Jewish Telegraph Agency that Shor’s behavior “fit into anti-Semitic stereotypes of hate, about Jews being thieves,” and that articles about him online “invariably come with a cascade of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the comment section.” He added that he had not “seen such poisonous language in years.” According to the JCM, no one took responsibility to remove anti-Semitic content online and there were no avenues or legal provisions to address the issue.

On August 25, The Times of Israel reported the local Jewish community in Chisinau reopened the Wooden Synagogue. Also known as the Lemnaria Synagogue, and located in the cellar of the Kedem Jewish Community Center, Soviet authorities seized the building nearly 80 years ago. This brought the number of synagogues in the country to six, including two in the Transnistria region, compared with more than 80 before the Holocaust, according to Rabbi Shimshon Daniel Izakson of the JCM and the Wooden Synagogue. The Times of Israel stated that approximately 300 people attended the reopening ceremony. The government did not restitute the synagogue property; rather, the Jewish community in Chisinau purchased it from the state.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials raised religious freedom issues, including the protection and preservation of Jewish heritage sites, in meetings with the president, prime minister, and members of parliament.

In January the chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Ambassador participated in Holocaust remembrance events hosted by parliament, including a ceremony to commemorate Holocaust victims at the Monument to Victims of Fascism in Chisinau. Both also delivered remarks at a roundtable to discuss the implementation of the Action Plan on commemorating the Holocaust in Moldova, attended a photo and book exhibit on the Holocaust in Moldova, and underscored U.S. support for the authorities’ plans to set up a Jewish heritage museum in Chisinau and develop a school curriculum on the study of the Holocaust.

In March the Ambassador discussed religious freedom and treatment of the Muslim community in the country with leaders of the Islamic League and toured the mosque in Chisinau.

In May at a roundtable organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, the Ambassador discussed progress on the government’s 2017-2019 Action Plan on the implementation of parliament’s declaration regarding the acceptance of the final report of the Elie Wiesel International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust. The Ambassador highlighted the importance of preserving Jewish historic and cultural heritage and the need to strengthen the legislative framework to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

During a visit to the country May 11-12, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with leaders of the MOC and BOC and discussed prospects for a more active involvement of the Orthodox Church in promoting religious freedom and in protecting the rights of citizens, including of religious minorities. Both ambassadors visited the Chisinau Jewish cemetery, attended ceremonies at Baptist and Catholic churches, and spoke with the media about the importance of religious freedom.

Embassy officials met with leaders and representatives of the MOC, BOC, JCM, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Islamic League, Baptist Church, Lutheran Church, Pentecostal Church, and Salvation Army to discuss the state of religious freedom and ways to enhance interfaith cooperation.

In October the Ambassador announced an embassy grant of $379,600 to continue preservation work at the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church in Causeni, a cultural site and the oldest church in the country.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees individuals freedom of religion and public worship and protects the freedom to express opinions on all issues, provided no crimes are committed in the exercise of those freedoms. No one may be compelled to participate in the rites or ceremonies of any religion or to observe its days of rest.

The constitution states Roman Catholicism is the state religion.

Religious associations wishing to establish an office or place of worship, own or lease property, or hire employees must first obtain official recognition from the Ministry of the Interior, which responds to such requests within one month. The government has granted recognition to the Protestant, Russian Orthodox, and Jewish communities.

In addition to obtaining official government recognition, any religious group wishing to construct a place of worship in a public space must seek prior approval from the Ministry of Interior.

The government does not tax religious institutions.

Catholic religious instruction is available in public schools as an option and requires parental authorization. Private schools may provide instruction for religions other than Catholicism.

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

Government Practices

On February 18, the Supreme Court annulled the government’s 2018 decision to reject the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ second application for recognition. In 2017, the Supreme Court annulled the government’s 2016 rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ first recognition application. On April 2, the Jehovah’s Witnesses applied for recognition for a third time; on April 29, Minister of State (prime minister equivalent) Serge Telle issued a written decision that again refused to extend government recognition to the group. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that without recognition they could not establish a headquarters in the country where they could worship and welcome new members. According to the government, the group’s religious doctrine was hostile to the Catholic Church, and the hostility undermined the state and its institutions as well as public order. In its February ruling, the Supreme Court stated the government refused to recognize the group because it was concerned about proselytism and considered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to have an extreme and intolerant nature. According to the same court ruling, the government also argued the Jehovah’s Witnesses presented a danger to public order because of what it termed “troubling practices, such as: 1) refusing blood transfusions; 2) not denouncing pedophilia; 3) asking members to donate their property for the benefit of the church; 4) being hostile to other religions; 5) refusing to grant freedom of expression to members; 6) encouraging members to isolate themselves from the world and their families under penalty of excommunication; and 7) compelling converts to conform to all doctrines.”

The government again reported it did not receive any requests for new sites during the year from any religious group.

Catholic rituals continued to be a part of many state ceremonies, including annual national day celebrations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The only private religious schools were Catholic. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, although private schools offering instruction in other religions were permitted by law, there was insufficient demand for such schools. Muslim, Protestant, and Jewish representatives said there was no need for them to open a religious school but believed the government would likely agree, if asked, to a request to open one.

Places of worship included Catholic and Protestant churches, and one synagogue. The Russian Orthodox Church established a congregation in 2018. The Russian Orthodox community was using a Reformed Protestant church building until it could construct its own church. According to religious groups, it was difficult to build new places of worship due to high real estate prices. There were no mosques.

According to Catholic Archbishop of Monaco Bernard Barsi, there was no officially recognized Muslim community in the country. A member of the Muslim community said the community did not want to be officially recognized because it was mostly nonreligious and it would be too expensive to build a place of worship. Muslims worshiped at a mosque in Beausoleil, just across the border in France, and in private prayer rooms in their own residences. Jehovah’s Witnesses also worshipped in nearby locations in France, in Menton, Beausoleil, or Nice.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In September representatives from the U.S. Consulate General in Marseille met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Directorate for Diplomatic Relations and Consulates and discussed its nonrecognition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Consulate officials met Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives in March and September to discuss their religious freedom concerns, including the government’s refusal to recognize the group.

In October consulate staff met with representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as with members of one of the country’s two Protestant churches, the United Protestant Church. They discussed the groups’ views on issues pertaining to their exercise of religious freedom in the country, including the establishment of places of worship and government attitudes towards religious schools.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution lists “freedom of conscience and religion” among the enumerated rights and freedoms guaranteed to citizens. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It prohibits the state from engaging in religious activity and religious institutions from pursuing political activities. The constitution specifies, “The relationship between the State and religious institutions shall be regulated by law.” The constitution provides that, in exercising their rights, persons “shall not infringe on the national security, rights, and freedoms of others and violate public order.” It further provides that the state shall respect all religions, and religions shall honor the state. The Law on the Relationship between the State and Religious Institutions provides, “The State shall respect the dominant position of Buddhism” in the country “in order to respect and uphold the traditions of the unity and civilization of the people.” It furthers states, “This shall not prevent citizens from following other religions.”

In accordance with the criminal code, if an individual is found to have used or threatened the use of force to hinder the activities or rituals of religious organizations, the individual is subject to a fine, ranging from 450,000 to 2.7 million tugriks ($160-$990), a community service obligation of 240-720 hours, or a travel ban ranging from one to six months. If a religious organization or religious representative, such as a priest, minister, imam, monk, or shaman, is found to have committed acts of proselytization through force, pressure, or deception, or to have spread “cruel” religious ideology, the law allows for fines ranging from 450,000 to 5.4 million tugriks ($160-$2,000), a travel ban ranging from six to 12 months, or six to 12 months’ imprisonment.

The law on petty offenses provides for fines of 100,000 tugriks ($37) for individuals and one million tugriks ($370) for legal entities for recruiting children to religion against their will. The law provides for a fine of 100,000 tugriks ($37) for individuals and one million tugriks ($370) for any legal entity for disclosing an individual’s religion on identity documents without that person’s consent or for interfering with the internal affairs of a religious organization unless otherwise allowed by law. The law also provides for a fine of 150,000 tugriks ($55) for individuals and 1.5 million tugriks ($550) for legal religious entities for conducting government or political activity or financing any such activity. The law specifies a fine of 300,000 tugriks ($110) for individuals and three million tugriks ($1,100) for legal entities for organizing religious training or gatherings on public premises, including schools.

The religion law forbids the spread of religious views by “force, pressure, material incentives, deception, or means that harm health or morals or are psychologically damaging.” It also prohibits the use of gifts for religious recruitment. The law on children’s rights provides children the freedom to practice their faith.

The law prohibits religious groups from undertaking activities that “are inhumane or dangerous to the tradition and culture of the people of Mongolia.”

Religious groups must register with local and provincial authorities, as well as with the General Authority for State Registration (General Authority), to function legally. National law provides little detail on registration procedures and does not stipulate the duration of registration, allowing local and provincial authorities to set their own rules. Religious groups must renew their registrations (in most cases annually) with multiple government institutions across local, provincial, and national levels. Each individual branch (or place of worship) of a religious organization is required to register or renew independently of its parent organization.

A religious group must provide the following documentation to the relevant local provincial or municipal representative assembly when applying for registration: a letter requesting registration, a letter from the lower-level local authority granting approval to conduct religious services, a brief description of the group, the group’s charter, documentation on the group’s founding, a list of leaders, financial information, a declaration of assets (including any real estate owned), a lease or rental agreement (if applicable), brief biographic information on individuals wishing to conduct religious services, and the expected number of worshippers. A religious group must provide to the General Authority its approved registration application to receive a certificate for operation.

The renewal process requires a religious group to obtain a reference letter from the lower-level local authority to be submitted with the required documents (updated as necessary), to the local provincial or municipal representative assembly. During the renewal process, the local provincial or municipal representatives commonly request a safety inspection of the religious organization’s offices and places of worship and remediation of any deficiencies found. The relevant provincial or municipal representative assembly issues a resolution granting the religious institution permission to continue operations, and the organization sends a copy of the approved registration renewal to the General Authority, which enters the new validity dates on the religious institution’s certificate for operation.

Public and private educational institutions are entitled to state funding for their secular curricula but are prohibited from using state funding for religious curricula. The education law prohibits all educational institutions from conducting any religious training, rituals, or activities with state-provided funding. A provincial or municipal representative assembly may deny registration renewals for religious groups that violate the ban on using state funding for the provision of religious instruction in educational institutions.

The law regulating civil and military service specifies that all male citizens between ages 18 and 25 must complete one year of compulsory military service. The law provides for alternatives to military service for citizens who submit an objection based on ethical or religious grounds. Alternative service with the Border Forces, National Emergency Management Agency, or a humanitarian organization is available to those who submit an ethical or religious objection. There is also a provision for paying the cost of one year’s training and upkeep for a soldier in lieu of service.

The law regulating the legal status of foreign citizens prohibits noncitizens from advertising, promoting, or practicing “inhumane” religions that could damage the national culture. There were no reports of any individual or organization being penalized for violating this prohibition. The religion law includes a similar prohibition on religious institutions, both foreign and domestic, conducting “inhumane” or culturally damaging activities within the country.

Foreigners seeking to conduct religious activities, including proselytizing, must obtain religious visas, and all foreigners are prohibited from proselytizing, promoting, and practicing religion that violates “national culture” and law. Only registered religious groups may sponsor foreigners for religious visas. Foreigners who enter on other classes of visas are not allowed to undertake activities that advertise or promote any religion (as distinct from personal worship or other individual religious activity, which is permitted). Under the law, “engag[ing] in business other than one’s purpose for coming” constitutes grounds for deportation.

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

Government Practices

Focused for much of the year on constitutional amendments adopted in November, the government again postponed planned updates to the religious law. According to its concept note, the stated intent of the draft law was to improve the monitoring, registration, renewal systems, and accountability mechanisms of religious institutions. During public discussion of the draft law in 2018, religious groups and NGOs expressed concern in the draft about the composition of a religious council that would oversee a national registration process.

At an interfaith religious roundtable meeting in October, numerous religious groups reported registration and renewal procedures varied significantly across the country, largely depending upon the practices of local government officials. Registration delays could negatively impact a group’s ability to employ foreign religious workers, as valid registration is required to sponsor a religious worker. Christian leaders stated the difficulty in obtaining visas for religious worker was mainly due to the requirement of hiring at least five local employees to be eligible to sponsor one foreign worker.

The Ulaanbaatar City Council issued registrations and renewals valid for one year, while some provincial and municipal representative assemblies issued renewals for two or three years. An Ulaanbaatar City Council official said Christian groups constituted the majority of those seeking registration and renewal; for this reason, most of the cancelled or suspended registrations were for Christian groups. The official said the council had not registered any new religious organizations during the year and approximately 50 applications for new registration were on hold pending expected updates to the law on religious freedom.

Some religious groups said they were deterred from registering because of the unpredictability of the registration process, which could take from several weeks to years; the difficulty and expense of establishing a dedicated, regular worship site; and changing government personnel. Some organizations said the requirement that each local branch of the organization separately register or renew created additional bureaucratic burdens.

Ulaanbaatar City Council officials said the government used the registration and renewal process to assess the activities of the religious group, monitor the number of places of worship and clergy, determine the ratio of foreigners to nationals conducting religious activities, and determine whether their facilities met safety requirements. City council officials said approval of applications that were ostensibly “denied” were more accurately “postponed” due to incomplete documentation, the poor physical condition of the place of worship, instances of a religious organization’s providing English language instruction without an educational permit, or the existence of financial issues such as failure to pay property taxes or declare funding from foreign sources. According to the council, in such cases, religious organizations were instructed to correct the deficiencies and resubmit their applications. Some Christian groups continued to say the government inconsistently applied and interpreted regulations, changing procedures frequently and without notice. Some religious groups continued to state the registration and renewal process was arbitrary in some instances, with no appeal mechanism for denials, notwithstanding the success of two Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations in previous appeals through the court system.

Some Christian religious leaders said temporary unregistered status could leave their organizations vulnerable to financial audit and possible legal action.

Shamanist leaders expressed concerns that the requirement for a registered place of worship placed limitations on their religion because of its practice of worshipping outdoors.

Unregistered churches lacked official documents establishing themselves as legal entities and as a result could not own or lease land, file tax returns, or formally interact with the government. Individual members of unregistered churches typically continued to own or lease property for church use in their personal capacity. For instance, some unregistered Christian churches on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar used private property owned by members to conduct meetings and other church business. Some unregistered religious groups said they often could still function, although some reported experiencing frequent visits by local tax officials, police, and representatives from other agencies. An Ulaanbaatar City Council official said the government generally allowed religious organizations whose applications were delayed to operate.

One Christian group said the government placed additional burdens on religious organizations by subjecting them to closer scrutiny by official organs, such as the General Authority for Labor and Benefit, the Immigration Agency, or the Ulaanbaatar City Council. Other religious organizations reported they had good relationships with local and district level authorities, but that lack of understanding of regulations governing religious organizations among some Ulaanbaatar City Council officials and provincial authorities resulted in delayed processing of registration and renewal applications.

Representatives of the Religious Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mongolia reported that the registration application for the Evangelizers of Good News of Holy Scriptures – their organization’s legal entity in Ulaanbaatar’s Nalaikh District – remained pending with the Ulaanbaatar City Council, despite a 2018 Ulaanbaatar Court of First Instance ruling that struck down the city council’s argument that the congregation posed a potential threat to national security. Although the city council revoked its decision to annul the group’s registration, it took no action to renew it.

The Immigration Agency rescinded the registration of a Christian NGO after determining that it violated its registered purpose of business by operating a website promoting Christianity, an activity that only registered religious organizations may conduct. The NGO stated it conducted such activities openly and transparently for several years and noted the law provides no mechanism for registering as a legal entity a humanitarian organization that is Christian but does not hold religious services. As of November, the NGO had been disbanded and its founder said there was no plan to appeal the Immigration Agency decision.

Religious groups continued to experience periodic audits, usually by officers from tax, immigration, local government, intelligence, and other agencies. Religious leaders said such audits typically took place once in a two-year period, but some inspection visits reportedly followed routine submissions of registration renewal applications. Two Christian groups reported officers from the Criminal Police Department conducted unexpected visits to their premises and demanded to see financial documents. One of these groups said these visits were a form of harassment.

The 2018 resolution on labor quotas implemented in January required religious organizations to ensure at least 95 percent of their employees are citizens. For most smaller religious organizations, this meant religious organizations had to hire 20 citizens to sponsor one foreign worker. The government amended the resolution in March to allow religious organizations with at least five Mongolian citizen employees to sponsor one foreign worker. A Christian church based in Darkhan-Uul Province reported difficulty in renewing the visa of a foreign pastor because it could not meet the labor quota; however, church representatives said the government renewed the pastor’s visa following the amendment of the resolution.

An NGO reported that some local authorities continued to restrict unaccompanied minors’ participation in Christian religious services due to stated fears of “brainwashing.” Children under the age of 16 required written parental permission to participate in church activities. Churches were required to retain this permission in church records and make it available upon request. According to the same NGO, this requirement had greater impact on Christian than other religious groups.

Some religious organizations reported the Ulaanbaatar City Council provided letters of support for immigration officials to help the organizations secure religious work visas for foreign religious workers when registration or renewal delays resulted in the temporary loss of an organization’s official status, and therefore its ability to serve as a sponsor.

Government officials continued to receive Buddhist leaders at the Government House during Lunar New Year celebrations, a practice some observers said was discriminatory against other religions not similarly recognized by the government on important holidays.

Some foreign citizens continued to face difficulties obtaining religious visas. Because most religious groups were bound by the 95 percent local hire requirement, groups that could not afford to hire enough local employees could not sponsor additional religious visas. Christian groups reported foreign missionaries seeking to enter the country often did so under nonreligious visas (such as student, teacher, or business visas), making them legally restricted from conducting activities allowed under religious visas. Inconsistent interpretations of the activities in which they could legally engage left them vulnerable to deportation. The validity of religious visas remained linked to a religious organization’s registration, which some Christian religious groups said resulted in additional visa problems. Foreign citizens could not receive or renew a religious visa unless their religious organization’s registration or renewal was already granted. The length of the religious visa’s validity corresponded with, and could not exceed, the registration validity of its sponsoring organization.

The government continued to allocate funding for the restoration of several Buddhist sites that it stated were important religious, historical, and cultural centers. For instance, it provided 178 million tugriks ($65,100) funding for the restoration of the Zankhan Temple, an annex of the Choijin Lama Temple and Museum complex in Ulaanbaatar. The government did not provide similar subsidies to other religious groups.

Parliament passed legislation in December declaring Buddha’s birthday – the 15th day of the first summer month of the lunar calendar – a public holiday. Some religious groups criticized the decision, saying it displayed preference for one religion over others.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Christian and Muslim groups said negative comments about non-Buddhist religious groups occasionally appeared on social media, but they added that they did not feel threatened or overly concerned by such incidents. For instance, one Muslim leader reported negative comments on Facebook regarding ethnic Kazakh Muslims. Such comments were not representative of societal attitudes as a whole, he stated.

At a roundtable in October, religious leaders from a variety of faiths – including Buddhism, Shamanism, Baha’i, and a number of Christian groups – reported no difficulty in practicing their religion in the country. They said most citizens support religious tolerance and diversity and that people of different faiths live in harmony. A Muslim leader agreed with this assessment in a separate meeting in November.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, other embassy officials, and visiting U.S. government officials regularly discussed religious freedom with government officials and shared the U.S. government’s concerns about visa and registration difficulties religious groups reported at the national, local, and provincial levels. The Ambassador and other embassy officers encouraged officials to enhance efforts to protect religious freedom and underscored the value of dialogue between the government and religious communities during meetings with parliamentarians, the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Issues, and high level officials in the President’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, the Ulaanbaatar City Council, and provincial and municipal governments.

The Ambassador routinely visited religious sites and temples and met with local religious leaders in his travels outside Ulaanbaatar. For example, in April the Ambassador met with local Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim leaders in Khovd Province for an interfaith discussion on the status of religious freedom in rural areas. In October the embassy hosted a roundtable on promoting respect for religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and religious tolerance. Leaders of the Buddhist, Christian (many denominations), Baha’i, and Shamanist communities participated in the roundtable. The embassy also regularly promoted religious freedom on social media. For example, on October 24, the Ambassador tweeted in Mongolian and English about his visit with leading shamans of Mongolian Tengrism, noting the ancient faith’s revival under democracy and stating his admiration for the diversity of Mongolia’s faith communities.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion as well as the right to change religion. It guarantees the freedom of all individuals to express their religion in public and private, alone or collectively, through prayer, preaching, custom, or rites, and states individuals shall not be obliged to declare their religious beliefs. The constitution states the freedom to express religious beliefs may be restricted only if required to protect the life and health of the public, peace and order, or other rights guaranteed by the constitution. It specifies there is no state religion and guarantees equality and freedom for all religious communities in religious activities and affairs. The constitution permits courts to prevent propagation of religious hatred or discrimination and prohibits political and other organizations from instigating religious hatred and intolerance.

By law, it is a crime to cause and spread religious hatred, which includes publication of information inciting hatred or violence against persons based on religion, the mockery of religious symbols, or the desecration of monuments, memorial tablets, or tombs. Violators may receive prison sentences ranging from six months to 10 years. If the violation is committed through the misuse of an official position or authority or leads to violence, or if the courts determine the consequences are detrimental to the coexistence of peoples, national minorities, or ethnic groups, the prison sentence ranges from two to 10 years.

The criminal code prescribes a fine of between 200 and 16,000 euros ($220-$18,000) or up to two years’ imprisonment for restricting an individual’s freedom to exercise a religious belief or membership in a religious group or for preventing or obstructing the performance of religious rites. The code also provides for a fine from 600 euros to 8,000 euros ($670-$9,000) or a maximum of one year in prison for coercing another person to declare his or her religious beliefs. Any government official found guilty of these crimes may receive a sentence of up to three years in prison.

The law provides for the recognition of religious groups and registration with local and federal authorities; based on the now former law in force through the end of the year, religious groups that existed before 1977 were not obligated to register in order to obtain recognition. New religious groups had to register with local police within 15 days of their establishment to receive the status of a legal entity, although there was no penalty specified for failing to do so. The police then had to file this registration with the MOI, which maintains a list of all religious organizations in the country. According to the new law, signed on December 28 but not in effect at the end of the year, religious groups are no longer obliged to register. Only registered groups, however, obtain the right to legal personhood with the rights afforded to such. To register, a religious group must have three adult believers of Montenegrin citizenship, or with legal status in the country, provide its name and organizing documents, the names of its officials, the address of the group’s headquarters, and the location(s) where religious services will be performed. The group must have a headquarters in the country and a name that differs from groups already registered. Registration entitles groups to own property, hold bank accounts in their own name, and receive a tax exemption for donations and sales of goods or services directly related to their religious activities. Lack of registration or recognition did not affect a group’s ability to conduct religious activities for the year, but it was unclear how it will affect groups under the new law. Unregistered religious communities could register as another type of organization in order to open a bank account but could not receive the tax exemptions granted to registered religious groups. Many smaller religious communities registered as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the year.

There are 21 recognized religious groups in the country: the SOC, MOC, Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM), Roman Catholic Church, Church of Christ’s Gospel, Catholic Mission Tuzi, Christian Adventist Church, Evangelistic Church, Army Order of Hospitable Believers of Saint Lazar of Jerusalem for Montenegro, Franciscan Mission for Malesija, Biblical Christian Community, Baha’i Faith, Montenegrin Community, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Montenegrin Catholic Church, Montenegrin Protestant Church, Montenegrin Demochristian Church, and Montenegrin Adventist Church, as well as the Buddhist and Jewish communities. All these groups are registered except for the SOC, which has not applied to register, since it existed before 1977 and is not obligated to under law. Other groups that existed before 1977 chose to register.

The government has agreements with the ICM, Jewish Community, and Holy See further defining the legal status of these respective groups and regulating their relationship with the state. The agreement with the Holy See recognizes Catholic canon law as the Church’s legal framework and outlines the Church’s property rights. The agreements with the ICM and Jewish communities have similar provisions. The agreements establish commissions between each of the three religious communities and the government. The government has no such agreements with the SOC, MOC, or the other recognized religious groups.

The Directorate for Relations with Religious Communities within the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights (MHMR) regulates relations between state agencies and religious groups and is charged with protecting the free exercise of religion and advancing interfaith cooperation and understanding. The MHMR provides some funds to religious communities and is in charge of communication between the government and religious communities. The ministry is also in charge of drafting new legislation defining the status and rights of religious organizations.

The law allows all religious groups, including unrecognized ones, to conduct religious services and rites in churches, shrines, and other premises designated by local governments, but it requires approval from municipal police for such activities at any other public locations.

The law forbids “the abuse of religious communities or their religious sites for political purposes.”

The law provides prisoners the right to engage in religious practice and have contact with clergy. Prisoners may request a diet conforming to their religious customs.

The constitution recognizes the right of members of minority national communities, individually or collectively, to exercise, protect, develop, and express “religious particularities” (i.e., religious customs unique to their minority community); to establish religious associations with the support of the state; and to establish and maintain contacts with persons and organizations outside the country who share the same religious beliefs.

By law, religion may not be taught in public primary or secondary schools. The Islamic Community operates one private madrassah at the secondary school level, and the SOC operates one secondary school, both of which offer religious instruction and follow the state curriculum in nonreligious matters.

The law prohibits discrimination, including on religious grounds. Offenses are punishable by a prison term of six months to five years. The Office of the Protector of Human Rights (ombudsman) is responsible for combating discrimination and human rights violations, including those against religious freedom, by government agencies. It may investigate complaints of religious discrimination and, if it finds a violation, may request remedial measures. Failure to comply with the ombudsman’s request for corrective action within a defined period is punishable by fines of 500 to 2,500 euros ($560-$2,800). Generally, government agencies implement the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays. If necessary, the courts may enforce the recommendations.

The constitution exempts conscientious objectors, including those objecting for religious reasons, from military service. Alternative service is not required.

The constitution states foreign nationals fearing persecution in their home countries on the grounds of religion have the right to request asylum.

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

Government Practices

In December parliament passed the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities, which replaced the 1977 religion law, drafted during the Yugoslav period, which religious groups and government officials agreed was outdated and inadequate. The SOC said the new legislation was discriminatory, stating it would unfairly allow the state to assert ownership of religious buildings or land built or obtained with public revenues or “the joint investment of citizens,” or owned by the state until December 1, 1918, and “for which there was no evidence of ownership by the religious communities.” The SOC further said the law was vague because it did not specify what “evidence of ownership” would entail. The (SOC) Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral and the Diocese of Budimlje and Niksic stated the measure would mean “confiscation and nationalization of religious facilities,” and worried that that although the SOC had ownership documentation for each of its properties, these documents would not be sufficient. The government responded the new law provides ownership issues shall be determined in accordance with existing administrative and civil laws, and it stated there would be no ad hoc decisions outside of proscribed legal processes, nor was there an intention to turn away any worshippers from religious facilities. The government and religious groups confirmed the individual agreements with the ICM, Jewish Community, and Holy See would remain in place regardless of the newly adopted religious law.

Widespread demonstrations marked the law’s debate, eventual passage, and aftermath. Prior to the final vote, Speaker of Parliament Ivan Brajovic rejected discussion of the more than 100 amendments the Democratic Front (DF) had just introduced on behalf of the SOC. DF members of parliament (MPs), whom observers said were trying to prevent the final vote, threw a firecracker on the middle of the debate floor and charged the dais, grabbing and throwing microphones, papers, and electronic devices. Plainclothes police detained all 17 DF MPs, later releasing all but three: Milan Knezevic, Andrija Mandic, and Milun Zogovic. During debate on December 26, police cordoned off traffic in downtown Podgorica around parliament, keeping away hundreds of SOC and opposition supporters, while some DF members of parliament advocated for self-immolation in parliament to prevent the passing of the law. Street protests also took place in several other cities across the country, with reports that protests were generally peaceful except for isolated incidents of rock throwing and shooting of fireworks against the police. There were also reports of online incitements to violence. The SOC accused the government and President Djukanovic of inciting ethnic divisions. Prime Minister Markovic said there was “no hidden agenda” to take possession of SOC property and warned authorities would prevent any violation of peace and order. After the passing of the religion law on December 27, the SOC organized regular peaceful protests in which thousands turned out. Some marches in Niksic and Podgorica registered more than 50,000 participants. Citizens blocked roads in Podgorica, Niksic, Pljevlja, Berane, Herceg Novi, Tivat, Bar, and Andrijevica, while others participated in marches from their towns to the convocations. The SOC announced it would call biweekly protests on Thursdays and Sundays every week until parliament repealed the law. They also announced they would challenge the law in the constitutional court. The government and analysts said there was an apparently coordinated campaign of disinformation, propaganda, and provocation, some of which coming from third countries, seeking to fan ethnonationalistic divisions and provoke conflict through the protests.

Other religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Islamic Community, also stated the issue of religious properties should be regulated by other laws and not be included in the draft law. They added they were either told by the government or were simply aware that the ownership question was not an issue that concerned them, but rather an issue between the government and the SOC, although they raised concerns that the law could easily affect them once in place, as it would apply to all. Some religious groups raised concerns that the law would represent a step towards creating a de facto state religion, stating the government heavily favored the MOC. The MOC was the only religious group to welcome the property provisions of the law, stating the law would “return their rightful property to them.”

Government officials, including Zana Filipovic, general director of the MHMR’s Directorate of Relations with Religious Communities, described the law as positive, stating it was intended to modernize the existing law and there would be no mass reregistration of religious property to the government. They did not specify which properties could be considered “cultural heritage,” the specific process through which this would happen, or the body that would be responsible for implementing the property provisions of the law. Government officials indicated specific mechanisms would be developed in the next year. Government officials also said the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, supported the law and all changes to the draft were in line with the commission’s recommendations.

On August 26, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers published a written statement the SOC made at the UN Human Rights Council in which it cited its objections to the draft law, and particularly its property provisions. The SOC said the government had not responded to an SOC report citing its concerns over the law and said its principal objections were what it described as confiscation of religious property; loss of the previous legal status of religious communities; discrimination among religious communities; narrowing of the scope of freedom of religious groups; and a unilateral drafting procedure without dialogue. The statement also said the Church was the subject of discrimination, hate speech, and individual attacks and the government failed to protect priests or punish perpetrators, and it characterized SOC clergy as enemies of the state.

In June the Venice Commission issued an opinion on the draft legislation, stating registration as the owner might be insufficient for a religious group to establish ownership and the state might be able to assert ownership over a significant number of properties, particularly Orthodox. It praised the government for drafting a law that allowed freedom of belief and nonbelief, among other issues, but stated it was “evidently not the task of the Venice Commission to assess the historical facts and background, nor to determine whether and which of the disputed immovable properties were erroneously/abusively registered.”

The SOC convoked a church council on the June 15 Trojicindan holiday (Feast of the Holy Trinity) in Podgorica, protesting the then-draft law on religion and its potential property rights ramifications. SOC Bishop Joanikije Micovic of Budimlje and Niksic read a statement at the event, calling the draft law “antireligious” and “preparation for the looting of Church property.” Approximately 8,000 SOC followers attended what up until that point was one of the largest protests of the year. A few days before the protest, according to press reports, Joanikije said, “We will defend our property with our very lives. When it comes to that, there are no rules.”

According to a June 14 report in Balkan Insight, a website of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Zana Filipovic, general director of the MHMHR’s Directorate of Relations with Religious Communities, said regarding the draft law, “We absolutely disagree that this is a form of confiscation and nationalization of religious objects.” She said the law would simply introduce “legal order into the property data of religious groups” and identify what constituted state property. The same report said President Djukanovic accused the SOC of waging a campaign for a Greater Serbia and promised to seek independence for the MOC. The article quoted Djukanovic as telling a convention of his Democratic Party of Socialists, “We will not allow contemporary Montenegro to live under the dictatorship of a religious organization that represents a relic of the past.”

On August 19, for the 10th year in a row, police banned members of both the MOC and SOC from celebrating the Transfiguration of Christ holiday at the Church of Christ’s Transfiguration in Ivanova Korita, citing concerns over potential clashes. The SOC controlled the site, located near the seat of the MOC in the historical capital of Cetinje. MOC leaders continued to state the ban constituted a violation of members’ basic human rights and requested state authorities allow MOC priests to practice in SOC-controlled Orthodox churches and monasteries.

In an October interview for Radio and Television of Montenegro, Prime Minister Markovic, commenting on a longstanding controversy surrounding an SOC church on Mt. Rumija, said he asked SOC Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, “Do you really think that the state does not have the power to stop and knock down your illegal interventions? We can, and we can do it in one day, in one night. The baptistery and the church on Mt. Rumija, and all other churches you build without the agreement of the state.” Markovic added the government did not wish to do this, preferring instead to come to an agreement through dialogue. The prime minister stated, however, the metropolitan did not “accept that Montenegro was independent” or “respect any law,” and government would make the rule of law known to all in the country, “including the SOC.” Analysts stated the church’s placement on a hilltop in an area equally important to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims made it a constant focus of attention, and the SOC’s move to reinforce the structure during the year reignited the controversy, causing accusations from residents of the majority-Muslim area that SOC’s actions were deliberately provocative. Amfilohije suggested, in a July speech after liturgy at the church, that he hoped the government would finish paving the roads near it instead of removing it.

The government continued its policy of not providing restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former Yugoslav communist government. Although government officials said previously the revised law on religious communities would address restitution issues, the law did not do so. Government officials said they would introduce a new law to address restitution but had not done so at year’s end.

Government officials publicly supported the construction of a new synagogue in Podgorica on a number of occasions and publicly sent good wishes for Jewish holidays.

On October 31, President Djukanovic opened the annual Mahar conference in Budva, stating “The appointment of a chief rabbi in Montenegro is a bright spot that we are all happy about. Rabbi [Ari] Edelkopf is a not only the chief rabbi of the Jewish community, but for the entire country of Montenegro, and we will surely continue our fruitful cooperation with the Jewish community working with him.” The resident of the Jewish Community, Djordje Raicevic Levi, commenting on the positive relationships which he said the community enjoyed in the country, said, “In addition to our very supportive government, local, regional, and international organizations play a vital ongoing role in Montenegro’s Jewish community.”

The SOC said the MOI continued to deny visas to its clergy based on discriminatory procedures that required work documentation from a registered employer, although the SOC was not legally required to register and was fully recognized. The SOC stated it had 172 open legal cases of individuals who could not obtain public documents, identification cards, driver’s licenses, or work permits, or could not access public health services and/or schooling. The SOC also said the Ministry of Education refused to introduce religious education into schools as an optional subject and wanted the law changed to allow for such an option.

Several religious groups expressed a desire for broader or clearer tax exemption rules. SOC officials often stated that religious communities did not truly benefit from a tax-free status, as they generally paid value-added tax (VAT) on all their purchases, and private individuals could not deduct donations they made to religious organizations from their taxes. The Jewish community also raised the issue of VAT payments on their purchases, and the Islamic community said it had to pay a sizeable VAT on imported funeral vehicles it had received as a donation.

The MHMR continued to provide funding to some religious groups, which they could use to maintain religious shrines, for education or cultural projects, or for social and medical insurance for clergy. Both registered and unregistered religious communities remained eligible to apply for this funding. For the first 10 months of the year, the MOC received 38,390 euros ($43,100), the ICM 29,454 euros ($33,100), the SOC 41,521 euros ($46,700), the Jewish community 17,000 euros ($19,100), and the Catholic Church 21,929 euros ($24,600). Recognized religious communities also continued to receive in-kind assistance from other government ministries and from local governments.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The SOC said it could not perform religious ceremonies on the foundations of the Church of St. Basil of Ostrog in the village of Martinici, in Gusinje, a municipality that is 94 percent Muslim, due to protests by local residents. According to the SOC, a municipal-level official threatened to burn down the church if it were restored. According to SOC reports, a cross placed on the ruins of the church on Easter Sunday was destroyed and thrown into the river during the night of Easter Monday. Police did not identify the perpetrators.

The ownership of 750 Orthodox sites, most of which were held by the SOC, remained contested between the SOC and MOC. Both groups said they wanted the government and law on religion to address the issue in their favor, but observers stated their points remained irreconcilable. The two groups celebrated Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Easter at separate locations, and police continued to provide protection around each group’s celebrations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet with government officials responsible for religious issues at the MHMR and at local mayoral and municipal offices throughout the country, with officials in other ministries including the prime minister’s cabinet, and with the president to discuss relations between the government and religious groups and the draft law on religion.

On September 10, the Ambassador met with SOC Bishop Joanikije and other church officials to discuss their concerns regarding the draft law on religion as well as their relations with the government and other religious communities. On September 12, the Ambassador met with Metropolitan Mihailo of the MOC and discussed government relations, property concerns, the draft law on religion, and interreligious relations.

On October 23, the Ambassador met with President of the Jewish Community Dorde Raicevic Levi and Rabbi Eldekop to discuss the community’s plans for a Jewish community center in Podgorica. On October 25, the Ambassador met with Catholic Archbishop Rrok Gjonlleshaj and discussed the role of the Catholic Church in the country.

The Ambassador met with Metropolitan Amfilohije on November 5 to discuss the challenges the SOC faced, its position on the draft law on religion, and the SOC’s strained relationship with the government. The Ambassador also met with representatives of Muslim communities in Podgorica, Rozaje, Pljevlja, and other municipalities to discuss the issues they faced, including perceived malign Russian influence.

Other embassy officials had regular contact with representatives of all major religious communities in the country, such as the SOC, MOC, Jewish community, ICM, and Catholic Church, to discuss their concerns, particularly in light of the religious law.

On May 10, the Ambassador hosted an iftar at the Islamic Cultural Center in Bar for representatives of various religious, political, cultural, and business communities and civil society, in which participants discussed interfaith tolerance and religious moderation. The iftar included the participation not only of formal representatives of the major faiths but also of youth and women of various faiths, creating an opportunity for broad interfaith dialogue.

On November 15-16, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country and met with leaders of the SOC, MOC, Catholic Church, Islamic Community, and Jewish Community, discussing concerns over the draft law on religious freedom, particularly on property. He also called for participation in regional reconciliation efforts and detailed his vision for religious leaders to lead the process, securing the willingness of all faith leaders. After his meetings, the Ambassador at Large called for open dialogue on the new draft law, noting that many groups were dissatisfied with it. On November 15, the Ambassador hosted a discussion on the draft law on religion for the Ambassador at Large, legal counsels of religious groups, and government officials. The event brought representatives of a broad range of faiths and of government to discuss the issue together for the first time, and participants hailed it as a success.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, and Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his or her religious affairs. The constitution states the king holds the title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society. According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam. Religions other than Islam and Judaism are not recognized by the constitution or laws.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches. Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($20,800).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith by exploiting his weakness or need for assistance, or through the use of educational, health, or other institutions and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). The same penalties apply to anyone who intentionally interferes with religious rites or celebrations where this causes disturbances or affects the dignity of such religious acts. It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense. Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law. The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate 5 percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country. A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters. Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts. Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam. Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children. Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some “foreign” Christian churches). The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group (e.g., open and hold bank accounts, rent property, acquire land and building grants, and have access to customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities) or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters. An individual representative of a religious group neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, and/or petitions to the government. The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters. The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution. The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches (churches run by and attended by foreign residents only) are registered as associations. The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status. The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively. The Protestant and Catholic Churches, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government, which allows them to preserve houses of worship and assign foreign clergy.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence. Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of including or omitting religious instruction within the school’s curriculum. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation. Such fatwas are considered binding only on Maliki Achari Sunni Muslims. If the king or parliament declines to ratify a decision of the council, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

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

Government Practices

Authorities still denied Christian citizen groups freedom of worship in churches, the right to Christian or civil marriage, and funeral services. The government does not allow Christian citizens to establish churches.

The JCO, a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but continued to operate. It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered. The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations. According to media, there were instances in which the government prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials. On February 6, media reported authorities closed unlicensed mosques operating in the homes of JCO members in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane. According to Agence France Presse, local authorities in Casablanca stated the homes served as “places of prayer and gatherings” and were home to illegal activities.

In March the AMDLR/CMC released a widely publicized letter to Pope Francis asking him to pressure the government to open investigations into what it said was systemic harassment of Christian citizens by security forces. A number of local and foreign Christian leaders disputed the AMDLR/CMC claims that there was systemic harassment by security forces of Christian citizens. AMDLR leader Jawad El-Hamidy said that while “foreign Christians” were free to exercise their religious freedom, Moroccan converts were not and must worship in private. According to a February press report, El-Hamidy said, “There is lack of recognition of freedom of belief and an absence of legal guarantees when it comes to practicing some non-Islamic religious rituals: Morocco does not tolerate people converting to Christianity from Islam,” adding, “Christians do not possess ‘normal’ citizenship rights, and there is no political willingness to protect them.” Local citizen Christian leaders reported being closely monitored by state authorities during the pope’s visit from March 30 through 31.

Some foreign-born clergy and other community members tried to dissuade citizens from attending public worship services, for the citizens’ safety and that of the church and its members.

During the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting nonregistered religious groups from practicing their religion in private.

According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities continued to make phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.

A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious observations. There were no known Shia mosques. Shia representatives reported they did not attempt to register during the year because they feared security forces would harass them as had been the case in previous years.

AMDLR reapplied for registration as an association during the year. Authorities refused to accept the application, according to the head of AMDLR. A Christian group that applied to register as an association in 2018 was still awaiting a response from the MOI at year’s end.

The U.S. NGO Open Doors stated in its annual 2019 World Watch List that the penal code, which criminalizes “shaking the faith” of a Muslim, put many Christians who talked to others about their faith at risk of criminal prosecution and arrest. The NGO also stated that while the penal code provision “only punish[ed] proselytization, converts to Christianity [could] be punished in other ways, such as loss of inheritance rights and custody of their children.”

Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended officially recognized churches, and they discouraged them from doing so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing, which could lead to their inability to continue leading the church and its ability to provide services, and to avoid putting other priorities, such as building projects, at risk.

On August 27, authorities in the Al Houz region outside Marrakesh demolished a partially constructed installation described by its builder, German artist Olivier Bienkowski and his NGO PixelHelper, as a “memorial dedicated to the murdered Jews in Europe and standing against the persecution of minorities such as the Sinti and Romani (Eastern Europe), Muslim Uigurs (China), and gays,” after PixelHelper failed to obtain proper building permits. In media interviews, Bienkowski said he hoped to construct the first Holocaust Memorial in northern Africa for educational purposes and to memorialize forced labor camps in the nearby desert during World War II where Jews and others were confined. The government ordered Bienkowski to leave the country in August. Local authorities disputed Bienkowski’s version of events, stating the country had a “proud history” of diversity and peaceful coexistence of its various religious communities and emphasizing the lack of coordination with appropriate government offices and proper permits. According to a media report, a leader of the local Jewish community said that Bienkowski intended to harm the country by conveying a false image of it as anti-Semitic. He also said that the Jewish community in the Al Houz region welcomed the decision of the authorities to demolish the project.

The 2017 ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa remained in effect. The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban. The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use. Authorities continued to prohibit anchors on national television and police and army personnel in uniform from wearing a hijab or burqa.

The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious life and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 2100 morchidines (male Muslim spiritual guides) and 901 morchidates (female Muslim spiritual guides) in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country. The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning. It continued to provide government-required one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year. It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country. The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.

The government required religious leaders who work in the country to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher. The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. In January the MEIA suspended an imam for saying that celebrating the January 1 New Year was “haram” (against religion) during a sermon in a mosque in Rabat.

The MEIA continued to monitor Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and to ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.

The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism. Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.

Some Amazigh (Berber)-rights activists reported intolerance and suppression of traditional Amazigh customs in rural Amazigh villages by government-appointed morchidates.

The government’s policy remained to ban the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.

The government permitted the display and sale of Bibles in French, English, and Spanish. A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in higher education courses.

The government continued drafting and implementing an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” The Ministry of Education (MOE) continued a review of the religion curriculum used in primary and secondary education to make reforms based on universal values of liberty, empathy, solidarity, and honesty. Since the review began in 2016, 29 textbooks have been rewritten and modifications to textbooks continued during the year. The government was sharing its experience with other countries.

There were no reports from Shia citizens that security forces detained and questioned Shia citizens about their beliefs. In contrast to previous years, the MOE reported it granted the only two exemptions from mandatory Islamic education requested during the year.

The government continued to allow the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. In contrast to previous years, Christian leaders said there were no reports of authorities pressuring converts to renounce their faith by informing friends, relatives, and employers of the individual’s conversions. Foreign residents and visitors attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches. An estimated 10,000 individuals, including sub-Saharan African Christians as well as some who identified as Sunni Muslims, attended the Sunday Mass Pope Francis led in Rabat on March 30.

Jewish and Christian citizens continued to state elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam and Judaism over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Six) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam. For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance. According to the government and Jewish leaders, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues. In April the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez.

The Prison Administration authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the Grand Rabbi of Casablanca and the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in the country.

On March 30, King Mohammed VI received Pope Francis at Tour Hassan, the burial site of his father and grandfather, Kings Hassan II and Mohamed V. The by-invitation ceremony included foreign and domestic religious leaders, the diplomatic corps, sub-Saharan migrants, security forces, and local government officials. The king’s nationally televised remarks promoted interfaith dialogue and interreligious coexistence. Alternating between Arabic, French, Spanish, and English during his speech, the king said he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.”

On March 30, the king and Pope Francis also visited the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, which trains domestic, European, and African imams and morchidines and morchidates on a moderate interpretation of Sunni Islam as a counter to the spread of radical Islam, an institute the pope praised for “provid[ing] a suitable preparation for future religious leaders.” The institute trains up to 1,400 students to serve as imams, including foreign students.

After the pope and king visited the Imam Training Center in Rabat on March 30, their hosts staged a musical performance fusing the Islamic call to prayer with Jewish and Christian hymns. The International Union of Muslim Scholars, a Salafist organization, denounced the performance as offensive to Islam’s values. Many citizens turned to social media to denounce the criticism and defend the musical performance as an example of interreligious coexistence.

On October 3-4, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MFA) in partnership with the Rabita Mohammedia of Religious Scholars, an association of religious scholars promoting openness and tolerance in Islam and founded by the king in 2006, hosted the “First Regional Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection for Religious Communities.” Government officials, religious leaders, and cultural preservation experts from Morocco and other countries participated in the two-day conference that covered policies that promote respect for and protection of cultural heritage and efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of religious significance for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. The conference also aimed to raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the importance of cultural heritage related to religious communities. At the conference, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mounia Boucetta said, “Moroccans have made an irreversible choice to uphold and practice the values of tolerance, coexistence, and peace, a choice that honors the legacy of our past but most importantly it is the only choice we have to ensure a stable and prosperous future for our country.”

On an April 14 television program, Minister of Human Rights Mustapha Ramid stated the government did not criminalize conversion from Islam, distinguishing it from the crime of “shaking” others’ faiths or attempting to convert Muslims to another religion. Stating that the convert was not “culpable,” Ramid said the criminal code focused on proselytizing that exploits the “fragility” and “needs” of potential converts.

Member of Parliament Amina Maelainine, a PJD member, said in March that “the veil is not an Islamic pillar” and that she had previously put “disproportionate” emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. She also stated that some members of her party were “open on the question of the hijab” but could not openly express their views because of “party and social constraints.” Faith, she said, was entirely a personal matter, and “freedom of conscience should be guaranteed for everyone.” Maelainine’s comments followed release of photographs on social media showing her unveiled during a visit to Paris.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. On June 21, the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca, which is home to an expatriate Anglican community, hosted the grand opening of its community center, built with approval from government authorities; the church building was under government-approved renovation, with an expected grand opening in 2020.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly.

During Ramadan, the press reported a teenage girl in Ouazzane was attacked on a bus by the bus driver for eating in public. Media reported she filed a complaint with the local authorities who opened an investigation into the case. In August the government reported the prosecutor general’s office closed the case after the victim and perpetrator of the attack came to a mediated resolution. During Ramadan, authorities arrested and fined several individuals for smoking in public.

According to the 2018-2019 AMDH report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and through Friday sermons. Shia reported they observed Ashura in private to avoid societal harassment. Shia Muslims said that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

In March the New York Times reported the country’s citizens could not freely express atheistic beliefs or conversion to another faith, adding that “Criticizing Islam remains extremely sensitive, and worship for indigenous Christians … is problematic, particularly for those who converted from Islam.”

There were reports from media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends. Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families reportedly did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations. Several Jewish citizens, however, reported increased perceived societal intolerance, particularly when news media gave prominent coverage to Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses if they wore a hijab or other head covering. When women who wore a hijab obtained such employment, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours. Conversely, some women cited on media outlets societal pressure to wear the hijab given the widespread societal emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. According to a media report, during an October 12 roundtable at the 12th annual Fez Festival of Sufi Culture, an audience member called for a woman wearing a hijab to remove her head covering before posing a question to the roundtable’s panel of experts. The woman wearing the hijab defended her right to do so and noted the forum was an Islamic festival.

In contrast to previous years, Baha’i leaders said they did not experience harassment during the year. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering a good education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

Abdelilah Benkirane, former prime minister and former secretary general of the PJD, told the press in May that the role of political parties is to find solutions faced by their country, independent from religion. Benkirane, who described the PJD as a political party with an Islamic orientation, said religion and politics can be separate, “The state’s body of laws should not necessarily be in line with Islamic rulings.”

A report published on June 27 by the Arab Barometer, an international research and polling network, found 38 percent of citizens said they were religious compared to 44 percent who were somewhat religious and 13 percent who identified themselves as not religious. Those aged 18-29 were more than 40 percent less likely to identify as religious compared to those aged 60 or older. The report also found “the younger generation is substantially less likely to want religious figures to have a say over government.” The report added, “Among…Muslims, roughly a quarter (27 percent) believe that the law should be entirely (12 percent) or mostly (15 percent) based on the sharia. Instead, a plurality (32 percent) say the law should be based equally on the sharia and the will of the people, while 21 percent say it should be based mostly on the will of the people, and 15 percent say it should be entirely based on what the people prefer. Support for making laws mostly or entirely based on the sharia has declined since 2016, falling by 9 points.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. government officials, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, met with government officials, including from the MFA, MOI, and Ministry of Justice, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, as well as the rights of minority communities. For example, on January 8, the Charge d’Affaires met with Minister of State for Human Rights and Relations with Parliament Mustapha Ramid and the Inter-Ministerial Delegate for Human Rights Ahmed Benayoub to underscore the importance of preserving and protecting the rights of all religious communities. In October the Ambassador at Large and Charge d’Affaires recognized the government’s efforts to promote interfaith dialogue while also encouraging the government to recognize the existence of all of its religious minority communities as well as to establish a legal framework for non-Muslim or Jewish citizens to address personal legal status matters, including marriage.

Embassy and consulate general officials met members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

In May the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies (TALIM) organized an academic seminar on the relationship between the country’s Muslim and Jewish communities and the country’s tradition of tolerance and coexistence at the U.S. Legation, a U.S. government-owned building (and the only National Historic Landmark located outside of U.S. territory) leased to TALIM, which receives regular embassy funding for cultural and outreach programming. Embassy officials attended the seminar and publicized it on embassy communications platforms.

In June an embassy official delivered remarks recognizing religious freedom as an inalienable right that should be preserved and advanced for all at the opening ceremony for the Anglican Church Community Center in Casablanca. On October 3, the Ambassador at Large delivered remarks at the opening of the First Regional Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection for Religious Communities, cohosted and coordinated by the MFA, Rabita, and the U.S. government. In his remarks, the Ambassador highlighted the U.S. commitment to cultural preservation and religious freedom and recognized the country as a regional leader in preserving its Jewish sites around the country.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It prohibits religious discrimination, provides for the right of citizens to practice or not practice a religion, and stipulates that no individual may be deprived of his or her rights because of religious faith or practice. Political parties are constitutionally prohibited from using names or symbols associated with religious groups. The constitution protects places of worship and the right of religious groups to organize, worship, and pursue their religious objectives freely and to acquire assets in pursuit of those objectives. The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons. These and other rights may temporarily be suspended or restricted only in the event of a declaration of a state of war, siege, or emergency, in accordance with the terms of the constitution.

The law requires all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice, Constitutional, and Religious Affairs. Under the law, “religious organizations” are charities or humanitarian organizations, whereas “religious groups” refer to particular denominations. Religious groups register at the denominational level or congregational level if they are unaffiliated. Religious groups and organizations register by submitting an application, providing identity documents of their local leaders, and submitting documentation of declared ties to any international religious group or organization. There are no penalties for failure to register; however, religious groups and organizations must show evidence of registration to open bank accounts, file for exemption of customs duties for imported goods, or submit visa applications for visiting foreign members.

An accord between the national government and the Holy See governs the Catholic Church’s rights and responsibilities in the country. The agreement recognizes the Catholic Church as a “legal personality” and recognizes the Church’s exclusive right “to regulate ecclesiastical life and to nominate people for ecclesiastical posts.” The agreement requires Catholic Church representatives to register with the government to benefit from the Church’s status. The accord also gives the Catholic Church the exclusive right to create, modify, or eliminate ecclesiastical boundaries; however, it stipulates that ecclesiastical territories must report to a Church authority in the country.

The law permits religious organizations to own and operate schools. The law forbids religious instruction in public schools.

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

Government Practices

The government responded to escalating violent attacks in the northernmost districts of Cabo Delgado Province by deploying security forces and arresting hundreds of individuals. Some NGOs and news media outlets continued to characterize these operations as heavy handed, potentially exacerbating existing grievances of what they termed to be already marginalized populations. Sources stated that the group perpetrating the attacks was not identified definitively, though it reportedly had links with ISIS as an affiliate of the Islamic State Central African Province. It is sometimes referred to locally as “al-Shabaab,” although sources stated there was no established connection to the East African al-Shabaab terrorist group, and it was composed primarily of individuals who followed what observers said was a strict version of Islam. The attacks, which began in October 2017, included killings of security force members, beheading of civilians, and theft and destruction to private property. As the attacks took place in a region of the country where Muslims predominated, many if not most of the civilian victims likely were Muslim as well, according to observers.

Members of the CISLAMO said the situation in Cabo Delgado was dire and that those who dressed in traditional Islamic clothing or wore beards risked detention on suspicion of involvement with what the government termed violent extremists. Council members said government security forces arbitrarily detained Muslim leaders, in some cases for months. They said CISLAMO representatives in Cabo Delgado secured their release by working with the authorities to identify individuals as belonging to the mainstream Muslim community and not to the “bandits” or “violent extremists.”

The government charged alleged participants in the Cabo Delgado violence with crimes including first degree murder, use of banned weapons, membership in a criminal association, and instigating collective disobedience against public order. The courts sentenced dozens of convicted participants in the Cabo Delgado Province attacks to jail terms of up to 40 years. In April more than 100 detained suspects were acquitted or released due to lack of evidence. Representatives of international organizations with access to the region continued to state they believed the number of individuals arrested was higher than that reported by the government.

Human rights organizations said the government continued policies that inhibited reliable reporting in the northern region. Reporting on the attacks remained limited and was often characterized as unreliable due to a strong security force presence and what journalists termed a government-imposed media blackout in the region.

President Filipe Nyusi and other high level government officials publicly denounced the perpetrators of the violence in Cabo Delgado as “evildoers” and rejected a link between Islam and the violence. According to CISLAMO, the Muslim community has forged a reliable partnership with the government to address the challenge.

Minister of Justice, Constitutional, and Religious Affairs Joaquim Veríssimo raised concerns in June about the proliferation of religious groups, especially unregistered groups and those the government said it believed to be promoting harmful practices. The government subsequently prepared a draft law that that would create a code of conduct for religious leaders and would require religious groups to have a minimum of 500 followers in order to register with the Ministry of Justice. The Jewish community requested an exemption due to the very small number of adherents in country, estimated to be fewer than several hundred. The government stated it intended to conduct consultations on the draft law with religious groups. There were no reports of difficulty with religious groups registering with the Ministry of Justice.

In August Pope Francis met with President Nyusi and other government officials, as well as an interfaith delegation of religious leaders and youth during a three-day visit to the capital. The pope conveyed a message of reconciliation and warned that violence only created more problems and encouraged Mozambicans to choose a better, “more noble” path. He expressed hope that peace would prevail and become the new norm, and that reconciliation was the best road to overcome the difficulties and challenges the nation faces. He called the conflict between the government and the opposition Renamo group a conflict between “brothers,” while acknowledging that together they shared a common destiny and a common land. In doing so, the pope highlighted the roles each side must play to achieve durable peace and prosperity. President Nyusi echoed the theme of reconciliation and promised to “reunite the Mozambican family” to create an environment of peace and stability. Religious leaders called the visit an expression of the interfaith harmony in the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Prominent Muslim leaders continued to condemn the attacks in the northern part of the country, stating that the strict version of Islam preached by those allegedly responsible was not in line with the country’s traditional Islamic culture and practice. A Muslim leader in Maputo stated that those responsible for the violence could not possibly be true Muslims, understand Islam, and perpetrate such violence, particularly given what they said was the deeply ingrained culture of openness and religious tolerance in the country that featured mixed religious families in which Muslims celebrated Christmas with their Christian family members. The leader of a Maputo mosque and prominent civil society members coauthored a report examining the origins and nature of what was termed the extremist threat in the north of the country. The study, which was based on interviews conducted in 2017 with persons closely connected with the violence in Cabo Delgado, characterized the group’s membership as consisting mainly of disaffected youth motivated by complex political, economic, and social factors including feelings of marginalization and disagreements with religious authorities in Cabo Delgado.

Civil society and religious organizations conducted outreach to promote religious tolerance during the year. In August, COREM, a faith-based NGO whose stated purpose was to encourage constructive dialogue and interaction among religious groups, hosted its second annual National Summit on Peace and Reconciliation. The summit focused on the recent peace agreements, and the role of women and religious groups in the peace process. It convened individuals from across government and civil society with the goal of helping the country break free from the cycle of what it termed to be never-ending wars by embracing peace, prosperity, and social justice. The summit was widely attended by religious and political leaders from throughout the country, as well as the international community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador engaged Minister of Justice Joaquim Verissimo and other high level officials on the escalating violence in the northern region. He noted the challenge this posed to the country’s history of religious tolerance.

Through a series of outreach initiatives, the Ambassador and embassy representatives discussed the importance of religious tolerance to promote peace and security with representatives of different religious groups. The Ambassador hosted an iftar attended by representatives of Islamic civil society and religious organizations. At the iftar, the Ambassador discussed the conflict in Cabo Delgado Province and highlighted the importance of the Muslim community’s leadership in addressing the problem at the grass roots level and encouraged continued effort towards developing and implementing effective solutions.

Embassy officials also discussed the importance of religious freedom and expressed U.S. support for this fundamental right with interfaith leaders at the COREM-sponsored conference to promote peace and reconciliation. For the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, marked on August 22, the embassy engaged on social media.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies the country is a secular state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, as well as the right to enjoy, practice, profess, maintain, and promote any religion. These rights may be subject to “reasonable restrictions” justified by interests such as “the sovereignty and integrity of Namibia, national security, public order, decency, or morality.”

The law allows recognition of any religious group as a voluntary association, without the need to register with the government. Religious groups may also register as nonprofit organizations (an “association without gain”) with the Ministry of Industrialization, Trade, and SME (small to medium enterprise) Development. Both religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations and religious groups formed as voluntary associations are exempt from paying taxes. A welfare organization may apply to the Department of Inland Revenue to receive tax-exempt status. Once registered as a welfare organization, a religious group may seek to obtain land at a reduced rate, which is at the discretion of traditional authorities or town councils, based on whether they believe the organization’s use of the land will benefit the community.

The constitution permits religious groups to establish private schools provided no student is denied admission based on creed. The government school curriculum contains a nonsectarian “religious and moral education” component that includes education on moral principles and human rights and introduces students to a variety of African traditions and religions, as well as world religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Baha’i Faith, and Rastafarianism.

Similar to other foreigners seeking to work in the country, religious workers must obtain a work visa. There is no separate religious worker visa.

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

Government Practices

The government Office of the Ombudsman received religion-related complaints during the year from convicted inmates at a Windhoek correctional facility who stated that the Namibian Correction Services did not allow them to update their religious affiliation and meet with Muslim clergy after they converted to Islam. A Muslim member of the interfaith council said that prison officials denied access to the leadership of his mosque to Muslim prisoners during Ramadan. He said Namibian Correctional Services had not allowed recent converts to update their religious affiliation in prison records, which was the reason for the denial of access. The Office of the Ombudsman received complaints from two inmates who stated they were denied access to Muslim clergy. Additionally, a Muslim Egyptian citizen complained to the Office of the Ombudsman about being denied halal meals during his pretrial detention.

The government periodically included religious leaders in discussions regarding issues affecting the country and in national events. President Hage Geingob held both formal and ad hoc consultations with leaders from major religious groups in the country, including the interfaith council, the Council of Churches that represented Christian denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dutch Reformed Church, and Roman Catholic Church, and from the Muslim community, to discuss opportunities for collaboration in fighting poverty.

Religious leaders continued to state that they occasionally faced problems with the government regarding visas. The interfaith council’s Baha’i representative said that religious volunteers had difficulty obtaining visas due to their work not clearly falling into any of the country’s visa categories. The religious leaders stated nonreligious organizations also had difficulty obtaining visas and did not believe they were targeted by the government based on religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In April a nongovernmental interfaith council consisting of members of various Christian and Muslim groups, as well as representatives of the Jewish and Baha’i faiths, was created. This group had been meeting on an ad hoc basis in previous years but committed to holding regular meetings and petitioning the government together to have a stronger collective voice.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives engaged with the Office of the Ombudsman about complaints regarding religious freedom.

Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, met with religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, and Muslim communities to better understand the country’s religious landscape and any potential problems of discrimination such as difficulties in obtaining visas for religious workers.

Embassy representatives also met with the newly formed interfaith council to discuss government corruption, the lack of a religious worker visa category, the lack of a religious organization registration category, and the general state of faith and morality in the country.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the freedom of conscience, expression, assembly, and association, and for freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs. These rights may be restricted by any law that is “reasonably required” in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality, or health.

Under the law, religious groups must register with the government to operate in an official capacity, which includes proselytizing, building houses of worship, holding religious services, and officiating at marriages. A 2014 cabinet memorandum sets out requirements for registration of new religious groups, including having at least 750 enrolled members, land, and a building in the country, and leadership by a Nauruan member of the clergy, who must reside in the country. The Catholic Church, Nauru Congregational Church, Assemblies of God, Nauru Independent Church, and Seventh-day Adventist Church are officially registered.

Religious groups may operate private schools, and a number do so. In public schools, the government allows religious groups to have a weekly religious education program with students during school hours, but it does not require schools to offer such education. In schools where religious education is provided, students are required to attend the program led by the representative of their respective religious group. Students whose faith is not represented are required to undertake independent study during the class time devoted to religious education.

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

Government Practices

Although the law requires registration for religious groups to conduct a full range of activities, local religious leaders stated the government continued to require such recognition only if a denomination’s clergy wished to officiate at marriages. Religious groups stated they could conduct most normal functions without registration. There were no reports the government discriminated in the registration process, although leaders of churches with smaller congregations continued to express concerns that the 750-member requirement implemented in 2014 was difficult to meet. The registration applications for the Baptist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ, which did not have 750 members, remained pending at the end of the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A government official stated that local communities “fear that refugees could overrun the tiny island nation.” He said Nauruans would not tolerate the Muslim refugees constructing mosques or houses of worship, although generally the population has no issue with Muslim refugees practicing their religion in private.

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize intolerance toward refugees as being based solely on religious identity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador to Fiji is accredited to the government; the U.S. government does not maintain an embassy in Nauru. In August and October embassy officials discussed religious tolerance and registration requirements during meetings with senior government officials and civil society.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country to be a secular state but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” The constitution stipulates every person has the right to profess, practice, and protect his or her religion. While exercising this right, the constitution bans individuals from engaging in any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.” It also prohibits persons from converting other persons from one religion to another or disturbing the religion of others and states violations are punishable by law.

The criminal code sets the punishment for converting – or encouraging the conversion of – another person via coercion or inducement (which officials commonly refer to as “forced conversion”) or for engaging in any act, including the propagating of religion, that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of any caste, ethnic group, or community at five years’ imprisonment. It stipulates a fine of up to 50,000 Nepali rupees ($440) and subjects foreign nationals convicted of these crimes to deportation. The criminal code also imposes punishments of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees ($180) for “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing.

The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. It is not mandatory for Buddhist monasteries to register with the government; however, doing so is a prerequisite for receiving government funding for maintenance of facilities, skills training for monks, and study tours. A monastery development committee under the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration oversees the registration process. Requirements for registration include providing a recommendation from a local government body, information on the members of the monastery’s management committee, a land ownership certificate, and photographs of the premises.

Except for Buddhist monasteries, all religious groups must register as NGOs or nonprofit organizations to own land or other property, operate legally as institutions, or gain eligibility for public service-related government grants and partnerships. Religious organizations follow the same registration process as other NGOs and nonprofit organizations, including preparing a constitution and furnishing information on the organization’s objectives, as well as details on its executive committee members. To renew the registration, which must be completed annually, organizations must submit annual financial audits and activity progress reports.

The law prohibits the killing or harming of cattle. Violators are subject to a maximum sentence of three years in prison for killing cattle and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($440) for harming cattle.

A 2011 Supreme Court ruling requires the government to provide protection for religious groups carrying out funeral rites in the exercise of their constitutional right to practice their religion, but it also states the government is not obligated to provide land grants for this purpose. There is no law specifically addressing the funeral practices of religious groups.

The constitution establishes the government’s authority to “make laws to operate and protect a religious place or religious trust and to manage trust property and regulate land management.”

The law does not require religiously affiliated schools to register, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religious schools must register as religious educational institutions with local district education offices (under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology) and supply information about their funding sources to receive funding at the same levels as nonreligious public/community schools. Religious public/community schools follow the same registration procedure as nonreligious public/community schools. Catholic and Protestant groups must register as NGOs to operate private schools. The law does not allow Christian schools to register as public/community schools, and they are not eligible for government funding. Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups may also register as NGOs to operate private schools, but they too are not eligible to receive government funding.

The law criminalizes acts of castebased discrimination in places of worship. Penalties for violations are three months to three years imprisonment, a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 rupees ($440 to $1,800), or both.

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

Government Practices

According to Christian groups and legal experts, police arrested and deported several persons for proselytizing. In June Bardiya District police in the southwestern part of the country arrested a U.S. citizen and his Nepali associate on allegations of coerced or induced conversion. The U.S. citizen, who was in the country for two weeks with an evangelical Christian tourism group, was released on his own recognizance after 12 days in detention and a court hearing in Bardiya, after which he was allowed to return to Kathmandu and depart the country. In April police in the southwestern part of the country arrested a U.S. citizen on similar charges and, as in previous arrests of foreigners for proselytizing, law enforcement quickly transferred her to the Department of Immigration for judgment on a visa-related violation. As with similar arrests in Dolakha District in 2016, multiple sources stated that local police prejudice factored heavily in the selective enforcement of the vague criminal code provision against “forced conversion.”

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses and local civil society members, during the year police arrested five Jehovah’s Witnesses, a decrease from nine in 2018, on separate occasions in Bardiya, Kaski, and Rupandehi Districts on charges of proselytizing. Four of those arrested were Japanese citizens, and the fifth was a Nepali citizen who was released shortly after. Authorities fined and deported two of the Japanese citizens, while the other two were released on bail and were awaiting trial in Pokhara at year’s end. During the year, authorities deported three Jehovah’s Witnesses who were arrested and incarcerated in 2018.

According to members of civil society groups, police arrested at least 23 individuals for alleged cow slaughter during the year, and civil society sources reported that many more remained incarcerated for previous convictions for the same offense.

The government continued and deepened restrictions instituted in 2016 on Tibetans’ ability to celebrate publicly the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, stating the religious celebrations represented “anti-China” activities. Although authorities allowed celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday in 2018, in July police, reportedly acting on explicit Home Ministry orders, threatened to arrest Tibetans who openly or privately celebrated the event, including within a walled refugee compound. Similarly, they could only conduct in private other ceremonies with cultural and religious significance, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and World Peace Day, the latter commemorating the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Abbots of Buddhist monasteries reported monasteries and their related social welfare projects generally continued to operate without government interference, but they and other monks said police surveillance and questioning increased significantly during the year. Tibetan Buddhist business owners also reported unwarranted police questioning about religious and social affiliations in their businesses and homes. Human rights organizations said surveillance increased most in the months before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s October visit to the country, likely to prevent any protests or displays including the Tibetan flag.

Human rights lawyers and leaders of religious minorities continued to express concern the constitution’s and criminal code’s conversion bans could make religious minorities subject to legal prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of their religious practices, and also vulnerable to prosecution for preaching, public displays of faith, and distribution of religious materials in contravention of constitutional assurances of freedom of speech and expression. Numerous evangelical Christians were arrested during the year, including foreigners, for distributing religious materials and gifts.

Human rights experts expressed concern that a provision in the criminal code banning speech or writing harmful to others’ religious sentiments could be misused to settle personal scores or target religious minorities arbitrarily. According to numerous civil society and international community legal experts, some provisions in the law restricting conversion could be invoked against a wide range of expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups or merely speaking about one’s faith.

According to legal experts and leaders of religious minority groups, the constitutional language on protecting the “age-old religion” and the prohibition on conversion was intended by the drafters to mandate the protection of Hinduism. Christian religious leaders said the emphasis of politicians in the RPP on re-establishing the country as a Hindu state continued to negatively affect public perception of Christians and Christianity. (The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007 when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.)

Media and academic analysts continued to state that discussions on prohibiting conversion had entered into religious spheres in the country and that actors seeking political advantage manipulated the issue, prompting religious groups to restrict some activities. One prominent member of the RPP tweeted that the high rate of conversion in the country would eventually cause major setbacks to “Nepal’s identity, culture, and unity” if it continued. Civil society leaders said pressure from India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other Hindu groups in India had pushed politicians in Nepal, particularly within the Hindu nationalist RPP, to support reversion to a Hindu state.

Civil society leaders said what they characterized as right-wing religious groups associated with the BJP in India continued to provide money to influential politicians of all parties to advocate for Hindu statehood. According to NGOs and Christian leaders, small numbers of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) supporters were endeavoring to create an unfriendly environment for Christians and encouraging “upper-caste” Hindus to enforce caste-based discrimination on social media and occasionally at small political rallies.

Leaders of the minority RPP continued their calls for the reestablishment of Hindu statehood and advocated strong legal action against those accused of killing cows. On February 27, the RPP held a conference in Kathmandu to launch an initiative to convert the country to a Hindu theocracy. The party leadership also stated its intention to ban forced, organized, and planned religious conversion achieved by financial rewards or false promises. Christian leaders continued to express concern and reported that support for Hindu statehood was gaining momentum.

NGO representatives in many parts of the country said municipal governments and other local bodies sometimes continued to require significant tax payments even though the national government had recognized the NGOs’ nonprofit status. Religious leaders said the requirement for NGOs to register annually with local government authorities placed their organizations at political risk. Christian leaders expressed fears that changing obligations could potentially limit the establishment of churches, which must be registered as NGOs. Some Christians said they interpreted the government efforts as an attempt to pressure Christian NGOs to leave the country. Many Christian leaders said missionary hospitals, welfare organizations, and schools continued to operate without government interference, although others reported undue scrutiny when registering as NGOs. They said the government usually did not expel foreign workers for proselytizing, although there were exceptions, but missionaries reported they attempted to keep their activities discreet.

As in 2018, the government did not recognize Christmas as a public holiday as it had previously. The government continued to recognize holidays of other religious minorities, such as Buddha’s birthday, while Muslims were officially permitted a holiday for Eid al-Adha.

A Central Hajj Committee made up of representatives of political parties, mosques, and civil society, under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs, continued to coordinate and facilitate logistics for the Hajj for participating Muslims. The government paid for 15 committee members, comparable with previous years, to travel to Saudi Arabia to carry out their work.

Christian leaders said the government-funded Pashupati Area Development Trust continued to prevent Christian burials in a common cemetery behind the Pashupati Hindu Temple in Kathmandu, while also allowing burials of individuals from other non-Hindu indigenous faiths. According to Christian leaders, the government continued its inconsistent enforcement of a court ruling requiring protection of congregations carrying out burials. Protestant churches continued to report difficulties gaining access to land they had bought several years prior for burials in the Kathmandu Valley under the names of individual church members. According to these churches, local communities continued to oppose burial by groups perceived to be outsiders but were more open to burials conducted by Christian members of their own communities. As a result, they reported, some Protestants in the Kathmandu Valley continued to travel to the countryside to conduct burials in unpopulated areas.

Catholic leaders reported that despite their general preference for burials, almost all Catholic parishioners continued to choose cremation due to past difficulties with burials. Many Christian communities outside the Kathmandu Valley said they continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, conduct burials in public forests, or use land belonging to indigenous communities for burials. They also said they continued to be able to use public land for this purpose.

Muslim groups stated Muslim individuals in the Kathmandu Valley continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries.

According to Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups, the government continued to permit them to establish and operate their own community schools. The government provided the same level of funding for both registered religious schools and public schools, but private Christian schools (not legally able to register as community schools) continued not to receive government funding. Although religious education is not part of the curriculum in public schools, some public schools displayed a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on their grounds.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development, which is under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, 907 madrassahs were registered with district education offices, representing no change from the previous year. The number of gumbas (Buddhist centers of learning) registered with the Department of Education rose from 82 in 2016 to 111. The Department had 103 gurukhuls (Hindu centers of learning) registered during the year, up from 100 in 2018.

Some Muslim leaders stated as many as 2,500 to 3,000 full-time madrassahs continued to be unregistered. They again expressed apprehension that some unregistered madrassahs were promoting the spread of less tolerant interpretations of Islam. According to religious leaders, many madrassahs, as well as full-time Buddhist and Hindu schools, continued to operate as unregistered entities because school operators hoped to avoid government auditing and the Department of Education’s established curriculum. They said some school operators also wished to avoid the registration process, which they characterized as cumbersome.

Many foreign Christian organizations had direct ties to local churches and continued to sponsor clergy for religious training abroad.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Authorities reported no change in the 2016 case in which Banke District police filed charges against 28 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim clashes that led to the killing of two Muslims. The suspects were later released on bail. Muslim religious leaders again expressed disappointment in the court’s decision to set a low bail bond for murder charges.

In September sources reported that police responded to a clash between Shia Muslims commemorating Muharram and local Hindus in Rajpur Municipality, Rautahat District. Police reportedly fired tear gas shells and several rounds of bullets in the air to contain the situation; no serious injuries were reported.

Some leaders of religious minority groups stated some converts to other religions, including Hindus who had converted to Christianity, remained willing and able to state publicly their new religious affiliation. Some Christian leaders, however, reported that some converts to Christianity tried to conceal their faith from their families and local communities, mainly in areas outside Kathmandu. A Christian news service reported some threats of violence against the Christian community on social media.

Christian media reported that Pastor Sukdev Giri of the Trinity Fellowship Church in Chitwan District was forced to go into hiding after video of him describing his conversion to Christianity appeared on YouTube. Giri said that he and other members of his family received death threats and threatening calls after he made statements that some interpreted as insulting to Hindu deities.

Some Muslim leaders continued not to accept converts to Islam, saying it would violate the law according to their interpretation. Instead, they continued to recommend that individuals who sought to convert travel to India to do so.

Local media published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. Throughout the year, the press covered alleged social disturbances caused by the spread of Christianity in rural areas, including harassment and “forced conversions.” One report stated that Christians distributed the Bible along with relief packages sent to victims of the 2015 earthquakes, causing individuals to believe Christians would come to their aid when the government would not. Another said Christians “target[ed] the poor and the ill by providing them financial support.”

According to NGOs, Hindu priests and high-caste residents continued to prevent Dalits, as members of a lower caste, from entering temples and sometimes prevented them from performing religious rites and participating in religious festivals. In 2017 media reported an attack on a Dalit for entering a temple in Saptari District. The victim, who suffered a broken arm among other injuries, stated police were slow to investigate the incident and take action against the perpetrators. According to police, the case was registered in September 2017 in the district court but remained pending as of the end of the year.

Christian and Muslim sources reported no incidents of arson and vandalism against churches or mosques, a change from the previous year when several such incidents occurred.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, embassy officers, and other U.S. government representatives expressed concerns to senior government officials and political leaders about restrictions on freedom of religion, including the rights to convert and to proselytize, posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code. They repeatedly emphasized to government officials working in law enforcement, immigration, and foreign affairs the importance of bringing legislation and practice into concordance with the country’s constitutional and international obligations. Embassy officers worked with legal advocates and rights groups to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens threatened by the criminal code and continued to highlight how anti-conversion laws could be used to arbitrarily restrict the right to the freedoms of religion and expression. Following arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers met with detainees and police and urged the latter to respect the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of conscience. Embassy officers and visiting senior U.S. government officials, including deputy assistant secretaries and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, raised concerns with government officials about the government’s restrictions on Tibetan Buddhists conducting peaceful religious activities, including celebrations of Losar (Tibetan New Year), the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and World Peace Day.

The Ambassador and embassy officers hosted roundtable discussions throughout the year with diverse faith leaders, continuing to emphasize the importance of tolerance to a healthy democracy and the need to address the concerns of vulnerable religious minority communities.

Embassy officers and other U.S. government representatives discussed with civil society and religious groups their concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebration of religious holidays, the prohibition against conversion by inducement, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians.

Embassy officers frequently addressed religious diversity and tolerance in public speaking engagements at regional American Centers and civil society events. The embassy continued to provide financial assistance for the preservation and restoration of religious sites, including Buddhist stupas (shrines) and monasteries as well as several Hindu temples, and continued to promote religious tolerance in a program for underprivileged youth, including Muslim and Tibetan refugees, in Kathmandu.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and provides for the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief, individually or in community with others, without affecting their responsibilities under the law. The constitution allows the government to restrict the exercise of religious beliefs outside of buildings or enclosed spaces to protect health, ensure traffic safety, and prevent disorder.

The law makes it a crime to engage in public speech that incites religious hatred and provides a penalty of imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to 8,100 euros ($9,100), or both. To qualify as hate speech, statements must be directed at a group of persons; the law does not consider statements targeted at a philosophy or religion, such as “Islam” (as opposed to “Muslims”) as criminal hate speech.

The law does not require religious groups to register with the government. If the tax authorities determine a group meets specific criteria, they grant it exemptions from all taxes, including income, value-added, and property taxes. Under the tax law, to qualify for tax exemptions such groups must be “of a philosophical or religious nature,” contribute to the general welfare of society, and be nonprofit and nonviolent.

On August 1, the ban on full-face coverings – including ski masks, helmets, niqabs, and burqas – in schools, hospitals, public transportation, and government buildings – came into force. According to the law, authorities must first ask individuals violating the ban to remove the face covering or to leave the premises. Those refusing to comply may be fined 150 euros ($170).

The law permits employees to refuse to work on Sundays for religious reasons, but employers may deny employees such an exception depending on the nature of the work, such as employment in the health sector. Members of religious communities for whom the Sabbath is not Sunday may request similar exemptions.

The Council of State and the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) are responsible for reviewing complaints of religious discrimination. The Council of State is the highest administrative court in the country, and its rulings are binding. The NIHR serves as the government’s independent human rights watchdog, responsible for advising the government and monitoring and highlighting such issues, including those pertaining to religion. The NIHR hears complaints of religious discrimination, often involving labor disputes, and issues opinions that do not carry the force of law but with which the addressed parties tend to comply. If they do not comply with NIHR’s opinion, plaintiffs may take their case to a regular court.

Local governments appoint antidiscrimination boards that work independently under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. These local boards provide information on how to report complaints and mediate disputes, including those pertaining to discrimination based on religion. Parties involved in disputes are not forced to accept mediation decisions of the local boards.

The government provides funding to religious schools, other religious educational institutions, and religious healthcare facilities. To qualify for funding, institutions must meet government educational standards as well as minimum class size and healthcare requirements. The constitution stipulates that standards required of religious or ideology-based (termed “special”) schools, financed either in part or fully by the government, shall be regulated by law with due regard for the freedom of these schools to provide education according to their religion or ideology.

The constitution stipulates public education shall pay due respect to the individual’s religion or belief. The law permits, but does not require, religious education in public schools. Teachers with special training to do so teach classes about a specific religion or its theology in some public schools, and enrollment in these classes is optional. All schools are required to familiarize students with the various religious movements in society, regardless of the school’s religious affiliation. Religion-based schools that are government funded are free to determine the content of their religious classes and make them mandatory, if the education inspectorate agrees that such education does not incite criminal offenses. Approximately 71 percent of government-funded schools have a religious, humanist, or philosophical basis. The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science is responsible for setting national curriculum standards that all schools must comply with and for monitoring compliance.

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

Government Practices

The August 1 implementation of the law banning full-face coverings – including niqabs and burqas – in schools, hospitals, public transportation, and government buildings generated societal debate. On August 9, a few dozen women wearing niqabs and other supporters demonstrated against the ban in The Hague. They argued the ban limited the individual freedom of women and isolated Muslim women who might be afraid to take their children to school or a hospital. Advocates of the ban insisted that the law be enforced, including one advocate, Party for Freedom (PVV) leader and Member of Parliament Geert Wilders, who described it as a prelude to a future ban on headscarves. Opponents of the law viewed it as largely symbolic, since the number of women wearing a niqab or burka in the country was very small, estimated by officials to be between 150 and 400. The Federation of Islamic Organizations, among others, urged authorities not to enforce the law.

The institutions involved in the ban expressed reluctance to enforce it, stating the ban should not interfere with their regular business. Hospitals stated they would never refuse care to a woman for wearing a niqab. Public transportation companies stated they were obliged to transport anyone with a valid ticket and objected to any interruption of their regular service. Police stated they would not prioritize responses if called about these types of incidents. Following the introduction of the ban, there were two incidents, one involving a bus in Stein, Limburg, on August 19, and the other a train at Rotterdam Central Station on September 16, in which women wearing niqabs refused to show their faces or to leave the vehicles. In both cases, the women eventually left the vehicles after police insisted on compliance with the law, and neither was fined. Activists posted video on Facebook showing the train conductor involved in one of the incidents, who became the target of threats.

After the ban came into force, the local Rotterdam-based Islamic political party NIDA offered to pay the fine on behalf of any woman cited for violating the face-covering ban, stating it viewed the ban as an infringement on religious freedom. The women’s rights organization Femmes for Freedom filed a complaint against NIDA, stating that NIDA was breaking the law by offering to pay the fine.

The Central Appeal Council, one of the highest administrative courts, ruled on several cases in February in which social welfare recipients refused employment and training based on religious belief. In one case, a Muslim man refused to shave off his beard, a requirement for wearing a safety hood in a specific training job. The council ruled that in this case the legal requirement of wearing the safety hood, which protected the employee, outweighed the individual’s right to freedom of religion.

During the campaign for March provincial council elections, PVV leader Wilders reiterated that his party’s primary objective was to promote the “de-Islamization of the Netherlands” through a series of measures, including closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Quran, and shutting out all asylum seekers and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. He used social media to disseminate his message. Wilders’ Twitter account contained hundreds of entries criticizing Islam. For example, on September 27, Wilders tweeted, “Islam is a sect of hatred and violence. Islam and freedom do not go together, anywhere. That is why all Islamic schools and mosques must be shut…” On April 22, he tweeted, “We need (inter)national laws to declare Islam a violent totalitarian ideology. We should not grant freedom to a doctrine that takes our freedom away from us.”

In May the Council of State – which reviews and issues advisory opinions on any legislation before it is considered in parliament – issued a negative opinion on a draft law Wilders proposed in 2018 that would close mosques and schools teaching Islamic ideology, ban the Quran and the wearing of a burqa or niqab in public, and levy substantial fines on violators. According to the council, the proposed legislation “seriously and unacceptably devalues the core elements of the democratic rule of law and violates the constitutional right of freedom of religion.” The council rejected Wilders’ assertion that Islam is “a totalitarian ideology of conquest” and stated the redefinition of a religion is illegal. Wilders stated he intended to proceed with the parliamentary review of his proposal; no other party supported the bill. Parliament had not scheduled a debate on the draft law by year’s end.

Wilders’ appeal at the Hague Appellate Court of his 2016 conviction for inciting discrimination and making insulting racial remarks about Moroccans at a 2014 rally continued at year’s end.

The Forum for Democracy Party did not support the PVV campaign for “de-Islamization” of the country and closure of all mosques, but party leader Thierry Baudet stated Islam posed a threat to society, opposed the construction of new mosques, objected to school visits to mosques, characterized submitting children to fasting during Ramadan as child abuse, and favored amending the constitutional right to freedom of education to preclude the foundation of Islamic schools.

On September 12, Minister of Social Affairs and Employment Wouter Koolmees and Minister for Legal Protection Sander Dekker wrote a letter to parliament based on findings from a task force the government created to advise and assist with what it described as problematic behavior within the Salafist community. The ministers stated Muslim communities were those most affected by “the problematic influence of these Salafist protagonists, as a result of which children turn their back on society,” and because others blamed the Muslim community as a whole for the problems of a small group. They added the government supported Islamic voices who spoke out against problematic behavior. Created in 2018, after a 2017 Ministry of Social Affairs report stating Salafist groups were growing and promoting intolerance, the task force worked with police, local authorities, and communities. A February 11 letter from Koolmees to parliament stated the government focused only on “criminal and/or problematic behavior from the perspective of the democratic rule of law within segments of the Salafist movement.”

Parliament continued to pressure the government to counter the foreign funding of Dutch mosques and Islamic institutions to stop the influence of Salafist and radical ideas. The government worked on legislation to make foreign financing transparent but stated it was reluctant to ban foreign financing altogether, considering potential diplomatic repercussions, erosion of national credibility on human rights and the rule of law, and possible negative repercussions to national NGOs active abroad. It also worked on legislation to ban financing of civil society organizations from “unfree” countries and to obtain more powers to ban entities whose activities violate public order, but it had not presented either piece of legislation to parliament as year’s end.

The press reported in September that 44 of the 52 Islamic primary schools used a sexual diversity textbook that states boys and girls should not look at each other or wear clothing of “the infidel,” and that “Allah despises homosexuality.” The Education Inspectorate saw no reason to intervene because the “basic values of the democratic rule of law are not violated.”

The Education Inspectorate reproached the Jewish Cheder primary school and the Islamic Cornelius Haga Lyceum for using inappropriate civics curricula based on their own interpretation of religious rules. Both schools received government funds that required them to adhere to a minimum state requirement on curriculum content. Authorities found problems with the Jewish Cheder primary school’s religious curriculum not including information on homosexuality and the school’s policy of separating boys and girls into different religious classes instead of holding mixed-gender classes. Authorities had no concerns with Islamic Cornelius Haga Lyceum’s curriculum but found problems with its management. Media also reported that most private afterschool Salafist classes taught their students a strict interpretation of Islam and to turn their back on Dutch society.

There was growing political pressure from various secular parties, including Labor Party and Democrats 66, to amend Article 23 of the constitution that guarantees freedom of education, to give the minister of education the power to intervene in order to prevent the foundation of schools supporting radical and undemocratic views. In response, Education Minister Arie Slob of the Christian Union (CU) party stated, “Parents must be able to choose a school that befits their education. It is wrong to assume that problems can be resolved by restricting the freedoms of a certain group.”

In July the city council of the predominantly Christian community of Westland denied a permit to start an Islamic primary school, even though the school met the criteria, according to Minister of Education, Culture, and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven. In April the Council of State ruled the Ministry of Education must facilitate and finance the new school over the objections of local authorities. There were continuing discussions between the Ministry of Education and the local government at year’s end.

On August 5, the national railway company Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) began accepting online applications for compensation to Jewish, Roma, and Sinti Holocaust victims whom NS transported to transit camps ultimately leading to concentration and extermination camps during World War II when the country was under Nazi occupation. The company said it would pay between 7,500 and 15,000 euros ($8,400-$16,900) to an estimated 500 Holocaust survivors and 5,000 widows and children. The application window was scheduled to remain open until August 5, 2020.

The government continued to state that it accepted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism but was not legally bound by it. In February the government reported the Ministry of Justice and Security shared the indicators from this definition with the police and prosecutor’s office so that they could take them into account when dealing with incidents of anti-Semitism.

In February the government presented the annual update of its National Action Plan Against Discrimination, which included specific measures to counter anti-Islamic sentiment and anti-Semitism. It stated the government must continue to implement existing measures vigorously. These included projects to train teachers to deal with discrimination issues including on the basis of religion, and leading figures from the Jewish and Muslim communities to serve as constructive societal leaders and encouragement of interfaith dialogue through the Building Bridges project, which establishes local networks of persons from different religious communities. The update tightened the instructions for the prosecutor’s office to facilitate prosecution of discriminatory expression, including religious, on social media. The government also appropriated nine million euros ($10.1 million) for the education work by museums and commemoration centers, the Anne Frank Foundation, and the National May 4 and 5 Committee to incorporate contemporary issues, such as combating anti-Semitism and discrimination, into education on World War II.

In May the cabinet appropriated three million euros ($3.4 million) to enhance existing efforts to combat anti-Semitism following an April paper by parliamentarians Gert-Jan Segers of the CU party and Dilan Yesilgoz of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which made concrete proposals to combat anti-Semitism and other calls for action. The paper proposed the following measures: improving mandatory education about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, including the history of the Jewish community in the country; increasing support to teachers to raise these subjects in the classroom; creating a safe environment at school; reaching out to Jewish youth; focusing attention on the Holocaust, World War II, and freedom of religion in the mandatory integration courses for immigrants; providing structural security to Jewish institutes and synagogues; training police to recognize anti-Semitism; promoting policies to encourage victims to file complaints with police; pursuing zero tolerance with respect to anti-Semitism on the internet and during soccer matches; appointing a national anti-Semitism coordinator; and developing an action plan to combat anti-Semitism. Segers stated, “We have failed if we cannot offer a safe existence to the Jewish community…”

In January several political parties in Amsterdam presented a nine-point plan to combat anti-Semitism more effectively, including: stimulating improved education on the Holocaust and the history of Jews in the capital; fighting prejudice; requiring every student to visit Westerbork Camp (from which Jews and others were transported to concentration camps to the east); launching a campaign to encourage victims of anti-Semitic incidents to file complaints; and advocating the appointment of a local coordinator for combating anti-Semitism in Amsterdam. The city implemented these measures during the year.

The mayors and responsible aldermen in larger cities, such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague, again met with the Jewish community to discuss security issues and other topics of interest. These city governments continued to support a range of projects, such as educational programs to teach primary schoolchildren about the Holocaust and to counter prejudice about Jews. Amsterdam, with the largest Jewish population in the country, remained particularly active in such programming and sponsored visits of school children to the Westerbork Camp. On a March visit to the Westerbork Camp, State Secretary for Health, Welfare, and Sport Paul Blokhuis expressed his desire to make the discussion of anti-Semitism in the classroom mandatory. In May The Hague said it would finance school excursions to the Westerbork and Auschwitz concentration camps.

In May the NGO Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) proposed several measures to combat anti-Semitism more effectively: improve education on the Holocaust and Jews; help teachers recognize and combat anti-Semitism; teach immigrants about the Holocaust, Jews, and democratic rule of law; identify anti-Semitic incidents more clearly; accelerate the reporting procedures for such incidents; encourage victims to report incidents; train policemen in handling anti-Semitism complaints; impose heavier penalties on anti-Semitism; make clearer agreements with the Royal Netherlands Soccer Association (KNVB) about halting matches after an anti-Semitic incident; and observe zero tolerance for criminal discrimination online, including anti-Semitism. The government began implementation of several of recommendations, while others remained pending.

CIDI organized a demonstration in front of the Dutch parliament on May 29 to support the wearing of the yarmulke, or kippah, after the German government’s anti-Semitism ombudsman warned Jews not to wear them in public because of the increasing likelihood of being attacked. During this demonstration Justice and Security Minister Ferdinand Grapperhaus and spokespersons of the main political parties expressed solidarity with the Jewish community and spoke out for a more vigorous approach to combat anti-Semitism.

Local governments, in consultation with the national government, continued to provide security to all Jewish institutions. Eddo Verdoner, chairman of the Central Jewish Council (CJO), said his organization worked closely with national and local authorities to provide security to Jewish institutions so that Jews could feel safe without withdrawing from society. The volunteer organization For Life and Welfare also provided private security to Jewish institutions and events.

Local governments continued to provide security to mosques and Islamic institutions as necessary, and local authorities worked with Islamic institutions on enhancing the security and resilience of mosques and other religious institutes, as well as their visitors. The national government continued to support this local approach and developed materials to assist religious institutes and local governments in implementation measures. The national government published a “Security of Religious Institutes” manual in consultation with the Muslim community, local governments, and police. Local and national authorities, the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security (NCTV), and police consulted closely on security issues with representatives from religious communities.

In January Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema announced the city would provide more security to Islamic institutions based on threat assessments by local and national authorities. The city engaged in talks with Islamic institutions on maximizing security and adopted supplemental security measures, similar to those it adopted in previous years for Jewish institutions.

In response to the March attacks on mosques in New Zealand, Justice and Security Minister Grapperhaus informed parliament that authorities were closely monitoring threats, and the NCTV maintained close contacts with local authorities, which in turn consulted with mosques on increased security measures, including greater police presence but also increasing self-reliance of mosques to protect themselves by discussing best practices, including installing closed-circuit television cameras and monitoring who is entering the mosque. The NCTV also met with the Dutch Islamic Council, and local mayors visited mosques.

Several politicians and the CJO condemned the October 9 attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany. “Sickening, cowardly, and terrible,” tweeted VVD parliamentarian Dilan Yesilgoz. The CJO asked if anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe and wrote, “The CJO calls in the Netherlands for education and information. Only by knowing each other do we diminish mutual hatred…CJO calls on everyone not to be intimidated. Be yourself and live your culture without fear.”

On May 3, the CU and Reformed Calvinist parties and CIDI launched a petition calling on the European Commission to make combating anti-Semitism in Europe one of its priorities. They stated Jews continued to be targets of prejudice and hatred and synagogues and Jewish schools required protection. The petition also called for a more effective approach of anti-Semitism in Europe. Within a few weeks, more than 19,000 people had signed the petition, including several leading politicians from other parties.

The NIHR reported receiving 17 complaints of religious discrimination in 2018 – mostly in the workplace – compared with 13 in 2017 and issued opinions in nine cases. In one case, it judged that a primary school did not make a prohibited distinction on the grounds of religion when it refused to offer an internship to a woman who refused to shake hands with men. The NIHR stated the school policy on etiquette was consistent and objective. In another case, it judged that a Protestant school could elect not to hire a teacher wearing a headscarf because the school held a consistent and legitimate policy prohibiting clothing reflecting non-Christian religious beliefs based on the school’s Protestant values.

The Animal Rights Party introduced draft legislation to ban ritual slaughter of animals. In May the Council of State said the proposed legislation “constitutes a serious infringement on freedom of religion, violates the human rights of Jews and Muslims,” and should therefore not be introduced. The council stated that the interest of protecting animal welfare did not outweigh the freedom of religion. Animal Rights Party leader Marianne Thieme stated she would continue to seek parliamentary support for the ban. At year’s end, parliament had not scheduled a debate on the proposed legislation.

In June parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution calling for the deployment of specialized detectives to deal with complaints about anti-Semitic incidents or other incidents of discrimination. Parliamentarians of several parties, including Democrats 66, Labor Party, and Denk, stated they hoped the measure would encourage victims to file complaints. According to CIDI, those who reported an incident often believed police did not take them seriously, and in some cases this dissuaded them from filing a complaint.

Government and security officials met throughout the year with the Jewish community to discuss matters of concern, such as security, anti-Semitism, and ritual slaughter. The CJO; Netherlands-Jewish Congregation; Netherlands Alliance of Progressive Judaism; Contact Body for Jews, Christians, and Muslims; and CIDI attended such meetings.

In its most recent report covering the year, CIDI reported three anti-Semitic statements by politicians from the Denk Party and PVV. For example, the report cited multiple anti-Semitic comments on Facebook in response to a video posted by Denk party leader Tunahan Kuzu while visiting Palestinians in Hebron, such as “The Holocaust never happened, it was invented by Jews to snatch away land”; “Zionist Jews do the same as what Hitler did”; and “If Hitler had dealt with Jews properly, Palestine would be free today.” CIDI criticized Denk for failing to remove the comments.

Citing freedom of expression, authorities in Amsterdam declined to act against the weekly demonstration of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the Dam Square, despite the frequent use of anti-Semitic texts and Israeli flags covered in swastika and cockroach designs. CIDI appealed directly to the mayor to intervene after police did not respond to repeated complaints; the mayor’s office took no action.

Although authorities, the KNVB, soccer clubs, and the Anne Frank Foundation had multiple agreements in place to discourage anti-Semitic behavior at soccer matches, participants did not always carry out the terms of the agreements. For example, one agreement stipulated that if anti-Semitic chanting arose, clubs would ask fans to stop immediately and, if they did not, suspend the match; however, the matches were rarely suspended. In one example, on January 27, Feyenoord soccer club hooligans engaged in anti-Semitic chanting outside the stadium in Rotterdam ahead of the Feyenoord-Ajax match. Police intervened and arrested five supporters, who were fined 500 euros ($560) each. That same day, similar chanting occurred ahead of a match between Heerenveen and AZ Alkmaar. AZ Alkmaar developed a policy to discourage such chanting, which it said was becoming more effective.

The Anne Frank Foundation continued to organize government-sponsored and government-funded projects, such as the “Fan Coach” project that sought to counter anti-Semitic chanting by educating soccer fans on why their actions were anti-Semitic. Another foundation initiative, the “Fair Play” project, promoted discussion about countering discrimination, including religious discrimination among soccer fans.

In April several political parties and CIDI urged the state secretary for migration to deny a U.S.-based preacher entry to the country because of what they described as his offensive anti-Semitic and homophobic statements based on his own biblical interpretations. The preacher canceled the visit.

In January the government, most political parties, the Protestant Church Netherlands (PKN), and other groups protested the signing by approximately 250 Protestant ministers and others of the evangelical Christian Nashville Statement on the relationship between men and women, which rejected homosexuality and transgender identity. On behalf of the government, Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven said the statement showed “emancipation is far from over. This is a step back in time. We still have a long way to go.” PKN president Rene de Reuver characterized the Nashville statement as “theologically one-sided and pastorally irresponsible.”

The Central Body for Accommodating Asylum Seekers (COA) – the agency charged with overseeing asylum centers – said it prohibited religious activities in the centers to avoid inflaming tensions among different religious groups housed together in an already sensitive environment. COA continued to prohibit religiously affiliated organizations from proselytizing at asylum centers. It allowed the Consultation Body for Jews, Christians, and Muslims (OJCM), however, to organize pilot programs at two asylum centers discussing freedom of religion and the importance of nondiscrimination in Dutch society. The OJCM requested COA to allow it to organize such talks at all asylum centers.

The government continued to require asylum seekers seeking to obtain a residence permit to sign a statement of participation in civic integration. The statement informed immigrants of their rights and obligations and of fundamental values, including freedom of religion.

The government continued to require imams and other spiritual leaders recruited from abroad to complete a course on integrating into Dutch society before preaching in the country. This requirement did not apply to clergy from EU countries and those with association agreements with the EU, such as Turkey, whose Religious Affairs Directorate appoints approximately 140 Turkish imams to serve in the Netherlands. The government also sponsored leadership courses intended to facilitate imam training in Dutch.

After the Amsterdam Administrative Court dismissed all objections to its development on July 9, construction started on the National Holocaust Monument in Amsterdam, which is government and privately supported and will carry the names of all 102,000 Dutch victims of the Holocaust. Local residents said the monument was too large, the expected large numbers of visitors would become a nuisance, and the residents were not sufficiently consulted.

At the request of parliament, in July the cabinet appointed Jos Douma as the first Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief. Douma stated his goal was to promote tolerance: “The issue is that we protect people, whether they are believers or not.” The Democrats 66 party requested that the envoy also speak out vigorously on the rights of nonbelievers.

An investigation begun in 2018 into whether spokespersons for the Muslim NIDA and Unity parties broke the law with anti-Semitic statements in 2017 continued at year’s end.

According to Minister of Justice and Security Grapperhaus, the National Police continued to disregard an NIHR finding and continued with a policy of not allowing personnel to wear headscarves.

The government is a member of the IHRA.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of violence, threats, discrimination, verbal abuse, and vandalism against Jews and Muslims. Agencies collecting data on such incidents stated many occurrences went unreported. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

CIDI reported 182 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 135 in 2018. CIDI also reported 127 incidents of hate speech online during the year compared with 95 in 2018. These included two violent incidents, 59 incidents of intimidation, 32 incidents occurring during the course of daily life (such as at school and work or among neighbors), 14 incidents of vandalism, and 152 incidents of hate speech, including 127 online. On September 19, an unknown man stopped his car next to an individual recognizable as Jewish and expressed profanities and spit at his face before driving on – spitting in the face is a violent incident under Dutch law. On June 25, a person from Brabant reported she was called by her neighbors “a cancer Jew,” allegedly because she was incorrectly perceived as Jewish, although she is not. On April 26, a law enforcement officer in Rotterdam heard someone shouting at a subway station, “All Jews should be killed.” CIDI stated it believed the overall vulgarization in public discourse contributed to the higher number of incidents. CIDI stated the registered incidents were likely only a small fraction of all incidents and pointed to a 2018 study by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, which found that only 25 percent of Dutch respondents who were victims of anti-Semitism in the previous five years had reported the incident or filed a complaint to police.

Police reported 275 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 – compared with 284 in the previous year – constituting 8 percent of all discriminatory incidents registered by police. Most incidents occurred in the immediate living environment of those targeted, often involving insults from neighbors or anti-Semitic graffiti or written threats on walls, mailboxes, or personal property. Approximately 57 percent of anti-Semitic incidents involved the use of slurs. Persons frequently shouted at police officers, calling them “Jews.” Ten incidents were soccer related, including the chanting of “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.” Twenty-nine incidents concerned vandalism involving swastikas or anti-Semitic texts sprayed on property and, in one case, a Jewish monument.

The antidiscrimination boards received 48 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, 1 percent of all reports, compared with 67 reports of anti-Semitic events in 2017. Most concerned aggression against Jews, including slurs or disputes between neighbors, soccer-related incidents, or vandalism. The National Expertise Center for Discrimination, part of the prosecutor’s office dealing exclusively with cases of discrimination, reported that it processed 79 new cases of discrimination in 2018, of which 19 percent were related to anti-Semitism and 13 percent were related to anti-Muslim sentiment.

Police registered 137 incidents against Muslims in 2018 (the most recent year for which data was available) including harassment, verbal abuse, and vandalism, compared with 192 in 2017. Multiple incidents concerned harassment of women on the street because they were wearing a headscarf, as well as incidents involving anti-Muslim stickers and posters. For example, in one report an unknown man told a woman at a shopping mall “get lost to your own country. You are not allowed to walk around here with a headscarf.” The police also found stickers saying “Islamists not welcome. Identitarian Resistance.” A dozen incidents targeted mosques.

Antidiscrimination boards registered 200 anti-Muslim incidents in 2018 – compared with 192 in the previous year – half of which concerned experiences in the labor market and workplace, often involving women who were discriminated against for wearing a headscarf. For example, a Muslim woman participating in an internship at a healthcare facility was told her internship would be terminated if she did not remove her headscarf, in response to patient complaints. The woman was assigned a different internship.

CIDI categorized two incidents as violent during the year. In one incident, fireworks were thrown into the house of a Jewish family, which had been subjected to repeated anti-Semitic incidents by a group of unknown youth in the town of Hippolytushoef. The family had faced years of threats and harassment, being cursed, and having swastikas scratched in the family’s car. Numerous complaints were made to police, but the offenders were not identified. In 2014 a group of youth were fined and carried out community service for threatening and using profane language toward the family.

In a second case, on August 31, an unknown passenger of a party bus fired shots that smashed a window displaying a star of David. No one was injured. The inhabitant reported the incident to CIDI, then contacted police and the organizer of the party bus, but neither was able to track down the offender. The organizer apologized to the inhabitant and offered to pay for the damaged window.

A Jewish man, identified only as Joram, told local newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that a group of approximately 50 men pushed, shoved, and verbally accused him with anti-Semitic insults him in The Hague on May 5, the country’s national holiday of liberation from the Nazis. Joram stated he had asked the men to stop singing a song about gassing Jews. The men, wearing Feyenoord soccer club jerseys, then began pushing him. Joram told Algemeen Dagblad that he believed the men targeted him because he was wearing an Ajax cap, Feyenoord’s rival team, which is widely associated with Jews. He later told CIDI he did not believe the incident had anything to do with the soccer teams. After consulting CIDI, he reported the incident to police.

In April pro-Israel activist Michael Jacobs was involved in a physical altercation with a crowd of men near an anti-Israel rally in Amsterdam. The Times of Israel stated that 20 pro-Palestinian protesters confronted Jacobs by pushing and shoving him and shouting “Jew” and “Zionist” at him at the Dam Square while he was wearing an Israeli flag around his shoulders. In a separate incident in March, Jacobs filmed himself with a body camera standing alone at the Dam Square. An anti-Israel protester called two police officers who told Jacobs he was disturbing public order. According to the article, Jacobs had been arrested several times for ignoring police orders, which aim to uphold public order by keeping demonstrators apart, while demonstrating in favor of Israel at the Dam Square, “at times amid violence by the anti-Israel crowd and anti-Semitic hate speech.”

CIDI stated the large number of anti-Semitic incidents demonstrated that Jews were disproportionately targeted for discrimination, given the small number of Jews in the country. CIDI also said that persons who were recognizable as Jewish because of dress or outward appearance, for instance wearing a yarmulke, were sometimes targets of confrontations.

A Pew Research Center survey released in October found 28 percent of residents held an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, compared with 35 percent in 2016. The same survey found that 5 percent of persons had an unfavorable opinion of Jews.

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, 50 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the Netherlands, while 47 percent said it was rare; 91 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, 97 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 96 percent said they would be with an atheist, 97 percent with a Jew, 96 percent with a Buddhist, and 94 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 93 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 88 percent if atheist, 91 percent if Jewish, 87 percent if Buddhist, and 79 percent if Muslim. The poll did not attempt to break out respondents by religion.

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: 43 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the Netherlands; 20 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 European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 65 percent of respondents believed anti-Semitism as a problem in the Netherlands, and 55 percent believed that it had increased over the previous five years. The percentages who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 56 percent; on the internet, 66 percent; graffiti or vandalism, 65 percent; expressions of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 61 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 51 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 50 percent; in schools and universities, 37 percent; in political life, 29 percent; and in the media, 40 percent.

An April poll among 800 readers of the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, including 163 Jewish respondents, found that anti-Semitism was on the rise. Of the Jewish respondents, 70 percent held that opinion, even if they did not experience it themselves, while 84 percent of the Jewish respondents were worried about increased anti-Semitism.

In May CJO Chairman Verdoner stated that, although there was no organized violence against Jews in the country, people tended to normalize anti-Semitism as they would stealing a bicycle. He called for a coalition of people and organizations, including representatives of various religions, schools, and online moderators, to stand up against anti-Semitism, “because if only Jews take offense, it is too late.” Jacques Grishaver, president of the Netherlands Auschwitz Committee, stated one could “hardly walk around Amsterdam with a kippah on.” Conversely, Ruben Vis, secretary general of the Netherlands Jewish Congregation, dismissed that as “nonsense,” stating that he went everywhere wearing his kippah.

The government-sponsored, editorially independent Registration Center for Discrimination on the Internet (MiND Nederland) registered 67 inflammatory statements made against Muslims on the internet in 2018, compared with 101 in 2017. According to MiND Nederland, the decrease was likely due to the low incidence of reporting rather than to an actual drop in prevalence. MiND Nederland also reported 145 instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet in 2018, 25 percent of all registered instances of discrimination, compared with 236 in 2017. It had no clear explanation for the decrease but cited a sharp decrease of reported discriminatory expressions on social media following government agreements with companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter to remove such statements.

CIDI described numerous instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric and other content on the internet. For example, Dutch preacher David Sorensen posted multiple anti-Semitic comments on social media, such as “Jews complain that they were persecuted by Hitler, but they are doing exactly the same to millions of Palestinians.” He also disseminated conspiracy theories about Jews, including one that the founding of Israel was a plot between Freemasons and the Rothschilds.

In January supporters of the Rotterdam-based Feyenoord soccer club chanted anti-Semitic slogans during a soccer match against Ajax, including, “My father was with the commandos, my mother with the SS, and together they burn Jews because Jews burn best.” Police intervened and arrested eight supporters, who were each fined 500 euros ($560). A week earlier, fans in Leeuwarden chanted anti-Semitic slogans ahead of a match between Heerenveen and AZ Alkmaar. In February supporters of ADO Den Haag sprayed anti-Semitic texts around Amsterdam ahead of a match against Ajax. Following public and political outcry, CIDI filed police complaints related to anti-Semitic actions during the January and February games, and investigations continued at year’s end.

On July 16, the prosecutor’s office in The Hague announced that it would prosecute an imam who stated those who are not Muslim, or who are Sunni, are pigs. The imam did not deny making the statement but claimed it was allowed on the grounds of religious freedom.

In June CIDI revealed that a rapper calling herself “Anne Frank” had a long history of anti-Semitic statements, such as “if Taylor Swift were Jewish, I would have gassed her personally.” She also denied that Anne Frank had been killed by the Nazis. Following a public outcry, the rapper dropped the name and apologized, stating that she meant no harm.

On September 26, national broadcasting organization BNNVARA apologized for a nighttime radio program in which the moderator had allowed a caller to express numerous anti-Semitic statements for eight minutes. CIDI director Hanna Luden expressed shock, saying, “Such a long phone call in which virtually every anti-Semitic prejudice was raised – it’s amazing that the moderator did not intervene.” CIDI received dozens of angry phone calls and messages and filed a complaint with police.

According to academic researcher on anti-Muslim sentiment Ineke van der Valk’s book Mikpunt Moskee (Target Mosque), Islam was growing in the country while other religions were increasingly restricted to the private domain due to secularization. At the same time, she wrote, there was a strong negative reaction to Islam and its increasing visibility in public life. According to van der Valk, Muslims were not united on how to deal with this situation. They declined to join forces with other groups facing discrimination, such as Jewish and LGBTI communities, as they rejected acknowledgement of such discrimination within their own ranks. In the book, Van der Valk observed that many Muslims perceived a hostile social climate and lack of acceptance and experienced exclusion and discrimination. She stated media and politics played important roles in the negative representation of Muslims and Islam. According to the book, construction of some new mosques faced delays due to protests despite compliance with all procedures and legal regulations, although most building plans were carried out.

Van der Valk also cited 26 acts of aggression, ranging from arson to threats, against mosques in 2018, adding that many incidents remained unreported. The General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) and NCTV stated in their annual reports that the threat against mosques came from both those with jihadist and extreme right ideologies. They reported an increase of anti-Islamic activity by the extreme right online, particularly in the use of more aggressive language. The AIVD and NCTV reports estimated the likelihood of violence by known extremist groups to be low but cited the risks posed by lone actors.

The Islamophobia Report in the Netherlands: National Report 2018, part of the European Islamophobia Report, stated that 95 percent of Muslims it surveyed said they had experienced at least one anti-Muslim incident in the previous five years.

Societal research released in January by SCP found that 48 percent of residents had a negative view of Muslims, while 21 percent supported closing all mosques.

On January 4, the Amsterdam District Court convicted three men for offending and inciting discrimination against homosexuals and fined them 500 euros ($560) each for distributing pamphlets in mailboxes in predominantly migrant neighborhoods in Amsterdam with quotations from the Bible, Torah, and Quran condemning homosexuality.

On October 14, the Amsterdam District Court convicted an Afghan man, Jawed Santani, of attempted murder with terrorist intent and sentenced him to 26 years and 8 months in prison and to pay 2.6 million euros ($2.9 million) in material and immaterial damages for stabbing two U.S. citizens at Amsterdam Central Station in 2018. The suspect told police he believed the Dutch had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the Quran.

Police also arrested Pakistani Junaid I. in August 2018 at The Hague Central Train Station. Junaid had traveled to The Hague with plans to attack Geert Wilders, reportedly because of Wilder’s plans, later cancelled, to hold a Muhammad cartoon competition. On November 18, the district court of The Hague found the suspect guilty of planning a terrorist attack and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Wilders resumed the cartoon contest on December 28. The next day he announced an anonymous winner, who would receive the $10,000 prize, and posted the winning image to his Twitter feed.

In April a man placed several garbage bags at the front door of the Esdoornlaan mosque in Leeuwarden and set them on fire. On October 3, the District Court in Leeuwarden convicted the man of arson, sentencing him to 36 months in prison and ordering him to pay damages to the mosque. Following the incident, the mosque took additional security measures.

On May 1, The Hague District Court convicted a man for offending Jews and sentenced him to 120 hours of community service and a visit to Westerbork Camp for chanting, “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” during a soccer game in 2017.

The Security Pact Against Discrimination – a movement established by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian organizations to combat anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and other forms of discrimination – organized events to promote mutual solidarity. The group’s membership included the Council of Churches, the representative body of main Christian churches in the country, and several NGOs, including the Turkish Islamic Cultural Federation, the Humanist Alliance, the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam, the National Council of Moroccans, and the Platform to Stop Racism and Exclusion. The group’s events included a gathering following the mosque attacks in New Zealand in March and another meeting after the synagogue attack in Halle in October.

For Holocaust Remembrance Day, artist Daan Roosegaarde installed light-up stones across 150 municipalities. The display was installed in museums and public spaces, including the Groningen synagogue in the north.

In December 2018 SCP published a major study of Christians living in the country. The report found the percentage of residents who considered themselves Christian dropped to 31 percent in 2018 from 43 percent in 2002. Three-quarters of respondents reported that their view of organized churches did not align with their view of the meaning of life. SCP found that young church members are strong believers. According to the report, the approximately one million Christian immigrants in the country were often surprised and disappointed about the secular nature of Dutch society.

CIDI continued to conduct programs to counter prejudice against Jews and other minorities in schools, working with a network of teachers to improve education on the Holocaust. CIDI invited 25 teachers for an annual visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem for a seminar on how to teach students about the Holocaust. More than 250 teachers had participated in the program since its inception. Upon their return, they become members of the World War II Education Platform, an organization providing information and lectures about World War II. CIDI regularly organized symposia and lectures for this platform. It also continued to lead anti-Semitism workshops for police and prosecutors at the police academy.

There were multiple initiatives to promote interfaith dialogue among Jews, Muslims, and Christians, initiated by NGOs such as OJCM and Belief in Living Together. For example, the Liberal Jewish Community of Amsterdam continued its youth outreach project entitled “Get to Know Your Neighbors,” which invited students into a synagogue to explain Jewish practices. The Mo&Moos (Mohammed and Moshe) program of the Amsterdam-based Salaam-Shalom NGO and Platform for Islamic Organizations in Rijnmond again brought together young Muslim and Jewish professionals. NGO INS Platform maintained a website where citizens could meet “ordinary” Muslims. In Amstelveen, Jewish and Muslim groups continued to meet with local authorities and political parties to discuss issues of safety, religion, education, and discrimination involving Jews and Muslims.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In conversations with officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, of Justice and Security, of Social Affairs and Employment, and of Education, Culture, and Science, local governments, and with parliamentarians, staff from the U.S. embassy and consulate general in Amsterdam emphasized the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and discussed measures to safeguard religious freedom, ritual slaughter, and male circumcision.

The embassy and consulate general highlighted the need for religious tolerance and interfaith understanding and discussed issues of religious integration and violent extremism in outreach to youth, academics, and religious leaders from various backgrounds, including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Baha’i, and Falun Gong adherents, as well as community organizations such as CJO, CIDI, OJCM, the Transatlantic Christian Council, and the Anne Frank Foundation. Embassy representatives met with NGOs such as Amnesty International to discuss religious freedom issues and related factors, such as equal treatment from law enforcement and housing authorities. Embassy officials also met with members of the Iranian community in the country to discuss freedom of religion issues in asylum centers.

In January the Ambassador participated, on behalf of the United States as a member of the IHRA, in the annual Holocaust remembrance event, hosted by the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, in Amsterdam to show solidarity for the Jewish community and religious tolerance. In April the Ambassador toured the synagogue of the Liberal Jewish Community (LJG) of The Hague and discussed the opportunities and challenges of the congregation regarding expression of faith. In September a senior embassy representative discussed the history and role of the Jewish community in the country, as well as the importance of protection of the community against anti-Semitism, with CJO chairman Verdoner. The same representative then met with the rabbis and the chairman of the LJG of Amsterdam to discuss the importance of religious freedom and dialogue between the Jewish community and rest of society, as well as the promotion of Holocaust remembrance.

In an April interview with public broadcasting association Evangelische Omroep for a documentary on the U.S.-Dutch relationship, the Ambassador spoke about the history of religious tolerance in the United States and the relationship between the Christian communities of the United States and the Netherlands. The documentary was scheduled to be broadcast in the country in 2020.

In May the Ambassador attended the National Iftar Dinner in The Hague, also attended by the mayor of The Hague and more than 200 government officials, politicians, business leaders, and members of NGOs. The Ambassador discussed the importance of shared compassion, respect, and support for people of all faiths and backgrounds.

In October embassy officials visited the Al Hijra Islamic Center in Leiden and joined the mayor of Leiden and community leaders in a roundtable to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing the Muslim community regarding religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, and civic integration.

In September the embassy sponsored the participation of a representative of the Jewish community in a program in the United States focused on advancing interfaith relations.

On November 10, a senior embassy representative attended the Kristallnacht commemoration event hosted by CJO at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. During the event, the representative engaged with other attendees on the importance of promoting religious freedom and tolerance in a pluralistic society.

Officials from the U.S. Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom attended the Istanbul Process in The Hague, hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on November 18-19. A senior Department of State official spoke at a session attended by numerous international and local delegations and advocacy groups on implementing measures to combat intolerance based on religion or belief. During the visit, the same official met with Dutch religious leaders and religious freedom advocates to discuss ways to enhance religious freedom in the country.

New Zealand

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, comprising several basic laws, states that religious expression is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” According to the law, religious practices may not breach the peace.

The government does not require the licensing or registration of religious groups; however, for a religious group to collect money for any charitable purpose, including the advancement of its religion, or obtain tax benefits, it must register with the Department of Internal Affairs as a charitable trust. The registration must provide the rules of the organization showing it is a nonprofit organization and a list of officers free from conflict of interest who will not put their own interests above the organization. There is no fee for this registration.

The law provides that “teaching in every public primary school must, while the school is open, be entirely of a secular character.” A public primary school may close, including during normal school hours, for up to one hour per week, up to a total of 20 hours per year, to devote to religious instruction or religious observance, to be conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board of trustees. If a public primary school provides religious instruction or observes religious customs, it must allow students to opt out. Religious instruction or observance, if provided, usually takes place outside normal school hours. Public secondary schools may provide limited religious instruction and observances within certain parameters that ensure they do not discriminate against anyone who does not share that belief. General religious education is not regulated by legislation.

Individuals may file complaints of unlawful discrimination, including on the basis of religious belief, to the HRC. The HRC’s mandate includes assuring equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, protecting the right to safety for religious individuals and communities, promoting freedom of religious expression and reasonable accommodation for religious groups, and promoting religious tolerance in education. In the event a complaint is not resolved satisfactorily with the assistance of HRC mediation, the complainant may proceed to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT). The tribunal has the authority to issue restraining orders, award monetary damages, or declare a breach of the Human Rights Act through a report to parliament. Conduct prohibited by the Human Rights Act (e.g., workplace discrimination, including that based on religion) may also be prosecuted under other applicable laws. In addition to the HRC dispute resolution mechanism, a complainant may initiate proceedings in the court system; in exceptional circumstances, HRRT cases may be transferred to the High Court.

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

Government Practices

Hours after the March 15 attack on two Christchurch mosques, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned the attacker as a terrorist and a criminal. The government called for solidarity with the Muslim community and advocated tolerance. In the aftermath of the attack, the prime minister and senior government officials participated in events that memorialized the victims, such as a service at one of the targeted mosques on March 21 that drew an estimated 20,000 participants. On March 19, parliament opened with its first-ever Islamic prayer in a show of solidarity with the Muslim community. In the weeks after, the government passed emergency legislation that included the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry (typically reserved for “matters of the gravest public importance”) into the attacks. To deter copycat attacks and reassure the Muslim community, armed police were deployed outside all the country’s mosques and Islamic centers for six weeks after the Christchurch attacks. The prime minister called on international governments and the global technology sector to adopt the Christchurch Call for committed governments and technology companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. In October the government announced 17 million New Zealand dollars ($11.5 million) in extra funding for domestic law enforcement and work with partner governments and the international technology sector to combat terrorist and violent extremist content online, including content related to religion.

In May the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in state primary schools to help clarify boards of trustees’ legal obligations when allowing religious instruction (which differs from general religious education, which is not regulated by legislation), and to help trustees develop best practices around how to offer religious instruction. The draft provided guidance on how to close schools for the delivery of religious instruction in a way that would reduce the possibility of discrimination. In early December the education minister proposed that schools require signed consent from a parent or caregiver before allowing a student to participate in religious instruction, as part of a broader Education and Training Bill. Some secular education advocates expressed concerns about the legality and propriety of any religious education in a secular education system.

In a legal action concerning a long-running dispute on religious instruction in schools, complainants from the Secular Education Network (SEN) said many schools ignored legal restrictions on religious instruction. SEN also stated the HRC had not taken appropriate action against broader “state-sanctioned religious bias” by the Ministry of Education, and said there was conflict between those sections of the Education Act authorizing religious instruction in state schools and the right of protection from discrimination due to religious beliefs in the more recent Bill of Rights Act. A decision in the High Court is expected in 2020.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On March 15, Australian citizen Brenton Tarrant attacked the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic center, both in Christchurch. The attacks, regarded as the country’s worst act of mass killing, resulted in 51 deaths and 49 injuries. All the victims were Muslims. The High Court in Christchurch set a trial date for Tarrant in May 2020, then moved it to June 2020 to avoid conflicting with Ramadan. Authorities charged Tarrant with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder and one count of terrorism.

In the days following the attacks, individuals from around the country condemned the violence and called for solidarity with Muslims. The media reported many non-Muslim women, including TV correspondents and police officers, wearing headscarves during the March 21 memorial. At the beginning of that service, the Islamic call to prayer was broadcast on national radio and television. In his message during the service, a leading imam thanked the prime minister for her leadership during the crisis and stated “. . . we are together (as a nation), we are determined not to let anyone divide us.” The president of the national Jewish Council said the organization was “sickened and devastated” by the attack and offered the council’s “full assistance and support” to the Muslim community. After the Royal Commission of Inquiry held its first meeting in July, some human rights advocates and Muslim community leaders said it was not transparent enough and was moving too quickly to adequately consult Muslims and the shooting survivors. Muslim leaders also criticized the slow pace of the trial and the High Court’s scheduling of hearings on Fridays. The internal affairs minister announced in November that the inquiry would be extended from December 2019 to April 2020 to take into account “the significant public interest” and Muslims’ concerns.

The New Zealand Jewish Council said that anti-Semitism was increasing, particularly online. Jewish community leaders expressed outrage when footage emerged of an Auckland mosque leader blaming the Israeli intelligence service Mossad for the mosque attacks while addressing a crowd of approximately 1,000 anti-racism protestors in Auckland. In July a New Zealand Jewish Council spokesperson accused Green Party Member of Parliament Golriz Ghahraman of anti-Semitism after she referred to Mary and Joseph as “Palestinian refugees,” which the spokesperson said ignored their Jewish identity and reflected an ongoing pattern of disrespect and marginalization of the Jewish community. Ghahraman apologized and promised to “improve her dialogue” with the community.

In March two buildings in the South Island towns of Christchurch and Greymouth belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were struck by suspicious fires within 48 hours. In April Jacob Lowenstein, who confessed to setting the fires and admitted to targeting the buildings based on their religious affiliation, was convicted and sentenced to six years and nine months in prison.

The HRC received 87 inquiries or complaints of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or lack of religious belief during 2018-19, compared with 65 complaints during 2017-18.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate general officials regularly met with officials in the HRC and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to consult on shared priorities of encouraging tolerance and religious freedom in the country. In October embassy representatives attended a reception at parliament that highlighted discrimination overseas against the Baha’i Faith.

In March the Ambassador led the embassy’s outreach to the local Muslim community after the Christchurch mosque attacks. The Ambassador released a statement of support on the evening of the attacks, visited a mosque, and attended a vigil in Wellington to honor victims. He visited the headquarters of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand and attended a candlelight vigil in Christchurch where he was briefed by a U.S. imam, there as part of a humanitarian delegation to assist with funerals. The Ambassador later met the president of the International Muslim Association, who thanked him for his visits and words of support. The Ambassador delivered messages of condolence to local media and solidarity with the people of the country and condemnation of attacks on our “Muslim brothers and sisters.” The embassy made extensive use of social media to extend the Ambassador’s message of tolerance and religious inclusion to a wide audience. In July embassy officials facilitated a meeting between attack survivor Farid Ahmed and the President in the White House, as part of a visiting group of survivors of religious persecution. The visit generated considerable favorable press attention to religious freedom issues in the country.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship, and it states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.” The constitution states there is no official religion; however, the law entrusts government-controlled, community-level action groups, known as Family Committees, with the responsibility for promoting “Christian values” at the community level.

The requirements for registration of religious groups – except for the Catholic Church, which has a concordat with the government – are similar to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Registration requires an application, articles of association, and designation of officers. The National Assembly must approve a group’s application for registration or legal standing. Following approval, the group must register with the Ministry of Government as an association or NGO, which allows it to incur legal obligations, enter into contracts, and benefit from tax and customs exemptions. Following registration, religious groups are subject to the same regulations as other NGOs or associations, regardless of their religious nature. The Catholic Church as a religious group is not required to register because its presence in the country predates the legislation; however, the government requires organizations dedicated to charity or other social work affiliated with the Catholic Church to register.

Ministry of Education regulations for primary school education establish that the basis for the methodology and curriculum for elementary grade levels are the “Christian, Socialist, Solidarity” principles and “Human Development” policy. The government’s 2018-21 Human Development policy establishes the promotion of religious and faith-based festivities as a key component of all government policy.

Missionaries of all religious affiliations must obtain religious worker visas and provide information regarding the nature of their missionary work before the Ministry of Interior will authorize entry into the country. A locally based religious organization must provide documentation and request travel authorization from the Ministry of Government seven days prior to the arrival of the visiting person or religious group. The process generally takes several weeks to complete.

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

Government Practices

In July the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua reported “constant harassment” of participants in various public events by the government, including at religious ceremonies and masses, particularly when those participants were thought to hold antigovernment views. The IACHR reported that on June 15, groups associated with the government attacked worshippers who had attended a Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary in Leon. The report also noted attacks by police on June 16 and June 30 at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua, stating that police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and sound grenades on worshippers emerging from masses dedicated to the release of political prisoners. Nine people were reported injured in the attacks. The IACHR stated, “These events happened in a context of threats against the Catholic Church and against religious leaders, issued as intimidating comments on social media or as graffiti on the walls of some religious buildings.” According to the report, one priest from Esteli left the country after receiving threats.

Father Edwing Roman, a priest granted precautionary (protective) measures by the IACHR since 2018, continued to be a victim of harassment and received multiple death threats during the year. According to press reports, on February 13, police detained him in his vehicle. The police searched his vehicle and attempted to confiscate his telephone while on a call with a journalist. A policewoman hit Roman’s face in the attempt. Moments after the police released him, progovernment social media accounts circulated defamatory information against the priest, stating he was stopped for driving under the influence of alcohol. The posts included photographs showing liquor bottles inside his car. Roman said the police planted the bottles as part of the government’s continued effort to discredit him.

On November 14, at the Church of Saint Michael in Masaya, Father Roman hosted a group of mothers of political prisoners as they began a hunger strike to demand the release of their children. According to La Prensa, a heavy police presence surrounded the church within minutes, impeding access and preventing anyone inside the church from exiting. Within hours, the government cut off water and electricity to the church, leading to the spoilage of Roman’s insulin supply kept in a refrigerator in the church. Due to the electrical outage in the church, during the morning of November 15, a parishioner attempted to hand Roman a new supply of insulin and small bags of ice through a window, but police pushed the person away. Police arrested 16 individuals who arrived at the church to provide the striking mothers with water. According to Confidencial, a digital press outlet, they were charged with trafficking of weapons, munitions, and explosives and would face trial on January 30, 2020; lawyers for the accused said the police planted military-grade weapons inside their vehicles after detaining them. On November 22, Roman and the hunger strikers left the church in a Red Cross ambulance and were treated at a local hospital. At year’s end, water and electricity had not been restored to the church.

According to media, on November 18, as families of political prisoners began a hunger strike in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua, government-aligned groups rallied outside the cathedral. According to media, as darkness fell, NNP officers and riot police, who had surrounded and blocked access to the cathedral, allowed a group of at least 30 government-aligned individuals inside the cathedral. The reports stated that once inside, they physically assaulted Father Rodolfo Lopez and Sister Arelys Guzman and desecrated sacred items and spaces, while the NNP officers and riot police remained outside and did not intervene. The events were captured on video and circulated on social media. According to the reports, the government-aligned individuals spent the night of November 18 beside the altar of the cathedral, menacing the hunger strikers who had locked themselves inside the sacristy.

The Catholic Church continued to speak out against violence perpetrated by the government and progovernment groups and a lack of democratic institutions through clergy homilies and pastoral letters, calling for respect of human rights and the release of political prisoners. In one letter dated May 1, the Conference of Bishops stated that, given the government’s current posture, they expected pain and suffering to continue for most Nicaraguan families. “Political prisoners, lack of respect for constitutional rights, exiles, refugees, asylees, poverty, unemployment, insecurity… show that without the presence of God who has placed his tent among us, we have no future.” They also addressed in the same letter the absence of independence among government bodies and lack of basic freedoms.

On November 19, the Conference of Jesuit Provincials of Latin America and the Caribbean issued a statement calling for justice and denouncing the violent targeting of opponents of the Ortega-Murillo government. The statement said, “We want to continue being attentive to the voices of those who are suffering the unmerciful tyranny of power that tries to subject the dreams of freedom and democracy through terror, repression, torture, and killings.”

In April Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Baez, termed by multiple press outlets, including La Prensa and Reuters, as one of the most outspoken critics of government human rights abuses, was recalled to the Vatican indefinitely. Independent media and observers interpreted the Vatican’s decision as a response to the constant harassment and death threats against him. In 2018, FSLN partisans demanded Baez leave the country and return to the Vatican, from “where he never should have left.”

During the year, sources provided different estimates regarding how many clergy had remained in exile and how many had returned. They did not provide details, stating fear that the government could retaliate against returning clergy.

In speeches during the year, President Ortega frequently stated the “bishops” did not stand with “the people” against sanctions and other “aggressions.” In a November speech, Ortega told a crowd in Revolution Plaza that “high priests are always asking that Nicaragua be crucified and with those high priests are the cowards, the traitors to their country, who go on their knees to ask that Nicaragua be crucified.” According to local human rights organizations and political analysts, Ortega and FSLN proxies frequently used this type of language to vilify and dehumanize the opposition.

Religious groups said the government continued to politicize religious beliefs, language, and traditions, including by coopting religion for its own political purposes. Religious groups also said that as a form of retaliation stemming from the country’s sociopolitical crisis that began in April 2018, the government continued to infringe on religious leaders’ rights to practice faith-based activities, including providing safe spaces in churches to students and others fleeing violence. Catholic clergy and media reported cases of government officials, including President Ortega, slandering, stigmatizing, and urging supporters to retaliate against houses of worship and clergy for their perceived opposition to the government.

With an economic crisis that sources stated was precipitated by the government’s violent suppression of prodemocracy protests in 2018, the national budget shrank substantially. Budget cuts to religious groups continued. Following robust funding in 2018 and dramatically decreased funding in 2019, funding for both Catholic and Protestant churches and religious groups was eliminated entirely from the 2020 budget. Local media viewed this as retribution for religious leaders’ outspoken opposition to the government, particularly among Catholic clergy.

On November 2, media reported government supporters and FSLN partisans entered Catholic cemeteries in several parts of the country where families were celebrating the Day of the Dead and desecrated tombs of individuals killed by government forces and pro-Ortega militias, commonly called “parapolice,” in the April 2018 prodemocracy uprising. Media reported that NNP officers and local FSLN officials stood by as the desecration occurred. Media also reported acts of vandalism against Catholic churches, including graffiti painted on their walls stating, “devils in cassocks” and “coup plotters,” terms identified by local human rights organizations as used regularly by the government and its supporters against those they perceived as enemies.

Catholic clergy said the government denied them access to prisons following the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. Prior to April 2018, clergy said, they regularly entered prisons to celebrate Mass and provide communion and confession to detainees. Media reported on numerous occasions a large presence of NNP officers and police vehicles surrounding the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua. The officers intimidated worshippers and denied them access to the cathedral, stating the cathedral was closed or closing access to nearby streets.

According to press and social media reports, Catholic Church leaders throughout the country continued to experience harassment from government supporters, who often acted in tandem with police. In November Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes publicly called for an end to the harassment of clergy and churches. Other Catholic leaders privately said they felt fear and intimidation when celebrating Mass. Priests said they often saw progovernment civilians attempt to intimidate them into public silence on political issues by recording their Sunday homilies, a practice that did not occur prior to April 2018. According to media, in October during a Catholic religious procession in Esteli, police together with masked parapolice lined the streets and intimidated the participants with high caliber weapons. The congregation took refuge inside the cathedral behind closed doors. At one point, parapolice pointed a gun at a group of seminarians inside the church premises, prompting a seminarian to scuffle with the parapolice in an attempt to block the parapolice from shooting.

Ministry of Education policy for public school curricula continued to require “Christian-based” education through civics classes and student participation in state-sponsored religious events. Notwithstanding these requirements, a Catholic bishop said he received reports from multiple localities that the government prohibited public schools from hosting religious services during end-of-school-year activities, a longstanding tradition in both public and private schools. The Ministry of Education did not issue an official statement confirming or denying the bishop’s statement.

Photographs posted on social media depicting university students bashing pinatas resembling priests hanging from nooses went viral in October. Signs attached to the pinatas read, “the enemies of the people.” Media identified the individuals in the photographs as members of student body governments affiliated with the Sandinista Youth wing of the ruling FSLN. In several re-tweets of the images, accounts linked to the Sandinista Youth encouraged followers to “be a patriot, kill a priest.” Civil society groups denounced the heightened harassment of clergy through FSLN-aligned accounts on social media during the week of September 30-October 6.

Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders said the government continued to restrict travel selectively for some visa applicants intending to visit the country for religious purposes based on the perceived political affiliation of the applicant’s local sponsor. According to Catholic clergy, a 2016 regulation instructing all churches to request entry authorization for their missionaries or religious authorities continued in effect.

According to media, on October 31, the government cut off the electricity supply to a senior assistance home under the administration of a Catholic parish in Matagalpa, despite having paid all outstanding electricity bills. The same parish hosted a food drive for political prisoners on October 18.

In October Despacho 505, a digital newspaper, reported the government’s repression of the Catholic Church had “reached the altars.” Cardinal Brenes publicly stated that despite the church having met all the government’s administrative requirements, the General Office of Customs retained without justification a shipping container that included specially processed wine used for the celebration of the Eucharist during Mass. In November, after the cardinal’s public statements and the papal nuncio’s intervention, customs officials released the sacramental wine.

Caritas of Nicaragua, the Catholic Church’s social service organization, said the customs office continued to hold 13 containers belonging to Caritas since April 2018 with no explanation for the delay. Caritas said these containers held donations of medical equipment and educational and health material intended for their social work. Caritas also said that since September 2018 the customs office continued to hold a separate container with Bibles. Caritas representatives said the organization, accredited in the country since 1965, had not received since March 2018 its annually renewable certificate from the Ministry of Interior, which technically gave it permission to operate in the country. Caritas representatives said the failure to renew the certificate impeded the NGO from receiving tax exemptions, prohibited the importation of its materials, and hindered its ability to bring in medical missions as part of its social services. The representatives said the organization had not previously had administrative issues with the government in its recent history. They stated they had to reduce their social services because of harassment from government supporters in the communities where they worked.

In November a worker at a Christian, non-Catholic charity in the north-central region of the country reported police harassment, surveillance, and unlawful entry into the worker’s home; the worker had noted his prior affiliation with opposition political parties.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A Russian national who in December 2018 threw sulfuric acid at a priest of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua during confession, was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison by the Sixth Criminal District Court in May. In August media reported witnesses seeing the attacker on a plane flying to Panama. There was no official statement confirming or denying the release of the attacker from prison.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In July the Vice President singled out government leaders in Nicaragua for their persecution of Catholic clergy, stating that the government had targeted “Church leaders for defending democracy and religious freedom.” Through public statements and official social media accounts, senior U.S. government leaders and the embassy repeatedly called on the government to cease violence and attacks on the Catholic Church and expressed the U.S. government’s support for faith communities in their fight for human rights, democracy, and freedom. Embassy officials continued to raise concerns over restrictions on religious freedom in the context of broader repression with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.

The Ambassador and his staff met regularly with senior Catholic Church leaders, as well as with leaders from a diverse selection of evangelical Protestant groups, the Moravian Lutheran Church, the Nicaraguan Islamic Association, and the Jewish community. At these meetings, embassy representatives discussed concerns about the politicization of religion, governmental retaliation against politically active religious groups, and limitations on the freedom of religion and fostering diversity and tolerance.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nicaragua on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, specifies separation of religion and state as an unalterable principle, and stipulates equality under the law for all, regardless of religion. It provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship and expression of faith consistent with public order, social peace, and national unity. The constitution also states no religion or faith shall claim political power or interfere in state affairs and bans political parties based on religious affiliation.

On June 17, the National Assembly passed a new law on the organization and practice of religion that was ratified by the president in July. The law reaffirms existing laws on freedom of religion, as long as religion is exercised respecting “public order and moral good,” and provides for government regulation and approval of the construction of places of worship and oversight of financial contributions for the construction of religious venues.

Religious groups are treated as any other nongovernmental organization and must register with the MOI. Registration approval is based on submission of required legal documents, including the group’s charter, minutes of the group’s board of directors, annual action plan, and list of the organization’s founders. Although some unregistered religious organizations reportedly operate without authorization in remote areas, only registered organizations are legally recognized entities. The MOI requires clerics speaking to a large national gathering either to belong to a registered religious organization or to obtain a special permit. Nonregistered groups are not legal entities and are not permitted to operate.

Registered religious groups wishing to obtain permanent legal status must undergo a three-year review and probationary period before the Office of Religious Affairs, which is under the MOI, grants a change in legal status from probationary to permanent.

The constitution specifies the president, prime minister, and president of the national assembly must take an oath when assuming office on the holy book of his or her religion. By law, other senior government officials are also required to take religious oaths upon entering office.

The government prohibits full-face veils in the Diffa Region under state of emergency provisions with the stated purpose of preventing concealment of bombs and weapons.

The government prohibits open-air, public proselytization events by all religious groups due to expressed safety concerns. There is no legal restriction on private peaceful proselytization or conversion of an individual’s personal religious beliefs from one religious faith to another, as long as the group sponsoring the conversion is registered with the government.

The establishment of any private school by a religious association must receive the concurrence of both the MOI and the relevant department of the Ministry of Education (Primary, Secondary, Superior, or Vocational). Private Quranic schools, established uniquely to teach the Quran without providing other education, are unregulated. Most public schools do not include religious education. The government funds a small number of special primary schools (called “French and Arabic Schools”) that include Islamic religious study as part of the curriculum.

There are no restrictions on the issuance of visas for visiting religious representatives; however, long-term residency of foreign religious representatives must be approved by the MOI.

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

Government Practices

The government drafted implementing regulations for the new law on religious practice that was ratified by the president in July and expected to be implemented in 2020, according to the MOI. The law was intended to “minimize fundamentalist and extremist influences” while “preserving freedom of worship” under the constitution, according to the minister of the interior. According to the MOI, implementation of the new law will include the creation of three National Worship Councils for Muslims, Christians, and other religious groups to liaise between the government and their respective religious communities on matters such as fundraising, religious instruction, and content of sermons. Observers stated the law responded to a specific concern of the government and was intended to be a minimally invasive way of monitoring foreign, possibly extremist, influence on the practice of religion in the country.

The government continued its efforts to reduce radicalization or the risk of radicalization through the Islamic Forum, which the government formed in 2017 with the stated goal of standardizing the practice of Islam in the country and preventing the use of Islamic institutions to spread Islamic extremism. The Islamic Forum, which represents more than 50 organizations countrywide, met regularly to provide input to the government on the new law as well as to discuss control of mosque construction, regulation of Quranic instruction, and monitoring of the content of sermons.

Government officials expressed concern about funding from Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and other countries for the construction of mosques and training of imams, but according to observers, the government had only limited resources to track the extent of the funding and fully understand its consequences.

In December the government adopted a three-year National Worship Strategy to promote social cohesion, peace, and tolerance as well as freedom of worship. The strategy’s six strategic goals are to design and implement a plan for the location of places of worship; promote quality religious training; encourage educational and tolerant religious public discourse; ensure “adequate supervision” of religious practice; strengthen intra- and interreligious dialogue; and discourage violent religious extremism.

With support from the World Bank, the government began reviewing the curricula of private Quranic schools and medersas (madrassahs).

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On June 15, protesters blocked streets, burned tires, and attacked Christian churches in the southern city of Maradi following the June 14 arrest of Sheikh Rayadoune, a Muslim cleric who criticized the draft religion law as “anti-Muslim” during Friday prayers, according to press reports. Late in the evening of June 15, a group of youths burned down an Assembly of God church and set fire to the pastor’s car, while police stopped attackers from damaging the Abundant Life Christian church. Police arrested approximately 150 individuals during the unrest; there were no reports of injuries. Prior to his release from custody on June 16, Rayadoune called for an end to the violence and said his statements regarding the new law were based on an inaccurate translation. On June 16, local authorities and religious leaders reportedly visited the burned church and apologized to the congregation.

On May 13, unidentified gunmen attacked a Catholic church in Dolbel near the border with Burkina Faso, injuring a priest, according to international observers. On June 7, members of the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped a Christian woman in the village of Kintchendi in the Diffa Region, releasing her a few days later with a written warning to Christians living in the area to leave the town within three days or be killed.

Some Muslim representatives continued to express concern that Wahhabism’s presence was growing. There was no survey data to indicate how many Wahhabist mosques there were in the country, or to support or refute the impression of growing influence. The majority of the population adhered to the Maliki interpretation of Sunni Islam, but there were separatist branches, and representatives of Islamic associations said some imams preached a version of Islam they stated may have been Wahhabist.

The Muslim-Christian Interfaith Forum continued to meet, bringing together representatives of Islamic associations and Christian churches for regular meetings to discuss interfaith cooperation. According to representatives of both Christian and Muslim groups, there were generally good relations between Muslims and Christians; however, according to some religious leaders, a minority of Muslims rejected closer ties between Muslims and Christians as a corruption of the true faith and therefore resented the forum. The representatives of the Interfaith Forum said that the practice of observing each other’s religious holidays was decreasing, and that they had a general sense that relations between Christians and Muslims had deteriorated mildly, largely due to social pressure for increased strict Islamic observance.

On November 16, the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly of Niger held a press dinner to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of the Bab (a central figure of the Baha’i Faith) and share information regarding the Baha’i Faith.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives continued to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance through meetings with government and religious leaders. The Ambassador raised religious freedom with the interior minister and the foreign minister, encouraging broad engagement with Muslim associations in the government’s efforts to promote religious tolerance and counter extremist messages.

The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with representatives of Muslim and Christian groups to support intra- and interfaith dialogues to promote tolerance and understanding and to jointly tackle societal issues where religious leadership and tradition are driving factors, such as education for all and reducing early marriage. On May 23, embassy officials hosted an interfaith iftar, which included Muslim, Christian, and Baha’i leaders; government officials; and members of civil society. At the event, an embassy official delivered remarks emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance. The Ambassador also met with the imam of the Grand Mosque of Niamey, who is the leader of the Islamic Association of Niamey, during Eid Al-Adha to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador met with the Catholic community to urge interfaith dialogue in Tahoua in February, attended and spoke at a rally at an Assembly of God church in Niamey in September, and met twice during the year with the Catholic archbishop.

The embassy sponsored a program that included training on balanced media coverage of religious issues. In April the embassy provided financial support to a local organization to promote religious tolerance and understanding among youth in western Tillabery at risk of recruitment by extremists. Additionally, the embassy marked Religious Freedom Week with a social media campaign.

The embassy sponsored programs with religious leaders nationwide focused on countering violent extremism related to religion and amplifying voices of religious tolerance.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other virtues, as a distinct “national ethic.”

The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law courts. Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for “civil proceedings”; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear civil cases in which all litigants are Muslim and provides the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in the sharia courts if they wish.

The constitution is silent on the use of sharia courts for criminal cases. In addition to civil matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for hudud (serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning). Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, may seek advice from sharia experts.

Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.

To build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($55).

Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place that community wholly maintains.

Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools for registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.

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

Government Practices

Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations, some of which resulted in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces. IMN was the largest Shia organization in the country and was led by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky who, according to his writings and online communications, draws inspiration from the Iranian revolution and from the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Between March and July, members of the IMN conducted daily protests in Abuja to contest the continued detention of El-Zakzaky, despite a December 2016 Abuja High Court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The protests continued until his temporary release due to illness in August. During an initially peaceful IMN demonstration in Abuja on July 9, an IMN member sparked an exchange of gunfire between police and IMN protestors when he grabbed an officer’s holstered pistol, resulting in the deaths of the officer, 15 IMN members, and a security guard, according to press reports. IMN members also broke through police barricades at the National Assembly and police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Following the July 9 events, the Senate called for the arrest of IMN members involved in the violence, while the House of Representatives called on the government to urgently engage the IMN to resolve the conflict and expressed fears the Shia group was fast evolving “the way Boko Haram started.”

Human Rights Watch reported that on July 22, police opened fire on peaceful IMN protesters and killed 11 protesters, a journalist, and a police officer, while dozens of others were wounded or arrested, according to witnesses and authorities. On November 27, police arraigned 60 IMN members arrested at the July 22 protest on charges of culpable homicide, destruction of public property, and public disturbance.

On July 26, the Federal High Court ruled IMN’s activities amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the government to proscribe the “existence and activities” of the group. On July 28, the government complied, officially banning the IMN as an illegal organization and thereby prohibiting its meeting or activities. In its announcement, the government emphasized its proscription of the IMN “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.” Following the ban, then-Archbishop of Abuja Cardinal Oneiyekan defended the country’s Shia Muslims and criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to Catholic media. On September 10, despite the government prohibition, the IMN sponsored Ashura religious processions in Bauchi, Kaduna, Gombe, Katsina, and Sokoto States. The IMN reported as many as 12 participants in the processions died in clashes with security forces, with media sources reporting between three and nine killed.

In August the government granted El-Zakzaky temporary release to seek medical treatment in India; he traveled but reportedly refused treatment in India after stating armed Indian guards had been posted in his room during his medical treatment. Upon his return home the government returned him to custody, where he remained through the end of the year.

On November 27, police broke up an IMN protest and arrested 12 members and two journalists. The journalists later were released.

Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. Approximately 100 IMN members arrested after that clash remained in detention.

In June the Kaduna state legislature approved a bill to regulate religious preaching. While the government said the new law would protect against “hate speech,” religious leaders said it infringed on freedom of speech and the rights of Christians and Muslims. The law required all preachers to be licensed by a state-level body composed of religious leaders, government officials, and security agencies. Later in June Kaduna’s highest court nullified the law, stating that it was inconsistent with the constitution’s guarantees for freedom of expression, association, and religion. The state government announced it would appeal the decision at the federal level.

In May the Kano state Hisbah Board arrested 80 Muslims accused of eating in public rather than fasting during Ramadan. The Kano hisbah spokesman said they were all eventually released since it was their first offense but noted they would be taken to court if detained again. In October the Kano state hisbah arrested four men for organizing a false online wedding to a young woman over Facebook, stating it “mocked Islam” as well as demeaned the “sanctity of the institution of marriage.”

Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.

Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or effectively mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities in the Middle Belt region.

In June some ethnoreligious organizations in the South West and South East reacted with threats of violence to news of a government plan to resettle predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country. In the South West, both Muslim and Christian groups threatened violence against members of the Fulani ethnic group. The government later abandoned the plan.

In June President Muhammadu Buhari announced plans for the eventual ban of Almajiri Quranic schools due to their reported practice of forcing students to beg in the streets and their perceived association with urban crime and violence; he said the government first would consult with states, which have jurisdiction over the schools, and others in the education community. In July the Kaduna State Commissioner for Education announced that Quranic schools would be integrated into the formal education system. In October the Kano state government announced a “free and compulsory education initiative” that would abolish the payment of school fees and integrate all Almajiri pupils into the formal education system in 2020.

In October police raided four Islamic schools in Kaduna and Katsina States and freed over 1,000 men and boys living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, including being chained and physically abused, according to international media. In November police freed 259 men, women, and children from an Islamic school in Oyo State and rescued 15 people chained in a church in Lagos. In November Human Rights Watch reported its investigators found individuals chained in 27 of 28 institutions they visited, which included psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, traditional healing centers, Christian churches, and both Islamic and state-owned rehabilitation centers. Following the raids, President Buhari issued a statement saying, “No responsible democratic government would tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation of the victims.”

In January Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III and then-Archbishop of Abuja Onaiyekan organized a conference with religious leaders from throughout the country to promote peaceful elections.

In September the Kaduna State Urban Planning Development Agency served the 110-year-old St. George Anglican Church a notice to vacate its premises within seven days on the grounds that the church did not have a certificate of occupancy. A week later the Kaduna state government issued a statement saying the church would remain because of its historical value.

Although the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016, one called ISIS-WA and another, headed by Abubakar Shekau, that retained the traditional name of Boko Haram, most residents and government officials continued to refer to both groups collectively as Boko Haram.

Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets in Borno state. The two insurgencies maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. In July ISIS-WA abducted six Action Against Hunger (AAH) aid workers when a convoy led by the agency was heading to a remote town in Borno State to deliver food. In July 65 persons returning from a funeral in a predominantly Muslim community were killed by Boko Haram. In September ISIS-WA released a video depicting the beheading of two Christian aid workers, Lawrence Duna Dacighir and Godfrey Ali Shikagham, according to media reports; in the video one of the killers vowed to kill every Christian the group captured in revenge for Muslims killed in past religious conflicts. In October ISIS-WA filmed and publicly released the video of the killing of one of the six abducted AAH aid workers, who was Muslim. On December 24, Boko Haram killed seven people and abducted one teenage girl in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State. On December 26, ISIS-WA released a video of the execution of 10 Christian and one Muslim to avenge the death of ISIS leader al-Baghdadi.

Boko Haram continued to carry out person-borne IED bombings – many by young women and girls drugged and forced into doing so – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. In February and March Boko Haram carried out four attacks on EYN Church of the Brethren villages in southern Borno State, killing one, abducting three children and burning over 30 homes and several church buildings, according to international media. On February 16, Boko Haram killed 11 people during a suicide attack inside a mosque in Gwozari/Kushari area of Maiduguri.

According to 2018 estimates from the NGO Nigeria Watch, which did not appear to differentiate between Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, 2,135 persons, including Boko Haram members, died due to insurgent violence during that year, compared with 2,829 killed in 2017. More than 22,000 persons, most of them children, remained missing as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, according an International Committee of the Red Cross statement in September.

On the fifth anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 pupils from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School on April 14, 2014, 112 remained in captivity, according to government and media reports. Leah Sharibu remained in ISIS-WA captivity since February 2018, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity. According to the Council on Foreign Relations Nigeria Security Tracker, Boko Haram has destroyed 59 churches and 22 mosques since 2010.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Numerous fatal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Fulani Muslim herders. Scholars and other experts, including international NGOs, cited ethnicity, politics, religion, lack of accountability and access to justice, increasing competition over dwindling land resources, population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from crime and other forms of violence all as drivers contributing to the violence. Several international and domestic experts noted that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought herder groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they are unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups. Similarly, internal transhumance (movement of livestock) to the North Central and Southern parts of the country has increased in recent years due to demographic and ecological pressures, according to the UN.

Multiple Christian NGOs stated that religious identity was a primary driver of the conflict. A Le Monde op-ed in December, however, stated “reducing the violence in the center of the country to sectarian confrontation is an extreme simplification,” and other analysts noted that the same conflict dynamics exist across the region where both herders and farmers are Muslim, including the North West, but had received less media attention.

According to a report released by the U.K.-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), “Fulani militia” killed over 1,000 Christians throughout the year. The report noted that the “underlying drivers of the conflict are complex,” and stated that violence targeting predominantly Christian communities, the targeting of church leaders, and the destruction of hundreds of churches suggested religion and ideology were key factors. It also stated that retaliatory violence by Christians occurred, though “we have seen no evidence of comparability of scale or equivalence of atrocities.” According to various secular and Christian media outlets, from February to mid-March, Fulani herders and Boko Haram terrorists killed 280 individuals in predominantly Christian communities. ACLED data, however, documented 350 total civilian deaths by “Fulani militia” in 2019.

A study by the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel noted that within the country, “there are many different Fulani clans, sub-clans, local Fulani cultures and dialects, and variations in herding practices.” Experts stated there was no evidence to suggest the Fulani had an explicit Jihadist agenda or were mobilized behind a common ethnic agenda, and noted there are between 30-40 million Fulani in Africa.

On February 10, on the eve of general elections, as many as 131 members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group and 11 members of the predominantly Christian Adara ethnic group were reportedly killed and some 10,000 were internally displaced in clashes in Kajuru. In response, the Kaduna governor arrested the Adara leaders and elder statesmen, a move which local Christian leaders condemned. The governor also announced there were 131 casualties of the attacks and said, “The more the police dig into this matter, the more it is clear that there was a deliberate plan to wipe out certain communities.” Christian leaders disputed the casualty figures announced by the governor, while Fulani leaders later released a list of what they said were the names of the 131 Fulani killed. A Fulani herder told The Los Angeles Times, “There is no effort to protect our villagers,” and added that “bandits” were responsible for a deadly attack on [farmers in] Ungwan Barde, not herders; “We don’t know why [the farmers] blamed us.”

On March 14, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Fulani militia members had killed 120 persons since February 9 in the Adara chiefdom of South Kaduna. According to the Adara Development Association, on March 11, Fulani militia killed 52 persons in attacks on Inkirimi and Dogonnoma villages in Maro, Kajuru Local Government Area, while the Kaduna Police Command reported 16 deaths.

According to local and international media, in May the discovery of two dead boys at the border between a Christian village and a Hausa Muslim community in Plateau state sparked ethnic-based riots against Hausas, resulting in from five to as many as 30 deaths. In August and September, local media reported armed, ethnicIgbo Christian criminal gang members posing as Fulani Muslim herdsmen killed two priests in the South East in an attempt to incite religious conflict. According to international media, on April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Pastor Samson Gamu Yare, community leader of the Mada ethnic group in Nasarawa State, called on the federal government to take measures towards curtailing these attacks on his people.

During the year, media and religious groups reported several cases of priests and other Christian clergy and their families who were attacked, killed, or kidnapped for ransom, often by attackers identified as of allegedly Fulani ethnicity. These cases included, among others, the killing of Father Paul Offu and Father Clement Ugwu and the beating of an evangelical Christian pastor from Kaduna State and kidnapping for ransom of his wife, who died in her captors’ custody. Authorities stated these incidents were criminal acts and not religiously motivated, reportedly due to the ethnicities of those arrested for the crimes, although many Christian civil society groups pointed to such incidents as examples of religiously motivated persecution. In August 200 Catholic priests marched through the streets of Enegu city, protesting insecurity and what they characterized as “Fulani attacks on Christians.” Muslim religious figures were also the victims of kidnapping. In March Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Sulaiman was kidnapped in Katsina State and released after 15 days.

According to international media, in October in Chikun, Kaduna State, Fulani gunmen kidnapped six school girls and two teachers from Engravers College Kakau, a high school with a Christian perspective that has a secular curriculum and enrolls both Christian and non-Christians. Shunom Giwa, vice principal of Engravers’ College, told Morning Star News that security issues led to some parents withdrawing their children from the school. Media reported the abductors stormed the boarding school when most of the students and teachers were asleep. The individuals were released after authorities paid a ransom.

In its report, “Nigeria: The Genocide is Loading,” NGO Jubilee Campaign stated that it had documented at least 52 Fulani militant attacks between January and June 12. HART, in its report, stated the situation between Fulani herdsman and farmers amounted to genocide and governments worldwide should recognize and respond to it as such. Other longtime observers, however, including those with the Africa section of the French National Center for Scientific Research, expressed concern that describing the situation as one of “pre-genocide” was inaccurate, and ran the risks of “misrepresenting the facts, discrediting the media, and making the situation on the ground worse.” In a Le Monde op-ed on conflict in Nigeria, scholars stated that the term “genocide” allows some Nigerian politicians to “vindicate one group and instrumentalize another.” Other international observers warned against framing the issue as an attack on one group, since such a claim ignored the complexity of the issue and could deepen and perpetuate the conflict.

In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled.

In November student protests took place after the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in predominantly Christian Enugu State, announced it would host a conference on witchcraft and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria called for Christians to pray against the event. The event took place as scheduled after the university removed the term “witchcraft” from the title of the conference.

On February 23, interfaith leaders and members of the Strength and Diversity Development Center held a “Weekend of Prayer and March for Peace” in seven states across the country.

On January 10, the NGO 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative organized the first of three international religious freedom roundtables. Participants included representatives of several Muslim and Christian communities. The group formed an interfaith steering committee to guide its efforts to promote religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals on the basis of religion and religious tension issues in the country in discussions throughout the year with government officials, including the vice president, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. They also discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance. In August the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited Abuja and Lagos, engaging with government and religious leaders as well as NGOs, to highlight U.S. support for interfaith cooperation and to encourage greater efforts to combat ethnoreligious violence. The Administrator met with the vice president, local government officials, and members of the Interfaith Mediation Center, the Islamic Education Trust, the Christian Association of Nigeria, and the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association.

Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials hosted interfaith dinners and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. They also participated in multiple interfaith conferences and summits throughout the year encouraging religious, traditional, government, and community leaders to continue to engage in dialogue and work towards sustainable peace. They also emphasized these messages in media interviews during multiple trips to states affected by ethnoreligious conflict, including Kaduna, Plateau, Benue, Taraba, and Adamawa.

In March the embassy held an event celebrating the heroism of Imam Abdullahi Abubakar of Barkin Ladi, Plateau, who in 2018 sheltered his Christian neighbors in his home and in the mosque while his village was attacked, confronted the attackers, and refused them entry. The embassy also featured Abubakar on the cover of the April/May edition of its outreach magazine. In July Abubakar received the Department of State’s 2019 Religious Freedom Award.

In June and July the consulate general engaged southern socio-cultural groups, religious leaders, and politicians to reduce tensions emerging from reports of government-sponsored programs to resettle Fulani communities to southern areas of the country. The embassy and consulate general also worked with a wide range of organizations, including religious groups, to promote peaceful, free, and fair elections in 2019.

In September a senior U.S. government official visited a U.S. jointly funded peacebuilding camp for young people in Nasawara State.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

North Korea

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states, “Citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.” It further states, however, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling. The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

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

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to deal severely with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. The 2014 COI final report concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded in many instances the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable. On September 20, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, reported to the UN General Assembly that the human rights situation in the country “remains extremely serious. The political prison camps, in which a large number of political prisoners are detained in the worst conditions, remain in operation under complete secrecy. There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.”

The NKDB, using reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,341 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to December 2018. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,341 cases, authorities reportedly killed 120 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 90 (6.7 percent), physically injured 48 (3.6 percent), deported or forcibly moved 51 (3.8 percent), detained 794 (59.2 percent), restricted movement of 133 (9.9 percent), and persecuted 105 (7.9 percent) using other methods of punishment.

A South Korean NGO estimated in 2013 that 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious activities, were held in prison camps in remote areas under harsh conditions. In February Open Doors UK estimated 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were imprisoned for being Christian. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian.

In September CSW reported there was no religious freedom in the country. CSW also reported that according to witness testimonies, “many Christians are detained in prison camps, where they endure dire living conditions and brutal torture.” CSW stated there were instances where citizens caught in possession of a Bible were executed.

While shamanism has always been practiced to some degree in the country, NGOs noted an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. One source told RFA it was common for persons to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, or considering other important decisions. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. RFA reported a source said that in March in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities found three women guilty of fortune telling in a public trial. Two of the women were publicly executed by shooting, and the third was sentenced to life in prison. According to the source, the women had created a group called Chilsungyo (Seven Star Group) and said two children in the group were possessed by an oracle spirit. The women received money for telling fortunes. The source said thousands of persons from factories, colleges, and housing units were forced to attend the trial and executions, which were aimed at forcing officials to stop patronizing fortune tellers and engaging in other “superstitious” behavior.

In its annual report, Open Doors USA for the 18th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians. Open Doors USA stated arrests and abductions of foreign missionaries and punishments for Christians increased. According to the NGO, “If North Korean Christians are discovered…not only are they deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot, their families will share their fate as well. Christians do not have the slightest space in society; meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.” The government strengthened border controls, with harsher punishments for citizens being repatriated from China and increased efforts “to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith.”

Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. According to Open Doors USA, one refugee said her family, upon being repatriated from China, was imprisoned for what authorities said were “problematic political beliefs,” and guards beat her parents for refusing to stop praying. Another woman who had been imprisoned after being repatriated from China told the NGO that prison authorities repeatedly asked her whether she went to church while in China, whether she owned a Bible, and if she was a Christian. The woman said she believed she would have been killed if she admitted being Christian.

According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps. According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2018 report, authorities punished both superstitious activities and religious activities, but the latter more severely. In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors were involved with the Bible or Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitious activity with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners during the year. Sources said the practice of Falun Gong entered the country through trade workers and spread rapidly, even among high-ranking government officials and their families. In April police issued a proclamation that ordered citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners, the government’s first ever such action. According to RFA, the proclamation threatened harsh punishments for those refusing to turn themselves in. Following issuance of the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for Falun Gong practices. According to sources, the crackdowns and negative publicity only increased Falun Gong’s popularity.

The government reportedly detained foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders. There was no further information on three South Korean missionaries detained in the country. In December 2018 The Korea Times reported the South Korean government tried to negotiate their release. One had been held since 2013 and two others since 2014.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment. Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country. In KINU’s 2016 white paper, one defector said, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The COI 2014 report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a charitable organization that helps North Korean refugees, said on its website that organized religion was seen by the government as a potential threat to the regime. Defectors continued to report the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.

According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. As it had in years past, KINU stated in its annual white paper on human rights, “[I]t is practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” The white paper quoted one defector as saying, “[A]uthorities call religion, as a whole, superstition. And all superstitious behaviors are prohibited.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country. In its 2018 report, the NKDB stated less than 1 percent of 12,880 defectors said they had visited religious facilities.

The HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes. There were neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

The Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian nonprofit organization, reportedly obtained a government video in September that depicted Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” who attempt to undermine the government. The video was allegedly used to instruct state security agents on how to identify and silence Christians in the country.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2018 there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church. The 2015 KINU annual white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and reported most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities and did not regard Buddhist monks as religious figures. The temples were regarded as cultural heritage sites and tourist destinations. KINU’s 2019 annual white paper concluded no religious facilities existed outside of Pyongyang.

According to KINU’s 2018 report, the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations said they believed some members were genuinely religious, but others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Chilgol Church, a state-controlled Protestant church, was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. One defector said when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches.

According to KINU, foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged. LiNK stated on its website “nothing apart from token churches built as a facade of religious freedom for foreign visitors are allowed.” In its 2018 report on religious persecution in North Korea, Open Doors USA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2018 KINU report, however, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.” According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report noted the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established Korean Catholic Council continued to provide basic services at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church. There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were citizens or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

The COI report concluded authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

In April United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday service at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral. According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended. The report quoted the clergyman making anti-U.S. and other political statements during the service.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items as well as other items the government deemed objectionable. Open Doors USA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

The government reportedly closely regulated certain forms of religious education, including programs at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il Sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries affiliated with Christian or Buddhist groups.

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies individuals on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime. The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. KINU continued to report that religious persons and their families were perceived to be “anti-revolutionary elements.”

According to KINU, the government continued to view Christianity as a means of foreign encroachment. KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s “Dictionary on Philosophy” as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.” KINU again reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year emphasizing ways to detect individuals who engage in spreading Christianity.

According to a 2018 Associated Press article, dozens of missionaries in areas of China near the border, most of whom were South Koreans or ethnic Koreans, provide assistance and religious education to North Koreans. According to the Rev. Kim Kyou-ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, in recent years, 10 such frontline missionaries and pastors died mysteriously, and he suspected the North Korean government was involved.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly continued tightening border controls in an effort to crack down on any such activities.

The government continued to allow some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations reported they were not allowed to proselytize; their contact with local citizens was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times. In October the Asia Times reported South Korean-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons, and in some cases the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

In November media reported South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office invited Pope Francis to meet Chairman Kim at the demilitarized zone. At year’s end, however, there were no reports that the pope planned to do so.

In December the UN General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution, cosponsored by the United States, condemning “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The UN General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.” The UN General Assembly also “strongly urge[d] the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms[.]” The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion.

Defector accounts indicated practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities. In February the South China Morning Post reported one defector described her family’s quietly singing Christian hymns on Sundays while one person watched for informers. Another described hiding under a blanket or in the bathroom while praying. Open Doors USA reported many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II. These were kept hidden and passed among believers. One man said individuals remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported. According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

In August the KCF Central Committee and the National Council of Churches in Korea (South Korea) composed their annual joint prayer for peaceful reunification of the peninsula, stating in part, “Lord, hear the prayers of the beloved Christians throughout the world for peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula….Let the fervent prayers of Christians all over the world bloom in our hearts, and in every corner of the Korean Peninsula as a flower of hope.”

In 2017, KINU reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available, and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks. The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.

KINU reported religious ceremonies accompanying weddings and funerals were almost unknown, but other sources indicated there were still shamanistic elements in weddings and funerals.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence in the country. In February the President and Chairman Kim held a second summit in Vietnam, and they held another meeting in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in June. In engagements with DPRK officials, the U.S. government consistently made clear full normalization of relations will require addressing human rights, including religious freedom.

In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vice President said, “[T]he United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.”

The United States cosponsored the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”

The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. This included an October meeting in Brussels of like-minded countries to coordinate actions and discuss the DPRK’s human rights record. The United States made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would significantly improve prospects for closer ties between the two countries. Senior U.S. government officials, including the President, met with defectors and NGOs that focused on the country, including some Christian humanitarian organizations.

Since 2001, the country 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, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

North Macedonia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality of rights for all citizens regardless of religious belief. It provides for freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their faith freely and in public, individually, or with others. It provides for the protection of religious identity of all communities. The constitution states restriction of freedoms and rights may not be applied to personal conviction, conscience, thought, and religious confession. The constitution cites five religious groups – the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Religious Community in North Macedonia, the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, and the Jewish Community – and stipulates they, as well as other religious communities and groups, are separate from the state, equal before the law, and free to establish schools, charities, and other social institutions. The law allows other religious groups to obtain the same legal rights and status as these five groups by applying for government recognition and registration through the courts. The constitution bars political parties or other associations from inciting religious hatred or intolerance.

The law defines hate crimes as criminal offenses against a person, legal entity, and related persons or property committed because of a real or assumed characteristic, including nationality, ethnic origin, and religion or belief, of the victim. Hate speech and hate crimes are punishable criminal acts by themselves and may result in harsher sentences for other crimes when hate crime elements are involved.

Religious organizations may apply to register as a “church,” a “religious community,” or a “religious group.” These classifications are based on group size, internal organization, and internal hierarchy. The law treats these three categories equally, bestowing the same legal rights, benefits, and obligations on all of them. The government recognizes 37 religious organizations, including the five named in the constitution. The total consists of 17 churches, nine religious communities, and 11 religious groups. Once registered, a church, religious community, or religious group is exempt from taxes and eligible to apply for restitution of properties nationalized during the communist era (provided they existed during that era), government-funded projects, and construction permits for preservation of shrines and cultural sites. It may also establish schools. Unregistered groups may hold religious services or other meetings and proselytize, but they may not engage in certain activities such as establishing schools or receiving donations that are tax deductible for the donor, and they are not tax-exempt.

Skopje Basic Court II accepts registration applications and has 15 business days to determine whether a religious organization’s application meets the legal registration criteria. The criteria are: a physical administrative presence within the country, an explanation of its beliefs and practices that distinguish it from other religious organizations, and a unique name and official insignia. An applicant organization must also identify a supervisory body in charge of managing its finances and submit a breakdown of its financial assets and funding sources, as well as minutes from its founding meeting. The law allows multiple groups of a single faith to register. Leaders or legal representatives of registered religious groups must be citizens of the country.

The court sends approved applications to the Committee on Relations between Religious Communities and Groups (CRRCG), a government body responsible for fostering cooperation and communication between the government and registered religious groups, which adds the organization to its registry. If the court denies the application, the organization may appeal the decision to the State Appellate Court. If the appellate court denies the application, the organization may file a human rights petition with the Constitutional Court, the highest human rights court in the country. If the Constitutional Court denies the petition, the organization may appeal the case to the ECHR.

The law does not permit religious organizations to operate primary schools but allows them to operate schools at the secondary level and above. Religious high schools use their own curricula and are not subject to the Ministry of Education’s certification. Students in religious high schools are not required nor permitted to take the required national matriculation examination (baccalaureate) and therefore are currently unable to enroll in universities. The ministry requires sixth grade students and above to take one of three elective courses, two of which have religious content: Introduction to Religions and Ethics in Religion. According to the ministry’s description, these courses teach religion in an academic, nondevotional manner. Orthodox priests or imams, depending on demand from parents and students, usually teach the courses, with ministry consent, and the state pays their salaries. The Ministry of Education states all teachers of these subjects receive training from accredited higher education institutions taught by professors of philosophy or sociology. If students do not wish to take a course on religion, they may take the third option, Classical Culture in European Civilization.

All foreigners who seek to enter the country to carry out religious work or perform religious rites must obtain a work visa before arrival, a process that normally takes approximately four months. The CRRCG maintains a register of all foreign religious workers and may approve or deny them the right to conduct religious work within the country. Work visas are valid for six months, with the option to renew for an additional six months. Subsequent visa renewals are valid for one year. There is no limit to the number of visa renewals for which a religious worker may apply. Clergy and religious workers from unregistered groups are eligible for visas.

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

Government Practices

On May 29, the EC released its 2019 report on the country, which called on the government to implement earlier ECHR rulings to respect the rights of the OAO and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community. In 2017, following appeals by the two groups, the ECHR had ruled the government violated the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the Convention) by rejecting the OAO’s earlier application for religious group status. In 2018, the ECHR made a similar ruling regarding the Bektashi (Tetovo). The 2019 EC report welcomed the government’s decision to reopen registration proceedings and ensure redress for both groups, in compliance with the Convention.

In October the government paid the OAO 9,500 euros ($10,700) in compensation for damages and court fees as required by the 2017 ECHR ruling. OAO authorities stated the government refused to register the group, interfered in the work of the judiciary in cases involving the OAO, and exerted pressure on the OAO to reapply for registration under a new name. The OAO cited a letter from Skopje Basic Court II in February requesting the OAO change its name because the court could not differentiate it from the MOC-OA. At year’s end, the OAO’s 2009 registration application, without a name change, remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II.

In June the government paid the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community 7,000 euros ($7,900) for damages and court fees as required by the 2018 ECHR ruling, but took no further action. The group’s 2010 registration application remained pending with Skopje Basic Court II at year’s end.

During the year, Skopje Basic Court II received no new registration applications. The court approved in July a 2018 request from the Gospel of Christ Church to change its registration from community to group. The Community of Muslims, which had been rejected for registration in 2016, withdrew its renewed application in April without giving an explanation.

The OAO and the Bektashi (Tetovo) Community said that, as unregistered communities, they continued to face discrimination and intimidation, such as lack of tax-exempt status, the inability to organize their own schools, and disparaging comments about them in the media. The OAO continued to accuse the government of bias against it and of failure to respect domestic and international law. For the eighth year, the Bektashi (Tetovo) reported to police harassment by individuals occupying the Harabati Baba Teqe compound in Tetovo as part of an ongoing property dispute with the IRC. Police were still investigating at year’s end.

In May the Bektashi (Tetovo) condemned the appropriation by the IRC of a parcel of land adjacent to the Harabati Baba Teqe compound. Bektashi (Tetovo) leader Arben Sulejmani stated the government had deprived it of property by not allowing the group to register as a religious entity, despite the favorable 2018 ECHR ruling. The IRC-affiliated Mufti of Tetovo announced in May the construction of two marketplaces on the parcel and stated the government recognized the land as Waqf (Islamic religious property) in 2017 and restituted it in 2018.

On April 17, Skopje Basic Court II approved the request of Skender Buzaku to make him the official leader of the IRC. The IRC dismissed Buzaku as leader in 2015. In his request, Buzaku said an extraordinary session of the IRC Assembly in March elected him following the “irrevocable resignation” of Reis Sulejman Rexhepi as IRC leader. According to the IRC, no such extraordinary session took place. The IRC leadership challenged the court decision at the Skopje Appellate Court, stating the Basic Court’s ruling was based on forged documents using IRC seals stolen in 2015. On October 3, the Skopje Appellate Court voided the ruling of Skopje Basic Court II and remanded the case to that court. On October 4, Skopje Basic Court II reversed its previous ruling, stating Buzaku did not meet the minimum age requirement to become leader of the IRC and confirming Rexhepi as leader. In April the IRC filed a criminal complaint against Buzaku, stating Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski supported him. Both officials and CRRCG Director Darijan Sotirovski denied government involvement. During a press conference in October, Buzaku accused Rexhepi of embezzlement and money laundering. The IRC filed slander charges against Buzaku the next day.

The IRC again stated the government had restored less than 30 percent of property the state seized before gaining independence in 1991. The Husamedin Pasha Mosque in Shtip, nationalized in 1955, remained in dispute. According to IRC leaders, police blocked the mosque entrance and harassed janitorial staff, preventing the facility’s upkeep and the IRC from hosting events and blocking it from regaining rightful ownership of the mosque complex.

The IRC stated the government continued to deny a construction permit for a mosque in the ethnically mixed village of Lazhec due to pressure from residents. The IRC also said the government continued to deny a permit for reconstruction of the mosque in Prilep, considering it a cultural monument under government, not IRC jurisdiction. In April, with financial support from the Turkish government, the IRC commenced reconstruction of the Ali Pasha Mosque in Ohrid. The municipality issued the permit after a yearlong delay, reportedly due in part to public opposition to the height of the minaret, and the mosque was reopened in November.

In March IRC head Rexhepi said the government favored the MOC-OA by granting it unique privileges, such as providing it with public properties free of charge, and funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches.

In September an organization of Vlachs in Bitola said the government transferred ownership of the historic Vlach-built Saint Konstantin and Elena Church in 2016 to the MOC-OA without the community’s consent, depriving the organization of its rightful ownership of the church.

The MOC-OA stated the Municipality of Struga had still not ruled on an application, pending since 2013, for construction of an Orthodox church in the village of Oktisi.

Smaller religious groups continued to state the government treated them unequally, and favored the religious groups listed in the constitution over others. They said Prime Minister Zaev, President Stevo Pendarovski, and other government officials often met only with the five constitutionally recognized groups.

Some religious groups, parents, and Ministry of Education officials stated the Orthodox priests and imams hired to teach the required nondenominational introduction courses on religion and ethics often emphasize the practice of their religions instead of presenting a neutral overview of different faiths.

At the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Plenary Session in Luxembourg on December 5, the IHRA accepted North Macedonia’s request to elevate its status from observer to liaison, the first step to becoming a full member.

In March the Ministry of Education and the Institute for the Cultural and Spiritual Heritage of the Albanians opened a Holocaust Education and Research Department. The department’s stated goals are to defend religious freedom, promote respect for religious diversity, and encourage interfaith cooperation as a means of combating anti-Semitism.

The CRRCG reported it issued letters of consent and visas to all foreign missionaries and clerics who submitted requests for religious work during the year.

The government did not fund travel of registered religious groups for religious reasons but facilitated some travel procedures through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This included obtaining Saudi visas free of charge for the Hajj and working directly with the Saudi government, since there is no Saudi embassy in the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In September, according to Professor Branko Sinadinovski, founder of the Religious Community of Orthodox Albanians, unknown individuals attempted to assault him in front of his home in Skopje. Police intervened to stop the attack. Sinadinovski said he had been targeted several times before (he was assaulted in 2018), and his life was under threat because he had publicly declared himself an Orthodox Albanian. Sinadinovski said he attributed the September incident to lack of effective action by the Ministry of Interior following the previous attack against him.

The Bektashi (Tetovo) Community continued to dispute the IRC’s claims to full ownership of, and plans to renovate with Turkish assistance, the Harabati Baba Teqe complex that the Bektashi (Tetovo) used as a headquarters. Bektashi representatives continued to express concerns that the renovation of the complex would displace them from the compound entirely. The Bektashi could not assert a claim of ownership to the compound because they remained unregistered. At year’s end, the renovation project remained pending until completion of feasibility studies.

In March police filed charges against an individual, identified as K.D., for painting a swastika on the former Bulgarian police station, now a memorial museum of the uprising against fascism, and other buildings in Prilep, under the section of the criminal code for “damage or destruction of protected objects, cultural heritage or natural rarities.” Because the perpetrator was a minor, he was released with a warning.

Police identified and charged six persons with acts of theft, arson, or vandalism against religious targets during the year, compared to one in 2018. The six were in the court process at the end of the year. MOC-OA reported 13 acts of theft of icons, altar decorations, or money in Orthodox churches, and the government reported two incidents of vandalism against Orthodox cemeteries, compared with 26 acts of theft or vandalism of Orthodox sites the previous year. The government also reported one theft in a mosque.

In January unknown persons attempted to set fire to the Evangelical church in the village of Cheflik, in Cheshinovo-Obleshevo Municipality. At year’s end, police had not charged any suspects.

In March a tomb in the yard of an Orthodox church was vandalized in the village of Vapila, Ohrid Municipality. In April unknown persons vandalized the Orthodox cemetery in the village of Brnjarci, Gazi Baba Municipality. By year’s end, police did not identify suspects in either incident.

In December the Helsinki Committee in the country registered eight incidents of hate speech with a religious component during the year. In one case in November, an individual posted threats against members of the OAO on the “Free Orthodoxy” website, calling for their “collective and brutal extermination.”

The Holocaust Fund, an NGO, continued to work with the Ministry of Education on a project to train teachers to teach secondary school students about the Holocaust and Jewish history.

In March the Holocaust Memorial Center officially opened its multimillion dollar permanent exhibition, commemorating North Macedonia’s Jewish population and the 7,148 Jews sent to the Treblinka death camp during World War II. As in previous years, the Center conducted Holocaust education programs in partnership with the Ministry of Education.

In May Pope Francis visited Skopje and met with then-president Gjorge Ivanov and other political leaders, civil society, religious leaders, and youth. He visited the Mother Theresa Memorial and celebrated a Mass for approximately 15,000 persons. Pope Francis praised the harmony between Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the country and the welcome it had extended to refugees from the Middle East. He said the country’s example showed peaceful coexistence was possible amid rich diversity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy and U.S. government officials engaged with government representatives, including Minister of Interior Oliver Spasovski, Minister of Justice Renata Deskoska, and Deputy Prime Minister for European Union Affairs Bujar Osmani to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, including improved interfaith cooperation and governmental respect for and equal treatment of faith groups. The Ambassador also discussed with religious leaders interfaith tolerance and the importance of open dialogue with faith groups.

The Secretary of State met with MOC-OA Archbishop Stefan and two bishops from the MOC-OA during an October visit to the country.

Embassy officials met with IRC leader Rexhepi and Archbishop Stefan to discuss religious freedom issues, including charges of religious groups’ interference in judicial cases (such as on the IRC leadership) and in elections, and government favoritism toward certain religious groups.

Embassy officials also met with representatives from a variety of minority religious groups, including the Bektashi, Jews, and Christian minority denominations, and with NGOs concerned with religious freedom.

The embassy funded the participation of three teachers in an international summer academy in Berlin which focused on Holocaust education and 20th century Jewish history, among other topics.

Partnering with the Holocaust Fund, the embassy also provided the expenses for 40 teachers from the Western Balkans (30 from North Macedonia and 10 from Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina) to attend a seminar in Skopje on interfaith relations in October. The seminar included history lectures, workshops on creating curricula and cross-cultural projects and visits to the oldest synagogue outside of Israel at the archeological site of Stobi, and to the permanent exhibition of the Holocaust Memorial Center.

In October the embassy sponsored the visit by eight religious and civil society leaders to the United States to participate in a program where they met with thought leaders to discuss religious freedom, religious diversity, the protection of cultural heritage, and the role of religious narratives. The group included representatives of the MOC-OA and IRC, the Jewish and Bektashi communities, the Evangelical Methodists and civil society.

The embassy posted 14 messages on social media regarding religious freedom reaching more than 70,000 followers. Topics included the Secretary of State’s messages on the importance of protecting religious freedom and marking the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all individuals shall have the right to free exercise of religion, and all religious and philosophical communities shall be supported on equal terms. The constitution also states “the King shall at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion,” national values “will remain our Christian and humanistic heritage,” and the Church of Norway shall remain the country’s established church and be supported by the state. The law further specifies the right of individuals to choose or change their religion. Any person older than age 15 has the right to join or leave a religious community. Parents have the right to decide their child’s religion before age 15, but they must take into consideration the views of their children once they reach the age of seven and give those views priority once the children reach the age 12.

The penal code specifies penalties, including a fine or imprisonment for up to six months, for discrimination based on religion or expressions of disrespect for religious beliefs or members of religious groups.

By law, the government provides direct financial support to the Church of Norway through an annual block grant that covers the cost of salaries, benefits, and pension plans of Church employees. Contrary to prior years, municipal governments phased out most support to individual Church of Norway congregations, although they still provide funding for the Church and occasionally other religious groups, to maintain facilities of shared religious responsibility, such as municipal cemeteries (which are open to the general public) and preserve public parks, and historical churches, cathedrals, and other buildings of cultural value.

All registered religious and life stance organizations are eligible to apply for financial support from the government. Nearly 800 such organizations receive state support, based on the number of each group’s members.

To register, a faith or life stance organization must notify the county governor and provide its creed and doctrine, activities, names of board members, names and responsibilities of group leaders, operating rules – including who may become a member – voting rights, and the processes for amending statutes and dissolution. A group registers nationally only once in one county but reports its national tally of members annually. If a religious group does not register, it does not receive financial support from the government, but there are no restrictions on its activities. Most religious organizations and life stance communities register and receive government funding. By law, life stance communities, but not religious groups, must have a minimum of 500 members to qualify for government funding. Under the law, churches may not include children younger than age 15 as registered members.

Public schools include a mandatory course on Christian Knowledge and Religious and Ethical Information (CKREE) for grades one through 10. State-employed instructors teach the CKREE course, which covers world religions and philosophies while promoting tolerance and respect for all religious beliefs, as well as for atheism. Up to 50 percent of the CKREE course content is devoted to Christianity. Students may not opt out of this course. Schools do not permit religious ceremonies, but schools may organize religious outings, such as attending Christmas services at a local Church of Norway church. At their parents’ request, children may opt out of participating in or performing specific religious acts, such as a class trip to a church. The parents need not give a reason for requesting an exemption. Students may apply to be absent to celebrate certain religious holidays, such as an Eid or Passover, but there is no celebration or observance of these holidays in public schools.

The law bans clothing that mostly or fully covers the face at educational institutions. The prohibition applies to students and teachers wearing burqas or niqabs in schools and day-care centers.

Passport regulations allow applicants to wear religious headwear in passport photographs, as long as the applicants’ face and ears are visible.

Police are responsible for investigating criminal cases of discrimination, including those involving religion, such as hate crimes. The government-funded but independent Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombudsman reviews noncriminal discrimination and harassment cases, including those involving religion.

Individuals may apply for a full exemption from the required registration for a year of military service for religious reasons and are not required to perform alternative service.

According to the law, an animal must first be stunned or administered anesthetics before slaughter, making most traditional kosher and halal slaughter practices illegal. Halal and kosher meat may be imported.

Foreign religious workers are subject to the same visa and work permit requirements as other foreign workers.

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

Government Practices

In June the government presented to parliament a revised draft law governing religious life, which has been under debate since 2017. The government revised the draft with significant input from the Church of Norway and other religious and life stance communities. The previous version would have required religious groups, not just life stance groups, to have at least 500 registered members to be eligible to receive government funding. The revised draft would establish the threshold for government funding eligibility at 50 members for all religious and life stance groups and count children younger than 15 as members.

Under the terms of the revised draft, the government would provide the Church of Norway an annual grant based on its number of members, identical to the formula used for all other registered religious and life stance organizations. The annual per capita grant would be in lieu of a block grant paying the full cost of salaries, benefits, and pension plans of Church employees. The government would also provide additional funding to the Church of Norway for maintenance of cemeteries and religious buildings. In addition, the draft law would set limits on policies and restrictions the government could impose on a religious organization as a condition to receiving state funding. The Norwegian Humanist Association and the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities (STL) stated these changes would make it easier for these groups to qualify for government funding and addressed the concerns of their members, which viewed the previous version of the law as possibly limiting their autonomy, as well as providing preferential financial treatment to the Church of Norway.

Parliament did not vote on the law by year’s end, but according to the MCF and STL, the proposed legislation had broad support, and parliament would likely enact it in 2020.

In March the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by the Catholic Church to overturn rulings by the Borgarting Court of Appeal and the Oslo District Court that stated the Catholic Church had received more government funds than it was entitled to because it had inflated the numbers of its membership rolls. As a result, the court ordered the Catholic Church to refund the government 40 million kroner ($4.6 million), payable over a five-year period.

The government continued to implement its action plan to counter anti-Semitism, funding projects carried out by government and academic institutions and the Mosaic Community (DMT), the country’s principal Jewish organization. The plan emphasized data collection, training and education programs in schools, research on anti-Semitism and Jewish life in the country, and efforts to safeguard Jewish culture and space. For example, the government funded the Dembra program at the Holocaust Center, an independent research and educational center associated with the University of Oslo, which developed a series of online educational resources to assist schools in creating programs and plans for teaching about and addressing anti-Semitism. Also under the plan, police authorities continued to revise their training curriculum to improve the reporting, processing, and investigation of religiously based hate crimes and continued to collect statistics on hate crimes, including on anti-Semitic incidents.

In September, describing the action plan against anti-Semitism as a success, the government announced it would renew the plan for another five-year period commencing in 2021. Leading NGOs involved in religious freedom such as the STL, the Center against Racism, and Amnesty International Norway endorsed the government’s decision to extend the plan, as did Ervin Kohn, the leader of the DMT. One of the Holocaust Center’s lead researchers said the plan’s renewal was evidence of its success.

In August, following a shooting at an Islamic center in the Oslo suburb of Baerum, the government announced it would accelerate implementation of a similar plan to counter anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, to launch in 2020. The Ministry of Education and Research indicated that many of the grants and programs designed to address anti-Semitism and hate speech would serve as models for developing components in the action plan against anti-Muslim sentiment. Media reports cited broad support for both action plans across the political spectrum.

The government continued implementation of a separate strategy to combat hate speech. The strategy contained elements that addressed anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech using educational programs, provided support to religious and civil society groups engaged in promoting religious tolerance, expanded efforts to encourage reports of hate crimes by victims, and called for more focused legal efforts to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

The police continued to prohibit officers from wearing religious symbols, including religious headwear, with police uniforms. Other uniformed organizations allowed the use of religious headwear. The military provided some religious headwear that conformed to military dress regulations.

The United Sikhs of Norway and Young Sikhs again objected to passport regulations which allow the use of religious headwear in passport photographs but require applicants’ ears to be visible. According to government officials, the requirement allowed for enhanced accuracy of facial recognition software and manual photographic examination. The Sikh representatives stated showing the ears was unnecessary and offered only a negligible improvement in facial recognition. They also stated, except for France, no other European or North American nation set this requirement for religious minorities.

In January the United Sikhs and the Young Sikhs challenged the photograph requirement at the UN Human Rights Committee in a case involving the denial of a passport renewal application of a Sikh man who refused to comply with the regulation. In a private meeting with Prime Minister Erna Solberg, representatives of the United Sikhs pressed for a change in the regulation and later submitted a written proposal to the government to do so. Sikh representatives described the meeting as “positive.” At year’s end, the government was still reviewing the proposal, and the photograph requirement remained in place.

Christian, Muslim, and humanist chaplains served as officers in the military. Religious and humanist groups provided chaplains at their own expense in hospitals and prisons.

In July a satirical website operated by the government-funded National Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) published an anti-Semitic cartoon with a derogatory caricature of an Orthodox Jewish man playing Scrabble with another man who had constructed the word jodesvin (Jewish swine) with his tiles. After widespread criticism from the Jewish community and organizations such as the STL and the Center against Racism, NRK removed the cartoon from its website and issued a public apology.

In March, after a criminal investigation, Director of the Norwegian Prosecuting Authority Tor Aksel Busch said the Prosecuting Authority would not prosecute Norwegian rapper Kaveh Kholardi, against whom several Jewish organizations filed criminal complaints in 2018 for using the phrase “[expletive] Jews” during a concert. Busch said the phrase in question could be considered “legitimate criticism” of Israeli policies. Critics responded that during the incident, Kholardi did not mention particular policies or actions or use the words “Israel” or “Israeli.” The group With Israel for Peace, one of the original complainants against Kholardi, said Busch’s decision not to prosecute was “alarming because [he] finds ambiguity where there is none.”

NGOs and religious communities worked with police and other government agencies to facilitate more reporting of hate crimes and cooperation on public education measures to counter discrimination and build trust between government agencies and religious and ethnic minority communities subject to discrimination.

The Oslo Synagogue, in coordination with the DMT, worked with the National Police to coordinate security, funded by the Ministry of Local Government and Modernization, for the synagogue and Jewish heritage sites and acted as an intermediary between the Jewish community and police to facilitate timely reporting and monitoring of hate crimes.

The Muslim Dialogue Network (MDN) worked with the National Police to provide outreach and education to encourage Muslims, some of whom were members of immigrant communities that MDN said distrusted law enforcement, to report discrimination and hate crimes to authorities. Police and security services provided additional protection for mosques following the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand in March. Authorities increased security further after the shooting at the Islamic center in Baerum in August.

The Center against Racism continued to provide training and advisory services to police on detecting, investigating, and prosecuting both racial and religiously motivated hate crimes. Police continued to assign personnel to support and coordinate these efforts, including providing resources to maintain hate crime investigators in each of the country’s 12 police districts.

The National Criminal Investigation Service continued to maintain a website for the public to contact police regarding hate crimes and hate speech, including religiously motivated incidents.

The national CKREE curriculum continued to include a component on Judaism and teaching about the Holocaust. The Ministry of Education and Research completed a review of the curriculum during the year and announced that Holocaust education would remain. In addition, the ministry continued grants for school programs that raised awareness about anti-Semitism and hate speech, including religiously motivated hate speech. The government also continued to fund a Jewish life module through which young Jews engaged with high school students about Judaism and being Jewish in the country. In many instances, these grants were provided as part of the government’s action plan against anti-Semitism.

Schools nationwide observed Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. The government and local schools continued to support extracurricular programs that took secondary school students to Nazi concentration camps and other sites to educate them about the Holocaust. The trips, which generally lasted three to five days, were primarily arranged by two Norwegian NGOs – Hvite Busser (White Buses) and Aktive Fredreiser (Travel For Peace). The government allocated 15 million kroner ($1.7 million) to support these efforts, and the schools facilitated fundraising activities among the students as well. According to the NGOs involved, approximately 15,000 Norwegian students per year participated in these programs.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food continued to waive import duties on halal and kosher meat and provided guidance on import procedures to both the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Beginning in January, the government shifted responsibility for religious affairs and the funding of religious institutions from the Ministry of Culture to the MCF. According to the STL and the MCF, the transfer had a negligible impact on day-to-day administration of religious affairs, since the civil servants assigned to this portfolio simply moved from one organization to another.

State support to religious and life stance organizations from both the national and municipal governments totaled approximately six billion kroner ($683 million) during the year. The government provided approximately 2.5 billion kroner ($285 million) to the Church of Norway for salaries and operating expenses during the year, including for pensions and benefits of church employees and clergy. The MCF stated the grant to the Church would continue at a high level in order to cover the costs of Church employees and retirees after the removal of those employees from the state payroll following the Church’s separation from the government in 2017. The government provided other registered religious and life stance organizations approximately 344 million kroner ($39.2 million) in total or 1,300 kroner ($150) per registered member. The Church of Jesus Christ continued to be the only major religious community choosing to decline government funding as a matter of policy. Some representatives from these groups, including the STL and Norwegian Humanist Association, stated the size of the grant to the Church of Norway was not only based on the size of its membership, and that the Church’s privileged relationship with the state continued. The criticism particularly concerned continued state and municipal funding for maintenance of Church property such as church buildings and cemeteries, which other religious communities have to fund on their own.

Consistent with previous years, the MCF provided two million kroner ($228,000) to religious umbrella organizations such as the Christian Council of Norway (500,000 kroner [$56,900]), MDN (500,000 kroner [$56,900]), and STL (one million kroner [$114,000]), among others, to promote dialogue and tolerance among religious and life stance organizations.

The government continued to fund workshops and other intervention programs targeting practitioners working with groups that included members of religious minorities to promote their economic and social integration into society. Efforts focused on youth education and engaging local community stakeholders. For example, the government provided financial support to the Forum for Integration and Dialogue, an NGO. Founded by the Muslim Union, this organization worked to integrate youth from different ethnic and religious backgrounds and encourage positive relationships among diverse groups in Kristiansand, a city in the southern part of the country. The government also funded the program for Democratic Preparedness Against Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Undemocratic Attitudes, which provided speakers, resources, and training to teachers working with at-risk youth to advance these objectives.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year police received 144 reports of religiously based hate crimes, a 28.6 percent increase from 2018 when there were 112 reports in the same category. Religiously based hate crimes constituted 17 percent of all hate crimes reported to the police in 2018. Police statistics did not cite specific examples of these crimes or provide details on which religious communities were targeted.

On August 10, the first day of Eid al-Adha, Philip Manshaus, armed with two shotguns and a pistol, shot his way into an Islamic center in Baerum, a suburb of Oslo. When Manshaus entered the center, there were three elders of the mosque inside, including a retired Pakistani military officer who subdued him without any shots fired. The man who subdued Manshaus sustained minor injuries. Police apprehended Manshaus and opened an investigation, which continued at year’s end. Also at year’s end, Manshaus remained in pretrial detention and had not been formally charged. Authorities said his case would likely go to trial in 2020. Prior to going to the center, Manshaus shot and killed his stepsister. According to police, Manshaus had been active in online forums for white supremacists, praised Vidkun Quisling, head of the Nazi collaborationist government in World War II, and had been inspired by other mass shootings, including those at a mosque and Islamic Center in New Zealand in March and at a synagogue in California in April. Prime Minister Solberg and all political parties in parliament condemned Manshaus’ attack, and political and religious leaders jointly attended a ceremony of solidarity with members of the Al-Noor center and the country’s Muslim community the day after the incident.

The Holocaust Center and the leader of the DMT reported anti-Semitism remained prevalent among far-right and far-left groups. They also said groups widely considered anti-Semitic, and in many instances also anti-Muslim, such as the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), with an estimated 100-200 members in the country, were well funded and maintained a strong online presence. According to the investigative news site Filter Nyheter, Nordiske Styrka, a new splinter faction of the NRM, was also active in the country.

Police and NGOs such as the Holocaust Center, Defense Research Institute, Amnesty International, DMT, and Center against Racism said religiously motivated hate speech, particularly online, remained prevalent. The NRM,, Stop Islamization of Norway (SIAN, with 2,500-3,000 members),, and Vigrid were among the most active.

Police and NGOs also stated there was a small but active minority of persons who participated in online chat rooms, message boards, and forums such as 4chan, 8chan, and EndChan, which regularly featured anti-Semitic and/or anti-Muslim content. In November Filter Nyheter published an article describing an active online community that routinely amplified and shared articles and viewpoints from anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant sources. Among the chat forums cited in the article were Iron March, whose slogan is “Gas the Kikes! Race War Now! 14/88 Boots on the Ground,” referencing gassing Jews, race war, a neo-Nazi slogan, and actions all at once. Some of the participants, according to the article’s authors, used instant messaging networks such as Skype or Telegram to develop direct links to right-wing extremist organizations, such as Atomwaffen.

As in previous years, the DMT expressed concern about what it viewed as continued tolerance for anti-Semitic expression in national media and stated online anti-Semitism increased again during the year. It said there were websites operated by SIAN, NRM, and that tended to espouse an extreme, far-right ideology, including anti-Semitic and racist positions associated with the Nazis.

The Holocaust Center also stated anti-Muslim organizations such as SIAN, Human Rights Service, and again increased their activity during the year, including by writing articles online or in print media. The Holocaust Center stated the groups were relatively small but maintained a strong and well-organized presence on the internet. In many instances, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views were closely linked.

In June, according to press reports citing Turkish news agency Anadolu, Anna Braten, leader of SIAN, delivered a speech in Drammen, stating that Islam had no place in the country and that all Qurans must be destroyed. Braten reportedly took out a Quran to deface it and threw it on the ground when police intervened to stop her. Police shut down the event and ordered participants to leave the venue. Braten was not charged.

In June Tore Tvedt, leader of Vigrid, was convicted in the Aust-Agder District Court of racism and hate speech after sending 1,300 emails, mostly in 2016, to schools and day-care institutions in which he stated that schools “brainwashed children into worshippers of Jews” and referring to Jews as “reptiles” and “parasites” on his blog. Tvedt was sentenced to 60 days in prison.

On November 2, the Danish group Scandza Forum, frequently characterized as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, organized a conference in Oslo featuring several U.S. and European speakers known for their anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim viewpoints. Shortly before the event, the Police Security Service arrested one of the scheduled speakers, a U.S. citizen, on the grounds that he was a foreigner who could influence others to commit violence. Authorities deported him two days later. The man’s attorney stated that he intended to take legal action seeking compensation for unlawful detention and violation of his freedom of speech. Police also arrested 28 counterprotesters who disobeyed police instructions and attempted to storm the conference.

The Holocaust Center continued to conduct programs on the Holocaust and to combat anti-Semitism, with financial support from the government. The center developed instructional materials on tolerance of religious diversity and distributed them to high schools nationwide. It published numerous articles and books documenting anti-Semitism and the persecution of religious minorities throughout the world. The center operated a website that provided a comprehensive overview of anti-Semitism and served as a foundation for the center’s educational efforts. It also screened materials used in public schools for anti-Semitic content. In addition, the center continued to operate a museum and library supported by its research organization and offer a wide range of educational materials, programs, exhibitions, and publications. For example, in December the center deployed an online history of the Holocaust for schools and children. The center also developed a program to highlight the importance of Holocaust Remembrance Day and organized a memorial ceremony at the Oslo monument to the victims of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Center continued to play a significant role in the action plan against anti-Semitism by developing educational materials and online platforms for the Ministry of Education and Research and monitoring anti-Semitic (and anti-Muslim) attitudes throughout society. It conducted research on Jewish life in the country and on anti-Semitism in Scandinavia, religious extremism and radicalization, and hate crimes, both on its own initiative and on behalf of parliament and government ministries. It advised the STL. The center’s staff frequently spoke out in the media as legal, policy, or historical experts about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, religious issues, and ethnic/religious oppression and genocide internationally.

The STL continued to foster interfaith dialogue by holding joint meetings with all its member communities. Its mandate was to promote the equal treatment of religious and life stance communities and respect and understanding among all individuals and religions and life stance communities through dialogue. It received support from the government, as well as financial and in-kind contributions from its member organizations. The STL announced it would play a coordinating role in developing the action plan against anti-Muslim sentiment, with a primary role in facilitating input and participation by Muslim organizations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy staff met with officials from the MCF who worked on religious issues. The discussions centered on the proposed law on religion, public financing for faith and life stance organizations, and perceptions by some religious groups of financial preferences for the Church of Norway. Embassy staff regularly met with the special envoy for freedom of religion at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Embassy representatives also met with officials from the Ministry of Justice and Public Security to discuss efforts to track, investigate, and prosecute religiously based hate crimes.

The embassy used social media to honor a range of religious holidays celebrated by different faiths in the country and, in the aftermath of the attempted mass shooting at the Al-Noor Islamic center, posted messages of condolence and support for the Muslim community.

Embassy staff engaged a wide range of religious and civil society groups to discuss religious freedom, integration of minority groups, life as a religious person, and their efforts to promote religious tolerance in the country, as well as their concerns about religious discrimination and perceptions of government favoritism for the Church of Norway. These groups included the STL, DMT, MDN, Catholic Church, Church of Norway, the Church of Jesus Christ, Islamic Community Center – Norway, Humanist Association of Norway, Amnesty International, Sikh and Uighur groups, and the Holocaust Center, among others.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation. It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion. According to the Basic Law, the sultan must be a Muslim.

There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.

The penal code sets the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran,” “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion,” or “promoting religious and sectarian tensions” at 10 years. The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment. Holding a meeting outside government-approved locations to promote another religion is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Under the penal code, Abrahamic religions are protected from blasphemy, but the code does not mention non-Abrahamic faiths in this context. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.” Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is a crime, with a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 Omani rials ($2,600).

All religious organizations must register with the government. The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA. New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they can register. Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor. For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, Al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar Al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors. The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders. MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with MERA. The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must deliver sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters. Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.

The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the sultan for the purpose of collective worship.

The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”

The law states the government must approve construction and/or leasing of buildings by religious groups. In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.

Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction. The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking, and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another. Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.

The Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation. Principles of sharia inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes, but passage of the Judicial Authority Law in 1999 replaced sharia courts with civil courts. Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code. The law states Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence in these matters differs from that of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts, and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition. The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.

Citizens may sue the government for abuses of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.

Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion. Other official identity documents do not do so.

Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship. Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member’s entry.

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

Government Practices

According to social media reports, in August police detained and brought in for questioning at least five individuals after they gathered to perform Eid al-Adha prayers a day before the official date announced by MERA.

According to at least one online media outlet, in July the government-appointed grand mufti criticized Muslims who sent their daughters to study abroad for not protecting their “morals and values.”

According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters. These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics, along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams. Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring. The government-appointed grand mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters.

Religious groups reported opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration, but none reported they were actively seeking to register with the government. While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration. MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim. Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group. According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register.

The Church of Jesus Christ remained without a registration sponsor or a permanent place of worship, but Church leaders said the government was working with the group to reach a solution. Other religious minority groups reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups, even though they represented a significant population in the country, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations. Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship. According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.

In September Catholic and Muslim leaders, including a senior MERA official who spoke at the gathering, attended the inauguration of a new Catholic church in Salalah, built on land donated by the sultan.

MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis. For example, several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country, which they coordinated with MERA by submitting an annual calendar of events.

Religious groups said that, consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership. Religious groups stated they did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship. The government also continued to require religious groups to notify MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to MERA. Religious minority leaders said the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all approved religious groups to build and maintain religious facilities in the country.

According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings, although there is no law stating that custody is tied to religious affiliation.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

In February the ADL called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair. According to the ADL, the listings included more than a dozen versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a dozen copies of Mein Kampf, as well as Henry Ford’s The International Jew. The ADL stated that the book fair also included books deeply intolerant of other religious faiths, including Shia Islam and the Yezidi and Baha’i faiths.

The government, through MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum (Understanding), a quarterly periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although not prohibited by law, according to some minority religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.

At least one Arabic-language Omani newspaper featured anti-Semitic imagery in cartoons critical of the Israeli government. For example, some imagery portrayed characters wearing the Star of David as violent or manipulative.

The interfaith Al-Amana Center, which was founded and supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims. It hosted immersion courses in conjunction with the MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations. The center also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its outreach efforts promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Embassy officers also raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religion places of worship and encouraged MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with minority religious groups to assess and support the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective religions.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution.

The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad … the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Muhammad.” It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”

According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, or carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine. On February 7, the government of Azad Kashmir amended its interim constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim.

The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty.

The military courts’ mandate to try civilians for terrorism, sectarian violence, and other charges expired on March 31. The government may also use the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs), established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.

The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.

The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.

The constitution mandates the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.

The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.

The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.

The constitution states no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.

The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.

By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the suprasectarian Jamaat-i-Islami. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of five wafaqs.

The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.

The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights if they so choose. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.

The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”

In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codified legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion or by fraud.” The act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. In 2018, the Sindh provincial government further enacted amendments to its 2016 legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The 2018 Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.

Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized. Under such judgments, children born to a non-Muslim couple could be considered illegitimate and ineligible for inheritance if their mother converts to Islam. The only way to legitimize the marriage and the children would be for the husband also to convert to Islam. Under such judgments, the children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert to another religious group could be considered illegitimate, and the government could take custody of the children. The law does not speak on any of these practices.

The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution, but does not have arrest authority. A 2010 constitutional amendment devolved responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.

According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal and provincial levels of government.

The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces; however, students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.

The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information in national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.

The constitution requires the president and prime minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires that elected Muslim officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam.

The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the president and prime minister be Muslims.

Government Practices

According to civil society reports, there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, and at least 29 under sentence of death, compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by NGOs, authorities registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals during the year. Courts issued two new death sentences and sentenced another individual to five years’ imprisonment. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of one person for blasphemy, and a lower court acquitted another person charged with blasphemy during the year. Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least one individual was accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately affected members of religious minority communities. Of the 84 imprisoned for blasphemy, 31 were Christian, 16 Ahmadi, and 5 Hindu. According to civil society sources, as of the end of the year, 29 individuals remained on death row for alleged blasphemy. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses. NGOs continued to report lower courts often did not adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.

Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets reported four cases of police mistreatment of and discrimination against Christians in August and September, including one case that resulted in the death of Amir Masih in September. According to multiple media reports, police in Lahore arrested Masih after he was accused of theft and held him for four days before notifying his family to pick him up. Closed-circuit television showed policemen bringing Masih out of the hospital in a wheelchair, and he died a few hours later. Media reported that a post-mortem examination found signs of torture, including burn marks and broken ribs. According to some media reports, Masih’s brother said that one of the policemen made derogatory comments about Christians, including, “I know how to deal with these infidels.” The Punjab Inspector General of Police removed the investigation officer and arrested five others, but there were no further reports of investigation or prosecution of the officers involved. Instances of torture and mistreatment by some police personnel were part of broader human rights concerns about police abuses against citizens of all faiths reported by local and international human rights organizations; some police agencies took steps to curb abuses by incorporating human rights curricula in training programs.

On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7; numerous sources stated that death threats from anti-blasphemy political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and others made it unsafe for her and her family to remain. On November 13, an ATC indicted TLP leader Khadim Hussein Rizvi, TLP’s religious patron-in-chief Pir Afzal Qadri, and 24 others with sedition and terrorism. The formal charges came approximately one year after police took Rizvi and Qadri into custody for their roles in leading nationwide protests and calling for the assassination of public officials at the time of Bibi’s acquittal. On May 15, the Lahore High Court ordered Rizvi and Qadri to be released on bail for health reasons, and they remained free at year’s end.

On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. He was simultaneously sentenced to life imprisonment for defiling the Quran and 10 years’ imprisonment for outraging the feelings of Muslims. Hafeez was arrested in 2013 after members of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami at Bahauddin Zakariya University complained of his allegedly liberal and skeptical views, and one of his first lawyers was killed in 2014 for defending him against the blasphemy charges.

On September 12, a special cybercrimes court sentenced Sajid Ali, a Muslim, to five years imprisonment for blasphemy on social media. Authorities charged Ali with posting “sacrilegious, blasphemous, and derogatory material against Hazrat Umar” (a senior companion of the Prophet Muhammad) on Facebook in 2017 under both the blasphemy law and PECA. His conviction was the first time an individual was punished for insulting the companions of the Prophet Muhammad online.

On May 27, police in Mirpurkhas, Sindh Province, arrested Hindu veterinarian Ramesh Kumar after a prayer leader from a local mosque said he had desecrated the Quran by wrapping medicines in pages of Quranic verse. As word spread, a mob burned Kumar’s clinic and attacked the police station. In addition to arresting Kumar, which media reported police said was for his own protection, local police arrested six suspects on charges of rioting and attempted murder. Police also provided security at Kumar’s residence. Media reports quoted a senior district police official who described the rioters as “miscreants” who neither loved Islam nor their neighbors.

On September 15, police in Ghotki, Sindh Province, arrested Hindu teacher Notan Lal after a student accused him of blasphemy in an Islamic studies class. Local religious leaders led a mob that vandalized a Hindu temple and looted other Hindu-owned properties. Police, supported by paramilitary officers, dispersed the crowd and moved Lal to an undisclosed location for his own protection, according to a senior police official. After the riots, the Ministry of Human Rights set up an investigative committee, which included Hindu lawmakers and human rights activists of diverse faiths. The committee found the riots were premeditated, with political motivations. The committee further recommended a formal judicial inquiry as to whether the blasphemy law had been misused. At the end of the year, no action on this recommendation was reported. Some civil society members held a peace rally to express solidarity with the Hindu community.

During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others of their charges after the accused had spent years in prison. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Wajih-ul-Hassan, a Muslim, for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent 18 years in prison. The Supreme Court’s judgment criticized the lower court’s conviction of ul-Hassan based on lack of witnesses, weak evidence, and an extrajudicial confession. On January 15, the Kasur Sessions Court in Punjab Province acquitted Christian laborer Pervaiz Masih of blasphemy after a three-year trial.

In May the Lahore High Court upheld the death sentences of three of the five men convicted of murder in the 2014 killings of Christian couple Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, but it overturned the convictions of two others.

According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; Sawan Masih; and Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar – remained in prisons and continued to await action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution. The Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) stated it believed the widespread protests following the Supreme Court’s 2018 overturning of Asia Bibi’s conviction may have increased many judges’ reluctance.

On March 28, an ATC sentenced two additional individuals to life in prison for their role in the 2017 killing of university student Mashal Khan for alleged blasphemy. The sentencing came after the primary shooter was sentenced to death and five others were sentenced to life in prison in 2018. One of the men, Arif Khan, a local government official affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) (PTI) party, was seen in two videos participating in the killing of Mashal and congratulating another accused individual for committing the killing.

Authorities charged 11 Ahmadis in connection with practicing their faith during the year, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders. Among these, six Ahmadis were arrested and charged with blasphemy, although three were released. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders stated that due to arrests and criminal charges for offering a sacrifice at Eid al-Adha in previous years, Ahmadis carried out the ritual sacrifice in private to avoid exposure and arrest. On March 18, a judge released elderly Ahmadi bookseller Abdul Shakoor from prison after reducing his sentence to the three years he had already served. Shakoor had been convicted of propagating the Ahmadiyya faith and “inciting hatred.”

According to law enforcement reports, there was at least one instance in which the government intervened in a case of intercommunal violence. According to those reports, a Shia procession near Lahore deviated from its approved route during the commemoration of Ashura, sparking a violent response from a Sunni group. There were no deaths but multiple injuries from gunshots and thrown stones. Police called in support from Ranger forces when they could not put down the clash on their own.

Police intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On March 26, police in Saddar, Punjab Province, called on a district peace committee and a local cleric to help them interrupt a mob beating seven individuals accused of blasphemy. According to media reports, the attackers released the accused only following promises that police would arrest them. In these instances, police intervened to save the lives of the accused, stop violence, and mitigate damage to property, but they also arrested and charged the accused under the blasphemy law and did not always charge those responsible for the violence. In another case, however, police in Yousafabad, Punjab Province on October 28 intervened and convinced clerics to drop charges of blasphemy against a Christian sanitation worker who found a bag containing pages from the Bible and the Quran. When he brought the pages to a Muslim shopkeeper to ascertain how to best handle the pages, the shopkeeper reportedly accused him of blasphemy and took him to a mosque, where the imam called for attacks on Christian homes.

In March three assailants killed Hindu laborer Ghansam Bheel in a village near Umerkot, Sindh Province. The killing sparked protests by Hindus in many Sindh towns against alleged police apathy. According to some reports, police began an investigation only after senior government officials intervened.

More than 40 Christian men remained in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, accused of lynching two Muslim men after terrorist suicide bombers attacked two Christian churches in March 2015. An ATC indicted the men on charges of murder and terrorism in 2016, and the trial had not concluded at year’s end. Civil society sources reported that the judge and legal counsel for the families of the two men killed and the imprisoned men were seeking a way to resolve the cases through conciliation and compensation. NGO Pakistan Interfaith League (PIL) stated the move toward conciliation and compensation was a positive development but expressed concern that the families of the imprisoned men had no way to pay because their primary income earners had been imprisoned for years.

Historically, Hindu and Sikh leaders had noted the legal uncertainty surrounding the process of registering marriages for their communities created difficulties for Hindu and Sikh women in obtaining inheritances, accessing health services, voting, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. Observers stated the enactment of the 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and its 2018 amendments, the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act, and the 2018 Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act addressed many of the problems and also codified the right to divorce. Members of the Sindh Provincial Assembly stated that the Sindh cabinet adopted regulations to implement the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act in December.

On August 14, Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly stated, “Those in Pakistan who convert people to Islam by force…are going against Islam.” On November 21, the Senate established a Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions. The committee included the minister of religious affairs and interfaith harmony, the minister of human rights, and several Christian and Hindu senators. Religious minorities, however, said they remained concerned that government action to address coerced conversions of religious minorities to Islam was inadequate. Minority rights activists in Sindh cited the province’s failure to enact legislation against forced conversions as an example of the government’s retreating in the face of pressure from religious parties. Sindh Assembly member Nand Kumar Goklani introduced a bill against forced conversions on April 5. The draft updated a similar bill approved by the Sindh Assembly in 2016 that the governor refused to sign, reportedly under pressure from extremist groups. On October 23, the Sindh Assembly voted against the new bill after Islamist parties and religious leaders lobbied against it.

The family of Huma Younus, a 14-year-old Christian girl, filed a case saying Abdul Jabar, a Muslim man, kidnapped her from her Karachi home, raped her, and forcibly converted her to Islam on October 10. According to the family’s lawyer, Huma’s family had not seen her since she was taken, and she did not appear at a court hearing on November 11. Sindh Province law prohibits the marriage of minors under 18 years old.

There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion, although enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare. On May 31, a Hindu woman testified in court that men kidnapped her from Tando Bago, Sindh, took her to another village, assaulted her, and forced her to convert to Islam. Police recovered the woman within a few days of her husband’s reporting the kidnapping. The court ruled the woman should return to her family but did not order any legal action against the suspects. On September 4, Punjab police removed a 15-year-old Christian girl from a madrassah and took her to a women’s shelter in Sheikhupura after her parents filed an abduction complaint with the Punjab Ministry of Human Rights and Minority Affairs. According to civil society and media reports, the girl’s parents became alarmed when she did not come home from school and learned the school principal had taken her to a madrassah. After visiting three madrassahs, the parents found their daughter, but they were barred from bringing her home. The girl’s principal reportedly told her she had automatically become a Muslim by reading Arabic and offered to financially compensate her parents if they would convert to Islam.

Other cases of alleged forced conversions received high-level government intervention after minority communities lobbied for assistance. On March 20, in a case that received wide media coverage, Hindu sisters Reena and Raveena Meghwar disappeared from their home in Ghotki District, Sindh. Their father and brother said they had been abducted, and that they were underage. Local police did not file a case immediately and reportedly dismissed the family’s claims. On March 21, a video of the sisters, in which they claimed they were over 18 and had converted to Islam voluntarily and married two Muslim men, spread rapidly on social media. The sisters were taken from Sindh to Punjab Province to marry at the office of Sunni Tehreek, a religious political party. On March 24, Prime Minister Khan ordered authorities in Sindh and Punjab to investigate, and on March 25, police arrested 12 individuals, including the marriage officiant and witnesses. Also on March 25, the sisters filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court seeking protection from their family. The court ordered the government to provide protection for the women and formed a commission to investigate the case. The commission included the minister for human rights, the chair of Human Rights Commission Pakistan, the chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women, and a prominent Muslim cleric, but no minority religious members. On April 11, the court ruled that the sisters were of marriageable age and had not been forced to convert to Islam. There was no clear-cut evidence as to the age of the sisters at the time of marriage and whether they had willingly converted and gone to Punjab to marry, but in the aftermath of the incident, Hindu and Christian members of the National Assembly proposed bills to enhance punishment for those involved in forced conversions and to make child marriage a criminal offense.

On August 28, a community dispute arose when a 19-year-old Sikh woman married a Muslim man in Nankana Sahib, Punjab. According to media reports, Jagjit Kaur, a Sikh and the daughter of a prominent Sikh religious leader, converted to Islam to marry for love, but her family accused the Muslim family of kidnapping and forcibly converting her. Kaur’s family filed charges and threatened to immolate themselves if police did not bring her home. Kaur stated in court that she was of legal age to marry and converted of her own free will, and a judge ordered her to remain in a women’s shelter while the Punjab government met with representatives of each side. On September 3, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar met with representatives of each family and stated the situation had been amicably resolved, although Sikh sources stated Kaur remained in the women’s shelter at year’s end. Media reports quoted Sarwar as stating he would not negotiate a resolution in any case he suspected to be kidnapping and forced conversion, which, he said, were unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

The Ministry of Interior maintained multi-tier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). On March 5, the government added UN-listed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD, a political front of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyiba) and its charity wing Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) to the list of organizations proscribed under Schedule 1. On May 10, the government added seven JuD and two FIF affiliate organizations to the Schedule 1 list. Punjab police arrested JuD founder Hafiz Saeed July 17 on terrorism finance charges, and at year’s end he faced three separate terrorism-finance-related prosecutions. Other groups, including LeJ, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), remained on Schedule 1, but groups that sources stated were widely believed to be affiliated with them continued to operate to various degrees.

According to the Ahmadiyya community spokesperson, on October 25 Assistant Commissioner of Hasilpur, Punjab, Mohammad Tayyab, led a group of police officers and other officials, who tore down part of an Ahmadi mosque. Throughout the year, police closed down two Ahmadi prayer centers in Rawalpindi, citing law and order concerns, and another prayer center in Lahore. In June police in Sheikhapura District, Punjab Province, denied Ahmadis access to a mosque they used for prayer and forced them to sign a declaration they would no longer pray in the mosque. In September police also prevented Ahmadis from praying in a private home in Gujranwala, Punjab Province, and in a newly-built prayer center in Nankana, also in Punjab. In all these cases, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders cited complaints from Muslim clerics as prompting police to prevent their worship. Civil society members also reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set on fire Ahmadi mosques. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years.

According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Muhammad. On March 28, the Lahore High Court directed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the PTA to remove or block proscribed religious material and “inauthentic” e-copies of the Quran available in app stores and other online sources; a petitioner complained to courts that Ahmadi groups had posted Ahmadi publications of the Quran online.

While the law required a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint could be filed, a requirement that NGOs and legal observers stated would help contribute to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases, some NGOs said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. There were some cases in which police received custody of the accused from a court for 14 days in order for a senior officer to carry out an investigation. At the same time, NGOs reported that sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, rather than a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, or that police would not carry out a thorough investigation. NGOs and legal observers also stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.

According to religious organizations and human rights groups, while the majority of those accused and convicted of blasphemy were Muslim, religious minorities continued to be disproportionately accused of blasphemy relative to their small percentage of the population. According to data compiled from multiple sources, since 2001 there were 28 convictions of non-Ahmadi Muslims, 16 convictions of Christians, and four convictions of Ahmadi Muslims.

Community leaders continued to report the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such. In 2018 the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam. Neither the National Assembly nor the Senate had acted on the 2018 judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the IHC judgment. According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of prophethood,” something which they stated was against Ahmadi belief, in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections.

Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered part of the Hindu religion.

Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, as those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961. Some community representatives said Christians faced difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars – usually church authorities. Parliament, church leaders, and advocates debated the text of a new draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, as the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of the National Assembly and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice held consultations with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but there was no agreement among different church denominations and between church leaders and NGO representatives on elements of the text pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage at year’s end. NGOs lobbying for amendments to permit divorce in a wider range of circumstances praised the Ministry of Human Rights’ efforts to consult with stakeholders and overall efforts to accelerate progress on the bill.

The government continued to fund and facilitate Hajj travel for most Muslims, but Ahmadis were unable to participate in the Hajj, community leaders said, because of passport application requirements to list religious affiliation and denounce the founder of the Ahmadiyya community.

The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel. Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – was located in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow them to travel to Israel. In January the federal government allowed Jewish citizen Fishel Benkhald to travel to Israel after he appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for special permission.

According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram – religiously significant for Shia Muslims – authorities at the federal and provincial levels again restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing. According to civil society and media reports, the government restricted the movement and activities of these individuals because they were known for exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Some religious minority leaders stated the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.

The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. To seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so as non-Muslims, even though they self-identify as Muslim.

The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior may grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas are valid for one year and allow one re-entry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated extensions could be granted for two years with two re-entries per year, excluding from India. Approximately 50 missionaries affiliated with one Christian organization, some of whom had been working in the country for many years, were denied visa renewals after a long appeal period.

In 2018 the Federal Cabinet approved a bill with amendments to PECA to bring online blasphemy and pornographic material within its ambit. Further proposed amendments include life imprisonment for “desecrating the Quran through information systems” and the death sentence for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. The bill remained in legislative process at year’s end.

The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the PTA. The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal. Users are advised to report such content on for action under PECA 16.”

In July PTA Chairman Amir Bajwa told the Senate that the government should either increase the PTA’s technical capabilities or block social media websites to stop the sharing of blasphemous content, which he said he believed mostly came from other countries. Bajwa also recommended the government sign mutual legal assistance treaties with other countries so that access to what the government considered blasphemous content on international social media platforms could be blocked in the country. Bajwa further stated the PTA had received 8,500 complaints regarding blasphemous internet content and had blocked approximately 40,000 websites for containing blasphemous material since 2010. Human rights activists and journalists expressed concern the government could use this initiative as a pretext to suppress views on the internet that differed from those of the government, including on religious issues.

According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Some Sikh and Hindu places of worship also reopened during the year. On July 29, the Evacuee Trust Property Board reopened the thousand-year-old Teja Singh Temple near Sialkot, Punjab Province that had been closed since 1947. The government further promised to restore and reopen more Hindu temples each year. On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, built where the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak is said to have died, along with a visa-free transit corridor (the Kartarpur Corridor) for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Before the refurbishing of the site and the opening of the visa-free transit corridor, the gurdwara had fallen into disrepair, and Indian Sikhs were unable to visit. Prime Minister Khan welcomed Sikh pilgrims at the site’s inauguration and gave a speech celebrating Guru Nanak and religious tolerance.

Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.

Legal experts and NGOs continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests. The NCHR remained without a new mandate for a second four-year term and without new commissioners at year’s end.

Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the federal Ministry of Law and Justice, as well as by the federal Ministry of Human Rights and its provincial counterparts. They also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.

On August 8, representatives of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Baha’i communities submitted a resolution to the prime minister requesting additional protection for religious minorities and women. The resolution called for the minimum age of marriage for women to be raised from 16 to 18 nationwide, the establishment of a federal ministry for religious minorities, a 5 percent quota for national and international educational scholarships for minorities, protection of minorities’ houses of worship from government seizure, and provision of spaces for worship for minority communities in state institutions. Additional requests included legislation to prevent discrimination against minorities, elimination of derogatory curriculum material, government subsidies for security at minorities’ schools, and legislation to address abductions, sexual violence, and forced conversions of women from religious minority communities. Finally, the resolution requested that minorities “be given particular protection” from the abuse of blasphemy laws.

In some cases, senior government officials condemned instances of discrimination by government officials. In March the ruling PTI party forced Punjab Provincial Minister for Information and Culture Fayyazul Hassan Chohan to resign after he made derogatory remarks against Hindus, and multiple cabinet ministers and senior advisors condemned Chohan’s speech. Chohan later received a new cabinet appointment as provincial minister for colonies in July and was reappointed as provincial minister for information and culture in December.

Legal observers continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, which led to some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups such as the TLP often threatening the defendant’s attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, they reported, blasphemy trials were held inside the jail for security reasons, in which case the hearings were not public, resulting in a gain in immediate security but a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.

Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. These conferences were organized by groups saying they were defending the teaching that the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet but were often characterized by hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims. On January 6, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari spoke at a Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference hosted by the Golra Sharif Shrine in Islamabad. According to media reports, Bukhari said that Pakistan would be the first to counter any propaganda against the finality of prophethood and that anyone working against the theological conviction “is not a human.” Bukhari later denied making anti-Ahmadi statements and tweeted on March 26, “Pakistan belongs to ALL Pakistanis.” On August 6, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Shaukat Yousafzai spoke at a Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar.

Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students were required to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission as long as they did not claim to be Muslims.

Members of religious minority communities stated public schools gave Muslim students bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but there were no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit available for religious minority students.

Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring, but there were exceptions. In September Pushpa Kumari became the country’s first female Hindu assistant subinspector of police. While there remained a 5 percent quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal level, minority organizations said government employers did not enforce it. On October 15, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government notified the Supreme Court it had raised its quota for hiring religious minorities from 3 to 5 percent, bringing it to the 5 percent quota already required by the Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan Provincial governments. According to religious minority activists, however, provincial governments also often failed to meet such quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.

Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff still listed being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. In June civil rights activists from many faiths raised concerns over a Pakistan Army advertisement specifying only Christians could apply for the job of sanitation worker in the army’s Mujahid Force. On June 28, the director-general of the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations Agency responded that the advertisement had been reposted with no discriminatory qualifications.

Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. Although there were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, they said in practice, non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.

The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Education held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year in a review of textbooks for derogatory material. Officials of the Ministry of Human Rights stated in August that after their review and further reviews from the provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, “All hate speech had been removed” from school textbooks in these provinces. The Ministry of Human Rights reported the Ministry of Education adopted all its recommendations to remove hate speech, but its recommendations to include new rights-based content were not accepted. Some minority faith representatives said their inclusion in the review process was minimal, however, and stated they feared problematic content would remain in curricula. In a March peace conference, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine stated that Christian representatives would sit on the Punjab Textbook Board during the preparation of curriculum to ensure derogatory statements were removed, but the promise was reportedly not fulfilled at year’s end. Ahmadiyya community representatives said local associations of clerics frequently distributed anti-Ahmadi stickers to school districts to place on textbooks, and the school boards usually accepted them. These stickers contained phrases such as, “It is strictly prohibited in Sharia to speak to or do any business with Qadianis,” “The first sign of love of the Prophet is total boycott of Qadianis,” and “If your teacher is a Qadiani, refuse learning from him.”

While schools were required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources reported many non-Muslim students were also required to participate because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools.

Prime Minister Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul-Haq Qadri all spoke on peace and interfaith harmony at the November 9 opening of the Kartarpur Corridor to the Sikh Gurdwara Darbar Sahib worship complex. Qadri and several PTI Members of the National Assembly spoke of the government’s commitment to stop kidnappings and forced conversions at a ministry-hosted event celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi. Member of the National Assembly Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali at a Sikh Gurdwara.

From September 1-10, leading to and during the Shia commemoration of Ashura, the ninth and tenth days of Muharram, the government emphasized unity among Muslims around the Ashura holiday. Prime Minister Khan, President Arif Alvi, and Foreign Minister Qureshi used the Ashura story to exhort Muslims to be ready to lay down their lives for the cause of good against evil. Law enforcement again deployed extra security around Shia processions in major cities throughout Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan Provinces, including for Hazara Shia communities in Quetta. According to civil society sources, authorities again restricted the movement and public sermons of both Sunni and Shia clerics accused of provoking sectarian violence. The government placed some clerics on Schedule 4, a list of proscribed persons based on reasonable suspicion of terrorism or sectarian violence, and temporarily detained others under the Maintenance of Public Order Act.

Authorities also provided enhanced security for Christian and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year. After an attack on a mosque in New Zealand that killed 51 on March 15, the government increased security at churches throughout the country, which Christian community members stated was out of concern for potential retaliation against Christians. Sindh Minorities’ Affairs Minister Hari Ram Kishori Lal announced on November 18 the provincial government would provide CCTV cameras to enhance security at 243 religious minority houses of worship in Sindh. Several activists and Christian pastors reported improved security at places of worship, notably in Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta during the major holidays of Holi, Ashura, and Christmas.

The Sindh provincial government declared Diwali a public holiday for Hindu government employees.

There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine, which the government sought to curb through madrassah registration and curriculum reform. On September 3, the federal government approved the Ministry of Education’s assumption of administrative control and registration authority of the country’s estimated 30,000 madrassahs. Prime Minister Khan, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, and Chief of Army Staff General Javed Bajwa stated the goal of madrassah registration and curriculum reform was to bring madrassah students into the mainstream, create a uniform education policy, and improve madrassah graduates’ economic prospects. Government officials reported ongoing consultations with leaders of the five wafaqs throughout the year and stated the Ministry of Education would open 12 regional offices throughout the country to assist with the registration process.

On November 5, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the country was committed to taking concrete actions against terrorism under the NAP. The ministry further stated the country had taken “extensive legal and administrative measures” to implement its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1267 to freeze assets and deny funds to all UN-designated entities and individuals. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) continued to operate its “Surfsafe” app, launched in 2018, to help citizens report websites that published extremist content and hate speech.

Print and broadcast media outlets continued to occasionally publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. On November 9, PTI politician and former minister for science and technology Azam Swati said in a live talk show broadcast that he and PM Khan both “sent curses” upon Ahmadis, responding to Islamist politicians’ accusations that PM Khan was sympathetic to the Amhadiyya community. Ministry of Human Rights officials stated the government ordered PEMRA to monitor television broadcasts and take action against any broadcaster airing hate speech against Ahmadis. Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and op-eds, estimating nearly 3,000 instances of hate speech were printed during the year, some of which could be considered inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media.

Civil society groups said the government made some progress in implementing a 2014 Supreme Court decision ordering the government to take several steps to ensure the rights of minorities and promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, including establishing a Supreme Court mechanism to hear complaints, a task force to protect religious minority places of worship, and a national commission for minority rights. On October 3, the Supreme Court established a special judicial panel made up of Supreme Court justices to hear petitions related to the rights of minorities and appointed a commissioner to oversee the court’s own implementation of the judgment. According to officials from the Ministry of Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior established a task force convening cabinet ministries, police branches, Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, and religious representatives to discuss implementation of the judgment. As chair of the task force, the Ministry of Human Rights stated it had given 10 priority action points to the ministries involved. The government did not establish a special task force to protect minority places of worship, as was called for by the judgment. Many faith community members, however, said they believed the government did increase efforts to protect places of worship. Human rights activists continued to state that neither the federal nor most provincial governments had made substantial progress in implementing other aspects of the 2014 decision. According to several human rights activists, the most notable area of inaction was the continued failure to establish an empowered National Commission for Minorities. Officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony and the Ministry of Human Rights stated they were committed to establishing such a commission as directed by the Supreme Court. Some civil society groups attributed lack of progress to a belief within the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony that such a commission was not necessary due to the existence of its own interfaith harmony commission.

Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, from bonded labor practices. Only eight of Sindh’s 29 districts have established District Vigilance Committees, which are legally mandated to monitor and eradicate bonded labor practices. Of the eight established District Vigilance Committees, only three are fulfilling their legal mandate. In some districts of Sindh Province, members of Hindu scheduled castes were disproportionately affected by bonded labor practices in agriculture and brick kiln industries, according to human rights activists. On December 19, the Sindh Provincial Assembly passed the Sindh Women Agriculture Act to strengthen protections for female agricultural workers, including the right to a written contract and collective bargaining, but implementing regulations were not drafted by year’s end. The Sindh Province government also did not pass regulations to implement the Bonded Labor Abolition Act of 2015, which would enhance the monitoring and eradication of bonded labor practices.

According to civil society and media, violence and abuses continued to be committed by armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including LeJ, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and SSP, as well as abuses by individuals and groups, such as ISIS, designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments. These groups continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, particularly the predominantly Shia Hazara community. In a change from previous years, there were no reports of Christians being targeted by armed sectarian groups during the year. According to the SATP, the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups continued to decrease, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. Data on sectarian attacks varied because no standardized definition existed of what constituted a sectarian attack among reporting organizations. According to the SATP, at least 27 persons were killed and 68 injured in four incidents of sectarian violence by extremist groups during the year. All of these attacks targeted gatherings of Shia individuals.

On April 12, a bomb attack in Quetta targeting Shia Hazaras going to a vegetable market under police protection killed 21 persons, including eight Hazaras, and injured at least 48. TTP, LeJ, and the ISIS each claimed responsibility for the attack, which the SATP and other analysts attributed to LeJ with ISIS support. The attack sparked four days of sit-in protests by Hazaras in Quetta, who demanded the government end terrorist attacks on their community. President Arif Alvi met with families of the victims on April 16, Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi and Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Alyani met with protesters on April 17, and Prime Minister Khan visited Quetta on April 21. On May 7, terrorists affiliated with Hizbul Ahrar, a splinter group of TTP, attacked police stationed outside the Data Darbar Shrine in Lahore, the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia, killing nine and wounding 24. In late May police stopped an attempted terrorist attack at a Shia place of worship in Quetta. A 16-year-old boy dressed as a woman tried to enter the building and as police intercepted him, he threw a hand grenade, which killed him. On June 7, unidentified assailants detonated magnetically attached improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on two vehicles carrying Shia passengers near Ziarat, Balochistan Province. The first IED targeted a family of Bohra Shia Muslims returning from a shrine, killing three, and the second IED targeted a group of Shia Hazaras, killing two and injuring seven. No group claimed responsibility, but the Counter Terrorism Department investigated the bombings as terrorist attacks.

There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia in Dera Ismail Khan and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although because religion and ethnicity were often closely related, it was difficult to categorize some incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to the SATP and media reports, ATCs convicted and sentenced several individuals affiliated with terrorist organizations and involved in past sectarian attacks and targeted killings. On February 20, police arrested LeJ members Furqan Bungalzai and Ali Akbar on charges of involvement in the February 16, 2017 Sehwan Shrine attack, which killed 82 and injured 383, and for targeted killings of Shia Hazaras and Christians in Balochistan. On May 6, Karachi police arrested five individuals affiliated with banned Shia organization Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan on charges of involvement in targeted sectarian killings of Sunni Muslims in Karachi. On May 23, a Karachi ATC convicted and sentenced two LeJ militants to death for killing Shia lawyer Zain-ul-Abideen.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Societal abuses of religious freedom included targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims and violence and discrimination against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims. Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia, including predominantly Shia Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.

Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Balochistan Province, continued to express concern about targeted killings taking place for the last several years. Although the government increased security measures around Hazara neighborhoods in Quetta, some Hazara community members continued to state that these measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.

On October 8, unknown assailants shot and killed Hindu trader Ashok Kumar in Hub, Balochistan Province, outside a hotel. The local trader community protested by blocking a road and burning tires. The motive of the assailants was unknown, and no arrests were reported.

According to Ahmadiyya community representatives, three incidents of what appeared to be targeted killings of Ahmadiyya community members by unknown individuals took place. On January 3, in Mandi Bahauddin District, Punjab, Ahmadi Mahdi Khan was shot and killed by unknown assailants. According to community representatives, his family was the only Ahmadi family in their village, and Khan had received threats from TLP members before the killing. His family relocated after the killing out of fear of further violence. On March 14, two Ahmadi men were killed in Koh Fateh Jang in what the Ahmadi community said it believed was a targeted killing, but other sources said may have been a land dispute.

There were no reports of individuals killed for apostasy, but members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.

Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. On June 7, a 12-year-old Hindu girl in Hyderabad, Sindh was found unconscious after being raped. Police later arrested two suspects. On September 16, 25-year-old Hindu dental college student Nimrita Chandani was found dead in her college hostel room in Larkana, Sindh Province, in what her friends and family said was a murder staged as suicide. The school administration originally stated the death was a suicide, but an ensuing postmortem exam showed evidence of rape and strangulation. The Sindh High Court ordered a judicial inquiry on September 18 and, according to media reports, detained 32 individuals for questioning, but there were no charges at year’s end. CLAAS reported numerous cases of rapes of Christian women, including 17-year-old Sara Aslam from Sheikhapura, who was allegedly abducted and raped by Muslim man Ali Raza on May 15. According to CLAAS, police did not arrest the suspect until several Christians drew attention to the case. According to CLAAS and the PCLJ, although the victims filed reports with local police, they were treated similarly to most rape cases, in which the cases rarely went to trial or received a verdict due to threats from the accused party’s family, lack of witnesses, or lack of interest from police.

According to CLAAS and PCLJ, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked after spurning a man’s advances, including Saima Sardar, who was reportedly shot and killed on July 10 in Faisalabad by Muhammad Waseem after she refused to convert to Islam and marry him.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a national NGO, said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh, continued to occur. In an April report, HRCP said 1000 cases of forced conversions of Christian and Hindu women were reported in 2018 in Sindh alone. The group reported Hindu girls were being kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to Muslim men. According to HRCP’s interviews, Hindu community leaders said they believed girls were held against their will for several days, sometimes raped, and coerced into giving a conversion testimony. Some community representatives stated influential Muslim clerics, including the custodian of the Bharchundi Sharif Mian Mithoo Shrine, were driving a conversion campaign that took advantage of poverty, low education, and a desire to escape low social status. The HRCP report further stated that influential local business and political leaders turned a blind eye to forced conversions due to their business interests with newly established madrassas along growing trade routes.

Christian activists also stated young women from their communities were vulnerable to forced conversions. CLAAS reported at least 15 young Christian women were kidnapped and forcibly converted during the year. Of these cases, three women were returned to their families by orders of the court. For example, on February 6, a 14-year-old Christian girl named Sadaf Khan was kidnapped in Bahawalpur, Punjab Province, and forcibly married and converted. According to minority rights activists, a Muslim man named Mubashir harassed her as she went to and from school, and after she withdrew from school because of his intimidation, he kidnapped her. Christian activists reported that this case and others affected entire communities, because many young women withdrew from school as a result. As of the end of the year, no charges had been filed and Khan was believed to still be held by her abductor.

International and Pakistani media, as well as Christian activists, reported that young Christian women, many of them minors, were specifically targeted by Chinese human traffickers because of their poverty and vulnerability. The traffickers told pastors and parents they would arrange marriages to Chinese men who had supposedly converted to Christianity, after which the women were taken to China, abused, and in some cases, sexually trafficked. Reports indicated parents and pastors were frequently paid by the traffickers for the women, and that some pastors were complicit in the trafficking. In May the FIA arrested eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis in Punjab Province in connection with the trafficking. In September FIA investigators sent a report detailing cases against 52 Chinese citizens and 20 Pakistani associates in Punjab and Islamabad to Prime Minister Khan, according to the Associated Press. In October a court in Faisalabad, Punjab acquitted 31 of the accused Chinese citizens after several women interviewed by police refused to testify. According to human rights activists and officials cited in media reports, the government pressured the FIA to end its investigation out of concern for damaging the country’s relationship with China.

Kalash representatives in Khyber-Paktunkha Province continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim school teachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.

On March 20, Khatib Hussain, a student at Bahawalpur Government Sadiq Egerton College, stated he killed head of the English department Khalid Hameed for “speaking against Islam.” When asked in an interview after the killing why he did not oppose his professor with lawful methods, the student stated the country’s laws were “freeing the blasphemers.” Police arrested Hameed, but as of year’s end had not brought charges against him. Media reported that a preacher associated with TLP and suspected of inciting the killing was not charged and was released on bail.

Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events were often covered by English and vernacular media and featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric, including language that could incite violence against Ahmadis.

Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks on Ahmadi individuals, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns. On March 14, an Ahmadi wedding was disrupted in Mirpurkhas, Sindh Province, when Muslim clerics forced the wedding hall owner to evict the wedding party in the middle of the ceremony. In Peshawar, a pharmacy owner lost all his employees after khatm-e-nabuwat activists threatened him and his staff. Also in Peshawar, the children of one Ahmadi family were expelled from a private school for their faith. There was a surge in condemnations of Ahmadis following formerly imprisoned Ahmadi Abdul Shakoor’s participation in a July 17 meeting of religious persecution survivors with President Trump at the White House. On July 26, Barelvi Sunni groups observed a nationwide “black day” against the government’s so-called pro-Ahmadiyya stance and held rallies in major cities. Although the rallies were not covered in print or electronic media, photographs and video footage circulated on social media. Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives also noted an increase in social harassment in July and August after Shakoor’s participation in the White House meeting. In Toba Tek Singh District, Punjab Province, local residents organized a khatm-e-nabuwat procession, forced a young Ahmadi man to abandon his job and leave the town, and attacked the home of a recent convert to Ahmadiyya Islam. According to media reports, in August the Islamabad Bar Association made membership for anyone identifying as Muslim contingent on swearing an oath to the finality of prophethood. Islamist politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman gave several speeches attacking Ahmadis and accusing Prime Minister Khan of being sympathetic to Ahmadis during a two-week protest in November.

Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants. Media reported Javed Masih, a Christian, was killed by his employer, Abbas Olaf, after informing Abbas he was leaving the farm job for which he was paid less than minimum wage. Yasir Talib, an activist who collaborates with the Punjab Provincial Ministry for Human Rights and Minority Affairs in Faisalabad, said, “Many Muslims also work in the fields, but conditions for Christians are four times worse.” In November Christian journalist Gonila Gill stated she resigned her job in Lahore after harassment from Muslim coworkers pressuring her to convert to Islam and denigrating her religion.

Observers reported English-language media covered issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. Many Facebook users posted a profile frame calling for the death of Ahmadis after formerly imprisoned Ahmadi Abdul Shakoor’s participation in a July 17 meeting of religious persecution survivors at the White House. Facebook removed the profile frame on July 31 and said the company did not tolerate any content that incites violence.

Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.

Reports continued of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. On February 6, unknown vandals broke into a Hindu temple and burned religious scriptures and images in Kumb, Sindh Province. Prime Minister Khan condemned the incident as “against the teachings of the Quran” and urged the Sindh government to take “swift and decisive action” against the perpetrators. On April 21, vandals broke into a Shia mosque in Karachi and damaged books, religious symbols, and names of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Police registered complaints from the mosque’s leader under the antiblasphemy law. In May unknown individuals vandalized a Christian cemetery in the village of Okara, Punjab, destroying crosses and desecrating the graves of two priests.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials met with government officials and senior advisors to the prime minister, including the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.

In February the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with cabinet members, religious leaders, and members of civil society. The Ambassador at Large expressed concern about the country’s blasphemy laws and individuals serving life sentences or facing death under these laws, as well as the country’s anti-Ahmadi laws and sectarian violence, with the ministers of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, and Human Rights, and the foreign secretary. The Ambassador at Large also recognized the government for positive steps taken to advance the rights of religious minorities, such as statements by leadership condemning violence, threats, or denigration of individuals on the basis of their faith. The Ambassador at Large hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives of various religious communities on religious freedom conditions and ways to improve them. He also visited the Eidgah Sharif Shrine in Rawalpindi and discussed opportunities to promote interfaith harmony among persons of all faith traditions.

The U.S. government funded a police curriculum development program in Sindh which included a module on human rights. This training, which every recruit and in-service trainee completes, included lessons on identifying forced conversions and training police on how to protect the rights of religious minorities.

In April the Charge d’Affaires toured the Eidgah Sharif Shrine in Rawalpindi to show respect for a uniquely South Asian expression of Islam and demonstrate the importance of interfaith engagement. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers met with groups of civil society and interfaith activists to discuss the situation of religious minorities and other vulnerable communities and avenues for engagement by U.S. government representatives.

In April the Consul General in Karachi led a delegation of Muslim, Catholic, Sikh, Bohra Muslim, and Parsi faith leaders and community representatives on a tour of different religious sites in Karachi to celebrate interfaith harmony and religious freedom. Diplomats from the United Kingdom, Germany, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan also participated in the tour. On November 22, the Charge d’Affaires and the Consul General in Peshawar discussed religious freedom and respect with Muslim and Christian clerics at Peshawar’s historic Mohabbat Khan Mosque.

Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities and continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect between religions and enhance dialogue. Department of State programs helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders.

The Secretary of State praised the safe departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan in May, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy verdict on December 23. The embassy released videos discussing religious freedom and respect throughout the year.

On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits the government from taking any action to compel, prohibit, or hinder the exercise of religion. It stipulates there shall be no state religion but allows the state to fund “private or parochial” schools on a fair and equitable basis and for nonreligious purposes.

Religious groups may obtain charters as nonprofit organizations (NGOs) from the Registrar of Corporations in the Office of the Attorney General. As NGOs, religious groups and mission agencies are exempt from paying taxes. To obtain a charter, an applicant must submit a written petition to the Registrar of Corporations and pay a filing fee of $250. The Registrar of Corporations reviews the application for statutory compliance and then requests the president to sign a charter for the NGO. Applications that meet the requirements of the law result in issuance of charters.

The law empowers the president to proclaim and designate any day in January of each calendar year as a National Day of Prayer.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Representatives of any religious group, however, may request government financial support for private religious schools. The government earmarks funds for nonreligious purposes for the recognized private schools operated by Modekngei, Catholic Mission, Evangelical, and Seventh-day Adventist religious groups. The amount earmarked is based on the number of students attending a particular school. Private schools do not pay gross revenue tax but pay a flat port clearance fee of $3 for ordered imported school supplies.

Foreign missionaries are required to obtain permits from the Division of Immigration, which is under the Bureau of Immigration and Labor; there are no application fees. Foreign missionary applicants must provide police and medical clearances. Letters from the assigning church in the foreign country and the local accepting church must be submitted with the application. The permits are valid for a maximum of two years and may be renewed.

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

Government Practices

On January 11, the government celebrated the National Day of Prayer and invited religious leaders and members of all faiths and denominations as well as schoolchildren and members of the diplomatic corps to the capital for a program of prayer and song. According to the government, the program “welcomes all expressions of religion, no matter what a person’s choosing is and without reservation or reproach.”

Government-sponsored events, including a Christmas celebration at a park in Koror at which various churches performed, featured Christian prayers from various denominations.

Men and women leaders from traditional religious groups continued to convene for cultural and government events across the country.

The government provided funding to the nine recognized private schools run by religious groups, with support totaling $947,000.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with senior officials from the Ministry of State during the year to discuss the importance of government protection of religious freedom for all groups, in addition to interfaith relations. A U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chaplain made several visits to Palau to discuss the importance of religious freedom with the country’s religious leaders. During the visits, the chaplain and embassy officials interacted with the Palau Assembly of God, Palau Baptist Church, Palau Evangelical Church, Palau Catholic Mission, Palau Seventh-day Adventist Mission, Church of Jesus Christ, and representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Embassy representatives continued to interact with members of the Palau Assembly of God, Palau Baptist Church, Palau Evangelical Church, Palau Catholic Mission, Palau Seventh-day Adventist Mission, the Church of Jesus Christ, and representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities to promote respect for religious diversity.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, laws, and executive decrees prohibit discrimination based on religious practices and provide for freedom of religion and worship, provided that “Christian morality and public order” are respected. The constitution recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but does not designate it as the state religion. It limits the public offices that clergy and members of religious orders may hold to those related to social assistance, education, and scientific research. It forbids the formation of political parties based on religion.

The constitution grants legal status to religious associations, permitting them to manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law. If groups decline to register, they may not apply for grants or subsidies. To register, a group must submit to the Ministry of Government (MOG) a power of attorney, charter, names of its board members (if applicable), a copy of the internal bylaws (if applicable), and a four-balboa ($4) processing fee. Once the MOG approves the registration, the religious association must record the MOG’s resolution in the Public Registry. Registered religious associations must apply to the Directorate of Internal Revenue of the Ministry of Economy and Finance to receive clearance for duty-free imports. The government may grant government properties to registered religious associations upon approval by the Legislative Tax Committee and the cabinet. The law states income from religious activities is tax exempt as long as it is collected through such activities as church and burial services and charitable events.

Registered religious groups include the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church, Episcopal Church, Methodist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, the Baha’i Faith, Soka Gakkai International (Buddhist), Muslim Congregation of Colon, Muslim Congregation of Panama City, Muslim Congregation of Cocle Province, Muslim Congregation of Chiriqui Province, Jewish Kol Shearith Israel Congregation, Jewish Shevet Ahim Congregation, Jewish Beth El Congregation, Baptist Church, Church of Jesus Christ, Hossana Evangelical Church, Casa de Oracion (house of prayer) Cristiana Evangelical Church, Pentecostal Church, Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Crossroads Christian Church, and Ministry of the Family Christian Church. The Rastafarian Congregation is not registered.

By law, indigenous tribes have control of their own autonomous lands within the country, which are called comarcas (counties). The oldest one, established in 1938, belongs to the Guna Yala tribe. This autonomy allows them to practice their religions and cultural traditions without interference from the state.

The constitution requires public schools to provide instruction on Catholic teachings. Parents may exempt their children from religious education. The constitution also allows for the establishment of private religious schools. Private religious schools may not refuse to enroll a student simply because they are not a member of that particular religion. Students of a faith separate from their educational institution are allowed to practice their religion freely.

Immigration law grants foreign religious workers temporary missionary worker visas they must renew every two years, for up to a total of six years. Catholic and Orthodox Christian priests and nuns are exempt from the two-year renewal requirement and issued six-year visas because of the constitutional provision allowing all religions to worship freely, with no limitation other than “respect for Christian morality.” Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, as well as other religious workers, are also eligible for the special six-year visa; however, they must submit additional documentation with their applications. These additional requirements include a copy of the organization’s bylaws, the MOG-issued registration certificate, and a letter from the organization’s leader in the country certifying the religious worker will be employed at its place of worship. The application fee is 250 balboas ($250) for all religious denominations.

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

Government Practices

According to government sources, there were no pending religious applications before the Ministry of Government at year’s end. According to Rastafarian representatives, the congregation did not plan to register for legal status; they said the community was small and met informally at individual homes because there were no formal places of worship. Additionally, the Rastafarian community stated it had no plans to import religious articles for distribution, one of the primary reasons why religious organizations applied for legal status.

Catholic schools continued to represent the majority of parochial educational institutions. According to a Ministry of Education official, non-Catholic religious schools received equal consideration regarding government grants, stating the government provided more funds to Catholic schools than other religious schools because there were more of them; however, privately some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of the two-year cycle subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, there were no religious discrimination claims submitted to the government during the year and none pending from previous years. The last complaint of religious discrimination received by the Ombudsman’s Office was filed in 2017 by a Rastafarian youth who was not allowed to enter a public school due to his braids. The Ombudsman’s Office reached out to the school principal, and the student was allowed to re-enter his school, thereby resolving the situation.

In January the country hosted World Youth Day in conjunction with the Vatican. Although the lead organizer was the local Catholic Church, the government provided logistical and security support for the event, which attracted approximately 250,000 foreign visitors. Non-Catholic groups said the government’s logistical and financial support for World Youth Day represented government preference for the Catholic Church. Some social media commentators also said the government showed religious bias because it used public monies to fund a Catholic event. According to an official government expense report, the previous administration spent 44 million balboas ($44 million) to fund World Youth Day.

The government continued to invite primarily Catholic clergy to conduct religious invocations at government events, including the opening of the National Assembly. Many official celebrations included the participation of high-ranking clergy of many religions at Catholic masses, including the Te Deum on November 3, which featured clergy of all member groups of the Interreligious Institute of Panama, with the president attending and in commemoration of the country’s 116th year of independence. Muslims and Jews continued to serve in senior positions in the government, including as ambassadors.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Interreligious Institute of Panama, an interfaith committee made up of representatives of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, and other Protestant Churches, Salvation Army, Colon Islamic Congregation, the Baha’i Faith, and Kol Shearith Jewish Congregation, continued to meet several times during the year. Early in the year the institute extended an invitation to the Buddhist Soka Gakkai Congregation to join the group, which the congregation accepted. The institute’s objectives included providing a coordination mechanism for interfaith activities and promoting mutual respect and appreciation among the various religious groups.

In July the Jewish “Conciencia Viva” (Live Consciousness) movement organized an interfaith event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of an Alas Chiricanas flight in which 20 persons lost their lives, the majority of them members of the country’s Jewish community. The two presidents, current President Laurentino Cortizo and former president Juan Carlos Varela, attended along with many others, including Catholic and Muslim clergy.

The Interreligious Institute reported persons of Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish, and non-Catholic Christian faiths hosted World Youth Day participants. Young Catholics from throughout the world attended, and a wide variety of religious organizations hosted participants in their homes and at their institutions’ facilities. Muslim groups in Colon District, Panama City, hosted dinners for Youth Day participants and donated water during the event. The Kol Shearith Jewish congregation hosted Catholic youth in their synagogue, and the Islamic community put up banners welcoming Pope Francis. Clergy representing all of the major religious groups joined the pope for an interfaith Mass. Several religious leaders said they spent a large amount of their budgets and resources on World Youth Day, leaving fewer resources to host other interreligious events for the rest of the year.

On April 30, an interreligious service was held to pray for peace in advance of the country’s May 5 general election. Representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths attended the service, the first interfaith event held in support of a peaceful electoral process.

On June 25, religious leaders from multiple faiths signed the Cordoba Declaration, which recognizes Latin America and the Caribbean as a “Zone of Religious Coexistence.” Those signing the declaration included leaders of the Muslim community, the Jewish community of Kol Shearith, the Buddhist community of Soka Gokkai, as well as the leader of the Baha’i community and the Catholic Archbishop of Panama. According to a document issued by the Religions for Peace (Religiones por la Paz), an international interfaith group founded in Germany in 1970, the Cordoba Declaration was the starting point for the creation and deepening of programs and projects that promote Latin American and Caribbean interreligious coexistence.

On October 29, the USMA hosted an international symposium on religious freedom, humanitarian assistance, and human dignity, jointly with Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies. Invited speakers came from the United States and other Latin American countries and featured Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim panelists. According to conference participants, they discussed how different religions approached religious freedom and humanitarian assistance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with officials of the Ministry of Education and the Ombudsman’s Office to discuss government policies regarding the equal treatment of all religious groups and individuals, including those belonging to religious minorities. They also inquired if there were any pending religious discrimination claims submitted to the government, including any regarding unfairness reported by some religious minority groups in government allocation of education subsidies for religious schools.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met several times with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Rastafarian, Baha’i, Episcopalian, Lutheran, other Protestant, and evangelical Protestant leaders, religious groups, and community organizations. They discussed religious freedom issues, including government treatment of religious groups, interfaith initiatives promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions.

The embassy used social media channels periodically throughout the year to commemorate holidays of various religions and recognize International Religious Freedom Day in October.

Papua New Guinea

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides the individual the right to “freedom of conscience, thought, and religion and the practice of his religion and beliefs, including freedom to manifest and propagate his religion and beliefs” except where that practice infringes on another person’s rights or where it violates public laws, safety, and welfare of marginalized groups. The preamble of the constitution refers to “our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours.” There is no state religion.

Religious groups are required to register with the government in order to hold a bank account, own properties in the religious group’s name, have limited individual liability, and apply to the Internal Revenue Commission for exemption on income tax and to the Department of Treasury for exemption of import duty. To register, groups must provide documentation including a list of board or executive committee members and a constitution.

According to the law, religious instruction in public schools is noncompulsory, but Christian education is offered in most public schools. Students of non-Christian religious groups may opt out with approval of the school principal. Religious organizations are free to establish private schools, but students deciding to opt out of religious instruction might be asked to transfer to public schools.

Foreign missionary groups are permitted to proselytize and engage in other missionary activities. Religious workers receive a three-year special exemption visa from the government. Applications for the visa require a sponsor letter from a religious group in the country, an approved work permit from the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, and a 100 kina ($30) fee.

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

Government Practices

During the year, authorities moved more than 300 refugees, primarily Muslims, from detention facilities on Manus Island to detention facilities in Port Moresby. Media reported the refugees were kept in extremely poor conditions, with many suffering from mental and physical illnesses. Some of the detainees had been in detention for six years, and at year’s end all were awaiting status determinations. Since religion, national origin, and refugee status are often closely linked, it was difficult to characterize their treatment as being based solely on religious identity.

In September police filed a defamation suit against Catholic Bishop of Alotau-Sideia Rolando Crisostomo Santos after he denounced what he said was police abuse of power. Santos posted on Facebook that police officers burned down 19 houses in Alotau after a night of drinking. The bishop stated this was the second time police had burned down homes in the area. On September 4, police arrested Santos and local Catholic education secretary Gregory Nimagale but soon released them on bail. Member of Parliament Charles Abel publicly apologized to Santos, said he would make changes to police personnel, and stated he asked police to drop charges against Santos.

The CLRC continued consultations with government agencies and churches at the national level on a proposed constitutional amendment defining the country as Christian, but funding and capacity shortfalls delayed the countrywide consultations. In November a CLRC lawyer reported progress had stalled because leaders at the DfCDR did not issue instructions on how the CLRC should implement its mandate. The lawyer further stated the National Executive Council, the country’s national cabinet, did not authorize the department to proceed with the consultations. The DfCDR stated that consultations were on hold due to lack of funding and capacity.

Parliament sessions and most government meetings began and ended with Christian prayers, but persons of different faiths were able to opt out with no repercussion. The speaker of the house selected a member of parliament to start the sessions with a Christian prayer. The National newspaper reported government authorities in Southern Highlands Province and some national government agencies continued to tell public servants they had to attend weekly morning devotions for 10 to 20 minutes; the specific day of the devotion varied by region and agency. Individuals choosing to opt out could do so without negative consequence. Pastors from different Christian denominations led the morning devotional sessions.

The Department of Education continued to set aside one hour per week for religious instruction in public schools. Such instruction remained legally noncompulsory, although almost all students attended. Representatives of Christian churches taught the lessons, and there was no standard curriculum. According to law, children whose parents did not wish them to attend the classes could opt out with approval of the school principal.

The Citizenship and Christian Values Education syllabus, making Christian life studies compulsory in elementary and secondary public, private, and church-run schools nationwide, was not finalized at year’s end.

The government continued to fund churches to deliver health and education services through the Church-State Partnership Program with additional funding from international partners. Mainline churches continued to operate approximately 60 percent of schools and health services in the country, and the government provided financial support for these institutions. The government subsidized their operation using a formula based on the number of schools and health centers run by each church. In addition, the government continued to pay the salary and provide benefits for the majority of teachers and health staff (generally members of the civil service) who worked at these church-administered institutions, as it did for teachers and health staff of national institutions. The facilities provided services to the general population irrespective of religious beliefs, and operations were not religious in nature.

In October Prime Minister Marape announced that by 2020, all state-owned companies would pay 10 percent of profits annually to churches to run social services.

Individual members of parliament continued to provide grants of government money to religious institutions in their constituencies to carry out religious activities. Nearly all of these institutions were Christian. In November the Post Courier newspaper reported one member of parliament procured a grant of 40,000 kina ($12,100) for the United Church in his constituency to implement local church programs. In previous years, there were reports of complaints from minority Christian churches because they had not received similar funding, but there were no such reports during the year.

The Church Partnership database, announced in 2018 by the DfCDR with the stated goal of providing more support to churches, was nonoperational at year’s end because technical issues made it inaccessible to the public, according to a statement from a DfCDR official.

In July Prime Minister Marape stated he wanted to make the country “the richest black Christian nation on earth.” Political opponents and civil society groups objected to the statement, saying the country did not have an exclusive ethnic or religious affiliation. In a September Post Courier editorial, the editorial board said the country prospered from a more diverse population and was not solely a “black Christian country.”

In August during National Prayer and Repentance Day, jointly organized by the PNGCC and the DfCDR, Prime Minister Marape said the country was declared a Christian country during Independence in 1975 and that status would remain unchanged.

The PNGCC continued to work with provincial governments to establish provincial church councils. According to the chairman of the PNGCC, the provincial church councils would “bring churches closer to the government.” The PNGCC included the Anglican, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist Union, Roman Catholic, United, and Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Salvation Army, as well as other churches and organizations as associate members.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January assailants killed a pastor and attacked members of his church in East Sepik Province. According to The National newspaper, the pastor was killed for encouraging his church members not to attend a land dispute negotiation with a neighboring village, while the church members were attacked for not participating in customary land mediation. Police arrested and charged five persons for the killing of the pastor and the attack on the church members.

Media continued to report that established churches criticized the role of new Christian and missionary groups. In March The National reported the Lutheran Education Agency questioned the quality and commitment of smaller churches in providing education services. The Lutheran Education Agency disqualified adherents of non-mainline church denominations from teaching in Lutheran schools but accepted teachers affiliated with mainline churches.

The PNGCC continued dialogue among its members. In addition, 16 church-affiliated organizations, including the Young Women’s Christian Association, participated in its activities. The council concentrated primarily on cooperation among Christian groups on social welfare projects.

Through the Church-State Partnership Program, religious leaders discussed working together to address social issues that affected congregation members such as education, health, gender equality, fragmentation of family values, and sorcery-related violence. Some participants proposed limiting cooperation in the Church-State Partnership Program to only mainline Christian churches. Participants discussed limiting the role of non-mainline churches, in particular Pentecostal churches, because they said these smaller denominations could not offer the same level of education and health services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers discussed with government officials, including those from the DfCDR, the importance of equitable distribution of government support for religious groups.

Embassy representatives attended church-organized activities and participated in discussions on the role of churches in development and the importance of including a broad spectrum of religious groups. Embassy officials asked attendees, including government officials, to ensure any moves to declare the country a Christian nation do not conflict with the freedom of religion stipulated in the constitution. In October the embassy hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives of the Baha’i community, Islamic community, and the Church of Jesus Christ. Roundtable participants discussed freedom of religion, the relationship between churches and the state, and avenues for future collaboration across faith communities and with civil society partners.

The Ambassador and embassy representatives discussed religious tolerance, and religious groups’ role as health and educational service providers, in regular meetings with the PNGCC and local religious leaders.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides individuals, including members of indigenous communities, the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religion freely.

According to the constitution, the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on “independence, cooperation, and autonomy.” The Roman Catholic Church, however, must comply with all regulations the state imposes on other churches and non-Christian religious groups. The law allows political parties based on a specific faith, but the constitution prohibits active members of the clergy from any religious group from running for public office.

The law requires all religious and philosophical groups to register with the VMW and submit annual reports stating the organization’s key leadership and functions. Organizations must complete a form containing 14 items and provide supporting documents to the VMW to register. The form requests basic information, including entity name, mission or vision, history in the country, church or temple addresses, membership size, and types of activities. The VMW also requires the certification of a legal representative and the entity’s bylaws as supporting documentation for registration. Once registered, religious and philosophical groups must update their registration on an annual basis and pay an annual fee of 62,000 guaranies (Gs) ($10).

The VMW may apply nonmonetary administrative sanctions against organizations that fail to register, including ordering the suspension of religious services. The National Anti-Money Laundering Secretariat requires that all religious organizations register as nonfinancial agents. Religious groups must demonstrate legal status as a nonprofit organization and agree to annual recertification. Annual recertification requires groups resubmit the registration form with updated information. Religious leaders must submit to financial and criminal background checks.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. The constitution provides private schools the right to offer religious education; staff teaching these courses are required to be of merit and possess ethical integrity. Registration for private religious schools is not mandatory, but the Ministry of Education and Culture recognizes only diplomas and degrees granted by registered institutions. Additionally, only registered schools with nonprofit status may receive subsidies for teachers’ salaries. Students of religious groups other than the one associated with a private religious school may enroll; however, all students are expected to participate in the religious activities that are a mandatory part of the schedule.

The constitution and laws provide for conscientious objection to military service based on religious beliefs.

Foreign missionaries who are members of registered religious groups are eligible for no-cost residency visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They must also register annually with the VMW to receive official documentation identifying their status as missionaries. Missionaries choosing not to register may enter the country on tourist visas. A law provides for Mennonites to implement their own education programs and exempts them from military service.

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

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association reported four pending cases of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses receiving a hospital blood transfusion against their will, two filed during the year and one each filed in 2018 and 2017. The Jehovah’s Witnesses Association opposed the measures and filed suits against the hospitals. During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association won one case against the Social Security Institute Hospital in the Court of Second Instance; however, the hospital appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In August the court ruled that the right to life prevailed over the patient’s right to autonomy. An individual Jehovah’s Witness sued the Police Hospital in August. In August the Court of the Second Instance ruled in favor of the Police Hospital. The third case was filed in 2018 and was awaiting a first ruling at year’s end. In the fourth case, filed in 2017, the court of first instance ruled in favor of the Clinic Hospital, and in March the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association appealed to the Court of Second Instance.

The VMW extended until the end of the year a grace period for all religious and philosophical groups to complete the mandatory registration process and did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on groups that had not registered. The ministry stated, however, that although the law required full compliance by the end of the year, it was focusing on raising public awareness of the registration law and had not set a date for enforcing compliance. The VMW stated it was implementing the registration law consistently across religious groups; once it received all required information and documents from a religious group, it would complete the process in 15 days.

According to the VMW, 530 religious groups had active registrations with the government, compared with 536 in 2018. Thirty-five new groups registered during the year, while 41 groups did not renew their registration.

According to the VMW, approximately 15 percent of religious groups were registered. VMW officials said the high cost associated with obtaining a legal representative, which requires hiring a lawyer costing between Gs 3,000,000 and Gs 15,000,000 ($470 to $2,300), likely was a major barrier to registration. Another barrier was the requirement that entities travel to Asuncion to submit their documentation. The VMW said it was working with the Ministry of Interior to regulate lawyers’ fees and planned on implementing an online registration process by mid-2020.

In August authorities granted final approval of ICCAN’s application as a legal entity, a pre-requirement for a religious group to apply for NPO status and ultimately, formal registration. According to ICCAN representatives, ICCAN applied for NPO status in September. Following government approval of its NPO status, ICCAN representatives resubmitted its registration request to the VMW as required when the government approved its legal status. ICCAN representatives said they were concerned the Roman Catholic Church in the country would obstruct its registration with the VMW because the Roman Catholic Church leadership stated it had exclusive use of the word “Catholic” in a church title. ICCAN representatives said the Roman Catholic Church’s influence also helped it secure more subsidies for Catholic schools than other religious schools received. The VMW, however, provided information stating the Ministry of Education provided subsidies to 494 schools during the year, of which 252 were Roman Catholic and 242 were of various religious beliefs; the ministry also provided subsidies to nonreligious schools. Roman Catholic Church representatives expressed concerns that ICCAN’s use of the world “Catholic” in its title would lead the public to believe the ICCAN was affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, even though the Roman Catholic Church did not recognize ICCAN as a valid Catholic church. The VMW stated ICCAN’s title could still be an issue for completing its registration process. ICCAN representatives said the government continued not to recognize their claim to land and property they said the Catholic Church had taken from them in 1840. According to religious group representatives, the Roman Catholic Church’s reservations about ICCAN’s validity was not representative of the views of the VMW or other religious communities, which said they respected ICCAN’s right to exist.

The VMW stated it did not receive cases of religious discrimination during the year.

The Ministry of Education and Culture continued to subsidize the salaries of hundreds of teachers in registered, nonprofit schools operated by predominantly Roman Catholic religious groups. According to representatives of the Mennonite community, the government had started to provide subsidies to their schools during the year; Jewish community members said they did not request government subsidies. According to a ministry representative, the ministry maintained an agreement with the Roman Catholic Church governing the allocation of subsidies to schools in areas not served by public schools. The representative also stated that a separate agreement set very similar regulations for subsidy allocation to other religious schools located in underserved areas serving vulnerable student populations and providing educational or scholarship services to vulnerable students. Mennonite schools in Boqueron Department continued an ad hoc consultation process with departmental authorities.

The VMW reported that 353 foreign missionaries registered or reregistered by year’s end, compared with 309 in 2018 – most of them members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The government continued to support chaplaincy programs open to all religious groups in the armed forces. The programs included the training of clergy to provide services to members of the armed forces deployed either in combat zones or on peacekeeping missions. The government also continued to allow religious groups to operate in and provide the services of different religions within prisons for adults and youth; however, during the year only Christian groups made use of this option.

In May the VMW hosted the first Paraguayan-Argentine Interreligious Regional Symposium in which representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim, and evangelical Protestant communities participated. The symposium, held in the city of Encarnacion in the southern part of the country, highlighted each country’s commitment to peaceful religious coexistence and the importance of interreligious dialogue to encourage respect for religious and multicultural diversity. Through the symposium, communities committed to promote interreligious dialogue, schedule meetings, and collaborate with the government and international organizations to develop respect for diversity. The symposium also helped identify areas for collaboration as well as share statistical information on members of each faith.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Observers, including from nongovernmental organizations, political pundits, and the press, stated the Roman Catholic Church continued to maintain an influential role within society and government that gave it an advantage over other religious groups in the country. According to media reports, because Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, both citizens and the government valued the opinion of the Roman Catholic Church on political matters. On May 15, the Roman Catholic Church hosted a Te Deum to honor the country’s independence in which President Mario Abdo Benitez, other members of the government, and individuals from other religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Jews, and evangelical Protestants, participated. On December 8, President Benitez participated in the ceremony of a local Christian holiday, “Virgen de Caacupe,” in which a priest’s homily asked the president to defend the country’s national interests in upcoming negotiations with Brazil on the Itaipu Treaty.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office continued to investigate a formal complaint filed by the Public Ministry’s Ethnic Rights Office in 2018 concerning a video posted online showing an evangelical Protestant pastor exorcising an elderly indigenous religious leader in the Mbya indigenous community of Caaguazu Department. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, rather than the VMW, investigated the case because the indigenous religious leader said the pastor had also stolen items from him. According to media reports, the pastor belonged to the Pentecostal Church Prince of Peace, an unregistered church.

Representatives of the local Jewish community said they continued to monitor a group, formerly called Paraguay Nacional Socialista (PNS), that actively espoused Nazi and xenophobic ideology in 2016-2017 but had since either disappeared or gone underground. According to Facebook, the PNS changed its name to Identidad Nacional (IN) in 2018 and shifted to nationalist rhetoric. According to members of the Jewish community, IN did not attack any individuals or publish anti-Semitic statements during the year. Its rhetoric targeted Brazilian landowners in rural areas of the country rather than Jews, and the IN organized small rallies in the countryside. The head of the Jewish community said he believed the PNS continued to operate underground, and that therefore the Jewish community continued to monitor the group closely. Jewish community members said they had confidence in the security forces and the private security companies the community hired to protect places of worship, schools, and community centers.

In October the Church of Jesus Christ completed renovation of its main temple in Asuncion and opened it for public visits. A Church representative said Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Baha’i community representatives coordinated a joint visit to the temple.

A Permanent Forum of Interreligious Dialogue organized by the Baha’i community worked to promote shared common values, including religious tolerance, to benefit society. In July the forum brought together Baha’i, Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities in Asuncion where they signed an agreement declaring the country an interreligious coexistence zone. The statement also served as an instrument to create and strengthen projects promoting interreligious coexistence based on the respect and acceptance of multiculturalism and diversity of ideas and beliefs.

Christian and Jewish groups continued holding interreligious dialogues among religious group representatives. The Roman Catholic Church hosted a dialogue in May that included Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and evangelical Protestant participants.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with Director General Mendez of the VMW to discuss issues related to ICCAN’s registration process, government actions to facilitate the registration of other religious groups, the promotion of religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, whether any religious discrimination claims were filed during the year, and the provision of state funding for salaries at schools run by religious groups.

Embassy officials met with Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Catholic Christian Apostolic, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ, and Jewish leaders to discuss religious freedom and the government’s attitude towards their communities.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination and persecution based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of religion, either individually or in association with others. It states every person has the right to privacy of religious conviction. It establishes the separation of religion and state but recognizes the Catholic Church’s role as “an important element in the historical, cultural, and moral development” of the country.

A concordat between the government and the Holy See accords the Catholic Church certain institutional privileges in education, taxation, and immigration of religious workers. A religious freedom law exempts Catholic Church buildings, houses, and other real estate holdings from property taxes. Other religious groups often must pay property taxes on their schools and clerical residences, depending on the municipal jurisdiction and whether the group seeks and/or receives tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization. The law exempts Catholic religious workers from taxes on international travel. The government also exempts all work-related earnings of Catholic priests and bishops from income taxes. In December 2018 a temporary exemption of these taxes was approved for non-Catholic religious groups, valid until December 31, 2020. By law, the military may employ only Catholic clergy as chaplains.

The MOJ is responsible for engaging with religious groups.

Registration with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom is optional and voluntary. The stated purpose of the registry is to promote integrity and facilitate a relationship with the government. Religious groups do not have to register to obtain institutional benefits but doing so allows them to engage with the government. The regulations allow all religious groups, registered or not, to apply for tax exemptions and worker or resident visas directly with the pertinent government institutions. Registration is free, the process usually takes one week, and the MOJ helps in completing the application forms.

According to the law, all prisoners, regardless of their religious affiliation, may practice their religion and seek the ministry of someone of their same faith.

The law mandates all schools, public and private, to provide religious education through the primary and secondary levels, “without violating the freedom of conscience of the student, parents, or teachers.” The law permits only the teaching of Catholicism in public schools, and the Ministry of Education requires the presiding Catholic bishop of an area to approve the public schools’ religious education teachers. Parents may request the school principal to exempt their children from mandatory religion classes. The government may grant exemptions from the religious education requirement to secular private schools and non-Catholic religious schools. Non-Catholic children attending Catholic schools are also exempt from classes on Catholicism. The law states schools may not academically disadvantage students seeking exemptions from Catholic education classes. According to a December 2018 Constitutional Court ruling, government financing for schools run by religious groups is unconstitutional because it is “incompatible with the principle of secularism.” The ruling provides the state must suspend funding for these schools within a reasonable period or establish a general and secular system of subsidies for all private educational institutions regardless of their religious affiliation.

The law requires all employers to accommodate the religious days and holidays of all employees; this accommodation includes allowing an employee to use annual vacation leave for this purpose.

Foreign religious workers must apply for a visa through the Office of Immigration of the Ministry of Interior. If the religious group registers with the MOJ, the Immigration Office accepts this as proof the applicant group is a religious organization. If the group does not register with the MOJ, the Immigration Office makes its decision on a case-by-case basis.

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

Government Practices

At year’s end, the government had registered 148 non-Catholic groups, an increase from 133 in 2018. According to the MOJ and local interfaith groups, the government accepted and approved the applications from all interested religious groups, and there were no reported denials. The government ended minimum membership requirements in 2018, allowing any group to register voluntarily regardless of its size or categorization.

According to the Interreligious Council and faith groups, the MOJ continued to engage religious communities on matters affecting the communities, including the registration process, tax exemptions, religious worker visas, budgetary support for religious groups, and prisoners’ rights to religious practice. The MOJ continued to interact regularly with the religious groups through its Office of Catholic Affairs and the Office of Interfaith Affairs for non-Catholic Religious Groups.

Some members of religious minorities continued to criticize aspects of the country’s religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions. In its regular meetings with the MOJ, the Interreligious Council continued to press for permanent equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including tax exemptions on income, import duties, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and opportunities to serve as military chaplains.

According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government provided an annual grant of approximately 2.6 million soles ($785,000) to the Catholic Church for stipends to archbishops and pastors, in accordance with the 1980 concordat with the Holy See. Each of the 45 Catholic ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the country also received a monthly subsidy of 1,000 soles ($300) for maintenance and repairs of church buildings, often of significant historical and cultural value. Some Catholic clergy and laypersons employed by the Church received subsidies from the government in addition to these funds. These individuals represented approximately 8 percent of the Catholic clergy and pastoral agents. According to Catholic Church representatives, the Church used these and other Church funds to provide humanitarian services to the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation. Similar stipends were not available to other religious groups.

Protestant pastors again stated that some non-Catholic soldiers continued to have difficulty finding and attending non-Catholic religious services because by law, only Catholic chaplains may serve in the military.

In January Junin Department Governor Cerron tweeted, “If the Left coordinates its unity well, it will successfully face the Jewish-Peruvian powers in the next general elections,” in reference to Cerron’s alleging Jewish control of the country’s politics and economy. In February, two months before dying by suicide, former president Alan Garcia said a journalist who accused him of stopping the fight against corruption had “brought the Jewish mafia of (Josef) Maiman” (an Israeli-Peruvian real estate developer allegedly involved with corruption) to the country. Some political leaders, including then congressman Alberto de Belaunde, who called anti-Semitism “unacceptable,” and media reports criticized the remarks by Cerron and Garcia as anti-Semitic. The Jewish Association of Peru characterized Garcia’s comments as discriminatory and stated they could not accept “expressions that feed conspiracy ideas that have nothing to do with reality.” In response, Garcia said his comments were a lapse due to the speed of the interview.

Government engagement with religious groups included regular conferences, workshops, and other interfaith meetings to discuss the registration process, joint charity campaigns, public outreach, and cultural events. The government and religious groups, including the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, and various Protestant churches, cohosted these engagements for the entire community.

In June MOJ officials, including Vice Minister Fernando Castaneda and Director for Interfaith Affairs Maria Esperanza Adrianzen, and various religious representatives from Latin America and the Caribbean associated with the international organization Religions for Peace held an interreligious regional consultation in Lima to promote social development and interfaith dialogue. The consultation focused on an interfaith vision for peace, tolerance, conflict prevention, promotion of sustainable development, and environmental protection. It also included a special session on the role of religious communities in response to the Venezuelan migration crisis in the region. At the event, President Martin Vizcarra received Religions for Peace’s award for “Positive Peace.”

In June the MOJ hosted an expert panel on religious liberty and the principles of secularism and the neutrality of the state, specifically analyzing and explaining the Constitutional Court’s December 2018 ruling regarding public financing for private religious schools. Some members of the Catholic Church criticized the ruling, stating that secularism was not mentioned in the constitution, while it recognized the Church’s important role in the country’s history and culture. The government continued to work on an implementation timeline for the 2018 ruling through year’s end.

In March the minister of women and vulnerable populations addressed a conference organized by the Interreligious Council focused on combating violence against women. The minister noted the leading role of faith communities in fostering democratic, healthy, and respectful spaces where equality between men and women can be promoted. In October the MOJ invited religious leaders in the city of Chimbote to participate in an initiative called “Caravan of Justice” to develop an agenda promoting tolerance, solidarity, and social welfare as a joint objective of both the state and religious communities.

The Peruvian Falun Dafa Association stated that as a result of Chinese embassy interference, the Falun Gongaffiliated performance troupe Shen Yun was unable to reserve public venues through the Ministry of Culture for their commercial performances. The association said because Shen Yun could not secure appropriately sized venues, it did not perform during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Interreligious Council continued to promote just and harmonious societies within a framework of respect, tolerance, and dialogue between different faith traditions. It continued its dialogue among religious entities, including evangelical and other Protestant groups, as well as Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Church of Jesus Christ representatives, whose members in November attended the inauguration of the Church of Jesus Christ Temple in Arequipa. The council continued to engage religious communities on the government’s revised religious freedom regulations, the protection of religious freedom, and assistance to displaced Venezuelans.

Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media, particularly in reaction to statements made by former governor Vladimir Cerron and former president Alan Garcia. In media, most responses condemned Cerron’s and Garcia’s statements and postings. A few individuals, however, posted social media comments, such as “his (Cerron’s) were not an assault against Jews, just a critique of their political and economic power.”

Muslim and Jewish community members again stated some public and private schools and employers occasionally required their members to use accumulated leave for non-Catholic religious holidays, including Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, an option in accordance with the law.

Religious groups and interfaith organizations continued to coordinate with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance, regardless of their religious affiliation, to more than 860,000 displaced Venezuelans entering the country since 2015. Various evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches in Tumbes continued to work with the government, the International Organization for Migration, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide temporary housing to the increasing number of Venezuelan migrants entering through the northern border. In April members of the Interreligious Council met with UNHCR representatives to coordinate UNHCR’s responses to this crisis, particularly with respect to shelter, health, education, and providing advice on migration status.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials again encouraged the government to apply impartially the religious freedom law and its implementing regulations to all religious groups. Embassy officials discussed implementation of the revised regulations with MOJ officials and advocated for additional changes to promote government respect for religious diversity and the equal treatment of all religious groups under the law. The embassy engaged both government and civil society participants on religious freedom topics, including during an interfaith gathering in April focused on religious freedom and tolerance at the Church of Jesus Christ temple in Lima.

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Interreligious Council, academics, Catholic Church, Protestant and evangelical Protestant groups, Church of Jesus Christ, and Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss equal treatment of religious groups, anti-Semitism, the government’s implementation of the revised religious freedom regulations, and the voluntary registration of religious groups. Embassy officials encouraged religious groups to work together to provide humanitarian assistance to Venezuelan migrants in the country.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

The BOL ratified on January 21 creates the BARMM, a new Muslim-led autonomous region. The BARMM replaces the former governing authority, the ARMM. The new entity has jurisdiction over five provinces and three major, noncontiguous cities. The BOL provides the framework for the transition to greater autonomy for the area’s majority Muslim population.

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

Government Practices

Some Catholic clergy who vocally criticized extrajudicial killings attributed to the war on drugs under President Duterte or who stated their opposition to the reinstatement of the death penalty reported being harassed, intimidated, and threatened with death by unknown perpetrators following Duterte’s threats against them in late 2018, which sources stated he and his government subsequently tried to walk back. In July following the release of a video linking President Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade, the government charged some members of the opposition, along with four Catholic bishops and three priests, with sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice concerning their alleged involvement in the video’s production and release. Various ecumenical groups condemned the charges, filed through the Philippine National Police (PNP) Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) received a complaint through its social media account saying a local government office in South Cotabato prohibited Balik-Islam (Philippine converts to Islam) from constructing mosques within its village. Initially, the local government stated that the structures did not meet building codes, but after public pressure, it relented and allowed the mosque projects to move forward. After conducting an investigation into a refusal to erect a mosque by local officials in Panagasinan, the NCMF determined that local officials halted construction because residents cited concerns that having the religious structure in their community might incite terrorism.

The CHR Mindanao regional office expressed concern over reported cases of church leaders and faith-based organizations being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. In February leaflets containing names of alleged NPA members, reportedly including some religious leaders, were posted and distributed in public places and private gatherings by unknown individuals; the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and PNP publicly denied any involvement.

In November media reported that the AFP included the National Council of Churches Philippines (NCCP) in a list of 18 organizations it described or “red-tagged” as communist terrorist groups or groups wittingly or unwittingly providing funds to such groups. The NCCP, one of the largest associations of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic denominations in the Philippines, described the listing as an “attack on [their] Christian faith and tradition.”

On several occasions, President Duterte expressed disapproval of the Catholic Church, despite his 2018 vow not to do so. In a public speech in February he said Catholicism may disappear in 25 years because of various criminal allegations, such as corruption and sexual abuse. Media reported that the criticism could relate more to the Church’s criticism of human rights abuses in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Duterte added in a speech in September that he would not support the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) celebration in 2021 of 500 years of Catholicism in the country. Some clergy continued to raise concerns that the manner in which the president denounced the Church promoted violence against its priests and leaders.

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

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF and Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curricula that were subject to government oversight. There were 85 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year. Many private madrassahs, however, choose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives.

The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. By law, only registered schools/madrassahs may receive financial assistance from the government. Madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 25 percent from the previous year. During the year, the Department of Education provided funding of 90,960,000 pesos ($1.8 million) to 18,192 private madrassah students, compared to 67,510,000 pesos ($1.33 million) allocated to 13,502 private madrassah students in 2018.

A study by the Institute for Autonomy and Governance showed that 90 percent of 169 madrassahs surveyed in 2018 sought government recognition and support; however, the study stated that complicated accreditation processes and requirements hindered them from registering. The survey also conveyed the concerns of Muslim school leaders about the perception that terrorist groups used traditional madrassahs for recruitment, especially after the Marawi siege. The NCMF distributed books in April in order to alleviate community concerns that all traditional Muslim schools bred violent extremist ideologies.

On March 29, President Duterte led the inauguration ceremony of the BARMM. The results of a January plebiscite added Basilan and Cotabato City to BARMM territories. Although the move was widely backed by Muslims and Christians nationwide, some local religious minorities continued to express their concerns about the new authority. The BARMM government designated two seats, one for a Christian and one for an indigenous delegate, to its council to allay minority community concerns. BARMM authorities, an amalgamation of members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and presidential appointees, continued setting up their government, establishing budget priorities, staffing offices, and implementing infrastructure projects. The BARMM government continued to reinforce existing legislation that governed the application of sharia and provided an alternative dispute mechanism for non-Muslims seeking redress in the courts.

NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination continued to occur in government offices but cited no specific examples. Some Muslim leaders, including an NCMF official, expressed concern about the low percentage of Muslims in senior government and military positions. There were 13 Muslims in the 301-member House of Representatives and one Muslim cabinet appointee. No members of the Senate were Muslim. In October seven Muslim lawmakers of the House of Representatives and the Federation of Free Workers issued statements calling for President Duterte to appoint a Muslim justice to the 15-person supreme court for the first time since 1995.

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

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

In March the NCMF, along with other religious leaders, participated in an interfaith dialogue in Cebu City to highlight the importance of youth involvement in curbing violent extremism. NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan stressed that an effective way of achieving peace was through interfaith collaboration.

In January the Department of Tourism announced plans to make the country a significant “religious pilgrimage destination” by restoring and developing historic churches and Christian shrines throughout the country.

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment continued to administer logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that 7,232 individuals made the pilgrimage during the year, lower than the 8,000-limit set by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for pilgrims from the Philippines, but an increase of 1,419 persons from the previous year. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects.

In February the senate adopted a resolution filed by Senate President Vicente Sotto declaring the first Thursday of February “Synchronized National Interfaith Prayers for Peace and Reconciliation.” The resolution aimed to encourage Filipinos of all religious groups to participate in a universal prayer for peace.

The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings in the south of the country to the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – both designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other ISIS-related terrorist groups. ISIS claimed responsibility for a January suicide bombing at a cathedral in Jolo that killed 20 persons and wounded several others. In August a cathedral in Baguio received bomb and terror threats from alleged ISIS affiliates. Following these attacks, members of the Catholic and Muslim communities gathered in the cathedral to show solidarity against terrorism. Eleven soldiers and nine civilians were wounded in a December 22 grenade attack adjacent to a radio station and a Catholic cathedral in Cotabato City. The attack reportedly unfolded as soldiers dismounted from a military truck to provide security for a Mass taking place at the cathedral. Authorities suggested the attack, which came on the eve of a planned visit by President Duterte to Cotabato, may have been linked to ISIS-linked groups operating in the area, though no one claimed responsibility by year’s end. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

The NCMF received several formal complaints of discrimination on the grounds of Muslim religious identity during the year. The organization reported that Muslims received stares in public for wearing hijabs, particularly in schools and banks. NCMF noted a successful legal intervention on behalf of a Muslim nursing student whose school, citing health concerns, initially prevented her from wearing a hijab. The NCMF also stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination continued to exist throughout the country, particularly among detainees in correctional institutions.

Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. The CBCP collaborated with other Christian groups and civil society networks to prepare for the implementation of the BOL. Other interfaith efforts by the CBCP, but not limited to religious freedom issues, included multi-sectoral consultations and meetings with provincial and local governments on localizing humanitarian coordination and collaboration against human trafficking.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In June the embassy organized a forum with BTA representatives and legislative branch staffers to discuss the implementation of the BOL, including its implications for religious minorities and the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas, as the BARMM moved forward. Embassy officers also met with religious leaders, CHR, and the Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss religious freedom issues, including the BOL.

Cognizant of the vital role that faith and education play in fostering peace in Mindanao, the embassy continued outreach and training with madrassah educators through the Empowering Madrassah Educators (EmpoweringME) program. Since 2015, EmpoweringME has provided intensive teacher training for 325 madrassah educators and administrators in Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Cotabato City, and Basilan. During the year, EmpoweringME introduced a module on social inclusion, which added matters relating to religious tolerance to its curriculum. The embassy also sponsored the visit of two scholars known for their work on religious tolerance and social inclusion to the United States for a three-week course on law and leadership. The program educated its participants not only on the law, but also on how to mitigate gender and religious intolerance they may face in their work. The embassy supported a two-year grant to a former participant of an embassy program to develop and implement a peace education curriculum, which included aspects of religious tolerance, in the 11 schools that comprise the Mindanao State University system. The Philippine Commission on Higher Education expressed interest in integrating elements of this peace curriculum across its entire nationwide network of colleges and universities. The embassy featured all these programs in press releases and on social media.

A senior embassy official hosted an iftar reception in May at a public university in Manila attended by more than 100 guests from the NCMF, civil society organizations, higher education, and religious and community sectors. He spoke about the importance of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s support in rebuilding the Islamic city of Marawi, as well as other forms of assistance across conflict-affected areas of Mindanao. The embassy also supported an interfaith forum to highlight the plight of the internally displaced persons of the Marawi siege and international religious freedom issues. In addition, the embassy hosted an iftar in Davao that was attended by BARMM officials and Muslim scholars.

The embassy regularly highlighted support for religious freedom and the protection of civil liberties for people of all faiths on its various online platforms. It posted a tweet in observance of the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief on August 22. The Ambassador posted tweets for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, while the embassy posted Facebook and Twitter content for the celebrations. Other notable posts included an ambassadorial tweet and embassy Facebook and Twitter posts publicizing the statement of the Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; an embassy tweet on the confirmation of the identity of Maute group leader Abu Dar; ambassadorial and embassy tweets of condolences for the victims of the Jolo Cathedral Bombings; and an ambassadorial tweet on the Bangsamoro plebiscite and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority.

In October the embassy hosted a U.S. Muslim for five days of speaking engagements in Manila and Mindanao and programs on conflict transformation. The individual spoke on university campuses and at American Centers to engage emerging leaders on current issues in the BARMM.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion. It states freedom of religion includes the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest that religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing rites, or teaching. It states freedom to express religion may be limited only by law when necessary to defend state security, public order, health, morals, or the rights of others. The constitution states, “Churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.” It stipulates the relationship between the state and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for autonomy and mutual independence. The constitution specifies that relations with the Roman Catholic Church shall be determined by an international concordat concluded with the Holy See and by statute, and relations with other churches and religious organizations by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements between representatives of these groups and the Council of Ministers.

According to the constitution, freedom of religion also includes the right to own places of worship and to provide religious services. The constitution stipulates parents have the right to ensure their children receive a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions and their own religious and philosophical beliefs. It states religious organizations may teach their faith in schools if doing so does not infringe on the religious freedom of others. The constitution acknowledges the right of national and ethnic minorities to establish institutions designed to protect religious identity. The constitution prohibits parties and other organizations with programs based on Nazism or communism.

The criminal code outlaws public speech that offends religious sentiment. The law prescribes a fine, typically 5,000 zloty ($1,300), or up to two years in prison for violations.

By law, anyone who publicly assigns the “Polish state or nation” responsibility or joint responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich during World War II (WWII) may be sued by the Institute of National Remembrance and relevant NGOs, fined, and/or forced to retract the offending statement and pay compensation to the state or a charity.

Specific legislation governs the relationship of 15 religious groups with the state, outlining the structure of that relationship and procedures for communal property restitution. The 15 religious groups are the Roman Catholic Church, Polish Orthodox Church, Evangelical-Augsburg (Lutheran) Church, Evangelical Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Polish National Catholic Church, Pentecostal Church, the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, Mariavite Church, Old Catholic Mariavite Church, Old Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim Religious Union, and Karaim Religious Union. Marriages performed by officials from 11 of these groups do not require further registration at a civil registry office; however, the Mariavite Church, Muslim Religious Union, Karaim Religious Union, and Old Eastern Orthodox Church do not have that right. An additional 166 registered religious groups and five aggregate religious organizations (the Polish Ecumenical Council, Polish Buddhist Union, Biblical Society, Evangelical Alliance, and Council of Protestant Churches) do not have a statutorily defined relationship with the state.

The law on freedom of conscience and religion states that relations between the state and all churches and other religious unions are based on the respect of freedom of conscience and religion. This includes separation of churches and other religious unions from the state; freedom to perform religious functions; equality of all churches and religious unions, no matter how their legal situation is regulated; and legal protections for churches and other religious groups within the scope defined by the law. In accordance with the law, the government and the Roman Catholic Church participate in the Joint Government-Episcopate Committee, co-chaired by the Minister of Interior and Administration and a bishop, currently the Archbishop of Gdansk, which meets regularly to discuss Catholic Church-state relations. The government also participates in a joint government-Polish Ecumenical Council committee, co-chaired by a Ministry of Interior and Administration (MIA) undersecretary and the head of the Polish Ecumenical Council (an association composed of seven denominations and two religious associations, all of them non-Roman Catholic Christian), which meets to discuss issues related to minority Christian churches operating in the country.

Religious groups not the subject of specific legislation may register with the MIA, but registration is not obligatory. To register, the law requires a group to submit a notarized application with the personal information of at least 100 citizen members; details about the group’s activities in the country; background on its doctrine and practices; a charter and physical address; identifying information about its leaders; a description of the role of the clergy, if applicable; and information on funding sources and methods of new member recruitment. If the ministry rejects the registration application, religious groups may appeal to an administrative court. By law, the permissible grounds for refusal of an application are failure to meet formal requirements or inclusion in the application of provisions that may violate public safety and order, health, public morality, parental authority or freedom, and rights of other persons. Unregistered groups may worship, proselytize, publish or import religious literature freely, and bring in foreign missionaries, but they have no legal recognition and are unable to undertake certain functions such as owning property or holding bank accounts in their name. The 186 registered and statutorily recognized religious groups receive other privileges not available to unregistered groups, such as selective tax benefits – they are exempt from import tariffs, property taxes and income tax on their educational, scientific, cultural, and legal activities, and their official representatives are also exempt from income and property taxes – and the right to acquire property and teach religion in schools.

Four commissions oversee communal religious-property restitution claims submitted by their respective statutory filing deadlines: one each for the Jewish community, Lutheran Church, and Orthodox Church, and one for all other denominations. The commissions function in accordance with legislation providing for the restitution to religious communities of property they owned that was nationalized during or after WWII. A separate commission overseeing claims by the Roman Catholic Church completed its work in 2011. The MIA and the respective religious community each appoint representatives to the commissions. The law states decisions by the commission ruling on communal property claims may not be appealed, but the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2013 that parties could appeal commission decisions in administrative courts. There have been no reports of parties filing such appeals. The law does not address communal properties the government sold or turned over to new private owners after WWII.

There is no comprehensive national law governing private property restitution. Members of religious groups, like other private claimants, may pursue restitution through the courts.

The law authorizes Warsaw city authorities to resolve expeditiously longstanding restitution cases affecting Warsaw properties being used for public purposes. Warsaw city officials must post a notification of specific public properties for a six-month period during which original owners of the property must submit their claims. At the end of the six-month period, Warsaw city authorities may make a final determination on the disposition of the property, either declaring that the property shall remain public and not be subject to any future claims, or returning the property or monetary compensation to the original owner.

In accordance with the law, all public and private schools teach voluntary religion classes. Schools at all grade levels must provide instruction in any of the registered faiths if there are at least seven students requesting it. Each registered religious group determines the content of classes in its faith and provides the teachers, who receive salaries from the state. Students may also request to take an optional ethics class instead of a religion class; the ethics class is optional even if students decline to take a religion class.

Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom, and the law prohibits discrimination or persecution based on religion or belief.

The constitution recognizes the right to conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds but states such objectors may be required to perform alternative service as specified by law.

The human rights ombudsman is responsible for safeguarding human and civil freedoms and rights, including the freedom of religion and conscience, specified in the constitution and other legal acts. The ombudsman is independent from the government and appointed by parliament.

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

Government Practices

According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions resolved 151 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 3,089 pending claims by religious groups, compared with 87 claims resolved the previous year. At year’s end, the commissions had partially or entirely resolved a total of 2,852 of 5,504 claims by the Jewish community deemed valid by the commission (40 were previously dismissed by the commission as invalid), 981 of 1,182 claims by the Lutheran community, 365 of 472 claims by the Orthodox Church, and 89 of 170 claims by all other denominations.

Critics continued to point out the laws on religious communal property restitution do not address the issue of disputed communal properties now privately owned, and the government left several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. These included cases in which buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after WWII. The Jewish community continued to report the pace of Jewish communal property restitution was slow, involved considerable legal expense, and often ended without any recovery of property or other compensation for claimants. For example, the process of returning the old Jewish cemetery in the city of Kalisz started 19 years ago, and it remained unresolved at year’s end.

During the year, Warsaw city authorities continued implementing a 2015 law intended to end abusive practices in the trading of former property owners’ claims. Legal experts expressed concern the law limited the ability of claimants to reclaim property unjustly taken from their lawful owners during the WWII and communist eras, including from Jews and members of other religious minorities. On May 10, Warsaw city authorities stated that since the 2015 law entered into force, the city had resolved approximately 100 dormant claims filed before 1950, which included the refusal of 82 restitution claims against public properties. These included schools, preschools, a park, a police command unit site, a hospital, and city-owned apartment houses. There was no information available as to the identity of those claiming prior ownership or how many of them belonged to religious minorities.

A special government commission continued to investigate accusations of irregularities in the restitution of private property in Warsaw. On June 3, the commission reported it had reviewed 806 prior restitution cases and issued 97 decisions since 2016. The commission chair also estimated the commission issued decisions regarding the payment of compensation worth 4.2 million zloty ($1.11 million). Several NGOs and lawyers representing claimants, including lawyers representing Holocaust survivors or their heirs, stated the commission had a negative effect on private property restitution cases, as administrative and court decisions had slowed down in response to the commission’s decisions.

During the year, the government and various political parties rejected calls for broad, expedited private property restitution. At a party convention on May 17, Prime Minister (PM) Morawiecki stated Poland should not be saddled with financial obligations in providing restitution payments, saying that such a move would defy basic principles of international law and would be “Hitler’s posthumous victory.” Law and Justice Party (PiS) chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski stated on June 4 that as long as PiS was in power, the party was “a guarantee that Poland will not pay for German crimes of World War II. If Jews have any claims, let them turn to Germany. Poles owe them absolutely nothing.” Responding to a question about Holocaust-era property restitution, PM Morawiecki said on September 26, “Demanding any compensation from Poland is not only inappropriate but is also an insult to basic historical truth.” On May 15, Robert Winnicki, a member of the lower house of parliament (Sejm) and the far-right Confederation Party, said PiS, the majority party in the Sejm, “want[s] to sell Poland to the Jews” after the Sejm declined to review a bill that would ban heirless property restitution. Stanislaw Tyszka, then a deputy speaker of the Sejm with the Kukiz’15 Party, said on May 15 that PiS’s refusal to take up the legislation “shows that the Polish government is no longer on its knees, but is lying flat in front of [the United States] and Israel.”

In August PiS expelled Senator Waldemar Bonkowski, who was suspended from the party in 2018 for posting anti-Semitic material on his Facebook page, including a video edited from Nazi propaganda movies. Media reported that he was expelled partly because of his anti-Semitic comments.

In May, then European Parliament (EP) candidate and current parliamentarian for the Confederation Party Grzegorz Braun said in a press conference, “The American empire is here the political, and also military, tool of Jewish blackmail against Poland.” The same month, Braun said in a far-right magazine that Jews “have waged war for centuries” against Poles and “the whole Christian world.”

In August Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich addressed an open letter to Veterans Affairs Minister Jan Kasprzyk criticizing the government’s decision to honor WII ultra-nationalist fighters of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade, which killed Poles it suspected of being communist, including many Jews. Schudrich called his invitation to the event a “personal insult.” “There are so many other Polish heroes, we don’t need to choose the ones who actually killed other Poles, and in this case, many of them of the Jewish religion,” Schudrich said, dubbing the ceremony “dangerous” historical revisionism.

In February Sejm member Pawel Kukiz (then from the Kukiz’15 party, afterward from the Polish Coalition) posted tweets listing persons of Jewish origin whom he alleged worked for the communist regime after the war and were responsible for death sentences against Polish soldiers. His tweets were in response to comments from then acting Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who in the same month said many Poles had collaborated with the Nazis, and Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” In his tweets, Kukiz said, “Since Minister Katz talks about Poles involved in the murder of Jews (and unfortunately they were), I allow myself to remind [others] about the Jews who murdered Poles in the service of the Soviets.” After facing public criticism, Kukiz announced he would take legal action against anyone who called him an anti-Semite.

During a May 18 televised debate in Kielce, Confederation Party candidate for the EP Konrad Berkowicz placed a kippah over the head of Anna Krupka, a PiS candidate for the EP elections that month. Berkowicz said “[PiS] bow[s] down to Jews,” who would “sell this country for money.” The country’s then-ambassador to Israel condemned the incident, stating that all expressions of “racially motivated” hatred were unacceptable. Berkowicz was elected to the Sejm on October 13.

On January 17, Deputy Prosecutor General Krzysztof Sierak announced 105 prosecutors around the country had been selected to work exclusively on hate crime and hate speech cases. He made assurances that they would not be assigned any other cases and said that all hate speech and hate crime cases would be supervised by district and regional prosecutors’ offices and by the National Prosecutor’s Department of Investigations.

Crucifixes continued to be displayed in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in many other public buildings, including public school classrooms.

In March media reported that a newsstand in the Sejm offered a right-wing newspaper that advised readers on “How to identify a Jew” and “How to defeat them.” On March 13, the Sejm press office said the newsstand was run by an outside contractor who was responsible for the newspaper selection, and that parliament would request the periodical be withdrawn. The contractor said it was unable to comply with the request due to laws prohibiting restrictions on dissemination of press publications because of their content.

On March 18, police and the Internal Security Agency detained three men and accused them of promoting fascism and inciting hatred. The agency’s officers found neo-fascist literature, clothes and labels with neo-fascist symbols, axes, hatchets, and knives in the men’s apartments.

On June 26, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a law used to punish a print shop worker for refusing to produce LGBTI material was unconstitutional. The case was brought by the prosecutor general, who argued that there should be a right to refuse service based on “religion and conscience,” including “the right not to support homosexual content.” The case originated in a 2016 court ruling that fined the print shop employee for refusing to accept a printing order from an LGBTI group, telling the group that he did not want to “contribute to the promotion of the LGBTI movement.” A lower court had found the employee violated the law, which prohibits “refusing service without just cause.”

In January the Constitutional Tribunal struck down a provision of the 2018 Institute of National Remembrance law which criminalized denial that Ukrainian nationalists had committed crimes against Poles between 1925 and 1950 and had collaborated with Nazi Germany. The tribunal ruled that the creators of the provision used vague and imprecise wording when referring to “Ukrainian nationalists” and the location of their crimes, which created uncertainty regarding the applicability of the provision.

On May 6, police arrested a person suspected of creating posters of the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag, which appeared in the city of Plock. The suspect was charged with offending religious sentiment but was released the same day. Then-minister of interior Joachim Brudzinski called the posters “cultural barbarism” and said, “No fairy tales about freedom or tolerance give anyone the right to offend the feelings of the faithful.”

In November the Czestochowa-North District Prosecutor’s Office reopened an investigation into the use of an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag during the June 16 Equality March in Czestochowa. The same prosecutor’s office had previously discontinued proceedings in October after stating there was no evidence that the march participants had committed the crime of offending religious sentiment.

In November local media reported Tomasz Greniuch, historian and nationalist, was nominated to head the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) office in Opole. Greniuch was the chief of the National-Radical Camp (ONR) in Opole, a group the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers fascist and has called upon Poland to ban for promoting “national hatred.” In 2005, Greniuch was an organizer of a march commemorating a 1936 anti-Jewish pogrom in Myslenice.

In January PM Morawiecki and other political and religious leaders joined Holocaust survivors to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commemorate the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

On May 15, following an attack in Israel against the Polish ambassador, President Andrzej Duda said, “Just as I fight all instances of anti-Semitism, which I regard as something vile and unworthy, I will never accept any anti-Polish act.”

In an October 25 letter to the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Prime Minister Morawiecki declared the country was committed to fighting all forms of anti-Semitism and condemned all acts of violence against members of Jewish communities or attacks on their places of worship. The letter was written in response to the Jewish Agency’s request that the country secure its synagogues and other Jewish institutions following an October 9 attack outside a synagogue in Halle, Germany.

On January 27, responding to a nationalist march in front of Auschwitz, then-Minister of Interior Joachim Brudzinski declared on social media he would never tolerate any kind of Nazi or anti-Semitic propaganda. “I said it many times, and I will repeat again, there will never be any approval from my side to any activities promoting Nazism and anti-Semitism,” he wrote on social media.

In March, at the Israeli government’s request, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz stated that Poland would deny entry to English author and Holocaust denier David Irving, who planned to lead a tour of Nazi death camps in Poland in September. The minister said, “Denial of the Holocaust is not allowed by Polish law; therefore, he will not be welcome here in Poland if he wants to come and present his opinions.”

In November, media reported that the Foundation of Cultural Heritage, which is partially supported by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, completed a mausoleum in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery for Jews who fought for the nation’s independence. Construction originally started in 1939, but World War II intervened.

In November, a musical on divergent Polish-Jewish narratives of the Holocaust titled “Letter from Warsaw” premiered in Warsaw with financial support from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The musical tells the story of a family of American Jews that rediscovers its Polish-Jewish roots when informed they are the remaining heirs of unclaimed property in Warsaw.

On May 2, Agriculture Minister Krzysztof Ardanowski marched with Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, and U.S. representatives, among others, in the International March of the Living from Birkenau to Auschwitz. The March of the Living is an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to study the history of the Holocaust.

In January the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, after the Supreme Administrative Court in 2018 rejected its final appeal to register as a religious organization.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination; it published the results in September. According to the findings, 29 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 64 percent said it was rare; 82 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, 89 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 84 percent said they would be with an atheist, 81 percent with a Jew, 77 percent with a Buddhist, and 70 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 88 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 76 percent if atheist, 72 percent if Jewish, 66 percent if Buddhist, and 55 percent if Muslim. The study did not break out respondents by religion.

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, 41 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, and 18 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who felt that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 43 percent; anti-Semitism on the internet, 40 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 45 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 41 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 41 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 31 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 37 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 36 percent. The study made no effort to break out respondents by religion.

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: 64 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Poland; 56 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 74 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

The national prosecutor’s office reported that during 2018, the most recent period for which data were available, prosecutors investigated 429 religiously motivated incidents, compared with 506 in the previous year. The 2018 data did not specify which religious groups were targeted in these incidents. The NGO Never Again Association and religious groups stated government tracking of religiously motivated incidents was not comprehensive or systematic.

During the year, there were several physical attacks against Roman Catholic clergy and lay people, as well as against a Muslim. There were also cases of desecration of Roman Catholic, Jewish, and other religious sites, such as churches, temples, and cemeteries.

On July 28, three men attacked a priest and a member of church staff in St. John’s Basilica in Szczecin. The priest was taken to the hospital. He said the attackers verbally abused him, bit him in the face, and demanded his liturgical vestments. On September 23, the Szczecin District prosecutor’s office indicted the three, whose pretrial detention, which began in July, was extended to at least five months. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison for, among other charges, using violence or criminal threats against someone on the grounds of their religious identity. On July 29, the chief of the Conference of Polish Bishops wrote an open letter to the priest expressing deep concern with what he characterized as the growing frequency of acts of hate against believers, including priests, and against religious buildings, sites, and objects of worship.

On June 10, a man stabbed a priest in front of a church in Wroclaw. The priest was walking to the church to lead morning Mass. In November the Wroclaw prosecutor’s office indicted the man with attempted murder. According to media reports, a spokesperson for the archdiocese said he believed the suspect’s intent was to attack any “man in a cassock.”

On July 26, four persons came to the parish office in Wloclawek to submit the required official documents in order to renounce their faith. When the priest explained that an act of apostasy could only be signed by a parish priest who was not present at that moment, the persons verbally abused the priest, and one man attacked him with a cross and threw him out of his chair.

On August 27, a man wearing a Star of David necklace entered a pub in Lodz city center. The man said the bartender refused to serve him and said the pub’s security guard used vulgar anti-Semitic comments and demanded he leave. The man called the police, who confirmed they received a notification about a possible crime of public offense of a person or group based on their national, ethnic, racial, or religious origin. The president of the pub’s board apologized for the incident and said the pub would take immediate steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.

In September media reported on the case of a judge – a member of the National Council of the Judiciary – who in 2015 allegedly used an anonymous online account to make anti-Semitic comments, including calling Jews “a vile, rotten people [who] do not deserve anything.” On September 16, the National Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it had launched an investigation into the case.

On May 4, the Oswiecim regional court sentenced far-right activist Piotr Rybak to one year of community service for incitement to hatred on national grounds after he led a January 27 protest of approximately 200 nationalists in front of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp. During the demonstration, he said International Holocaust Remembrance Day glorified Jewish victims and discounted the deaths of Poles, adding, “It’s time to fight against Jewry and free Poland from them.” Rybak was jailed previously for burning an effigy of a Jew in 2015.

On November 11, former Roman Catholic priest and far-right activist Jacek Miedlar led a “March of Poles” in Wroclaw to celebrate the country’s independence day. City officials decided to terminate the march after some participants, including Miedlar, shouted anti-Semitic slogans. On December 13, the Internal Security Agency arrested Miedlar on charges of public incitement of hatred against Jews. The spokesman for the national security services said on Twitter that Miedlar had been arrested in connection with his manifesto, which accuses Jews of betraying the country when it regained independence in 1918. Miedlar was released the same day. He had previously made anti-Semitic comments and engaged in anti-Semitic activities, including organizing a nationalist march with Piotr Rybak in Wroclaw in 2018.

On April 19, residents of the town of Pruchnik enacted an annual ritual that involved hanging, burning, and beating an effigy of Judas Iscariot, who was dressed to look like an Orthodox Jew. On April 22, the Catholic Church condemned the ritual, and then-minister of interior Brudzinski called it “idiotic, pseudo-religious chutzpah.” On May 14, the Przemysl prosecutor’s office said it would not open an investigation into the incident based on incitement to hatred on national grounds, describing the event as a 100-year-old tradition in Pruchnik whose purpose was to condemn the specific behavior of a historical person (Judas) rather than to incite general hatred against Jews.

On November 11, a coalition of groups, including the ONR and All Polish Youth, both of whose ideologies are considered extremist and nationalist by human rights groups, led an annual Independence Day March. March organizer Robert Bakiewicz said in a speech preceding the march, “Jews want to plunder our homeland.” There were no reports of violence, but participants chanted slogans such as “Great Catholic Poland,” and a small number displayed a white supremacist version of the Celtic cross.

On May 11, a nationalist-organized protest against Holocaust-era property restitution and the U.S. Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act took place outside the prime minister’s chancellery and the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. Several thousand people participated. The protest was peaceful and lasted several hours, with marchers chanting “No to Restitution” and “Stop [the] JUST Act.” Leaders of far-right organizations, including ONR and All-Polish Youth, spoke to the crowd. They criticized the governing PiS Party for allegedly bowing to foreign interests at the expense of the nation and vowed that the government would not pay “a single penny” in restitution. They said the JUST Act was a problem created by Jewish organizations and called on President Trump to abolish it. Marchers also chanted “This is Poland, not Polin” (the Hebrew name for Poland) several times in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, with some participants wearing T-shirts with the same message.

On April 19, the U.S. Ambassador’s tweet of Passover holiday wishes generated over 1,500 comments, the vast majority of which were negative and anti-Semitic.

Groups such as National Rebirth of Poland and Blood and Honor continued to espouse anti-Semitic views, but according to the Never Again Association, they were not as active as in previous years.

On October 1, unknown perpetrators painted vulgar anti-Semitic slogans and a swastika on the walls of the former ghetto in Krakow. City authorities immediately removed the graffiti. Police were looking for perpetrators at year’s end.

On September 3, media reported the Lublin prosecutor’s office discontinued an investigation into graffiti discovered inside the demolished workshop of a stonemason who was renovating a Holocaust memorial in Wawolnica. The perpetrator had painted the inscription “Jews away” inside the building before running through it with a bulldozer. Because the graffiti was not in a public area, it was not considered “public hate speech,” which is illegal.

On July 21, unknown individuals defaced a recently renovated wall of the Jewish cemetery in Tarnow with an anti-Semitic inscription. Tarnow mayor Roman Ciepiela immediately condemned the incident and said city authorities would cover the expenses of removing the inscription. Police were looking for perpetrators at year’s end.

On June 11, unknown individuals threw stones at a Roman Catholic church in Konin. They broke stained glass windows and damaged a monument to a Polish saint in front of the church. On June 18, police detained a man and charged him with destruction of property; he pled guilty. If convicted, he could face three months to five years in prison.

On July 9, unknown individuals placed vulgar pictures and the club logo of a Warsaw soccer team in three chapels belonging to a monastery in the town of Krzeszow. On July 15, media reported police managed to identify two teenagers, a 13-year-old and 15-year-old, who admitted to placing the pictures. They claimed they did not realize “how serious the situation was.” Their case was referred to a family court.

On May 30, unknown individuals destroyed a figure of Jesus Christ in a Roman Catholic church in Plonsk. Police initiated an investigation into the incident.

On August 10, during an on-stage performance, a drag queen participating in an LGBTI “Mr. Gay Poland” gala event in Poznan simulated cutting the throat of an effigy of Krakow Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski, who had criticized what he called “LGBTI ideology” in a sermon. Minister of Interior Mariusz Kaminski said prosecutors would look into the incident and noted such behavior was unacceptable, no matter which religion was under attack.

On June 8, at a side event of Warsaw’s Equality Parade, three men, including an LGBTI activist who stated he was a bishop of the Free Reformed Church, dressed as priests and held what many observers considered a mock Roman Catholic Mass. The Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a statement protesting the event, and the man was charged with offending religious sentiment.

On May 25, during Gdansk’s equality march, a group of participants displayed a banner with an image of a vagina imitating a monstrance. The person who carried the banner was dressed as a priest. The Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a statement that said the incident showed a lack of respect for believers and violated the right to freedom of religion. Prosecutors opened an investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end.

On August 9, the Rzeszow local prosecutor’s office pressed charges against a man who allegedly attacked a Polish Muslim woman and her three-month-old baby in Rzeszow. The man was charged with making threats and offending the woman on the grounds of religious affiliation. The incident took place when the woman was walking with her baby in a stroller along the river. The man verbally abused her and tried to flip over the stroller. He also made death threats against the woman and shouted “Heil Hitler” and “white power.”

On April 17, the Przemysl local court sentenced 20 men to 30-40 hours of community service for disrupting a religious procession of Greek Catholic and Orthodox Church believers in 2016. The procession was en route from the local cathedral to the Ukrainian war cemetery in Przemysl at the time.

On December 24, four men broke into a Sikh temple in Warsaw. At year’s end, police were looking for the perpetrators, who were accused of desecrating the area used for performing religious services and stealing two chairs.

In April following the discovery that some bags sold in the Auchan supermarket chain in Krakow had swastikas on them, an Auchan spokesperson said the bags in question were provided by a third party supplier and that store staff did not immediately notice, since the swastikas were printed on only one out of 10 bags. The chain withdrew the bags from its stores. Separately, the Zabka supermarket chain said it would remove all anti-Semitic publications from its convenience stores after media reported it sold periodicals published by a well-known anti-Semite, which included stories such as “How Adolf Built Israel” and “How Jews Collaborated with Germans [During World War II].”

In February local media reported several Jewish leaders, including the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said they felt safe in the country. Media pointed out that although there was practically no anti-Semitic violence in the country, anti-Semitic speech was prevalent, mainly on the internet. Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich observed that people with anti-Semitic views had become more confident and open about their views in the last few years.

According to the Never Again Association, during the year anti-Semitism returned as a topic to the public debate, mainly due to the far right Confederation Party’s vocal opposition to comprehensive private property restitution during EP elections in May and parliamentary elections in October. According to the NGO, anti-Semitic messages appeared in online messaging, as well as on nationalist and far-right YouTube channels and internet media websites. The NGO said that while Jews had not been physically attacked, there were cases of vandalism targeting Jewish monuments and cemeteries.

On January 26, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the 19th Annual Day of Islam with the stated purpose of promoting peace among religious groups. The Church hosted an event titled “Christians and Muslims – From Competition to Cooperation” in Bialystok, which included discussions, readings from the Bible and Quran, and prayers. The Joint Council of Catholics and Muslims also issued a statement appealing to Catholics to cooperate with “Muslim brothers.”

The Polish Council of Christians and Jews organized joint Catholic and Jewish prayers to encourage tolerance and understanding on the October 27 Simchat Torah Jewish holiday. On November 11, the council organized the first-ever bus pilgrimage to sites important to the Hasidic movement in Judaism called “Following the Routes of Tsaddiks” under the honorary patronage of Roman Catholic Bishop Rafal Markowski, the chairman of the Polish Bishops Committee for Dialogue with Judaism.

On October 26, the John Paul II Center of Thought organized an interreligious prayer for peace in Warsaw, which included Archbishop of Warsaw Kazimierz Nycz, Chief Rabbi Schudrich, and Mufti of the Muslim League Nedal Abu Tabaq, as well as representatives of the Orthodox Church, Polish Ecumenical Council, and Sant’Egidio Roman Catholic organization.

Human Library projects, funded by European Economic Area grants and coordinated by NGOs Diversja Association and Lambda Warsaw, continued in several cities and towns around the country, including Warsaw, Olesnica, Wroclaw, and Lodz. The projects involved a diverse group of volunteers, including representatives of Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups, who told their stories to individuals who could “borrow” them like books. The stated intent of the project was to foster greater tolerance in general, including religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In February the Vice President joined PM Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a wreath-laying ceremony at a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, during which thousands of Polish Jews perished. The Vice President said in remarks to Prime Minister Netanyahu at the nearby POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, “…It is very humbling for me to be here with you in this very special place on this sacred ground, to hear a prayer sung, to remember the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. To be able to share this moment with you and with members of the Jewish community here in Poland is deeply meaningful.” The Vice President, with President Duda, also placed candles at a memorial to Holocaust victims at the Birkenau death camp.

In February, during a joint appearance with the foreign minister, the Secretary of State publicly urged the government to move forward with comprehensive private-property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust era.

In May the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government officials responsible for combating anti-Semitism and working with the Jewish community. He also gave broadcast and print media interviews in which he stressed the importance of combating anti-Semitic speech and explained the purpose of the 2017 JUST Act, which requires the Department of State to report to Congress on the steps taken by the signatories to the Terezin Declaration to compensate Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution. In September the Special Envoy again met with government officials to discuss relations with the Jewish community and measures to combat anti-Semitism.

The Ambassador, officers from the embassy and consulate general in Krakow, and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives met with government officials from the interior, foreign affairs, and justice ministries; the president’s office; the prime minister’s office; parliament; and Warsaw and other city offices to discuss private property restitution, communal property restitution to religious groups, anti-Semitism, and antidiscrimination.

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general staff also met with members and leaders of the local Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities to discuss issues of concern, including private and communal property restitution and the communities’ concerns over rising intolerance, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim sentiment.

On March 25, the Ambassador met with Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation representatives to discuss the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 2020. In a tweet about the meeting, the Ambassador noted U.S. government support for the foundation’s mission to combat anti-Semitism and protect Holocaust memorial sites.

On April 19, the Ambassador attended a ceremony commemorating the 76th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

On May 2, the first-ever official U.S. delegation to the March of the Living took part in the annual commemorative walk between former Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Birkenau. Six U.S. ambassadors – to Poland, Israel, Germany, Spain, the Holy See, and Switzerland – participated, joined by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Their participation highlighted the continuing importance of combating anti-Semitism and support for the Jewish community. In her tweet about the event, the Ambassador to Poland noted participation in the March of the Living was a U.S. public statement against anti-Semitism, adding the United States would always combat hatred and work together with others for dialogue and tolerance.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador used social media to call for respect and tolerance for all religions, to underscore religious freedom as a fundamental pillar and value of strong democracy, to condemn violence based on religious beliefs, and to highlight U.S. government support for combating anti-Semitism and protecting places related to the Holocaust.

On June 28, staff from the consulate general in Krakow participated in the Ride for the Living, a 90-kilometer (56-mile) bicycle ride from the gates of the Birkenau death camp to Krakow’s Jewish Quarter to commemorate the Holocaust and celebrate the revival of Jewish life in Poland.

The embassy continued to employ exchange programs, student roundtables, and grants for education and cultural events to promote religious freedom and tolerance. Highlights included the “Letter from Warsaw” musical on divergent Polish-Jewish narratives of the Holocaust, the Isaac Bashevis Singer Festival in Warsaw, the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, an exhibit on Poles who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, and a concert commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The embassy also supported educational programs such as a hackathon, in which computer programmers and others collaborated intensively over two days to create apps to combat anti-Semitism, and a speaker program featuring a U.S. citizen who spoke to audiences in Krakow and Warsaw about his experiences engaging in dialogue with members of hate groups to encourage them to leave organizations such as the KKK. In addition, the embassy provided support for six teachers to attend a Department of State-funded Holocaust teacher training program in the United States, in cooperation with the POLIN Museum and the U.S.-based Association of Holocaust Organizations.

The consulate general in Krakow provided grant funding for an educational project led by Christian Culture Foundation ZNAK that included workshops for Polish elementary and high school students promoting human rights and constitutional rights, including religious freedom.

In July and August, the consulate general in Krakow funded a series of basic and advanced seminars for 50 teachers organized by Galicja Jewish Museum, whose goal was to educate high school teachers about contemporary Jewish life and culture in the country and to raise awareness of its multicultural and multireligious society. The consulate general also funded the Summer Academy for Anti-Discrimination Education, an intensive one-week course for a select group of 16 high school teachers and NGO activists that focused on teaching about anti-Semitism.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship, which may not be violated even if the government declares a state of emergency. It states no one shall be privileged, prejudiced, persecuted, or deprived of rights or exempted from civic obligations or duties because of religious beliefs or practices. The constitution states authorities may not question individuals about their religious convictions or observance, except to gather statistical information that does not identify individuals, and individuals may not be prejudiced by refusal to reply. Churches and religious communities are independent from the state and have the freedom to determine their own organization and perform their own activities and worship. The constitution affords each religious community the freedom to teach its religion and use its own media to disseminate public information about its activities. It bars political parties from using names directly associated with, or symbols that may be confused with those of, religious groups. The constitution and the law recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds; they require conscientious objectors to perform equivalent alternative civilian service.

The CLR is an independent, consultative body to parliament and the government, established by law. Its members include representatives of various religious groups in the country, such as the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, Evangelical Alliance, Jewish Community of Lisbon, Islamic Community of Lisbon, Hindu Community of Lisbon, and Aga Khan Foundation, as well as laypersons appointed by the MOJ. The Council of Ministers appoints its president. The CLR reviews and takes a position on all matters relating to the application of the law on religious freedom, including proposed amendments. The CLR alerts the competent authorities, including the president, parliament, and others in the government, of cases involving religious freedom and discrimination, such as restrictions or prohibitions on the right to assembly and the holding of religious services; the destruction or desecration of religious property; assaults on members and clergy of religious groups; incitement of religious discord; hate speech; and violations of the rights of foreign missionaries.

The CLR may file formal complaints at the national level with the ombudsman, an official position created by the constitution and supplemental legislation to defend the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, and at the international level with the European Court of Human Rights. The ombudsman has no legal enforcement authority, but he or she is obligated to address complaints and provide an alternative remedy for dispute resolution.

Religious groups may be organized in a variety of forms that have national, regional, or local character. A denomination may choose to organize as one national church or religious community or as several regional or local churches or religious communities. An international church or religious community may establish a representative organization of its adherents separate from the branch of the church or religious community existing in the country. A registered church or religious community may create subsidiary or affiliated organizations, such as associations, foundations, or federations.

All religious groups with an organized presence in the country may apply for registration with the registrar of religious corporate bodies in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The requirements include providing the organization’s official name, which must be distinguishable from all other religious corporate bodies in the country; the organizing documents of the church or religious community associated with the group applying for registration; the address of the organization’s registered main office in the country; a statement of the group’s religious purposes; documentation of the organization’s assets; information on the organization’s formation, composition, rules, and activities; provisions for dissolution of the organization; and the appointment method and powers of the organization’s representatives. Subsidiary or affiliated organizations included in the parent group’s application are also registered; if not included, they must register separately. The MOJ may reject a registration application if it fails to meet legal requirements, includes false documentation, or violates the constitutional right of religious freedom. In the case where the MOJ rejects an application, religious groups may appeal to the CLR within 30 days of receiving the MOJ’s decision.

Religious groups may register as religious corporations and receive tax-exempt status. Registered groups receive the right to minister in prisons, hospitals, and military facilities; provide religious teaching in public schools; participate in broadcasting time on public television and radio; and receive national recognition of religious holidays. The government certifies religious ministers, who receive all the benefits of the social security system. According to the law, chaplaincies for military services, prisons, and hospitals are state-funded positions open to all registered religious groups. A taxpayer may allocate 5 percent of his or her tax payment to any registered religious group.

Religious groups may also register as unincorporated associations or private corporations, which allow them to receive the same benefits granted to religious corporations. The process for registering as unincorporated associations or private corporations involves the same procedures as for religious corporations. There are no practical differences between associations and private corporations; the different categories distinguish the groups’ internal administration. Unregistered religious groups are not subject to penalties and may practice their religion but do not receive the benefits associated with registration.

By law, religious groups registered in the country for at least 30 years or internationally recognized for 60 years may obtain a higher registration status of “religion settled in the country.” To show they are established, religions must demonstrate an “organized social presence” for the required length of time. These groups receive government subsidies based on the number of their members; may conclude “mutual interest” agreements with the state on issues such as education, culture, or other forms of cooperation; and may celebrate religious marriages that are recognized by the state legal system. The government has mutual interest agreements with Jewish and Islamic religious bodies and a concordat with the Holy See that serves the same function for the Catholic Church.

Public secondary schools offer an optional survey course on world religions taught by lay teachers. Optional religious instruction is available at government expense if at least 10 students attend the class. Religious groups are responsible for designing the curriculum of the religious classes and providing and training the teachers. Private schools are required to offer the same curriculum as public schools but may provide instruction in any religion at their expense. All schools, public and private, are required to accommodate the religious practices of students, including rescheduling tests if necessary.

The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of religion and requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious practices. According to the labor code, employees are allowed to take leave on their Sabbath and religious holidays, even if these are not nationally observed.

The ACM, an independent government body operating under the guidelines of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, has a statutory obligation to advocate religious tolerance, including the “promotion of dialogue, innovation, and intercultural and interreligious education” and “combating all forms of discrimination based on color, nationality, ethnic origin or religion.”

The law provides for the naturalization of Jewish descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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

Government Practices

The government reported that, in the first 10 months of the year, it approved the naturalization of 4,026 Sephardic descendants of Jews expelled from the country during the Inquisition and rejected 27 applications, out of 20,955 new applications submitted. Since the beginning of this program in February 2015, 47,560 applications have been submitted: 9,711 have been approved, 31 have been rejected, and 37,818 remained pending at year’s end. Beneficiaries of the program included persons from Israel, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, and the United States.

Representatives of some religious minorities, such as evangelical Christians, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the Catholic Church received privileges not available to other religious groups. For example, most prisons, state and private hospitals, and military services designated Catholic priests to provide chaplaincy services, while other religious groups did not. Other concerns were that hospitals and prisons did not comply with Muslim dietary needs, and hospitals performed blood transfusions on Jehovah’s Witnesses in violation of a tenet of their faith. In May CLR Chairman Jose Vera Jardim said there were no serious grievances from religious groups about their treatment in hospitals and prisons, and the special needs of minority groups were protected on a case-by-case basis. He said hospitalized Muslims could request a special diet, for example. Regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jardim said transfusions were administered only in life or death emergency situations. The government covered the costs of religious assistance to non-Catholics in hospitals, prisons and the military, but there were no official statistics on the percentage of chaplaincies each religious group held.

According to High Commissioner for Migration Pedro Calado and ACM Coordinator of Intercultural Dialogue Cristina Rodrigues, the ACM’s Interfaith Dialogue Group (IDG), which includes representatives from 14 religious groups, published educational material on religious acceptance that was distributed for teachers to use in schools around the country. The IDG also published a guide to religious and spiritual groups present in the country, which it updated during the year.

During the year, the ACM also trained 224 police personnel and prison guards to promote better understanding of and respect for different religious traditions.

In July the IDG organized a meeting in Castelo Novo, where 19 youths from eight religious communities – Seventh-day Adventist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Anglican, Baha’i, Ismaili, Hindu, and Church of Jesus Christ – were challenged to reflect on the current world situation and debate intercultural and interreligious ideas. The focus of lectures and debates was centered on the importance of religious freedom, respect for differences, and the willingness to conduct a dialogue for peace. There were also opportunities to socialize and share experiences and values, including an evening of music, poetry, and other forms of religious and cultural expressions.

In May the ACM organized an event, “Out of Doors,” to promote interreligious dialogue that featured workshops, musical performances, and other activities hosted by members of religious communities, including Anglicans, Catholics, evangelical Christians, Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.

In September the ACM held a day-long Citizenship and Religion Congress focused on interreligious dialogue, which brought together political leaders, representatives of various religious denominations, and international guests to discuss challenges facing various religious communities in the country, share best practices, and promote dialogue and cooperation among them.

The state-run television channel RTP continued to broadcast a half-hour religious program five days a week and a separate weekly half-hour program, with segments for both written by registered religious groups.

On December 4, Portugal became a full member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In November a referee did not allow a 13-year-old Pakistani girl to play in a game because she wore a black long-sleeved jersey under her regular uniform, which the referees said was against regulations. The girl explained that she wore the long sleeves because her religion (Islam) did not allow her to show her arms, but the referees disqualified her. The national Basketball Federation (FPB) later presented her with another undershirt that she could wear and also meet regulations. In a public statement, the FPB denied discriminating against the girl in any way.

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, 41 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Portugal, while 53 percent said it was very rare; 90 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religious 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, 86 percent said they would be with an atheist, 81 percent with a Jew, 81 percent with a Buddhist, and 75 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 92 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 84 percent if atheist, 74 percent if Jewish, 72 percent if Buddhist, and 59 percent if Muslim.

In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December in each EU-member state. According to the survey, 41 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Portugal, and 18 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 43 percent; on the internet, 40 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 45 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 41 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 41 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 31 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 37 percent; and anti-Semitism in media, 36 percent.

In May Sunni and Shia leaders described relations within the country’s Muslim communities as excellent. Lisbon Central Mosque Sheikh David Munir said the mosque was active in assisting recently arrived refugees, most of whom were Muslims from Syria and Iraq.

Former Jewish Community President Gabriel Szary Steinhardt said in May the country was a “paradise for Jews in Europe.” He stated that while anti-Semitism acts occurred occasionally, the majority of the population appreciated and had an interest in Judaism and the Jewish people.

In May CLR President Jardim and Vice President Fernando Loja described the state of relations among all religious groups in the country as excellent. The CLR leaders said they had not perceived any Sunni-Shia tensions arising from the planned opening of the Ismaili world headquarters in Lisbon. The headquarters building was undergoing final renovation work at year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with CLR and ACM officials and discussed the importance of mutual respect and understanding among religious communities and the integration of immigrants, many of whom belonged to minority religious groups. In May embassy officials and a visiting Department of State official met with CLR President Jardim and Vice President Loja, and High Commissioner for Migrations Calado to discuss religious freedom issues, among other things.

The Ambassador and embassy representatives continued to meet with leaders of religious groups, including the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities, to discuss issues of religious tolerance and encourage interfaith collaboration and dialogue. The Ambassador met with Sheikh Munir and Arif Z. Lalani, head of the Department for Diplomatic Affairs of the Ismaili Imamat, to discuss ways in which the Muslim community and the embassy could work together to promote religious acceptance and tolerance.

Embassy officials continued to meet with Gabriel Szary Steinhardt and Esther Mucznik, president and vice president, respectively, of the Jewish Community of Lisbon; Maria Antonieta Rebelo Vinagre Becker-Weinberg, president of the Somej Nophlim Jewish Association; Rabbi Eliyohu Rosenfeld of Chabad Lisbon; Rana Uddin, president of the Islamic Center of Bangladesh in Lisbon; President of the Islamic Community Vakil; and Archimandrite Philip Jagnisz, vicar of Portugal and Galiza of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed the importance of freedom of expression of religious views and promoting tolerance and understanding among religious communities. Other topics included anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-clerical sentiment in the country, concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities, and access to non-Catholic chaplains in hospitals and the military.

In May embassy officials and a visiting Department of State official met with CLR President Jardim and Vice President Loja, the High Commissioner for Migrations (ACM), Islamic Community leadership, including President of the Islamic Community Vakil and Sheikh Munir, and representatives from the Catholic Church, and the Jewish communities. They discussed international Muslim support for refugees in the country and funding for the Central Mosque, ACM-supported training materials and events to promote interfaith understanding, and relations among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the country.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. According to the constitution, the emir must be Muslim. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the emir’s branch of the Al Thani family. The emir exercises full executive power. The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.” It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions. The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations. Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the government with the support of the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations. The eight registered Christian denominations are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Inter-Denominational Christian Churches. In practice, nearly all other denominations are registered under the aegis of the Anglican Church.

Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA. Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures such as private villas recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution. Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public. The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment. The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity. The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials. The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities. To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports (MSC) and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity. All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The law designates the MEIA minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers. The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the emir.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.

A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim, however. The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools. Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services. All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools. These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims. The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters, utilizing Shia interpretations of religious law. In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam. Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia. The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence. There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging. Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases. The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia. Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned. Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies. The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018, and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia. The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”). The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

In June the government repatriated an Arabic-speaking evangelical Christian pastor who led a house church after interrogating him for three days on charges of leading a place of worship without authorization and inviting non-Christians to his church. Authorities allowed the pastor to leave the country without trial. According to sources, some foreign members of the church stopped attending services for fear of being deported.

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so. The government stated that it continued to permit expatriate adherents of unregistered religious groups such as Hinduism, Buddhism, the Baha’i Faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and unregistered small Christian congregations to worship privately in rented villas, their homes, workplaces, and with others, although they lacked authorized facilities in which to practice their faiths.

According to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, whose representatives visited prisons throughout in the country, there are approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors that are prohibited by sharia.

In September the Director of the National Human Rights Committee visited the CCSC for the first time to discuss religious tolerance, security, and space for the growing number of visitors. The CCSC regularly met with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space due to the growing number of parishioners.

In its 2019 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “There are two groups of Christians in Qatar that are strictly separated from each other. Expatriate communities consisting of Christian migrant workers are the biggest group. Proselytizing Muslims is strictly forbidden and can lead to prosecution and banishment [deportation] from the country… The other group consists of converts from Islam to Christianity. Converts from an indigenous and migrant background bear the brunt of persecution.”

The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques. The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths. The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance. The MEIA suspended the Dean of the College of Sharia and Islamic Studies in Qatar from public speaking, citing an October sermon that was recorded and posted online before ministry approval.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties. There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking during daylight hours in Ramadan. All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The government continued to discourage citizens and residents from taking part in the Umrah or Hajj due to an ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia that started in mid-2017. Officials at the MEIA stated the decision was made because of concerns for pilgrims’ security due to the lack of diplomatic representation and coordination with Saudi religious and security authorities. While MEIA officials report that no citizens participated in the pilgrimages, there is anecdotal evidence that a handful traveled without government consent or assistance.

On May 18, AJ+ Arabic, an online media platform run by the government-owned Al-Jazeera network, posted a video on Facebook and Twitter that stated that Israel was the biggest “winner” from the Holocaust, that Zionism “suckled from the Nazi spirit,” and that “some people believe that Hitler supported Zionism.” The network later deleted the social media posts, apologized for the video, suspended two employees involved in its production, and stated the video contravened its editorial standards.

In a July report, the ADL said, “As recently as this Ramadan, [the] government continue[d] to advertise, host, and broadcast sermons at state-controlled mosques by preachers who have had longstanding past records of encouraging bigotry or even violence.” The report stated these imams were allowed to preach at Doha’s Grand Mosque.

The public school curriculum did not include information about non-Islamic religions. In books reviewed for a February report, the ADL found passages stating that most Jews in the world believe in seeking world domination and that Judaism is an “invalid, perverted religion” and that the Torah teaches Jews to kill, steal, deceive, and engage in racial supremacy. The report said that in the textbooks, non-Muslim “infidels” were identified as “combatants” whom Muslims were sanctioned to fight and that sorcerers should be killed. The ADL said that the textbooks contained the name and logo of the MOE on their cover and were included on a page on the ministry’s website that described all the books as constituting material for the fall semester for the 2018-2019 academic year. DICID and the MOE reported that due to the break in relations with Saudi Arabia that began in 2017 which cut off the MOE from its traditional source of textbooks, the government has moved to introduce new textbooks promoting religious tolerance.

The NGO Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reviewed textbooks in use for the 2018-19 school year and found, “the textbooks for junior high and high school repeatedly stress the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims, describing the latter as ‘unbelievers’ who will suffer terrible tortures in Hell.” MEMRI said the books stressed the superiority of Islam over other religions, especially over Judaism and Christianity, which were presented as false and distorted, and that they featured anti-Semitic motifs that portrayed Jews as treacherous, dishonest, and crafty, and at the same time as weak, wretched, and cowardly.

The conclusion of the July ADL report read, “To be fair, Qatar’s record is not one of uniformly promoting hatred. Some of its laws, rhetoric, dialogue summits, and educational programs seem to be attempts at addressing some real problems of intolerance or extremism. But Qatar’s simultaneous enabling of so many extremist messages would seem to nullify any of its activities to counter hate and is inconsistent with [U.S.] values …Having occurred so many different times in so many different areas makes this problem seem systematic and willful rather than a simple oversight.”

In a June interview on the German state-owned DW (Deutsche Welle) broadcast channel, MFA spokeswoman Lolwah Al-Khater said it was untrue that the government continued to use its platforms to promote anti-Semitism. She stated “There always needs to be a balance between freedom of expression and what people think and what the government should do.” Saying that “all voices” are represented in the country, she described anti-Semitic speech as “absolutely not acceptable.”

Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, the government continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards. Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Journalists and publishers at times said they practice self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings. The government continued to allow unregistered churches to worship there as well, but only under the patronage of one of the eight recognized denominations. The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.

According to church leaders, approximately 50,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. Representatives of the CCSC continued to state there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing. In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside of the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these holidays. The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors. Ministry of Interior (MOI) security personnel continued to ask churchgoers to show their IDs at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, continued to be prohibited access to the complex.

Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship. In 2012 the government closed a private villa being used for this purpose. Community representatives reported that the Indian prime minister, during a visit to the country, asked government representatives to allow the construction of a Hindu temple or community center.

In February Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem consecrated Saint Issac Church, located in the religious complex, to host followers of this denomination after years of serving in a temporary location.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions. In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches. Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

The MOI allowed more than 100 house churches to operate throughout the country, including 90 that were allocated to members of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar.

In October following criticism of the 2018 Doha Book Fair for including anti-Semitic books, the MSC posted a public letter on its website soliciting feedback from the public about books that do not adhere to book fair guidelines.

The government-funded DICID held a roundtable international religious freedom conference in July, inviting embassies and government ministries.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media in the country continued to publish anti-Semitic material.

The daily Al-Rayah published April 30 an article claiming, “The Zionist movement managed to establish the ‘Holocaust culture’ in Western political ethics and morally forced it on European societies.” The article characterized German reparations to Israel and Jews after World War II as “compensation for the ‘victims’ of the alleged Nazi Holocaust.”

On May 22, Ahmed Al-Raissouni, new head of the Doha-based IUMS, posted an article entitled “Why It Is Necessary to Question the Holocaust” on the IUMS website and on his personal website and Facebook page. According to his posting, the Holocaust narrative, which it said was fabricated by the Zionist movement, consists of claims that are “politically slanted and questionable,” many of which cannot be verified.

On June 12, on a program on Al-Araby TV, based in the United Kingdom, Ahmad Zayed, a professor of sharia at the state-run Qatar University, stated that although sharia allows Christians to run for public office, Muslims should not vote for them since sharia requires rulers to be Muslim.

On March 27, Abdul Aziz Al-Khazraj Al-Ansari, identified as a sociologist, posted a video to his YouTube channel criticizing U.S. decisions to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. In the video, Al-Ansari, who is not a public figure in the country, described Jews as “filthy and lowly people. They are cowards.” He said Arabs should arm Gazans to “go after those Jewish dogs.” In a video posted on March 15, Al-Ansari said the March 13 attack on two New Zealand mosques only benefitted “those impure people, the Jews,” who were trying to sow discord between Islam and Christianity.

The privately owned newspaper Al-Rayah published an anti-Semitic political cartoon by a Palestinian cartoonist on October 2019 depicting Israel as a stereotypical caricature of an Orthodox Jew.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In January a delegation led by the Secretary of State met with senior counterparts in Doha. The results of this dialogue included a Memorandum of Understanding on educational cooperation with Qatar and a signed Statement of Intent to “support the shared ideals of tolerance and appreciation for diversity.” In April the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met in Doha with officials to urge greater religious freedom for minorities, including Hindus and Buddhists. He also met with representatives of religious minority groups to discuss their difficulties in securing approval for places of worship.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to meet with relevant government bodies, including the Office of the Secretary General and Human Rights Department at the MFA, the MOI Department of Human Rights, and the MEIA, as well as quasi-governmental religious institutions such as the DICID, concerning the rights of religious minorities, including the need for additional worship space for many communities and registration issues. Other issues discussed included the status of Sunni-Shia relations in the country, interest in international exchange programs for imams and MEIA officials, and government efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies within mosques. In July embassy officers participated in a religious freedom conference with Christian and Muslim leaders to discuss religious tolerance hosted by the Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID).

As it did in 2018, the embassy worked with the Ministry of Culture and Sports and other stakeholder to secure approvals for a November evangelical Christian musical performance in Doha attended by approximately 15,000 concertgoers.

Embassy officials continued to facilitate an agreement between the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs and the CCSC to raise awareness among churchgoers about ongoing changes to the labor law, which affected the expatriate population, and the procedures for submitting complaints to authorities. The ministry agreed in principle to use churches as dissemination platforms to highlight reforms and help educate congregations about future labor law developments. The ministry subsequently held multiple meetings with clergy to discuss how to proceed with a similar outreach event in 2019.

In April and September embassy officials met with government officials to discuss concerns over past publication of anti-Semitic cartoons. The Charge d’Affaires met with representatives of Al-Jazeera to emphasize that anti-Semitic depictions of Jews or Israel were offensive. Embassy representatives also raised anti-Semitism with other media representatives, including staff members at Arabic- and English-language newspapers. In October the MFA sent a letter to the embassy stating its intentions to remove any anti-Semitic publications from the 2020 Doha International Book Fair. Embassy officers also encouraged MSC, the agency that organizes the book fair, to take a more proactive approach in prohibiting anti-Semitic content at the next book fair in January 2020.

In April the Charge d’Affaires also met with leadership at Al-Jazeera to discuss concerns about its broadcasting and publishing anti-Semitic content.

Republic of the Congo

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the country is secular, provides for freedom of belief, prohibits religious discrimination, and makes forced impositions on conscience based on “religious fanaticism,” such as forced conversion, punishable by law. The constitution bans the use of religion for political ends, including religiously affiliated political parties.

A decree bans individuals from wearing the full-face Islamic veil, including the niqab and the burqa, in public places. The decree also bans Muslims from foreign countries from spending the night in mosques.

All organizations, including religious groups, must register with, and be approved by, the Ministry of Interior. Religious group applicants must present a certification of qualifications to operate a religious establishment, a title or lease to the property where the establishment is located, the exact address where the organization will be located, bylaws, and a document that clarifies the mission and objectives of the organization. Penalties for failure to register include fines and confiscation of goods, invalidation of contracts, and deportation of foreign group members.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Private schools may provide religious instruction. The law requires that all public and private schools respect all philosophical and religious doctrines. The constitution protects the right to establish private schools.

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

Government Practices

In May the government launched an operation to ensure compliance with a 1960 law and 2017 government circular note governing the operation of cultural, religious, and other nongovernmental groups. The launch of the operation followed a briefing by Police Colonel Jean Batantout to members of COSERCO, an umbrella organization of revivalist churches, during which Batantout stated the government also intended to implement a requirement for pastors to hold a degree in theology. As of year’s end, the government had not implemented the requirement.

Media reported in May that the government closed 18 churches that were not in compliance with building, safety, and noise regulations. A spokesman for the churches acknowledged the need for inspections “in order to improve our behavior.”

As in previous years, the government granted Christians and Muslims access to public facilities for special religious events. For example, on August 22-25, members of the country’s evangelical Christian community held a National Evangelical Convention at Brazzaville’s Massemba Debat public stadium.

On a visit (his third to the country) to inaugurate a new Orthodox church in Pointe Noire, Theodore II, Primate of the Church and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, met with President Denis Sassou-N’guesso on February 15. A newspaper article expressed the hope that the patriarch’s visit might accelerate the slow pace of cooperation between the Church and the government – cooperation that to date, noted a press item, amounted only to an orphanage and a school.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to Muslim and Christian leaders, there were no reports of religiously motivated incidents or actions directed against their respective communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues with government organizations and officials. Topics discussed included interfaith relations and trafficking in persons with leaders and representatives of religious groups and government officials. In discussions with government officials regarding trafficking in persons, the embassy regularly refuted assertions that the practice is associated with non-Christian values.

Embassy representatives encouraged efforts to increase dialogue and communication at the local, regional, and national levels. In March embassy representatives worked with the United Nations to encourage community-level dialogues in Pool Department after a period of violence that ended in late 2017. These dialogues included members of religious communities, community leaders, and local officials. Throughout the year, in Kinkala, the capital of the department, the Ambassador discussed the government’s efforts to bring peace and security to the region with the Bishop of Kinkala and representatives from local religious communities. On the national level, embassy representatives supported efforts by Christian and Muslim leaders to help life return to normal, foster community-level dialogues and allow life to return to normal.

The embassy used social media platforms to highlight religious engagement and to promote religious tolerance, peace, and dialogue during the year.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits restricting freedom of thought, opinion, conscience, or religious beliefs, as well as forcing individuals to espouse a religious belief contrary to their convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes” under terms defined by the law. The law on religious freedom and religious denominations specifies the state’s recognition of the “important role of the Romanian Orthodox Church” as well as the role of “other churches and denominations as recognized by the national history” of the country.

The constitution states religious denominations shall be autonomous and enjoy state support, including the facilitation of religious assistance in the army, hospitals, penitentiaries, retirement homes, and orphanages. The law forbids public authorities or private legal entities from asking individuals to specify their religion, with the exception of the census.

The provisions of the law devoted to religion stipulate a three-tier system of religious classification, with “religious denominations” at the highest level, followed by “religious associations,” and “religious groups” at the most basic level. Organizations in the top two tiers are legal entities, while religious groups are not. Civil associations established under separate provisions of the law governing associations and foundations may also engage in religious activities and have the status of legal entities.

By law, there are 18 religious organizations recognized as “religious denominations,” all of which were in existence at the time the law on religion was enacted in 2006. They include the ROC, Orthodox Serb Bishopric of Timisoara, Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholic Church, Old Rite Russian Christian (Orthodox) Church, Reformed (Protestant) Church, Christian Evangelical Church, Romanian Evangelical Church, Evangelical Augustan Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Unitarian Church, Baptist Church, Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Federation of Jewish Communities, Muslim Denomination (Islam), and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

For additional organizations to obtain recognition as religious denominations, the law specifies they must demonstrate 12 years of continuous activity beginning in 2006. A religious association is then eligible to apply for the status of religious denomination if it has a membership of at least 0.1 percent of the population (approximately 21,500 persons).

The law defines a religious association as an organization of at least 300 citizens who share and practice the same faith and has attained legal status through registration with the Registry of Religious Associations in the office of the clerk of the court where the main branch of the association is located. To register, religious associations must submit to the government their members’ personal data (e.g., names, addresses, personal identification numbers, and signatures), which the law says the government may not share with other public institutions or use in any other way. To operate as religious associations, organizations also require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations, which is under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister.

The law defines a religious group as a group of individuals sharing the same beliefs. Religious groups do not have to register to practice their religion and do not need approval from the national secretariat to operate.

Civil associations engaged in religious activities function like secular associations and foundations; however, they do not receive the same benefits as religious denominations or religious associations. These associations do not require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations to operate. Their registration falls under the provisions of law governing the establishment of foundations, associations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which require a minimum membership of three individuals. Such civil associations are not required to submit their members’ personal data.

Religious denominations are eligible for state financial and other support. They have the right to teach religion classes in public schools, receive government funds to build places of worship, partially pay clergy salaries with state funds, broadcast religious programming on radio and television, and apply for broadcasting licenses for their own stations. Under the law, the amount of state funding a denomination receives is determined by the number of adherents reported in the most recent census, as well as by “the religious denomination’s actual needs.”

Religious associations do not receive government funding, but both they and religious denominations receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups do not receive either government funding or tax exemptions.

Both religious denominations and religious associations may own or rent property, publish or import religious literature, proselytize, establish and operate schools or hospitals, own cemeteries, and receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes. Religious groups have no legal status to engage in such activities; however, they may practice their religious beliefs, including in public.

Civil associations engaged in religious activities may engage in religious worship and own cemeteries. While they do not receive the same tax exemptions or other benefits granted to religious denominations and religious associations, they may receive the tax advantages and other benefits accruing to civil associations and foundations.

Legal provisions allow local authorities to fund places of worship and theological schools belonging to religious denominations, including providing funding for staff salaries and building maintenance, renovation, and conservation or construction of places of worship. No similar provisions exist for religious associations or other associations engaged in religious activities; however, these associations may receive funding through legal provisions for civil associations and foundations.

The law allows all types of religious organizations to bury their dead in cemeteries belonging to other religious organizations, with the exception of cemeteries belonging to local Jewish and Muslim communities. By law, non-Muslims and non-Jews are not entitled to be buried in Jewish or Muslim cemeteries. Public cemeteries must have separate sections for each religious denomination if requested by the denominations operating in the locality.

The law allows clergy from recognized religious denominations to minister to military personnel. This includes the possibility of clergy functioning within the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Intelligence Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Protection and Guard Service, Special Telecommunications Service, and General Directorate for Penitentiaries. Under various other arrangements, clergy of recognized religious denominations, and in some cases religious associations, may enter hospitals, orphanages, and retirement homes to undertake religious activities. Religious denominations and religious associations may undertake activities in penitentiaries, subject to approval by the director of the detention facility.

The law provides for the restitution of religious properties confiscated between 1940 and 1989, during World War II (WWII) and the ensuing communist regime, as long as the properties are in the possession of the state.

Under the law, if a confiscated property is used “in the public interest,” such as for a school, hospital, or museum, and is returned to its previous owner, the current occupants are allowed to remain in it for 10 years after the restitution decision and pay a capped rent. The law does not address the general return of properties currently used as places of worship by another religious group. Although the provisions of the law on restitution state a separate law would be adopted to address such cases, as of year’s end there was no such law.

A separate statute on the reinstatement of the Greek Catholic Church regulates the restitution of properties to the Church from the ROC. Restitution decisions are made by a joint commission representing the two Churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.” The Greek Catholic Church may pursue court action if attempts to obtain restitution of its properties through dialogue are unsuccessful.

The law establishes a points system of compensation in cases where in-kind restitution is not possible. Religious groups may use the points only to bid on other properties in auctions organized by the National Commission for Real Estate Compensation (NCREC). The NCREC also validates compensation decisions of other local or central authorities, including those of the Special Restitution Commission (SRC), which decides on restitution claims filed by religious denominations and national minorities. The law establishes a 240-day deadline by which claimants must submit additional evidence in their cases at the specific request of the entity in charge of resolving their restitution claim. If a claimant does not meet the deadline, the administrative authority may reject the case. The authority may extend the deadline by an additional 120 days if the claimants prove they made a concerted effort to obtain the evidence, usually in the possession of other state authorities, but were unable to do so.

The law nullifies acts of forced “donations” of Jewish property during WWII and the communist era and lowers the burden of proof for the previous owners or their heirs to obtain restitution. The law designates the present-day Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania as the legitimate inheritor of forfeited communal Jewish property and accords priority to private claims by Holocaust survivors. The law does not address heirless or unclaimed property left by Holocaust victims.

Romanian and foreign citizens who were persecuted based on ethnic criteria between 1940 and 1945 are entitled to a monthly pension. The amount of the pension varies, depending on the type and length of persecution endured. The pension is available to survivors and their families who are no longer Romanian citizens, thus entitling U.S. citizen Holocaust survivors and U.S. citizen family members of Holocaust victims to the same rights as Romanian citizens.

A law that went into effect in July allows Holocaust survivors residing in foreign countries and are eligible for compensation in Romania to prove they were victims of racial and ethnic persecution based on official documents released by institutions of the country of residence. The law also exempts Holocaust survivors residing in foreign countries from having to physically submit their applications for compensation at the pension offices in the country and allows them to use other means of communication to apply.

By law, religious education in schools is optional in both public and private schools. Each of the 18 legally recognized religious denominations is entitled to offer religion classes, based on its own religious teachings, in schools. A denomination may offer classes regardless of the number of students adhering to the denomination in a school. The law allows for exceptions where the right of students to attend religion classes cannot be implemented “for objective reasons,” without specifying what these reasons may be.

Under the law, parents of students under 18 years of age are required to request their children’s participation in religion classes, while students 18 and older may themselves ask to attend religion classes. Although a student normally takes a school course based on the religious teachings of the denomination to which the student belongs, it is also possible for a student to take a religion course offered by his or her denomination outside the school system and bring a certificate from the denomination to receive academic credit.

Religion teachers in public schools are government employees, but each religious denomination approves the appointment and retention of the teachers of its religion classes.

The law forbids proselytizing in public and private schools. If teachers proselytize, the school management determines the appropriate punishment, based on the conclusions of an internal committee.

The law states the religion of a child who has turned 14 may not be changed without the child’s consent; from age 16, a person has the right to choose her/his religion.

The law bans discrimination on religious grounds in all areas of public life. It also bans religious defamation and stirring conflict on religious grounds, as well as public offenses against religious symbols. Penalties may include fines varying from 1,000 to 100,000 lei ($235-$23,500), depending on whether the victim is an individual or a community.

According to amendments to a law that went into effect in April, deceased adherents of Judaism are exempted from autopsy upon the request of their families or the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania and if law enforcement determines there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding their death. The previous version of the law did not allow for such an exemption.

By law, anti-Semitism is defined as a perception of Jews expressed in the form of anti-Jewish hatred, as well as speech and physical acts motivated by hatred that target Jews, non-Jews or their belongings, Jewish community institutions, or Jewish places of worship. Penalties for publicly promoting anti-Semitic ideas and doctrines or manufacturing and disseminating anti-Semitic symbols range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights. Penalties for establishing anti-Semitic organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights.

The law prohibits the establishment of fascist, Legionnaire (the country’s interwar fascist organization), racist, or xenophobic organizations, which it defines in part as groups that promote violence, religiously motivated hatred, or extremist nationalism, the latter term undefined. Penalties for establishing such organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights. Criminal liability is waived if the person involved in establishing such an organization informs authorities before the organization begins its activity; penalties are halved if the individual helps authorities with the criminal investigation. Legislation also makes manufacturing, selling, distributing, owning with intent to distribute, and using racist, fascist, xenophobic, and Legionnaire symbols illegal. Penalties range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment.

Publicly denying the Holocaust or contesting, approving, justifying, or minimizing it in an “obvious manner” as determined by a judge is punishable by six months’ to three years’ imprisonment or by a fine, depending on circumstances, of up to 200,000 lei ($47,000). Publicly promoting persons convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes may incur fines and prison terms ranging from three months to three years and from six months to five years if done online. The same penalties apply to publicly promoting anti-Semitic, fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic ideas, worldviews, or doctrines.

The law allows religious workers from legally recognized religious organizations to enter and remain in the country under an extended-stay visa. Visa applicants must receive approval by the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs and submit evidence they represent religious organizations legally established in the country. The secretariat may extend such visas for up to five years.

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

Government Practices

By year’s end, the government approved one application for religious association status during the year – the “Neemia” Christian Association in Brateius – compared with two religious associations approved in 2018. As of December, 36 entities with diverse religious affiliations were registered as religious associations, up one from 35 in 2018.

Because religion and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize the following incidents as based solely on religious identity. In May the town of Darmanesti, located in the eastern part of the country, erected a monument and Orthodox-style crosses honoring the country’s WWI soldiers believed to be buried in Valea Uzului war cemetery. The ethnic Hungarian community and officials of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) from the neighboring town of Sanmartin, which has a large population of ethnic Hungarians, stated the Darmanesti mayor had “appropriated” the cemetery which, according to UDMR, was under the jurisdiction of Sanmartin. They also said the recently built Orthodox-style monuments honoring Romanian soldiers were placed on top of the graves of predominantly Catholic Hungarian soldiers.

On May 16, media outlets posted a video showing a group of Hungarian-speaking persons covering the crosses and monument to Romanian soldiers in black plastic bags. UDMR condemned the covering of crosses and called it a provocation meant to discredit the Hungarian community in Romania. On May 29, the mayor of Sanmartin closed the Valea Uzului military cemetery for 30 days. On June 6, hundreds of persons equipped with loudspeakers, including several ROC priests, arrived at the cemetery to commemorate the Romanian soldiers believed to be buried there. They were met by approximately 200 members of the Gendarmerie, an agency of the Ministry of the Interior in charge of ensuring public order, who positioned themselves between the ethnic Romanians and hundreds of ethnic Hungarians who would not allow the ethnic Romanians to enter the cemetery. Eventually, some ethnic Romanians forced their way into the cemetery, where they held a ceremony commemorating ethnic Romanian soldiers. Several observers reported that the commemoration resembled the ritual performed by members of the outlawed Legionnaire Movement to commemorate their deceased.

Baha’i leaders continued to seek options for the burial of deceased followers in accordance with their religious practices. They requested assistance from the State Secretariat for Religious Denominations to establish a cemetery, and from the local governments of Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest to acquire an appropriate lot. According to the Baha’i community, local governments told them their deceased followers could be buried in other cemeteries and a dedicated Baha’i cemetery was not needed. According to the Baha’i, some burial practices of existing cemeteries were contrary to the Baha’i tradition, so they preferred to have their own. Baha’is continued to be registered as a religious association and not as a denomination because they did not meet the minimum requirements for membership and activity.

Some minority religious groups continued to state they viewed the 300-person membership requirement and the need to submit their members’ personal data for registration as a religious association as discriminatory because other types of associations required only three members and did not have to submit the personal data of their members. They also continued to criticize the three-tier classification system for religious organizations.

The National Authority for Property Restitution (NAPR), the government agency responsible for overseeing the restitution process, reported the SRC had approved 14 requests for the restitution of “immovable properties” (land or buildings) to religious denominations, approved compensation in 34 cases, and rejected 474 other claims during the year, compared with 17 requests for restitution, 35 approved compensations cases, and 609 rejected claims in 2018. All of the claims were submitted before the 2006 deadline. In 14 cases, the filers withdrew their claims. According to data provided by NAPR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of cases NAPR reviewed decreased from 1,212 in 2018 to 777.

According to NAPR, religious denominations appealed 63 decisions the SRC submitted to the courts during the year, compared with 53 in 2018. The Roman Catholic Church made four appeals (12 in 2018); the ROC made 24 (nine in 2018); the Greek Catholics made 18 (13 in 2018); the Evangelical Augustinian Church made four (two in 2018); and the Jewish community made 10 (12 in 2018). Information concerning court decisions on these cases was unavailable.

During the year, NAPR reviewed 335 claims submitted by the Greek Catholic Church, compared with 490 claims in 2018, but it did not restore any property to the Church or grant it compensation in any cases. Greek Catholic Church officials reported that NAPR rejected most of their claims because the properties now belonged to the ROC and were subject to a different law, making restitution possible only through a joint commission representing the two Churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.” During the communist regime, all places of worship and parish houses were transferred to the ROC and most other properties (land and buildings) to the state. According to Greek Catholic officials, there was no progress on forming a joint commission by year’s end.

The Greek Catholic Church continued to report delays on restitution lawsuits. Representatives of the Greek Catholic Church stated there were no court decisions on Greek Catholic restitution cases again this year.

In November the civic group ACUM (the word “now” in Romanian) published an open letter to the president and prime minister calling for the establishment of a body to combat religious discrimination. The signatories stated that 30 years after the fall of Communism, the Greek-Catholic Church continued to be the victim of religious persecution that began in the 1940s. According to ACUM, 90 percent of its churches and assets confiscated during the communist regime had not been returned; the ROC, via its media and communication channels, continued to campaign against Greek Catholics; Greek Catholic students were pressured to take ROC religion classes; history textbooks and academic publications distorted or minimized the history of the Greek Catholic Church; commemorations honoring important leaders from the country’s history who were Greek Catholic deliberately overlooked those leaders’ religious affiliation; and the ROC had not asked for forgiveness for Securitate collaborators who jailed, tortured, and killed Greek Catholic priests who refused to convert to the Romanian Orthodox faith. The government had not responded to the letter by year’s end.

Restitution of a property in Bixad, previously restored to the Greek Catholic Church by the government and confirmed by earlier court decisions, continued to be delayed in light of a revived claim for the property by the Satu Mare County Council filed in 2016. At year’s end, the case was still pending.

Two cases filed in 2016 by the Greek Catholic Church with the European Court of Human Rights for restitution of churches in Bistrita and Breb remained pending. In each case, the Church’s complaint concerned court decisions awarding Greek Catholic property to the ROC based on census data showing Greek Catholics as a minority.

Although implementation regulations to officially prioritize property restitution cases for Holocaust survivors remained pending, NAPR approved priority status for 160 such applications. Since the passage of the legislation, NAPR has awarded compensation to Holocaust survivors in 76 cases, rejected the claims in nine cases, and had not issued a decision in 75 cases by year’s end.

The SRC approved 10 pending claims from previous years by the Jewish community as of October – eight through compensation and two through restitution in kind – and rejected 61 others, compared with 16 during the same period in 2018. In 10 other cases, compared with 54 in 2018, claimants withdrew their requests. Religious groups said it was difficult to obtain required documentation from the National Archives demonstrating proof of ownership in time to meet the 120-day deadline to submit an appeal. The Caritatea Foundation stated the SRC continued to avoid assuming responsibility for restitution, preferring to pass decisions on to the courts and reportedly to avoid being potentially charged with making decisions on illegal claims. The foundation also continued to state the claims procedure was overly bureaucratic and unreasonable, in particular because the SRC often requested the submission of numerous additional documents, which sometimes were found only in government-managed archives, giving Jewish claimants insufficient time to meet the deadline for document submission. Caritatea stated access to government-managed archives holding the required documents for the restitution process remained difficult.

According to Caritatea Foundation, the NCREC did not issue any final approval on decisions during the year, and 61 decisions issued before 2013 were pending final approval. According to NAPR, a high workload and insufficient staff and resources were the reasons for the delays.

A working group consisting of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania, Caritatea, and the WJRO had difficulty maintaining a dialogue with the government during the year, according to the WJRO. The working group said its standing proposals could help unblock or expedite the processing of remaining private and communal property claims. The government did not act on any of these proposals by year’s end.

The Reformed Church also indicated continuing delays on restitution lawsuits. According to the Reformed Church, over the past 10 years, the SRC had reviewed only half of its claims, with 52 cases pending at year’s end. The Reformed Church reported that since 2018, the SRC had rejected restitution claims on buildings previously owned by schools under the authority of the Reformed Church. According to the Reformed Church, the SRC said land records, some dating from the 19th century, listed the schools as rightful owners and not the Reformed Church.

The Reformed, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran Churches said the government continued to reject their restitution claims on the grounds the entities registered as the former property owners were not the contemporary churches. Church leaders said the communist regime had dismantled the former church entities while confiscating their property, meaning the former property owners no longer existed as such but the contemporary churches, as the successors to the dismantled churches, were in effect the same entities whose property the communist regime had seized. Fourteen claims submitted by the Roman Catholic Church were resolved as of year’s end, compared with 12 in 2018. The government granted compensation or restitution in kind in eight cases and denied six claims, compared with five and seven claims, respectively, in 2018. The government reviewed six claims submitted by the Reformed Church and denied four others, compared with five and two claims, respectively, in 2018.

In January the Roman Catholic Church appealed to the High Court of Cassation and Justice to overturn an earlier rejection of the Church’s claim for restitution of the Batthyaneum Library and an astronomical institute in Alba Iulia, important cultural and historical touchstones for the country dating back to the 19th century. The first hearing is scheduled for November 2021.

Nearly 90 percent of schoolchildren took religion classes offered by the ROC. According to NGOs and parents’ associations, this enrollment continued to be the result of pressure by the ROC, as well as the failure of school directors to offer parents alternatives to religion classes.

Minority religious groups, including the Christian Evangelical Church, continued to report authorities allowed only the ROC to play an active role in the annual opening ceremonies at schools and other community events throughout the country and usually did not invite other religious groups to attend such ceremonies. According to the Christian Evangelical Church, this happened also in cities where their followers had a significant presence, such as Sibiu, Suceava, Iasi, and Piatra-Neamt.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church reported the Faculty of Medical Science and Pharmacy in Iasi and the Body of Expert and Licensed Accountants of Romania continued to schedule exams on Saturdays without providing the option for Seventh-day Adventist students to take the exams on another day. The Seventh-day Adventist Church also reported that despite their requests, public hospitals in Bucharest and Ploiesti did not change their work schedules to allow several employees to observe Saturday as the Sabbath.

Religious groups reported military chaplains continued to be ROC priests, with the exceptions of one Roman Catholic priest and one pastor from the Evangelical Alliance.

According to the government-established Wiesel Institute, prosecution of anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial continued to be infrequent. Statistics released by the government for the first half of the year showed that the national-level Prosecutor General’s Office had 42 unresolved cases. According to the Wiesel Institute, many of the cases included anti-Semitic elements. Of those cases, the office sent one case to trial; no information was available on the nature of the case. The 2014 case against the self-declared leader of the Legionnaire Movement for the public use of fascist, racist, and xenophobic symbols was still pending at year’s end, according to the Wiesel Institute. In October the Bucharest Military Tribunal accepted the proposal of the Bucharest Military Prosecutor’s Office to drop the 2016 charges against a military officer who had posted on social media anti-Semitic language and a public appeal for someone to place a bomb at the Wiesel Institute “to kill the Jews there.” The officer was ordered to perform 60 days of community service. According to media reports, the officer worked for the Romanian Intelligence Service. According to journalists and observers, the delay in the prosecution of these cases continued due to lengthy investigations and the lower priority law enforcement gave such investigations.

A law that went into effect in March allowed the declassification of some documents related to the Jewish community between 1938-1989 that are in the custody of the National Archives of Romania and the Archives of the General Secretariat of the Government. In March Member of Parliament (MP) Silviu Vexler, who represented the Jewish community and who sponsored the bill, stated many of these documents would shed light on unknown aspects of Jewish history during the Antonescu and communist dictatorships. According to several researchers, some of these documents may include significant details about Holocaust and communist-era confiscation of Jewish private and communal property.

The Wiesel Institute reported local authorities continued to name streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of Nazi-era war crimes or crimes against humanity and to allow the erection of statues and busts depicting persons convicted of war crimes. According to the institute, several cities and towns continued to name streets after Ion Antonescu, Romania’s dictator during WWII who was responsible for the Holocaust in Romania, and local governments refused to change the name despite requests from the institute. Similarly, the local government in Cluj-Napoca did not change the name of a street named in 2017 for Radu Gyr, a commander of the Legionnaire movement and apologist for anti-Semitism, who was convicted of war crimes for “contributing to the political aims of Hitlerism and Fascism.” At year’s end, the Ministry of Interior and local governments did not act on the institute’s 2017 request to stop these practices in accordance with the law banning the “public worship of persons convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

Several government officials continued to make comments widely viewed by Jewish organizations as “trivializing” the Holocaust. On August 2, during a ceremony commemorating the Roma Holocaust, then culture minister Veler-Daniel Breaz described the Holocaust as one of the “delicate moments, not to call them difficult or unpleasant, during which some minorities suffered.” The leaders of the Jewish community, academics, Roma, and human rights activists, as well as several politicians, criticized Breaz for his statements. On August 5, Dana Varga, an advisor to former prime minister Viorica Dancila, posted on her Facebook page photographs comparing President Iohannis, who is of ethnic-German heritage, to Adolf Hitler. Federation of Jewish Communities President Aurel Vainer, Jewish MP Vexler, the Wiesel Institute, Roma rights activists, and several members of the opposition condemned Varga’s actions, with some asking for her resignation. In September media reported the director of the Constantin Brancusi National Museum in Targu Jiu had posted on social media materials promoting the Legionnaire Movement and Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who was the organization’s founder and leader.

The government continued to implement the recommendations of the 2004 report by the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) and to cooperate with the USHMM in promoting Holocaust education. On March 15, Minister of Education Ecaterina Andronescu, a USHMM official, and Director of the Wiesel Institute Alexandru Florian signed a joint protocol of cooperation laying the groundwork for introducing historically accurate lessons on the history of the Holocaust and the Jewish people in Romania into the public school curriculum. The government also facilitated USHMM access to the country’s national archives. Archival institutions such as the Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives continued to implement cooperation agreements with the USHMM and provided the museum copies of historical records.

In June former prime minister Dancila, in coordination with the World Jewish Congress, hosted an international meeting of special envoys and coordinators combating anti-Semitism in Bucharest. The main conference took place in the Parliamentary Palace and featured representatives from more than 25 countries and international organizations. The government released a statement after the conference describing its main themes as providing for the safety and security of Jewish communities; applying the working definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA); financing Holocaust research, education, and remembrance; and recording and collecting hate crime data.

The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training sessions for history teachers, carry out educational activities for students, and inform the public about the Holocaust.

Historians and Holocaust experts said the general history curricula provided few mandatory classes on the country’s Holocaust history. A high school course, “History of the Jews – The Holocaust,” remained optional.

In April Andrei Caramitru, a prominent member of the Save Romania Union party, posted a message on his Facebook page stating that the Social Democrat Party was responsible for “a Holocaust against Romania” that was more serious that what happened in the country during WWII. Caramitru subsequently apologized for his Facebook post.

On July 5, then prime minister Dancila established an interministerial committee tasked with drafting a national strategy on combating anti-Semitism, xenophobia, radicalization, and hate speech. The committee was coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and included representatives of the Justice, Interior, Education and Culture Ministries, as well as the Wiesel Institute. The committee did not take any action by year’s end.

Pursuant to its pledge to implement the recommendations of the Wiesel Commission report, the government commemorated the annual National Holocaust Remembrance Day on October 9, marking the day when Romanian authorities began deporting the country’s Jews to Transnistria.

On October 8, President Iohannis hosted a public ceremony to sign into law a bill establishing the National Jewish History and Holocaust Museum. The law transferred a state-owned building in downtown Bucharest, intended to host the museum, to the Wiesel Institute, the governmental agency in charge of developing the museum. During the ceremony, President Iohannis underscored the contribution of Jews to the development of modern Romania. On the same day, then prime minister Dancila released a statement paying tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. The Wiesel Institute held a wreath-laying ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest on October 10; former minister of foreign affairs Ramona Manescu delivered remarks. The ceremony was not held on October 9 to avoid conflicting with Yom Kippur. On May 2, former prime minister Dancila commemorated Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) by taking part in the March of the Living at Auschwitz. On January 27, President Iohannis and then prime minister Dancila posted on social media messages honoring Holocaust victims and survivors.

The country is a member of the IHRA.

On November 18, Turkish diplomats interrupted a religious event organized by the local Muslim community, disrupting an invited speaker and blocking her from delivering prepared remarks. Muslim community leaders said government officials present at the event did nothing to defend their right to hold events as the community saw appropriate, but they took no action following the incident. According to members of the Muslim community and other observers, the government’s inadequate financial support, primarily in the form of salaries for imams, made the Muslim community vulnerable to radicalization and outside influence from countries such as Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in several areas of the country some members continued to encounter opposition to their activities from ROC priests. They recorded 14 incidents of threats, verbal abuse, and public incitement against them by ROC priests in Bucharest and the counties of Bacau, Buzau, Braila, Caras-Severin, Dolj, Ialomita, Olt, Vaslui, and Valcea. In one instance, a victim and the Jehovah’s Witnesses denomination filed a criminal complaint that they had been hindered in the exercise of religious freedom. As of June, an investigation was pending before the Prosecutor’s Office in Bacau.

According to non-Orthodox religious groups, ROC priests continued to prevent them from burying their dead in ROC or public cemeteries, or otherwise continued to restrict such burials by requiring they take place in isolated sections of a cemetery or follow Orthodox rituals. Representatives of the Christian Evangelical Church said such cases continued against them as well, although local sources did not always provide details because they stated they feared ROC reprisals. The Seventh-day Adventist Church reported that several ROC priests did not allow their members access to cemeteries to perform funeral rites.

The Christian Evangelical Church reported in May that the local Roman Catholic priest in the village of Eremitu, Mures County, did not allow the burial of a deceased evangelical Christian in the only village cemetery, which was owned by the Roman Catholic Church. The individual was buried in another town.

According to Greek Catholic leaders, the ROC, in conjunction with local authorities, continued to deny the Greek Catholic Church access to the ROC cemetery in Sapanta, which had previously belonged to the Greek Catholic Church.

On February 26, the National Anti-Discrimination Council released the results of a survey showing a majority of Romanians express high levels of distrust towards Muslims (68 percent), Jews (46 percent), and other religious minorities (58 percent). According to the survey, 23 percent of respondents would refuse to be friends with members of a religious minority, while more than 60 percent stated they believed Muslims are dangerous.

In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each European Union (EU) member state. According to the survey, 23 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Romania, and 6 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, 39 percent; on the internet, 42 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 40 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 42 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 44 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 43 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 40 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 40 percent; and anti-Semitism in media, 39 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, 43 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Romania, while 51 percent said it was rare; 77 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, 86 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 74 percent said they would be with an atheist, 70 percent with a Jew, 72 percent with a Buddhist, and 69 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 85 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 62 percent if atheist, 59 percent if Jewish, 57 percent if Buddhist, and 51 percent if Muslim.

Private media outlets continued to depict Muslim refugees as a threat because of their religion. An article published by the online newspaper in March stated that Muslim migrants posed a lethal threat to European civilization and that the only alternatives for Europeans were civil war or obedience to Islam. Conspiracy theories and antagonistic speech against Muslims continued to appear frequently in social media.

Material promoting anti-Semitic views and glorifying Legionnaires, as well as messages promoting Holocaust denial and relativism, appeared on the internet. In March the website published an article stating that through the “Purim” holiday, Jews took delight in celebrating the massacre of thousands of children.

Observers reported that many investigations of anti-Semitic acts were closed after law enforcement officers established suspects were either minors or insane and, as a consequence, were not responsible for their actions. In April authorities closed a 2018 case against an individual accused of painting anti-Semitic and other offensive messages on the childhood home of Elie Wiesel, in Sighetu Marmatiei. A psychiatric expert found the suspect unable to take responsibility for his actions.

On April 3, media reported vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in the town of Husi, where individuals destroyed dozens of headstones. President of the Jewish Communities Vainer stated that the vandalism was the culmination of a series of anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in Husi. Law enforcement officers identified three suspects; as of October, the investigation was pending at the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Vaslui Tribunal, and no one was arrested by year’s end.

As of October, a case involving the destruction in 2017 of 10 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in Bucharest remained pending before the Prosecutor’s Office. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a suspect was identified and investigated for the crime of desecration of graves, but there were no developments in the case by year’s end. Jewish organizations did not publicly comment on the investigation.

As of December, an investigation regarding anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial messages painted on the external wall of a synagogue in Cluj-Napoca in 2017 remained pending. In December 2018, the Prosecutor’s Office had decided that the perpetrators could not be identified. According to the MFA, the investigation would resume once new evidence was uncovered.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with government officials including the State Secretary for Religious Denominations Victor Opaschi, then foreign minister Teodor Melescanu, then vice prime minister Ana Birchall, and members of parliament and discussed anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance issues, and the general position of the Orthodox church in the country

With the general secretary of the government, embassy officials continued to raise concerns about the slow pace of religious property restitution involving members of the Jewish community and express support for the proposals of the WJRO’s working group to help speed the processes of property restitution and pensions for Holocaust survivors. Embassy officials also discussed these issues with other government ministers and political leaders.

In meetings with President Iohannis, Prime Minister Orban, and other government officials, embassy officials expressed their support for the establishment of a National Jewish History and Holocaust Museum.

The embassy continued to assist the USHMM’s effort to access the country’s national archives by engaging with various ministries and agencies. U.S. government officials also continued to support the Wiesel Institute in establishing a National Jewish History and Holocaust Museum by raising the project in meetings with key officials, mentioning it at public speaking events, and through the Ambassador’s participation on the museum’s consultative committee.

During his visit, the Ambassador at Large met with Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic religious leaders, as well as with ROC Patriarch Daniel, ROC Metropolitan Nifon, and Chief Rabbi of Romania Rafael Shaffer. The Ambassador at Large stressed the importance of religious freedom and began discussions for future cooperation, including establishing a religious freedom envoy in the country.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to hold meetings with Muslim and Jewish community leaders to discuss ways of promoting religious diversity and curbing religious discrimination. Embassy officers also continued to meet with officials of the ROC to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance.

The Ambassador participated in several events commemorating the Holocaust in Bucharest and Sighet. In June the Ambassador addressed the Romanian-government-sponsored Holocaust remembrance conference to stress the importance of education in countering hatred against Jews. In October at a ceremony for National Holocaust Commemoration Day held in Bucharest, the Ambassador spoke against anti-Semitic attitudes, rhetoric, and incidents in the country and laid a wreath. A senior embassy official spoke at a Holocaust commemoration event in Iasi.

Using social media, the embassy emphasized respect for religious freedom and condemned anti-Semitic incidents. In April for example, the embassy produced and posted on Facebook a video condemning anti-Semitic incidents, including the vandalism of Jewish graves in a cemetery in Husi. The embassy also helped organize and sponsored the Elie Wiesel Study Tour in July, which provided students the opportunity to see firsthand the horrors of Auschwitz and to understand the political, social, and cultural forces that created the Holocaust.


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