The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. The government again sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. According to the Shia community, they saw no increase in ANDSF forces despite the plans; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Hindu and Sikh community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus, compared with 500-600 in 2018, fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries because of security threats and a perceived lack of government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts again did not grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.
ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 20 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 22 attacks in 2018 – causing 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured), compared with 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured) in 2018. All were attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including shooting or hanging any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. In August ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall in a predominately Shia neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons and wounding 143 others. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several deadly attacks on religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. On June 28 in Samangan Province, the Taliban detonated a remote-controlled IED inside a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers, wounding 14 civilians. On October 18, at least 62 civilians were killed and another 58 wounded, including children, following the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Deh Bala District of Nangarhar Province during Friday prayers. No organization claimed responsibility for the attack. According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.
According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reticent to reveal their identities to anyone. One Christian citizen described being disowned by his family after they learned he had converted to Christianity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were teased and harassed in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship privately, sometimes in nondescript places of worship, to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the community continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested police support, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. In August police arrested one protester. A special committee, promised by the Ulema Council in 2018 to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam, had not been established by year’s end.
U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of what religious freedom is and why it is important, as well on the need for acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. On August 27, a senior embassy official raised preparations for 10th of Muharram with Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, including minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days, and the Ambassador used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 120 Sikh and Hindu families totaling approximately 550 individuals, down from 700 in 2018 and 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are 35 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.
The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to Article 2 of the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”
The penal code outlines provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. According to the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts of the Supreme Court, there were no cases filed during the year. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years. Article 817 of the penal code states, “A person who insults Islam using a computer system, program, or data, shall be imprisoned.”
Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$770). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.
While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood are punished according to Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females regarding marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.
Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts and subject to the same punishment.
Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime, according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.
According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels.
Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.
A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.
According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education (MOE) registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.
According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the MOE.
The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.
A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.
The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion, as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.
The constitution requires the president and two vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office. No occasion to determine if this applies to non-Muslims has arisen since the constitution was adopted in 2004.
The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.
The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismaili Muslims.
MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. MOHRA has an office dedicated to assisting the faith practices of religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said promised government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, symbolic measures and the government had not implemented them. Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura. On August 27, Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi confirmed preparations were in place that involved integrating all the security forces. The minister stated he understood that ISIS-K posed a particular threat to the Shia community. According to the Shia community, the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Media reported the government arrested a group of three ISIS-K leaders just two days before the Shia community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. Although National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces told the press these arrests thwarted attacks during Ashura, they provided no evidence these leaders were plotting to target the Shia community, and ISIS-K did not claim it had planned attacks. For the second year in a row, there were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.
As in the previous five years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.
The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages. The government set aside a number of Hajj slots for residents of each province, with the higher-population provinces receiving more slots, and with no sect-based discrimination in the distribution of slots. The government charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims continued to report they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.
MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country. MOHRA continued to estimate that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($150) from the government. Mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons, or khatibs, were paid a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($180) by MOHRA. MOHRA again estimated 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered.
MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.
Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.
Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead by individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations. Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.
According to MOHRA, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were up to hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs, and because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to the ministry, there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. The government registered additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates.
Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks targeting Shia Muslims. On June 30, two Kabul University sharia law faculty members were arrested by the NDS for promoting Salafist religious ideology and actively recruiting university students for ISIS-K.
Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of unregistered madrassas available.
Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.
Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.
Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment, they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Sikhs and Hindus again reported their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.
Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.
Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish; High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili; Minister of Transportation Mohammad Hamid Tahmasi; Minister of Telecommunication Mohammad Fahim Hashimi; and Minister of Refugees and Returnees Hussain Alemi Balkhi. Shia leaders, however, continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and predominance in the country’s Shia population. Observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity.
A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, one as a presidential advisor, and one as a member of the Ministry of Transportation.
Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.
The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.
The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. Government officials said the ONSC approved, and the president signed, an interministerial strategy in mid-September; however, it was not widely publicized due to “sensitivities surrounding the issue.” According to the ONSC, it continued to work on an action plan for implementation of the policy, which was expected to be finalized before the end of the year.
According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by ISIS-K and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Hazara Shia. During the year, UNAMA documented a 48-percent decrease from 2018 in civilian casualties from attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers – mainly due to a reduction in such attacks by ISIS-K. UNAMA recorded 20 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 22 attacks in 2018. The attacks caused 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured), compared with 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured) in 2018. All were attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements. Despite the overall decrease, civilian casualties from these types of attacks by the Taliban more than doubled compared with 2018. Suicide attacks were again the leading type of attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, resulting in 127 civilian casualties (62 killed and 65 injured), compared with 402 casualties (136 killed and 266 injured) in 2018. In addition to suicide attacks, UNAMA documented six incidents of targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers with the use of nonsuicide IEDs, causing caused 88 civilian casualties (6 killed and 82 injured), compared with 35 civilian casualties (15 deaths and 20 injured) in 2018.
UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISIS-K-directed, sectarian-motivated violence targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. It documented 10 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims resulting in 485 civilian casualties (117 killed and 368 injured), representing a 35 per cent decrease from such attacks, compared with 2018 when there were 19 incidents resulting in 747 civilian casualties (233 killed and 524 injured). ISIS-K claimed seven of the 10 incidents, stating its aim was to target the Shia Muslim religious minority. These seven incidents caused 473 civilian casualties (112 killed and 361 injured).
On August 17, ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall in a predominately Shia neighborhood of Kabul. According to UNAMA, this was the year’s deadliest attack, killing 91 persons and wounding 143 others, including 15 children killed and 25 injured. On March 7, ISIS-K fired mortar rounds towards a gathering to commemorate the killing of Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, in the Mosalla-e-Mazari area of Kabul – causing 115 civilian casualties (11 killed and 104 injured). On July 5, ISIS-K also attacked a Shia mosque in Ghazni City. The detonation of a remote-controlled IED inside of the Mohammadiah Mosque resulted in 24 civilian casualties (two killed and 22 injured), mostly children. On October 8, ISIS-K detonated an IED in a classroom of Ghazni University classroom, targeting Shia students and causing 27 civilian casualties.
UNAMA also documented 17 civilian casualties (10 killed and seven injured) as a result of incidents in which religious leaders and worshippers were targeted and shot. On June 27, a religious scholar and acting head of the provincial Hajj and Religious Affairs Department was shot and killed by ISIS-K in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province. Many other progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. On July 6, two unknown gunmen on a motorcycle killed the chairperson of the local Shia Ulema Council in Kunduz after he made statements supportive of the Afghan government and the peace process.
According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several deadly attacks on religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. On June 28, in Samangan Province, the Taliban detonated a remote-controlled IED inside a mosque during Friday prayers, wounding 14 civilians. According to sources, the Taliban were targeting the mullah, who had praised ANDSF in previous services. Many progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks during the year for which no group claimed responsibility. For example, on May 24, a remote-controlled IED placed inside the Al-Taqwa mosque in Kabul detonated while more than 700 individuals were gathered during Friday prayers. The explosives were positioned under the podium where a religious scholar, Mawlawi Rayhan, was leading prayers. The explosion killed him and two other civilians and injured 34 others. Rayhan was known as a supporter of the Afghan national security forces and a critic of the Taliban and ISIS-K. UNAMA attributed this incident to the Taliban.
On June 24, in the Nangarhar community of Qalatak, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Mawlawi Safiullah Hanafi, the imam of Qalatak’s central mosque, an Islamic schoolteacher and progovernment figure. President Ghani condemned the “inhumane attack on the wedding hall” and stated via Twitter, “My top priority for now is to reach out to the families of victims of this barbaric attack.” By year’s end, the government had not detained any individuals suspected of having been involved in these killings.
The Taliban continued to kill religious leaders and threaten them with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. On May 26, unidentified armed men shot and killed Mawlawi Shabir Ahmad Hashem Kamawal, a well-known religious scholar and legal advisor for the International Legal Foundation for Afghanistan in Kabul who had called on the Taliban to end the fighting.
In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on progovernment religious leaders was unclear. In these instances, although no individual or group claimed responsibility for the attacks, local authorities said they suspected that ISIS-K or, less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On October 18, at least 62 civilians were killed and another 58 wounded, including 20 children killed and 10 injured, following the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Deh Bala District, Nangarhar Province, during Friday prayers. No organization claimed responsibility for the attacks. The investigation continued at year’s end. On May 3, unknown gunmen shot and killed a progovernment religious scholar in the Behsod District, Nangarhar Province. As an official imam on the MOHRA payroll, the scholar was targeted for his support of the government, according to sources. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
On March 3, an IED exploded at the Haji Chaman Mosque, injuring Mawlavi Rahimullah (the religious advisor to the president) and his bodyguard and killing his driver. On May 27, a magnetic IED attached to an official government shuttle bus belonging to MOHRA exploded, wounding 10 MOHRA employees. No group claimed responsibility for these attacks.
There continued to be reports of the Taliban and ISIS-K monitoring the social practices of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their respective interpretations of Islamic law. On October 6, the Taliban sentenced a young girl and boy to 40 lashings in Faryab Province for having several telephone conversations. According to media reports, in May a Taliban court in Shahrak District, Ghor Province, shot and killed an underage boy and girl for allegedly having an extramarital affair. In March media reported the Taliban killed a pregnant woman and her unborn child in Sancharak District, Sar-e-Pol Province, for allegedly calling the Taliban’s war against the government “illegitimate.” The Taliban dragged her from her home, took her to a Talib commander who issued her death sentence, and immediately shot her.
There were again reports of continued Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for ANDSF and other government employees. In August media reported the Taliban put pressure on local imams to cut relations with the government and speak in favor of the Taliban or face Taliban retribution. Local communities pointed out that inaction by Islamic clerics affected security force morale. MOHRA also reported difficulty in staffing registered mosques in insecure areas because of Taliban threats.
Social media reporting showed Taliban punishing individuals who did not fast during Ramadan. They publicly shamed these individuals by coloring their faces black, putting them on donkeys, or shaving their heads.
According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.
There were continued reports of the Taliban and ISIS-K taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula; however, it was difficult to obtain information in Taliban-controlled territory.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the continued emigration of Sikh and Hindu residents.
According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Reportedly, the number of Christian missionaries in the country was estimated at 60, with 30 to 40 based in the capital.
According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.
Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable without what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.
Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Although Ahmadis had maintained an unmarked place of worship in past years, during the year the Ahmadis said they decided not to use it after neighbors informed police of its location. Ahmadis continued to report the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there were a peace deal with the Taliban.
Christian representatives again reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.
According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in previous years. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said the list of seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Kandahar, and Paktiya Provinces they submitted to MOHRA in 2016 remained unresolved at year’s end.
Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.
According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools were underequipped to teach students.
Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries, in addition to 500-600 who fled in 2018. Some Sikhs and Hindus reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam; in response, many noted that their communities’ residence in the country predated Islam.
Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. According to media, the Provincial Shia Ulema Council in Bamyan condemned the Bamyan Music Festival, and Shia religious leaders tried without success to stop it because the provincial governor and civil society supported the event. The Ulema also issued several statements against television programs, such as Afghan Music Star and Indian and Turkish series. In Herat, religious leaders threatened Tolo TV for recording the Afghan Music Star program in Herat, which caused the show to lower its public profile during filming.
Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Muslim cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.
Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.
Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.
NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with members of the president’s staff, ONSC, MOHRA, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, including informing the government of the conclusions of the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and the U.S. government’s recognition of August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities to understand their relationship with the government and their ability to practice their faith. The U.S. Secretary of State hosted two Afghans at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington on July 16-18, including one Shia victim of religious persecution whose brother, fiance, and future brother-in-law were killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing targeting a Shia shrine.
Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could encourage intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism and enhancing its relevance to promoting respect for religious diversity.
Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials as well as the visiting Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. On January 16, a senior embassy official hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion at the embassy to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. During the roundtable, the government representatives recognized the right of certain communities, including Sikhs and Hindus, to practice their faith short of proselytizing. The embassy reaffirmed U.S. government commitment to promoting religious freedom.
The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including MOHRA representatives, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent extremism related to religion and promote tolerance. On March 14, the embassy conducted a virtual discussion via the Lincoln Learning Centers with sharia law faculty at seven universities across the country on interpretation of Islam promoting tolerance in the negotiation and its importance for implementing a lasting peace agreement. The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent extremism related to religion, which included policies to foster intrafaith tolerance.
The embassy highlighted National Religious Freedom Day on July 16 and International Religious Freedom Day on October 27 through Twitter and Facebook posts. The Ambassador condemned the attacks on a mosque in Nangarhar Province and in front of a children’s madrassa in Laghman Province on October 18 and 16, respectively, through Twitter. On September 12, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. On November 27, a Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, while the eighth was acquitted. Defense attorneys indicated they would appeal all verdicts. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.
In October protesters clashed with police and attacked a Hindu temple in response to the October 20 arrests of two Muslims in Bhola, who were accused of hacking the Facebook account of a Hindu student in an extortion scheme. There were more than 100 injuries in the clash, and police killed four persons in what they stated was self-defense. In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, vice principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit. Buddhist community members said Nanda was returning to his hometown from Dhaka. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHCUC) said “atrocities” against minorities continued, but had slowed.
In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion, and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, NGOs, and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link among religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism. Since 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled, and continued to flee, Burma.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 161.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Baha’is, animists, Ahmadi Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents.
Ethnic minorities concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts generally practice a non-Islamic faith. The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian, as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barishal City and Gournadi in Barishal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj District, Monipuripara and Christianpara in Dhaka City, and in the cities of Gazipur and Khulna.
The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya, nearly all Muslim. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than a million Rohingya refugees fled Burma in successive waves since the early 1990s. Most recently, in August 2017, approximately 740,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Burma took refuge in Bangladesh. Nearly all who arrived during the 2017 influx sought shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar District. Approximately 450 Rohingya in the country are Hindu.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.
Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act, to charge individuals. The Digital Security Act criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” with penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of destroying religious harmony or creating discrimination on religious grounds.
Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB director general has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence (NSI), Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, although the standards for this clearance are not transparent.
Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying the name being registered is not taken; providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the NSI; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; work plan; copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.
Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.
Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman.
Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Hindu women may inherit property under the law. Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups is allowed and occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.
Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Civil courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.
Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling out of court family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.
Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may neither be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.
Religious studies are compulsory and part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.
The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a faith of their choice before execution.
The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state. In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, who fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 27, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced seven defendants to death for their role in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. An eighth defendant was acquitted. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said they would appeal the verdicts, the government appealing only the one acquittal. According to numerous reports, the attackers, who claimed loyalty to ISIS, singled out non-Muslims and killed the victims with machetes and firearms. According to media, a police investigation found 22 persons were involved in the attack: the eight whose trial just concluded, including two who had fled the country; five who were killed during the security response to the attack; and nine who died in a series of security actions in the country following the incident.
Legal proceedings against suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. In March a Dhaka court transferred the murder case to the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal for trial proceedings. The trial of six men accused in the killing began in April. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife, who was also injured in the attack, as they returned home from a Dhaka book fair. The press reported police suspected the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a militant Islamic organization claiming association with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent– accused of other acts of violence and banned by the government – was involved in Roy’s killing. Four of the accused appeared before the court during the year; the other two remained at large.
Law enforcement concluded one of eight investigations into a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District. In December 2017, 228 were charged with the attacks on the Hindu community, pending prosecution. However, according to media reports, all accused persons were since released on bail. According to media reports, in the three years since the attack, there was no further progress in this case following the completion of one of eight investigations, and no timeline was given for completing the other seven investigations or for scheduling hearings for the 228 charged. The courts held no hearings before the end of the year. The attackers injured more than 100 individuals and vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples following a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. The National Human Rights Commission stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area and obtain their land.
According to media reports in November, the government filed charges against members of the Santal Christian community, which was the target of a violent attack in 2016 that allegedly involved local authorities and law enforcement personnel. These charges necessitate these members paying legal and administrative fees, even if the cases fail to progress. Among those charged was the brother of a man killed in the attack. At the same time, authorities dropped charges against police officers videotaped in the attack for lack of sufficient evidence. On July 28, the UN Committee Against Torture reported the Police Bureau of Investigation submitted a report stating no police officers were involved in the burning of homes and schools and looting of property, despite the visual evidence suggesting their involvement.
Human rights organizations did not report the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year, in contrast with previous years.
Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and to provide guidance to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation on the content of their sermons. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. In April the government instructed mosques to denounce extremism.
The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, stating the program spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools,” which the government said reflected his teachings.
In May police arrested Catholic poet Henry Sawpon for “offending the religious sentiments of Catholics” in his many social media posts criticizing and insulting members of the clergy. The arrest followed a complaint filed by Father Larence Gomes, a local priest in the town of Barisal, also the home of Sawpon. According to Gomes, Sawpon said young priests organized a seminar for youth where girls were raped. At year’s end, Sawpon remained in jail.
According to the Ministry of Land, authorities adjudicated 15,224 of 118,173 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act as of 2018, the most recent year figures were published. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 7,733 of the cases, recovering 8,187.5 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 7,491 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.
Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of religious minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 11.68 billion taka ($137.4 million) for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which covers June 2018-July 2019, the most recent year for which figures were available. The budget included 9.21 billion taka ($108.4 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.24 billion taka ($96.9 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 780.8 million taka ($9.2 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 37.5 million taka ($441,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2018-19 budget, it received 2.8 million taka ($32,900) to run its office.
Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In July three CHT villages filed a report with the deputy commissioner accusing Jashim Uddin Montu, a businessman, of land grabbing. In an investigative report, The Daily Star discovered Montu falsified residency documents in Bandarban for the right to purchase CHT land to build a tourist property. Villagers said Montu donated money and some of the purchased land in CHT to build a two-story police camp in Bandarban. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups continued to attribute lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.
The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, celebrations during the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.
President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities. In October the prime minister’s foreign policy advisor, Gowher Rizvi, said at an interreligious event the majority faith (Islam) had the responsibility to protect minority religious groups and urged all to work under a common umbrella and address common problems together.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In September according to press reports, unidentified individuals killed four members of a Buddhist family living in Cox’s Bazar. The victims included two children under the age of 10. The family lived in a predominantly Buddhist village in Cox’s Bazar, and the precise motive of the murder remained unclear at year’s end.
In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, Vice Principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit, and Buddhist community members said he may have been killed and his body dumped from the train while returning to his hometown from Dhaka. Buddhists and human rights activists formed human chains and protest rallies throughout the country following Nanda’s death. At year’s end, however, no arrests were made.
In its Brief Yearly Report on the Minority Situation, the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said atrocities against minorities continued, but slowed. Communal acts against religious minorities, including land grabbing, rapes, and arson, remained a “day to day affair” but BHBCUC did not provide specific numbers or give examples. In contrast with 2018, when BHBCUC documented 806 cases of religious persecution against minorities, the organization did not release any statistical data during the year.
The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism. The NGOs said individuals commonly associated a person’s faith with his or her surname. In spite of constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths, according to the Christian Welfare Trust, when someone’s professed faith deviated from the faith tradition commonly tied with his or her surname, particularly if the professed faith was Christianity, harassment, threats and social isolation could ensue.
In October rioters clad in Islamic garb and brandishing Islamist banners protested the arrest of two Muslims in Bhola accused of hacking a Hindu student’s Facebook account to plant disparaging comments on Islam for extortion. The rioters demanded the incarceration of the Hindu student, ransacked a local Hindu temple, and incited local residents to join them. Police responded to the rioters, who they stated were armed with shotguns, and used lethal force in what they stated was self-defense, which resulted in four deaths. More than 100 people were injured in the riots. The two Muslims accused of the hacking remained under arrest, as did the Hindu student who reported to police the hacking and subsequent extortion attempt.
In November according to several media reports, unidentified persons broke into a Hindu Kali temple in Tangail and vandalized five idols. A local Hindu leader said the perpetrators acted in this manner to damage communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims in the area. Local authorities and law enforcement said they opened an investigation into the incident.
Actress Saba Kabir, according to media reports, was pressured to apologize after making remarks taken by some to be admitting to atheism. After heavy social media criticism, she apologized on her Facebook page for offending the religious beliefs of others.
The human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra said at least 101 people were injured in violence against religious minorities in the first 10 months of 2019. Apart from this figure, said the group, at least 65 temples/monasteries or statues were attacked and 53 homes of religious minorities were attacked and set on fire. Some Buddhists continued to say they feared local Muslims would commit acts of vengeance against them in reaction to Buddhist mistreatment of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma.
NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. The government continued its efforts to resolve land ownership disputes affecting indigenous non-Muslims, using a 2017 amendment to the law providing for more inclusive decision making and a harmonization of the law with the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. According to some members of the indigenous community, procedural issues had delayed resolution of many of their property disputes.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the interface among religions, religious freedom, and violent extremism, and the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights in security policy. Embassy officials stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks. The Ambassador’s visits and remarks were broadly covered in the country’s major national television networks and print media.
The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition.
The U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled Burma since August 2017. More than $553 million of that total has gone to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in the country.
As part of U.S.-funded community policing training, the embassy encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including one held on August 25. Embassy officials attended several religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. In October the Ambassador attended festivals and events for all three major religious communities. At these events, the Ambassador and other embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious tolerance and respect for diversity.
The embassy conducted a social media campaign throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. In July the embassy posted photographs on its social media platform of religious and civil society leaders at a meeting with the Ambassador before they left to attend the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, DC. On August 23, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the UN’s first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. In October the embassy published two Facebook posts highlighting the Ambassador’s participation in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist events, with text and photographs.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, International Buddhist Monastery of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation. In these meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, identified challenges religious minorities encountered, and discussed the importance of religious tolerance.
Embassy officials met regularly with a working group of 11 foreign missions to discuss a broad range of human rights concerns, including religious freedom.
The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief. The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.” The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity among religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction by the government. Churches that applied for registration continued to await approval from the government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO). As a result, there were only two registered non-Buddhist religious groups in the country, while registered Buddhist groups increased from 110 to 125. Hindu leaders cited continued support for the construction of Hindu temples, including a major project in the capital. NGOs reported that unregistered religious groups continued to be able to worship in private, but were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. A representative of the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said the legal framework providing government patronage and protection of Buddhism worked against other faiths, including Christianity and Hinduism. International Christian NGO Open Doors continued to list the country on its World Watch List, stating the government was intent on maintaining a strong national identity and unity by suppressing outside influences, including Christianity. Pastors cited their most significant challenge to be acquiring permanent Christian burial plots. According to Open Doors, the government has not officially recognized any churches, which led the organization to conclude that Christians in the country “are technically worshipping illegally.” Open Doors in its 2020 World Watch List reported, “No Christian congregation has ever been allowed to build a church structure,” and, “All Christian fellowship remains underground.” The India-based Hindu religious organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the Hindu advocacy group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that the minority Hindu community faced discrimination. The RSS itself said that it was not aware of any problems facing Hindus in the country, and commented that relations between Hindus and Buddhists were good. Leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai, one of eight religious organizations on the board of the Commission for Religious Organizations, said Hindus and Buddhists enjoyed close ties. The organization cited strong official support for Hindu religious practice, including royal support for the construction of Hindu temples and participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.
NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and rated persecution of Christians to be “very high.” Open Doors also reported in its World Watch List 2020 report, “For [Christian] converts, family members are by far the strongest sources of persecution.” According to Open Doors, Christian students were forced to participate in Buddhist rituals and Christian farmers were excluded from communal planting and harvesting.
The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country or a diplomatic presence there. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of both government and nongovernment figures on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 774,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Buddhism. Hindus make up approximately 22 percent of the total population and reside mostly in southern areas.
According to the Pew Research Center and the Open Doors World Watch List, estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 8,000 to 30,000. Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south. Although traditional Bon practices are often combined with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition, according to scholars. The Sharchop ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to scholars.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that as of October, there were approximately 60,000 Indian nationals living in the country, who work in the construction sector, as well as between 8,000 and 10,000 temporary workers in the country on a daily basis. While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and bans discrimination based on faith. The constitution says the king must be Buddhist and requires the king to be the “protector of all religions.”
The constitution states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” The penal code criminalizes “coercion or inducement to convert” as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Neither “coercion” nor “inducement to convert” are defined in law or regulation.
The law prohibits oral or written communication “promoting enmity among religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.
The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” among religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment.
The law requires religious groups to register with the CRO. To register, a religious group must submit an application demonstrating its leaders are citizens and disclosing their educational background and financial assets. The law also specifies the organizational structure, bylaws, and procedural rules registered religious organizations must follow. It prohibits religious organizations from “violating the spiritual heritage” of the country and requires them to protect and promote it. The law also states no religious organization shall do anything to impair the sovereignty, security, unity, or territorial integrity of the country. It mandates that the CRO certify that religious groups applying for registration meet the specified requirements.
Registered religious groups may raise funds for religious activities and are exempt from taxes. Registered groups require permission from local government authorities to hold public meetings outside of their registered facilities and must seek permission from the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs to invite foreign speakers or receive foreign funds.
Unregistered religious groups may not organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. Penalties for unregistered organizations performing these activities range from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense. Unregistered religious groups may hold private worship services in homes. The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally. The CRO has the authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading, and whether it has raised funds illegally. Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.
The law states the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities. The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the prime minister, currently the Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs. A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the king’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board. The Director of Culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves as an ex-officio secretary. Heads of Buddhist religious bodies and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya occupy the remaining seats. The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”
The constitution states the king shall appoint the chief abbot of the central monastic body on the advice of the five masters of the monastic body. Those individuals and a civil servant administrative secretary make up the Commission for Monastic Affairs, which manages issues related to Buddhist doctrine. The constitution says the state will provide funds and “facilities” to the central monastic body.
The law permits the government to “avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses for public assembly, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and imposing curfews. The government may apply these measures to groups and organizations of all kinds, including religious groups.
Government approval is required to construct religious buildings. By law, all buildings, including religious structures, must adhere to traditional architectural standards. The CRO determines conformity with these standards.
The constitution states religious institutions have the responsibility to ensure religion remains separate from the state. It states, “Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.” The law prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity. Ordained members of the clergy of any religion may not engage in political activities, including running for office and voting.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
An ADF representative said the legal framework providing government patronage and protection to Buddhism worked against other faiths, including Christianity and Hinduism. Open Doors continued to list the country on its World Watch List, stating the government was intent on maintaining a strong national identity and unity by suppressing outside influences, including Christianity.
According to Open Doors, the government has not officially recognized any churches, which, according to the NGO, means that Christians “are technically worshipping illegally.” Open Doors in its 2020 World Watch List reported, “No Christian congregation has ever been allowed to build a church structure…All Christian fellowship remains underground.” The government has not offered any explanation, public or private, to these groups for its refusal to register them.
There are two Hindu groups among 125 registered religious organizations.
According to Open Doors, one house church was forced to close and cease meetings after receiving warnings and threats from authorities. Authorities held two pastors for questioning.
Open Doors cited reports by Bhutanese Christians that they often faced difficulties in obtaining “non-objection certificates” from local authorities that were required for loan and employment applications, property registration, and the renewal of identification cards.
The India-based Hindu organization VHP, an affiliate of the RSS, said that thousands of Hindu women who had immigrated to the country after marriage to residents were not granted citizenship, and that Hindu citizens are denied job opportunities in the civil services. VHP said that the government prohibited the publication of Hindu religious calendars and establishment of religious congregations. A spokesman for the RSS said that the organization was not aware of any problems facing Hindus, and that relations between Hindus and Buddhists were good. Leaders from the Bhutan-based Hindu Dharmic Samudai said Hindus and Buddhists enjoyed close ties, and they cited the king’s personal support for the construction of Hindu temples and his participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals. Hindu leaders said Hinduism enjoyed strong official support in the country, where Hindus and Buddhists were viewed “like two branches of one tree.”
Christian pastors cited their most significant challenge as acquiring permanent Christian burial plots. Pastors noted that Christians had less access to radio and television broadcasts and fewer officially endorsed public celebrations than the Hindu community. They also said the Christian community believed that ambiguities in religious affairs laws could be used to penalize the celebration of Christian religious services.
The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines, as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries.
NGOs reported that compulsory Buddhist daily prayer sessions in schools continued, and that children of Christian families faced discrimination from teachers and sometimes were denied access to schools.
Courts and some other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries. Some religious groups stated government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals. According to an NGO, there was continued pressure on non-Buddhists in civil service positions to participate in Buddhist rites and contribute to festivals.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and described persecution of Christians as “very high.” According to the Open Doors World Watch List 2020, “For [Christian] converts, family members are by far the strongest sources of persecution.” According to Open Doors, Christian students were forced to participate in morning and evening Buddhist rituals and in one instance, cleaning Buddhist shrines. The NGO also reported that Christian farmers were usually excluded from communal planting and harvesting, a rural tradition by which several farmers share the workload and offer mutual assistance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The United States does not have a diplomatic presence in the country and does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with the government. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of government and nongovernment figures on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The government does not require religious groups to register, but some registered groups may receive tax-exempt status. On December 7, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian Church of Atheism did not qualify as a religion for purposes of obtaining charitable status. In June the Quebec government passed and implemented a law prohibiting certain categories of provincial government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions, while requiring individuals seeking certain provincial government services to do so with the “face uncovered.” Observers said the legislation targeted Muslim women and would also effectively exclude some religious Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from positions of authority, including positions in the national legislature, education, the courts, and law enforcement. The National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff filed a legal challenge to the law in the Quebec Superior Court. In May an Ontario court dismissed the appeal of Ontario physicians who objected on religious and/or moral grounds to a provincial policy requiring them to refer patients for “medical services such as medical assistance in dying, abortion and reproductive health services.” In conjunction with a new antiracism strategy addressing all forms of discrimination, including based on religion, in June the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. In March the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard the appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling in a decade-long case concerning whether the province could fund non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. The appeal process continued through year’s end.
Reports continued of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic activity, including cases of violence, hate speech, harassment, discrimination, and vandalism. In July Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2018 showing the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes was approximately 24 percent lower in 2018 than 2017, dropping to a total of 639; reported crimes against Muslims decreased by 50 percent, while those against Jews decreased by 4 percent. In 2018, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights reported in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic occurrences there were 11 cases of anti-Semitic violence nationwide, 221 reports of anti-Semitic vandalism, and 1809 occurrences of harassment, approximately 90 percent of which reportedly occurred online; physical location and identities of those posting the online messages are unknown. B’nai Brith received a total of 2,041 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2018, compared with 1,752 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2017 and 1,728 cases in 2016. In February a Quebec judge sentenced a man to a minimum term of 40 years after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for killing six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec in 2017. In August a taxi driver was arrested and charged with assaulting a Jewish man wearing a kippah, who reportedly wanted to take a photograph of the taxi to file a complaint about the taxi driver’s anti-Semitic comments. In November the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s adult population. It said 8 percent harbored anti-Semitic views, down from 14 percent in its previous 2014 survey – which it stated represented the percentage of persons who agreed that a majority of the 11 statements were “probably true.”
The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial government. They also raised how we might partner to promote religious freedom around the world, better support individuals persecuted for their religion, and counter rising threats to religious freedom. Embassy officials discussed strategies to combat religious intolerance through engagement with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious minority groups. The embassy sponsored and participated in public programs and events encouraging interfaith dialogue and freedom of religion. In October the Quebec City Consul General held a breakfast with faith leaders to discuss interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The embassy amplified these activities through social media.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, which has the most recent data available on religion, approximately 67 percent of the population self-identifies as Christian. Roman Catholics constitute the largest Christian group (38 percent of the total population), followed by the United Church of Canada (6 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Baptists (1.9 percent), and Christian Orthodox (1.7 percent). Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal groups each constitute less than 2 percent of the population. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates its membership at approximately 190,000. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS Church) estimates its membership at 1,000. Approximately 3 percent of the population is Muslim, and 1 percent is Jewish. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Scientologists, Baha’is, and adherents of Shintoism, Taoism, and aboriginal spirituality together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Approximately 24 percent of the population lists no religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Every individual is equal under the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The law imposes “reasonable limits” on the exercise of these religious rights only where such restrictions can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The law permits individuals to sue the government for “violations” of religious freedom. Federal and provincial human rights laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. Civil remedies include compensation and/or changes to the policy or practice responsible for the discrimination.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but the government grants tax-exempt status to religious groups that register as nonprofit organizations with the Charities Directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency. Nonprofit status provides such organizations with federal and provincial sales tax reductions, rebates, and exemptions. To gain and retain tax-exempt status, a group must be nonpolitical and undergo periodic audits. Charitable status also grants members of the clergy various federal benefits, including a housing deduction under the tax code and expedited processing through the immigration system. The term “clergy” includes persons whose communities have licensed, ordained, or otherwise formally recognized them for their religious leadership and authority to perform spiritual duties and services within their religious organization. Individual citizens who donate to tax-exempt religious groups receive a federal tax receipt entitling them to federal income tax deductions.
The criminal code prohibits the practice of polygamy, which is an indictable offense subject to imprisonment of up to five years.
A Quebec government law passed and implemented in June prohibits certain government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. The law defines a religious symbol as “any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewelry, an adornment, an accessory, or headwear, that (1) is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or (2) is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.” Among categories included in the law are president and vice presidents of the national assembly; administrative justices of the peace; certain municipal court employees; police, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs; certain prosecutors and criminal lawyers; and certain principals, vice principals, and teachers, among others. The law also requires anyone seeking certain provincial government services to do so with “face uncovered.” The bill invoked the “notwithstanding clause” of the federal constitution, which permits a province to override specific constitutional protections for a period of five years to prevent citizens from bringing challenges to the law based on the federal constitution. The religious symbols ban applies to public school teachers, government lawyers, judges, prison guards, and police officers, among others. It exempts provincial employees working prior to the implementation of the law, but they lose their right to wear religious symbols upon changing jobs or receiving a promotion.
Government policy and practices regarding education, including regulation of religious schools, fall under the purview of the provincial, rather than federal, governments. Six of the 10 provinces provide full or partial funding to some religious schools.
Catholic and Protestant schools in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan retain the federal constitutionally protected right to public funding they gained when those provinces joined the federation. Other provinces either had no legally recognized denominational schools that qualified for such protection at the time of federation or accession, or they subsequently secured a federal constitutional amendment to terminate religious education funding rights and introduce an exclusively secular publicly funded education system. Federal statutory protection for Catholic and Protestant publicly funded minority education exists in the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories, which do not have provincial status. Constitutional or federal statutory protection for public funding of religious education does not extend to schools of other religious groups, although British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec offer partial funding to religious schools of any faith that meet provincial scholastic criteria. The law permits parents to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools for religious reasons.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On December 7, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian Church of Atheism of Central Canada did not qualify as a charity under the Income Tax Act in part because it could not be found to be a “religion” in a charitable sense. The court based its finding on the Church’s failure to “demonstrate that its belief system was based on a particular and comprehensive system of doctrine and observances.” In its ruling, the court also noted that registration of an organization as a charity under the Income Tax Act is a privilege, and not a right.
In June the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff filed a legal challenge in Quebec Superior Court against the provincial law prohibiting certain categories of government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. According to press reports, observers said the legislation would exclude some religious Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from positions of authority, including in education and law enforcement. The observers also said the legislation unfairly targeted Muslim women in the province who wear hijabs or other head coverings. The challenged law was the third attempt by a Quebec government to pass such legislation regarding the delivery of provincial services; a Parti Quebecois government introduced a bill in 2013 but did not pass it before the 2014 Quebec election, and a Liberal government passed a bill in 2017 that never entered into effect because a series of judicial injunctions suspended its application. The plaintiffs also challenged portions of the newly passed law prohibiting individuals from receiving certain government services with their faces covered. The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction against implementation of the law, but the Quebec Superior Court declined the request in July. In August the Quebec Court of Appeal agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal of that decision, and in October the court declined to temporarily stay imposition of the law pending a ruling on its constitutionality; as a result, the law remained in force. In September a multifaith organization filed a separate challenge to the law on behalf of three teachers – a Roman Catholic and two Muslims – who wore religious symbols. In October the English Montreal School Board, the largest English language school board in Quebec, challenged the law in court. In November a Quebec teachers union representing 45,000 teachers also filed suit. In total, four different lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Quebec law remained pending at year’s end.
In May an Ontario court dismissed the appeal of Ontario physicians who objected on religious and/or moral grounds to a provincial policy that required them to provide patients with referrals for “medical services such as medical assistance in dying, abortion, and reproductive health services.” Federal law permits assisted death and abortion but specifies doctors have the right to freedom of conscience and the right not to perform or assist in providing the procedures. Ontario is the only province requiring referral directly to another individual physician if the treating physician has a religious or moral objection to providing the specified service. Ontario physicians had appealed a lower court ruling upholding the referral requirement. The Ontario Court of Appeals found that the physician referral mechanism struck the appropriate balance between a physician’s right to freedom of religion and a patient’s right to medical services.
In April a British Colombia (B.C.) court retried James Oler, a member of the FLDS Church, on charges that he unlawfully removed his underage daughter from Canada in 2004 to marry her to a 24-year-old U.S. citizen in Nevada. The court found Oler guilty after retrial, and in August sentenced him to 12 months in prison. A trial judge had acquitted Oler of the same charges following a trial in 2017 based on what the B.C Court of Appeal deemed to be the trial court’s erroneous interpretation of the required elements of the offense. The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal in 2018 and ordered a new trial after the government appealed.
In February a federal trial court, which sits below the Supreme Court, stayed on procedural grounds seven of eight cases brought in 2018 by religious and other organizations seeking to reverse the denial of their federal grant applications. The federal government denied their applications over issues regarding an attestation the federal government imposed as a condition of receiving funding for the Canada Summer Jobs Program that year. For the first time, organizations were required to attest that their core mandate and the job for which they planned to use the federal funds respected the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as other rights and associated case law. The plaintiffs stated the attestation infringed on their rights to freedom of religion and of expression. The attestation included language that such rights “include reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, color, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” The court stayed seven of the cases until the first case, filed by Toronto and Area Right to Life (TRTL), is heard, based on a finding that there was “substantial overlap” of the legal issues involved in the eight cases.
In late 2018, the federal government made changes to the 2019 summer jobs application’s attestation, with new language focusing on activities for which the funds could not be used, rather than on the values of any given organization. According to media reports, TRTL filed a second lawsuit after it was also denied a grant in 2019. The cases were pending at year’s end.
In March the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard the appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling in a decade-long case concerning whether the province could fund non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. In 2017, the lower court had ruled that providing public funding for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools discriminated against secular schools and those of other religious groups in favor of Catholic education; it ordered the province to stop funding those students by the end of June 2018. The court had also ordered the government of Saskatchewan and the provincial Catholic School Boards Association to pay 960,000 Canadian dollars (C$) ($738,000) toward the opposing public school board’s legal costs. The Court of Appeal stayed the imposition of the funding order pending resolution of the appeal. At year’s end, the appeal remained pending.
On January 27, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement for International Holocaust Memorial Day, stating that Canada must also acknowledge its “own history of anti-Semitism, and its devastating results.” He pledged to “stand guard and speak out against anti-Semitism in our communities, to embrace our differences, and to find strength in our diversity.” On May 1, the prime minister issued a statement for Holocaust Memorial Day in which he said anti-Semitism was on the rise and stating, “We will not be silent in the face of oppression, or indifferent in the face of hate. We will always speak out against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and hatred in all its forms, and together, we will counter them.”
On May 7, Prime Minister Trudeau attended the National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony and delivered remarks in which he noted that “once again, people filled with hate are emerging from the shadows. Hateful words and speeches are spreading on social media and spreading across our daily lives.” He also stated, “The lessons of the Holocaust are at risk of being forgotten if we stand idly by, if we remain silent in the face of these events,” and that “it is our solemn duty as politicians, as leaders, as human beings, to stand united with one voice, and to say without equivocation, that anti-Semitic hatred has no place in Canada, or anywhere else.”
In June the government announced a new anti-racism strategy for 2019-2022 with the stated objective of combating systemic racism and discrimination of all kinds, including discrimination based on religion. The strategy also envisaged providing funding to empower religious minorities and others with expertise in addressing various forms of racism and discrimination and changing attitudes by increasing awareness of the historical roots of racism and discrimination. As part of that strategy, the country adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of physical violence, vandalism, hate speech, and harassment directed at religious groups, in particular against Jews and Muslims. In July Statistics Canada released hate crime statistics for 2018, which showed a 24 percent decline in the number of police-reported religiously motivated hate crimes, from 842 in 2017 to 639 in 2018. Hate crimes targeting Muslims decreased by 50 percent. Hate crimes targeting Jews were down 4 percent, accounting for 19 percent of total police-reported hate crimes in 2018.
In February a Quebec judge sentenced a man to a minimum term of 40 years after he pled guilty in 2018 to six counts of first-degree murder for killing six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec in 2017. The defendant had said he planned the assault after hearing news that Canada was prepared to accept more refugees from Muslim countries. He said he believed that Muslims posed a threat to his family’s safety. In June government prosecutors recommended the country’s longest sentence in history, 150 years, but the court rejected that request on the grounds that sentences exceeding a defendant’s life expectancy constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In March both the prosecution and the defense appealed the sentence. The case remained pending at year’s end.
In July a taxi driver reportedly assaulted a Jewish man wearing a kippah after an altercation in a parking lot in Montreal. The taxi driver allegedly yelled anti-Semitic statements at the man during the incident, which the Jewish man recorded on video. In August authorities arrested and charged the taxi driver. According to media reports, the victim was not seriously injured. The taxi company employing the driver fired him immediately after learning of the incident and issued a statement that “we don’t tolerate assaults, anti-Semitism, or racism.” The case remained pending at year’s end.
In January an Ontario court found two men who served as the editor and the publisher of a free Toronto newspaper guilty of using the publication for years to repeatedly promote hatred of Jews and of women. In August an Ontario court sentenced the editor of the newspaper to one year in prison. In August the same judge also sentenced the paper’s publisher, an indigenous person, to one year of house arrest. The judge said he took the publisher’s indigenous status, poor health, and expression of remorse into account at sentencing. The law requires judges to consider adverse cultural factors faced by indigenous persons as mitigating factors when sentencing indigenous offenders. According to news reports, both men were appealing their sentences. The cases remained pending at year’s end.
In August The Edmonton Journal apologized after running a cartoon some viewed as anti-Semitic.
In August a medical regulatory authority in British Columbia determined that a physician committed no wrongdoing when she participated in the medically assisted death of an elderly patient who had requested it but was a resident of an Orthodox Jewish nursing home that prohibited the practice on its premises. To provide medical assistance in the patient’s death as permitted by law, the doctor concealed her actions from the nursing home. The regulatory authority found the doctor had complied with all legal requirements. According to news reports, the case was believed to be the first where a medical regulator had opined on whether a physician could be punished for defying the wishes of a faith-based healthcare facility in order to satisfy the legal right to a medically assisted death.
In 2018, the most recent year for which there were statistics, the B’nai Brith Canada League for Human Rights reported 11 cases of anti-Semitic violence, compared with 16 in 2017; there were 221 reports of vandalism, including the painting of swastikas on buildings, and 1,809 reports of harassment, compared with 327 and 1409, respectively, in 2017. The league received 2,041 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2018, compared with 1,752 reports of anti-Semitic cases in 2017, and 1,728 cases in 2016. Nearly 90 percent of the occurrences (1,809) involved harassment. Eighty percent of all incidents reported in 2018 occurred online or had an online component; the physical location and identities of those posting the online messages were unknown. The greatest number of reports (709) came from Quebec, which saw a 49.6 percent increase in the total number of incidents in 2018 – from 474 reports in 2017 to 709 in 2018. In 2018, two of the cases involved violence, 30 vandalism, and 677 harassment. B’nai Brith recorded a 40.5 percent decrease in the total number of reports in Ontario, from 808 incidents in 2017 to 481 incidents in 2018. In 2018 the greatest number of violent incidents, eight, occurred in Ontario, down from 13 the previous year.
In March the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of two Muslim students barred from praying at their nondenominational private school. In 2011, the students had been allowed to perform Islamic prayers for several weeks after enrolling there. According to media reports, however, the school subsequently told them they would not be allowed to pray because it was “too obvious and went against the academy’s nondenominational nature.” When the boys continued to pray, the school expelled them. The boys filed a religious discrimination action, and in 2015 the Alberta Human Rights Commission found in the boys’ favor and ordered the school to pay a C$26,000 ($20,000) fine. The school appealed, and the Alberta Court of Appeal eventually overturned the commission’s finding. In its ruling, the appeal court ordered a new hearing before the Alberta Human Rights Commission, which the commission then appealed to the Supreme Court. After the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, the Human Rights Commission held a new hearing in October and agreed to accept written closing arguments post-hearing. The hearing proceedings were not final by year’s end, and as a result, no decision had been rendered by the commission.
In March airport security screening agents in Halifax refused to allow an indigenous elder’s traditional herbal medicine pouch to be x-rayed, instead requiring the elder to open it for review, according to media reports. The elder wore the pouch around her neck and said it contained several grams of tobacco, sweetgrass, sage, and cedar. She said opening the pouch desecrated the contents and was contrary to her indigenous spirituality but opened the pouch so she could travel. According to media reports, Canadian airport screening policy states that if a traveler informs officers that the individual is carrying an item of religious significance, the officers may provide travelers with “screening options for the item based on the nature of the item” and the traveler’s preference.
In June an Ontario court ruled that a town council acted lawfully when it decided not to rename a street named “Swastika Trail.” Two residents of the Ontario town of Puslinch had petitioned the court to intervene in 2018 to implement the name change, according to media reports, after residents voted by a slim margin to keep the name.
According to media reports, in September an individual filmed himself heckling Sikh politician Gurratan Singh while Singh was giving a speech about discrimination against Muslims at Muslimfest, a two-day annual summer festival in Ontario. The man sought out Singh after the speech, reportedly to film himself yelling that “Islamophobia was created by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1990” and to otherwise harass Singh. Organizers of the event escorted the individual out of the venue.
In November the ADL released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 25 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Canada; 17 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 28 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
Numerous interfaith and ecumenical organizations at the national, provincial, and local levels continued to sponsor programs to foster respect for religious diversity, tolerance, and equal treatment for all religious groups. The groups included the Canadian Council of Churches, United Church of Canada, Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, other Protestant communities, as well as Jewish and Muslim associations. The Canadian Interfaith Conversation, a collaboration of 41 faith communities and faith-based organizations that collectively “advocate for religion in a pluralistic society and in Canadian public life,” continued to spotlight religious inclusion events held across the country throughout the year on its website, such as interfaith dialogues; a weeklong event exploring 11 world religions; and “Meet your Neighbor” dinners featuring different religious traditions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and other U.S. government officials raised respect for religious freedom and diversity with the national and provincial governments. They also raised how we might partner to promote religious freedom around the world, better support individuals persecuted for their religion, and counter rising threats to religious freedom. Embassy and other U.S. government officials met with representatives from Global Affairs Canada’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to discuss issues of religious freedom in the country, including issues raised in this report. The U.S. Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities visited Ottawa in May for meetings with Global Affairs Canada and civil society in which he discussed religious freedom, including our mutual efforts to promote religious freedom around the world.
Embassy and consulate officials conducted outreach to religious leaders, NGOs, and religious groups to discuss strategies for combating religious intolerance. In May the Quebec City consulate hosted an interfaith iftar that brought together interfaith leaders, youth, and government representatives. In June the Quebec City consulate hosted an event with a U.S. delegation, interfaith leaders, and community workers who promote interfaith dialogue and mutual understanding. In August an officer from the Toronto consulate delivered remarks at Pakistan Minority Day in Brampton, Ontario, where she emphasized religious freedom as a fundamental right. In September the Toronto consulate partnered with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies, a nonprofit organization that works to counter anti-Semitism and promote tolerance, to host a Rosh Hashanah event for guests in Toronto from the religious, civil society, and government spheres. In October the Quebec City Consul General held an event with faith leaders to discuss interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
The embassy and consulates amplified these events through social media and used their social media platforms to highlight messages of religious tolerance from senior Department of State officials in Washington.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The revocation sparked protests, criticism from Muslim leaders, and challenges filed in the Supreme Court from opposition politicians, human rights activists, and others. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region, shut down many internet and phone lines, and had not restored full service by year’s end. The government also closed most mosques in the area until mid-December. Seventeen civilians and three security personnel were killed during the protests. In December parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which accelerates citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014, but not for similarly-situated migrants who are Muslims, Jews, atheists, or members of other faiths. The law generated widespread media and religious minority criticism, including legal challenges in the Supreme Court. Protests and violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Uttar Pradesh and Assam following the passage of the law resulted in 25 civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries. Issues of religiously inspired mob violence, lynching, and communal violence were sometimes denied or ignored by lawmakers, according to a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to act to prevent or stop mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some officials of Hindu-majority parties, including from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent Hindu groups against minority communities, including Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of such “cow vigilantism,” which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution and filed charges against victims. In July Madhya Pradesh became the first state to set fines and prison sentences for cow vigilantism. Attacks on religious minorities in some cases included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six people, including the female pastor, who was beaten by the officers. In November the Supreme Court awarded the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya to Hindu organizations to build a temple there, while providing five acres of land elsewhere in the city for Muslims to build a new mosque. Leading national Muslim organizations and some Muslim litigants petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque, which was destroyed by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992, to be rebuilt on its original site. In December the Supreme Court dismissed these petitions and maintained its ruling. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In November the Supreme Court took up challenges to its 2018 reversal of a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data, 7,484 incidents of communal violence took place between 2008 and 2017 in which more than 1,100 people were killed. MHA data for 2018-2019 was not available, but incidents of communal violence continued through the year. On June 18, a mob in Jharkhand killed Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to declare allegiance to Hindu deities. NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that through 2019, Hindu groups characterized as extremist, some of which, according to HRW, had links with BJP supporters, continued to perpetuate mob violence against minorities, especially Muslims, amid rumors they traded or killed cows for beef. According to NGO Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related mob violence, in which Muslims comprised 50 percent of the victims, took place between 2010 and the first half of 2019. Lower-caste Hindus were also victims of cow vigilantism. Hate Crime Watch reported 10 cow vigilante attacks, with one person killed between January and June. On April 10, Prakash Lakda of Jurmu village in Jharkhand was killed by a mob, and three others seriously injured, reportedly for butchering a dead ox. All four victims were Christians who were Scheduled Tribe members. On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in the Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Media reported that local police arrested several individuals following the attack. Amnesty International (AI) in October recorded 72 incidents of mob violence in the first half of the year, of which 37 were directed at Muslims. AI recorded 181 alleged hate crime incidents overall in the first half of the year, compared with 100 during the same period in 2018. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s annual report, 527 incidents of persecution of Christians took place through the year. In August Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives reportedly because she was a Dalit (lower caste) and the couple had converted to Christianity. In February Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded.
U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance and mutual respect throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In their engagement with government officials, media, interfaith harmony organizations and NGOs, U.S. officials emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, condemn communal rhetoric, and ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. In March the embassy organized a speaking tour by a U.S. religious harmony expert to the northern cities of Lucknow, Allahabad, and Varanasi. In late May the Ambassador hosted a Ramadan iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and demonstrating empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths. In July the Department of State senior bureau official for South and Central Asian Affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and representatives from civil society groups advocating for the rights of religious minorities. In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts to hear their perspectives on conditions in the country. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in meetings with senior government officials raised concerns over violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including communal violence. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In meetings with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups, he raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anticonversion laws, and communal violence. Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador to India routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to hear their perspectives and concerns.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially classifies more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice animism and indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated one-third of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members have converted to Christianity.
According to government estimates, there are large minority Muslim populations in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state in which Muslims constituted a majority. Most of the Muslim population is concentrated in the Kashmir Valley, while Jammu and Ladakh have a Hindu and Buddhist majority, respectively. On August 5, the government divided the state into two union territories. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni; most of the rest are Shia. Christian populations are found across the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast, as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three small northeastern states have large Christian majorities: Nagaland (90 percent of the population), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of Punjab’s population. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. Media report that approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as any religion-based restrictions on individuals’ access to public or private facilities or establishments that are open to the general public. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits compelling anyone to pay taxes to promote or maintain any specific religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. Such legislation in Rajasthan, passed in 2008, was rejected by the central government in 2017 and remains unimplemented. In August the Himachal Pradesh state legislature added “coercion” to the list of conversion crimes, which also includes conversion by “fraud,” “force,” and “inducement.” The definition of “inducement” was broadened to include “the offer of any temptation.”
Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means,” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government. Violators, including missionaries and other religious figures who encourage conversion, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if the converts are minors, women, or members of government-designated, historically disadvantaged groups (Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes). Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($700). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment and/or fines of 25,000 rupees ($350). Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may consist of prison sentences rather than fines.
According to the Supreme Court, converting from Hinduism to another religion may deny those converting from lower castes the government benefits available to them if they had remained Hindu, such as placement in educational institutions or job training.
Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near another religion’s place of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($70).
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no direct requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funds, and federal law requires religiously-affiliated organizations to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
A federal law regulates foreign contributions to NGOs, including faith-based organizations. Organizations with “definite cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” must receive a federal government certificate of registration to receive foreign funds. The federal government may also require that certified organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject an application for a certificate of registration or a request for prior permission to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
The constitution states that any reference to Hindus in law is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a blanket category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, and Jains, but clarifies that these are separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.
Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region and designate them as minorities under state law. Minority status makes these groups eligible for several government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government will protect the existence of religious minorities and will encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.
Personal status laws determine rights for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national- and state-level legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If the law board or community leaders cannot offer satisfactory solutions, the case is referred to the civil courts.
Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions, however, face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages, but there are no divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas (in most cases, 50 percent) for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For instance, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.
Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. The law in Gujarat mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts for manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.
As of July, one state (Madhya Pradesh) penalizes cow vigilantism by setting fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($350-$700) and prison sentences of six months to three years for committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These bodies have no enforcement powers, but launch investigations based on written complaints by plaintiffs charging criminal or civil violations and submit their findings to law enforcement agencies for action. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution allows for a form of affirmative action for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, and the “Other Backward Class,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. Since the constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists shall be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste, the only means through which Christian and Muslim individuals may qualify for affirmative action benefits is if they are considered members of the “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
A video that circulated widely on the internet showed a mob near Kharsawan in Jharkhand violently attacking 24-year-old Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” (allegiance to Hindu deities). Members of the mob accused Ansari of stealing a motorcycle. Ansari died in a hospital several days later. On September 10, the Jharkhand police dropped murder charges against all 11 individuals accused of the attack, citing the initial autopsy report that stated that Ansari had died of cardiac arrest. On September 18, the police reintroduced murder charges against all the accused after a detailed postmortem exam revealed grievous injury to Ansari’s skull. The Jharkhand government set up a special investigation team and suspended two policemen for not reporting the seriousness of the issue to a higher authority and for failure to report a case of lynching.
On December 12, parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which amends the 1955 Citizenship Act to provide an expedited path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly-situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. The legislation – the first-ever to use religion as a criterion for citizenship – was criticized heavily by domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties. Opponents stated it was unconstitutional because it violated the tenets of a secular state. Passage of the legislation was followed by widespread protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Assam, but they soon spread to university campuses and cities nationwide. The government deployed police, severely limited public gatherings, imposed a curfew, and cut internet service, primarily in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir. As of the end of December, domestic and international media had reported 25 deaths, hundreds of injuries and thousands of detentions, with 5,500 detained in Uttar Pradesh alone. There were multiple reports of excessive force by police against protesters, particularly against Muslim university students. For example, in December police moved onto the campus of Jamia Millia University in New Delhi to end a protest, deploying tear gas and beating protesters with batons, according to witnesses who spoke to the media.
Government critics, civil liberty activists, NGOs, and political organizations, including the Congress party, filed more than 100 legal challenges to the CAA in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. Some opposition leaders said the CAA was part of an ongoing BJP effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. The government defended the CAA by saying that it was legislation aimed at facilitating citizenship for illegal refugees from six religious minorities who had fled three neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could still apply for citizenship through the normal, non-expedited route. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the CAA was an act to provide citizenship and not to take it away from legal Indian citizens. In November he stated that the constitution should be revered as a “holy book and a guiding light.” Some officials linked the CAA with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process used to identify illegal immigrants in the state of Assam. On December 22, Modi disavowed any discussion of implementing the NRC nationwide, including earlier comments from Home Minister Amit Shah that a nationwide NRC should be in place so “we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” Some opposition leaders and protestors stated they feared that a national NRC could disenfranchise Muslims in the country.
According to a number of NGOs and media outlets, lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence, which often had a religious component. On September 18, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in an interview that there had been no incidents of mob lynching in Uttar Pradesh during his tenure, which began in 2017. According to the Uttar Pradesh Law Commission in July, however, 50 incidents of mob violence had taken place in the state between 2012 and 2019, resulting in 11 deaths. Adityanath also used the term “love jihad,” a derogatory term suggesting a deliberate effort by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into a relationship and coerce them to convert to Islam, which analysts stated proved to be a crucial election issue for the ruling BJP.
In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, splitting it into two union territories, one for Jammu and Kashmir and the other for Ladakh. Opposition political parties and other critics condemned this decision; the central government pledged to hold assembly elections in the new territories. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region and shut down internet and phone lines just before announcing the decision. Many of these restrictions were gradually reduced by December. The government also closed most mosques in the area, including the Jamia Masjid, the main mosque in Srinagar, from August 5 until mid-December. Muslim leaders criticized the move. The government’s actions sparked protests. Several politicians belonging to opposition parties, human right activists, journalists, and retired army personnel filed petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s actions. Government and media reported there were incidents of violence and intimidation carried out by militants. In November the government told parliament that 20 persons, including 17 civilians and three security personnel, were killed in terror-related incidents in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5. On November 21, Home Minister Shah told the media, “Not a single person has died by police firing” in Jammu and Kashmir.
On July 20, Maharashtra police arrested one person the day after a group accosted and allegedly tried to lynch Muslim youth Imran Patel, forcing him to say “Jai Shri Ram” (allegiance to a Hindu deity). Patel said a Hindu family residing nearby rushed to his rescue and saved his life.
By year’s end, parliament had not acted on a July 2018 Supreme Court order that it enact a federal law to outlaw mob violence. The court also ordered all state governments to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent mob violence and ensure that the police act promptly in such cases. Only Rajasthan and West Bengal had partially followed the Supreme Court order.
In July Rajasthan passed an anti-lynching law, but its implementation remained pending at the end of the year. The law defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence or aiding, abetting, or attempting an act of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, by a mob on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, [or] ethnicity.” Penalties include up to life in prison. The law followed attacks on Muslims and was a state-level response to the Supreme Court order directing state legislatures to pass laws to address lynching and mob violence. In August the West Bengal state legislature passed a bill that made lynching punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. The bill defined lynching as any mob violence on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other ground. The West Bengal bill had not been implemented by year’s end.
HRW said that since May 2015, 50 people have been killed and over 250 injured in mob violence. HRW reported that Muslims were also beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans and that the police failed to properly investigate these incidents, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses in order to intimidate them. The NGO Alliance for Defending Freedom India (ADF India) reported that less than 40 of more than 300 cases of “cow vigilantism” that it had documented were prosecuted by the police. At the same time, according to HRW, the government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives designed to prevent and investigate mob attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, which, according to HRW, were sometimes linked to BJP supporters.
On April 14, according to the website AsiaNews, 200 men attacked a church in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh as police officers looked on without intervening. The report stated that the church’s clergy fled while the men attacked members of the congregation with sticks.
A police investigation continued into a May 2018 communal clash in Aurangabad in Maharashtra in which a Muslim youth was shot and killed by police and a Hindu man died in his burning shop. The clash followed allegations that authorities were cracking down on illegal water connections in a discriminatory manner. Police briefly arrested two city councilors, but they were released on bail.
On August 22, authorities arrested a fourth individual for the 2018 cow vigilante killing of Rakbar Khan in Rajasthan, who was assaulted by villagers who suspected him of cattle smuggling. Khan died when police took at least three hours to transport him to a local hospital that was 2.5 miles away. According to media reports, the police stopped for tea along the way. The case of the fourth individual was pending trial at year’s end.
On July 24, the Uttar Pradesh government dropped charges in 22 cases tied to riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 that claimed at least 65 lives and displaced thousands. By year’s end, the state government had dropped charges in at least 70 cases related to the riots. Since 2017, Muzaffarnagar courts have acquitted the accused in 40 of 41 cases involving attacks against Muslims. A BJP state legislator from the region said there were 93 other (pending) cases involving false allegations of Hindu attack against Muslims, which he said were brought for political reasons. By year’s end, there was one conviction related to the riots that followed the killings of two Hindu youths.
On April 23, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay a Muslim woman five million rupees ($70,400) in compensation for being gang-raped during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim communal riots in that state. Fourteen members of her family, including her two-year-old daughter and mother, were killed during the riots.
On July 27, Gujarat police arrested four persons on charges that they beat a 17-year-old Muslim youth to death because they objected to his relationship with a tribal girl in Ankleshwar District.
A Special Investigation Team formed in 2018 to assess 186 cases related to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and Punjab in 1984 submitted its report to the government in April; the government presented it to the Supreme Court in November. Supreme Court action, which could include an order to reopen some of the cases, was pending at year’s end.
On September 8, Jharkhand police arrested Catholic priest Binoy John and lay leader Munna Handsda for allegedly trying to convert villagers in Jharkhand’s Godda District. The accused had also reportedly asked villagers to donate their land to the church. They were arrested under a 2017 Jharkhand law that criminalizes religious conversion by inducement or coercion, following a complaint lodged by a villager. Both men were released on bail later in the same month.
Media reported that many of the 271 Christians charged by police in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh in September 2018 with “spreading lies about Hinduism” remained in prison at year’s end. Authorities said the Christians violated national laws against spreading enmity among different religious groups and causing social disharmony.
NGOs International Christian Concern (ICC) and ADF India stated authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, especially Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, such as Section 259A of the national penal code. In September ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed down in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A, then released a few days later on bail.
According to ICC, Christian pastors, their families, and their congregations were threatened by police and Hindu residents in Jharkhand, with some fleeing their villages out of concern for their safety. ICC reported pastors receiving death threats, mobs attacking Christian worship services, and Christians being detained by police for not giving money for Hindu ceremonies. ICC said that “an atmosphere of impunity” (for attacking Christians) had “been allowed to gather” in the state.
According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six persons, including the female pastor, Sindhu Bharti. According to the NGO and media accounts, the pastor was beaten by police officers and had boiling tea poured down her throat to ensure she was not feigning unconsciousness.
In September activists from the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), disrupted a Christian prayer meeting held by the New Life Fellowship Association in a public school in the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai, accusing it of being a cover for religious conversion. Mumbai police issued a notice to the association, warning that it had not sought the required advance permission to gather in a public place and would face prosecution if it did so again without permission. The police also warned the Bajrang Dal not to disrupt the fellowship’s meetings. The church pastor stated that he objected to the police action and said it violated the right to worship.
According to the website AsiaNews, in June police detained four Christians in Uttar Pradesh for organizing prayer meetings following reports that they were conducting “forced conversions.” The police released the men the same day without charges.
In May the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that police in Uttar Pradesh arrested Reverend Gyan Singh and another Pentecostal Christian in the village of Bugauliya Block, Basti District, for forced conversions. Police told GCIC that they would release the two without charges. In June authorities arrested Uttar Pradesh pastor Dependra Prakash Maleywar of the Church of North India after he was accused of the forced conversion of 16 persons. Police originally arrested Maleywar after a local Hindu activist accused him of an assault against Bajrang Dal activists. A judge ordered Maleywar held in custody for 14 days pending an investigation; after a week, authorities released him on bail. Police in Jharkhand arrested Dalu Soren, a Christian veterinarian, on October 16, after a 13-year-old girl’s father filed a complaint alleging forced conversion of his daughter by Soren.
On April 11, in Jamadha Village in Uttar Pradesh, according to the NewsClick website, members of a Christian group were detained under a section of the criminal procedure code that gives local magistrates the authority to prohibit the gathering of four or more persons or the holding of public meetings. The action came after a Hindu nationalist group interrupted the Christians’ prayer meeting and called the police.
In August a judge of the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu said that coeducational study in Christian institutions was “unsafe for girls.” The judge made his remarks in the context of a case involving allegations of sexual assault against a professor in a Christian college that was not linked to conversion. After strong protests from the Tamil Nadu Catholic Bishops’ Council, other Christian organizations, and civil society groups, the judge removed his comments from the court order.
On September 2, Uttar Pradesh police launched a smartphone-based intelligence-gathering system that they said was designed to alert them to flare-ups of communal tensions, so-called “anti-social elements,” and land disputes. According to reports, 10 individuals in every village across the state agreed to provide information on communal tensions. Cross-referencing among the informants was meant to help combat rumors.
On November 9, the Supreme Court awarded the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh – which was destroyed in a riot by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992 – to Hindu organizations to build a temple. Hindus stated the site of the mosque was the birthplace of the god Ram, and that the mosque had been built in the 16th century by destroying a Hindu temple there. Muslims stated they rejected this account and claimed ownership of the mosque. The court decision provided five acres of land elsewhere in Ayodhya for Muslims to build a new mosque. In December Muslim litigants, the prominent Muslim organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and the AIMPLB petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque to be rebuilt on its original site. The Hindu Mahasabha organization filed a petition against the decision to provide five acres for the mosque. Prominent Muslim community members signed a petition to accept the court ruling, but also stated that the judgment gave precedence to the Hindu faith. Others criticized the court for not addressing Muslim grievances concerning the violent destruction of the mosque. On December 12, the Supreme Court dismissed all review petitions and upheld its original decision.
On August 10 in New Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority demolished the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple and its idols on the grounds that it had been built illegally on government-owned property. The demolition, which had been delayed by court challenges from Dalit groups since 1986, was followed by protests in Punjab and other parts of North India. On August 21, large groups of mostly Hindu Dalit protesters came to New Delhi from Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and other states to demand that the government hand over the concerned plot of land to the community and rebuild the temple. Police armed with batons dispersed the crowd, and some were detained. Representatives of several Muslim organizations supported the demand for reconstructing the temple. In September the management of the temple petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene again in the matter. In October the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple at the same site.
In April, according to AsiaNews, the High Court in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) ordered Uttar Pradesh to reopen a church in Siddharth Nagar District, protect the church members, and allow them to conduct religious observances in peace. Authorities shut down the church in 2018 when a Hindu group filed a complaint against it.
In March the Kerala Law Reforms Commission circulated a draft of a proposed “Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill” for public review. The draft bill proposed the state set up a tribunal to intervene in any property disputes in which a church was involved (such disputes were not further specified). The proposed bill elicited a strong reaction from Christian churches in Kerala, as it would have eroded the authority of a church’s leadership in managing the affairs of the church. Officials in the Kerala state government later stated the government had no intention to move forward with the bill following strong opposition from leading churches in the state.
On August 31, Assam authorities published the final state-level NRC, which listed the citizens residing there. The NRC list excluded 1,906,657 residents, compared to four million in the earlier draft NRC of July 2018. Excluded residents were able to appeal to foreigners’ tribunals, and subsequently to the high court and the Supreme Court. Although the religious profile of those excluded was not contained in the NRC list, the BJP’s Assam unit stated it was concerned that more Bengali Hindus were excluded than Muslims, and that the results “favor the illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”
A report released in August by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found evidence of anti-Muslim bias among police in the country. In Uttarakhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, two-thirds of police surveyed felt that Muslims were more prone to commit crimes than other religious communities. In Uttarakhand, 80 percent of police personnel expressed this opinion. One-third of those surveyed felt that it was natural for a mob to resort to violence in cases of cow slaughter. Almost one-third of respondents said they felt that religious minorities were not given equal treatment with police forces. Sikh individuals were most likely to hold this opinion.
In September the newly-elected Andhra Pradesh state government began implementing a Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party election pledge to provide a salary supplement of 10,000 to 35,000 rupees ($140-$490) a year to Hindu priests who conducted regular rituals in rural temples and a 25 percent increase in the salaries of priests working in temples with “meager revenues.” The new government also pledged an additional 15,000 rupees ($210) to imams and muezzins, and 5,000 rupees ($70) to Christian clergy each year.
The BJP criticized the Andhra Pradesh government’s initiative to conduct a survey of Christian clergy using state resources, stating that under its chief minister, a Christian, the government was acting in a biased manner. A journal affiliated with a Catholic church near Delhi criticized the state government, stating that it was the responsibility of religious boards and communities, and not secular state governments, to support religious activities.
On August 25, Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary L.V. Subrahmanyam declared that non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions in Andhra Pradesh’s Hindu religious temples board, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), would be removed from their positions. He said their presence in the TTD, which manages several Hindu temples in Tirupati city in southern Andhra Pradesh, “hurts the sentiments” of Hindu pilgrims. The chief secretary stated that non-Hindu employees must not conceal their religious beliefs, and that inspections of employees’ residences would be conducted if needed to discern their religious affiliations. According to media reports, the state government decided to remove the non-Hindu employees because of public criticism that tickets given to Hindu pilgrims visiting the Tirumala temple on state-run buses had details of a Jerusalem tour on the back. The TTD stated it was not involved with producing the tickets. According to media reports, however, the TTD may have acted against the non-Hindus because of alleged Christian proselytization on temple premises in the past. The TTD had tried to remove 42 non-Hindu employees in 2018, but the Hyderabad High Court stayed the order. In the wake of the state’s August announcement, the court asked the state government to provide an explanation for the removal of non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions. Ultimately, no non-Hindus were removed from the TTD during the year.
In May, July, and November, the Supreme Court granted bail to all seven Christians convicted by a trial court in 2013 in the 2007 killing of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda. The Odisha High Court had deferred bail hearings for more than two years. Christian legal aid organizations and an independent journalist lobbied for their release on bail, stating the seven individuals were innocent and that the trial court had convicted them on “flimsy evidence.”
According to NGO sources, authorities reportedly denied three U.S. citizens entry under non-missionary visas due to concerns that they intended to engage in missionary activity, although the U.S. citizens denied that this was their intention.
An 86-year-old Spanish missionary nurse from the Daughters of Charity left the country on August 20 after the Ministry of External Affairs refused to renew her visa and informed her that she would have to depart within 10 days. She had worked among the poor in the Gajapati District of Odisha for 50 years. The ministry did not disclose the reason for the denial, but a member of parliament said the decision may have been motivated by the ministry’s “unstated policy of denying visas to foreign nationals who indulge in religious activities.”
In April Hindu Mahasabha Party (HMP) Vice President Deva Thakur called for the forced sterilization of Muslims and Christians. Media also reported that the HMP continued to operate unsanctioned “courts” based on the principles of Hindutva (Hindu cultural, national, and religious identity) after it unsuccessfully petitioned the prime minister in 2018 to close sharia courts around the country. The Hindu “courts” dealt with a range of issues, including interreligious relationships. A self-styled Hindu judge told the media in October that her court sought to “cleanse a girl’s mind and even get the police involved” in cases where a Hindu woman is involved with a Muslim man.
According to data compiled by news channel NDTV, there were 25 instances of public officials engaging in hate speech in December after the president signed the CAA into law, the highest number recorded in a single month since the Modi government came to power in 2014. NDTV said of the 25 instances, 23 were comments were made by BJP leaders. Formal requests to open investigations had been filed for three of those instances by year’s end. On December 15, referring to anti-CAA protesters, the prime minister said that people could make out who was spreading violence by the clothes they wore. Media outlets and editorial commentary criticized the statement for implying that individuals in Muslim attire were responsible for the violence.
On September 18, Telangana state lawmaker T. Raja Singh of the BJP released two videos announcing the creation of a vigilante army to “deal with traitors inside the country” and to create a Hindu Rashtra (nation). He stated, “Whichever traitor is hidden inside India will be dragged out and worn down, and sent outside India – or even directly to Jahannum (Urdu for hellfire).”
In August a bill criminalizing “triple talaq,” the practice by which a Muslim man may divorce his wife instantly by saying the Arabic word for divorce (talaq) three times, became law. This followed a 2018 government executive order that set a fine and prison sentence for the practice, and a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional and inconsistent with Islamic law. Some Muslim organizations, including the AIMPLB, and Muslim politicians, including MP Asaduddin Owaisi, criticized the new law. In October the AIMPLB filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the new law.
Using Aligarh Muslim University as an example, the government continued its 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions and their resulting independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In February the chief justice referred the challenge to a seven-judge panel for action.
Unlike in 2018, no state or local jurisdiction with an Islamic-origin name was renamed during the year.
In July 49 celebrities and activists wrote Prime Minister Modi a letter asking him to intervene to stop rising incidents of attacks on minorities, misuse of religion by Hindu hardliners, and intolerance against dissent in the country. News accounts suggested the letter was timed to imply that Hindu nationalist supporters of Modi’s BJP might feel emboldened by their electoral victory in May to increase actions against religious minorities. According to HRW, Bihar state authorities filed a sedition case against the writers of the letter in October. Following a public outcry, including by 180 celebrities and activists in addition to those who endorsed the July letter, the case was closed. By year’s end, there was no reaction from the government to the letter.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Hate Crime Watch, an initiative of media data project IndiaSpend, recorded a significant increase in overall religious identity-motivated hate crimes between 2014 and 2018. These included acts of communal violence, attacks on interfaith couples, and violence related to cow protection and religious conversions. According to Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related violence took place between 2010 and 2019 in which 50 percent of the victims were Muslim. AI’s “Halt the Hate” report recorded 181 hate crime incidents in the first half of 2019, 121 against Dalits, 40 against Muslims, and the remainder against Christians, indigenous peoples, and other groups. The AI report showed 100 hate crime incidents over the same period in 2018. The report included 37 cases of mob attacks against Muslims in the first half of the year, including five lynchings.
Uttar Pradesh accounted for 869 of 2,008 incidents of harassment against religious minorities and Dalits between 2016 and mid-2019, according to an analysis of National Human Rights Commission data conducted by the publication India Today. Most of them took place in Hindu-majority areas. According to the analysis, Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state with more than 200 million inhabitants, had more incidents than any other state, but such incidents had decreased in the last two years, from 42 cases in 2016-17 to 19 in 2018-19. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand comprised 75 percent of incidents recorded by the commission.
On February 6, the MHA presented data in the lower house of parliament showing a 9 percent increase in incidents of religious violence nationwide from 2015 to 2017 (the most recent government yearend statistics available). In 2017 there were 822 incidents, resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries.
According to news articles, on July 30, a 17-year-old male Muslim in the Chandauli District of Uttar Pradesh died from burn injuries after he was set on fire for not chanting “Jai Shri Ram.” Police denied that he was forced to chant the religious slogan, and the Chandauli superintendent of police said the victim gave inconsistent statements, that CCTV footage was inconsistent with his statements, and that a witness had seen the victim set himself on fire.
On April 10, according to media reports and the survivors, a group of Hindu individuals from a neighboring village attacked and killed tribal Christian Prakash Lakda of Jurmu Village in Jharkhand. Three other tribal Christians sustained severe injuries. The four men were reportedly attacked for butchering an ox.
On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital following the attack, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Villagers told the media that the attackers were affiliated with the Bajrang Dal. The police arrested five persons.
According to an Asia News report, on August 27, Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives in Jharkhand because she was a Dalit and the couple had converted to Christianity.
In February, according to a report from NGO Persecution.org, Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded. The report stated that his family believed local Hindus attacked him because of his conversion. Police stated they believed he was killed by Maoist rebels.
Persecution.org reported that on July 14, persons affiliated with what it described as Hindu radical groups seriously injured individuals from eight Christian families in an attack in Belchori Village in Jharkhand. The incident took place after the families reportedly refused to recant their faith.
On June 22 in New Delhi, Muslim cleric Maulana Momin reportedly was told to chant “Jai Shri Ram” by three Hindus in a car. When Momin refused and started to walk off, he was hit by the vehicle. Momin suffered injuries on his head, face, and hands. The police registered a criminal complaint and searched for the alleged assailants, but the investigation was pending at year’s end.
On April 7, according to an India Today report, attackers in Biswanath Chariali, Assam, beat 68-year-old Shaukat Ali, accusing him of selling beef. The crowd also reportedly forced Ali to eat pork. The police arrested one person.
On July 9, local media widely reported an incident involving a Muslim man from a Tamil Nadu village who posted a video of himself eating beef soup. After four young Hindu men living in the same village saw the video, they found the man and stabbed him. The assailants and the man who filmed the video were later arrested for “disturbing communal harmony.”
According to an Asia News report, in September a crowd of 500 persons armed with knives and clubs attacked a Jesuit-run school in Jharkhand, beating several students and injuring at least two severely. They also damaged the school to such an extent that the principal said he believed he would be unable to reopen it. The attackers were reportedly motivated by rumors of forced conversions. By year’s end, there were no reports of arrests or convictions in the case.
According to a Hindustan Times report, on June 6, a group of Muslims attacked Hindu worshipers in a temple in Rohanya, Uttar Pradesh. The report stated that the attackers arrived at the temple and asked worshipers to stop using the loudspeaker. They reportedly said that as the next day was Eid al-Fitr, the temple should stop broadcasting devotional songs. The report further said that after the worshipers refused, the Muslim group cut the loudspeaker wire, removed religious idols, and fought with the Hindu worshipers. Five of the attackers were arrested and faced criminal charges. Police returned the idols to the temple.
On July 17, according to police, 60 to 70 individuals attacked a madrassah and pulled down its boundary wall at Behta Village in Uttar Pradesh after beef was allegedly found in the vicinity. Police filed two criminal complaints, one against a person for cow slaughter and another against the persons who attacked the madrassah.
On August 14, a court in Rajasthan acquitted six individuals accused in the 2017 mob killing of Muslim cattle trader and dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Alwar, citing contradictions in the police investigation. On June 29, the police had charged Khan (posthumously) and his sons under the state’s cow protection laws. In September the government established a special unit to carry out a fresh investigation into the case and identify lapses made by the police. In October the Rajasthan state government challenged the verdict in the state high court, which dropped the charges against Khan and his sons.
During the year, police arrested and began the prosecution of 33 individuals for killing a police officer and setting fire to the Chingrawati police station in Uttar Pradesh during a cow vigilante incident in December 2018. Those arrested were part of a crowd protesting an incident of cow slaughter. The police charge sheet said the slain police officer had tried unsuccessfully to pacify the mob, which pelted the police with stones when the latter tried to use force against them. In the clash, one villager died of a bullet wound. As of August, seven of the 33 had been released on bail, and five suspects were still at large.
According to ADF India, the helpline of the United Christian Forum recorded more than 300 cases of mob violence against Christians of all denominations in the country during the year.
The NGO Persecution Relief reported 527 incidents of persecution against Christians in its 2019 annual report, compared with 477 in 2018. Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number – 109 – followed by 75 in Tamil Nadu and 32 in Karnataka. The NGO reported that the most common forms of persecution were “threats, harassment, and intimidation,” which accounted for 199 of 527 incidents. It also stated that the number of incidents during year was 60 percent higher than the number reported in 2016.
On August 18, members of Hindu Munnani, a Hindu nationalist organization, attacked 40 Christians near Vellore in Tamil Nadu, according to the GCIC. The Christian group was on a pilgrimage from Karnataka to the Marian shrine in Velankanni. The GCIC report stated that the attackers physically assaulted the pilgrims and destroyed their posters of Jesus and Mary. On August 19, the police identified six of the Hindu Munnani members, who were charged with rioting, attempted murder, and “disturbing religious peace,” although according to a law enforcement official, the police never placed the accused in custody to bring formal charges.
On February 2, according to media reports, police arrested three BJP party workers for assaulting a Christian pastor and two other persons in Ariyalur District of Tamil Nadu. The reports stated that the BJP members forced the three Christians to lie prostrate in a Hindu temple and smeared sacred ash and vermillion on their foreheads in accordance with Hindu temple practice before releasing them. The BJP party workers circulated a video of the incident on social media.
According to a report in the Indian Express, in Kanpur District in Uttar Pradesh on July 28, members of the VHP youth wing allegedly beat a pastor, accused him of attempting conversion and handed him over to the police. The pastor said he had neither been beaten nor had tried to convert anyone, and that he had been called to pray for a sick individual.
According to media reports, in the Ramamurthy Nagar neighborhood near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, approximately 30 Christian families were still being ostracized for their conversion from Hinduism decades ago. The reports stated that community members were denying the Christians access to public water sources, refusing to serve them in village shops, and were boycotting Christian-owned shops and stalls. Sixty lower caste Hindu families from the area converted to Christianity in the 1980s, with approximately one-half converting back in 2018, reportedly under pressure from Hindu Munnani.
On May 5, according to media reports, Hindus and Muslims threw stones at each other in Amberpet, Hyderabad after municipal authorities demolished a mosque to widen a road, which prompted a group of Muslims to attempt to erect a temporary structure at the same location. The police used batons on protestors and prevented BJP state lawmaker T. Raja Singh from visiting the location.
The 2019 Jehovah’s Witnesses annual report listed 41 incidents of harassment around the country from January through May, including 11 instances of mobs confronting Jehovah’s Witnesses and accusing them of forced conversion. The report included three cases of physical assault, with minor injuries. The report stated that in 18 of the 29 incidents reported to police, the members involved were initially detained and then released without incident. According to the report, a Jehovah’s Witness house of worship was broken into in February in Rourkela, Odisha. The members filed a report with the local police, but there was no follow-up by year’s end.
On August 18, a court in Pune court denied bail to two suspects arrested for the 2013 killing of Narendra Dabholkar, leader of the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (MANS), an anti-superstition movement.
On August 21, Mumbai police arrested three teenage boys after a Muslim motorist complained that they used religious slurs and had assaulted him in the Vikhroli neighborhood.
On August 24, police in Vadodara, Gujarat arrested three men after they assaulted a uniformed Muslim police official during his off-duty hours and reportedly insulted him regarding his faith following an interpersonal dispute.
In July four men were arrested for uploading a clip onto YouTube following complaints that it was a “hate song” targeting non-Hindus. The songwriter, Santosh Yadav, was among those arrested. Yadav denied that the song targeted anyone and said it was only meant to express his love for Hinduism. He blamed “anti-Ram” elements in the media for his arrest. The organizers of the YouTube channel removed the clip and apologized.
In August seven persons accused of involvement in an incident of communal violence that resulted in the 2018 killing of a police inspector in Bulandshahr District in Uttar Pradesh were welcomed by their supporters with patriotic slogans and flower garlands after being released on bail. All those accused of rioting were released, but none of the individuals arrested for murder were granted bail. The violence took place on December 3, 2018, after a cow carcass was found in a field in Bulandshahr, where thousands of Muslims had gathered for a religious event.
In a May 1 editorial, the official newspaper of the Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist party urged Prime Minister Modi to ban the burqa following Sri Lanka’s decision to do so in the wake of Easter bomb attacks in Colombo. According to media reports, following public protests from Muslim leaders, the Shiv Sena spokesperson later clarified that the editorial was not the party’s official line, and the BJP spokesperson added that under PM Modi’s leadership, “India is safe,” and that a ban on face coverings therefore was not required.
Several acts of vandalism and arson targeting Christian sites and symbols occurred during the year. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, 17 church buildings were attacked around the country, including in Belgaum District, Karnataka, where a group of men set fire to a church under construction on December 17. The NGO said the pastor filed a complaint with police, but a group returned on December 22 to finish burning the building. The police provided protection to the pastor and church members after the incident. According to NGO Open Doors, on January 9, Hindus tore down a church building in Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh, because it was built in a location “which violated Hindu principles of placement and positioning.”
On July 10, in New Delhi’s historic Old Delhi area, Muslims and Hindus joined for a public feast and to install a new idol in a Hindu temple that had been vandalized the prior week during a brief period of communal tensions. According to media, a significant police presence in the area helped calm tensions. A Muslim member of the community told the media, “We don’t support such things (communal violence) and want peace in the area.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year, representatives from the embassy and consulates met with government officials to discuss challenges faced by religious minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, incidents of cow vigilantism, the status of religious freedom in the country, and religiously motivated violence. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with members of parliament and politicians from the ruling and opposition parties to understand their positions on the CAA. They emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, to condemn communal rhetoric, and to ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. Representatives from the embassy and consulates also met with Muslim politicians, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith harmony leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities.
In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom raised concerns with senior government officials about violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In December the Ambassador at Large used social media to express concern about the implications of the CAA and the hope that the government would “abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religious freedom.”
In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts.
In October the Ambassador at Large met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups in New Delhi and raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anti-conversion laws, and communal violence. The Ambassador at Large also met with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, where he delivered remarks at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.
In July the Department of State senior bureau official for south and central Asian affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society interlocutors engaged in pursuing cases of religious persecution.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to discuss their concerns. In late May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties, at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and the need to demonstrate empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths.
In March the embassy hosted the dean of religious life of a U.S. university for a five-day outreach program on religious freedom. The dean traveled to New Delhi, Varanasi, and Lucknow and highlighted the importance of religious inclusion with representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, as well as youth leaders, intellectuals, students, and civil society groups. Discussions centered on challenges to religious reconciliation in the country’s northern areas, and also provided opportunities for members of different faiths to discuss their interests and concerns.
Embassy and consulate officers continued to meet with religious organizations, missionary communities, and NGOs of all religious backgrounds to discuss religious freedom; understand concerns related to an increase in attacks against religious minorities and the perceptions of diminishing space for religious freedom; and monitor cases involving reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy representatives specifically reached out to civil rights NGOs, media representatives reporting on minority affairs, interfaith harmony groups, Muslim religious leaders and Muslim politicians to understand their fears concerning the CAA and its likely impact on the Muslim population in the context of potential government plans to draft the National Register of Citizens. The embassy also organized roundtable discussions involving civil society representatives and visiting U.S. government officials on these subjects.
Embassy and consulate representatives continued to meet with the imam of the Jama Masjid, leaders of several other mosques, Hindu priests, and Christian and Catholic leaders, as well as with representatives of the India Islamic Cultural Center, the All India Imams’ Organization, the Parsi community, and Sikh leaders.
The embassy and consulates hosted celebrations marking major religious holidays, including Ramadan, Holi, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter, to bring together leaders from different religious groups and to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. In April the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted a Passover seder and discussed with representatives of principal faiths the need for promoting religious freedom and interfaith understanding.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the president, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.” The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as stoning and amputation of hands. In January the magistrate court in Naifaru sentenced a woman to death by stoning for extramarital sex using provisions in the law allowing for discretionary sharia sentences in cases of hudood offenses (serious crimes). The Supreme Court overturned the sentence within days. On September 10, the Maldives Police Service (MPS) arrested a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll under a court warrant for “criticizing Islam” on social media. On October 11, MPS questioned an unidentified woman in relation to “content that criticizes Islam being posted on a social media account.” On November 5, the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment (MYSCE) said it had informed the human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) that it was dissolving the group because its 2015 Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives had content contrary to Islamic law. On December 19, the ministry proceeded with official dissolution of the NGO. MDN subsequently removed the report and issued an apology. During the April parliamentary elections, some candidates belonging to the opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives and to the minority coalition partner Jumhooree Party accused the main coalition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of having an anti-Islamic agenda and staged rallies attacking the perceived “secularism” of their opponents. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.
NGOs stated that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to issue death threats against individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, labeling them “secularists” or “apostates” and calling for attacks against them. During an October rally, demonstrators on Angolhiteemu Island in Raa Atoll chanted for nonbelievers to be burned and for the leader of a prominent NGO to be killed. NGO representatives stated they continued to see a rise in what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, stating the government’s efforts to address this trend were insufficient.
There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and embassy staff represent U.S. interests there. In meetings with government officials, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to investigate threats against individuals targeted as “secularists” or “apostates,” to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 392,000 (midyear 2019). The government estimates there are an additional 200,000 documented and an additional 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. While the vast majority of citizens follow Sunni Islam, there are no reliable estimates of actual religious affiliations. Foreign workers are predominantly Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates Islam as the state religion, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings. It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam. According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.
The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” In deciding on whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must consider the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.
The constitution makes no mention of freedom of religion. Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis for discrimination. The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenets of Islam.”
The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion. By law, a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence. Although the law does not stipulate such punishment, sharia jurisprudence is often understood to provide for the death penalty in cases of conversion from Islam (i.e., apostasy).
The law states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.” Any statement or action found to be contrary to this objective is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, disrupting religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society. According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.
Laws criminalize speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam.” According to the law, a person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by “engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing ‘idols of worship’; and/or attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause ‘religious segregation.’” Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.
By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA. Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization. To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies from a university recognized by the government, and not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court. The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate. Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination, discourage access to education or health services in the name of Islam, or demean the character of and/or create hatred toward persons of any other religion. The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions. Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300). The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.
Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison or house arrest. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty. If the offender is a foreigner, authorities may revoke the individual’s license to preach in the country and deport the individual.
By law, mosques and prayer houses remain under the control of the MIA. The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.
The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.” By law, those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300), and deportation.
By law, a female citizen may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A male citizen may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.
The law prohibits importation of any items the MIA deems contrary to Islam, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials. Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment. It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages to foreigners on resort islands. Individuals must request permission to import restricted goods from the Ministry of Economic Development.
The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools. By law, educators who teach Islamic studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government. By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic studies may receive authorization to do so only if they subscribe to Sunni Islam. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. The curriculum incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices. In practice, foreign non-Islamic children may be allowed to opt out of studying Islam.
The constitution states Islam forms one basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.” The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law.
The penal code prescribes flogging for unlawful sexual intercourse (adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations), incest, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, failing to fast during Ramadan, or (for Maldivian citizens only) consuming pork or alcohol. Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for hudood listed in the Quran and qisas (retaliatory) offenses – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt. The penal code requires all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to hudood and qisas offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.
The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters. The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms. The president names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives. The minister of Islamic affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to the president’s approval.
The constitution stipulates the president, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.”
In January the magistrate court in Naifaru Island sentenced a woman to death by stoning for extramarital sex using provisions in the law allowing for discretionary sharia sentences in cases of hudood offenses. The Supreme Court overturned the sentence within days, judging the lower court had violated the legal provision under which prosecutors charged the defendant, and the woman remained free at year’s end. The government reported three adults and two children were sentenced to flogging but did not always impose other sharia penalties for hudood and qisas offenses, despite having the legal authority to do so.
On September 10, MPS arrested a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll under a court warrant for “criticizing Islam” on social media. The man posted about holding “irreligious discussions” with the youth on his island a day earlier and his intentions to plan rallies encouraging secularism. On September 9, the man had tweeted about filing a report with MPS after receiving death threats online. On September 11, MPS told media it was separately investigating the death threats against the man. On September 11, the criminal court authorized MPS to detain him for 15 days, but no charges were filed by year’s end.
On December 18, MPS and the Maldives National Defense Force launched a joint operation on Maduvvari Island in Raa Atoll to investigate allegations a religious group was depriving women and children of health care and education and was conducting illegal “child marriages.” According to media reports, MPS identified five children whose parents refused to vaccinate them on religious grounds, preventing them from attending local schools. The parents of four of these children agreed to vaccination during the operation, and the government took no adverse action against them. MPS arrested one set of parents and placed their child in the custody of a family member for continued refusal to vaccinate the child or send the child to school.
On October 11, MPS questioned a woman not identified by local media in relation to “content that criticizes Islam being posted on a social media account.” No charges were filed by year’s end.
A 2017 legal challenge to the constitutionality of a ban on the niqab for civil servants filed by Jamiyyatul Salaf, a local religious NGO, was still pending at year’s end.
On November 5, the MYSCE said it informed MDN that it was dissolving the organization because the group’s 2015 Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives had content contrary to Islam, and on December 19, the ministry proceeded with official dissolution of the NGO. MDN called on the government to reverse this decision. MDN subsequently removed the report and issued an apology. MDN’s executive director Shahindha Ismail said that, in making the decision to dissolve the NGO, the government had yielded to the demands of “religious extremists.” The report explored institutional practices such as teaching of Islam, enforcement of laws, public awareness and education, social media, and the work of religious organizations. In its initial decision suspending MDN’s activities, the MYSCE cited the relevant article of the Associations Regulation, which prohibits establishment of an association for the purpose of “conflicting with the principles of Islam, or disregarding Islamic religion, or rebuking or undervaluing religious harmony of the country, or expressing or propagating the thinking and beliefs of any another religion other than Islamic religion.” Government authorities investigated MDN at the request of the MIA following an online campaign led by religious scholars calling for the government to ban MDN. State Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Ilyas Jamal said the report was “very dark and dangerous” and that it was aimed at introducing secularism and removing Islamic principles from the state and education sector. In an October 7 statement on the MDN report, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said “any attempts to tarnish the name of Islam… will not be permitted” and called on the public to “conform to holy directives and principles of Islam.”
On October 23, police arrested Mohamad Ameen on suspicion of spreading an “extremist ideology.” Authorities alleged that Ameen was serving as a local recruiter for ISIS.
The trial of seven men for the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed, a critic of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism, remained pending at year’s end.
In September the Presidential Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances reported that Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist abducted in 2014, was killed by “radical Islamists.” The commission’s head, Husnu Suood, stated Rilwan, a critic of the then government and radical Islam, had been threatened by foreign jihadi groups on several occasions prior to his death.
In January MPS announced it was “meeting with” individuals posting online content that “disrupts public unity and peace” and those responding to such content “with verbal attacks that encourage violence and hatred.” According to an MPS public statement and media reports, MPS questioned former member of parliament Ibrahim Rasheed to “clarify information” after he received online death threats following a report from a news website stating one of his tweets “insulted Prophet Mohamed”; independent reporter Aishath Aniya, who received death threats online for criticizing the design of a new mosque in Male; Mohamed Siruhan, who allegedly operated a Facebook page profiling citizens whom the page stated were apostates; and religious scholar Sheikh Ali Zaid. The latter two criticized Rasheed and Aniya over posts they said “insulted Islam.” MPS officials reported they advised and cautioned the individuals against posting content that disrupts public unity and encourages violence and hatred but took no further action.
Victims of online harassment and threats said they felt vulnerable because of the lack of police responsiveness to their complaints and because similar occurrences preceded the 2014 disappearance and killing of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed.
During the April parliamentary elections, some candidates belonging to the opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives and to the ruling coalition’s Jumhooree Party accused the MDP, the main party in the government coalition, of having an anti-Islamic agenda and staged rallies attacking perceived “secularism” of their opponents. In a March 25 campaign speech, Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim said if the MDP won a majority in parliament, the government would “build churches here, build temples. People of other religions will have the opportunity to live in the Maldives. Then we will be forced to wage war.” An MDP representative said Ibrahim’s statements were “ridiculous.”
The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) continued to maintain an unpublished blacklist of websites containing material it deemed un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. The CAM stated it did not proactively monitor internet content but instead relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites violating laws against criticism or defamation of Islam. Police reported investigating one website for un-Islamic content but did not file charges. In September Facebook removed a page at the request of Ministry of Science, Communication, and Technology officials who argued the page “mocked Islam” and posed a threat to public order and societal harmony.
The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government maintained its ownership and control of all mosques, including their maintenance and funding. The government continued to permit private donors to fund mosques as well.
According to the MIA, foreign residents, such as teachers, laborers, and tourists, remained free to worship as they wished in private, but congregating in public for non-Islamic prayer remained illegal, as was encouraging local citizens to participate in such activities.
Customs authorities said the MIA continued to permit the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The MIA also continued to allow some religious literature for scholarly research. The ministry continued to restrict the sale of religious items, including Christmas cards, to resort islands patronized by foreign tourists. In August the customs service confiscated 247 books from a public book fair in Male organized by a private bookshop for content that “violated the principles of Islam” but did not file charges. Customs officials reported 18 cases involving importation of religious idols, statues, and Christian crosses during the year. Authorities confiscated these items but did not press charges.
The MIA continued to conduct what it termed “awareness programs” through radio and television broadcasts in Male and on various islands to give citizens information on Islam, and it continued to provide assistance and counseling to foreigners seeking to convert to Islam. The ministry, in partnership with religious NGOs, continued to send imams to outer atolls to conduct workshops for students, youth, and others in schools and government buildings for the stated purpose of strengthening the islanders’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.
The National Institute of Education continued to implement a curriculum for public and private schools incorporating Islam into all subject areas. According to NGOs, passages in some textbooks portrayed democracy as being anti-Islam, encouraged anti-Semitism and xenophobia, glorified jihad, and demonized the West. The MIA continued to permit foreign individuals to opt out of Islamic instruction as a stand-alone subject. The MIA continued to permit foreigners to raise their children to follow any religious teaching they wished, but only in private.
Observers reported the Family Court continued in some instances to refuse to register children if one of the parents was a non-Muslim. Although the law allows the marriage of Muslim men to Christian or Jewish women, the court reportedly argued citizens could neither marry non-Muslims nor have children with them. Children not registered were unable to obtain birth certificates or identity cards, which are required for admittance to schools or for accessing government services. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported intervening in such cases to ensure admittance to schools and government services despite the lack of documentation.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs reported that persistent online and in-person threats against individuals perceived to be insufficiently Muslim effectively foreclosed the possibility of meaningful discussion on religious issues in the country. NGOs reported an increase in online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam since January with little action from authorities.
NGOs reported increasing instances of individuals deemed “secularists” or “apostates” receiving death threats, being cyberbullied, and being followed on the street by individuals with records as criminal gang members. In January MPS launched an investigation into hate speech and death threats after “Murtad Watch” (Apostate Watch), a public channel on the social media application Telegram, compiled a list and profiled citizens deemed to be “apostates,” arguing the sharia penalty for apostasy is death. MPS did not publicize findings of this investigation by year’s end. Days later, President Solih established a ministerial committee chaired by the vice president and directed it “to find a solution to the uprising issue on [sic] religious criticism targeted to [sic] Islamic faith.” MDN reported its staff received anonymous death threats and were the targets of hostile surveillance. During an October rally calling for the government to ban MDN, demonstrators in Angolhitheemu Island in Raa Atoll chanted for nonbelievers to be burned and for MDN executive director Shahindha Ismail to be killed.
NGOs reported continued community pressure on women to wear hijabs and harassment of women who chose not to do so.
In January unknown individuals vandalized the main door of private Mandhu College and issued online threats after its chairman questioned whether the January stoning sentence of a woman for extramarital sex was justified under sharia.
Media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion. Media reported higher levels of self-censorship in reporting on religion due to concerns about societal harassment and threats. Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from possible punitive actions or harassment. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment from being labeled “anti-Islamic.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is accredited to the country, as are all of the embassy’s staff, who visit regularly. The embassy also maintained an American Center in Male. In meetings throughout the year, embassy officials continued to encourage the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, to ease restrictions preventing individuals other than Sunni Muslims from practicing their religions freely, and to prioritize investigations into threats against individuals targeted for their perceived “secular” viewpoints. Embassy officials expressed concern regarding the dissolution of human rights NGO MDN and persistent societal harassment and threats against MDN members and other individuals.
The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure, allowing them some measure of self-governance and to practice their own particular “uses and customs.” The General Directorate for Religious Associations (DGAR) within the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups. During the year, DGAR investigated seven cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with 11 in 2018. Government officials again stated that the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not targeted attacks based on religious faith. The press reported representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments worked with members of an indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas State, to resolve a conflict that began in 2018 and led to the expulsion of evangelical Protestant families from the town for practicing a religion other than Roman Catholicism and refusing to support traditional cultural events. Under terms of a signed agreement, members of the displaced families returned but lived in a separate community. According to DGAR, 182 new religious associations were registered during the year, of which 28 were Catholic and 154 represented other groups, primarily evangelical Pentecostals.
Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Killings and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported the killings of five religious leaders and the kidnapping of three others by unidentified individuals. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified Mexico as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 11th year in a row, stating it was a reflection of the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups targeted Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to CSW, the 28 families whom local authorities expelled from Yashtinin, Chiapas State, in 2015 were still unable to return home because they refused to participate in traditional indigenous cultural events. According to the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED), non-Catholics and atheists were most likely to face discrimination in education, health, and at the workplace. The report found religious minorities tended to have slightly lower than average rates of school attendance, labor contracts, and access to medical benefits. Individuals identifying with these groups said they also had a slightly higher rate of illiteracy compared with the national average.
U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government counterparts, religious organizations, and NGOs throughout the country to discuss concerns about violence toward religious leaders, as well as reports of discrimination toward religious minorities in some communities. Embassy officials met with members of religious groups and NGOs to gather details about specific cases, including the Cuamontax Huazalingo Protestant community in Hidalgo State.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 127.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 83 percent identify as Catholic, 5 percent evangelical Protestant, 1.6 percent Pentecostal, 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 0.5 percent Jewish. Other religious groups include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Muslims. More than 2 percent of the population report practicing a religion not otherwise specified, and nearly 5 percent report not practicing any religion. Some indigenous persons adhere to syncretic religions drawing from indigenous beliefs.
Official statistics based on self-identification during the 2010 census sometimes differ from the membership figures stated by religious groups. Approximately 315,000 individuals identified themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Church of Jesus Christ officials, however, state their membership is approximately 1.3 million. There are large Protestant communities in the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco. In Chiapas, evangelical Protestant leaders state nearly half of the state’s 2.4 million inhabitants are members of evangelical groups, including Seventh-day Adventists; however, fewer than 5 percent of 2010 census respondents in Chiapas identified themselves as evangelical Protestant.
According to the 2010 census, the Jewish community totals approximately 67,500 persons, of whom nearly 42,000 live in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to SEGOB, nearly half of the country’s approximately 4,000 Muslims are concentrated in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to a 2017 Pew Foundation study, the Muslim community numbers fewer than 10,000 persons. There is also an Ahmadi Muslim population of several hundred living in Chiapas State, most of whom are converts of ethnic Tzotzil Maya origin. There are also small indigenous communities of Baha’is that number in the hundreds. An estimated half of the country’s approximately 100,000 Mennonites are concentrated in the state of Chihuahua.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states all persons have the right to follow or adopt the religion of their choosing, or not to follow a religion. This freedom includes the right to participate individually or collectively, both in public and in private, in ceremonies, devotions, and acts of worship if they do not constitute an offense otherwise prohibited by law. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Secularism is mentioned in three other articles, including one dedicated to education. Philosophical freedoms of conscience and religion receive equal treatment by the state. Congress may not dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion. Religious acts of public worship should be held in places of worship. Individuals who conduct religious ceremonies outside of places of worship, which requires a permit, are subject to regulatory law. Active clergy may not hold public office, advocate partisan political views, support political candidates, or publicly oppose the laws or institutions of the state.
To establish a religious association, applicants must certify the church or other religious group observes, practices, propagates, or instructs a religious doctrine or body of religious beliefs; has conducted religious activities in the country for at least five years; has established domicile in the country; and shows sufficient assets to achieve its purpose. Registered associations may freely organize their internal structures and adopt bylaws or rules pertaining to their governance and operations, including the training and appointment of their clergy. They may engage in public worship and celebrate acts for the fulfillment of the association’s purpose lawfully and without profit. They may propagate their doctrine in accordance with applicable regulations and participate in the creation, management, maintenance, and operation of private welfare, educational, and health institutions, provided the institutions are not for profit.
Religious groups are not required to register with DGAR to operate. Registration is required to negotiate contracts, purchase or rent land, apply for official building permits, receive tax exemptions, or hold religious meetings outside of customary places of worship. Religious groups must apply for permits to construct new buildings or convert existing buildings into places of worship. Any religious building constructed after January 27, 1992, is the property of the religious group that built it and is subject to relevant taxes. All religious buildings erected before then are considered part of the national patrimony and owned by the state.
Religious associations must notify the government of their intention to hold a religious meeting outside their licensed place or places of worship. Religious associations may not hold political meetings of any kind or own or operate radio or television stations. Government permission is required for commercial radio or television to transmit religious programming.
The federal government coordinates religious affairs through SEGOB. Within SEGOB, DGAR promotes religious tolerance, conducts conflict mediation, and investigates cases of religious intolerance. If a party presents a dispute based on allegations of religious intolerance, DGAR may mediate a solution. Each of the 32 states has offices responsible for religious affairs. CONAPRED is an autonomous federal agency responsible for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, including for minority religious groups.
The law provides prisoners dignified and equal treatment from prison staff without distinction based on religious preferences.
The constitution requires that public education be secular and not include religious doctrine. Religious groups may operate private schools that teach religion and hold religious ceremonies at their schools. Private schools affiliated with a religious group are open to all students regardless of their religious beliefs. Students in private schools are exempt from participating in religious courses and activities if the students are not affiliated with the school’s religious group. Homeschooling is allowed at the secondary level after completion of schooling at an accredited primary school.
A visa category exists for foreign clergy and religious associates to obtain a temporary resident visa or visitor visa without permission to perform paid religious activities.
The constitution recognizes the right of indigenous communities to autonomy and codifies their right to use their own legal systems for the resolution of conflicts within their communities, while respecting human rights as defined in the constitution and the international treaties to which the country is a signatory. The constitution also protects the right of indigenous leaders to practice their own “uses and customs.” This right of self-governance for indigenous communities sometimes conflicts with other rights provided by the constitution, including freedom of religion, for members of those communities.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It claims both an interpretative statement and a reservation relating to freedom of religion in the covenant. Article 18 of the ICCPR states that countries may limit religious freedom only when it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The country’s interpretative statement states that religious acts must be performed in places of worship unless granted prior permission and that the education of religious ministers is not officially recognized.
DGAR continued to work with state and local officials to mediate conflicts involving religious intolerance. DGAR investigated seven cases related to religious freedom at the federal level during the year, compared with 11 in 2018. Most of these cases involved religious minorities, generally families, who stated members of the majority religious community where they lived had deprived them of their rights and basic services, including water and electricity. At year’s end, all of the cases were pending; three were from Hidalgo State, one from Guerrero State, one from Puebla State, one from Chiapas State, and one from Mexico State. According to DGAR, most incidents of religious discrimination should have been filed with the state government because the federal government did not have jurisdiction. Municipal and state officials commonly mediated disputes between religious groups. Some groups again said officials rarely pursued legal punishments against offending local leaders, preferring instead to reach informal mediated solutions. According to CSW, informal mediated solutions rarely led to change in the status quo. For example, Protestants in the community of Cuamontax, Hidalgo State, signed a conflict resolution agreement in February mandating their participation in, and financial contribution to, Catholic festivals. The groups continued to report there were insufficient resources devoted to federal and state agencies that work on religious freedom.
According to press reports, local authorities expelled an indigenous family of 10 from their village of Tajlovijho, Chiapas State, in August after the family converted to evangelical Protestantism.
Representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments worked with members of an indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas State, to resolve a conflict that began in 2018 between community members and evangelical Protestant families, who were expelled from the village for practicing a religion other than Catholicism. Under terms of a signed agreement, members of the displaced families returned but lived isolated from the main community.
In April CSW published follow-up reporting on a case that began in 2012 in the community of Yashtinin, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas State. In 2012 village authorities detained 16 individuals and then expelled them from the community for converting from Catholicism to evangelical Protestantism. By 2015, 28 families had been forced to leave Yashtinin for their religious beliefs. During the year, CSW representatives met with some of the displaced persons and found that although authorities were notified of the situation and promised recourse, the individuals still were not allowed to return.
As of November 7, there were 9,464 religious associations registered by DGAR, compared with 9,416 in 2018, an increase of 48. Registered groups included 9,421 Christian (an increase of 315 from 2018), 12 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, three Islamic, two Hindu, and two International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups. Baha’is and Ahmadi Muslims remained unregistered. According to DGAR, 182 new religious associations were registered during the year, of which 28 were Catholic and 154 representing other groups, primarily evangelical Pentecostals. The total number of associations was only 48 higher than 2018 because some previously registered groups removed themselves.
NGOs and some religious organizations continued to state that several rural and indigenous communities expected residents, regardless of their faith, to participate in and fund traditional community religious gatherings, and in some cases adhere to the majority religion. Local authorities detained 12 evangelical Christians in April in the community of Chiquinivalvo, located in the municipality of Zinacantan, Chiapas State, for refusing to participate in a Catholic celebration. Authorities released the detainees after federal government intervention with the Zinacantan City Council. When the detainees returned home following their release, local authorities had disconnected their water and electricity.
According to DGAR, the federal government continued to promote dialogue with religious actors with the stated goal of ensuring the exercise of religious freedom and resolving conflicts involving religious intolerance. On September 20, SEGOB launched the “National Strategy for the Promotion of Respect and Tolerance of Religious Diversity: We Create Peace.” Government officials emphasized the separation of church and state would not be impacted by the new strategy. According to Jorge Lee Galindo, deputy director general in SEGOB’s Religious Issues Office, the strategy was a concerted effort by elements of the government to work together to promote religious freedom. It comprises three pillars focused on raising awareness about the country’s religious diversity; improving dialogue among religious groups; and creating networks at the state and municipal levels dedicated to religious freedom. Actions included convening roundtables and workshops and implementing courses for state-level officials and elementary school students about religious freedom issues.
In May the Commission for Human Rights in Mexico City held the “First Gathering for Cultural Diversity,” which focused on religious diversity. Present at the event were representatives from CONAPRED, the federal Council to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination in Mexico City, and the federal Department of Education. During the event, CONAPRED President Alexandra Haas Pacuic acknowledged religious minorities in the country faced prejudice and barriers, including at institutional levels. She also identified religion as one of the main causes of discrimination in the country, particularly in public settings, public transportation, school, and work. Haas Pacuic further noted discrimination based on religion often intersected with other forms of discrimination, including racial and ethnic, and that religious disputes were also commonly related to disputes over natural resources or political issues. Representatives from Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Lutheran, Muslim, and Sikh religious groups participated in the meeting.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. The CMC identified Mexico as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 11th year in a row. According to some NGOs and media reports, organized crime groups continued to target Catholic priests and other religious leaders and subject them to killings, extortion attempts, death threats, kidnappings, and intimidation, reportedly due to their perceived access to financial resources or their work helping migrants. Federal government officials and Catholic Church authorities stated these incidents were not a result of targeting for religious beliefs, but rather, incidents related to the overall security situation and crime. Some NGOs stated they believed criminals targeted Catholic priests because communities viewed them as moral authority figures.
According to press reports in June, attackers shot and killed Pastor Aaron Bosques Montes of the Roma Christian Church in Cuernavaca, Morelos State. Bosques Montes reportedly resisted extortion attempts by a criminal group and evaded an attempted kidnapping by the same group. The pastor had filed a formal complaint against local gang leaders, the Ortega Velez brothers, with the Attorney General’s Office, the contents of which were allegedly leaked.
According to CSW, an assailant killed Pastor Alfrery Lictor Cruz Canseco in his car after an August 19 church service in Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Oaxaca State. Members of the congregation detained the attacker, who was subsequently arrested by authorities, but a possible motive for the crime was not made public. Media sites suggested the attack could be related to criminal groups perceiving religious leaders as threats to their authority.
According to media reports and an official statement released by the Diocese of Matamoros, on August 22, Catholic priest Jose Martin Guzman Vega was found stabbed to death inside his parish, Cristo Rey de La Paz, on the outskirts of Matamoros, Tamaulipas State. Neighbors said they heard cries for help and found the priest near the church’s entrance. The Tamaulipas State Attorney General’s Office was investigating the killing but made no arrests by year’s end.
In November nine members of families belonging to an offshoot Mormon group associated with the Church of Jesus Christ and living in Rancho La Mora, Sonora State, were ambushed and killed by individuals associated with a drug cartel. According to Mexican and FBI investigations of the killings, the motive of the killers was not related to the victims’ faith or membership in a religious group, because neither the individuals nor the Mormon group were the intended targets.
CSW expressed particular concern about religious freedom violations in Hidalgo State because of continuing problems related to displacements of minority religious groups and lack of progress in addressing these displacements. In September attackers killed evangelical Protestant Pastor Omar Romero Cruz and another person in Ixmiquilpan, San Miguel, Hidalgo State. CSW reported the assailants were believed to be members of organized crime, but authorities reported they had not established a motive, and the investigation continued through year’s end. CSW reported that on August 3, a criminal group that had previously attempted to kidnap Cuban migrants for ransom abducted evangelical Pastor Aaron Mendez Ruiz, director of a migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas State. Media outlets stated the Cartel del Noreste (Northeast Cartel) was responsible for the kidnapping. At year’s end, the pastor’s whereabouts remained unknown. Media outlets and social media accounts reported the same cartel was responsible for the disappearance of Pastor Ricardo Alcaraz in Nuevo Laredo on September 15. He had not been released or found by year’s end.
Jewish community representatives said they conducted an assessment of online anti-Semitic messages, symbols, and language from January through June, finding that Twitter accounted for 87.1 percent, news sources 8.5 percent, online forums 3.5 percent, and blogs 0.9 percent. The representatives said the number of anti-Semitic attacks was approximately the same as in 2018. Anti-Semitic tweets typically referenced the Holocaust and Hitler, along with other derogatory language.
Religions for Peace, an interreligious working group, continued to be active in the country, conducting interfaith roundtables and outreach events. Member groups included the Jewish Communities of Mexico, Buddhist Community of Mexico, Sufi Yerrahi Community of Mexico, Sikh Dharma Community of Mexico, Anglican Church, Lutheran Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised these issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. U.S. officials raised concerns regarding the continued killings of Catholic priests and abuses against religious minorities, especially evangelical Protestants, by religious majority groups and local authorities.
The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to highlight the importance of the issue and reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
The embassy posted multiple times on social media using the hashtag #LibertadReligiosa (Freedom of Religion), including posts by the former ambassador on Rosh Hashannah, Hanukkah, and Virgen de Guadalupe holidays.
Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, Tribuna Israelita, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers working on humanitarian issues, assess the status of religious freedom, and express support for religious tolerance.
The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and bans religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. The law prohibits both proselytism and “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally. Officials arrested and deported or threatened to deport several foreign individuals for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity, including, for the first time, two U.S. citizens in separate incidents. Police arrested five Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year for proselytizing, eventually deported two, and released two on bail who were awaiting trial at year’s end. In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate most Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but prohibited the private celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday and continued to drastically curtail their ability to hold public celebrations. During the year, police surveillance of Tibetans markedly increased. Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the emphasis the Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) placed on reestablishing the country as a Hindu state. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs. The government again did not recognize Christmas as a public holiday as it had previously, but recognized some other religious minority holidays and allowed Muslims a holiday for Eid al-Adha. Christian and Muslim groups said they continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.
As of year’s end, charges against 28 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim interreligious clashes in 2016, during which two persons in the Banke District were killed, remained pending. Muslim leaders again expressed disappointment at the district court’s decision to set the arrested individuals’ bail at a low amount. In September police dispersed a clash between Shia Muslims commemorating Muharram and local Hindus in Rajpur. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other high-caste individuals continued to prevent persons of lower castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites. 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.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador, U.S. embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code, including the continued criminalization of converting others and proselytizing. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against “forced or induced” conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. 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 outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the most recent, Hindus constitute 81.3 percent of the population, Buddhists 9 percent, Muslims (the vast majority of whom are Sunni) 4.4 percent, and Christians (a large majority Protestant and a minority Roman Catholic) 1.4 percent. Other groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Kirats (an indigenous religion with Hindu influence), animists, adherents of Bon (a Tibetan religious tradition), Jains, Baha’is, and Sikhs. According to some Muslim leaders, Muslims constitute at least 5.5 percent of the population, mostly concentrated in the south. According to some Christian groups, Christians constitute 3 to 10 percent of the population. Many individuals adhere to a syncretic faith encompassing elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional folk practices, according to scholars.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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.
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.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 29 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals. Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets stated that four Christians were tortured or mistreated by police in August and September, resulting in the death of one of them. On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 judgment overturning the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7, after death threats made it unsafe for her to remain. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who had spent 18 years in prison for blasphemy. On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to state they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies used to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of the perpetrators, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. In some cases of alleged kidnapping and forced conversions of young religious minority women, however, government authorities intervened to protect the alleged victim and ascertain her will. On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, along with a visa-free transit corridor for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, which resulted in very few religious minority applicants competing and qualifying for private and civil service employment.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. On April 12, a bomb attack in Quetta, Balochistan, targeting Shia Hazaras killed 21 persons, including eight Hazaras. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Islamic State (ISIS) each claimed responsibility. 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. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays, and no religious festival was disrupted by violence for the second year in a row.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was an increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There also continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this responsibility being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Senior Department of State officials , including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, Charge d’Affaires, Consuls General, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, the minister for religious affairs, and officials from these ministries to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. 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 “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly 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 I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 210.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017, 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom national law does not recognize as Muslim), Hindus, Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants, among others, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalash, Kihals, and Jains.
Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population and Shia, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.
According to the 2017 provisional census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.59 percent Christian, 0.22 percent Ahmadi, and 0.32 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Parsis. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws accord Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of minority religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against minorities. Religious minorities reported government officials and police often sided with religious majorities and did not prevent harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. On Easter Sunday, April 21, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks on three churches and four luxury hotels, killing more than 250 civilians and injuring more than 500. In the aftermath, the government banned three organizations it labeled Muslim extremists, including NTJ, and temporarily banned face coverings. Although the government deployed security forces and police to control subsequent anti-Muslim violence, Muslim religious and civil society leaders reported some police stood idly by while attacks occurred. On May 12-13, mobs led by Buddhist monks and encouraged online by Sinhalese nationalist politicians from small parties affiliated with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party attacked and vandalized mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and Puttalam Districts, resulting in the death of one Muslim man and extensive property damage. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found, “Mobs appear to have had a free hand to engage in the destruction of mosques” in several Northwestern Province towns, as well as in destruction of Muslim homes, businesses and vehicles. These attacks started to subside in May. NGOs reported in April police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks said a short story he published had insulted Buddhism. Religious rights groups reported police continued to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing government regulations, which legal scholars said did not apply. Media reports stated police and military personnel were complicit in allowing Buddhists to build religious structures on Hindu sites.
During the year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 94 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services, compared with 88 in 2018. According to NCEASL, on September 21, a group of approximately 10 villagers assaulted six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while on their way to church. Five individuals were hospitalized. According to civil society groups, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to media, on May 15, Gnanasara Thero, a senior Buddhist monk, called for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate. Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force), used social media to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities. Media reports said some Muslim businesses were failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the U.S. Ambassador issued a statement condemning the attacks and urging the country’s citizens to remain unified. Embassy officials repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and hosted a national Youth Forum workshop in November, bringing together religiously diverse youth from across the country. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2012 national census lists the population as 70.2 percent Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.4 percent Christian. According to census data, the Theravada Buddhist community, which comprises nearly all the country’s Buddhists, is a majority in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, and Western Provinces.
Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Tamils, mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority, constitute the majority in the Northern Province and constitute the second largest group, after Muslims, in the Eastern Province. Most Muslims self-identify as a separate ethnic group, rather than as Tamil or Sinhalese. When a woman of any religion marries a Muslim, she must convert to Islam and is identified as Muslim. Tamils of Indian origin, who are mostly Hindu, have a large presence in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces. Muslims form a plurality in the Eastern Province, and there are sizable Muslim populations in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Uva, and Western Provinces. Christians reside throughout the country but have a larger presence in the Eastern, Northern, Northwestern, and Western Provinces, and a smaller presence in Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces.
Most Muslims are Sunni, with small Sufi, Ahmadi, and Shia, including Dawoodi Bohra, minorities. An estimated 82 percent of Christians are Roman Catholic. Other Christian groups include Church of Ceylon (Anglicans), the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Baptists, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christian evangelical and nondenominational Protestant groups have grown in recent years, although there are no reliable estimates of their numbers. According to the government, membership remains low compared with the larger Christian community. There is a small Jewish population living in different parts of the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including the freedom to choose a religion. The constitution gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, both in public and in private. The constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and requires the government to protect it, although it does not recognize it as the state religion. According to a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, the state is constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism, and other religions do not have the same right to state protection. The same ruling also holds that no fundamental right to proselytize exists or is protected under the constitution. In 2017 the Supreme Court determined the right to propagate one’s religion is not protected by the constitution.
The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. There is no registration requirement for central religious bodies of these four groups. New religious groups, including groups affiliated with the four recognized religions, must register with the government to obtain approval to construct new places of worship, sponsor religious worker (missionary) visas/immigration permits, operate schools, and apply for subsidies for religious education. Religious organizations may also seek incorporation by an act of parliament, which requires a simple majority and affords religious groups state recognition.
The government adheres to a 2008 ministerial circular, introduced by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana (the cabinet ministry responsible for oversight of what the constitution describes as the country’s foremost religion, Theravada Buddhism), requiring all groups, regardless of their religion, to receive permission from the ministry to register and construct new places of worship. A 2017 Supreme Court ruling upholds the registration requirements. In 2018 the Ministry of Buddha Sasana ruled that the 2008 circular on registration and construction of religious facilities only applied to Buddhist religious sites.
Specific government ministers are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community. Departmental and ministerial assignments are based on the religion of the respective incumbent minister and change when a new minister of a different faith takes office – a customary political tradition that has spanned the past several governments.
Religion is a compulsory subject at primary and secondary levels in public and private schools. Parents may elect to have their children study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity, provided enough demand (at least 15 students) exists within the school for the chosen subject. Students may not opt out of religious instruction even if instruction in their religion of choice is not available, or if they do not choose any religion. All schools, including private schools founded by religious organizations, teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus must use the Ministry of Education curriculum on religion, which covers the four main religions and is compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level exams (equivalent to U.S. grade 10). International schools not following the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus are not required to teach religious studies.
Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and property inheritance, are adjudicated either under customary law of the ethnic or religious group in question or under the country’s civil law. According to the 1951 Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Islamic personal law governs marriages and divorces of Muslims, while civil law applies to most property rights. According to civil society groups in the Northern Province, civil law governs marriages, while the Thesawalamai (Hindu) customary law often governs the division of property. Similarly, civil society activists report that for Sinhalese, Kandyian personal law governs civil matters, such as inheritance issues, and works within the caste system. Civil law governs most marriages of Sinhalese and Tamils of various religions, including mixed marriages or those of individuals who state no religious affiliation. Religious community members report practices vary by region, and numerous exceptions exist.
The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage, permitting Islamic religious court judges to allow children as young as 12 to be married. Written consent from the bride is not required. The religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration do not have to take place concurrently, which can complicate divorce and child support cases.
There is no national law regulating ritual animal sacrifice, but there are laws prohibiting animal cruelty, used to prevent religious ceremonies involving animal sacrifice.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The country’s ICCPR Act, which is designed to incorporate the international covenant into domestic law, criminalizes propagating or advocating religious or racial hatred. Punishments range from fines to up to 10 years imprisonment.
On Easter Sunday, April 21, the NTJ, a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks targeting Easter Sunday services attendees at three churches and patrons of four luxury hotels that cater to foreign tourists. According to the government, more than 250 civilians were killed and more than 500 were injured.
On April 22, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency, during which it banned face coverings, such as the burqa and niqab, citing national security and public safety. It also banned three Islamist organizations described by the government as extremist: NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The state of emergency expired on August 22, but the government continued to ban the three Islamist groups under the Prevention of Terrorism. The ban on face coverings lapsed with the end of the state of emergency.
In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, media reported several days of mob violence occurred in towns primarily across Northwestern Province; mosques and Muslim-owned homes and businesses were attacked. One man was killed with a sword. Through emergency regulation, the government restricted access to social media and deployed police and security forces to prevent anti-Muslim violence. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, however, stated, “There appeared to be no preventive measures taken although retaliatory violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the terror attacks,” and noted also that despite many villagers in affected areas phoning police and requesting protection in the hours prior to the mob violence, “No preventative measures were taken.”
Damage estimates from the May mob violence varied widely, with former government minister Nalin Bandara conservatively estimating the damage to include the destruction of 14 mosques, 86 houses, and 96 shops. In the ethnically and religiously mixed area of Minuwangoda, Gampaha alone, the local government divisional secretariat reported 12 houses, 64 business places, one mosque, and nine vehicles damaged. At the same time, in the mostly Sinhala Buddhist area of Kurunegala, the NGO Muslim Aid assessed that 147 houses, 132 business places, 29 mosques, 52 vehicles, and two common facilities were damaged due to the anti-Muslim violence.
Police reported a total of 60 persons were arrested in connection with the mob violence, but there were only nine arrests in Hettipola, 10 in Kuliyapitiya, and 14 in Minuwangoda, despite traditional and social media video reports showing that mobs were far larger in these areas. Among those arrested were leaders of the Sinhalese nationalist groups: Amith Weerasinghe of Mahason Balakaya, Dan Priyasad of New Sinha Le, and Namal Kumara of the “Anti-Corruption Front.” All were subsequently released. Weerasinghe was previously arrested for inciting violence during anti-Muslim riots in Kandy district in March 2018. In a May 15 interview with the Daily Mirror, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary and Member of Parliament Dayasiri Jayasekara admitted he took the arrested rioters in his personal car from one police station to another police station, where they were later released on bail. At year’s end, there were no prosecutions related to the May mob violence. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka investigation found police inappropriately released suspects detained for mob violence and concluded this “clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and also to the public at large.”
At year’s end, no convictions were reported in the 2018 anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy District that left two dead and 28 injured and resulted in significant damage to mosques, houses, shops, and vehicles. Media reported 81 arrests in connection with the violence.
Media reported Amith Weerasinghe, leader of Mahason Balakaya, who was arrested in March 2018 in connection with the Kandy riots, stayed six months in pretrial remand before authorities released him on bail in October 2018. He was arrested again in May for organizing anti-Muslim mob violence, and the Colombo additional magistrate granted him bail of two million rupees ($11,000) on June 4. The magistrate advised him to refrain from making statements that could be identified as hate speech or statements that could result in public unrest. Authorities also banned Weerasinghe from attending political rallies.
By year’s end, the government had not fully compensated owners for property damage they sustained during the March 2018 riots in Kandy District, even though the prime minister instructed that all compensation should be paid by July 2018. Media reports and public statements from Muslim politicians affirmed many victims of the 2018 violence continued to await compensation.
NCEASL said Christian evangelical groups continued to state police and local government officials were complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Christian groups said officials and police often sided with the religious majority.
On April 14, Aadara Sevana (Abode of Love), a social service and prayer center run by the Methodist Church in Kundichchaankulama, Anuradhapura, came under attack during its Palm Sunday service. According to media reports, a group of 20-25 Sinhalese Buddhists shouted death threats and threw stones and firecrackers. The attackers then locked the gates and held the 15 congregants and two clergy for nearly two hours until police arrived. Police requested the church not permit worshippers from other villages attend their services; no arrests were made. A similar group led by SLPP Party Pradeshiya Sabha (local council) Councilor Nalin Siriwardene previously attacked the same church in March, with no arrests made. According to press reports, at an April 18 public meeting with then-prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Bishop Asiri Perera, president of the country’s Methodist Church said, “I wonder if the police act only for a segment of society, and don’t believe it must protect everyone equally. Each time a church comes under attack, we hear about how the church was barely able to make a complaint to the police. Victims go seeking protection and return feeling utterly insecure.”
According to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim civil society groups, official harassment often occurred in concert with harassment by local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations. According to civil society sources, on February 24, a group of approximately 200 individuals led by four Buddhist monks forcibly entered the Christian Family Church premises in Galgamuwa. They demanded the pastor stop her worship service and threatened congregants using obscene language. The Buddhists damaged furniture and vandalized the building. Some of them seized a female congregant, dragged her into the street, threw her at the feet of the monks, and beat her. The pastor lodged a police complaint against the assailants; the Buddhist monks also filed a police complaint stating the pastor had breached the peace in the area. At year’s end, the breach of peace case was dismissed; however, the assault case continued.
Media reported that on April 1, police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks, led by Agulugalle Siri Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Centre, filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, which has thus far only been used to arrest individuals deemed to have offended Buddhism. Sathkumara had published a fictional short story Ardha (Half) that referred to homosexuality and child abuse at a Buddhist temple. Sathkumara was released on bail on August 5; the charges against him remained pending at year’s end. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. Sathkumara filed a fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest, which the court scheduled to review on July 28, 2020.
Media reported that on October 17, the police Organized Crimes Prevention Division (OCPD) questioned playwright Malaka Devapriya for four hours about a series of radio dramas he directed. Police acted after Buddhist monk Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Center filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, stating the dramas were a blasphemous distortion of Buddhist terminology.
Commenting in October on the Sathkumara and Devapriya cases, representatives of NGO Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice said, “The readiness of the police to pursue spurious complaints against artists perceived to have insulted Buddhism lies in stark contrast to the shocking lack of action against the hate speech of Buddhist extremists, including those who have incited physical violence against Muslim communities and other minorities in Sri Lanka in recent times.”
Despite a public awareness campaign by the Department of Christian Religious Affairs that began in 2016 to encourage local congregations of nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, at year’s end the government did not register any new groups. Instead, unregistered Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property. Without formal government recognition through the registration process, however, nondenominational churches said they could not sponsor religious worker visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship. According to Christian groups, they experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements. First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard-copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys. Second, without the consent of the majority of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings. Church leaders said they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for Christian religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.
On January 12, according to NCEASL, the pastor of Foursquare Church, Kalkudah, Batticaloa District, filed a police complaint stating that neighbors were shouting obscene threats at the church. On January 22, Kalkudah police officials, after recording statements from both parties, sided with the pastor’s neighbors and ordered him to stop his religious worship activities until he registered his church. According to NCEASL, the congregants moved their service to a different location for a few weeks but moved back to Kalkudah and continued their services without further reports of harassment.
NCEASL reported that on October 26, two officers in civilian clothes from Deniyaya Police Station arrived at the Hokma Bible Center in Deniyaya, Matara District, ordered the pastor to stop the prayer service immediately, and told the congregants to leave. According to the NCEASL report, the police stated the church was unauthorized and needed to be registered if the pastor wished to continue. Police verbally ordered the congregants to leave, but the pastor asked police to convey this order in writing, which they did on October 27. On October 28, while the pastor and his family were away, police and three villagers surveyed the perimeter of the pastor’s home and took a series of photographs, but no police action followed.
Media reported that on June 3, crowds gathered in Kandy District in support of an influential Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana, who began a hunger strike and called for the resignation of three Muslim politicians whom he accused of having links to the Easter Sunday attackers. Rathana did not provide any evidence to support his accusation. Two Muslim provincial governors and all Muslim ministers resigned from their posts to protest threats they said the community faced. All nine Muslim ministers subsequently returned to their posts. Media reported on May 22, then-president Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Buddhist monk and general secretary of the BBS Gnanasara Thero, who served less than one year of a six-year prison sentence for intimidating human rights activist Sandya Eknaligoda on court premises during a hearing at which military intelligence officers were accused of abducting her husband, journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda.
According to government gazette notifications, the ban on face coverings instituted by the government following the April 21 bombings lapsed when the state of emergency ended on August 27. Due to confusion about the status of the ban, police arrested four women in Colombo on August 31 for wearing the niqab, but released them the same day. Media reported the cabinet discussed legislation to permanently ban full-face covering in public places but delayed any decision after Muslim political leaders asked for time for deliberation within the community.
Muslims widely reported being harassed by security forces, especially at police and military checkpoints set up after the April 21 attacks. Media reported that in June in Marichchukaddi, Mannar, Muslim women were forced to remove their abayas in front of male military personnel. In another incident at the same location, female military officers cut off a Muslim woman’s head covering.
Human Rights Watch reported that Abdul Raheem Masaheena, a resident of Kolongoda, was arrested on May 17 for wearing a kurta (a loose collarless tunic) decorated with an image of a ship’s wheel, which police mistook for a Buddhist sacred symbol, the dharmachakra. In a fundamental rights petition filed with the Supreme Court, Masaheena said her arrest was arbitrary and malicious, she suffered degrading treatment in custody, and she had been “singled out and subjected to hostile inimical discrimination based on both grounds of race and religion.” Her petition remained pending at year’s end.
According to members of Christian groups, local authorities sometimes demanded their groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. Local police and government officials reportedly continued to cite a 2011 government circular requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities. The Ministry of Buddha Sasana, however, revoked the 2011 circular in 2012. Police also reportedly cited the 2008 circular on construction of religious facilities to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship. According to some legal experts, however, there was no explicit basis in national law for compulsory registration of places of worship with the state.
According to NCEASL, in early September during a meeting at the Koralaipattu Divisional Secretariat to discuss issues surrounding the Berea Prayer House in Pasikuda, Batticoloa, the divisional secretary (DS) said the prayer house was unauthorized and further stated the 2008 circular empowered him to intervene. The DS also demanded an end to the pastor’s religious worship activities. Subsequent to advocacy from NCEASL and an inquiry by the SLHRC, the DS verbally told the pastor he could continue his activities, and authorities allowed the church to continue operating.
According to NCEASL, on June 6, approximately 50 villagers, 12 Buddhist monks, and six members of the Divulapitiya local council in Gampaha District protested outside an Assemblies of God church, demanding it stop its religious activities. Buddhist monks and members of the council threatened the pastor and her husband in the presence of police. On June 9, the pastor and her lawyer filed a complaint with police. When they went to record a statement on June 10, the acting inspector general of police, the officer-in-charge, six Buddhist monks, and four members of the Divulapitiya council were present. The acting inspector general instructed the pastor’s lawyer to register the church with the Department of Christian Religious Affairs through the Divulapitiya Divisional Secretariat, stating it was a requirement under the 2008 circular. He further instructed the pastor to cease her religious worship activities until the church was registered. According to NCEASL, the pastor continued her religious worship activities in the area despite opposition. Five Christian families from her church, however, left the village following this incident.
Civil society groups and local politicians continued to state the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups and the military in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted religious intimidation, as some shrines were built in areas with few, if any, Buddhist residents. According to local politicians in the north, the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist shrines. Reports published by various civil society groups indicated security forces continued to be involved in constructing Buddhist religious sites, citing archeological links in places where there were no Buddhist populations. In July prominent Tamil twitter activist Garikaalan posted on Twitter that soldiers had constructed a Buddhist shrine on private land in Thyiddy, Jaffna.
Media reported that on September 23, a Buddhist group led by BBS monk Gnanasara Thero defied a Mullaitivu Magistrate Court order by cremating the body of a Buddhist monk in an open field next to the Neeraviyadi Pillayar Hindu temple in Mullaitivu District in the north of the island. BBS supporters shouted insults at the lawyers representing the temple association when they questioned police officers for failing to implement the court order. On October 21, the Court of Appeal ordered Gnanasara to appear before the court on November 8 for violating the Mullaitivu magistrate’s order. At year’s end Gnanasara remained free on bail while the case continued.
In May the Mullaitivu Magistrate’s Court ruled in favor of the Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Hindu Temple, which a Buddhist monk occupied in 2013 and subsequently constructed a Buddhist shrine on the site. With the endorsement of the government archeological department, the monk said the site was an ancient Buddhist temple. In its ruling, the court said the monk should no longer interfere with the temple’s operation by expanding the shrine, and any future building work on the shrine should only take place with the permission of the local government.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, it continued to have difficulty obtaining approval to build houses of worship. Local government officials cited the 2008 circular and forwarded all new Kingdom Hall construction applications to the Ministry of Tourism Development and Christian Affairs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year the ministry again did not issue any approvals for building applications, even when local authorities had no objections. Applications to construct new houses of worship in Pugoda and Nattandiya were submitted to local councils in July and August 2015 and forwarded to the ministry. Relevant authorities did not reply to those applications, which remained pending at year’s end.
Although religious education remained compulsory in state-funded schools, not all schools had sufficient resources to teach all four recognized religions, and according to civil society groups, some students were required to study religions other than their own. Government schools frequently experienced a shortage of teachers, sometimes requiring available teachers to teach the curriculum of a faith different from their own.
Religious schools continued to receive state funding for facilities and personnel and to fall under the purview of the central government and/or provincial ministry of education. The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka reported several dozen cases of schools refusing students admission on religious grounds during the year, even though the law requires government and private schools receiving government funding, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths.
On August 21, the Cabinet of Ministers approved amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 to end child marriages in the Muslim community. These amendments awaited parliamentary approval at year’s end. The proposed changes would set the minimum age of marriage at 18, and marriages of anyone between the ages of 16 and 18 would require permission from a sharia court judge. Further amendments included stipulations for mandatory written consent from the bride and for the religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration to take place concurrently. According to Muslim human rights activists, lack of this requirements created difficulties during divorce and child support cases.
On October 8, a video featuring well-known singer and politician Madhumadhawa Aravinda using derogatory language to describe the Muslim community at a village meeting went viral. Aravinda was the deputy leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, a small political party aligned with the ruling Podujana Peramuna Party. In the video, Aravinda said, “You [Muslims] will not be able to practice sharia for as long as the Sinhalese live in this country.” On October 8, he announced he had resigned from the party. Authorities questioned Aravinda but did not arrest him for anti-Muslim social media postings that civil society groups said incited anti-Muslim riots in Northwestern Province in May.
On June 24, chairman of the Wennappuwa local council K.V. Susantha Perera issued a directive temporarily banning Muslim traders from participating in the Sunday farmers’ market in Dankotuwa, 30 miles north of Colombo. He told media the Sinhalese traders were afraid to work with Muslims. Following a police complaint against the chairman, a magistrate court on June 28 ordered Muslim vendors to be allowed in the market.
Media reported that on July 16 in Kanniya, regular police, riot police, and military personnel blocked several hundred Hindu protesters from worshipping at the site where a Buddhist temple was to be built on the ruins of a Hindu temple. Police allowed Sinhalese merchants and counterprotesters to enter the site. According to media, Sinhalese counterprotesters assaulted members of the Hindu crowd while police looked on. When police allowed Hindu priests and the landowner onto the site for mediation talks, the Sinhalese merchants pelted them with objects and hot tea. Police took no action against the assailants. On July 18, then-president Sirisena announced a ban on construction of the Buddhist temple and appointed five Tamil archeologists to the board of the government archeological department. The president also ordered the staff of the archeological department to permit Tamils into the area. On July 22, the Trincomalee High Court issued an order banning construction of the Buddhist temple and permitted the Hindu temple trustees to enter the area to maintain the Maariyamman Kovil Hindu Temple at the site. The court ordered that Hindu devotees be allowed to engage freely in religious activities.
On July 18, the Court of Appeal set aside the 2016 judgment of the Jaffna High Court in a case brought by Hindu temple leadership prohibiting ritual animal sacrifice at Narasimma kovil in Kavunawatte in Northern Province.
Religious rights advocates said across all religious categories, traditional leaders charged with adjudication of religious law were poorly or completely untrained and issued inconsistent or arbitrary judgments.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion, language, and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence. According to press reports and civil society, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities, especially in social media. These groups said authorities did not act against those inciting violence against the Muslim community.
On June 16, prominent monk Gnanasara Thero delivered a nationally televised speech in which he said Muslim-run restaurants were seeking to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate by putting “sterilization medicine” in their food. “Don’t eat from those [Muslim] shops. Those who ate from these shops will not have children in future,” he said. “Some female devotees said that they [traitors] should be stoned to death. I don’t say this, but what should be done is this.”
Muslim civil society activists described a vast outpouring of anti-Muslim hate speech on social media and in parts of the broadcast and print media, often making similar claims that the small Muslim population was plotting to outnumber the Buddhist population. Human rights activists pointed to social media calls for the country’s Muslims to be “erased,” and praise for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Burma.
On May 24, media reported police in Kurunegela arrested obstetrician Shihabdeen Shafi. The initial justification for his detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was an investigation of allegedly suspicious assets. According to a fundamental rights petition filed on his behalf and numerous media reports, however, a newspaper article and social media posts then immediately insinuated Shafi had been responsible for sterilizing thousands of Sinhalese women during caesarean section operations. Police invited women to come forward to make allegations against Shafi, who was free on bail. These allegations were echoed by anti-Muslim preachers such as Gnanasara Thero. Shafi’s hospital colleagues and medical experts said the allegations were highly unlikely. In June lawyers representing police conceded in court that they found no evidence against Shafi. In a December hearing, lawyers representing police argued that a new investigation was required, and stated there had been political interference in the previous investigation that had absolved Shafi. In the December hearing, the magistrate ordered an expert panel of physicians and academics from University of Colombo to evaluate all available medical evidence to determine if the charges had merit. The court was scheduled to reconvene in January 2020 to review the findings of the expert panel.
NCEASL documented 94 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 88 cases in 2018.
According to the NCEASL, on September 21 a group of approximately 10 villagers beat six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while the individuals were on their way to church. Five of the victims were admitted to the Batticaloa and Valachchenai hospitals. According to NCEASL, both hospitals discharged the victims before they had fully recovered from their injuries, denying them adequate medical care. The Valachchenai Hospital also refused to issue them reports on their injuries. Police arrested two perpetrators on September 22, with no trial date set at year’s end. The pastor and his congregants faced continuous harassment throughout the year from the same group of individuals, according to NCEASL.
On May 14, NCEASL issued a statement condemning attacks on Muslims in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and the Puttalam Districts following the April 21 church bombings. The statement said, in part, “We are extremely troubled that some of the incidents were reportedly perpetrated by mobs during police curfew…we request authorities to speedily compensate the losses suffered by these communities and take proactive action to prevent any further violence.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported multiple incidences of discrimination and abuse. For example, on February 23, they reported that four Jehovah’s Witnesses were speaking to individuals about their religious beliefs in a neighborhood in Adikarimulla, Divulapitiy, when two men walked over to the group and assaulted them. When the wife of one Jehovah’s Witness arrived, the two men held her and punched her. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint on the same day and police arrested the two men. Charges were downgraded, and the case remained pending at year’s end. On March 17, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that Angmaduwe Vimala Himi, chief monk of the Weralugahamulla temple, with a group of followers, approached four female Jehovah’s Witnesses. The monk and his followers verbally abused the women and beat them with a cane. They seized religious literature from one of the women and burned it, while issuing threats to all of them against returning, saying they would “face worse.” One of the women was hospitalized after the attack. On the same day, the same monk and group confronted another group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, confiscated their literature, and assaulted them, resulting in the hospitalization of two. The Jehovah Witnesses filed complaints in both instances, which remained pending at year’s end. Multiple cases from previous years also remained pending.
There were multiple reports of Muslim businesses failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts. In May video footage emerged on social media showing Buddhist monks entering a Muslim-owned shop in Padiyathalawa, Ampara District and chasing out Sinhalese customers. The monks also threatened the Muslim shop owner not to operate his business in the area.
According to representatives of a Muslim Sufi community of approximately 10,000 based in the Eastern Province town of Kathankudy, the majority Sunni community discriminated against them by harassing them, vandalizing religious and community centers, and denying them access to local government resources. The Sufis noted the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the country’s main body of Islamic theologians, issued a directive labelling the group as nonbelievers. The Sufis said members of the NTJ assaulted them and vandalized their community centers on multiple occasions.
On July 18, media reported that a Buddhist monk raised a Buddhist flag over the Madasami Hindu Temple in Kanthapallai, Nuwara Eliya City. He also tried to remove the statues of Hindu deities from the temple. After local politicians and police intervened, temple custodians removed the flag from the temple.
Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees that consisted of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an NGO founded in 1995, created these committees in 2010 following the end of the civil war between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the primarily Hindu and Christian Tamil minority.
According to NCEASL, the number of Christian groups worshipping in “house churches” continued to grow.
In September Colombo hosted the Ashara Mubaraka, an annual global Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Convention, five months after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks and four months after incidents of anti-Muslim violence occurred throughout the country. The convention, titled “We Believe in Sri Lanka,” proceeded peacefully, drew 21,000 Bohra Muslims from 40 countries, and generated an estimated 10 billion rupees ($55.2 million).
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with the president, prime minister, and other senior government officials, the Ambassador emphasized the need for respect for and inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities as part of the post-conflict reconciliation process. Following the April 21 bombing, the Secretary of State condemned the terror attacks “in the strongest possible terms.” The Ambassador issued a statement saying, “These terrible attacks are the work of a few individuals and not of an entire community. Sri Lankans of all backgrounds and faiths have come together to condemn these atrocities. Unity is the most powerful answer to terrorism.” During times of heightened religious and ethnic tensions, such as during the May Kurunegala, Puttalam, and Gampaha riots, the Ambassador urged political leaders to defuse the immediate crisis and called on citizens to disavow religious violence. Embassy officers also met regularly with cabinet ministers holding religious portfolios to encourage them to build ties across religions. The Ambassador also conducted numerous television and print media interviews addressing the attacks and the aftermath and held a Facebook live chat on the topic.
Embassy officials met with Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu civil society activists and victims of reported attacks across the country to gauge the climate for religious minorities. In addition, embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with religious groups, civil society organizations, and government officials to express concern about harassment of, attacks on, and government and societal discrimination against members of religious minority groups.
Three participants representing National Peace Council, NCEASL, and the District Interreligious Committee-Kandy took part in a two-week religious freedom and interfaith dialogue exchange program in the United States July 17-28.
The embassy supported multiple reconciliation projects that identified and resolved local grievances, built empathy and understanding among religious groups, and supported government reconciliation efforts. The embassy led ongoing tolerance and unity programs in cultural centers. In November it held a national Youth Forum workshop where youth from across the country representing different religions and ethnicities gathered for interreligious dialogue. A senior embassy official encouraged the youth “to nurture inclusive, thoughtful, and courageous leadership” and to “understand the experiences and perspectives of Sri Lanka’s diverse communities.” Embassy representatives supported the work of civil society organizations to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to foster peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building through the National Peace Council.