An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Afghanistan

Executive Summary

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, 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 continued to say the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. Shia representatives said they saw no increase in Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) protection; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the Shia community ahead of large Shia gatherings. Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) in March that targeted Sikhs and killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of the lack of security and insufficient government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling commercial and civil disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation by the local community and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils.

There were reports that ISIS-K, an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities and that the Taliban targeted and killed individuals because of their religious beliefs or their links to the government. During the year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019 – causing 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. According 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. Two major attacks on the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, two gunmen opened fire on participants, primarily Shia Hazara, attending a commemorative ceremony in Kabul, killing 32; ISIS-K claimed responsibility. On May 12, three gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and health-care workers; no group claimed responsibility, although the government believed ISIS-K was responsible. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one person. Police also found and defused two other IEDs targeting Sikhs on March 26 and 27. 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. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. Media reported an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission statement that on June 19, Taliban physically abused and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing funeral rites for a local police commander. Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques, including attacking two mosques in June, leading to the deaths of two imams and other worshippers. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were harassed by fellow students in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. 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 only privately, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. One mullah in Herat reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia; authorities did not restrain his activities, citing the need to focus on the Taliban. 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, such as music concerts, they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, due to the small size of their communities, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of violent attacks on the community, societal discrimination, and 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 Hindu and Sikh communities continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested the support of police, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. According to members of the community, at year’s end, approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

U.S. Embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the 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 with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost Province with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. The embassy used virtual platforms to engage communities so these discussions could continue despite COVID-19 restrictions. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.6 million (midyear 2020 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 Pew Forum data from 2009, 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. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 400 members of the Sikh community remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 600 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most of the community is located in Kabul, with smaller groups in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 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 at least 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

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the tenets 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 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 contains 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. 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 and specifies imprisonment for persons using a computer system, program, or data to insult Islam.

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-$780). 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 hudood crimes as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood crimes are punished according to sharia as interpreted by the Sunni school of 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 with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines age of maturity 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. Those accused of proselytizing are subject to the same punishment as those who convert from Islam.

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 by other Muslims.

Licensing and registration of religious groups by the MOHRA 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 to reflect 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, but there are no alternatives offered. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. MOHRA registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-registered 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 Ministry of Education.

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 addresses a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi 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 Hanafi 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.

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 or Sikh communities. The person occupying the seat is not obliged to swear allegiance to Islam, only to obey the law and serve all citizens and the state.

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.

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

Government Practices

Media reported and representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, merely symbolic measures – and that the government failed to implement effective measures to protect the community, including from nonstate actors. Members of the Shia community reported they saw no increase in ANDSF protection during the year; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the community ahead of large Shia gatherings. 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 the Ashura commemoration. According to media reports, security forces took special precautions to reduce street traffic in the affected neighborhoods of Kabul during the Ashura commemoration period. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-K in March that killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of lack of security and insufficient government protection.

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” by many Muslims, although they were not always considered converts from Islam (apostates); as such, they were not charged with either crime.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics on the number of mullahs and mosques in the country because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry, but they estimated there were approximately 160,000 mosques. MOHRA reported that at year’s end, of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 7,000 mullahs were registered with and paid by MOHRA. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive monthly salaries of between 7,710 and 15,420 afghanis ($100-$200) from the government, depending on their location, the size of their congregation, and the knowledge of the mullah. MOHRA reported that just 7,000 mosques in the country were registered with the ministry.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate approximately 65 percent of its budget (188 million afghanis – $2.44 million) 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 not to spread information about their religion or encourage others to practice it. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing commercial and civil disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and that they avoided pursuing land disputes through the courts for the same reason, 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 continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs also reported that individuals who lived near the cremation site continued to interfere with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government allocated 80 million afghanis ($1.04 million) for the repair of places of worship, including for Sikh and Hindu sites, of which 40 million afghanis ($520,000) were expended as of October 2020. Community leaders reported that MOHRA provided free water and electricity and was making efforts to provide repair services for a few remaining Sikh and Hindu temples.

According to MOHRA, due to insecurity, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said that in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs and that because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. In November, the First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, ordered the Central Statistics Office to register all teachers and students of the 362 madrassahs in Kabul City and of the 130 madrassahs in the other districts of Kabul Province. Once registration was complete in Kabul Province, the office was expected to conduct the same process throughout the country. 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 media reporting, there were approximately 5,000 madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country registered with MOHRA. 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. The government stated that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not have sufficient resources to consolidate data on the enrollment of students in religious institutions.

MOHRA 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.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Approximately 80 Ministry of Education-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,000 public madrassahs were registered with the ministry, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of the number of unregistered madrassas available.

Members of the Ulema Council, the highest religious body in the country, 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 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. 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.

MOHRA’s office dedicated to assisting religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus, focused on helping Sikhs and Hindus secure passports and visas so they could permanently leave the country, most often to India.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish and a number of deputy ministers, governors, and one member of the Supreme Court, but no cabinet-level positions, unlike in previous years. Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics, which they attributed to the government’s marginalization of minority groups and the lack of a supportive social environment. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia were overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras, who are mostly Shia Muslims, often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Some observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported that Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country.

A small and decreasing number of Sikhs continued to serve in government positions, including one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, and one as a presidential advisor on Sikh and Hindu affairs.

Three Ismaili Muslims were members of parliament, down one from 2019, and State Minister for Peace Sadat Mansoor Naderi is also an Ismaili Muslim. 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 (a Shia-led initiative with some Sunni members), and MOHRA continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. On October 25 and November 12, they held meetings in Kabul to address concerns and find areas of mutual cooperation. On October 1, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani organized the country’s first women’s Ulema conference, held in Kabul. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

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 Shia Hazara. During the year, UNAMA documented a reduction from 2019 in civilian casualties from attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. UNAMA recorded 19 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019. The attacks caused 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. The report attributed all the attacks to antigovernment elements.

UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISIS-K-directed, sectarian-motivated violence, primarily targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. It documented 10 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and Sikhs, resulting in 308 civilian casualties (112 killed and 196 injured), compared with 2019 when there were 10 incidents resulting in 485 civilian casualties (117 killed and 368 injured).

Several major attacks against the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazara, killing 32 persons; ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On May 12, three unidentified gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and healthcare workers; no group claimed responsibility. On October 24, a suicide bomber staged an attack on an educational center in the same Shia Hazara-dominant neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons and wounding 57. Most of the casualties were between the ages of 15 and 25. ISIS-K claimed responsibility.

On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11 during a six-hour siege. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection.

Progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Media reported that on January 28, the district director of the Hajj and Religious Department for Pashtun-Zarghon District in Herat Province, Mullah Abdulhamid Ahmadi, was shot and killed by unidentified individuals. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Media reported that on February 2, unidentified gunmen killed one person praying in a Shia mosque in Herat. On February 11, five children were killed and three others wounded when a bomb exploded at their Sunni madrassah in Kunduz Province. All the children were under the age of 14. On May 13, unknown gunmen attacked worshippers praying at a Sunni mosque in Khost Province. One person was killed and another wounded. On May 19, unidentified gunmen killed three persons and wounded another in a Sunni mosque in Khost. Also on May 19, in Parwan Province, gunmen opened fire on worshippers gathered at a Sunni mosque, killing 12, including four children, and wounding six. None of the perpetrators was identified.

On June 18, a bomb killed at least seven students at a seminary in Takhar Province. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there was no investigation of the incident by year’s end.

According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted progovernment Sunni mosques. On June 2, a bomb exploded inside the Sunni Wazir Akber Khan Mosque in Kabul, killing the imam and one other worshipper attending evening prayers. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 12, a bomb in the Sunni Sher Shah Suri Mosque in Kabul killed four men gathered for Friday prayers, including the imam. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Following these attacks on two mosques in June, clerics gathered in Kabul to demand government protection of religious figures. Media reported that the Ministry of Interior said it had assigned a team to investigate the incidents.

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. Media reported that on December 22, the Taliban killed Imam Mawlawi Ghullam Sakhi Khatib in Farah because of his progovernment messaging.

In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on progovernment religious leaders was unclear. In these instances, although no individual or group claimed responsibility, local authorities said they suspected that ISIS-K or, less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On June 13, an imam in Takhar Province was killed and two of his companions wounded by unidentified gunmen as the imam returned from prayers. No group claimed responsibility. On October 17, a religious scholar was killed by a bomb that exploded inside the seminary where he studied in Nangarhar Province; no group claimed responsibility.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban monitoring the social practices of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their interpretation of Islamic law. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. The man with whom she was reportedly involved escaped. Media reported that on August 4, the Taliban killed a local singer in Takhar Province as he returned home from a wedding because the Taliban considered singing to be prohibited in Islam.

There were again reports of 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 members of the ANDSF and other government employees. According to media, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that on June 19, the Taliban tortured and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing the funeral rites of a local police commander.

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 again were reports of the Taliban taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula; however, it was difficult to obtain information in Taliban-controlled territory.

Shia Hazara leaders said the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations in Doha offered a chance for a peaceful future but were concerned a postsettlement Taliban would “turn back the clock” to a time when human rights, including religious freedom, were not respected in Afghanistan. Hazara leaders expressed concern that, if the Taliban established an Islamic emirate in the country, the Taliban would not accept Shia Islam as a formal religion and would ignore laws currently in place that protect Shia. In March, the UN Security Council issued UN Security Council Resolution 2513 noting that the Security Council did not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic’s negotiating team for the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations included Shia Hazara representatives.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity in the country 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 reported they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. 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. Christian sources estimated there were “dozens” of Christian missionaries in the country, mostly foreign but some local.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private 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 in urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing 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. Ahmadis continued to report the increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Ahmadis said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadis representatives said they did not report these threats to police because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from police and other officials.

Christian representatives continued to report 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. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. 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 remaining 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 a total of 70 gurdwaras and mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, although they did not specify how many of each. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said their complaints over seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Paktiya, and Parwan Provinces – some pending since 2016 – remained unresolved at year’s end. The ONSC established a commission to assist in the restoration of these properties, but no further action was taken by year’s end.

Community leaders continued to say they considered the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders again 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 lacked capable teachers, books, and other items necessary to teach students.

While in past years Sikh leaders stated the main cause of Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities, due in part to illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education, during the year they said threats from antigovernment groups, inadequate government protection, and multiple attacks on the community in March caused many families to emigrate or consider doing so. Many left for India, where international Sikh organizations facilitated their relocation. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples because they could not afford permanent housing. Both Sikh and Hindu communities stated emigration would increase as economic conditions declined and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated fewer than 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country at year’s end, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year. They said the departure mirrored events in 2018, when 500 to 600 Sikhs fled the country following a major attack on the community. Some Sikhs and Hindus also reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to 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. Media reported a cleric in the city of Herat banned public music and concerts, stating that certain television programs and social media platforms were un-Islamic. The cleric enjoyed the support of hundreds of supporters; according to press and other observers, local law enforcement rarely interfered with the cleric’s strict interpretation and enforcement of sharia. The same mullah reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia, such as women not covering their hair or public contact between unrelated men and women.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform his religious rituals. He said that in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies had attended the synagogue, but they could no longer do so due to security concerns.

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. Women who swam at a private swimming club in Kabul and exercised at a gym in Kandahar told media they experienced harassment from men when going to and from these facilities and sometimes faced the disapproval of their families due to traditional attitudes against women’s participation in sports.

NGOs reported some Muslims 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

U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, 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, although COVID-19 restrictions changed the platforms for engagement used by embassy officials, and many discussions were held virtually.

Senior embassy officials met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities following the March attacks on the Sikh community to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith. On March 28, senior embassy officials met with Shia Hazara leaders to discuss the peace process and the protection of Afghan ethnic and religious minorities. On October 14, senior embassy officials met virtually with members of the Shia Hazara community to discuss their perspectives on the peace negotiations and how they might affect their community, including religious freedom.

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 foment intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote 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 interfaith dialogue, especially in the context of peace negotiations. The embassy reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and tolerance. It coordinated events with researchers and religious scholars throughout the provinces to discuss religion as an avenue to promote tolerance. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. On February 20, representatives of the Lincoln Learning Center in Gardiz visited the Sikh minority community of Gardiz to highlight interfaith tolerance. On May 21, the Lincoln Learning Center network hosted a speaker who shared his personal experience about how Muslim Americans observe Ramadan in the United States. In addition, in the context of the connections between ethnicity and religious identities in the country, embassy officials hosted panel discussions to analyze antiracism efforts through an Islamic lens.

The embassy hosted in-person and virtual roundtables with researchers, Sunni and Shia religious scholars, Ulema Council members, including members of the Women’s Ulema, and MOHRA representatives to discuss means to counter violent extremism related to religion and to promote tolerance.

The embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On January 16, U.S. Religious Freedom Day, the embassy highlighted on Twitter and Facebook a roundtable with faith communities that centered on how tolerance promotes peace and underscored the U.S. government’s support for religious freedom. Senior Department of State officials condemned the late March attacks on the Sikh community in Kabul through tweets and media statements. In drawing attention to diversity in June, the Charge d’Affaires shared a quote on social media expressing U.S. commitment to stand with an Afghanistan that promotes freedoms for all its citizens, including in following their faith. The Charge d’Affaires condemned through Twitter the June 2 attack on a Kabul mosque that resulted in the death of its imam and other worshippers.

Albania

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization. The agreements recognize each group as one of the country’s main faith communities and address property restitution and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. VUSH reported the government continued not to allocate funds to evangelical Christian churches, despite the State Committee on Religion’s advocacy on their behalf for financial support. The government legalized 92 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 164 in 2019, while the status of 32 additional properties remained under review. Corruption, lack of knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction on property cases, and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to claim their property, according to numerous civil society sources. The AMC, Bektashi community, and the Orthodox Church continued to express concerns about property restitution, including provisions in the law that required them to resubmit their claims in a new forum. VUSH leaders reported continued difficulties in acquiring permission to construct places of worship as well as problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi community and the Albanian Muslim Community (AMC, formerly translated as the Albanian Islamic Community) reported problems defending the title to certain properties. The AMC reported the government denied its application for a permit to build a new campus for Beder University, requested in early 2018. Prior to its October 28 online forum against anti-Semitism, parliament unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Religious leaders expressed support for the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures, canceling gatherings, including for worship, for two months. The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held several online and in-person meetings domestically and internationally.

The U.S. embassy urged government officials to accelerate the property claims process and to return religious groups’ buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed embassy-sponsored programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism among young people. On November 5, the AMC launched another round of an embassy-sponsored project to develop critical thinking skills among young people and to encourage them to think about the relationship between democracy, society, and faith.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. Government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer an optional census question about religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually or collectively, in public or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion, and it prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies that the State Committee on Religion, under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding.

The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.

Religious communities must take claims for restitution of and compensation for property confiscated by the communist government to court, as must all other claimants.

The law allows religious communities to operate educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion. The law allows the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 113 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and VUSH communities operated numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AMC runs four madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.

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

Government Practices

The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built after the fall of communism in the early 1990s. The newly established State Agency of the Cadaster – the official register showing quantity, value, and ownership of real estate – reported that during the year, it legalized 92 religious buildings, including 22 Catholic churches and other buildings of the Catholic church, 58 mosques and other buildings of the Muslim community, four Orthodox churches, and seven tekkes. Thirty-two other buildings remained under review. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by the Cadaster and those of the religious communities. The AMC reported it obtained legalization papers for 27 mosques out of 353 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported the Cadaster legalized four of 15 buildings during the year for which the Church had petitioned. The AMC reported it received 1.26 million leks ($12,600) in compensation for unlawful buildings constructed on its property.

Religious communities expressed concern over the Cadaster, stating the bureaucratic process for legalizing property produced delays, including numerous requests for documents and statements from the Cadaster that it could not locate files.

The AMC again expressed concern that the Cadaster gave it title only to buildings and not to the land on which they were built.

In 2019, the Agency for the Treatment of Property, which adjudicated claims for restitution for property confiscated by the communist government, ceded jurisdiction on outstanding cases to the court system, as required by law. At that time, 401 cases related to religious communities were pending. The shift in jurisdiction required petitioners, including religious communities, to pursue their claims in court. The AMC, the Bektashi community, and the Orthodox Church continued to express concerns about court proceedings, which required them to begin their claims again in a new forum.

According to numerous civil society and other sources, corruption, lack of knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction over property cases, and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to advance claims to their property. Thousands of cases were with the Supreme Court, which was replenishing its quorum with judges who passed a comprehensive vetting process; lacking a quorum, the Supreme Court was unable to decide cases. The Orthodox Church reported it had outstanding claims on 890 properties. The AMC reported that since 2016, it had submitted approximately 500 applications dealing with approximately 23,000 hectares (57,000 acres) of property and was pursuing 15 legal cases. The AMC reported there were four judgments in its favor providing compensation that had not yet been paid. The Catholic Church reported four cases, two of which had not yet had a first hearing.

The AMC reported the Municipality of Tirana rejected a permit to build a main campus building for Beder University, for which it had applied in early 2018 to save funds spent on renting the university’s current facilities. The municipality concluded the construction would block the view of oncoming traffic.

The Bektashi community stated the State Advocate, which represents the government in court, unfairly challenged title to property in Ksamil. The claim for the Ksamil property has been in the court system since 2015.

VUSH reported it asked the government in March 2017 for land to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities, but the government had not responded by year’s end.

VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. VUSH also stated the Tirana municipal government unlawfully issued a permit for construction of residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land but did not issue permission to VUSH to build on its own land. VUSH also reported one of its churches in Tirana that was damaged by the 2019 earthquake would be demolished. The local government informed the church it would not be able to occupy space in the new building because the government could not subsidize churches.

Leaders of the five main religious groups continued to express concern over a pilot project curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students, which was introduced in 2016 but put on hold. The groups stated they did not participate in the drafting and were never informed about the results of the piloting stage or post-pilot plans for the project. State authorities explained that religious communities would be able to provide input before the project resumes.

The State Committee on Religion and the AMC expressed concern the government continued not to recognize diplomas in theology and religious studies received from foreign institutions.

The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support was 109 million leks ($1.09 million), a sum that has not changed since 2015. The Sunni Muslim community received approximately 32 million leks ($319,000), while the remaining three communities each continued to receive approximately 26 million leks ($259,000). The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community used part of the funds to pay part of the wages of its staff. It used the rest to build the Grand Tekke of Elbasan and for raising awareness of the Bektashi community overseas.

VUSH reported it had not obtained a formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, although in 2018, the State Committee on Religion had provided a written commitment to advocate for extending financial support to VUSH.

Religious communities faced financial problems during the year due to COVID-19 containment measures, which they urged members of their communities to follow. They reported the government did not respond to individual or collective requests through the Interreligious Council regarding additional financial support during the lockdown, which lasted from March 11 to June 11.

The Council of Ministers did not finish adopting regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion. The Orthodox Church raised its concerns over the missing regulations, particularly in the south of the country, home to many members of the Orthodox faith.

A State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations conducted in 2017 and updated continuously thereafter counted 195 organizations, 174 of which were evangelical organizations. The AMC has one organization, the Orthodox Church has four, and the Catholic Church has 16. The government postponed the 2020 population census to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious communities said the government consulted them in the initial phase of drafting census legislation but not during the final stages of refining the law. They expressed concern that this would reduce their groups’ reported numerical strength within the country, with a corresponding reduction in representation and government support.

As the Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2020, Prime Minister Edi Rama hosted a conference on combating anti-Semitism on February 4-5 in Tirana. On October 28, parliament held an online forum on combating anti-Semitism. Prior to the forum, parliament unanimously adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to financial constraints, including a drop in donations as a result of the closure of religious services during the pandemic, the AMC closed two madrassahs.

Religious leaders expressed support for the government’s COVID-19 preventive measures. In March, when the government implemented a lockdown, religious communities cancelled gatherings, including religious services, for two months. The Interreligious Council held several online and in person meetings domestically and internationally.

On November 5, the AMC launched the fourth version of a project to promote critical thinking in young people and discuss the relationships between democracy, faith, and society. The project focused on communities that had sent individuals to fight in Syria.

The Interreligious Council provided books and other donations to children living in areas affected by the 2019 earthquake.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with the State Committee on Religion, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era.

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed embassy-sponsored programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy, however, continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the appeal of violent extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Another embassy program focusing on schools as community centers expanded into six additional communities, promoting tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement bodies. The success of the program’s two pilot locations led to its expansion into the six additional ones.

On November 5, the AMC launched another round of an embassy-sponsored project to develop critical thinking skills among young people and to encourage them to think about the relationship between democracy, society, and faith.

Algeria

Executive Summary

The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. In a constitutional referendum passed on November 1 and effective December 30, voters approved a new constitution that removes language providing for “freedom of conscience.” Christian leaders expressed concern the change could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities. In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law. In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi Muslim leader to two years’ imprisonment on “unauthorized gathering” charges that followed a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. On December 22, a court in Tizi Ouzou sentenced four Ahmadis to two months’ suspended sentences and 20,000-dinar ($150) fines while releasing 27 other Ahmadis whom authorities arrested in November. Lawyers for the Ahmadis said their clients were arrested for “disseminating leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” There were 220 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end, mostly involving unauthorized gatherings. Ahmadi religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. The Ministry of Justice completed, but did not release, an investigation into the 2019 death following a 60-day hunger strike in pretrial detention of Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar. A court sentenced a prominent opposition leader active in mass popular demonstrations (known as the hirak) to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600) on charges of denigrating Islam following a raid on his house, during which police found a damaged Quran. The 18 Christian churches affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) and closed by the government since 2017 all remain closed. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work. Catholic leaders in Algiers reported the government refused to renew the residency permit of a Catholic priest in Tamanrasset, citing a meeting with foreign officials.

Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. In April, the press reported that the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.” Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed with them the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups as well as with other members of the public. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions curtailed some of these activities during the year.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern, there are approximately 600,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.

Christians reside mostly in Algiers and the Provinces of Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable. The new constitution, passed in a November 1 national referendum and effective December 30, removed language from the previous constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience. The previous constitution says, “Freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion shall be inviolable. Freedom of worship shall be guaranteed in compliance with the law.” The new constitution’s language reads, “The freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to exercise worship is guaranteed if it is exercised in accordance with the law. The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence.”

The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,600) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.

The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($380-$760) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.

The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The President appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the President on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals and correct understanding of the religion. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the President.

The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, the government required all organizations previously registered to reregister. The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters.

The law requires the Ministry of Interior to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all required documentation. The ministry has 60 days to respond to applicants following the submission of a completed application. If the ministry does not respond within the 60-day timeframe, the application is automatically approved, and the receipt may be used as proof of registration. If the ministry considers the application incomplete, it does not issue a receipt for the application. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.

The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, facilitates the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs; the presidency; national police; national gendarmerie; and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).

The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Under the law, non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place. The law states that religious demonstrations are subject to regulation, and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. Except for daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.

Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant governor at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.

The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($760) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,500) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states that such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.

The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. The decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.

The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam, although authorities do not always enforce this provision. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.

The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.

The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.

In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law.

The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions, but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the President, who appoints the committee’s members.

The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.

By law, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.

Mohamed Fali, the former head of the country’s Ahmadi Muslim community, remained in Morocco, having fled there to seek asylum in December 2019. He told the online Moroccan news outlet Yabiladi that he fled to escape religious persecution from the MRA and Ministry of Justice and said he had seven pending charges related to his faith. In September 2017, authorities arrested and charged Fali with unauthorized fundraising, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and forming an unauthorized association. Courts convicted Fali and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison term. Authorities seized his passport upon his conviction, but the government returned it in 2019, and he fled the country.

In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi leader to two years imprisonment for charges related to a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. Authorities agreed to the officers’ meeting with the Ahmadi leaders at that time, but then arrested all seven of the Ahmadi participants on charges of “unauthorized gathering” after the meeting ended. In response, the Ahmadis said that they are nonviolent Muslims who want to cooperate with the government and that the meeting was intended to open a dialogue between Ahmadis and the government. In December, authorities convicted the other six Ahmadi Muslims of the same offenses.

On November 24, a court in Tizi Ouzou summoned a group of 31 Ahmadi Muslims for what their lawyers described as “the dissemination of leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” The lawyers said that authorities had arrested their clients for their Ahmadi beliefs. In the December 22 trial, the court sentenced four of the defendants to two-month suspended prison terms and fines of 20,000 dinars ($150) while releasing the remaining 27 Ahmadis.

In August, Ahmadi leaders reported authorities summoned a member of their community in Adrar and questioned him about his religious beliefs. Police searched his home and confiscated his computer, telephone, personal notes, and his Quran, which the authorities held as evidence for a future trial on unspecified charges.

On September 30, police searched the home of well-known opposition hirak activist Yacine Mebarki and arrested him after finding an old copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped. The police charged Mebarki in connection with the damaged Quran, accusing him of inciting atheism, offending or denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. On October 8, a court sentenced Mebarki to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600). His lawyers said Mebarki stated he was a Muslim advocating for secularism and democracy.

In April, authorities arrested Hirak activist Walid Kechida in Setif Province and charged him with insulting the President and “offending the precepts of Islam” on Facebook. The government referred his case to the criminal court for trial. At year’s end, he remained in detention awaiting trial.

On December 15, a court in Amizour convicted Abdelghani Mameri, a Copt who promoted Christianity, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and denigrating Islam. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($760). On December 3, the same court tried Mabrouk Bouakkaz, also known as Yuva, who was a Christian convert. The prosecution asked for a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,500) on the same charges as Mameri. According to social media, on December 17, the court sentenced Bouakkaz to three years imprisonment.

Ahmadi leaders stated there were 220 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court at the end of the year. Charges included insulting the Prophet Muhammad, operating and belonging to an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, burning the Quran, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said that in some cases, police confiscated passports, educational diplomas, and approximately 40 laptops and 400 books. Among these cases, employers placed Ahmadi Muslims who were under investigation on administrative leave, and the government dismissed 20 public sector teachers and doctors. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prohibited from working. The government confined Ahmadi Muslims with pending cases to their wilayas and required they physically report to the local court once a week.

During the year, the Ministry of Justice completed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of prominent Berber Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar in 2019 but did not release the findings publicly. Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike while in pretrial detention. Authorities arrested him on charges of “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices against Ibadi Muslims.

NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging the completed registration application submitted by the community to the government in 2012, to reregister the group under the 2012 Associations Law. Ahmadis also reported they had not received a government response to their outstanding 2018 request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.

The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community said, after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.

The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church had yet to receive responses from the Ministry of Interior regarding their 2012 applications to renew their registrations. Both groups submitted paperwork to renew the registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015 and 2016 but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government. Neither church received receipts for their registration attempts.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication said there was no indication that the committee had ever met. They again stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment; the leaders attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.

The MRA said it does not view Ibadis as a minority group and considers the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars affirmed Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.

In January, Morning Star News reported that a pastor of an Oran church affiliated with the EPA received an order to close the church on January 11. Authorities originally ordered the church closed in 2017 because it was not registered with the government as an association. Following appeals, a court issued a judgment to close the church on November 10 but had not delivered the order to the church by year’s end, according to the pastor.

According to media reports and EPA statements, since 2017 the government closed at least 18 EPA churches, all of which remained closed. In August, the administrative court rejected the EPA’s request to reopen the EPA-affiliated Spring of Life church in Makouda, which the government closed in 2019 for hosting unauthorized gatherings. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.

In December, an international group that described itself as being comprised “of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates” signed a letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune regarding “violations of freedom of religion and belief of Christians in Algeria, including closure of numerous churches and a failure to renew the registration of the [EPA].” According to the letter, the government closed 13 churches and ordered seven more to close since 2018 because they lacked the required permit to hold non-Islamic worship services. The letter also stated that the National Committee for Non-Muslim Religious Worship, which is responsible for issuing permits, had not issued a single permit to EPA-affiliated churches.

In March, the government closed all places of worship as part of its COVID-19 response. In August, the MRA reopened larger mosques capable of supporting social distancing measures, although Friday prayer services remained limited to smaller, neighborhood mosques. Catholic and Anglican churches also reopened in August, but the government denied the EPA’s request to reopen its churches, including those which were closed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, the EPA submitted a complaint to the governor of Tizi Ouzou for closing its churches and requested permission to reopen, but local authorities ruled in the governor’s favor and denied the request. Seventh-day Adventists said they intended to reopen when mosques reopened fully.

Pastor Salah Chalah reported that the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.

MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued the MRA’s stated practice of monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventists leaders reported they did not attempt to import religious literature during the year. Anglican leaders said most parishioners preferred to download the Bible and prayer applications on their cell phones rather than carry a physical Bible. Anglican leaders also reported it remained illegal to print copies of religious texts.

Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. In 2019, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.

The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

On November 1, voters approved a new constitution. According to the BBC, the major Islamic parties, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Movement for Justice and Development, and the Nahda Movement, said the proposed new constitution was “against the Islamic values of the Algerian society,” “a threat to the future of the nation,” and backed a “no” vote. The Association of Algerian Ulema expressed its reservations about some of the articles in the draft constitution before the vote, stating, “There is…ambiguity regarding issues such as freedom of worship, national unity, and language.” Christians stated that one change regarding religious freedom in the new constitution, the deletion of a reference guaranteeing the freedom of conscience, was concerning. As one Christian publication stated, unlike the previous constitution, “There is no more ‘freedom of conscience,’ possibly a way to stop churches and their members from discussing Christianity online or having web-based religious services.” Another stated that “the new constitution’s protection of places of worship means little, given the government’s track record regarding freedom of religion.” A representative of International Christian Concern told the U.S.-based website Crux, “This removal [of the freedom of conscience] is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties.”

Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.

The MRA required that couples present a government-issued marriage certificate before permitting imams to conduct religious marriage ceremonies.

According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.

Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.

Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice, although Anglican leadership reported they usually received visas in a timely manner. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. Catholic leaders in Algiers said the government denied a Tamanrasset-based priest’s residency renewal following his November 2019 meeting with foreign officials.

The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic, although many Amazigh Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.

Religious and civil society leaders reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s struggle for independence.

Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.

Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.

In July, the Ministry of Education required teachers in the Province of Tizi Ouzou to report their religious affiliations. EPA leaders expressed concerns that Christian teachers could face religious persecution and employment discrimination, as teachers are public-sector employees.

Authorities arrested Houssame Hatri in Maghnia on July 23 and said they would try him for his role in a 2014 violent anti-Semitic attack on a young couple in Paris. In the 90-minute attack, Hatri and his companions subjected the couple to physical and verbal abuse, destroyed many Jewish religious objects in the couple’s apartment, and made jokes referring to the Holocaust. After arrest and trial in France in 2018, Hatri escaped and fled to Algeria. According to press reports, under the terms of an extradition agreement with France, authorities will try Hatri in Algeria and he will not face extradition. A French security source told AFP, “It’s a good signal.”

The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. On October 28, the government opened the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. The Prime Minister and other officials attended the opening ceremony. According to press reports, the project cost one billion dollars and faced criticism for diverting funding from social needs and being a vanity project of former President Bouteflika. The seven-year construction work was completed in April, three years behind schedule.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.

Several Christian leaders said some Muslims who converted or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity were assaulted by family members or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert back to Islam, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Media criticized religious communities they portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they considered government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued to prohibit Christians from being buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians opted to be buried under Islamic rites so their remains could stay near those of their families.

In April, the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” According to the website Middle East Monitor, the posting sparked a wave of controversy, especially on social media, where some attacked him for interfering “in a purely religious issues only Islamic and medical scholars can tackle.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 16 percent of respondents in Algeria either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” the lowest percentage in the region, which compared with 65 percent regionwide. In contrast, 63 percent of Algerians either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 72 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, which was the highest level for a single country in the region and compared with a level of 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

Some Christian leaders stated they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. EPA leaders reported Catholic and Muslim leaders sent letters in support of the EPA to the MRA. Other faiths privately expressed support to Protestant leaders, and the EPA reported excellent interfaith dialogue within the religious community. The EPA reported some local authorities expressed regret for church closures, but stated they were duty-bound to follow government directives, regardless of their personal opinions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. They also discussed church closures and jailed activists.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.

Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.

Andorra

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination. It names two co-princes – the President of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain – as joint heads of state. In accordance with the constitution, the government offers the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups. In February, the Department of Equality Policies within the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth established the Observatory on Equality. The observatory is tasked with advising the government on issues pertaining to equality and discrimination, including those involving religious issues. The government did not respond to longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish groups to build cemeteries for these communities, but tasked the Ministry of Territorial Planning to look for public land on which to build a multi-confessional cemetery. The government issued religious work permits only to Catholics, but it allowed non-Catholics to reside and perform religious work in the country under a different status.

In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community continued to rent two prayer rooms. The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community.

The U.S. Ambassador, Resident in Spain, the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona continued to meet and communicate regularly with senior government officials including the Attorney General and representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs, the Office of the Head of Government and others, as well as with the Office of the Ombudsman. During visits to the country and periodic communications, consulate officials discussed with Jewish and Muslim leaders and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) issues such as the lack of official status for faiths other than Catholicism and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 86,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). The local government does not provide statistics on the size of religious groups, and there is no census data on religious group membership. Government officials report that approximately 92 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Muslim leaders report an increase in membership and estimate their community, largely composed of recent immigrants, has approximately 2,000 members. The Jewish community reports it has approximately 100 members. Other small religious groups include Hindus, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Baha’is, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the New Apostolic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees “freedom of ideas, religion, and cult.” It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religion or beliefs. The constitution states such freedoms may be limited only to protect public safety, order, health, or morals as prescribed by law or to protect the rights of others. The constitution acknowledges a special relationship with the Catholic Church “in accordance with Andorran tradition” and recognizes the “full legal capacity” of the bodies of the Catholic Church, granting them legal status “in accordance with their own rules.” The Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain, is one of two constitutionally designated princes of the country, who serves equally as joint head of state with the other prince, the President of France. The current Bishop of Urgell is Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia, whose diocese includes Andorra.

A nondiscrimination law provides for the right to equal treatment and nondiscrimination, including for members of any religious group. The law establishes judicial, administrative, and institutional guarantees, which protect and provide compensation for victims of discrimination. The law also provides for fines of up to 24,000 euros ($29,400) in cases of discrimination, including on the basis of religious affiliation, and stipulates the burden of proof in such cases rests with the defendant, who must demonstrate there has not been discrimination.

Faiths other than Catholicism do not have legal status as religious groups. The government registers religious communities as cultural organizations under the law of associations, which does not specifically mention religious groups. To build a place of worship or seek government financial support for community activities, a religious group must acquire legal status by registering as a nonprofit cultural organization. To register, a group must provide its statutes and foundational agreement, a statement certifying the names of persons appointed to the board or other official positions in the organization, and a patrimony declaration that identifies the inheritance or endowment of the organization. A consolidated register of associations records all types of associations, including religious groups.

The national ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, including those involving a religious motivation, in the public and private sectors. The ombudsman makes recommendations to the public administration to correct problems and reports annually to parliament. The ombudsman is a member of the commissions established by the newly created Observatory on Equality.

The law governing the issuance of official documents such as residence permits, passports, and driver’s licenses requires individuals to appear and be photographed with their heads uncovered.

According to the law, municipalities are responsible for the construction, preservation, and administration of cemeteries and funerary services.

Government regulation permits ritual slaughter as required by the Islamic or Jewish faith, as long as it takes place under the supervision of the veterinary services of the country’s slaughterhouse.

Instruction in the Catholic faith is optional in public schools. The Catholic Church provides teachers for religion classes, and the government pays their salaries. The Ministry of Education also provides space in public schools for Catholic religious instruction.

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

Government Practices

The Catholic Church continued to receive special privileges not available to other religious groups. The government paid the salaries of the eight Catholic priests serving in local churches and granted all foreign Catholic priests citizenship for as long as they exercised their functions in the country.

According to the government, although the construction of cemeteries fell within the responsibility of the municipal authorities, the Ministry of Territorial Planning in October began to look for public land on which to build a multi-confessional cemetery; by year’s end, the ministry had not indicated it had identified land for the cemetery. Government officials at the national and local levels continued not to respond to longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish community representatives to allow the construction of separate cemeteries where they could bury their dead according to their rituals and traditions. Muslim community representatives stated they were disappointed due to the lack of government response to their requests. According to municipal authorities, Jews and Muslims could use existing cemeteries, but these did not allocate separate burial areas for these communities to use. As a result, most Jews and Muslims continued to bury their dead outside the country.

The government continued to fund three public Catholic schools at the primary and secondary level. These were open to students of all faiths. Catholic instruction was mandatory for all students attending these schools.

The government continued to maintain a policy of issuing religious work permits for foreigners performing religious functions only to members of the Catholic Church. Foreign religious workers belonging to other groups said they could enter the country with permits for other positions such as schoolteachers or business workers and carry out religious work without hindrance.

During the year, the national ombudsman’s office did not report receiving any complaints of religiously motivated discrimination or intolerance in the public or private sector. The principal religious groups said they had not reported any incidents of discrimination to the ombudsman.

In February, as provided for in the 2019 nondiscrimination law, the Department of Equality Policies in the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth established the Observatory on Equality to collect and analyze data and advise the government on issues of equality and discrimination in the country, including those involving religious issues. The observatory created commissions including representatives of the government, civil society, the national ombudsman, and state-owned companies to identify indicators that will be used when gathering data to issue reports in the future. The observatory did not issue any reports during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community continued to rely on two Islamic prayer rooms that it rented in Andorra la Vella and in Escaldes-Engordany.

The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking members of that community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador, Resident in Spain, the Consul General in Barcelona, and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona reiterated the importance of religious tolerance in periodic in-person and virtual meetings and other communications with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Attorney General, Office of the Head of Government, other government officials, and the ombudsman. The consulate general also used social media to convey messages underscoring the importance of religious freedom and citing issues of concern. Consulate General staff discussed the equality law with representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, and raised continued concerns about the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.

In periodic communications and meetings with representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities and human rights NGOs, consulate general officials discussed the lack of legal status for religious groups other than the Catholic Church and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Angola

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship. The law requires religious groups to seek government recognition by meeting legally established criteria and allows the government to shutter the premises of unregistered groups. There are 81 recognized religious groups and more than 1,100 unrecognized religious groups. The government has not recognized any new religious groups since 2004. In March, the government detained more than two dozen religious leaders and worshippers in several towns for violating a ban prohibiting all large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, religious organizations formed an ecumenical task force to advise the government’s effort to combat COVID-19. In September, the government issued a decree stating that only legally recognized religious groups could hold services on a limited basis under continued COVID restrictions. In September, leaders from the Islamic community responded by saying these restrictions violated their constitutional rights. Subsequently, the government liberalized religious restrictions to better accommodate Islamic Friday prayers.

In June, leaders of the local branch of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) split from the Brazilian church leadership, leading to competing lawsuits and the seizure by the government of seven temples for tax fraud and other fiscal crimes, according to international media.

Throughout the year, officials from the U.S. embassy raised religious freedom issues, including the 2019 closure of places of worship, COVID-19 restrictions, long-pending registration applications, and implementation of religious freedom legislation, with government officials. Embassy officials spoke with representatives of religious groups and civil society organizations throughout the country to discuss the continuing issue of recognition of religious groups, the public split of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and the effect of COVID-19 restrictions on the ability to worship freely.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 national census, the most recent data available, approximately 41 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 38 percent Protestant. Individuals not associated with any religious group constitute 12 percent of the population. The remaining 9 percent is composed of animists, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, and other religious groups. While the 2014 census reported there were an estimated 103,000 Muslims in the country, one leader of a Muslim organization stated there could be as many as 800,000, including an unknown number of Muslim migrants, mainly from North and West African countries. There are approximately 350 Jews, primarily resident foreign nationals.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the state as secular and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution requires the state to protect churches and religious groups as long as they comply with the law. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship, and it recognizes the right of religious groups to organize and carry out their activities as long as they adhere to the law. The constitution permits conscientious objection for religious reasons, prohibits questioning individuals about their religious beliefs for reasons other than anonymous statistical purposes, and specifies religious rights may not be suspended even if the state declares a state of war, siege, or emergency. It recognizes the right of prisoners to receive visits from, and correspond with, religious counselors. The law establishes that conscientious objectors may perform civilian service as an alternative to military service.

The law requires religious groups to register to receive government recognition and allows the government to close down unregistered groups. Legal recognition gives religious groups the ability to purchase property and use their property to hold religious events, exempts them from paying certain property and import taxes, and authorizes a group to be treated as an incorporated entity in the court system. The law requires 60,000 member signatures from legal residents to apply for registration and requires that at least 1,000 signatures originate from members residing in each of the country’s 18 provinces. Each signature and resident declaration must be notarized separately. The law requires religious groups to submit documents defining their organizational structure, location, methods and schedule of worship, financial resources, and planned construction projects. The law also establishes qualification requirements for clergy and requires religious doctrine to conform to the principles and rights outlined in the constitution.

The Ministry of Culture through its National Institute for Religious Affairs (INAR) is the adjudication authority for the registration process and has an oversight role of religious activities. INAR, which is led by a religion minister, assists religious groups through the registration process and analyzes religious doctrine to ensure that it is consistent with the constitution.

Religious instruction is not a component of the public educational system. Private schools are allowed to teach religion.

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

Government Practices

In March, police arrested several religious leaders and worshippers for violating the government’s emergency order banning large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to press reports, police detained more than two dozen individuals for organizing or participating in religious gatherings: 22 Seventh-day Adventist pastors in Bie, Huambo, Benguela, and Lunda Norte; four members of the Evangelical Congregational Church in Kwanza Sul; and one pastor from the Holy Spirit Evangelical Mission in Namibe. Several religious leaders criticized the actions of the pastors and said churches should comply with government restrictions. The head of the Angola Christian Church Council, Deolinda Teca, said that people should continue praying, but do so in strict observance of the safety measures issued by the government, and disapproved of the posture of some religious leaders, who in the first days of the state of emergency continued to hold widely attended in-person services despite the COVID-19 restrictions.

In October, the government issued a decree stating that only religious groups formally recognized by the government could resume services on a limited basis under COVID-19 measures. It also defined Saturday and Sunday as the only two days when religious services could be held. Leaders in the Islamic community protested and said the restriction on days did not account for them. The decree, updated every 30 days, was changed in November to allow for Friday prayers without specifically citing the source of the objections. In practice, the ban on unregistered religious groups holding services was not enforced, according to religious group members.

After the passage of legislation in 2019 that reduced the number of member signatures required for religious groups to register to 60,000 but introduced a requirement of 1,000 signatures from each of the country’s 18 provinces and gave the unregistered groups six months to comply, the unregistered religious groups stated that the period was too short and the notary and residential declaration requirements, which they estimated to cost approximately $7.50 per signature, were too costly and burdensome for their congregations. In addition to the signature requirement, the large number of undocumented residents and an unreliable residential registry system also presented obstacles to registration, according the religious group leaders. While the law states the government may shut down religious groups that do not meet the requirements, government officials informed religious leaders they would delay enforcement until the presidency published additional implementing regulations. As of year’s end, religious groups that had begun the registration process but not yet been approved by the government, including Muslims and Baha’is, were allowed to hold religious services as long as they were in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.

The INAR director and Ministry of Culture officials continued to state concern regarding the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which were alleged to have exploited vulnerable populations with limited financial means by requiring them to provide recurring payments or dues to worship or belong to these organizations.

The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups or issue any licenses to Muslim groups to practice their religion legally. Requests for official recognition submitted in 2019 by two Muslim organizations, CISA (Islamic Community of Angola) and COIA (also translated as the Islamic Community of Angola), remained pending. In the past, government officials stated that some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution. According to COIA, there were 69 unregistered mosques in the country.

The Baha’i Faith and the Church of World Messianity remained the only two non-Christian organizations legally registered prior to the 2004 law.

During the year, the Catholic radio station Ecclesia expanded its broadcast area to 16 provinces following a 2018 presidential announcement that the government would allow the radio station to extend its signal beyond Luanda Province. Methodist, evangelical, and Tocoist (also known as Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World) radio stations also operated in the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In April, religious organizations formed an ecumenical task force to advise the government’s effort to combat COVID-19. Representatives from Caritas, the Council of Christian Churches in Angola, and the Our Lord Jesus in the World Church worked together to identify vulnerable communities and coordinate assistance with provincial government officials. The task force largely supported the government’s restrictions on public assembly, urging religious organizations to comply with public health restrictions imposed due to COVID-19.

In October, a survey conducted by the independent research network Afrobarometer found that rural and other isolated populations relied more heavily on religious leaders, traditional authorities, and the military to pass on information regarding COVID-19 than other sources, including state officials.

On June 23, according to social media, a group of local pastors from IURD took control of some of the Church’s 230 temples in the country after accusing the Church’s Brazilian leadership of “racism and harassment,” illegally transporting hard currency, and selling church property without authorization. After a series of counteraccusations, local and Brazilian church leaders filed lawsuits against each other. Beginning in August, the attorney general seized 36 IURD temples due to suspected tax fraud and money laundering. In response to a request released on Twitter from the President of Brazil for government intervention, a government spokesman said the dispute should be resolved in the judicial system rather than diplomatic channels. At year’s end, all IURD temples were closed, and the court case was pending.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials communicated with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society throughout the year, including representatives of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. During the annual bilateral human rights dialogue in December, U.S. officials urged the government to address abuses by religious groups through existing legal avenues and encouraged the government to further ease registration requirements for religious groups. Embassy officials also spoke with representatives from several provinces, including Luanda, Benguela, Huila, and Cunene, as well as representatives of multiple religious groups and organizations, such as the Congregation of Christian Churches in Angola, Tocoists, the Order of Angolan Evangelical Pastors, Jesuit Refugee Services, COIA, and the Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch. The main topics were those related to the recognition of religious groups, the IURD split, and the effect of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on religious groups.

Antigua and Barbuda

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, as well as the right to practice and change one’s religion or belief. While its restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic were in effect, the government on occasion granted curfew exemptions to religious leaders to perform religious rites. Some members of the Rastafarian community said they objected to the government’s requirement of vaccinations for all children attending public schools.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Embassy officials spoke with government officials, including from the Ministry of Social Transformation and Human Resource Development’s Office of Ecclesiastical Affairs, and a member of the Rastafarian community to highlight the value of religious diversity in contributing to society and the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. The embassy maintained frequent social media engagement on religious freedom issues. In January, a series of posts highlighted U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, and also included the history of religious freedom in the Eastern Caribbean.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 98,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 17.6 percent of the population is Anglican, 12.4 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 12.2 percent Pentecostal, 8.3 percent Moravian, 8.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 5.6 percent Methodist. Those with unspecified or no religious beliefs account for 5.5 percent and 5.9 percent of the population, respectively. Members of the Baptist Church, the Church of God, and the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium each account for less than 5 percent of the population. The census categorizes an additional 12.2 percent of the population as belonging to other religious groups, including Rastafarians, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha’is, without providing percentages for each group. Based on anecdotal information, these four religious groups are listed from largest to smallest.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, as well as the right to change and practice one’s religion or belief. The constitution protects individuals from taking oaths contradictory to their beliefs or participating in events and activities of religions not their own, including participating in or receiving unwanted religious education. These rights may be limited in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights of others, unless actions under such limitations can be shown “not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The constitution prohibits members of the clergy from running for elected office. No law may be adopted that contradicts these constitutional provisions. The government does not enforce a law outlawing blasphemous language in a public place or any other place that would “cause annoyance to the public.”

The government does not require religious groups to register; however, to receive tax- and duty-free concessions and to own, build, or renovate property, religious groups must register with the government. To register, religious groups must fill out an online tax form that describes the group’s activities. The government uses this form to determine the group’s tax status. The Inland Revenue Department reviews and approves the completed form, usually granting registration and tax concessions.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Private schools may provide religious instruction. Public schools require parents to immunize their children to attend school. Some private schools do not require immunizations for their students. The law also permits homeschooling.

The law decriminalizing marijuana for any use also recognizes the government’s responsibility to uphold the religious rights of persons of the Hindu and Rastafarian faiths. It allows these persons to apply for a special religious license to cultivate the plant within their private dwelling, use the plant for religious purposes within their private dwelling or within their approved place of worship, and transport the plant between their private dwelling and approved place of worship. The special religious license, however, does not permit any commercial or financial transaction involving any part of the cannabis plant.

Occupational health regulations require individuals with dreadlocks to cover their hair when they work with food, hazardous equipment, or in the health sector. These regulations apply to both public and private sector workplaces.

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

Government Practices

While its restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic were in effect, the government on occasion granted curfew exemptions to religious leaders to engage in religious activities.

Some members of the Rastafarian community said they objected to the government’s requirement of vaccinations for all children attending public schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials spoke with the Ministry of Social Transformation and Human Resource Development’s Office of Ecclesiastical Affairs to highlight the value of religious diversity in contributing to society and the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

Embassy officials also spoke with a representative of the Rastafarian community and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting religious freedom, including of minority religious groups.

The embassy maintained frequent social media engagement on religious freedom issues. In January, a series of posts highlighted U.S. National Religious Freedom Day, and also included the history of religious freedom in the Eastern Caribbean.

Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots

Read A Section: Area Administered By Turkish Cypriots

Republic of Cyprus

Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the government of the Republic of Cyprus. The northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey. A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island. A “green line,” or buffer zone (which is over 110 miles long and several miles wide in places) patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts. This report is divided into two parts: the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).

Executive Summary

The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers to the “state” as secular and provides for freedom of religious faith and worship consistent with public order and morals. It prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and stipulates religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision. The “constitution” grants the Vakf the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs. Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to grant improved access to Greek Orthodox religious sites, although visits declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” said during the year it approved 26 of 31 requests to hold religious services during the year, compared with 156 of 203 requests in 2019. The “MFA” reported that no requests were made for religious services after March 12 due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. Turkish-Speaking Protestant Associations (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities. According to Greek Orthodox representatives, police monitored their church services. They reported plainclothes police officers present during services checked priests’ identification and monitored the congregation.

The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths often experienced societal criticism. The TCCH reported completing conservation and structural support to five churches and the walls of Nicosia’s historic city center. Mufti of Cyprus Atalay and Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II continued to meet virtually throughout the year. Their representatives continued to meet in-person in the buffer zone in accordance with COVID-19 mitigation protocols.

Embassy officials continued engagement with the office of the Mufti of Cyprus, who was also head of the “Religious Affairs Department,” by telephone and virtually to discuss cooperation among religious leaders and access to religious sites. Embassy officials met with representatives of the “MFA” and the Vakf to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from the Sunni and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss access to religious sites and instances of religious-based discrimination.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to 2011 census information, the most recent available from Turkish Cypriot authorities, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 286,000. The census contains no data on religious affiliation. Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Alevi Culture Association estimates that approximately 10,000 immigrants of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin and their descendants are Alevi Muslims. The TSPA estimates there are 1,000 Turkish-speaking Protestants. The government of the Republic of Cyprus estimates 351 members of the Church of Cyprus and 308 Maronite Catholics reside in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. According to sociologists, other groups include the Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Baha’i, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witness communities. According to “Ministry of Education (MOE)” statistics for the 2020-21 academic year, there were approximately 80,000 foreign students enrolled at universities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. In November, authorities announced 37,000 of these students were no longer present in the north due to the pandemic, many having returned to their home countries to continue their education online. Of these, 60 percent were Muslim Turks and the rest were predominantly Christians and Muslims from more than 140 countries.

Section II. Status of “Government” Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” states the territory is a “secular republic” and provides for freedom of conscience and religious faith and unrestricted worship and religious ceremonies, provided they do not contravene public order or morals. It prohibits forced prayer, forced attendance at religious services, condemnation based on religious beliefs, and compelling individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. It stipulates religious education requires “state” approval and may only be conducted under “state” supervision, but the “law” allows summer religious knowledge courses to be taught in mosques without “MOE” approval. The “law” does not recognize exclusively any specific religion, and individuals cannot “exploit or abuse” religion to establish, even partially, a “state” based on religious precepts or for political or personal gain.

According to the “constitution,” the Vakf has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles. Although the “constitution” states the Vakf shall be exempt from all taxation, its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. The “constitution” does not explicitly recognize religious groups other than the Vakf. According to the “constitution,” Turkish Cypriot authorities shall help the Vakf in the execution of Islamic religious services and in meeting the expenses of such services. No other religious organization is tax exempt or receives subsidies from Turkish Cypriot authorities.

The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and the treatment of Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other provisions, the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship for Greek Cypriots. The agreement states they are free to stay and “will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion.”

Turkish Cypriot “regulations” stipulate Greek Orthodox residents may conduct liturgies or masses led by two priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches in the Karpas Peninsula without advance notification or permission: Agia Triada Church in Agia Triada/Sipahi, Agia Triada Church in Rizokarpaso/Dipkarpaz, and Agios Synesios Church in Rizokarpaso/Dipkarpaz. According to the “MFA,” Maronite Catholic residents may hold liturgies or masses led by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission at three designated functional Maronite churches: Agios Georgios Church in Kormakitis/Korucam, Timios Stavros Church in Karpasia/Karpasa, and Panagia Church in Kampyli/Hisarkoy.

Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox worshippers must submit applications to authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than the six designated churches, including at restored religious heritage sites. For authorities to consider an application, the date should be of significance to that religious group; the church or monastery must be structurally sound and not be located in a military zone, with exceptions for some Maronite churches; it must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum; there should be no complaints from local Turkish Cypriot residents; and police must be available to provide security. Permission is also necessary for priests other than those who were officially predesignated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for individuals who do not reside in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, including members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, to participate. UNFICYP coordinates these applications, which religious groups must submit 10 days before the date of the requested service.

The Mufti heads the “Religious Affairs Department” in the “Prime Minister’s Office,” which represents Islam in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and functions as a civil authority. Whereas the Vakf manages Muslim-donated property as an endowment for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and deliver Friday sermons in mosques.

Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations to assemble or worship, but only associations registered with the “Ministry of Interior (MOI)” have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. Religious and nonreligious groups have the same registration process, and they are required to submit the founders’ names and photocopies of their identification cards to the “MOI” along with a copy of the association’s rules and regulations. Associations do not receive tax-exempt status or any “government” benefits or subsidies. Religious groups are not permitted to register as associations if the stated purpose of the association is to provide religious education to their members.

There is mandatory religious instruction in grades four through eight in all schools, public and private. These classes focus primarily on Sunni Islam but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “MOE” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. Students may opt out of mandatory religion courses in grades six through eight. At the high school level, religion classes are optional.

There are no provisions or “laws” allowing conscientious objection to mandatory military service, which requires a 12 to 15-month initial service period and one-day annual reserve duty. The penalty for refusing to complete mandatory military service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 10,800 Turkish lira ($1,500), or both. “Government” Practices

“Government” Practices

The TSPA reported police continued to monitor its activities, asking specific questions about TSPA members and ceremonies.

Three Greek Orthodox churches, Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas Churches, were again open for individual prayers throughout the year, but Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to require advance notification for religious services. While St. Mamas and St. Barnabas Churches functioned as museums and were only open during working hours, individuals could still go to the churches to pray during those hours. The “MFA” reported that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no additional Greek Orthodox churches were reopened for services for the first time since 1974.

According to statistics reported by the “MFA,” authorities continued to grant access to Greek Orthodox places of worship. UNFICYP reported the “MFA” approved 15 of 18 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, compared with 83 approvals of 129 requests in 2019. The “MFA” reported it approved 26 of 31 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated requests and requests submitted directly to the “MFA”) to hold religious services compared with 156 of 203 total requests in 2019. The “MFA” reported that since March 12, no requests were made for religious services due to COVID-19 restrictions.

A Greek Orthodox representative stated 63 religious sites remained inaccessible due to their being located within Turkish military zones or the buffer zone.

A Maronite community representative said the Turkish military continued to restrict access to the Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asomatos/Ozhan. Maronite representatives continued to report being required to submit a list of persons planning to attend Sunday services by the preceding Tuesday. The “MFA” said this was because the Church of Archangelos Michael is located within a military zone. The “MFA” said it required only advance notification, not a request for access, to hold Sunday services and that no one was refused admittance during the year. According to the “MFA,” the Turkish military again allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass in Ayia Marina in January and February and denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Korucam.

As a result of a UN Development Program- and TCCH-facilitated tender, restoration and maintenance work began at the Armenian Sourp Magar Monastery during the year. Completion was expected in 2021.

According to local press reports, the Turkish government provided significant aid to Sunni Islam activities in the in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.

Secular Turkish Cypriot groups and teachers’ unions continued to criticize a protocol with Turkey announced by the “MOE” in 2019 to open the Anatolia Religious High School within the premises of Hala Sultan Religious High School, a public school. They said the protocol imposed Islam on secular Turkish Cypriots. The Secondary Education Teachers’ Union reported that the Hala Sultan Religious High School administration and the “MOE” enrolled 200 students in the school without the usually required entrance exams.

The Alevi Culture Association reported their children were subject to mandatory Sunni Islam religious instruction at school and could not opt out.

The “Religious Affairs Department” continued to appoint and fund all 225 imams at the 210 Sunni mosques in the northern part of the island.

A representative of the Church of Cyprus again stated some religious sites, to which Church officials had little or no access, were deteriorating. The TCCH reported the completion of work to support the exterior structures of St. James Church and St. George Church, both located in the buffer zone, during the year.

Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to state authorities placed religious items, including icons, in storage rooms or displayed them in museums against the wishes of the communities to whom they were sacred.

According to Greek Orthodox representatives, police monitored their church services. They reported plainclothes police officers were present during services checking priests’ identification and monitoring the congregation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The TSPA continued to report societal discrimination toward Protestants, including verbal harassment. The TSPA again said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced societal criticism and feared losing their jobs. The TSPA continued to report many members preferred to remain silent about their faiths and beliefs. The TSPA also reported police continued to closely monitor its activities and occasionally visited representatives to inquire about church activities and attendance levels.

Muslim and Orthodox religious leaders continued to promote religious tolerance by meeting and arranging pilgrimages for their congregations to places of worship across the “green line,” primarily before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. These included the Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque in the government-controlled area and St. Barnabas Church in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. After March, there were few pilgrimages and meetings across the “green line” due to pandemic mitigation measures.

The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of five religious heritage sites: structural support at Agios Georgios Church in Nicosia; structural support at St Jacob Church in Nicosia; conservation work at Agios Sergios Church in Agios Sergios/Yeni Bogazici, Vakhos Church in Famagusta, and Archangelos Michael Church in Yialousa/Yeni Erenkoy.

The TCCH also continued restoring four other religious sites. It and the UN Development Program Partnership for the Future also continued restoration work on the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery on the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims. The TCCH reported preparations for initiating the tendering process for the second phase of the restoration.

The “Religious Affairs Department” announced it suspended personnel involved in the 2019 attempted theft of two church bells and five chandeliers from the Selimiye Mosque (formerly the Agia Sophia Cathedral) and recovered all the items. After a completed police investigation, the accused were awaiting trial at year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to engage with the office of the Mufti of Cyprus, who also heads the “Religious Affairs Department,” by telephone and virtually to discuss cooperation among religious leaders and access to religious sites. The embassy promoted religious freedom on social media and met with representatives of the “MFA” and the Vakf to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from the Sunni and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss access to religious sites and instances of religious-based discrimination.

All references to place names within this report are for reference purposes only and are meant to convey meaning. They should not be interpreted as implying or indicating any political recognition or change in longstanding U.S. policy.

Read a Section

Republic of Cyprus

Argentina

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith. The constitution grants the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion. Several religious groups continued to express frustration that the government required them to register as both civil associations and religious groups in order to be eligible for tax-exempt status, receive visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities, noting that the Catholic Church was exempt from this requirement. They also criticized an August General Inspectorate of Justice (IGJ) resolution requiring all civil associations, including religious groups, to have gender parity on their administrative and oversight bodies as unconstitutional and a violation of religious freedom. Restrictions imposed by the national and provincial governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited religious groups’ ability to meet in person, including for ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. Although many religious leaders supported the measures as being in the interest of public health, the president of the interfaith Argentine Council for Religious Freedom (CALIR) criticized the national government’s restrictions for not expressly including religious workers as “essential.” The executive branch formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism in June, and the National Congress did the same in September. According to media, in July, President Alberto Fernandez told Jewish community leaders he wanted to see progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) Jewish Community Center in which 86 persons died. On December 23, a federal court acquitted Carlos Telleldin of direct involvement in the bombing. Further appeals were expected. In July, President Fernandez publicly stated that Holocaust denial “cannot be tolerated.” On December 30, senators voted in favor of legislation legalizing abortions until 14 weeks of pregnancy. The Chamber of Deputies approved the bill earlier in the month. Religious figures of various faiths opposed the legislation.

The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) reported 918 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 834 reported complaints in 2018. The most commonly reported incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites. On April 1, Jewish organizations and the Ambassador of Israel criticized remarks by television journalist Tomas Mendez in which he blamed Israel for the COVID-19 virus; Mendez later apologized. In June, a Jewish cemetery in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, was vandalized, according to community members who denounced the act. Religious communities worked together to support people in need as a result of the pandemic, including through the #SeamosUno initiative that delivered its goal of one million boxes of food and sanitary necessities by the end of September. Interreligious groups, such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members include Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and indigenous religious groups, and the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom continued work to promote tolerance and increase opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges.

U.S. embassy officials met with senior government officials, including the Secretariat of Worship and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship’s (MFA) human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination. The Ambassador recorded a message in September for an AMIA-produced remembrance video for the victims of 9/11 and another in October for a video commemoration organized by the Latin American Jewish Congress, marking the anniversary of a 2017 terrorist attack in New York in which five Argentines perished. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media postings.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. Government estimates the total population at 45.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2019 survey by CONICET, the country’s national research institute, 62.9 percent of the population is Catholic; 15.3 Protestant, including evangelical groups; 18.9 percent no religion, which includes agnostics; 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); 1.2 percent other, including Muslims and Jews; and 0.3 percent unknown. Other sources state Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ together total 3 percent of the population. According to AMIA, there are 220,000 Jews in the country, and the Islamic Center estimates the Muslim population at 800,000 to 1,000,000. Evangelical Christian communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing, but no reliable statistics are available. There are also small numbers of Baha’is, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice freely one’s faith. It declares the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.

The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies. The law does not require the Catholic Church to register with the Secretariat of Worship in the MFA. Registration is not compulsory for other religious groups, but registered groups receive the same status and fiscal benefits as the Catholic Church, including tax-exempt status, visas for religious officials, and the ability to hold public activities. To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements. To access many of these benefits, religious groups must also register as a civil association through the IGJ.

Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for events, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the Secretariat of Worship to receive a permit. Once registered, an organization must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, and the address of its headquarters.

The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law. Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution. Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.

Foreign officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country. The validity period of the visa varies depending on the purpose of the travel. Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of appropriate documents.

The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, nationality, ideology, politics, sex, economic or social condition, or physical characteristics, and requires those found guilty of discriminatory acts to pay damages or serve jail time. Discrimination may also be an aggravating factor in other crimes, leading to increased penalties. The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups. INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion. INADI is not authorized to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court. The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination. INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.

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

Government Practices

There was little progress in bringing the accused perpetrators of the 1994 AMIA bombing to justice. On December 23, a federal court acquitted defendant Carlos Telleldin of direct involvement in the AMIA bombing. According to the indictment, Telleldin provided the vehicle that attackers filled with explosives. AMIA and DAIA said they would appeal the verdict. An AMIA spokesperson stated that the country’s Jewish community has fought for justice for the victims and closure for the families for decades and said, “The court’s decision shamefully consolidates the path of impunity.” During a December interview with Radio 10, President Fernandez said he was now convinced that AMIA investigator Alberto Nisman committed suicide in 2015. A 2017 crime scene analysis by the country’s Gendarmerie concluded his death was a homicide, although an earlier study by the Federal Police suggested Nisman had shot himself.

According to media, in July, Fernandez told Jewish community leaders he wanted to see individuals brought to justice for the AMIA bombing. On July 16, Fernandez joined the director of AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs for a virtual conversation to mark the 26th anniversary of the AMIA bombing. Fernandez reaffirmed his commitment to bring those responsible to justice, and added, “We are all Argentines, and we respect each other’s religion, place of worship, and origin.” He also stated remembrance of the Holocaust must be absolute, adding, “We must foster collective memory so that we never forget what happened and so that it never happens again.”

Representatives of several religious groups continued to state that a government requirement for religious groups to register first with the Ministry of Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, noting the Catholic Church faced no such requirement. The groups said these legal processes were prerequisites for seeking tax-exempt status, visas for foreign clergy, and permission to hold public activities. Religious group representatives said they deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.

On August 3, pursuant to the registration process, the IGJ announced a requirement that all civil associations and foundations have equal numbers of male and female members on their administrative and oversight bodies. Several religious groups and CALIR released statements saying this requirement was unconstitutional and violated religious freedom. The president of the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches of the Argentine Republic (ACIERA), Ruben Proietti, told local media that if the requirement were applied to registered religious groups, it would be “an undue intrusion into the organization of churches.”

Some religious groups criticized the government’s May 20 decree establishing health restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as unfairly treating religious workers as nonessential compared with doctors, nurses, home health workers, and members of the security services. The decree’s ban on gatherings effectively prohibited in-person religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals, for several months. In August, Raul Sciabbala, the president of CALIR, noted the decree’s effects on religious freedom and criticized it for not expressly including religious workers as “essential.”

Several religious leaders expressed support for the pandemic-related measures. Omar Abboud, a local legislator and copresident of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Buenos Aires, said protecting lives was paramount and “no principle of religious freedom was damaged” in the city of Buenos Aires. Chief Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich issued a statement in May criticizing weddings held by two couples from the community in violation of the quarantine, adding that his rabbinate had not “endorsed nor consented” to either celebration.

At year’s end, the status of reopenings specifically for religious institutions varied by province and locality. On September 23, the government authorized in-person gatherings for worship in the city of Buenos Aires, with a maximum of 20 attendees and under strict protocols. The Province of Cordoba, however, suspended religious events in October in certain areas following an increase in COVID-19 cases, a measure the Archdiocese of Cordoba publicly opposed. In a statement, Archbishop Carlos Nanez noted the churches under his supervision carefully followed all health and safety protocols, adding that he hoped the churches would be allowed to attend to the “spiritual health” of their congregations.

On December 30, the National Congress passed legislation legalizing abortions up to and including the 14th week of pregnancy and in later stages if the pregnancy was the result of rape or if it threatened the life of the person gestating. Religious figures of various faiths opposed the government’s efforts to pass the legislation. On March 8, Catholic Church leaders held a “Mass for life” in Lujan, Buenos Aires Province. In his homily at the event, Bishop of San Isidro Oscar Ojea said “It is not legal to eliminate any human life.” On November 28, prolife groups marched in 267 cities as discussion of the law formally began in the lower house of congress. Approximately 150 prolife groups supported the march, which also received public backing from ACIERA and the CEA. In November, ACIERA bioethics director Jael Ojuel published an op-ed stating that legalizing abortion was not simply a “matter of public health” and that prolife groups sought to protect both mothers and their unborn children.

Numerous religious and prolife groups, including ACIERA, expressed continued concern over the case of a doctor arrested in 2017 for refusing to perform an abortion. In March, an appeals court in Rio Negro Province upheld a suspended sentence of one year and two months for misconduct against Leandro Rodriguez. The sentence prohibited him from practicing medicine for two years and four months. In 2017, Rodriguez treated a woman suffering from severe pain and an infection after taking misoprostol, an abortion-inducing drug, in her fifth month of pregnancy. Rodriguez treated the infection and halted the abortion. Three months later, the woman delivered the baby and offered it up for adoption. Rodriguez’s legal team said he had halted the abortion on medical grounds and the patient had agreed to continue the pregnancy and give up the baby for adoption. Some religious groups, including local evangelical Christian churches, said the case set a precedent against abortion-related conscientious objection.

Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following a 2018 agreement between the government and the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), representing the Catholic Church, that delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church. Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from 130 million pesos ($1.46 million) in 2018 to 126 million pesos ($1.41 million) in 2019. On June 30, the CEA announced a program to generate increased private contributions toward Church activities.

According to media, in May, some Jewish community leaders opposed the government’s proposal to issue a new 5,000 peso banknote in honor of two historically prominent physicians, stating that one of them, Ramon Carrillo, was a Nazi sympathizer during World War II. Other Jewish groups, including DAIA, said they would wait until the government made a decision before commenting on the issue. Carrillo’s family rejected allegations regarding Carrillo’s pro-Nazi views and said there was a “smear campaign” against him.

On June 4, the MFA formally adopted the definition of anti-Semitism established by the IHRA, and on September 16, the National Congress did so as well. DAIA President Jorge Knoblovits told media it was “crucial to the battle against anti-Semitism.”

Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri, Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla, Buenos Aires Director General for Religious Affairs Federico Hernan Pugilese, and other government representatives participated in religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches. They often did so virtually or through recorded videos, given COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

On May 13, leading bioethicists representing the Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Church of Jesus Christ communities published a joint framework to assist doctors in performing triage and in assigning scarce health resources in the event that hospitals or practices were overwhelmed with patients as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 16, the city of Buenos Aires’ legislature formally recognized the framework.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

DAIA reported 918 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2019, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 834 reported complaints in 2018. The most commonly reported incidents were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites and social media. Included among these were commentaries that depicted Jews as outsiders as well as propagators of conspiracy theories and described Jews as avaricious or exploitative. Other recorded acts included graffiti, verbal slurs, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

On April 1, television journalist Tomas Mendez associated the origin of the COVID-19 virus with “the world’s wealthiest people born in the United States and Israel” during his program “Federal Journalism.” DAIA, the Ambassador of Israel, and INADI criticized the remarks. On April 2, Mendez publicly apologized.

According to media reports, in August, posters stating “Jews are the virus” and “Argentines, awaken to the world Jewish dictatorship” appeared in the city of Neuquen, in the southern part of the country. The regional president of DAIA condemned the posters and called on the local government to investigate and take action. On August 25, federal prosecutors in Neuquen announced a formal investigation, stating the posters constituted acts of discrimination punishable with a prison sentence of between one month and one year in length.

Following the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash in California on January 26, journalist Salim Sad tweeted, “Sikorsky S76 helicopter, of Jewish surname, kills Kobe Bryant.” The tweet was subsequently deleted. Sad said someone had hacked his account; however, according to DAIA, Sad had previously posted anti-Semitic tweets.

In March, media reported soccer player Arnaldo Gonzalez made an anti-Semitic gesture after being ejected from a game against a team with many Jewish supporters, leading calls for his prosecution under the country’s law that prohibits displays of discrimination. In November, the Argentine Football Association, rejecting his request for leniency, upheld a 10-game ban against Gonzalez.

In July, a professor at the 21th Century Business University in Cordoba told his students during an online class that the creation of the State of Israel was a concession to the “Zionist lobby” in exchange for money. He also said, “Why do you guys think the Nazis killed so many Jews? Because of the envy they had. Imagine Germans bleeding to death in a terminal economic crisis, with hyperinflation, and [while] the Jews…kept getting rich.” A student recorded the class and submitted the recording to DAIA, which submitted a complaint. After investigating the case, the university fired the professor.

In October, the National Soccer Association (AFA) adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. AFA President Claudio Tapia said it was part of a broader initiative to “combat racism, discrimination, and anti-Semitism.”

In June, a Jewish cemetery in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, was vandalized, according to community members who denounced the acts. The vandalism included the theft of dozens of plaques and gravestones as well as the destruction of tombs. No suspects were detained.

In September, DAIA denounced anti-Semitic graffiti placed on an advertising banner promoting journalist Eduardo Feinmann’s program on Radio Rivadavia. The graffiti included swastikas and anti-Semitic language. DAIA denounced a similar attack on a poster of journalist Baby Etchecopar in July.

On September 28, vandals spray-painted slogans on an evangelical Christian church in Neuquen. The slogans included threats and accusations against prolife movements.

Religious communities worked together to support people in need as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts included the #SeamosUno (“We are one”) initiative organized by the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Social Action in collaboration with Caritas, ACIERA, AMIA, and the Association of Christian Business Leaders, among others. On September 30, the organization delivered its one-millionth box of food and sanitary necessities.

Interreligious groups, such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and indigenous religious groups, and the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom, continued to work on increasing opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges. In September, they organized an online speaker series at a local university to provide viewpoints from various religious leaders on life and worship during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 74 percent of the country’s respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it high among the nine democratic principles covered in the survey.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with government representatives, including the Secretariat of Worship, the MFA’s human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and interfaith cooperation. In meetings with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed tolerance, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination.

The embassy’s engagement continued virtually after the government imposed restrictions on public gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, the Ambassador attended an online commemoration to mourn the victims of the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA. He also recorded a message in September for an AMIA-produced remembrance video for the victims of 9/11 and another in October for a video commemoration organized by the Latin American Jewish Congress that marked the anniversary of the 2017 terrorist attack in New York in which five Argentines were killed. In February, a senior embassy official met with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country and ways in which the embassy could support communities of all faiths.

Embassy outreach included virtual conversations with religious and community leaders, including those at DAIA, AMIA, and the Islamic Center. In the meetings, embassy officials discussed the status of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and ways to promote them. Embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs focused on social work and community service (for example, #SeamosUno) and discussed promoting respect for religious diversity as well as faith-based responses to poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and malnutrition.

Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled as unconstitutional the blanket restriction on religious membership among law enforcement in the Law on Police Service. Following the ruling, a police officer dismissed in 2018 for his religious affiliation was reinstated in his position. Societal debate continued concerning government plans to review the public school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, which was in progress at the end of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the hostilities, the government declared martial law, under which restrictions were imposed on freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. Most of the restrictions were lifted December 2. In the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists, numerous incidents of neglect, destruction, and desecration of religious sites were reported. The Azerbaijani government stated 63 of the 67 mosques in these territories had been destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. Some mosques were reportedly used to house livestock, including pigs. International journalists visiting these territories following the fall fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.

Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media, although many reported a decrease in negative commentaries in mid-November after the end of intensive fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to observers, anti-Semitism increased in the country after Israeli-supplied weapons were used by Azerbaijan during the conflict. The Holocaust and Genocide Memorial – a memorial in downtown Yerevan marking the Holocaust and mass killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey – was vandalized on two occasions under unknown circumstances. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were no instances of verbal harassment towards the group’s members during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year. Sources stated that societal and family pressure remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than the Armenian Apostolic faith.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual members of the Muslim community, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials engaged government officials and civil society representatives to discuss the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics; Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics; Orthodox Christians; and evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East; Molokan Christians; Yezidis; Jews; Baha’is; Shia Muslims; Sunni Muslims; and pagans, who are adherents to a pre-Christian faith. According to an International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in December 2019, 97 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent other, and 1 percent none. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.

According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes the “exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church” as the national church in the “spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred.

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers, but there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.

The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.

By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.

To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.” It also must be “free from materialism and [be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities, including Assyrians, Kurds, Russians, and Yezidis, among others. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($390) to detention for up to two months.

The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of state and local governments.

The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.

The law allows the AAC free access and the right to station representatives in hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.

The law mandates public education be secular and states, “Religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law. While adding a course in the history of the Armenian Church (HAC) in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course becomes mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.

The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of the teachers. While the Church may nominate candidates to teach the course, HAC teachers are state employees. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities but not within the premises of state educational institutions.

The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on the religious views of employees. Changes to the labor code, adopted by the National Assembly on June 2, authorize up to four days of unpaid leave for observing national and religious holidays or remembrance days, regardless of religious affiliation.

The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months detention to eight years imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($390 to $970) to prison terms of between three and six years.

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

Government Practices

During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face 2017 charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in the country. He was held in pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in 2018. On July 17, the Court of Appeals rejected two of the 2019 appeals filed by the Baha’i community against the NSS in connection with concerns over surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest. The Baha’i appeal stated the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil the community’s office as well as the community secretary and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. The community’s appeal of these decisions with the Court of Cassation remained pending by year’s end. At year’s end, Manasyan’s trial was also ongoing.

According to sources, throughout the year, Narek Malyan, the founder of the initiative Veto, and his supporters continued to harass the Yezidi Center for Human Rights and its founder, Sashik Sultanyan, as part of their broader online campaign of harassment of Open Society Foundations-Armenia, a donor organization of the Yezidi Center for Human Rights. On September 8, Malyan stated he applied to the NSS to launch a criminal case against Sultanyan, accusing him of inciting national religious enmity, based on an interview Sultanyan gave to an Iraqi-based media outlet in which he discussed the issues faced by the Yezidi community in the country. The NSS launched a criminal case based on what civil society organizations called a fake and baseless accusation. While authorities did not charge Sultanyan as a defendant in the case, according to civil society, at year’s end, the NSS continued to investigate him and the Yezidi Center for Human Rights, hindering the organization’s activities and harassing those affiliated with the NGO.

Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. There were anecdotal reports again stating that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.

Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross that reportedly occurred during the classes, and they said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. One Christian group stated that while religious education was important, it should include “all religions that are traditional to Armenia.”

NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity.

In June, the government’s announced plans to remove HAC courses from the mandatory school curriculum, generating public debate. While many individuals, including parents, teachers, and AAC clergy, said the course helped to develop a value system based on Armenian identity, others said schools should remain secular and moral values could be developed outside the HAC course. At year’s end, sources stated that a major rethinking of the entire school curriculum by the government remained in process.

The NGO Eurasia Partnership Foundation again stated its concerns about the existing HAC course and how its content affected the rights of religious minority groups. The foundation also welcomed the efforts of the Ministry of Education to develop new criteria for public school curriculums, stating that many of the foundation’s suggestions to address existing concerns were taken into consideration in the drafting process.

Although official figures for the 2020-2021 school year were not available, during the 2019-2020 school year, 74 schools included an optional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four.

The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.

According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. The state of emergency announced on March 16 due to COVID-19 prohibited the “organization of religious rites and participating therein,” ending clergy visits to penitentiaries until the quarantine was lifted in September and penitentiaries started providing limited religious services that adhered to strict protection measures.

On February 11, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2019 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher became a subject of discrimination based on her religion when her instruction hours were reduced after parents of students accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The center requested rescission of the 2017 decision reducing her classes, restoration of the number of classes she taught, payment of back wages, and acknowledgement of the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. According to the court ruling, the teacher was reinstated to her former position and paid back wages, but the court denied that discrimination had taken place.

On February 18, the Constitutional Court ruled that the article of the Law on Police Service that contained a blanket restriction on membership in a religious organization was unconstitutional. In the ruling, the Constitutional Court also stated that membership in religious organizations – as a form of freedom of expression and a way to exercise the right of freedom of association – is a right that may not be denied regardless of service in any militarized body, including police.

On June 4, a trial court ruled in favor of an appeal filed in 2018 by the Center for Religion and Law on behalf of police officer Edgar Karapetyan, who was dismissed from his position on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. Karapetyan was reinstated in his position and paid back wages.

Although there was no mechanism for enforcing the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.

Beginning in August, some foreign citizen volunteers at local churches were denied requests to renew their residence permits as authorities applied a new interpretation of related laws and procedures. Government officials said churches could start paying their volunteers and apply for work papers or the volunteers could leave the country and return, allowing them to remain in the country for an additional 180 days. The provision affected some churches that decided to limit their volunteers’ service to 180 days.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said that the group halted construction of churches due to COVID-19 and therefore did not face difficulties building places of worship, unlike previous years. They largely suspended construction during the COVID-19 pandemic, although some minor renovations were completed. At year’s end, one case dating from 2016 was pending before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Armenian Missionary Association of America continued its construction projects without interference and was planning additional construction the following spring.

At year’s end, 127 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 129 in 2019. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals, local utility companies, park maintenance services, boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. During the fall conflict, the government allowed men in the alternative civilian service program to continue in that program. Additionally, in nearly all cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served in the military prior to their conversion and were called up for service during the conflict were released from service after stating that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses or providing relevant documentation. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms). Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the Armenia-supported de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities allowed them to worship in the region without hindrance but denied them registration as a religious group, as well as the right to conscientious objection to military service. They also reported all Jehovah’s Witnesses living in Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated to Armenia, and none were forced to serve in the military.

According to AAC spokesperson Vahram Melikyan, following its formation, the working group on government-AAC relations held ongoing meetings to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the spiritual health of the country’s citizens.

The government’s National Security Strategy, adopted in July, recognized the importance of the Armenian Catholic Church, Armenian Evangelical Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, and Christianity in the formation of national values. The strategy recognized respect and tolerance toward other peoples, nations, and religions as a national value. It emphasized the important role played by the three churches within the context of Armenia-diaspora relations and the government’s commitment to fully protecting the rights and freedoms of every person residing in the country. The strategy also stressed the importance of fully integrating ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups into every area of public life and the system of state governance. The strategy also stated the country’s commitment to protecting the right to life of ethnic, religious, and racial groups and their members as well as the prevention of genocide.

During 44 days of intensive fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan, as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.

The Azerbaijani government reported 63 of the 67 mosques in the territories previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists were completely destroyed. It was unknown how many were damaged during earlier hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a result of neglect, or due to intentional damage. There were also reports of desecration of Muslim religious sites. Videos circulated on social media showed pigs in a mosque in Zangilan with defaced interior religious calligraphy; livestock in the Juma Mosque in Aghdam; and pigs in a mosque in Mamar, in the region of Qubadli. Armenian observers said the videos were staged or stated livestock entered the mosques of their own accord. International journalists visiting the territories following the intensive fighting confirmed the destruction of Muslim graves and graveyards while under Armenia-supported separatist control.

After Azerbaijan reestablished control over parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government accused the Armenia-supported de facto authorities who previously controlled the territory of seeking to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Azerbaijani heritage. For example, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities in Shusha renovated the Yukhari Govhar Aga Mosque with Iranian funding and labeled it a “Persian mosque.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to a rise in anti-Semitism, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers who largely attributed this to the Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were again posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. During the intensive fall fighting, the number of anti-Semitic posts increased, according to members of the Jewish community and other observers. Members of the Jewish community also reported anti-Semitic comments directed at them on public transport. The Hebrew and Armenian sides of Yerevan’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial were defaced on two occasions, first on October 14 with paint, and again on October 22, when a fire was lit with wood around the bronze monument, resulting in discoloration and damage. Members of the Jewish community repaired the damage.

Other religious groups reported incidents of harassment during the year. A religious volunteer reported a car with a passenger drove up next to him when he was returning to his residence in Artashat, showing him what appeared to be a weapon through the window. On several occasions, persons walking past religious volunteers in Gyumri reportedly slapped them. The volunteers did not report the incidents to police.

The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case, on charges of incitement of religious hatred, against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. The case remained pending at year’s end.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, unlike previous years, there were no incidents of verbal harassment toward the group’s members publicly manifesting their religious beliefs during the year. One other minority religious group that preferred not to be identified reported a single incident of harassment during the year.

One Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, served all Islamic groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and political party representatives. Embassy officials engaged government officials from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport and the Office of the Human Rights Defender to discuss the impact of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Church of Jesus Christ; Yezidis; the Jewish community; Apostolic Assyrians; Pentecostals; and Baha’is, as well as individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. On several occasions, the Ambassador publicly underscored the importance of fostering an inclusive society in which a diversity of viewpoints and beliefs is welcomed and encouraged. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom with civil society, including addressing religious discrimination faced by minority religious groups and the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites that were significant to Armenian communities.

Australia

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office. The government considered public feedback on revised draft religious freedom laws whose stated aim was to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life. Citing pressures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced the legislation’s consideration would be delayed to an unspecified date. As movement restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 began to ease in the latter part of the year, several religious leaders criticized remaining state government restrictions, saying they unfairly affected religious communities. Parliaments in the two most populous states – New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria – initiated inquiries into laws with the stated purpose of strengthening protections against religious discrimination and vilification. While Catholic archdioceses welcomed the legislation, some individual Catholic leaders expressed opposition to state laws enacted in Victoria and Queensland requiring religious leaders and workers to report evidence of child abuse, including evidence heard in confession.

There were reports that COVID-19 enabled conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazi sympathizers, and far-right hate groups to introduce new avenues of attack on religious organizations. Members of minority religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, experienced instances of religious discrimination, threats, attacks, and hate speech. Allegations of anti-Semitic bullying in a Melbourne school received widespread media attention and in July, the Victoria Department of Education launched an investigation into claims two Jewish brothers were regularly the subjects of verbal and physical abuse. There were several reports of anti-Semitic verbal attacks in Melbourne. In NSW, a man was jailed for 10 months for posting anti-Muslim threats on social media.

The U.S. embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included engagement with members of the country’s Uyghur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2016 census, 52.1 percent of residents are Christian, including Roman Catholics (22.6 percent of residents), Anglicans (13.3 percent), Uniting Church (3.7 percent), Presbyterian and Reformed (2.3 percent), Baptist (1.5 percent), and Pentecostal (1.1 percent). Muslims constitute 2.6 percent of the population, Buddhists 2.4 percent, Hindus 1.9 percent, Sikhs 0.5 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent. An additional 9.6 percent of the population either did not state a religious affiliation or stated affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 30.1 percent reported no religious affiliation.

Revised figures from the 2016 census indicate that indigenous persons constitute 3.3 percent of the population, and that there are broad similarities in the religious affiliation of indigenous and nonindigenous individuals. In 2016, less than two percent of the indigenous population reported adherence to traditional indigenous religions or beliefs. Fifty-four percent of indigenous respondents identify as Christian, and an estimated 36 percent report having no religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law imposing a state religion or religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or establishing a religious test for a federal public office. The constitution’s protection of the “free exercise of any religion” may be limited only when deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination may have recourse under federal or state and territory discrimination laws and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion. In Queensland, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory, freedom of religion is protected in statutory human rights charters. The antidiscrimination laws of all states and territories, with the exceptions of NSW and South Australia, contain a prohibition against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. NSW prohibits discrimination on the basis of “ethnoreligious origin,” and South Australia protects individuals from discrimination in employment and education on the grounds of religious dress. Complainants may seek redress through state and territory human rights bodies.

Religious groups are not required to register. To receive tax-exempt status for income or other benefits and an exemption from the goods and services tax (sales tax), however, nonprofit religious groups must apply to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO compliance procedures. To receive tax-exempt status, an organization must be a nonprofit entity. An organization’s activities, size, and permanence are some of the factors taken into account when determining its tax-exempt status.

State and territory governments share responsibility for education policy with the federal government, and they generally permit religious education in public schools that covers world faiths and belief structures. Instruction in the beliefs and practices of a specific religion may also be permitted, depending on the state or territory. In some jurisdictions instruction must occur outside regular class time, while in others, alternative arrangements are made for the children of parents who object to religious instruction. The federal government provides funding to state and territory governments to support the employment of chaplains in public schools. Chaplains may represent any faith and are banned from proselytizing. Thirty-four percent of students attend private schools; approximately 94 percent of these schools are affiliated with a religious group.

In February, new laws in Victoria came into effect requiring religious leaders and workers to report suspected child abuse, including where discovered through confession. The law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a mandatory reporter (which includes persons in religious ministries) fails to report abuse to authorities. In September, the Queensland parliament passed laws requiring adults to report knowledge of child sexual abuse, including where information is gained during “a religious confession.”

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

Government Practices

In May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced delays to proposed religious freedom legislation as a consequence of his government’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. The government made no further announcements during the year related to the proposed laws’ revision or their introduction in the parliament. The government stated the purpose of the draft legislation was the prohibition of discrimination in key areas of public life on the ground of religious belief or activity and the creation of a new office of Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission.

A revised draft of the religious freedom legislation, released in December, 2019, made several changes to the original draft legislation as a consequence of public consultation. This included provisions allowing religiously-affiliated hospitals, aged care facilities, and accommodation providers to take religion into account in staffing decisions; allowing religious camps and conference centers to take faith into account when deciding whether to provide accommodation; and narrowing conscientious objection protections for health professionals by expressly stating an objection must be to a service generally, rather than to the personal attributes or characteristics of an individual seeking a service. The draft laws continued to propose banning large businesses with a turnover of more than 50 million Australian dollars ($38.6 million) from setting codes of conduct that would have the effect of restricting or preventing an employee from making a statement of belief “other than in the course of the employee’s employment,” meaning outside the employee’s working hours, unless the business can prove it would cause “unjustifiable financial hardship to the business.” The draft laws continued to propose protections for “statements of belief” (i.e., statements of an individual’s religious beliefs) from the application of certain provisions of federal, state, and territory antidiscrimination laws that might otherwise make the statement of belief unlawful.

The government received approximately 7,000 submissions from interested members of the public related to the revised draft. The Australian Human Rights Commission praised the legislation’s objective of prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of religion, but it warned that other provisions “provide protection to religious belief or activity at the expense of other rights,” which in turn raised concerns about protections for religious organizations “participating in the general economy” that would allow them to deny services or exclude others in ways that the commission considered discriminatory. The commission recommended the government remove provisions exempting statements of belief from federal, state, and territory antidiscrimination laws. LGBTI Legal Service Inc. said these provisions “will allow discriminatory and hurtful comments to be made against a large portion of our community, including LGBTI people.”

Several religious groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby, welcomed “some improvements” in the revised draft, but they said there were “fundamental deficiencies” needing amendment, including broader protections for religious charities. The Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney welcomed changes permitting religious bodies to provide preference to persons who share their faith in an employment setting, but it lobbied for broader protections for religious charities and statements of belief.

Equality Australia, an organization that promotes “the wellbeing and circumstances of LGBTIQ+ people in Australia,” said the bill “continues to privilege the interests of some people and institutions over the rights of others,” and expressed concern that private sector employers “will find it harder to enforce universal standards of appropriate conduct across their workplaces.” The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the proposed protections for statements of belief potentially create “a serious issue for employers” in balancing employees’ public comments with their obligations to prevent discrimination in the workplace.

In response to a pledge made in late 2018 by the Prime Minister to remove religious schools’ ability to expel LGBTI students, Attorney General Christian Porter tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into religious exemptions in antidiscrimination legislation. In March, the Attorney General amended the original December, 2020 reporting deadline, setting it at 12 months after the draft religious freedom legislation passes the federal parliament.

In November, the Victoria state government introduced a bill that would ban practices that encourage individuals to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. If enacted, violation of this law could result in fines of up to 10,000 Australian dollars ($7,700) and 10 years in prison. Some religious leaders, including Catholic and Baptist clergy, criticized the bill, saying its language was too broad and could cause restrictions not only on practices considered harmful but also on the free speech and free choice of those following their religious beliefs. As of year’s end, the bill had not been passed by the state parliament.

As restrictions on movement that were imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 began to ease in the latter part of the year, several religious leaders, including senior Catholic, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox clergy, criticized remaining state government restrictions, saying they unfairly affected religious communities. On October 21, the NSW state government eased restrictions on religious gatherings, increasing maximum attendance from 100 to 300 persons. St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was granted an exemption from the NSW government’s 100-person cap on religious services to hold a larger ordination mass on September 19. In October, the Premier of Victoria State, citing public health recommendations, defended his government’s decision to ease restrictions in areas of Victoria outside the city of Melbourne on hospitality venues but not on religious gatherings. The leaders of several prominent religious groups criticized the decision.

State and territory governments administered grant programs supporting multicultural and multifaith communities throughout the country. In response to COVID-19, the Victoria state government provided grants to religious communities to upgrade their IT infrastructure to enable digital services in their facilities. In August, the Victoria government announced new grants to fund projects and IT capabilities for online cultural and religious festivals.

In February, several Hindu groups criticized comments made by Treasurer of Australia Joshua Frydenberg regarding the opposition Labor Party’s proposed “wellbeing budget” as demeaning to the Hindu religion, with the Hindu Council of Australia calling the comments “brazen, racist, and Hindu-phobic.” Frydenberg subsequently apologized for any offense taken by his depiction of an opposition spokesperson delivering his wellbeing budget after descending barefoot from an Ashram in the Himalayas.

When a new law requiring religious leaders to report suspicions of child abuse discovered through confession came into effect in February, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne said the Church “fully supported” mandatory reporting. She declined to comment on the Archbishop of Melbourne’s previous position, in which he indicated he would refuse to comply with such a law. Queensland enacted similar laws in September. The Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane criticized the laws as making priests “less a servant of God than an agent of the state.” The laws in Victoria and Queensland followed similar legislation passed in South Australia (2017), Tasmania (2018), Western Australia (2019), and the Australian Capital Territory (2019).

In April, Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell won an appeal in the country’s highest court that nullified his conviction for child sexual abuse. The High Court of Australia’s decision was unanimous in its ruling that the jury ought to have had reasonable doubt about Pell’s guilt based on testimony from other witnesses. Pell had been found guilty by a Victoria court in 2018, sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, and required to register as a sex offender. After his release, victims’ advocacy groups and others criticized the verdict. The same night Pell was released, the cathedral in Melbourne was vandalized with graffiti that included calls for the cardinal to “rot in hell.” A tricycle was tied to the fence of the monastery where Pell spent his first night following his release from prison.

In late 2019, the Victoria state parliament opened an inquiry into existing antivilification laws, examining the potential for the expansion or extension of protections. The stated purpose of the inquiry was to examine the effectiveness of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, seek evidence of increasing vilification and hate conduct in Victoria, and examine online vilification. The inquiry was due to report back on September 1, but the deadline was extended to March 1, 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking to the media about the inquiry, Premier Daniel Andrews said, “Anti-Semitism is on the rise – that is a fact.” Sources said the review would also consider a prohibition on publicly displaying anti-Semitic iconography, such as swastikas.

In August, the NSW state parliament began an inquiry into the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020, proposing to make discrimination on the ground of a person’s religious beliefs or activities unlawful. Equality Australia criticized the bill for privileging “the interest of some people and institutions over the rights of others, including LGBTIQ+ people, women, people with disabilities, and even people with different or no beliefs,” by allowing organizations “to discriminate in employment, education, and service provision against others with different or no beliefs, even when religion has no relevance to the role…” The Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney welcomed the attempt to protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of religious belief. The inquiry received 144 public submissions.

Muslim immigrants detained in Brisbane filed a complaint in September with the Australian Human Rights Commission, saying they had not been given certified halal food for more than 12 months. The detainees stated that their caterer confirmed to them that the food was not certified halal.

Due to what they stated was an increasing number of students in NSW public schools who do not identify with a religion, some education groups continued to advocate for the removal of Special Religious Education classes from high schools. According to the NSW Teachers Federation, “School time is for teaching and learning, and special religious instruction should not be interrupting the crucial learning of students during the school day.” Government-approved Special Religious Education providers included representatives of Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religious groups. The NSW government requires schools to provide “meaningful alternatives” for students whose parents withdraw them from Special Religious Education, which could include courses in ethics. At year’s end, Special Religious Education remained in place in NSW public schools.

The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful, continued to be based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion, and included religious freedom as a component.

The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In October, Stipe Lozina, who punched and stomped on a pregnant Muslim woman in 2019, was sentenced to three years in prison. Media reported that Lozina shouted “anti-Islamic hate speech at the victim and her friends” during the attack.

In January, a household in Victoria State prominently flew a swastika flag for several weeks. Neither the local council nor the police could require the flag’s removal, but a spokesperson for Victoria Police said it had been taken down after discussions with the homeowners, who stated they were not aware the flag could cause offense.

Sources stated that the COVID-19 pandemic enabled conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazi sympathizers, and far-right hate groups to introduce new avenues of attack on religious organizations. In August, during Victoria State’s second wave of COVID-19, a cluster of cases emerged at the Islamic Al-Taqwa College. Principal Omar Hallak told media that references to the “Al-Taqwa cluster” by state leadership, including Premier Daniel Andrews, had instigated online attacks from hate groups.

On July 17, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network expressed concern to a Senate inquiry into foreign interference that “right-wing extremist rhetoric” was being brought into the country through various social media platforms. The network also stated that there were 12 fringe political parties in the 2019 federal election that ran on platforms that supported “discriminatory anti-Muslim polic[ies.]”

The NSW Attorney General’s Department told the state parliament that it was aware of three instances of swastika flags being flown in the state during the year.

There were reports that anti-Semitic rhetoric increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one well publicized incident, Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews was targeted with anti-Semitic graffiti reading “Stop Dan Andrews,” with a Star of David replacing the “a” in “Dan” and a swastika replacing the “s” in “Andrews.” The Australian Jewish News reported that anti-Semitic content was posted online that included statements that blamed Jews for the COVID-19 pandemic and called it the “Jew Flu.” Anti-Defamation Commission chairman Dvir Abramovich warned that COVID-19 was fueling “anti-Semitic and hateful conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the pandemic.”

In June, an NSW man was jailed for 10 months for posting threats against Muslims on social media.

The Anti-Defamation Commission reported a Jewish man and his son were subjected to anti-Semitic verbal abuse in Melbourne in July. The two were standing on a busy road when a man began yelling at them, calling them “Jew dogs.”

In July, the Victoria Department of Education launched an investigation into anti-Semitic bullying at Brighton Secondary College, where two Jewish brothers said they were regularly the subjects of verbal and physical abuse, including taunts of “Heil Hitler” from students, as well as comments from teachers referring to Israel as “Palestine.” The brothers said they made numerous reports to teachers but no serious action had been taken.

In August, a Jewish Uber driver in Melbourne reported that a passenger asked him if he was Jewish. When the driver confirmed his religion, the passenger asked that the car be stopped, since he “did not want a Jew to drive him,” and as the car pulled over, the passenger verbally abused the driver with insults, including “Jewish scumbag.” Uber removed the passenger’s access to the app and the driver filed a complaint with Victoria Police.

On January 24, Islamic scholar Ismail al-Wahwah of the Australian chapter of Hizb ut-Tahrir delivered a sermon, later uploaded on YouTube, that denied the Holocaust and called for world domination by Islam.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported 331 anti-Semitic incidents involving threats or abuse during the year, compared with 368 the previous year. According to the council, there was an increase in several more serious categories of incidents, including physical assault (eight, compared with four in 2019) and direct verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation (128, compared with 114 in 2019). Graffiti reports declined to 42, compared with 95 in 2019.

The Community Security Group released a report on anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 in which it stated there were 451 reported incidents throughout the country, a 31 percent increase over the 343 incidents reported in 2018.

In May, vandals sprayed swastikas on a golf course in Melbourne that was originally founded by Jews nearly seven decades ago because they were not allowed to play at other clubs.

The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 36 complaints involving religion from July 2019 to June 2020, a 36 percent decrease from the previous year. Of these complaints, half occurred in the provision of goods and services, and just over a third occurred in employment. Complaints relating to employment under the Equal Opportunity Act and Racial Religious Tolerance Act decreased 28 in 2018/19 to 20 in 2019/20.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included engagement with members of the country’s Uyghur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.

Austria

Executive Summary

Historical and modern constitutional documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination. The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups and classifies registered religious groups into one of three categories: religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. The 16 groups recognized as religious societies receive the most benefits. Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” In December, the government recognized Sikhs as a confessional community. On December 11, the Constitutional Court struck down the ban on headscarves for children in elementary schools, stating it was discriminatory for singling out Muslim students. The Church of Scientology and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) said that government-funded organizations continued to advise the public against associating with them. After a mass shooting in Vienna in November by a gunman described as an ISIS supporter, the government presented draft legislation introducing a new criminal code provision on “religiously motivated extremism” that would expand government monitoring of Muslim groups in the country. The Islamic Religious Authority of Austria (IGGO) criticized the establishment of a new office in the Federal Chancellery with the stated aim of combating political Islam and Muslim extremism. In October, the government said it would strip 40 percent of Turkish/Islamic associations of their charity status because of tax violations. In February, parliament unanimously adopted a resolution condemning any form of anti-Semitism and calling on the government to condemn and end any support for the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. In August, the government, in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Vienna (IKG), announced measures to combat anti-Semitism among immigrants and refugees. The opposition Freedom Party (FPOe) continued to use anti-Muslim rhetoric and imagery, particularly during campaigning for Vienna municipal/provincial elections in October.

According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 13 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in the first half of 2020. For all of 2019, the ministry cited 30 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents, compared with 49 and 22 incidents, respectively, in the previous year. Most incidents involved hate speech. For 2019, IGGO cited 1,051 anti-Muslim incidents and the IKG reported 550 anti-Semitic incidents. Government figures, unlike those from the IKG and IGGO, only included incidents in which authorities filed criminal charges. In August, a Syrian man living in the country attempted to assault Graz Jewish Community leader Elie Rosen with a baseball bat and vandalized the Graz synagogue. Rosen escaped uninjured, and police arrested the suspect, who was awaiting trial at year’s end. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and other senior government and political figures and religious representatives condemned the assault and vandalism. As a result of the incident, the government provided additional security protection for the Graz Jewish Community. In March, also in Graz, youths assaulted a Jewish teen, shouting “Are you a Jew?” at him and injuring his face.

U.S. embassy representatives met with officials from the Federal Chancellery and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior on religious freedom, the protection of religious minorities, and measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment. In August, the Secretary of State, accompanied by the Ambassador and the head of the IKG and the country’s senior Roman Catholic prelate, laid a wreath at the Vienna Holocaust Memorial. The Ambassador met with leaders from the IGGO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and various Orthodox churches to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination and interreligious dialogue, and the impact on their respective communities of the COVID-19 crisis. The embassy continued its engagement with the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria to promote religious dialogue and tolerance, particularly with a training program that covered how nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can counter violent extremism and promote religious tolerance online. Embassy officials continued to serve on the advisory board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency, a governmental agency that promotes Holocaust remembrance. Embassy representatives spoke on religious freedom at public ceremonies and supported programs to combat anti-Semitism and promote religious dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to religious groups and December 2019 figures from the government’s Austrian Integration Fund, Roman Catholics constitute 56 percent of the population, and Muslims – predominantly Sunni – 8 percent, while approximately 25 percent is unaffiliated with any religion. According to estimates from the fund and religious groups, Eastern Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, and Bulgarian) constitute 5 percent of the population, and Protestants (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions) 3.2 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and other Christian and non-Christian religious groups.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from association with any religious community. It stipulates, “Duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”

Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.

The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more individuals. The prohibition also applies specifically in the case of incitement in print, electronic, or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups, if such action violates human dignity.

The law divides registered religious groups into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights and privileges): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”

There are 16 recognized religious societies: the Roman Catholic Church; Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); the IGGO; Old Catholic Church; IKG; Eastern Orthodox Church (Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Antiochian); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; New Apostolic Church; Syrian Orthodox Church; Coptic Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Methodist Church of Austria; the Buddhist Community; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Alevi Community in Austria; and Free Christian Churches.

The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs; to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members; to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers; and to provide pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which the government denies to confessional communities and associations. The government grants all recognized religious societies tax relief in two main ways: donors do not pay taxes on donations and the societies receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to the active practice of religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from a surveillance charge, otherwise payable when the state provides security to religious groups, and a municipal administrative fee for garbage collection and other municipal services. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common good and – like all religious groups – to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards, which the law does not define.

Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retained their status. The government grandfathered in 14 of the 16 recognized religious societies under this provision of the law. To gain recognition as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,700 persons) and have existed for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an association and five as a confessional community. The government recognizes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active as an association in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that they have a different theology.

The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. The government recognizes 10 confessional communities: the Baha’i Faith, Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindu Community, Islamic-Shiite Community, Old-Alevi Community in Austria, Unification Church, United Pentecostal Community of Austria, and Sikhs.

A recognized confessional community has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but it is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to confessional communities’ charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them and tax free for the groups receiving them, but the communities are not exempt from property taxes. Confessional communities may provide pastoral care in prisons and hospitals.

To gain government recognition as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit to the Office for Religious Affairs its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals and with the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the chancellery. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.

Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting for the government to recognize them as confessional communities.

The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, have association status.

According to the law, any group of more than two persons pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups may apply to the Ministry of Interior to gain such status. To become an association, a group must submit a written statement citing its common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing, the right to function in public, and many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services. Associations may not offer pastoral care in hospitals or prisons or receive tax-deductible contributions.

Pursuant to the law governing relations between the government and the Roman Catholic Church, the Church is the only religious group to receive government funding for pastoral care it provides in prisons. The law also makes various Catholic holidays official national holidays.

The law governing relations between the government and the IGGO and Alevi Muslim groups stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law (compliance with which is determined by the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery), and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. According to the Office for Religious Affairs, there are similar restrictions on foreign funding for other religious groups, and religious groups generally are obliged to finance themselves from domestic sources and not violate federal law. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims may raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are considered cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional community. This includes the IGGO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shiite Community and the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, both of which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which the University of Vienna offers.

Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 14 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in some details, since they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years. As with the Muslim community, a law provides explicit protections for Jewish religious practices, including circumcision and ritual slaughter.

The law bans full-face coverings in public places as a “violation of Austrian values,” with exceptions made only for artistic, cultural, or traditional events, in sports, or for health or professional reasons. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150-euro ($180) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.

Until a Constitutional Court ruling in December struck it down, the law banned headscarves and other head coverings for children in elementary schools. The ban exempted kippahs and Sikh patkas. Prior to the Constitutional Court ruling, in some federal states, parents of children in violation of the ban were subject to fines of up to 440 euros ($540).

The government funds, on a proportional basis, religious instruction for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies by clergy or instructors provided by those groups for children in public schools and government-accredited private schools. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in the respective religion classes is mandatory for all students who are members of those religious groups unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students younger than age 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religion classes. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.

The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.

Holocaust education is part of history instruction and is also treated in other courses such as civics.

The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the Federal Chancellery Minister for Women and Integration, oversees discrimination cases, including those based on religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and it assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In a case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to court. The commission may issue expert reports for plaintiffs to present before the court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.

The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification “of the National Socialist genocide” or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.

In August, a 2019 amendment of the Citizenship Act that extends citizenship to descendants of Austrian victims of Nazi crimes entered into force. Direct descendants, such as children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren of victims, may obtain citizenship by reporting to Austrian consulates. Dual citizenship is also possible.

The law bans certain symbols the government considers extremist, including those pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and the Croatian Ustasha.

The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers of groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family based and is subject to a quota. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies also require immigrant visas but are exempt from the quota system. Religious workers from Schengen or EU-member countries are exempt from all visa requirements.

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

Government Practices

In December, the government granted Sikhs status as a confessional community, after they had applied for the status in 2019.

On December 11, the Constitutional Court ruled that the ban on headscarves introduced in 2019 for children in elementary school was unconstitutional because it singled out Muslim students. Judge Christoph Grabenwarter told the Catholic News Agency that the ban carried the risk of “hindering Muslim girls’ access to education and more precisely of shutting them off from society.” The ruling was based on complaints that two Muslim families, supported by the IGGO, filed in January. The complaints stated the ban interfered with religious freedom and the right to raise children in a religious manner and called for lifting the ban. After the ruling in December, the government abandoned a proposal, first made in January, to expand the ban to middle school students up to age 14, and possibly to teachers.

Scientologists continued to state the Federal Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities. The office offered advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults,” including Scientologists and members of the Unification Church. A scientologist representative stated that the office provided biased information against the Church of Scientology when counseling its clients by not including sufficient input on how Scientologists view themselves. The office was nominally independent but government-funded, and the Minister of Labor, Family, and Youth appointed and oversaw its head.

A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society Against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO that described itself as an organization working against harm caused by “destructive cults” such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public and provide counseling for former members of such groups. According to the website of the society’s founder, Friedrich Griess, the society received funding from the government of Lower Austria. All provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults,” which members of some minority religious groups, such as Scientologists or the Unification Church, stated were biased against them.

On November 2, Kujtim Fejzullai, a man described as an ISIS supporter, shot and killed four persons and injured 22. Police killed the gunman. Chancellor Kurz called the incident “clearly an Islamist terror attack,” and said, “We will create a ‘criminal offense’ called political Islam … to take action against those who are not terrorists themselves, but who create the breeding ground for them.”

On December 16, the government presented draft legislation to parliament that would introduce a new statutory offense banning “religiously motivated extremism.” The legislation would also oblige the IGGO to present registries of all its mosques and imams to the government and speeds up processes enabling the government to close down radical mosques. It would also raise fines for Muslim organizations failing to provide information on their accounts and more strictly monitor how Muslim organizations are financed. Interior Minister Karl Nehammer called the legislation a “strong signal against extremism.” On December 18, the government sent the draft legislation for a six-week review to stakeholders and legal experts.

In the aftermath of the November attack, the government and the IGGO agreed to close the Tewhid Mosque, registered with the IGGO, which Fejzullai attended. According to a government spokesperson, the Tewhid Mosque lacked “a positive attitude toward Austrian society and the state” as required by the law governing relations between the government and Muslim groups. The government also closed an unregistered facility, the Melit Ibrahim Association, used as a mosque and also attended by Fejzullai and other persons previously convicted on terrorism charges.

In a separate police action in November, authorities raided homes, businesses, and associations that they said were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Hamas, arresting 30 individuals. The Office of the Public Prosecutor stated the raids were preceded by “extensive and intensive investigations lasting more than a year” and had “no connection with the terrorist attack in Vienna on November 2.” Individuals detained in the raids, who were reportedly questioned and released, told media the raids were “mere guesswork by the police” and that there was no evidence of terrorist financing.

In July, Integration Minister Susanne Raab established a new office in the Federal Chancellery with the stated aim of combating political Islam and documenting religiously motivated Islamic extremism, including scientific research on the structures of various Muslim organizations. Raab stated the new office was not directed against Islam itself, but only against the “extremist ideology of political Islam.” IGGO President Uemit Vural criticized the government for not including the IGGO in the planning of the office and called for expanding the office’s mandate to include all forms of religiously motivated extremism and racism. Vural also said establishment of the office demonstrated the government’s “hostile attitude” toward Muslims in the country.

At year’s end, the government had not closed the Vienna-based, Saudi Arabia-funded King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. In 2019, the foreign ministry announced it would close the center, consistent with a nonbinding parliamentary resolution calling on it to do so because of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

In October, revenue authorities reported investigating 211 Turkish/Islamic associations in the country since 2019 and finding a large number of instances of tax evasion. Revenue authorities stated they would strip 40 percent of these associations of their charity status, since they abused that status to conduct business activities. The Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation (ATIB) and the Islamic Federation, an organization affiliated with the Turkish Islamic group Milli Gorus, criticized the announcement.

According to media, the Federal Office for Foreigner Affairs and Asylum (BFA) continued to refuse to issue or renew residence permits for foreign imams financed by foreign sources. The BFA rejected the permits and renewals on the grounds that, since the law forbids foreign funding of religious groups, it considered that imams receiving foreign funding had no income and were therefore ineligible for a residence permit. ATIB reported in April that, because of the ban on foreign financing, it had no imams in half of its 65 mosques. There were no reports that other religious groups faced similar problems in obtaining residence permits for their foreign clerics, although the government stated the restrictions on foreign funding applied to all religious groups.

In September, Federal Chancellery Minister for the EU and Constitution Karoline Edtstadler announced the government was developing a national strategy to combat anti-Semitism and would establish a new office in the Federal Chancellery to coordinate measures by all ministries to implement the new strategy. At year’s end, the government had not yet announced the strategy or established the office.

In a resolution adopted unanimously in February, parliament called upon the government to condemn and end any support for the BDS movement against Israel. The resolution stated that parliament condemned any form of anti-Semitism, including Israel-related anti-Semitism. IKG President Oskar Deutsch said he welcomed parliament’s initiative to counter anti-Semitism “veiled as criticism of Israel.”

Jewish leaders condemned the FPOe’s appointment of Johannes Huebner to the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, due to an anti-Semitic comment he made at a 2016 political rally in Germany. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress, said, “It is unconscionable that a renowned anti-Semite would be given such a respectable position,” while IKG President Oskar Deutsch commented, “The political return of Mr. Huebner is a confirmation of the lack of credibility of the Freedom Party.”

In December, parliament passed a law on hate speech, effective January 1, 2021, requiring online platforms to identify and delete posts considered to be hateful or defamatory. The platforms may be sued in court for failing to remove posts that plaintiffs allege are hateful or defamatory. The legislation received widespread support from civil society groups, including Amnesty International and the Association for Civil Courage and Anti-Racism. National media reported the legislation was partly motivated by an increase in online hate speech and government advocacy for better protection of victims, including by Justice Minister Alma Zadic (Green Party), who was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and had been a target of online hate speech during the year.

Following the assault against a Jewish leader in the Styrian capital Graz in August, police provided additional protection to the Graz Jewish community. Police also continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions, such as schools and museums throughout the country, to combat historically higher numbers of incidents directed at Jewish institutions. In addition, Integration Minister Raab announced special measures to combat anti-Semitism among immigrants and refugees, in cooperation with the IKG. These included special courses on anti-Semitism for refugees in the context of mandatory integration classes and expanding a program for Jewish youth to visit schools to talk about Judaism.

The governing coalition agreement between the People’s Party (OeVP) and Green Party, presented in January, stated the government was committed to fighting anti-Semitism and that the country would not support any initiatives or resolutions in international organizations that ran counter to its commitment to the state of Israel.

Following the IKG’s presentation of its annual report on anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, Chancellor Kurz stated in May that the country must be “even more united and determined in fighting any form of anti-Semitic tendencies.”

The international NGO Anti-Defamation League continued to conduct teacher-training seminars on Holocaust awareness with schools in the country, reaching approximately 100 teachers. School councils and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Research again invited Holocaust survivors to talk to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.

In October, the government announced it would provide 200,000 euros ($245,000) for the maintenance and restoration of the historic Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna over the next three years. Chancellor Kurz had promised aid for the cemetery in 2018. IKG President Deutsch welcomed the support. President Alexander Van der Bellen also visited the cemetery in September with Deutsch and stated it was “Austria’s duty to maintain the cemetery.”

In a video message from Jerusalem ahead of the World Holocaust Forum in January, President Van der Bellen deplored the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and pledged continued engagement to fight it: “Racism, anti-Semitism, human degradation must never again become political instruments.” While many Holocaust victims were Austrians – predominantly Jews – Austrians were also perpetrators, Van der Bellen stated.

Following slogans on FPOe posters for the Vienna municipal election in October that equated traditionally dressed Muslims with radical, violent Islamism, the Association of Social Democrat Academics filed incitement charges against the FPOe in Vienna with the Vienna Prosecutor’s Office. The association stated that the posters violated human dignity and religious freedom. The case was pending at year’s end.

In September, the Vienna public prosecutor requested lifting the immunity of FPOe Third Parliamentary President Norbert Hofer after Hofer stated at a June party rally that the Quran was more dangerous than COVID-19. The IGGO filed charges against Hofer of denouncement of religious teachings and incitement. In October, the case was dismissed after the parliamentary immunity committee decided against lifting Hofer’s immunity, stating he made the statement in the context of his political activity.

Following clashes in Vienna between Turkish nationalists and Kurdish groups in July, FPOe Secretary General Michael Schnedlitz said he considered his party “a weed killer against unlimited immigration.” Three parliamentary parties – the Social Democrats (SPOe), Greens, and NEOS – condemned the language as “Nazi rhetoric” and called for Schnedlitz’s resignation. Vienna FPOe Chairman Dominik Nepp stated Schnedlitz had been misunderstood and that he had not equated immigrants with weeds.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in refugee shelters in Vienna in May, Nepp called COVID-19 an “asylee virus” and “intolerable.”

The government continued to allow headwear for religious purposes in official identification documents, provided the face remained sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.

According to statistics presented by Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in December, the government granted citizenship to 633 descendants of Austrian victims of Nazi crimes, including persons from the United States, Israel, and Great Britain.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 13 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in the first half of the year. In all of 2019, there were 30 anti-Semitic and six anti-Muslim incidents, compared with 49 and 22 such incidents, respectively, in 2018. Most incidents, according to the ministry, involved hate speech. Government figures included only cases where authorities filed criminal charges. The ministry did not provide details on any of the incidents.

The IGGO’s Documentation Center on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism reported 1,051 anti-Muslim incidents in 2019, while the IKG reported 550 anti-Semitic incidents in the same year. The data were the most recent available. Both groups included incidents regardless of whether they were reported to police or criminal charges were filed.

In September, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released an overview of anti-Semitic incidents covering January 1, 2009 – December 21, 2019 across EU member states where data from official and unofficial sources were available. According to FRA, the overall trend for recorded anti-Semitic offenses in Austria was increasing, despite the decrease in the number of offenses from 49 in 2018 to 30 in 2019. In the period 2009-19, recorded cases of anti-Semitic offenses reached a peak of 58 in 2014.

In August, a Syrian living in the country attempted to assault Graz Jewish Community President Elie Rosen with a baseball bat. Rosen escaped to his car uninjured. The suspect also vandalized the Graz synagogue and an LGBT community center. Police arrested the man, who was awaiting trial at year’s end. The Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, federal ministers, governors, opposition leaders, and religious representatives stated there was no place for anti-Semitism in the country. IGGO President Vural stated that “we must be determined and united in fighting anti-Semitism.” Following the incident, the IKG reiterated its concern regarding what it described as anti-Semitism by Muslims in the country and participated in government programs to address anti-Semitism among refugees and immigrants.

In March, two unidentified youths attacked a Jewish teen wearing a Star of David ring in the Styrian provincial capital Graz, shouting, “Are you a Jew?” The victim was treated in a local hospital for cuts and bruises to his face. Police had not identified the assailants by year’s end.

In November, according to press reports, a woman accosted a Jewish rabbi at knifepoint, knocking the skullcap off his head, ripping it, and yelling anti-Semitic insults before fleeing. Police were unable to find the woman. Interior Minister Nehammer condemned the incident as an “attack on Jewish life in Vienna,” and the agency that investigates acts of extremism and terrorism took over the case.

The IGGO reported that the number of anti-Muslim incidents almost doubled in 2019 to 1,051, compared with the 540 reported in 2018. In 2015, the first full year in which it collected such statistics, IGGO reported 156 anti-Muslim incidents. Most 2019 cases (700) concerned hate speech and insinuations of violence on the internet, followed by insulting language and property damage. Six cases involved physical assaults. Men were more likely to face anti-Muslim behavior on the internet, while Muslim women were more likely to face it in person. According to the report, in October 2019, a man who had posted threatening comments on social media was caught bringing a knife to a university lecture; in February 2019, a man slapped a Muslim woman in the face on a streetcar; and in May 2019, a man wrote on social media “ragheads, shut up or go home.” Property damage cited in the report consisted primarily of graffiti, with slogans such as “[expletive] Islam” on toilets, public walls, or elsewhere.

The IKG reported anti-Semitic incidents increased by 9 percent in 2019, compared with the 503 cited in 2017 (it did not publish figures for 2018). Most of the reported incidents concerned insulting behavior, followed by mass mailings/internet, property damage, and threats. Six reports concerned physical assaults. According to the report, in one case of assault in October 2019, a teenager kicked a Jewish teenager wearing a kippa on the subway and insulted him; the Jewish teenager ran away. In December 2019, a man in a subway shouted “[expletive] Jews” to two Jewish teenagers wearing kippas, adding, “If I see you again, I will kill you.”

A report presented in June by the NGO Initiative for Discrimination-Free Education listed a total of 403 cases of discrimination in schools in 2019 and attributed 43 percent of these cases to religion, with 73 percent of those cases connected to what the NGO called Islamophobia and 25 percent to anti-Semitism. The remaining 2 percent involved discrimination against atheists. Examples included pressure on a Muslim religion teacher to participate in extracurricular activities by other teachers, who stated that the teacher otherwise was “not integrated in Austria.” The NGO classified the incident as discrimination based on religion. In another example, school pupils posted Nazi symbols in their WhatsApp group. The NGO stated the headscarf ban in elementary schools was discriminatory.

In 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, the government recorded 740 investigations into cases of incitement to hatred based on national origin, race, or religion and 43 convictions, compared with 1,005 investigations into cases and 72 convictions in 2018. The government did not provide information on how many of the cases involved religion.

The organizers of the annual May gathering of Croatians and Bosnians in Bleiburg to commemorate Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed in 1945 canceled the event due to COVID-19 concerns. In a parliamentary resolution passed in May, the OeVP, SPOe, Greens, and NEOS called on the Ministry of Interior to prohibit the event in coming years.

In August, a court in the Lower Austrian capital of St. Poelten convicted a former FPOe member of the provincial legislature on charges of neo-Nazi activity and issued him a 12-month suspended prison sentence. On April 20, 2014, the 125th birthday of Adolf Hitler, the man had written on Facebook “congratulations to all whose birthday is today.”

In August, in a separate case, a court in St. Poelten convicted a former local FPOe politician in Melk on charges of neo-Nazi activity, issuing a 15-month suspended prison sentence. The man had displayed the Nazi salute on several occasions in 2014 and had shouted “Heil Hitler.”

In March, a court in the Carinthian capital of Klagenfurt convicted a man on charges of neo-Nazi activity and sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment. The man had neo-Nazi tattoos and had called for “reopening concentration camps” on Facebook in 2010.

In an interview in May, the Secretary General of the IKG, Benjamin Naegele, stated that anti-Semitic sentiments occasionally surfaced at demonstrations against COVID-19-related restrictions or in debates about COVID-19 in social media. Naegele did not provide details or examples.

Fourteen Christian groups, consisting of the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and eight Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches, continued to meet twice a year within the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria to discuss religious cooperation. Baptists and the Salvation Army had observer status on the council. Two permanent working groups on “Religion and Society” and “Media” remained in place.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, including from the Federal Chancellery’s Office of Religious Affairs, the Department for Integration and Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Interior, to discuss religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities. Topics discussed included the concerns of religious groups, integration of Muslim refugees, cooperation with religious groups in combating terrorism, and measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

The Ambassador met with religious group representatives from the IGGO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Protestant churches, and various Orthodox churches to discuss their relations with the new coalition government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue, as well as how their communities were handling the COVID-19 crisis. Embassy officers also met with youth groups of religious organizations to discuss issues such as anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

The embassy continued to engage with and support the Jewish community to discuss ways of promoting religious tolerance and combating anti-Semitism. The embassy hosted a university seminar on “The Jewish Entrepreneurs of Hollywood,” which showed how religiously persecuted groups could succeed and counter the religious intolerance of others. Embassy representatives continued to serve on the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and Holocaust education. In November, the Department of State Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues made a presentation to the advisory board on the challenges museums, memorials, and other institutions face in organizing Holocaust remembrance activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The embassy continued its engagement with the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. The embassy nominated three members of the organization to participate in a training program that covered how NGOs can counter violent extremism and promote religious tolerance online.

In August, the U.S. Secretary of State, accompanied by the Ambassador, IKG President Deutsch, and Roman Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, laid a wreath at the Vienna Holocaust Memorial in remembrance of the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust.

In May, the Ambassador and the U.S. Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues recorded video messages for the virtual commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp. In their remarks, they stressed the importance of religious freedom, Holocaust remembrance, and never forgetting the horrors of the Nazi regime to ensure they are never again repeated.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities; it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity”; or hinder secular education. In two separate decisions in January and June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of five individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) under the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay compensation. According to Forum 18, an international human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), three of the five were arrested for gathering to study the works of the late Turkish Sunni theologian Said Nursi. One of the men said authorities physically abused him during his detention. In September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission it had violated the rights of multiple Muslim individuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet for worship or religious study at members’ homes. Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after a July 2018 attack on the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee and the subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities alleged those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Civil society activists and human rights groups considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated and estimated 43 individuals remained in prison at year’s end in connection with the events in Ganja. Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered Muslim Unity Movement (MUM), which the government characterized as an extremist group. Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the incarceration of MUM members to be politically motivated. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. According to these groups, the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 41 to 48 at the end of the year. Religious communities continued to express frustration that communities with fewer than 50 members were not allowed to legally register. The government stated that reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added “restriction of freedom” (i.e., probation) to preexisting penalties that included fines and imprisonment for publishing or distributing material with religious content without government approval. The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region or surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the conflict, Human Rights Watch reported two separate attacks on October 8 on the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha by Azerbaijani forces. In connection with attacks on and vandalism of religious sites following the Fall fighting, Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives expressed concerns for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious heritage as the sites passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control.

Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics. Groups viewed as “nontraditional,” however, were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers urged government officials to address longstanding issues with the registration process for smaller religious communities and to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups and civil society to discuss religious freedom in the country. Embassy officers also had consultations with theologians.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 data from the State Committee on Religious Associations in Azerbaijan (SCWRA) (the most recent available), 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are mainly Muslims and non-Muslims are mainly Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other national minorities. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.

According to the code of administrative offenses, an administrative offense is applicable to nonviolent crimes. An administrative arrest may last up to three months.

The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.

To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.

By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradict the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter or other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.

The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature; setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions; and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.

The law specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.

Rituals and ceremonies related to Islam may be performed only by citizens of the country. The law allows foreigners invited by non-Islamic registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they obtain special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2,900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

The administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishments for “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law. Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900 and $4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment. Violations by a group of people “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manats ($4,100 and $5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.

There is no religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds. Refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.

The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist acts; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to parliament. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in a position of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.

The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.

The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.

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

Government Practices

Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.

On June 4, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of four individuals whom it arrested between 2013 and 2015 by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Forum 18, authorities arrested the four – Taleh Bagirov (aka Bagirzade), Zakir Mustafayev, Ismayil Mammadov, and Eldaniz Hajiyev – for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The government acknowledged the length of pretrial detention had been excessive. The ECHR ordered the government to pay each of the men 3,000 euros ($3,700) in compensation. It awarded Mustafayev an additional 500 euros ($610) for costs associated with applying to the court. Representatives of the men said the compensation was too low and wanted the court to continue hearing the case, but it refused. The ECHR ruling in June followed a similar decision by the same court on January 16 concerning the extended detention of Hajiyev, Mammadov, and a third man, Revan Sabzaliyev, arrested in April 2014 when they met to study the works of Nursi. Hajiyev and Mammadov were also among the four men included in ECHR’s June decision. Bagirov said authorities tortured him during his detention. In 2015, authorities arrested Bagirov on charges of extremism following a police raid of a home where he was preaching. Five attendees and two officers died in the raid.

In nine cases concluded in September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the rights of multiple individuals to freedom of religion or belief. One case involved seven Muslims who were detained when they met at a home in Baku in 2015 to discuss the works of Nursi. In another case, authorities detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses when they met at a member’s home in Ganja in 2010. The government paid 4,400 euros ($5,400) in compensation to the Muslims and 4,000 euros ($4,900) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses following the decisions. In these cases, as well as in earlier cases where the government admitted culpability, the victims said they were concerned by both the low level of compensation the government offered and what they saw as its failure to change the laws to ensure similar violations did not occur again. Forum 18 said there were 34 cases alleging violations of freedom of religion or belief involving 61 individuals and five religious communities that were pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after the July 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and the subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government’s account of events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed hade not resisted arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. With the exception of Yunis Safarov, who was accused of trying to shoot Valiyev, civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated. They estimated 43 individuals connected to the events in Ganja remained in prison at year’s end.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM. Authorities stated the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran. Charges against MUM members included illegal possession of weapons, violation of the COVID-19 quarantine regime, and “resisting police” (a broad offense that includes not obeying police orders). As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity. According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of believers who were political prisoners ranged from 41 to 48, compared with 45 to 55 in 2019.

On March 13, police detained MUM member Elvin Muradov. On September 25, the Narimanov District Court sentenced him to two years and three months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. On June 22, police detained MUM member Shamil Hasanov. On October 27, the Binagadi District Court sentenced him to four years and six months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. During the year, authorities placed multiple members of MUM under administrative arrest for allegedly violating the COVID-19 quarantine regime and “resisting police.” For example, on March 21, the Sabunchu District Court sentenced Samir Babayev to 30 days of administrative arrest. On April 12, the Khatai District Court sentenced Hikmat Agayev to 25 days of administrative arrest. On June 10, the Imishli District Court sentenced Alik Aslanov to 15 days of administrative arrest.

On April 6, a presidential pardon released a number of individuals over the age of 65 because of concerns over COVID-19-related risks to elderly prisoners. The released individuals included two religious activists whom human rights advocates considered political prisoners, including one person arrested after a large November 2015 police operation targeting members of MUM.

Some minority Christian communities said the SCWRA made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them. The groups said there were fewer instances of officials raiding the premises of religious communities or detaining and fining individuals in connection with peaceful practice of their religion or beliefs than in years past. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated there were no detentions related to practice of their religion during the year, compared with 18 in 2019. They attributed the lack of incidents to improved relations with the SCWRA and their reduced public proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government did not implement alternative military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution, or make any draft law public. According to Forum 18, on March 30, ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov recommended parliament adopt an alternative service law. In April 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. Mehdiyev and Abilov filed an appeal with the ECHR, on which the court had not ruled as of year’s end.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 14 new religious communities (12 Muslim and two Christian), compared with 34 religious communities registered in 2019 (31 Muslim and three Christian). There were a total 963 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also said 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered. There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.

The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.

The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities. The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum. For example, Baptist communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration. Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered only in Baku. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered. Forum 18 reported that in January, the SCWRA told the Baptist community in the village of Aliabad, which has been seeking legal status since 1994, that SCWRA had “no objection” to the group meeting once per week for two hours, despite it not having legal status. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.

On September 23, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Baku Administrative Court, which on January 30, 2019 declined to review the complaint of former parliament employee Rahim Akhundov. Akhundov stated that in December 2018 he was forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal if he did not resign voluntarily. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home, and informed parliamentary leadership that he held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.

On August 28, authorities did not permit Shia believers to gather in mosques or mosque courtyards to mark the Ashura religious commemoration because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions that applied to all public gatherings, regardless of the purpose. Police detained numerous individuals in Shamkir, Yevlakh, Barda, and Lankaran for trying to observe Ashura in spite of the prohibition on gatherings. Judges sentenced at least six individuals to administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days.

Forum 18 said government officials sometimes refused to give birth certificates to Georgian-speaking families for children with Georgian first names or to Baptists wishing to give their children biblical names. According to Forum 18, without a birth certificate, a child may not attend kindergarten or school, be treated in a hospital, or travel abroad. The NGO said that in the early part of the year, following a one-year delay, officials granted a birth certificate to a family in Aliabad who had named their son Daniel. An individual close to the family told Forum 18, “The parents chose the name for religious reasons. But officials refused and insisted they choose an Azeri name.”

The SCWRA stated it prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 3,680 and the publication of six books out of 205. By comparison, in 2019 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239.

On October 22, the ECHR ruled in the case of Jehovah’s Witness Nina Gridneva. The court dismissed the case because the parties had reached a settlement in which the government recognized it had violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and committed to pay her 4,500 euros ($5,500) as compensation. In 2010, police stopped Gridneva while she was distributing religious literature on the street and officers seized the materials. A local court subsequently fined her for distributing “illegal” religious literature.

The ECHR ruled on February 20 that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses by banning three of their publications from importation and distribution in 2008. The ECHR ordered the government to pay compensation for the violation and refund court fees Jehovah’s Witnesses incurred trying to challenge the bans in local courts.

According to Shia Rights Watch, in June, officials demolished the Hazrat Zahra Mosque in Baku, saying the building was condemned, and undertook construction of a new mosque on the same site. The government had attempted to demolish the mosque in 2008; however, due to demonstrations, demolition was postponed.

The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups. On June 2, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2019. The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2019. Some observers stated the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.

The government did not exercise control over Nagorno-Karabakh or the surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting in the fall in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.

Human Rights Watch stated Azerbaijani forces attacked and damaged the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha in two separate incidents on October 8. Reporters on-site during the attack reported a drone flying overhead at the time and that the two strikes were made by high-precision missiles. There was reportedly no evidence the site was used for military purposes. In an October 26 interview, President Aliyev denied purposefully bombing the church, saying it was bombed by accident or was done by the Armenians themselves to frame Azerbaijan. Armenian religious officials accused Azerbaijan forces of desecrating the Holy Savior Cathedral after taking control of the city of Shusha on November 14. Photographs circulated on the internet showed graffiti on the outer walls of the cathedral. Azerbaijani media said the graffiti in the online images had been photoshopped.

Numerous videos circulated during and after the fall fighting that showed attacks on and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. These videos prompted Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives to express serious concerns regarding the preservation of the sites as they passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control. Following the ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested that Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kalbajar, a territory returned to Azerbaijani control after the fall fighting, fearing its carvings could be destroyed and that without protection the site would become inaccessible. Russian peacekeepers took control of the site immediately following a November 14 call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. President Aliyev’s public claim that “the churches in Kalbajar belong to the ancient Caucasian Albanian state” raised concerns among Armenians that Azerbaijan might seek to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Armenian heritage.

Armenian media reported both during and after the fall fighting that representatives of the Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeted monuments of historical, religious, and cultural significance. On November 14, a person whom local media identified as Azerbaijani posted a video on Facebook showing the alleged destruction of the dome and the bell tower of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha.

There were also videos of soldiers desecrating and damaging the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin, located in Mekhakavan settlement, including the breaking of the church’s cross. When the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin was constructed in 2017 by Armenia-supported de facto authorities as a military chapel, Azerbaijan formally protested the construction on “occupied lands” in a depopulated area as a violation of international humanitarian law.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups, such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.

The executive director of the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, Mehman Ismayilov, said that during the year, the foundation provided monthly assistance to 984 Muslim religious figures serving in mosques, including imams and deputy imams, and transferred 100,000 manat ($58,800) to 22 non-Muslim communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals that NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed the government to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. They met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues regarding the registration process for smaller religious communities and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in the months following the ceasefire arrangement, the Ambassador consistently underscored the importance of granting unimpeded access to religious and cultural sites to UNESCO and international journalists with Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, alternative military service, and relations with SCWRA. Officials also consulted with theologians. In a program intended to empower women involved in work with religious organizations, the embassy sponsored the travel of a group of five female employees working for the SCWRA and CMB to the United States from March 4 to March 13. In the United States, the group met with representatives of different interfaith and religious organizations, visited different houses of worship, and learned about the role of women in American religious communities.

Bahamas

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of religion is a fundamental right; individuals may practice freely the religion of their choice or practice no religion at all. The law prohibits discrimination based on religion. Some Rastafarians continued to state the government violated their constitutional right to religious freedom by prohibiting the legal use of marijuana in ceremonial rituals and detaining them for its use. A February preliminary report by the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana included a recommendation to grant Rastafarians and other religious groups the right to use marijuana for religious purposes. In October, Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced the government would expunge records of individuals convicted for possession of small amounts of marijuana starting in 2021, although this would require parliament to pass legislation. The government regularly engaged the Bahamas Christian Council (BCC), comprising religious leaders from a wide spectrum of Christian denominations, to discuss societal, political, and economic issues.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

U.S. embassy representatives met regularly with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity in the country. Embassy representatives also met with the president of the BCC, and representatives of the Muslim, Rastafarian, and Jewish communities to discuss the importance of societal tolerance for religious diversity and inquire about how government policies and practices, including COVID-19 restrictions, affected religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 338,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, more than 90 percent of the population professes a religion. Of those, Protestants make up 70 percent of the population; Baptists, 35 percent; Anglicans, 14 percent; Pentecostals, 9 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 4 percent; Methodists, 4 percent; Church of God members, 2 percent, and Brethren, 2 percent. Twelve percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Other Christians are 13 percent of the population, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Orthodox Christians, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the census, five percent is listed as other, having no religion, or unspecified. Other religious groups include Jews, Baha’is, Rastafarians, Muslims, Black Hebrew Israelites, Hindus, and followers of Obeah, which is practiced by a small number of citizens and some resident Haitians. According to a leader of the Rastafarian community, there are more than 10,000 Rastafarians in the country. The leader of the Jewish community estimates there are 500 Jews.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to practice one’s religion. It forbids infringement on an individual’s freedom to choose or change his or her religion, and prohibits discrimination based on belief. Parliament may limit religious practices in the interest of defense, public safety, health, public order, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The constitution refers to “an abiding respect for Christian values” in its preamble; however, there is no state-established religious body or official religion.

The practice of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean belief system with some similarities to Voodoo, is illegal. Those caught practicing it or attempting to intimidate, steal, inflict disease, or restore a person’s health through the practice of Obeah may face a sentence of three months in prison. Reports of violations are infrequent, as Obeah is generally practiced in private on remote islands with no discernable organizing body, but the Royal Bahamas Police Force said it will investigate any credible reports. The publication and sale of any book, writing, or representation deemed blasphemous is punishable by up to two years in prison but opinions on religious issues “expressed in good faith and in decent language” are not subject to prosecution under the law. This law is traditionally not enforced.

The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must legally incorporate to purchase land. There are no legal provisions to encourage or discourage the formation of religious communities, which have the same taxation requirements as profit-making companies if they incorporate. To incorporate, religious groups follow the regulations applicable to nonprofit entities, requiring the “undertaking” of the religious organization to be “without pecuniary gain,” and that the group maintains a building for gathering. In accordance with value-added tax (VAT) legislation, religious organizations seeking VAT exemptions must register with the Ministry of Financial Services, Trade, and Industry and with the Department of Immigration and apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The law prohibits marijuana use, including for religious rituals.

Religion is a recognized academic subject at government schools and is included in mandatory standardized achievement and certificate tests. Religion classes in government-supported schools focus on the study of Christian philosophy, Biblical texts, and, to a lesser extent, comparative and non-Christian religions. Religious groups may establish private schools. The constitution states no one shall be compelled to participate in religious instruction or observances of a religion other than his or her own. It allows students, or their guardians in the case of minors, to decline to participate in religious education and observance in private schools. Vaccinations are required to attend school. Home schooling is permitted and is regulated by the Ministry of Education.

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

Government Practices

Some Rastafarians continued to state the government violated their constitutional right to religious freedom by prohibiting the legal use of marijuana in ceremonial rituals. Rastafarians said police continued to arrest them for possessing small quantities of marijuana used in ceremonial rituals. They said police were disrespectful and intimidated them during detention. In February, Prime Minister Minnis introduced in parliament’s lower house the final preliminary report of the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana, which recommended Rastafarians and other religious groups who use cannabis for sacramental purposes be allowed to possess, cultivate, and use it for that reason. A representative from the Rastafarian community served on the commission. In October, Prime Minister Minnis announced that starting in 2021, the government would begin to expunge records of individuals convicted for possession of small amounts of marijuana, although this would require parliament to pass legislation. In August, Minnis extended the commission’s mandate through June 2021 to allow it to complete a national survey on public views on cannabis use, which would inform its final report.

In October, the government-supported Economic Recovery Committee, formed during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, recommended the legalization of cannabis with strict controls over its production, consumption, and exportation.

The government regularly engaged the BCC to discuss political, economic, and societal issues, including the ongoing debate over whether to legalize use of marijuana. In an October statement, BCC President Bishop Delton Fernander expressed the BCC’s opposition to the legalization of marijuana, saying, “The Bahamas Christian Council believes that marijuana or the introduction of a hemp industry is simply not the solution that the country is seeking or needs to address our many woes. We can see no societal or national advantage with the proposal submitted to the government by the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana.”

Unlike in previous years, Rastafarians said during the year that no Rastafarian children were excluded from attending school if they were not vaccinated.

The leader of the Jewish community, Rabbi Sholom Bluming, praised the government for its general openness and respect for religious diversity, saying the government continued to allow the display of menorahs in public spaces during Hanukkah. The leader of the Islamic community, Ameer Faisal Hepburn, said Muslims were able to worship freely without governmental discrimination.

The government continued to include Christian prayer in all significant official events. It was common for government officials and members of parliament to quote religious teachings during speeches, and senior government officials in their official capacities occasionally addressed assemblies during formal religious services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives met regularly with government officials from the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including during the Organization of American States Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief. They discussed promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity in the country.

Embassy officials also engaged the president of the BCC, representatives from the Muslim, Rastafarian, and Jewish communities, and civil society leaders to discuss religious freedom, including the importance of governmental and societal tolerance for religious diversity.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The government-run and funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general Islamic religious activities, as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest clerics and other members of the majority Shia community. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the August Ashura commemoration – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Police released some the same day and held some overnight; others remained in custody for several days or weeks. On January 13, authorities charged Shia cleric Abdul Zahra al-Samaheeji with defamation of religious figures. On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Abdul Mohsin Atiyya al-Jamri for a sermon “defaming a figure that is revered by a religious group.” On August 30, the Public Prosecution Office arrested a Shia physician for making remarks in public which defamed religious figures in Islamic history. The government continued to monitor, regulate, and provide general guidance for the content of all religious sermons – of both Sunni and Shia religious leaders – and to bring charges against clerics, citing violations of topics preapproved by the government. The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, al-Fateh Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques. Many Shia mosques broadcast sermons via social media. According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for public sector positions.

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. An NGO reported that some in the country blamed the Shia community for the spread of COVID-19 after the first confirmed case was publicly linked to travel from Iran. The NGO pointed to a February statement by a member of the government’s national COVID-19 task force that sought to immediately dispel such rumors. NGOs reported on the adverse economic effect of Sunni-Shia tensions and local political divisions. Shia representatives reported persistently higher unemployment rates, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and lower socioeconomic status compared to the Sunni population. Because religious and political affiliations were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely base on religious identity.

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister, Assistant Foreign Minister, and Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to provide for the full and equal participation of all citizens, irrespective of religious or political affiliation, in political, social, and economic opportunities. In both public and private settings, U.S. officials continued to request that the government pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practice. In October, the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence and the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism signed a memorandum of understanding outlining joint cooperation to combat anti-Semitism in Bahrain and the region.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the government, there are approximately 712,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population. According to 2019 U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 73.7 percent of the total population, Christians 9.3 percent, Jews 0.1 percent, and others 16.9 percent (Hindus, Baha’is, Sikhs, and Buddhists).

The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations. Most estimates from NGOs state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the citizen population. Local sources estimate 99 percent of citizens are Muslim, while Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, and Jews together constitute the remaining 1 percent. According to Jewish community members, there are approximately 36 Jewish citizens from six families in the country.

Most of the foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arab countries. Local government estimates report approximately 51 percent of foreign residents are Muslim; 31 percent Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Sikh; and 17 percent Christian (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma from South India).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.” The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as they do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed. All citizens have equal rights by law. According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith. The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public and private public sectors on grounds of religion or faith. The labor law deems dismissal for religion to be arbitrary and illegal but provides for no automatic right to reinstatement. The law also prohibits wage discrimination based on sex, national origin, language, religion, or ideology. The law stipulates recourse through a complaint process to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) to legal bodies in the event of discrimination or dismissal in the workplace on the basis of religion.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine,” and do not prejudice the unity of the people or arouse discord or sectarianism.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments (MOJIA) to operate. Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf (endowment), while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf. The MOJIA endowment boards supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls. Non-Muslim groups must register with the MOLSD to operate. In order to register, a group must submit an official letter requesting registration; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses; and other information, such as the group’s bylaws and bank account information. Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or the Ministry of Interior (MOI), depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine. The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

According to the MOLSD’s official website, 19 non-Muslim religious groups were registered with the ministry: the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral and Awali Anglican Church, Full Gospel Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, and the Anglican and Episcopal Church in Bahrain. Additionally, non-Muslim, nonregistered groups include the Baha’i, Buddhist, and Jewish communities.

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The Office of the Ombudsman, as part of the MOI, addresses the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the King with recommendations from the president of the SCIA. The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites. The government has allocated 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) annually to each endowment board. Zakat (Islamic tithes), income from property rentals and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations. The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

The government-run and funded SCIA oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The council is comprised of a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 16 religious scholars eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges. The King appoints all council members to a four-year term. Independent from other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships to low-income students for advanced Islamic studies. The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by parliament to ensure the draft law’s compliance with sharia. The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers. The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs. The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.

The King has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials, including the Prime Minister. By law, construction of places of worship requires approvals from appropriate national and municipal authorities. The law permits non-Islamic houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises. Government entities involved in allocating building permits include the MOJIA for non-Islamic religious sites and either the Sunni Waqf or the Shia Jaafari Waqf under the MOJIA for Islamic sites. The construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, is based on a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area. The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system. The government funds public schools for grades one through 12; Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims. Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and foreign-operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE. Outside of school hours, Muslim and non-Muslim students may engage in religious studies that the MOJIA sponsors, as their parents deem fit.

In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence. According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded. The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas. There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad. The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.

According to the constitution, sharia forms a principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code. With regard to family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia. The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia. The personal status law states that either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce, shall govern depending on the religious affiliation of the party. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court. Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody for non-Muslims.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates. Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination. Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries. It specifies the succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son. The royal family is Sunni.

The law prohibits individuals from being members of political societies or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations. Organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.

The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

Because religion and political affiliation are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to January press reports, in September 2019, Bahrain’s Special Investigations Unit referred two police officers to the Military Court on charges related to mistreatment of Shia detainees in Jaw Prison. The press reported that, in December 2019, a criminal court sentenced one of the accused officers to one year in prison. The court sentenced the other officer and four other police officers to three months in prison in the same case.

The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics.

On January 13, authorities summoned Shia cleric Abdul Zahra al-Samaheeji for questioning and remanded him for one week pending an investigation. The government charged him with defamation of religious historical figures. On January 21, authorities remanded him for additional 15 days for further investigation. On February 20, the government released al-Samaheeji without formal charge.

On March 12, the King issued a royal decree pardoning 901 inmates, many of them Shia, for humanitarian reasons against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those released were charged with crimes related to religious expression. On May 23, the King issued a royal decree pardoning and releasing another 154 inmates who served part of their prison terms. These pardons coincided with the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

On August 12, the Court of Cassation reversed the revocation of citizenship of three Shia defendants who were sentenced to life in prison for setting fire to the Sitra Police station in 2017. However, the court did not grant their appeal and the life sentences continued. The Public Prosecution Office said that the three defendants had connections with the February 14 Movement, named for the 2011 uprising against the government and associated with the Shia community.

On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri for a 2019 sermon “defaming a [historical] figure that is revered by a religious group.” During a sermon delivered in 2019, the preacher reportedly defamed Mu’awiya I, who assumed the caliphate in 661 after the assassination of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali.

On August 30, the Public Prosecution Office arrested a Shia physician, Wissam Khalil al-Arayedh, for defaming historical religious figures during his public reflection to mark the commemoration of Ashura. The Public Prosecution Office said that al-Arayedh’s message promoted violence and sectarian sedition. Activists and rights groups stated that authorities misinterpreted his remarks. The government released al-Arayedh on September 1 on bail, banned him from overseas travel, and referred his case to the High Criminal Court.

In November, the press reported the Third Lower Court sentenced an unnamed defendant to a six-month prison term for insulting religious symbols and persons of reverence in Islam in sermons he had given. The press stated that the sermons contained “expressions of insult and cursing” aimed at companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

In September, the Public Prosecution Office summoned several Shia preachers because of the content of their sermons: Ebrahim al-Ansari, Qassim Zainuldin, Naji Ahmed Eid, Abdul Nabi al-Gharifi, Nasser Ali, and Ebrahim al-Sammak. The government accused them of “spreading sectarianism” after delivering sermons “defaming revered religious figures.” Activists said that the sermons were part of the Shia observance of Ashura. Authorities sentenced al-Sammak to one year in prison and Ebrahim al-Ansari to six months in prison. The government released the others after detaining them for seven days.

Authorities prosecuted defense attorney Abdulla al-Shamlawi, who defended opposition figures, including Ali Salman and other members of the now-banned opposition group al-Wifaq, which had strong ties to the country’s Shia community, for “defamation.” On September 14, an appeals court gave al-Shamlawi a six-month suspended sentence for “inciting sectarianism.” Some of the charges against al-Shamlawi involved two tweets that he sent in 2019 in which he criticized Sunnis for fasting during Ashura and for considering it a joyful day. The appeals court decision overturned the June 30 verdict of the High Criminal Court, which sentenced al-Shamlawi to eight months in prison for “humiliating an Islamic sect” and “misusing a telecommunications device.”

On September 8, the MOI Anti-Cyber Crime Directorate arrested an individual who circulated a video on social media defaming Shia beliefs. The directorate said that legal proceedings are underway against him.

On September 11, the Court of Cassation reviewed the verdicts of 20 defendants who participated in what the government called an illegal sit-in in front of senior Shia Sheikh Isa Qassim’s house in Diraz that began in 2016. The court upheld sentences in 16 of these cases, rejected two appeals, ordered a reduced prison term in one case, and ordered a retrial in one other. The suspects in this case, known as the “Diraz sit-in case,” were among 146 individuals that the Public Prosecution Office had accused of possessing explosives, having connections with terror cells based abroad, and attempting to kill police officers.

International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the August Ashura commemoration – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated the individuals for the content of their sermons and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight while others were detained and released the same day; others remained in custody for several days or weeks.

On June 15, 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld the death sentences of Zuhair Ebrahim Jassim and Hussain Abdulla Khalil Rashid. The government prosecuted both on charges of targeting security forces and killing a police officer in a bomb explosion in 2014. A New York Times report identified the men as members of the Shia community who previously expressed opposition to the government.

On September 17, the Public Prosecution Office filed an urgent motion against a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions after she published defamatory pictures and tweets on social media platforms. The Public Prosecution Office ordered the woman held pending trial.

On September 21, the Court of Cassation overturned the conviction of a citizen charged with blasphemy and misuse of telecommunications and referred the case back to the lower criminal court for retrial.

Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end. They had been associated with opposition to the government and were given prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred. Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.

In January, the MOI summoned historian Jassim Hussain al-Abbas for a speech he gave at a conference in which he discussed the history of mosques in the country and alluded to Shia rulers of Bahrain before the first al-Khalifa emir.

In February, the NGO Bahrain Interfaith reported the one-year anniversary of a complaint submitted to the King by Mohsin al-Asfoor, the former head of the Jaafari Waqf, regarding MOI interference in Jaafari Waqf affairs and MOJIA actions affecting the Shia community. These included measures that hampered the funding, construction, and licensing of new religious endowments, mosques, and maatams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries), specifically the acquisition of new properties for new mosques and maatams, and government delays in approving construction of new mosques and maatams and renovation of existing ones. In June, the King appointed a new head of the Jaafari Waqf. The NGO stated that despite a change in leadership in the Jaafari Wafq, the government had not addressed the issues raised in al-Asfoor’s original complaint.

On February 16, Bahrain Interfaith issued a separate report regarding a decision by the country’s Electricity and Water Authority, part of the Ministry of Electricity and Water (EWA), to charge facilities that Shia community members identify as maatams for electricity and water. The NGO stated that the authority based its decision on a 2012 law promulgated by the MOJIA which held that, unlike Sunni or Shia mosques, maatams were not houses of worship, which are exempt from utility fees, but were public facilities, which are not. Government officials, on the other hand, dated the decision to a 2016 review of all maatams registered with the Jaafari Waqf, which found that approximately 200 registered maatams were actually residences or shops and not maatams. At that time, the government informed the owners of these buildings that they would need to address the status of their properties and would be responsible for the payment of electric bills. According to a November 2019 article in the newspaper al-Ayam, more than 600 of these facilities had not changed their status, had not paid past-due electric bills, and were subject to having their power shut off by the EWA.

According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that restrictions imposed by prison authorities effectively denied Shia prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. NGOs continued to state that prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment.

In August, inmates in Building 14 at Jaw Prison undertook a hunger strike to protest religious discrimination, lack of access to medical facilities, and limits on family visitation due to COVID-19-related restrictions. There were reports authorities denied prisoners access to religious services during special commemorations such as Ashura, and prayer time. Some detainees said prison officials limited time for practicing Ashura rituals due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. A government human rights institution that monitored complaints of human rights violations said, however, that inmates were given additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas, adding that religious rituals were not permitted in prison cells as a matter of general policy.

The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees. The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation. The National Institution for Human Rights, a quasi-governmental organization responsible for investigating complaints of abuse in prisons, stated its investigations did not find widespread harassment or mistreatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation. NGOs, however, cited several instances of prisoner abuse.

The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public sector employees, members of parliament, or ministers. According to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 19 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni Muslims. Following parliamentary elections in 2018, of 40 seats on the elected Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia. Five of the 24 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

The government reported 598 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers; authorities increased the number of licensed Shia places of worship to 754 mosques, while the number of maatams remained at 618, the same number as in 2019. The government reported it granted 30 permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and an additional 30 permits to build Shia mosques and maatams. NGOs stated authorities did not allow the construction of new mosques in Rifaa or maatams in Hamad Town, despite numerous requests from community members. The government stated that determining whether a mosque would be Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds that their actions jeopardized national security. The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

On August 26, the MOI Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security Directorate warned against social media accounts that spread sectarianism. The MOI stated that these accounts were managed by political groups operating in Lebanon and Iran, including the dissolved al-Wifaq political society and al-Wafa Islamic movement, both of which had strong ties to the country’s Shia community.

In March, hundreds of Shia pilgrims reported they were stranded in Iran due to flight cancellations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least four persons died in Iran while waiting to be repatriated. The government chartered special flights to allow the stranded pilgrims to return home, but the process ultimately took months due to public safety concerns, airport closures, and the unavailability of flights. Rights groups accused authorities of sectarianism and stated that they were reluctant to repatriate the Shia pilgrims. On March 1, 18 members of parliament (MPs) called on authorities to postpone the return of Bahrainis from the “endemic countries,” of which Iran was one. They argued that repatriating Bahrainis at that time would rapidly increase the number of infected persons at home. The Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights said that the MPs’ statement “promotes sectarian discrimination and creates discord among people.”

On February 29, the Jaafari Waqf issued a statement calling on maatam administrators to freeze all activities (marriages, funerals, and social gatherings) until further notice because of the pandemic and announced that mosques would also be closed for all prayers. The government allowed maatams otherwise to remain open but did not allow maatams to hold or facilitate gatherings of more than five people. The Sunni Waqf ordered Sunni mosques closed on March 23.

The government also closed non-Islamic houses of worship and other places of congregational worship in late April due to concerns about COVID-19. Before the government’s decision, many non-Muslim religious groups had voluntarily closed their houses of worship due to the pandemic. The government started to ease official restrictions for all non-Muslim groups beginning in mid-August.

On August 11, due to public health concerns, MOI officials reportedly warned leaders of maatams that hosting Ashura-related activities despite COVID-19 restrictions could result in imprisonment or fines, according to opposition-linked social media accounts. On August 16, the Supreme Council of Health restricted Ashura ceremonies to online events and urged maatam representatives to abide by preventive measures put in place by the Ministry of Health (MOH).

On August 23, NGOs reported that a maatam in Hamad Town was shuttered by the MOI and that maatam representatives in A’ali and in Manama were summoned by the authorities. The MOI and the MOH cited violations of social distancing regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the reason for these actions.

On August 26, following meetings with the Jaafari Waqf, the National Task Force to Combat COVID-19 said it would allow Shia mourners to sit in chairs outside maatams during Ashura sermons while maintaining two meters’ (six feet) distance between the attendees in all directions. Some members of the Shia community stated that these restrictions were much stricter than those applied to other public buildings such as shopping malls. The task force also stated it would allow Ashura processions in the vicinity of maatams to proceed, providing that social distancing was maintained and other precautionary measures implemented, such as wearing face masks and regularly using disinfectant. The government continued to prohibit large Ashura processions in Manama’s city center and in the market area.

On August 26, MOJIA announced the progressive opening of all mosques beginning August 27. The ministry added that all mosques would be open only for Fajr (dawn) prayers and that Friday prayers would be performed in Al-Fateh mosque. The MOJIA also said it would suspend prayers in mosques that failed to follow safety and social distancing measures. On September 7, the Jaafari Waqf issued a statement suspending gatherings in maatams following an increase in positive COVID-19 cases subsequent to Ashura commemorations.

The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura in August and Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura, commemorating the death of Hussein) in October, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission. During the annual two-day public holiday for Ashura, most public schools and government offices were closed. The government permitted public reenactments of the death of Hussein and public processions in commemoration of Ashura.

In August, social media accounts reported that the MOI had summoned mosque representatives in Hamad Town and directed them to suspend broadcasting Ashura sermons due to concerns about crowds gathering to listen to those sermons in contravention of COVID-19 social distancing regulations. A former member of the Wifaq opposition society stated that the Shia community was forced to use mosques to observe Muharram due to the lack of maatams. Social media accounts also reported that a maatam in Hamad Town was locked by the MOI and that the government summoned maatam representatives in A’ali and in Manama and required the maatam officials to sign a pledge to observe social distancing. On August 26, the media reported that Isa Qassim, whom the media have identified as the leading Shia cleric from the country and who was living in Iran in exile, stated that the government had closed mosques in Hamad Town in the days before Ashura. According to the press report, Qassim said that “No mosque is ever owned by any country.”

On August 20, local NGOs reported that the MOI removed several Ashura banners in Ras Rumman, Al-Sahla, and Al-Maameer. The MOI also removed some Ashura flags and banners from streets and private property in Shia villages, but not at the main procession areas in Manama, according to Shia leaders.

Shia Rights Watch, a U.S.-based NGO, stated that authorities announced restrictions on religious congregations and public organizations holding Muharram commemorations, which the government said were based on COVID-19 concerns. According to the NGO, authorities warned that some religious centers would be fined and shut down for three years for hosting Muharram rituals if they violated COVID-19 social distancing protocols. At the same time, Shia representatives stated that malls, swimming pools, and other businesses where customers congregate were allowed to open or continue their operations.

The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. Security forces stated they continued to monitor religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications that were perceived to criticize Islam. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The MOJIA also reviewed books that discussed religion. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and publicly encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions. In September, the King’s Representative for Humanitarian Work and Youth Affairs, Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, participated in the celebration of the Hindu festival of Onam and said that the observance of Onam confirmed the importance of dialogue and understanding in the country. In August, the government announced that it would allow a large-scale renovation and extension of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple in the Manama souq.

Authorities permitted some churches to build larger premises on different locations, but at year’s end, these churches had not received MOLSD’s final approval for the location of the new facilities. Government sources reported that land scarcity was the reason for this delay.

There was no progress reported on the construction of a Coptic Orthodox church in Manama following the King’s 2016 announcement that he would permit the church’s construction. A construction start date had still not been established. Construction continued on a Catholic cathedral, intended to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which was scheduled for completion by mid-2021.

On August 15, a woman destroyed several Buddhist statues in a shop in Juffair. The following day, after a video of the incident appeared on social media, the MOI arrested the woman on a charge of publicly attacking and degrading a religious sect. Authorities referred the case to the Public Prosecution Office. According to the MOI, she faced charges of intentional criminal damage as well as publicly insulting and desecrating items associated with a religious faith. The King’s diplomatic advisor tweeted that the woman’s actions were “a crime…of hatred and is [sic] rejected. Here, all religions, sects, and people coexist…”

The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, Al-Fateh Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques. Many Shia mosques broadcast sermons via social media.

According to the MOJ, officially registered organizers of Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages needed to abide by strict rules to maintain their licenses. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no organized pilgrimages to the holy sites.

According to the law, Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence are eligible to apply for citizenship. Government representatives stated that in recent years, it has received citizenship applications from persons born in Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, and Morocco. The government stated that foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.

According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military. They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates. Other community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally. The MOLSD reported it organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods. The ministry, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year. Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination, so they did not utilize them.

Two public schools provided more thorough religious instruction for students from elementary school through high school; the remainder of their curricula was consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools. The MOE’s Jaafari Institute provided religious instruction in Shia Islam. The MOE’s Religious Institute provided education in Sunni Islam.

The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students. There were five registered institutes, publicly funded and overseen by the Sunni Waqf, offering religious education for Sunnis. There were several dozen hawzas, six of them registered and authorized by the SCIA.

Human rights activists continued to report discrimination against Shia in education. On August 29, the MOE said it had granted all high-scoring students from government and private schools their initial choices for universities and major placements. The MOE stated that the students could track their own placements and grants on the ministry’s website. The government reported the flagship Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP) continued to have both Shia and Sunni representation, but it again did not provide a statistical breakdown of participants. A list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools was published on the CPISP website. Some Shia business leaders again reported that government officials had overturned decisions to deny scholarships to Shia students over concerns the decisions had been biased and did not reflect student merit. There were continued reports that the MOE refused to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations. The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.

At year’s end, the government had still not filled the position of ambassador at large for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom. In 2018 the Foreign Minister announced the government planned to create such a position.

Representatives of the King Hamad Center for Peaceful Coexistence, led by a Board of Trustees comprised of representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, met with governmental and religious groups in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, where they also met with government and civil society leaders. Marking the end of Ashura on August 31, the King expressed thanks to the Shia community for taking steps to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus during recent religious observances, noting that such caution reflected the country’s “humane reference in the exercise of religious freedoms, respect for religious pluralism, and … the general values of [Islam].” On September 15, the diplomatic advisor to King Hamad received the country’s Jewish community representative.

Christian community leaders stated they continued the search, which began in 2012, for a suitable location for a new non-Islamic cemetery. While the government continued to work with them to identify a location, they did not identify a site during the year.

On September 1, the Muslim Council of Elders, an independent international organization based in the United Arab Emirates that promotes unity and an end to sectarianism in Islamic societies, offered membership to the SCIA’s head, Abdulrahman bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Khalifa, in recognition of his efforts to encourage religious coexistence and tolerance.

In a September 21 speech, the King said, “We want the world to know that peace is our message and strategic choice and that tolerance and peaceful cohabitation have long characterized the Bahraini peoples’ identity.” He added, “True peace means accepting others, and this is the true essence of Bahrain citizens,” and that the country was a “lighthouse for intellectual, cultural, religious, and sectarian diversity.” Bahrain Interfaith, however, stated in February that it “has not witnessed any positive practical developments on the official level regarding religious freedom, cultivating tolerance, and religious coexistence.” The NGO said the government’s “policies and practices on the ground are inconsistent with its positions that are more rhetorical than practical.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. Posts stated that former Shia leaders were “traitors,” “agents of Iran,” “terrorists,” “killers,” “criminals,” plotters,” and, occasionally, “rawafid” (a derogatory term that describes Shia who refused to accept the early caliphates). Anti-Sunni commentary often was characterized by the use of anti-Shia slurs.

Shia Rights Watch reported that some in the country blamed the Shia community for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The NGO pointed to a statement made in late February by Dr. Manaf Al-Qahtani, a member of the national COVID-19 task force, that sought to dispel such rumors: “Neither the virus nor the disease has any relation to a specific race or a particular sect. It is a widespread virus that anyone may catch. We wish no one would nickname the virus by linking it to a specific party or doctrine.” On February 26, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa delivered remarks that stressed that COVID-19 does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or religion and called for a united effort to confront the pandemic.

Non-Muslim religious community leaders reported there continued to be some Muslims who changed their religious affiliation, despite ongoing societal pressure not to do so. However, those who did so remained unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.

NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have an economic effect. Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia, exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.

Several Hindu and Sikh temples operate throughout the country. The Shri Krishna Hindu Temple, more than 200 years old, is an important center of Hindu worship in the country. The country is also home to a historic Jewish synagogue that is undergoing renovation to include a museum on the history of the local Jewish community. There are more than one dozen Christian churches, which include a 100-year-old evangelical Christian church and an 80-year-old Catholic church. There is no registered Buddhist temple; however, some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.

According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam. Local news reports during the year featured activities of minority religious communities, including announcements of changes in leadership, Muslim bands performing at Christmas festivities, and sports events organized by the Sikh community.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year involving a team of international experts, 32 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 27 percent overall for the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it related to religious practices. These exchanges included the Ambassador’s phone calls and virtual meetings, necessitated by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, with Sunni and Shia officials, businessmen, and civil society groups during Ramadan. The Ambassador and embassy staff members visited various houses of worship and attended religious events during the year, including the observation of Ashura, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, and Diwali. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

On October 22, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the Chairman of the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence, Khalid bin Khalifa al-Khalifa, signed a memorandum of understanding outlining joint cooperation to combat anti-Semitism in both Bahrain and the region.

The embassy continued to encourage the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability. The embassy also continued to support religious freedom through its online presence.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

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 March 12, a Bangladesh Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim defendants of the group Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), a violent extremist group accused in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. 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 to 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 deploy law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence. In January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the elections during a Hindu festival.

In October, media reported a crowd of several hundred persons beat to death a Muslim visiting a mosque after a rumor spread that he desecrated a Quran in Lalmonirhat District, Rangpur Division near the country’s northern border. The man’s body was then set on fire. In July, according to press and Sufi Muslims, a Sufi follower was stalked and killed outside a Sufi shrine in Gazipur. In July, press reported local residents exhumed the body of an Ahmadi Muslim infant buried in an Islamic cemetery and dumped the body at the side of the road in protest of the infant’s burial, because they considered her family to be “infidels”; the body was later buried in a government cemetery. According to leaders in the Hindu community and media, in November, a crowd of several hundred looted, vandalized, and set on fire Hindu family homes in Cumilla District after rumors spread that local Hindu residents supported Charlie Hebdo’s publication in France of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in September. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report 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 (BHBCUC) said communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In meetings with government officials, civil society members, religious leaders, and in public statements, the U.S. Ambassador, other U.S. embassy representatives, and the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom 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. During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma and host communities. Embassy public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including an event held on November 24.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 162.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, the most recent official data available, 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, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, animists, 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. Human Rights Watch estimates approximately 1,500 Rohingya in the refugee settlements are Christians; approximately 450 are Hindu. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than one 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 the country. 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.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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 and the Digital Security Act, to charge individuals for acts perceived to be a slight against Islam. The Information and Communication Act criminalizes several forms of online expression, including “obscene material,” “expression(s) likely to cause deterioration of law and order,” and “statements hurting religious sentiments.” The Digital Security Act likewise criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” by denying bail and increasing 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”, the peaceful coexistence of religious communities, 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 to 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, 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, and providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the National Security Intelligence; 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 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 are 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.

According to law, if a lower court orders the death penalty, the High Court examines the verdict for confirmation of the punishment.

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

Government Practices

On March 12, according to media reports, a Bangladeshi Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim members of JMB, a violent extremist group, for their involvement in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. The victim, Jogeshwar Roy, chief priest at Sri Swanta Gouria Monastery, was stabbed to death while organizing prayers at the temple.

At year’s end, the death sentence of seven individuals for their roles in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka remained on appeal with the High Court. In November 2019, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced the seven, while acquitting an eighth defendant.

Legal proceedings against six suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. The trial began in the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in April 2019. In March, the trial proceedings stalled due to the absence of witnesses. In late March, authorities closed all courts until August due to the coronavirus outbreak, when the trial resumed. In November, two more witnesses provided testimony to the court, bringing the total witnesses to 24.

There was no progress in the court case regarding a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District; victims expressed frustration to media over the continued investigation into the incident.

Biplob Chandra Baidya, a Hindu man, remained imprisoned since October 2019 for anti-Islam messages posted to his Facebook account, which he stated was hacked. Rioters vandalized homes and religious temples following the postings.

According to press reports, in January, local authorities arrested a Baul folk singer, Shariat Sarker, for derogatory comments against religion and “hurting religious sentiments,” criminal offenses under the law. Baul singing incorporates elements of Tantra, Sufism, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism. Authorities arrested Sarker following a protest by more than 1,000 individuals and a complaint to police by a Muslim cleric. Authorities denied Sarkar bail at the first hearing of his case at the Tangail District Court on January 29. According to press reports, Sarkar spent six months in jail. In February, a lawyer accused another Baul folk singer, Rita Dewan, of making derogatory comments against Allah during a musical competition. After a video recording of the song went viral, she apologized. Criminal charges were brought against Dewan that same month, and following a police investigation, a court issued a warrant for her arrest in December.

In March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights requested the government to “urgently revise the Digital Security Act, to ensure that it is in line with international human rights laws and that it provides for checks and balances against arbitrary arrest, detention, and other undue restrictions of the rights of individuals to the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression and opinion.”

Human rights organizations reported a decrease in the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year. In 2019, there was a reported 54 percent decrease in reported cases of fatwa and village out-of-court arbitrations overall. Media attributed the decline to civil society activism. Fatwas, however, continued throughout the year, including a November edict issued against a sculpture honoring Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the country.

Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and provide guidance on the content of their sermons to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders again said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. The government maintained instructions to mosques to denounce extremism.

According to the Ministry of Land’s 2018-2019 report, the most recent figures available, as of 2018, authorities had adjudicated 26,791 of 114,749 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 12,190 of the cases, recovering 10,255 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 14,791 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the BHBCUC attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

Freedom House’s 2020 report assessed religious minorities remained underrepresented in politics and state agencies.

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 16.93 billion taka ($199.2 million) for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which covers July 2020-June 2021. The budget included 14.25 billion taka ($167.6 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.12 billion taka ($95.5 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 1.435 billion taka ($16.9 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 46.8 million taka ($551,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2020-2021 budget, it received seven million taka ($82,400) 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. Some human rights activists said it was often difficult to determine whether these disputes and evictions were a result of deliberate government discrimination against religious minorities or of government inefficiency. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. 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. Indigenous groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in particular, have large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. A portion of these communities speak tribal languages and do not speak Bangla, making it difficult to access government registrations and services and further disenfranchising these groups.

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. During the year, the government assisted places of worship implement COVID-19 precautions during major festivals.

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 January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the election during a Hindu festival.

In January, the government said it would lift education restrictions for young Rohingya refugees. According to Minister of Foreign Affairs AK Abdul Momen, “We don’t want a lost generation of Rohingya. We want them to have education. They will follow Myanmar curricula.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools in the country remained closed beginning in March.

In September, Minister of Education Dipu Moni participated in an interreligious gathering on education, resilience, respect, and inclusion promoting what she termed the country’s history of religious harmony and tolerance for all faiths.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In October, according to police and local reports, a crowd of several hundred persons carrying sticks beat to death Abu Yunus Md Shahidunnabi Jewel and then set his body on fire. According to local press accounts, Jewel and a companion visited a mosque while away from his hometown, and while viewing the mosque’s Quran and Hadith, the Quran fell to the ground. A rumor quickly spread that Jewel had desecrated the sacred text. After a crowd attacked Jewel and his companion, officials attempted to protect them in the local government office. The crowd, however, broke into the office and grabbed Jewel. Although his companion successfully fled to the rooftop, Jewel was beaten to death. After Jewel was killed, according to eyewitnesses and video clips, the crowd burned his body while chanting, “Nara E Takbeer Allahu Akbar,” loosely translated as “Shout out loud, God is greatest.” The crowd also attacked law enforcement officers, and police opened fire in what was described as a measure to bring the situation under control, although no casualties were reported. Police authorities formed a government human rights investigation committee team that found after three days of review no evidence Jewel desecrated the Quran.

In late July, according to reports by Sufi leadership and a local media outlet, a Sufi follower named Soheil was stabbed to death in Gazipur, Dhaka. A local media report said criminals noticed Sohail outside a Sufi shrine, followed him, tied his arms and legs, then stabbed him in the stomach and disemboweled him. JMB claimed responsibility and published an online video of the killing. The following morning, the killers tied a brick to Sohail’s body and threw it over the Fakir Majnu Shah Bridge into the Shitalakhya River. While interrogating suspected JMB militants, the Dhaka Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit uncovered this incident and attempted to recover Sohail’s remains. According to Sufi leadership, Sohail was known for selling religious objects and conducting spiritual healings and had the nickname “Maizbhandar Sohail,” linking him with one of the major Sufi shrines in Bangladesh and potentially making him a target. Following the admission, the crime unit included this incident in its investigation into the JMB militants.

Also in July, major news outlets reported the exhuming and subsequent dumping of an Ahmadi Muslim infant’s body on the roadside in Brahmanbaria District. In a public statement, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community said the infant was born prematurely and died three days after birth. The bereaved family had buried the infant in a government cemetery, which according to the media reports caused local residents to become infuriated, not believing it appropriate to bury an Ahmadi Muslim’s body in a government cemetery for Muslims. After local residents exhumed the infant’s body, law enforcement responded to the incident and interviewed both the local residents and the family. Following intervention by law enforcement, the family agreed to rebury the infant in a separate Ahmadi cemetery. Human rights groups not associated with Ahmadiyya Islam termed the incident a “crude example of violence against religious minorities and abuse of human rights.”

According to the BHBCUC, communal attacks against ethnic and religious minorities occurred throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The BHBCUC counted 17 deaths in religious and ethnic minority communities between March and September. In June, the Bangladesh chapter of the World Hindu Federation released a press statement detailing a series of 30 incidents against Hindus in May. These included as many as four incidents in which Hindus were killed, according to the federation. The report also noted incidents of temple vandalism, forced conversion, rapes, and abductions of Hindu girls and women. In November, protesters demonstrated in Dhaka, Chattogram, and other parts of the country against communal attacks on minority religious communities. Saying government actions were not enough, protesters demanded tough action and accountability for perpetrators who they stated were harming religious harmony in the country.

In November, according to Hindu activist groups and widely reported in media, a Muslim crowd burned, looted, and vandalized Hindu family homes in Cumilla District, Chattogram Division. Local press outlets reported the crowd was incited by rumors that local Hindu residents supported the publication in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in France in September. In remarks to the press, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan promised “stern, punitive actions” against the culprits and increased police presence in the affected village following the attack. By the end of the year, police arrested 16 suspects in connection with the violence.

According to press reports, in January, unknown persons attacked several Rohingya Christian families at the Kutupalong Maga refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar. Although the reasons for the attack were unknown, one of the Christian refugees said intolerance against the Christian faith was the cause. According to Refugee Relief and Reparation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder, 25 Christian families were transferred to another camp following the attack.

According to media reports, in July, individuals destroyed and forcefully removed the bamboo fence bordering a 200-year-old Hindu temple to the god Shiva and privately owned land in Dighirjan Village of Pirojpur District, in an attempt to take possession of the land. The landowner said no arrests or charges were made in connection with this incident.

The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs continued to report 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 linked with his or her surname, particularly if the professed faith was Christianity, harassment, threats, and social isolation could ensue.

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. In October, the Mro tribe, a majority Buddhist group, protested the development of a tourist hotel on Chimbuk Hill, Bandabarban, stating the project would displace tens of thousands of Mro from their ancestral land. According to NGO and press reports, the Mro acquiesced to handing over 20 acres of land believing it would be used for cultivation purposes. However, they later discovered an agreement between the Army Welfare Trust, a fund for Bangladesh Army officials, and a private Bangladesh company to construct a high-end hotel. The Mro said they were deceived when discussing the intended use of the property and did not relinquish their rights to the land.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives regularly 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 importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights into security policy and stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks.

During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in the country, emphasizing U.S. support for protecting vulnerable religious minority groups.

As part of U.S.-funded training for community policing, the embassy specifically 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 a virtual roundtable held on November 24 that brought together leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths. During the discussion, participants discussed reports of rising communal attacks against religious minorities and how the United States could assist in protecting religious minorities. On December 18, Department of State and embassy officials participated in a virtual meeting with Hindus and Christians, including the Bangladeshi diaspora community in the United States, to similarly discuss rising communal attacks, possible causal factors, and appropriate response measures. Embassy officials attended religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. On November 18, the Ambassador visited the Hindu Sri Siddeswari National Temple and met with temple leadership to discuss COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact on the Hindu community.

The embassy used social media throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On October 27, U.S. International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy posted social media messages highlighting the U.S. government’s commitment to advancing religious freedom.

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, BHBCUC, 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 often virtual meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, underscored the importance of religious tolerance, and identified challenges religious minorities encountered.

Barbados

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion, and prohibit discrimination based on religious belief. The government does not require religious groups to register and grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. In October, the government announced its approval of an exemption for official photographs to allow male and female applicants to wear religiously-mandated head coverings. The exemption will apply to passport, drivers’ licenses, and national identification card photographs, among others. Muslim and Rastafarian communities requested the exemption and said they were pleased with the outcome. On September 15, the government announced its intention to decriminalize the personal use and possession of small amounts of marijuana, legally recognize same-sex civil unions, and raise the question of whether same-sex marriage should be legal through a public referendum. Some religious leaders, including of the Anglican Church, expressed opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage and said they would not perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Asheba Trotman, the head of the Rastafarian community organization Ichirouganaim Council for the Advancement of Rastafari (ICAR), welcomed marijuana decriminalization, but said the community hoped eventually further measures would enable them to cultivate marijuana on their farms for personal as well as commercial use.

ICAR head Trotman said that in the organization’s view, social attitudes had changed, and Rastafarians were well accepted.

On October 8, the Ambassador hosted an event with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom. Representatives from the Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of the Nazarene, and Jewish communities participated.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 295,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, approximately 76 percent of the population is Christian, including Anglicans (23.9 percent of the total population), Pentecostals (19.5 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5.9 percent), Methodists (4.2 percent), Roman Catholics (3.8 percent), Wesleyans (3.4 percent), Church of the Nazarenes (3.2 percent), and the Church of God (2.4 percent). Religious groups with 2 percent or less of the population each include Baptists, Moravians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other religious groups, together constituting less than 3 percent of the population, include Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha’is. Approximately 21 percent of respondents do not identify a religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion, and prohibition of discrimination based on creed. A law criminalizing “blasphemous libel” is not enforced.

The government requires religious groups to register only in order to obtain duty-free import privileges and tax benefits. A religious group must file the relevant customs and tax forms with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office, along with a resolution passed by the majority of its board of trustees expressly authorizing the application, plus the group’s related statutory declaration.

The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. The government provides subsidies or financial assistance to some of these schools to help cover the cost of students who could not find space in a public school. The public school curriculum includes religious “values education” as part of the historic association of schools with Christian missionaries, who founded many of the schools. At the primary school level, the focus is on nondenominational Christianity. At the secondary school level, all major religions are included. The constitution protects students from mandatory religious instruction, ceremony, or observance without personal consent or, if younger than age 21, consent of parents or guardians.

By law, vaccinations are required for all school-age children attending both public and private schools as well as those who are homeschooled. The vaccination program is administered through the Ministry of Health, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. There are no exceptions for religious beliefs. Homeschooled children must be registered with the Ministry of Education.

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

Government Practices

In October, the government announced its approval of an exemption for official photographs to allow male and female applicants to wear religiously-mandated head coverings. Government officials said the exemption would apply to passport, drivers’ licenses, and national identification card photographs, among others. Muslim and Rastafarian communities requested the exemption and said they were pleased with the outcome.

On September 15, the government announced its intention to decriminalize the personal use and possession of small amounts of marijuana (half an ounce or less), legally recognize same-sex civil unions, and raise the question of whether same-sex marriage should be legal through a public referendum. Leaders of the Anglican and Pentecostal Churches expressed opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage. According to the government, the decision to recognize same-sex civil unions was justified to protect individuals’ civil rights. According to media, on September 22 the Anglican Church of Barbados announced it would not recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. The Anglican Church said its decision was based on the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in England, which found that marriage is a lifelong union of a man and a woman. Anglican leaders said they would not perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Leaders of other religious groups also said they would oppose any government actions that would compel them to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Based on media reports, there appeared to be minimal opposition from mainstream religious organizations to the government’s marijuana decriminalization decision, which makes possession of small amounts unlawful and subject to a fine of 200 Barbados dollars ($100) rather than an arrest. An ICAR member said the Rastafarian community welcomed the decriminalization decision and hoped it would ultimately lead to measures enabling them to engage in marijuana cultivation on their farms for personal use as well as commercial opportunities. The ICAR representative said the commercial and medicinal benefits of marijuana cultivation were well established, and the community was optimistic about further liberalization.

ICAR head Asheba Trotman reported the discrimination she said her community experienced in years past had diminished and for the most part its members were accepted. Trotman said that among its younger members, Rastafarianism was considered a cultural movement with a strong connection to the African legacy that the vast majority of Barbadians shared. She said younger members did not think of Rastafarianism as a religious organization.

According to Trotman, Rastafarians continued to object to the government’s vaccination requirement for school enrollment.

Leaders of religious organizations said COVID-19 public health restrictions on gatherings, although applied equally in the country, adversely impacted their finances, limited their ability to conduct in-person services, and hampered their membership growth prospects. Several organizations reported they successfully implemented online services to offset the public gathering limits.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Family-Faith-Freedom, a group whose members represent 49 churches across the country, organized weekly marches against the legalization of same-sex unions. Social media reaction to news coverage of these events was very critical of the marches. Some commentators urged churches to focus on other issues, said march organizers were hypocritical, ignorant, or bigoted, or affirmed their support of same-sex unions or the right to privacy.

A Rastafarian community leader said discrimination against community members had diminished and societal acceptance and tolerance had increased, including in the workplace.

According to church leaders, a positive aspect of COVID-19 restrictions was a net increase in combined online and in-person participation in worship services compared to pre-COVID-19 numbers. The leaders said online worship opportunities enabled leaders to engage younger individuals, whom they said were essential to their growth prospects because religious community membership across the country was generally skewed towards individuals over 60 years old.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 8, the Ambassador hosted an event with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom. Among those invited, representatives from the Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of Nazarene, and Jewish communities participated.

Belarus

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” A concordat grants the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional faiths” of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law prohibits all religious activity by unregistered groups. The country experienced massive peaceful protests met with what most observers considered a brutal government crackdown following the August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent. Demonstrators protested electoral fraud, and authorities responded with widespread violence against peaceful protesters, the opposition, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Most of those detained, jailed, or fined – including clergy – were charged indiscriminately with “organizing or participating in unauthorized mass events.” Authorities continued their surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Religious groups met less frequently at their own discretion due to COVID-19 infection concerns. At the same time, authorities focused less on monitoring religious groups as they were preoccupied with other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a struggling economy, the presidential campaign, and the election-related protests that followed. Some minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to have difficulty registering, and most said they avoided trying to register during the year because of COVID-19 and the unsettled political situation. Roman Catholic groups again stated the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign clergy (notably priests from Poland). On August 31, the government blocked the return of Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from a visit to Poland, despite his being a Belarusian citizen. Authorities allowed the Archbishop to return on December 23. Throughout the year, authorities continued to support commemoration of victims of the Holocaust and preservation of Jewish cemeteries.

Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians. Interdenominational Christian groups continued to work together on education and charitable projects.

Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with the government, including at the highest levels, on religious freedom issues, including registration of religious communities, the return of Archbishop Kondruszewicz, and anti-Semitism. The Secretary of State and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom publicly called on the country’s authorities to allow Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to reenter the country and lead the Roman Catholic Church there. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about their religious activities and discuss government actions affecting the exercise of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration (the latest such data available), approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and six percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, eight percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately two percent of the population include Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics (“Uniates” or members of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church), Old Believers (priestist and priestless), members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Most ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, are Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious belief and participating in the performance of acts of worship is not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.

The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters. The office takes part in drafting and implementing state policies on religious affairs, enforces and protects religious rights and freedom, monitors activities of religious organizations and compliance with their charters, regulates relations between the state and religious organizations, liaises with state agencies and religious organizations upon their request, promotes tolerance and mutual understanding between religious organizations of various faiths and nationalities, and researches dynamics and trends in interdenominational relations to prevent “religious exclusiveness” and disrespectful treatment of religions and nationalities. OPRRNA has one deputy and the office has two subdivisions, a section for religious affairs and a section for nationalities affairs. The executive committees of the country’s six regions and Minsk city have departments for ideology and youth engagement, which include religious issues. These departments are independent from OPRRNA but share information. The plenipotentiary representative heading OPRRNA is appointed and dismissed by the President, based on a nomination from the Council of Ministers. The plenipotentiary office performs the functions of a government body and is subordinate to the Council of Ministers.

The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an exarchate (affiliate) of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.

A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the Church with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s Orthodox patron saint.

The concordat serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen agreements, including with the Ministries of Defense, Health Care, and Information. There is also an agreement with the Ministry of Education through 2020 that provides for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.

The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons older than 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, and one of these communities must have been active in the country for at least 20 years. National-level religious associations have the ability to institute regional and local level religious associations. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.

According to OPRRNA data, as of January 1, there were 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,389 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,709 religious communities, 15 dioceses, six schools, 35 monasteries, one mission, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. (The latter two are clergy-led lay organizations.) The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, six schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 498 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 13 denominations encompass 1,038 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 34 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 53 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.

The national religious associations are the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.

To register, a religious community must submit an official application containing the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion as well as its rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches toward marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.

Regional government authorities as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk) review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, and a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.

To register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities, except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.

The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law does not contain a provision for appealing a warning or suspension.

The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. Local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.

By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.

The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event, including those involving religious groups, planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the event. Authorities must inform organizers of a denial no later than five days before the event. Denials may be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group; or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the event.

The government has a system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services required from organizers of mass events, including religious events held outside of religious premises and sites, rallies, competitions, cultural events, festivals, concerts, and similar occasions. If an application is approved, organizers must sign contracts for such services two days in advance and must reimburse all costs within 10 days.

The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.

Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for restitution to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property being used for cultural or sports purposes

The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy but does not permit religious communities to do so.

The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is the only religious group to have such an agreement. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “Such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’s sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”

The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.

The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.

The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.

Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign clergy may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.

By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. Authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country – a decision which cannot be appealed.

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

Government Practices

The August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent, prompted massive peaceful protests. The government responded with what most observers considered a brutal crackdown against what it deemed to be “unauthorized mass events.” Human rights groups reported more than 33,000 persons were detained and at least four killed by security forces by year’s end. Some of the “unauthorized” gatherings were organized by religious groups in response to violent actions by security forces and widely reported human rights abuses. Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents in which religious communities participated as being solely based on religious identity.

The peaceful public protests generally sought an end to violent action by police and called for the release of political prisoners, investigations into human rights abuses by the authorities, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s peaceful departure from office, and new free and fair elections. Those postelection protests that involved public prayer largely focused on calling for peace and an end to violent actions by authorities. Some clergy were among those detained during the postelection protests. For example, on August 13, Orthodox priest Uladzimir Drabysheuski stood in front of the investigative committee office in Homyel holding a banner that said, “Stop the Violence.” A district court convicted him on charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 10 days in jail on September 18. He was additionally convicted on similar charges for a protest on September 6 and given a sentence of 15 additional days of arrest on September 28.

Forum 18, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on international religious freedom, said in October there were “violations of freedom of religion and belief and of the interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in the country” that “worsened amid widespread continuing protests against falsified results of the August 2020 presidential election and against the regime’s other serious violations of the human rights of the people it rules.” The NGO stated that the government detained and charged individuals with civil penalties for participating in unauthorized mass events when they took part in public prayer events that called for peace and an end to violent actions by security forces in Minsk, Hrodna, Lida, and other cities.

On August 26 and 27, members of religious communities were among the protesters in Minsk’s Freedom Square – also the location of Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals – who intended to march to Independence Square. During the protest events, Uladzimir Vladimir Mayoraurov, a Protestant, was detained and sentenced to eight days in jail after preaching against violence to riot police in Freedom Square. On August 27, a group of Protestants led by Pastor Taras Telkouski of Trinity Church prayed outside the doors of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Cathedral on Freedom Square and then marched to the nearby Roman Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral. Telkouski was detained, charged with “organizing an unauthorized mass event,” and fined 810 rubles ($310).

According to media reports, on August 16, while security forces indiscriminately detained and beat protesters in Minsk, riot police also detained Aleksandr Fruman. Upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him with a rubber truncheon while shouting anti-Semitic insults, according to Fruman, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” He was released a few days later. Jewish community leaders said they observed no increase in anti-Semitism during the postelection protests, and they did not express concerns that their community members who participated were targeted for their ethnicity or religious beliefs by police.

Religious leaders spoke out together against violence and in favor of societal dialogue after the August 9 election, expressing sympathy for those hurt in the violence. On August 14, in his address to Lukashenka and government officials, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said, “In the name of such a necessary peace in our Fatherland and national harmony, I appeal to authorities to start a constructive dialogue with society, end the violence, and immediately release all innocent citizens detained at peaceful rallies.” He condemned “the bloodshed on the streets, the beating of peaceful demonstrators who want to know the truth, the cruel treatment of detainees, and their detention in inhuman conditions in prisons” as “a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence.” On August 17, then Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel visited a Minsk hospital, where he stated that the BOC was apolitical, but he spoke out against violence and noted the hospital’s patients included protesters, bystanders, and those injured in police custody. On August 18, the Catholic Church in Belarus – together with the BOC, Protestant denominations, and Jewish and Islamic communities – hosted an interfaith service in Minsk to pray for a peaceful resolution to the postelection crisis and an end to violence and hatred among all sides. In response, authorities said remarks by religious leaders constituted interference in political affairs.

On August 31, border guards denied Archbishop Kondrusiewicz reentry into the country after a trip to Poland. The Archbishop had spoken out against violent actions by security forces and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit peaceful protesters arrested following the August election. Kondrusiewicz, a Belarusian citizen, said he was given no explanation at the border for why he was denied his legal right to return. Authorities said they placed him on a no-entry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The Archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. On December 23, Lukashenka allowed Kondrusiewicz to return, following repeated intervention by the United States, EU member states, and the Vatican.

Religious community leaders condemned the authorities’ actions barring Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from the country. Bishop of the Pentecostal communities Leanid Varanenka stated on September 1 that Kondrusiewicz “raised his voice in defense of peace, mercy, and unity and in condemnation of violence, lies, and hatred. This is the spiritual, moral, and ethical duty of any clergy and does not represent political activity.”

On April 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused a request from Russia to extradite member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Russian citizen Nikolai Makhalichev, who was subsequently released after being arrested during an identity check in Haradok, Vitsebsk Oblast, on February 21. Makhalichev applied for asylum on the day of his arrest, and the government later approved his request. He told the press that he was not aware of a criminal case opened against him in Russia in 2019 on charges of “organizing and financing an extremist organization,” allegedly based on his religious practice as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified as “extremists” under Russian law.

Human rights defenders said they remained concerned about the authorities’ ability to apply charges arbitrarily for organizing, running, or participating in unregistered religious organizations. Authorities did not use this provision of law specifically against religious organizations during the year, but human rights organizations said they continued to view it as a threat against religious freedom.

Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from unfavored groups.

Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. During the year, authorities in Lida and Barysau rejected applications from communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses – two new applications in Lida and an appeal of a denied application in Barysau. In addition, OPRRNA denied two applications from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to register a mission.

Some minority religious groups stated that they did not apply for registration because their members feared harassment by authorities and did not want to submit their names, as required by the application process. Other minority religious groups preferred to negotiate registration and other concerns with local authorities, but few registration attempts were made during the year. Some communities said they decided to postpone their registrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns.

As of year’s end, the government had taken no action on a November 2018 UN Human Rights Committee recommendation that the state repeal mandatory state registration of religious communities.

Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of fear of prosecution and perceived government hostility. Some registered religious communities said they were reluctant to report restrictions because they feared drawing attention to themselves.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities granted permission on a regular basis to clergy who requested access to visit prisoners. Some clergy were denied permission to visit protestors who had been detained after the August 9 election. Many prisons maintained designated Orthodox religious facilities that Belarusian Orthodox clergy were occasionally allowed to visit through the year.

On September 16, a district court in Lida fined local resident Alyaksandr Shor 270 rubles ($100) for praying outside the Catholic Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He was part of a group of residents who had gathered to pray there for the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from Poland.

On October 16, a court in Lida fined Roman Catholic and Polish community activist Irena Bernatskaya 810 rubles ($310) for an “unauthorized mass event” led by a group called “Mothers in Prayer,” in which participants gathered to pray for an end to violent actions by security forces outside the walls of the local Roman Catholic cathedral on August 12.

On October 21, Slutsk police dispersed a flower-laying ceremony by Slutsk residents to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The traditional red and white carnations used for the commemorations matched the historical Belarusian national colors that the opposition and protestors adopted as their own and authorities opposed. Police arrived after approximately 12 to 14 persons placed the flowers near a Holocaust memorial. The small group left the area after a police detention van arrived. According to the organizer, the group did not plan a large rally and had not applied for permission to gather in advance. On October 26, at least four Slutsk residents were fined or were sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in an “unauthorized mass event.”

On November 18, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued warnings to BOC spokesperson Father Syarhey Lepin and Catholic Bishop Yury Kasabutski. The two were rebuked for their Facebook criticism of authorities’ decision to destroy an unofficial memorial at the site of the beating of Raman Bandarenka, a Minsk resident who died on November 12 after he had been detained and sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. Lepin wrote, “What was the purpose of this diabolic trampling upon candle lamps and icons?” The General Prosecutor said the clergymen’s “statements were aggressive” and “increased tension in society [and] stirred up hatred against the government and hostility towards these social groups.” The warnings came after Lukashenka’s November 17 remarks that “we can’t tolerate this mockery” and his instructions to law enforcement authorities “to make legal assessments of the church officials’ words,” since “there will be no memorials heralding a civil war, as they say, in Minsk or elsewhere.” Lepin resigned as BOC spokesperson after the warnings.

On November 30, a court in Ivatsevichy in Brest Oblast tried Greek Catholic priest Vitali Bystrou for participating in an alleged “unauthorized mass event” in the city of Brest on October 25 and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. While police claimed Bystrou was among protesters holding red and white flags, the priest explained he was simply walking from the church to a train station in his religious clothing, which “is acceptable for my faith.”

On December 3, a court in Rasony District sentenced local Roman Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok to 10 days in jail for propagating Nazi symbols. Barok, who is also a well-known blogger, posted a photograph of a red and green swastika (the colors of the official Belarusian flag that Lukashenka introduced in 2012) and an emblem with the slogan “Stop Lukascism” on his Instagram account, referencing Lukashenka.

On December 7, police in Vitsebsk arrested local resident Ala Raschinskaya, who had prayed for victims of political repression outside the Catholic cathedral on November 13, and sentenced her to 10 days in jail.

On December 8, authorities in Vitsebsk detained Greek Catholic priest Alyaksei Varanko, Roman Catholic priest Viktar Zhuk, and layman Alyaksei Karyakau for participating in “unauthorized mass events.” They were released the next day after a court dismissed their cases. In a retrial on December 24, the three were warned not to participate in such events in the future.

According to observers, the government continued surveillance of various Protestant denominations. The sources stated that government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials, including from the security forces, reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.

Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to their perceptions that they could face intimidation or punishment.

Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. According to media accounts, the BOC was free to proselytize without restrictions on television and in print media as well as in public spaces. Unlike other religious groups, the BOC continued to participate in government-sponsored public events, such as rallies or celebrations, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. For example, on July 3, the Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan participated in the annual “Belarus Remembers” Independence Day commemoration along with Lukashenka, veterans, public officials, soldiers, civil society representatives, and Minsk residents. In addition, regional authorities often engaged BOC representatives in their events. On June 5, forestry officials in the town of Slonim and students and faculty of the Minsk Spiritual Seminary planted birch and pine trees, an event which the BOC reported was inspired and organized by Navahrudak Diocese archpriest Dimitri Syemukha.

The national government approved the importation of literature requested by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.

After religious leaders called on the security forces to end violent action against peaceful protestors and urged a genuine national dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition, state-run Radio Belarus One stopped the nationwide broadcast of the 40-minute Roman Catholic Sunday masses from the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk, as well as a brief news summary from Vatican Radio on August 23. Roman Catholic leadership noted the importance of broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when believers chose not to attend services in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. The state-run Belarusian TV and Radio Company refused to air the annual December 25 Christmas message from the Roman Catholic Church without explanation. The television station did, however, stream the Roman Catholic midnight Mass on December 24.

Authorities continued to deny requests to give the Belarus-based Catholic radio station Radio Mariya a media broadcasting license that would supplement its internet broadcasting. The Ministry of Information denied Radio Mariya’s fifth application in April.

According to local religious groups, communities chose not to pursue many new purchases or rentals of properties as places of worship during the year, partially due to the political situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many communities reported that they did not believe that they faced impediments to purchases or rentals of sanctioned places of worship. Some religious communities with outstanding property cases continued to engage with the government and the legal system to resolve them. Converting residential property for religious use remained difficult. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups because they were less likely to own religious facilities, and they said they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.

Saint Simon and Helena Roman Catholic Church parish continued to use its existing church building (also known as the “Red Church”), even though it was owned by the government. During the year, Minsk city authorities billed the parish for costs related to 2018-2019 renovation work, in addition to monthly rent, utilities, and real estate and land taxes, which amounted to a total of 160,000 rubles ($61,600) for 2019. The parish continued to refuse to pay for the land tax, property tax, and renovation work. The parish in 2020 was billed 12,000 rubles ($4,600) monthly. On July 21, St. Simon and Helena Church community members launched a petition seeking the return of the building from the government and collected more than 5,000 signatures in support.

Because of its location in one of Minsk’s main protest sites, authorities occasionally restricted access to the Red Church or chased protesters into it. On August 26, riot police pushed peaceful protesters and journalists into the church and stood guard at the doors, effectively locking them in for approximately an hour. Many of those forced inside engaged in prayer until they were allowed to leave. The government changed the locks on the church’s doors the next day, leaving the parish with one set of keys. Authorities also reportedly cut electricity to the building during rallies outside the church on August 23-25. On August 26, the then-vicar general of the Minsk-Mahilyou Archdiocese, Bishop Yury Kasabutski, condemned the “unacceptable and illegal actions” of riot police and the government and called on authorities to investigate incidents and guarantee freedom of conscience and expression. On September 11, riot police blocked entrances into the church to prevent protesters from hiding inside and detained a number of protesters who fled there. Police reportedly did not detain worshippers or individuals in the church who were present to pray.

Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Belarusian Orthodox, and Protestant communities said authorities did not charge them fees for their religious events. In some cases, however, community leaders had to take personal responsibility for maintaining order and safety at such events. Observers stated that the system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services for organizers of mass events adopted in 2019 was not intended to prohibit regular worship, nor was it doing so in practice. There were fewer religious events in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For the ones that were held, authorities did not charge fees, seek reimbursements, or implement other restrictions that had previously forced organizers to cancel similar events.

According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite Belarusian Orthodox priests to lecture to students, organize tours of Church facilities, and participate in Belarusian Orthodox festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.

On January 23, Lukashenka signed a decree allocating 1.2 million rubles ($474,000) from reserve funds to cover salaries of professors and employees, as well as stipends for students, of the Belarusian Orthodox seminaries. Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church said their schools did not receive any financial support from the government.

On March 26, the BOC and the Ministry of Education signed a 2020-2025 program of cooperation, noting the importance of continued engagement between the church and the government. The program included seminars, lectures, tours to BOC sites, and joint commemorations and celebrations.

Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations inconsistently, which affected the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. On September 2, OPRRNA on short notice canceled permission to work and preach for Father Jerzy Wilk, a Polish citizen and priest of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the village of Varapaeva in the Vitsebsk region. Wilk departed the country shortly afterwards after having served the community since 2003. While OPRRNA gave no explanation for the decision, representatives of religious communities continued to say that unofficially the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than rely on foreigners.

On September 29, Bishop Kasabutski denied allegations that the Roman Catholic Church was used by external forces for political purposes. In a sermon, he said the political allegations made by the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, as reported by the SVR press service on September 29, were “fake.” The bishop added that Naryshkin’s allegations that “the United States of America, the CIA, and other organizations are trying to use the Roman Catholic Church to undermine the state system in [Belarus]” were absurd and were “a lie that has nothing to do with the truth.” He said, “Today the Roman Catholic Church tells the truth about the situation in the country, denounces the violence, and calls for solidarity, unity, concord, peace and forgiveness,” adding, “This is how we probably prevent someone from implementing certain scenarios aimed at causing a split in our society and bloodshed.” The bishop also dismissed speculation about tensions in relations among various religious groups in the country. State media reported only Naryshkin’s allegations against the Catholic Church and not the bishop’s statements.

Roman Catholic bishops continued to state that foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including a lengthy government approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; visas often issued for only three to six months; and administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas. In August, however, local bishops reported that authorities renewed all requested visa applications that had been submitted or were pending review.

According to Forum 18, the government continued to refuse Klemens Werth, a Catholic priest from Russia, permission to engage in religious work. He was allowed to remain in Vitsebsk to continue building a new church, but since he was a foreigner, he was banned from celebrating Mass or otherwise serving.

During the year, Lukashenka repeatedly stated that the political unrest in the country had been supported and financed by Poland along with the Baltic states and the West more broadly. He said the Roman Catholic Church was involved. After authorities barred Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country from Poland, Lukashenka stated on September 1 that the Archbishop, a Belarusian citizen, had received “instructions” while in Poland on how to “destroy” Belarus. On November 2, Lukashenka said, “The BOC is not bringing clergy from abroad, from countries foreign to our country, as it is being done by some other denominations. We cannot accept any clergy from Poland when Catholic Poland has taken such a [hostile] position against us. It is not normal.” He urged the Roman Catholic Church to train “more local clergy.”

During the year, the leaders of New Life Church in Minsk continued discussions with city authorities on its status and operations. The government froze the assets of the Church in 2010. The Church continued to use its building for religious purposes, but there were no developments regarding the asset freeze, which remained in place at year’s end.

Authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. The groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.

Speaking at a January 27 event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Dapkiunas emphasized the importance of commemorating the Holocaust “in reiterating the moral, political, and social meaning of the call ‘Never Again,’” which, he said, was “a challenge that still faces humanity – one that demands continuous work.” The chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Andreichanka, joined world leaders at the January 23 World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, and the deputy chairman of the Council of the Republic, Anatoly Isachanka, attended the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

On October 15, the Vitsebsk Jewish community, private donors from Russia, and local authorities unveiled a memorial honoring the 350-year-long history of the local Jewish population at the site of the Jewish cemetery in the village of Yanavichy in Vitebsk Oblast. Community members and local authorities also cleaned the cemetery and cataloged unearthed gravestones.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

An interreligious working group comprising the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized seminars and educational events, some of which were virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The theme for 2020 was “Religions in Belarus in the Period of Social Transformations.” The group held an in-person seminar on February 12 on spiritual development of the country’s society in the context of social justice. In April, the group held an interreligious youth forum that involved seminars dedicated to the “contribution of different religious communities in resolving environmental issues in the interest of Belarus’s sustainable development.” In June, the group organized a seminar targeting youth and discussing different faiths and new methods for the spiritual and moral upbringing of youth and children. On December 21, the group held an online seminar, “Religions in the Context of Innovations in Society and the Economy.”

Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians.

The BOC continued its annual commemoration in honor of Hauryil Belastoksky (Gabriel of Bialystok), a child allegedly killed by Jews in Bialystok in 1690. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him one of its saints and martyrs, and the BOC falls under the authority of the Russian Church on traditional practices such as this. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over the traditional memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, which states the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty” although a trial after the boy’s death acquitted the Jew who was charged with the crime. The BOC in recent years removed some anti-Semitic references about Belastoksky from its online materials and focused more on his role as a regional patron saint of children. Prayers for the commemoration reportedly continued to include anti-Semitic references, however.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with government representatives to discuss religious issues. Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires regularly engaged with officials at the highest levels of government on issues related to religious freedom, registration of religious communities, and anti-Semitism.

The U.S. Secretary of State and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom issued several public statements in support of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, calling for authorities to allow him to return to the country to lead his religious community after being refused reentry from Poland.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, and minority religious groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about religious activities and discuss government actions that affected religious freedom. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups as well as government restrictions on registration and operations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. Embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom on social media.

Belgium

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. In September, the federal government recognized the Belgian Buddhist Union, which first applied for recognition as a nondenominational philosophical community in 2008. An application for recognition by the Belgian Hindu Forum, submitted in 2013, remained pending. In December, the government suspended the recognition process for the Great Mosque of Brussels, citing intelligence that it had ties with the Moroccan intelligence agency. In September, the Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Kraainem, charging it with inciting discrimination and hatred after a former member said the congregation shunned him when he reported a case of sexual abuse. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that universities may ban religious symbols on campuses, specifically headscarves, prompting widespread criticism. In December, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a judgment that a Flemish law requiring the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, including kosher and halal slaughter, is consistent with EU law on religious freedom. The judgment followed a legal challenge by the Jewish and Muslim communities against the Flemish law and a similar one in Wallonia.

Unia (an independent government agency that reviews discrimination complaints) reported that in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 79 anti-Semitic incidents (compared with 101 in 2018) and 336 incidents (307 in 2018) against other religious groups, 86 percent of which targeted Muslims. Media reported in February that during the annual Aalst Carnival parade, there were anti-Semitic floats and caricatures, as well as marchers who appeared to be dressed as Nazi soldiers.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Office of the Prime Minister; at the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice; and with members of parliament to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders in Brussels and other communities to address anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment and to promote religious tolerance. In October, the Ambassador led a discussion on Muslim issues with academics, religious experts, and civil society leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S government estimates the total population at 11.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent survey in December 2018 by the GESIS-Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, 57.1 percent of residents are Roman Catholic, 2.3 percent Protestant, 2.8 percent other Christian, 6.8 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 0.6 percent Orthodox Christian, 0.3 percent Jewish, 0.3 percent Buddhist, 9.1 percent atheist, 20.2 percent “nonbeliever/agnostic,” and 0.5 percent “other.” A 2015 study by the Catholic University of Louvain estimated that 42.2 percent of Muslims reside in Flanders, 35.5 percent in Brussels, and 22.3 percent in Wallonia. According to Catholic University of Louvain sociologist Jan Hertogen, based on 2015 data, 24.2 percent of the Brussels population and 7.5 percent of the Antwerp population is Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of worship, including its public practice, and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be required to participate in any religious group’s acts or ceremonies or to observe the group’s religious days of rest, and it bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of clergy (according to law, to qualify clergy must work in recognized houses of worship and be certified by those religious groups), as well as those of representatives of organizations recognized by the law as providing moral assistance based on a nonconfessional philosophy.

The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation. Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. Discrimination based on Jewish descent is distinguished from discrimination against Jewish religious practices. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison. Courts have interpreted that an antiracism law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, skin color, ancestry, national origin, or ethnicity may be applied to cases of anti-Semitism.

The government officially recognizes Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.

The law does not define requirements to obtain official recognition. The Ministry of Justice specifies the legal basis for official recognition. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection to parliament, which votes on the application. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend granting recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.

The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, such as an office composed of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of the religious curriculum in schools, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.

The federal and regional governments provide financial support for officially recognized religious groups. Federal government subsidies include direct payment of clergy salaries and pensions, while regions subsidize maintenance and equipment costs for facilities and places of worship, as well as clergy housing, and oversee finances and donations when the legal exemption amount is exceeded. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Parent religious groups distribute subsidies according to their statutes, which may also include salaries to ministers and public funding for renovation or facility maintenance. Unrecognized groups do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly. Three organizations outside of the recognized religious groups also receive subsidies by law: the Belgian Muslim Executive, the Belgian Buddhist Union, and the Secular Central Council.

There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to apply to obtain recognition and federal subsidies. To do so, a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, and certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from lower taxes but not government subsidies. Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.

There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Individuals wearing face coverings that cover all or part of the face in public are subject to a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($170). In addition, the penal code stipulates violators may be sentenced to a maximum of seven days’ imprisonment.

Outside of the Brussels region, which still allows ritual slaughter without stunning, the law prohibits the slaughter of animals without prior stunning. The legislation does not prevent halal and kosher meat from being imported from abroad.

By longstanding practice rather than law, the government bans the wearing of religious symbols by employees in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public. The ban does not apply to teachers of religion in public schools.

The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. All public schools offer religious or “moral” instruction oriented toward citizenship and moral values. Outside of Flanders, these courses are mandatory; parents in schools in Flanders may have their children opt out of such courses. Francophone schools offer a mandatory one-hour-per-week “philosophy and citizenship” course plus an additional one-hour mandatory course on either philosophy and citizenship or the recognized religions, based on a constitutional court ruling.

Schools provide teachers, clerical or secular, for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The degree of religious expression varies but must follow a principle of “neutrality.” Because “neutrality” is not defined explicitly in the constitution in the context of religious expression, most state-funded institutions follow one of two principles: “inclusive neutrality,” where individuals must remain neutral in their behavior but may wear religious symbols, or “exclusive neutrality,” where there is a total ban on religious attire and the education provided must also be neutral.

Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools (limited to schools operated by recognized religious groups), known as “free” schools, follow the same curriculum as public schools but may place greater emphasis on specific religious classes. Teachers at these religious schools are civil servants, and their salaries, as well as subsidies for the schools’ operating expenses, are paid for by the respective linguistic community, municipality, or province.

Unia is a publicly funded, independent agency responsible for reviewing discrimination complaints, including those of a religious nature, and attempting to resolve them through mediation or arbitration. The agency lacks legal powers to enforce resolution of cases but may refer them to the courts.

The federal justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and oversee their prosecution, including those involving religion, as a criminal act.

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

Government Practices

The federal government granted recognition on September 30 to the Belgian Buddhist Union, which applied as a group representing a nondenominational philosophy of life, rather than as a religious community. The Buddhist Union, which first submitted its application in 2008, had already been receiving a subsidy from the federal government before its recognition. An application for recognition from the Belgian Hindu Forum, submitted in 2013, remained pending, as did its application to receive a government subsidy. There were no other pending requests by religious groups.

Some observers continued to state that a number of mosques opted not to seek official recognition because they received sufficient foreign funding and preferred to operate without government oversight. Some observers stated the lengthy, bureaucratic process of obtaining recognition also acted as a deterrent. The stated government policy was to extend recognition to more mosques (which would make them eligible for government funding) to curb foreign, radical Islamic influence by reducing the mosques’ reliance on foreign funding and providing authorities with greater oversight.

According to local media, nine mosques in the Brussels-Capital region, including the Great Mosque of Brussels, which submitted its application in January, had pending recognition requests. Mustapha Chairi, the President of the Belgian Collective Against Islamophobia, stated that recognition was slowed by “political obstacles” and cited inefficiencies in the Ministry of Justice’s administrative process.

The Flemish government announced it was reinforcing its policy of conducting enhanced security screening against possible radicalization of imams or worshippers and against foreign influence at mosques, including by requiring all religious communities and places of worship to submit to a four-year probation period prior to official recognition. Then-Flemish regional Minister-President Liesbeth Homans, also of the New Flemish Alliance Party, questioned the existing recognition of some mosques and withdrew recognition of the al-Ihsaan Mosque in Leuven during the year. At year’s end, there were 87 recognized mosques: 39 in Wallonia, 27 in Flanders, and 21 in Brussels. The Belgian Muslim Executive estimated there were a total of 300 mosques in the country, both recognized and unrecognized.

In November, Flemish Minister for Social Affairs Bart Somers presented a bill in parliament to revise the recognition application process, as well as reopen religious communities’ applications for recognition that then-Regional Interior Minister Homans had suspended in 2017. The bill included the ban on foreign funding and influence, as well as the mandatory four-year probationary period that the Flemish government established as policy in the previous year. In a November interview with Flemish public television network VRT, Somers stated 50 to 100 local religious communities had pending applications for recognition, some dating back to the 2017 moratorium.

On December 4, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne suspended the recognition process for the Great Mosque of Brussels, stating that, according to the country’s civilian intelligence, the mosque had ties with the Moroccan intelligence agency. He also said that all bodies of the Muslim Executive should reexamine and, as needed, replace their leaders because they were no longer representative of all Muslims living in the country, adding that “the same individuals continuously appear, whether in the Muslim Executive or in associated nonprofit organizations.” (The Muslim Executive is composed of four organs focused respectively on mosques, education, social issues, and imams, as well as the Council of Theologians and the Coordination Council for Belgian Islamic Institutions [CIB].) On December 5, the Belgian Muslim Executive, CIB, and Association for the Management of the Great Mosque released a joint statement condemning Van Quickenborne’ s announcement, saying it was “defamatory, insulting, and onerous to declare that our members are spies with interests abroad” and that the suspension violated freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

According to Belgian online journal The Bulletin, one of the two major English-language, Brussels-based media outlets, the Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Kraainem, charging it with inciting discrimination against a person and a group on the basis of religious beliefs and inciting hatred or violence against a person and a group. According to the report, the prosecutor filed the charges after a five-year investigation based on a complaint by a former member of the congregation, Patrick Haeck, who said Jehovah’s Witnesses shunned him after he exposed a case of sexual abuse. A court held a preliminary hearing in September and scheduled a trial for February 2021.

The ban on face coverings remained unchanged despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Several police precincts, however, reported not enforcing the law. The Brussels Midi police department, for example, reported that it had asked its officers to “use common sense” and analyze situations on a case-by-case basis.

In June, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Haute Ecole Francisco Ferrer, a university in Brussels that had banned religious garments and symbols. The court stated that institutions of higher education had the authority to ban the wearing of religious symbols, specifically headscarves, on campus if they chose to do so, adding the ban violated neither constitutional law nor the European Convention on Human Rights. In July, more than 1,000 mostly female demonstrators gathered in the center of Brussels to protest the court’s decision. The ruling also sparked a social media campaign with the hashtags #HijabisFightBack and #TouchePasAMesEtudes (“Don’t Touch My Studies”). In response to the court’s ruling, some institutions of higher education used social media to announce that headscarves were allowed at their schools.

On December 8, in response to calls from the Jewish community, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, overturned a total ban on collective religious worship services that the government had instituted in October as a protective measure against COVID-19. The prohibition also applied to nonreligious gatherings. According to the council, the ban violated freedom of religion, “a fundamental right of a special nature,” and the right to profess faith collectively with fellow believers “is at the heart of freedom of worship.” The council called the ban “a disproportionate limitation of the freedom of worship” and asked the government to allow worship services again, within certain limits, by December 13. In response, the national government relaxed the measure to allow up to 15 persons to gather in places of worship.

In October, the municipal government of Charleroi opened a second request for public comment on an application to build a mosque in the city’s Lodelinsart neighborhood. Several town residents also voiced their disapproval of the mosque in an independent petition. The Charleroi government had approved the project with modifications in 2019 after receiving 119 complaints against the mosque during an initial public comment period. The city government did not indicate why it reopened the public comment period.

In Court-St-Etienne, the construction of a new mosque was underway and was expected to be finished by mid-2021. The project, whose construction resumed in February 2020 after a year-long pause, was being entirely financed through private donations. According to Abdelhafid Jellouli, the mosque coordinator, the delay was the result of a change in construction plans and delays in finding a new contractor. Local authorities approved the project in 2018 after four previous rejections.

On December 17, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a judgment that a Flemish animal welfare law requiring the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, including halal and kosher slaughter, was consistent with EU law and did not infringe on the rights of religious groups. The court’s ruling ran counter to the recommendation in September of its advocate general, who had stated that “member states … cannot ignore the EU’s religious freedom protections.” Flemish Minister for Education, Sport, and Animal Welfare Ben Weyts tweeted that “the door is now open throughout Europe to a ban on slaughter without stunning” and called on religious communities to “turn the page.” The judgment followed a legal challenge to the Flemish law and to a similar law passed by the Wallonian regional government in 2019. At that time, the Belgian Constitutional Court had asked the Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion to confirm the two laws complied with EU law.

Following the ruling, President of the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations Yohan Benizri stated, “We plan to pursue every legal recourse to right this wrong.” In an official statement, the President of the Belgian Muslim Executive, Mehmet Ustun, expressed his disappointment with the judgment, stating, “The Court of Justice thus seems to give in to the growing political and societal pressure from populist movements which are waging a symbolic struggle against vulnerable minorities throughout Europe.”

A large slaughterhouse continued to operate in Brussels, where ritual slaughter was still permitted, but it could not accommodate all requests, particularly during religious holidays. The Brussels government, led by Minister-President Rudi Vervoort, had no policy on ritual slaughter and had stated it would wait for a final ruling before opening a debate.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in October that the government planned to stop providing soldiers for security around synagogues in Antwerp as part of a broader drawdown of Operation Vigilant Guardian, the military’s domestic counterterrorism mission that provided protection for sensitive sites, such as embassies and certain Jewish community buildings. The Forum of Jewish Organizations of Flemish Jews stated, “The Jewish community needs more, not less, protection in these difficult times.” At year’s end, the soldiers remained in place, and the government had not announced a final decision on whether to end the program.

Police continued to offer a voluntary, day-long course, “The Holocaust, the Police, and Human Rights,” at the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, site of a Holocaust museum and memorial.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media and NGOs, including Amnesty International, the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium, and Unia, reported incidents of violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Muslims and Jews. Unia reported 79 anti-Semitic incidents – which it defined as incidents against Jewish persons rather than against Jewish religious practices and which it tracked separately – and 336 complaints of other religious discrimination or harassment in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 101 anti-Semitic incidents and 307 other complaints in 2018. Approximately 86 percent of incidents targeted Muslims. There were five incidents against Christians, 11 against Jewish religious practices, and eight against nonbelievers. According to Unia, 30 percent of the incidents in 2019 involved speech in media or on the internet (54 percent of these involving Facebook postings); 29 percent concerned discrimination in the workplace; and 17 percent occurred in the education sector, where a majority (54 percent) of incidents involved restrictions or prohibitions on wearing of the hijab.

Unia reported 96 complaints of workplace discrimination based on religion in 2019, compared with 56 in 2018. The reported discrimination principally targeted Muslims.

In 2019, Unia and the Human Rights League submitted an injunction against the Brussels public transportation company, STIB/MIVB, for rejecting a job applicant who wore a headscarf. The woman had applied for two internal administrative positions and reported being rejected after communicating she wanted to wear a headscarf in the workplace. Unia did not indicate the outcome of this case.

Also in 2019, Unia and the Human Rights League took legal action against a fitness center in Liege that refused entry to a woman wearing a headscarf for what it stated were hygiene and security reasons. In another case, Unia filed a suit in 2019 against a fitness center in Brussels that told a Muslim woman after she had signed up for membership that it banned headscarves for security reasons. In February, the Brussels Court of First Instance decided in favor of the fitness center, ruling that prohibiting headscarves in sports for safety reasons was permitted, and that a sports headscarf did not meet the safety requirements.

Unia cited numerous instances of religious hate speech via social media in 2020. It also reported that in October, two individuals were sentenced to six months in prison and fined 800 euros ($980) for hosting a Facebook page called “Identitaires Ardennes” that contained anti-Muslim hate speech featuring messages, such as “Islam is a danger,” and “Halt the invasion – let’s kick them out.”

In February, the European Commission, Belgian academics, and New Flemish Alliance Party Chairman Bart De Wever criticized the annual Aalst Carnival for including open displays of anti-Semitism. An open letter by three professors from the universities of Ghent, Antwerp, and Leuven urged media not to show images of floats with Jewish caricatures, while the European Commission said the floats were “incompatible” with EU values. According to the Catholic News Agency, the carnival parade included “numerous apparently anti-Semitic caricatures and floats,” as well as marchers who seemed to be dressed as Nazi soldiers. One float displayed caricatures of Jews with ant features next to a label called “complaint ant,” a phrase that in Dutch resembles the term “Western Wall.” National and international press widely cited Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese as stating that the carnival was not anti-Semitic and that outside intervention was censorship. Then-Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, and Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz condemned the parade, with Katz calling it “hateful” and a “vitriolic anti-Semitic display” and “a hateful parade.” In December 2019, UNESCO removed the carnival, which included an anti-Semitic float in that year’s parade, from its intangible cultural heritage list because of what it said was the carnival’s “repetition of racist and anti-Semitic representations.”

According to the Times of Israel, on June 28, protesters at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Brussels chanted “Khaybar,” in reference to a battleground in Saudi Arabia where Muslims had defeated Jews in the seventh century. At least 100 men chanted, “Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning,” according to the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism (LBCA). Joel Rubinfeld, the league’s president, characterized the chant as an “incitement of violence,” and the organization filed a complaint with police. The rally’s organizer, a nonprofit called the Belgo-Palestinian Association, condemned the chanting in a statement.

In August, newspaper Le Soir published a cartoon by Pierre Kroll showing a tourist bus with a balloon above the driver reading, “After the zoo, we shall go visit the coronavirus village,” while an Orthodox Jewish man without a mask rides a bicycle nearby as vultures hover above him. LBCA President Rubinfeld said the cartoon “again shows that Kroll obsessively returns to Jews in his works….” According to The Times of Israel, critics had accused Kroll of anti-Semitism in several of his previous cartoons.

In July, the Leuven Criminal Court sentenced a man in Keerbegen to one year in prison for inciting hatred and violence against the Jewish community and violating the antiracism law and the law against Holocaust denial. In 2019, Unia had filed a complaint against the man for decorating his home with Nazi paraphernalia and possessing anti-Semitic pamphlets.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials discussed continued anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment in meetings with representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister; the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Justice; and regional governments.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with religious leaders to discuss incidents of religious discrimination and ways to counter public manifestations of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment. They continued engagement with activists from the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities, including with leaders from the Consistory (official representatives of authorities for Jewish community matters with the government), the Muslim Executive, and the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium to promote interreligious understanding.

In reaction to the ECJ ruling that a Flemish law requiring the stunning of animals prior to ritual slaughter was consistent with EU law and did not infringe on the rights of religious groups, the Ambassador tweeted the following on December 17: “I am very disappointed in the European Court of Justice decision upholding a Flemish law that effectively bans kosher and halal slaughter, a core religious practice of Jews and Muslims. Religious freedom must be protected. I call on the Flemish government to reconsider its positions and accommodate the needs of all its religious communities. I will continue to work closely with Belgian authorities and the EU to advance religious freedom for all.”

In October, the Ambassador led a discussion on Muslim issues with academics, religious experts, and civil society leaders, raising awareness of freedom of religion issues and exchanging ideas on future projects.

The embassy awarded a grant to a Brussels-based NGO to organize a series of events, beginning in October and continuing into 2021, to raise awareness about China’s persecution of its Muslim Uyghur population. The events included a webinar examining Chinese propaganda in Belgium and two empowerment workshops for the local Uyghur community that taught local activists to lobby, communicate with the media, and establish and sustain publicity campaigns.

The embassy expanded an interfaith youth exchange program administered by the U.S. Department of State to include a virtual platform that launched in October for Belgian youth to engage with U.S. experts on various aspects of youth leadership. The platform included an interfaith element to enhance collaboration among religious groups in the country and, in turn, enhance religious freedom.

Belize

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. By law, the Belize Council of Churches (BCC), a board including representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC), alternate in appointing one individual, the “church senator,” to the Senate with the Governor General’s concurrence. In August, authorities arrested and charged an evangelical Protestant pastor under the COVID-19 state of emergency regulations, which limited gatherings to under 10 persons, after he led a congregation of 16 persons in worship. In September, the government withdrew the introduction of the Equal Opportunities Bill (EOB) after the Belize Council of Churches (BCC) said it could not support it in its “current form.” Many religious groups opposed the EOB, stating that the government forced the bill through the approval process without consulting them and that the EOB provided no specific protections on the basis of religion or personal belief. In December, the Governor General appointed Reverend Alvin Moses Benguche, a Methodist Bishop, as the new church senator representing all religious groups, on the BCC’s recommendation following the November parliamentary election.

Religious groups continued collaboration with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out missionary work in the country. The interfaith Belize Chaplain Service (BCS) continued to promote several initiatives, including counseling services for relatives of crime victims and for police officers, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public.

U.S. embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, reiterated the importance of religious tolerance in meetings with government officials and encouraged the government’s engagement with a wide spectrum of religious groups. The embassy invited representatives of religious groups, including Anglican Bishop Philip Wright, Catholic Bishop Lawrence Nicasio, and representatives of religious minorities to participate in embassy programs and outreach to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Due to COVID-19 restrictions on public engagement and assembly, the embassy used social media to highlight the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 400,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2010 census, members of the Roman Catholic Church are the largest religious group, accounting for 40 percent of the population. Protestants make up 32 percent, including Pentecostals (8 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Mennonites (4 percent), Baptists (4 percent), Methodists (3 percent), and the Church of the Nazarene (3 percent). Jehovah’s Witnesses make up two percent of the population, while other religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Rastafarians, The Salvation Army, Baha’is, and Soka Gakkai together constitute 11 percent. Approximately 15 percent of the population does not affiliate with one of these listed religious organizations.

No religious group is a majority in any of the country’s six districts. Catholics reside throughout the country. Mennonites and Pentecostals reside mostly in the rural areas of the Cayo and Orange Walk Districts.

The 2010 census lists 577 Muslims in the country; this number does not include the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat group, which according to its leaders, numbers fewer than 160 individuals. Some members of indigenous groups, including the Maya and the Garifuna, also practice traditional folk religious rituals.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The preamble to the constitution acknowledges “the supremacy of God.” The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. It also provides for freedom, either alone or in community with others, to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states that no one may be compelled to take an oath contrary to one’s religion or belief. The constitution also stipulates religious groups may establish places of education and states that “no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community.”

An unenforced law limits speech that is “blasphemous or indecent.”

By law, the BCC, a board including representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC) alternate in appointing one individual, the “church senator,” to the Senate with the Governor General’s concurrence. The two groups together include the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches; Salvation Army; Chinese Christian Mission; Church of Christ; Assembly of God Church; Seventh-day Adventists; and other evangelical Protestant groups. They do not include the National Evangelical Association of Belize (NEAB), which separated from the BAEC in 2015 due to political differences. Non-Christian religious groups are represented by the church senator; they participate in the church senator’s activities but do not play a role in selecting the senator.

By law, the church senator provides advice on public policy affecting the political positions of religious groups. This senatorial seat places the political interests of religious leaders on par with three other senators, appointed to represent labor unions, the business community, and the NGO community, respectively. The Senate is the upper chamber of the country’s two-part National Assembly; members of the House of Representatives run for election, while senators are appointed.

The law requires all religious groups to register with the official Companies Registry in the Ministry of the Attorney General in a process similar to that of a business. Registration permits the religious organization to operate legally in the country; receive state recognition; negotiate, sue, and be sued; own property; hire employees; and lend or borrow money. There is a one-time registration fee of 295 Belize dollars ($150) and a yearly fee of five Belize dollars ($2.50). Requirements for registration include a memorandum of association with the government delineating the group’s objective and mission, an article of association, and a letter from the central bank if the organization has foreign financial contributors. The government may shut down the facilities of groups that do not register.

The government does not levy property taxes on churches and other places of worship. Other church-owned buildings occupied on a regular basis, such as clergy residences, are not tax-exempt. Religious organizations may also partner with the state to operate schools, hospitals, and other charity organizations and, depending on funding availability, receive financial assistance from the government.

The public school curriculum includes weekly nondenominational “spirituality” classes incorporating morals and values. Government supported church-run schools may teach lessons on world religions for students from kindergarten through eighth grade as part of their social studies curriculum. These church-run schools also offer separate religious education classes that are specific to their own faith. While there is no official rule governing a student’s ability to opt out of either of these sessions, parents may decide their children will not attend. The constitution prohibits any educational institution from obligating a child to attend any religious ceremonies or observances.

Due to insufficient government funds and pre-independence agreements, Christian churches manage most public elementary schools, high schools, and some colleges. Approximately 60 percent of primary schools, 40 percent of high schools, and 50 percent of colleges are comanaged by churches with the government. Churches that co-manage educational institutions include Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Nazarene, Salvation Army, evangelical Protestant, Presbyterian, Muslim, Pentecostal, and Mennonite. Schools routinely observe Christian and other religious holidays at the schools’ discretion. Non-Christian religious groups run a few schools, such as the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize City. All schools, public and private, must incorporate the national education curriculum and adhere to government regulations; the Ministry of Education monitors their compliance.

The law grants respect for inmates’ religious beliefs, and inmates may participate in religious activities in prison. Religious leaders may request use of the chapel inside the facility and offer religious services to inmates. Prison authorities avoid requiring unnecessary work by prisoners on Sunday and other major Christian holidays (Christmas and Good Friday) and by prisoners recorded as belonging to other religions on their recognized day of religious observance. The law allows the provision of religious scriptures and other books of religious observance to prisoners.

To enter the country and proselytize, foreign religious workers need a multi-entry visa, which costs 100 Belize dollars ($50) and is valid for one year. Applicants must also purchase a religious worker’s permit, costing 50 Belize dollars ($25). The visas are renewable on an annual basis. Visa requirements include information on intended length of stay, location, funding for activity, and specific purpose. Members of all religious groups are eligible to obtain visas. While a group does not need to be locally registered, recommendation by a locally registered religious group lends more credibility to the visa request, according to local authorities.

The Belize Defense Force retains a nondenominational chaplain and space for religious observance. With the prior consent of authorities, any religious group may use the space for worship.

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

Government Practices

In August, authorities arrested and charged an evangelical Protestant pastor under the COVID-19 State of Emergency regulations, which limited gatherings to under 10 persons, after he led a congregation of 16 persons in worship. The pastor was cited and fined by a magistrates’ court.

In September, the government withdrew the introduction of the EOB after the BCC said it was unable to support it in its “current form.” According to religious groups, the EOB provided no specific protections on the basis of religion or personal belief. The stated purpose of the EOB was to ensure equal access to public services, including health care. The legislation aimed to protect individuals from discrimination, harassment, and victimization. The areas of public life covered under the EOB include employment (full-time, part-time, and casual), provision of goods and services, education, accommodation (including rental and hotel accommodation), sport, club and club membership, transfer of land, and administration of laws and programming.

In a public statement, Catholic Bishop Lawrence Nicasio said the “EOB was rushed” and the Catholic Church could not support it because “it gives unparalleled power to the Commission and Tribunal, it endangers the public’s freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, it infringes on parental rights, it suggests that there are more than two genders, and in its present form would do much to confuse the youth of Belize regarding the sacredness of sexuality and that sex is not, first of all, a pleasure source but a way toward holy matrimonial union and conception of children.” The NEAB arranged motorcades across the country to express opposition to the EOB, stating, “It establishes a ‘social re-engineering Commission & Tribunal’ to dictate, enforce, and impose liberal, anti-God standards & values upon the nation of Belize.” The NEAB also said the government did not undertake sufficient consultation with religious groups before drafting the EOB. Rights Insight, a local NGO, conducted a study at the beginning of the year that found 54.6 percent of respondents supported the draft EOB. Prime Minister Dean Barrow, in announcing the withdrawal of the EOB, said, “By and large Cabinet felt that this is a good bill, this is a necessary bill, it is an overdue bill, and Cabinet was very upset at having to make the decision not to proceed with it.” He acknowledged that the churches’ opposition was largely responsible for the EOB’s failure.

The government held discussions with the Council of Churches; then-church senator Ashley Rocke, a Baptist pastor; and several other religious leaders to keep them abreast of government plans of interest to them, including the education budget and the EOB. According to the head of the Council of Churches, while by law the church senator represents all religions, there continued to be little response from non-Christian religious groups to the church senator’s efforts to seek their political perspectives. In December, the Governor General appointed Reverend Alvin Moses Benguche, a Methodist Bishop, as the new church senator on the BCC’s recommendation following the November parliamentary election.

The government continued to permit religious leaders from varying denominations to visit the government-owned and -financed central prison to hold services at the prison’s nondenominational chapel. According to the Kolbe Foundation, COVID-19 restrictions, including a three-week lockdown of the facility, prevented religious groups from consistently providing outreach services to prisoners.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The interfaith BCS, which includes representatives from the Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal Churches, Salvation Army, and Chinese Christian Mission, as well as Muslim and Baha’i leaders, continued to promote counseling services for relatives of crime victims, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public. The BCS continued to offer services to the central prison and to Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital staff, patients, and relatives. The BCS continued to run the chapel at the hospital, offering weekly Sunday services and Islamic prayers on Fridays. During the year, the BCS organized blood donation drives for patients in need. The BCS provided mentorship to members of the Belize Coast Guard Sea Cadets, comprising children between the ages of eight and 13 years from southside Belize City. The assistance included tutoring with school assignments, counseling, and Bible studies.

Thirteen registered religious-based radio stations continued to operate in the country. According to the Belize Broadcasting Authority, evangelical Protestant groups continued to own and operate most of the stations. Other stations included one Catholic, two Mennonite, and one Pentecostal radio station.

The Kolbe Foundation, a Catholic organization, continued to manage the country’s central prison with a focus on rehabilitating inmates. It provided support for all religious denominations within the inmate population, subject to the availability of a suitable chaplain. According to the BCC, the Kolbe Foundation continued to respect dietary restrictions for prisoners of diverse religious backgrounds.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires met with government officials, including then-church senator Rocke, Anglican Bishop Wright, and Catholic Bishop Nicasio, to emphasize the importance of continuing to engage with a wide spectrum of religious groups in the country, including with Christians and non-Christian religious minorities consisting of Buddhists of Chinese and Southwest Asian origins, Hindus of Indian origin, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, the Garifuna Afro-indigenous religions, and Mayan folk religionists.

The embassy invited representatives of religious groups, including Bishop Wright, Bishop Nicasio, and representatives of religious minorities, to participate in embassy programs and outreach to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance, including reintegrating former gang members into society, caring for migrants and asylees, and addressing crime.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions on public engagement and assembly, the embassy drew on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to highlight the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity. Messages included the need to protect and support religious freedom.

Benin

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes a secular state and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice. All religious groups must register with the government. Government officials at the department and municipal levels have the authority to issue orders suspending certain types of religious practice to maintain peace, although they rarely used it in practice, according to religious groups. Police only interfered in religious practices when there was a “disruption of public order,” according to the Ministry of Interior, which cited two examples of internal disputes in which authorities intervened. Central and local government officials generally included religious leaders in decision-making involving civil society leaders. On March 21, government officials met with religious leaders to discuss the closure of places of worship to limit the spread of COVID-19. In May, Archbishop of Cotonou Roger Houngbedji expressed disappointment that places of worship were grouped with bars and restaurants as leisure services, rather than with markets as essential services which remained open.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

U.S. embassy representatives regularly spoke with leaders of religious groups in cities throughout the country to address religious freedom and tolerance. Throughout the year, the embassy also engaged with religious leaders in conducting its development activities and as part of its ongoing outreach to civil society organizations.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2013 census, 48.5 percent of the population is Christian, 27.7 percent is Muslim (mostly Sunni), 11.6 percent practice Voodoo, 2.6 percent are members of indigenous religious groups, 2.6 percent are members of other religious groups, and 5.8 percent declare no religious affiliation. The largest Christian denominations are Roman Catholicism, with 25.5 percent of the population, and Celestial Christians, with 6.7 percent. Other religious groups include Methodists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, Baptists, Pentecostals, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname, and Eckankar followers.

Many individuals who identify themselves as Christian or Muslim also practice Voodoo or other traditional religions.

Most Muslims are concentrated in northern regions. There are some Shia Muslims and most are foreign residents. Southern regions are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice, consistent with public order as established by law and regulations.

The Ministry of Interior has the authority to deploy the Republican Police to intervene in conflicts between religious groups to ensure public order and social peace, provided the intervention complies with the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs. Local department and municipal leaders may also issue orders limiting religious practice to maintain public order.

Persons who wish to form a religious group or establish a religious affiliation must register with the Ministry of Interior. Registration requirements include submission of administrative materials (including the applicant’s birth certificate, police record, request letter, copy of identification, and the group’s internal rules) and payment of a registration fee of 50,000 CFA francs ($95). If a group is not registered, the Ministry of Interior may order the closing of its religious facilities until the group registers.

By law, public schools may not provide religious instruction. Religious groups may establish private schools with authorization from the state and may benefit from state subsidies.

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

Government Practices

According to the Ministry of Interior’s Director of Internal Affairs and Religion, the primary catalyst for government involvement in religious affairs was “disruption of public order.” The director said early in the year police intervened in Atacora and Abomey when members of a traditional religious group threatened one another in an internal dispute over leadership succession. In both cases, according to the director, the Republican Police maintained peace by monitoring the disputes and did not use force. Overall, the director stated that government involvement in religious activities was infrequent.

On February 19, Littoral Department (encompassing the de facto administrative capital city of Cotonou) Prefect Jean-Claude Codjia issued an order banning the Voodoo Egungun religious group from publicly holding the Egungun masquerade performance within the department. According to the press, the prefect issued the order following a February 16 internal Egungun conflict which injured six members of the group and caused a public disturbance. The order did not prevent the group from practicing Egungun rituals privately.

On March 21, government officials met with religious leaders from the Catholic Church, Protestant churches, and Muslim groups to discuss the closure of places of worship to limit the spread of COVID-19. Following the meeting, all places of worship were ordered closed. On May 27, the government ordered the reopening of places of worship beginning June 2 in consultation with national religious leaders and the government’s interministerial COVID-19 committee. Many religious groups stated they did not perceive the measures as discriminatory. In a May 12 statement, however, Archbishop of Cotonou Roger Houngbedji said he was “embarrassed” to see “churches remaining closed as mere gathering places, just like bars and places of leisure, while open markets, supermarkets, and other places continued to bring people together.”

The government regularly relied on religious leaders to share accurate information about COVID-19, according to press reports. On March 16, the mayor of Parakou in the north of the country met with religious leaders to ask them to help curb misinformation about the pandemic. On July 15, the mayor of Abomey-Calavi asked religious leaders to distribute masks and hand sanitizer to congregants. On August 5, the mayor of Abomey in the central region discussed management of religious events amid COVID-19 with leaders of indigenous religious groups. Municipal officials also said they explained the roles, responsibilities, and obligations of religious leaders to enforce measures such as social distancing, handwashing, and wearing of masks.

Government officials continued to attend inductions, funerals, and other religious ceremonies organized by religious groups. State-owned television often broadcast these events. Police continued to provide security for religious events upon request.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives met with leaders of religious groups and encouraged religious tolerance. From March 6 to 11, embassy representatives visited Ketou, Bohicon, Dassa and Parakou in the central and northern part of the country, where they met with leaders of Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious groups to discuss the status of religious freedom and relations among religious groups in those cities. In Parakou, embassy representatives met with seven imams and Islamic scholars to discuss religious freedom and tolerance.

Embassy officials met with religious leaders individually and via roundtable discussions. During the year, the embassy held individual meetings with Voodoo leaders, Celestial Christian leaders, and imams from the Organization of Young Muslims for Interreligious Peace. In February, the Ambassador met with Imam Razack Samari in Djougou, in the northwest of the country, to discuss the imam’s efforts to combat religious extremism. Samari owns radio station La Voix Islamique, which broadcasts messages of religious tolerance and gender equality to its primarily Muslim listeners. The station’s director, a previous participant in a U.S. exchange program on the topic of interfaith dialogue, interviewed the Ambassador during her visit to Djougou about the embassy’s efforts to support interfaith dialogue and peace.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

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. The government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO) approved 14 religious groups during the year, but none from religious minority groups. Hindu leaders cited continued public support for the construction of Hindu temples from the highest level of government, including the new temple in the capital in 2019. There were no reports of unregistered religious groups, including Christians, being unable to worship in private, although such groups were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. The international Christian NGO Open Doors continued to list the country on its annual World Watch List. The report for 2021 (which covered events in 2020) alleged discrimination against Christians, stating that religious nationalism created broad pressure for citizens to follow Buddhism. Pastors cited acquiring permanent Christian burial plots as a continuing challenge. Leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai, one of eight religious organizations on the board of the CRO, 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 continued societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors reported, “All Bhutanese citizens are expected to be Buddhists. Anyone who converts to Christianity is watched with suspicion, and pressure is usually put on them to bring them back to their former religion.”

The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country or a diplomatic presence there. Officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged virtually with both government and nongovernment figures on issues including freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities. Unlike in previous years, U.S. government officials were unable to visit the country during the year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 782,000 (mid-year 2020 estimate). According to a 2012 report (the most recent) by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Buddhism, and Hindus make up approximately 23 percent of the total population. Hindus reside mostly in southern areas adjacent to India. The 2020 report by the World Christian Database estimates that Buddhists comprised 83 percent of the population and Hindus 11 percent in 2019. The government does not publish statistics on religious demography.

According to a Pew Research Center report in 2012 and the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List, estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 0.5 to 3.6 percent of the total population. Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south. According to scholars, although traditional Bon practices are often combined with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition. 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.

Most of Bhutan’s foreign workers come from India. In 2019, India’s Ministry of External Affairs estimated that 60,000 Indian nationals lived in the country and 8,000 to 10,000 additional temporary workers entered the country daily. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Indian residents left the country and entry of foreign workers was greatly limited. While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most foreign workers are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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” is 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 for violations.

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 public religious services, 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. 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, who as of early 2020 was also 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 ex officio as secretary. Heads of Buddhist religious organizations and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya, a registered Hindu organization, 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.

Government Practices

Open Doors continued to list the country on its annual World Watch List with respect to discrimination against Christians, stating that religious nationalism creates broad pressure for citizens to follow Buddhism, especially from family members who sometimes see converting to Christianity as bringing shame on the family and who disown Christian family members.

The CRO approved 14 religious groups during the year, but none were from religious minorities. There are approximately 140 Buddhist groups, two Hindu groups, and no Christian groups registered by the government.

The CRO continued not to approve the pending registration request of any church, which, according to Open Doors, Christians “are technically worshipping illegally,” although Christian pastors reported they were generally able to worship in private. The government did not offer any official explanation to these groups for not registering them.

There were no reports of authorities threatening or forcing house churches to close during the year. One pastor reported that some new home Christian fellowships opened during the year. He said that he was not aware of any cases of the government persecuting religious minorities in the country during the year, in part because COVID-19 restrictions limited gatherings and movement. Open Doors’ 2021 report noted that “Buddhist monks oppose the presence of Christians. In general, local officials overlook this opposition.”

Christian pastors cited acquiring permanent Christian burial plots as a continuing challenge. The community was allowed to purchase one small plot of land for burials in 2019, but access was restricted, and government officials continued to press the community to cremate their dead instead of burying them “due to lack of space in the small country.” 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 on “inducements” to conversion could be used to penalize the celebration of Christian religious services if they appeared to be proselytizing, which is illegal.

Open Doors’ 2021 report again said that Christians often faced difficulties in obtaining “nonobjection certificates” from local authorities that were required for loan and employment applications and property registration.

The King supported Hindu temples by allotting them land and funding and by participating in Hindu festivals. The King has also participated in the opening ceremony of a new Hindu temple in 2019. Hindu leaders reported increasing religious acceptance, in part due to the King’s public outreach to the Hindu community.

The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries. According to Minority Rights Group International, authorities gave Buddhist temples priority over Hindu temples in the licensing process.

The India-based Hindu organization Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that Hindu groups took a “cautious policy” toward the government due to the government’s delay in formally recognizing additional Hindu organizations. VHP said, however, that the government had a “better relationship with the predominantly Nepalese Hindus.”

Some courts and other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries. Some religious groups stated that government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals.

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 characterized persecution of Christians as “very high.” According to Open Doors’ report for 2021, “Buddhism is engrained in daily life in Bhutan, and anyone who leaves Buddhism to follow Jesus is viewed with suspicion by neighbors, friends, and even immediate family.” The report said that “family members go to great lengths to bring the [Christian] convert back to his or her original faith.”

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. Unlike in previous years, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, U.S. officials were unable to visit the country during the year. Officers from the embassy in New Delhi, however, engaged virtually with government officials on issues including freedom of religious practices and the treatment of religious minorities. Embassy officers also remained in contact with religious leaders on relations between religious groups and the government and the impact of COVID-19 on religious practices.

Bolivia

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the state is independent of religion and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion, and worship, expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private.” The constitution and other laws accord educational institutions the right to teach religion, including indigenous spiritual belief classes. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, there were administrative delays reported in implementing and enforcing the 2019 Law of Religious Freedom, Religious Organizations and Spiritual Beliefs, which created a clear distinction between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious organizations. Evangelical Protestant community representatives again reported several smaller religious communities with “house churches” preferred not to register their organizations because they did not want to provide the government access to private internal information.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

In October, embassy representatives met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) officials to discuss the challenges related to COVID-19 restrictions and their impact on religious freedom and the status of implementation of the religious freedom law. Embassy staff regularly met with religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom. The Charge d’Affaires hosted a virtual interfaith meeting with religious leaders in October, including representatives from Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish groups, to engage them in interfaith dialogue, discuss the impact of COVID-19 in their communities, and hear their views on the current state of religious freedom. Embassy officials met on other occasions with representatives from Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic groups to discuss the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on their congregations and their relationships with the interim government under the leadership of President Jeanine Anez, which was in power until November when newly elected President Luis Arce took office.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to U.S. government figures, 77 percent of the population identifies as Catholic and 16 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal groups. According to the local leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), approximately 300,000 followers reside in the country; the Church of Jesus Christ’s central website estimates more than 200,000 followers. Approximately five percent of the population identifies with smaller religious groups, and five percent self-identify as nonbelievers. There are approximately 1,500 Muslims and 450 Jews, according to leaders of the respective faiths and news reports. Many indigenous communities, concentrated in rural areas, practice a mix of Catholic and indigenous spiritual traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the state respects and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion and worship,” expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private. The constitution stipulates the state is independent of all religion.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, including access to educational institutions, health services, and employment, and protects the right of access to public sport and recreational activities without regard to religion.

The Freedom of Religion, Religious Organizations, and Spiritual Organizations Law creates a clear distinction between NGOs and religious organizations. Under the law, religious organizations are constituted to practice, profess, and teach their specific faith or religion, while NGOs have no such faith-based ties. The religious freedom law requires all religious or spiritual organizations to inform the government of all financial, legal, social, and religious activities. The law regulates religious or spiritual organizations’ finances and labor practices by requiring their use of funds exclusively to achieve the organization’s objectives, banning the distribution of money among members, subjecting all employees to national labor laws, requiring the organizations to register with the MFA, and compelling them to pay taxes. Pursuant to a concordat with the Holy See, the Catholic Church is exempt from registration.

Religious organizations must submit 14 documentary requirements to register with the government. These include notarized legal documents, including statutes, internal regulations and procedures; rental agreement documents, utility invoices for the place(s) of worship, and a site map; detailed information on board members and legal representatives, including criminal background checks; an INTERPOL certificate for foreigners; proof of fiscal solvency; organization chart, with names, addresses, identification card numbers, and photographs; a full list of members and identifying information; details on activities and services provided by the organization, including the location of the services; and information on their financing source(s), domestic and/or foreign.

The requirements for classification as a spiritual organization or religious organization vary slightly, but the government requires essentially the same type of information from both spiritual and religious entities. The constitution defines a spiritual organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves to carry out practices that develop their spirituality according to their ancestral worldview. Most spiritual organizations are indigenous in their origins. The constitution defines a religious organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves with the purpose of carrying out practices of worship and/or belief around a Supreme Being in order to develop their spirituality and religiosity, and whose purpose does not pursue profit.

The government may revoke a spiritual or religious organization’s operating license if the organization does not produce an annual report of activities for more than two consecutive years; does not comply with its stated objectives; carries out activities different from those established in its statutes; or carries out activities contrary to the country’s constitution, laws, morality, or “good customs.” A religious or spiritual organization may also lose its operating license if it does not comply with the deadline for renewing the license.

A 2017 regulation requires religious and spiritual groups to reregister their operating licenses to ensure all documents list the official name of the country as “Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia.” Reregistration also requires any amendments to organizations’ bylaws to conform to all new national laws. Religious and spiritual groups were required to comply with these new registration requirements by the end of 2019.

The fees to obtain an operating license differ between “Religious Organizations” and “Spiritual Organizations,” with costs of 6,780 bolivianos ($1,000) and 4,068 bolivianos ($600), respectively.

The government reserves the right to revoke an organization’s operating permit for noncompliance with the registration requirements. The government may not deny legal recognition to any organization based on its articles of faith.

The constitution and other laws provide educational institutions the option to teach religion classes, including indigenous spiritual belief classes, with the stated aim of encouraging mutual respect among religious communities. While religion classes are optional, schools must teach ethics with curriculum materials that promote religious tolerance. The government does not restrict religious teaching in public or private schools, and it does not restrict a student from attending private, religiously affiliated schools. The law also requires all schools to accept students regardless of their religious affiliation.

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

Government Practices

Despite the length of time since the passage of the religious freedom law in 2019, religious leaders and sources in the MFA reported the interim government had not completely implemented or enforced the law, particularly aspects pertaining to the registration requirement, due to the political fluidity in the country and prolonged restrictions related to COVID-19.

Members of the evangelical Protestant community continued to say several smaller religious communities formed congregations that held services at unofficial worship locations and conducted other activities without registering. These smaller communities continued to refuse to register their organizations because, according to sources, they preferred not to provide the government with access to internal information. Sources stated these unregistered groups still could neither own property nor hold bank accounts in their organization’s name; instead, money for a group was generally held in a bank account controlled by the leader’s family. They said the administration of interim President Anez, however, did not interfere with these organizations despite their refusal to comply with the law; they stated the government was likely too occupied with confronting COVID-19 and political turmoil in the country to enforce the registration law.

According to the MFA’s Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations, there were approximately 440 registered groups listed under the requirements of the religious freedom law. According to the MFA, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and institutional uncertainty during the period the interim government was in office significantly reduced the number of religious registrations, and the number of registered groups during the year remained approximately the same as in 2019. According to religious leaders, nearly all known religious or spiritual organizations that wished to register with the government had complied with the requirements. Religious groups said the registration process generally took four to six months to complete. In October, MFA officials stated they were working on a system to digitize the registration process to reduce the timeline to one to two months, but the government did not implement the new system by year’s end.

Some leaders of minority religious groups, including Jewish and Protestant, expressed hope the new administration and MFA leadership would organize interfaith meetings to obtain insights from minority faith-based communities and to hear their concerns.

On April 26, via a short video projected in front of the presidential residence in La Paz, interim President Anez called for a day of fasting and prayer to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and recited a quote from the Book of Isaiah to call for divine help. Although Anez had previously recorded several similar religion-themed videos and posted them on her social media accounts, this marked the first time she set a specific day to hold religious devotions in homes to find unity to confront the pandemic. Several private news articles criticized the event and cited article 4 of the constitution, which established the state as independent of any religion.

During Christian Holy Week, from April 5-12, the interim government launched four helicopter “blessing flights” to commemorate the religious holidays while the population was required to stay at home due to COVID-19 quarantine. The first flight took place on April 9 in Cochabamba, when a priest flew in an army helicopter and scattered holy water over dozens of neighborhoods. On April 15, interim President Anez posted photographs on social media of her waving goodbye to the presidential helicopter as it took off carrying a priest who blessed neighborhoods in El Alto and La Paz. According to the newspaper Opinion, the idea gained the support of then Minister of Defense Luis Fernando Lopez Julio and then Minister of Labor Oscar Mercado Cespedes, who directed the logistics of the flights. Local media sources cited criticism from defense experts of the use of official aircraft for religious activities, and other experts said the helicopters should have been reserved for medical deliveries or search and rescue operations in remote areas. Some local religious organizations applauded the operation; from its Facebook page, the Evangelical Church Agua Viva de la Roca in Tarija urged its parishioners to go to their patios or terraces during the published flyover times with Bolivian or Tarija flags to receive the helicopter blessing and pray together.

During a September 20 appearance on the television program “One Decides 2020,” presidential candidate Luis Fernando Camacho said, “God is going to rule this country,” adding, “God entered the [presidential] palace to change Bolivia” in November 2019, and that a divine miracle occurred when former President Evo Morales resigned just 40 minutes after Camacho placed a Bible inside the presidential palace during the 2019 post-election unrest.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, embassy representatives met with MFA officials to discuss the challenges related to COVID-19 restrictions and their impact on religious freedom and the implementation of the new religious freedom law.

Embassy representatives routinely engaged religious leaders to underscore the importance of tolerance and religious freedom. In October, the Charge d’Affaires hosted virtual interfaith meetings with religious leaders from the evangelical Protestant, Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish communities to discuss religious freedom issues, including the religious freedom law, and to encourage religious leaders to engage in interfaith dialogue. In September and October, embassy officials organized separate meetings with leaders of evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim groups to discuss the impact of the implementation of the religious freedom law, the impact of COVID-19 on their communities and their relationships with the interim government under the leadership of President Jeanine Anez, and ways that religious leaders could serve as trusted intermediaries during the period of political instability.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one house of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – who are predominantly SOC, Roman Catholic, and Muslim, respectively. The government again failed to comply with a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision calling on it to open these positions to other minorities. By law, no Muslim group may register or open a mosque without the approval of the Islamic Community (IC). The human rights ministry made little progress implementing instructions making it responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The Presidency again failed to approve a previously negotiated agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. Religious groups, in communities where they are a minority, reported authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against them in providing services and granting building permits. UNICEF reported students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious discrimination in schools. The Interreligious Council (IRC), comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported inadequate investigation and prosecution of religiously motivated crimes.

The IRC registered 14 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites, including one involving a shooting at a cross, but said the number of actual incidents was likely much higher. In October, vandals damaged the Sultan Sulaiman Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina, a designated national monument. The Saint Sava Orthodox church in Blazuj near Sarajevo was repeatedly vandalized, and several Catholic memorials and chapels were also vandalized. In 2019, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to the police. The incidents ranged from threatening religious leaders and disturbing religious ceremonies with threats to vandalizing cemeteries and other religious sites. In contrast with the previous year, the OSCE did not report any anti-Semitic incidents. Slightly more than two-thirds of respondents in an August survey expressed support for maintaining religious education in schools.

U.S. embassy representatives emphasized the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities to government officials. In May, the Ambassador met with the newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge the groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith and reconciliation-themed activities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.

The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.

The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It provides for equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.

The laws of Brcko, a self-governing district, do not encompass freedom of religion. Instead, national laws on religious freedom are applied.

A national law on religion provides for freedom of conscience and grants legal status to “churches and religious communities.” To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. The constitutions of BiH, the Federation, and RS state that registered religious organizations are allowed to operate freely. Simplified registration procedures applied to religious groups recognized prior to adoption of the law, primarily the Orthodox Church, IC, Jewish Community, Catholic Church, and other Christian groups, including the Evangelical, Baptist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community.

Registration affords numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those that do not register, including the right to conduct collaborative actions such as do charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.

According to law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Requirements for registration include presenting statutes that define the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application. The law stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.” A group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction.

The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.

In addition to registered churches and religious communities, there are educational, charitable, and other institutions, known as “legal subjects,” that belong to these communities but are registered as separate legal entities in the MOJ registry. The IC has 120 legal subjects, the Catholic Church 398, the Orthodox Church 526, and other churches and religious communities and alliances (primarily of Protestant groups) of these communities have 47.

A concordat between the BiH government and the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including to establish educational and charitable institutions and carry out religious education in public or private schools, and it officially recognizes Catholic holidays. The government and the Catholic Church created a commission to implement the concordat. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, and a commission to implement it was created in September.

The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.

The law on religion states that churches and religious communities are obligated to pay taxes and contributions on earnings of their employees (pension, health, and disability insurance). In the Federation, two of 10 cantons – Western Herzegovina Canton and Herzegovina-Neretva Canton – include religious officials in their health insurance system. Sarajevo Canton does not include religious workers in its health insurance system but offers such insurance to religious officials under more favorable provisions than those available to average citizens. The RS provides pension benefits and disability insurance to religious workers while they have residence in the RS.

All three BiH administrative units have hate crimes regulated within their criminal codes. The provisions in these codes regulate hate crimes as every criminal act committed because of the race, skin color, religious belief, national or ethnic origin, language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. The criminal codes also stipulate that this motivation is to be taken as an aggravating circumstance of any criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments for qualified forms of criminal acts.

The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers, who are employees of the schools where they teach, although they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.

The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions.

In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course, or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. The RS Ministry of Education offers elective religious education in secondary schools.

The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion.

The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.

A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.

The country has no law on restitution that would allow for the return of, or compensation for, property, including property owned by religious groups, nationalized or expropriated under communist rule.

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

Government Practices

The human rights ministry made little progress in implementing 2019 instructions for implementation of the national religious freedom law. In accordance with the instructions, the ministry is responsible for coordinating actions to correct religious freedom abuses and to draft proposals to regulate retirement and health insurance benefits of religious workers. The MHRR took no steps to draft proposals for resolving the issues of rights to pension, disability allowance, and health insurance for religious officials, despite issuing instructions in 2019 stating it would do so and submit the proposals to the government for approval. National, Federation, and RS governments had still not made provisions for religious officials to fully qualify for pensions and health and disability insurance, more than 16 years after the adoption of the law on religious freedom and the 2019 issuance of instructions on implementation of the law stating the MHRR should work with religious group representatives to resolve the issue.

The government again failed to comply with a 2009 decision by the ECHR stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of minority groups, including Jews, to run for president and the House of Peoples.

The MOJ said it generally processed registration applications by religions groups within a week. There were no reports the ministry denied any registration applications by religious communities.

The Presidency again failed to reach a consensus on the approval of a 2015 agreement between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The Presidency did not inform the MHRR what part of the agreement was not acceptable to it.

In September, the IRC reported the government prohibition against employees of judicial institutions wearing any form of “religious insignia,” including headscarves, at work, remained in place. While there were no instances of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council applying the prohibition during the year, an IC representative stated its existence caused uneasiness and uncertainty among Muslims working in or visiting these institutions.

According to officials of religious groups constituting a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. On March 3, three years after the original application, Drvar municipal authorities issued a location permit to the Catholic Saint Joseph Parish in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. In 2019, the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of the center, overturning the municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request.

As of September, the government of BiH had only partially implemented an ECHR ruling ordering it to remove a Serbian Orthodox church the court found was illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The lawyer representing Orlovic confirmed the RS government paid Orlovic and her relatives for financial damages. At the end of February, SOC officials removed all religious items from the church, and, for the first time, there was no church liturgy held on the church’s patron saint’s day on September 11. At year’s end, the church building remained in place on Orlovic’s property.

Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s continuing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities and the lack of a law on restitution – for both religious communities and private citizens – hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, repeatedly said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.

According to religious community leaders, political disagreement over whether the state or the country’s two entities – the Federation and RS – had competency over restitution, as well as the potential cost, were the main barriers to the country’s adopting a law on restitution. According to a study done by the Economic Institute of the Faculty of Economics, University of Sarajevo, just under 7 percent of the total nationalized property in the country belonged to religious communities, and each major religious group had unresolved restitution claims involving high-profile properties. For example, the SOC sought return of its former seminary building, which housed the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Economics; the Jewish Community was seeking return of its La Benevolencija building in the center of Sarajevo, which housed the Ministry of Interior of Sarajevo Canton; the Catholic Church was seeking return of its Saint Augustine Institute building in Sarajevo, which housed the Music Academy; and the IC had a claim on the Palata Gazihusrevbeg building in downtown Sarajevo. In some cases, municipal, cantonal, and entity governments engaged in “silent restitution,” where they allowed religious communities to use a property but did not transfer legal ownership. All main religious groups expressed concerns regarding discrimination and unequal treatment of religious communities by the Federation and the RS. All major religious groups in the country said they agreed on the urgent need for a restitution law to be adopted.

In welcoming remarks during a Christmas reception on January 16, SOC Metropolitan Hrizostom called on the BiH Presidency to support, and the BiH Parliament to adopt, a law on restitution of property. He stated that, by failing to return seized properties to churches and religious communities, the government continued to violate basic human and religious rights of believers. On September 17, Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, in a meeting with High Representative Valentin Inzko, the official responsible for overseeing implementation of civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement, said the government should either return all nationalized properties to religious groups or pay them compensation. In its October report, Key Findings of the Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovinas EU Membership Application and Analytical Report, the European Commission criticized BiH authorities for failure to adopt a legislative framework for handling restitution cases.

At the end of 2019, the Municipality of Stari Grad Sarajevo began construction of a 5,800 square-meter (62,000 square-foot) building in the center of Sarajevo on a plot of land, ownership of which was partly claimed by four Jewish families and partly by the IC. The Stari Grad Municipality registered itself as the owner of the land, even though the Jewish Community informed the municipality that one of the four original Jewish owners was still alive and the remaining three had living heirs. The families and Jewish Community submitted an appeal to the municipality in 2018, but the municipality rejected it in 2019 and issued a building permit to itself and private investor Amko Komerc. Unlike the Jewish families, several online media outlets, including tacno.net and klix.ba, reported that the IC was compensated for its share of the property.

According to a UNICEF report issued in March, students and teachers continued to experience ethnic and religious segregation, intolerance, and division in a number of ethnically homogenous schools throughout the country, especially in the “two schools under one roof,” where children were segregated from each other based on ethnicity.

Returnee students (those belonging to a minority ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war) continued to face barriers in exercising their rights to language education. For the seventh consecutive year, parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation of BiH Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and the Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the IC. According to media and international organizations, the boycott was based on the refusal of the RS Ministry of Education and Culture (RS MoEC) to approve a group of national subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students are entitled and taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). Parents of one of these schools in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos, won a court case in December 2019 in which the RS Supreme Court ruled they were entitled to the national group of subjects in the Bosnian language. The RS MoEC, however, failed to implement the decision by the beginning of the new school year in September. As a result, 60 children continued learning in the Hanifici Islamic Center building, with teachers traveling from Zenica-Doboj Canton, approximately 80 kilometers (48 miles) away. In June, lawyers representing Bosniak parents filed a request for execution of the RS Supreme Court decision at the Kotor Varos Basic Court. By year’s end, that court had not responded. Lawyers representing the parents also reported that they had tried to meet with the RS MoEC officials twice, but without success.

According to nongovernmental organizations and media reports, parents often chose to send their children to public school religious education classes to avoid having their children stand out from other children who attend the classes and be exposed to peer pressure. In August, the PRIME Communications agency asked 1,500 persons whether religious education should remain in schools in the country; 52.8 percent of respondents opposed removing religious education from schools; 16 percent were largely against removal; 11.5 percent favored removal; and the remainder did not answer the question.

According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees again complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.

Representatives of religious minority communities throughout the country reported that their members had difficulties accessing government services and protections, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. For example, in July, Cardinal Puljic told an Italian Catholic media outlet that thousands of Catholics left the country every year because of discrimination.

On several occasions, IRC leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate in providing police protection and investigating threats of violence and harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated the cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to the IRC, the officials rarely investigated the motives of the acts, which would help distinguish cases of theft from hate crimes. In many instances, IRC leaders said they hesitated to report incidents to the police or media, particularly in areas where their religious group is a minority, fearing that public attention could result in retaliation and greater problems for their community in the future.

The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both the school and street retained the Busuladzic name.

According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See had not met since 2016, and the government had not implemented the agreements reached by the commission earlier, such as legislation on observing religious holidays.

In September, the government and the SOC formed a commission to implement the agreement between the government and the SOC. According to the MHRR, the implementation of the agreement with the SOC had likely been stalled for years due to the absence of a similar agreement between the state and the IC.

The MHRR stated in September it had launched a process to unblock the process of adopting an agreement between the IC and the government.

International and local nongovernmental organizations, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The IRC stated it believed the actual number of incidents was much higher but remained significantly underreported because members of religious groups feared that reporting them could trigger retaliation or further episodes.

In July, unknown persons fired several shots from a small-caliber weapon at a Catholic cross in Bisnje near Derventa. Authorities reported there were no victims; they failed to identify any suspects by year’s end.

On October 11, unknown persons vandalized Sultan Sulaiman’s Atiq Mosque in Bijeljina by breaking glass on two windows. The mosque was a designated national monument previously restored after being destroyed in the 1992-95 war. Mirnes Kovac, a columnist for Al Jazeera Balkans, tweeted: “This is just one more sign of the dramatic rise of ultranationalist forces among the Serb population in the Balkans.” Mayor of Bijeljina Mico Micic condemned the incident and called for tolerance and coexistence in the municipality, as “animosities, mistrust, and instability can bring nothing good.”

In July, unknown persons sprayed insulting graffiti on the Saint Sunday Orthodox Church in the village of Dobric near Siroki Brijeg. According to the IRC, the incident led to a more proactive and constructive attitude towards the SOC by local authorities in Siroki Brijeg, who agreed to help what the IRC described as the small and long-neglected Orthodox returnee community in the village by initiating a project to provide regular water supply to its residences.

In February, vandals damaged the parish house next to the Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kotor Varos Municipality in the RS in February. Police arrested two suspects and initiated criminal proceedings against them, but further information on the case was unavailable at year’s end.

In January, police arrested two minors after they damaged a window and the facade of the Carsijska Mosque in Kozarska Dubica. The perpetrators later visited the imam, together with their parents, and apologized to him, offering to pay for the damage. The local mayor also offered to cover the cost of repairs.

In August, on the first day of the Islamic New Year, a dead pig was found in the yard of the mosque in Bratunac. The perpetrators were not identified.

In 2019, the OSCE mission to the country monitored 16 potential bias-motivated incidents targeting Muslims and 15 such incidents targeting Christians (both Catholic and Orthodox), all of which were reported to police. Incidents ranged from disturbing religious ceremonies with threats and shootings, to threatening religious leaders, to vandalizing graveyards and religious facilities through property destruction and graffiti.

On February 26, Danijel Rajkovic from Gacko was sentenced to one year in prison for provoking ethnic, racial, and religious hatred. In 2019, Rajkovic defecated in front of the mosque in Gacko and, on several occasions, sent threatening messages to the imam in Bosanski Novi. In addition to his prison sentence, the court ordered Rajkovic to undergo psychiatric treatment.

The Council of Muftis of the IC said it was continuing efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease what they described as “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. The IC reported 11 active para-jamaats during the year, compared with 21 in 2019 and 64 in 2016.

In May, Cardinal Puljic, the most senior Catholic prelate in the country, held a memorial Mass for the victims of Bleiburg, where Yugoslav partisans killed thousands of Nazi-allied Ustasha fighters who fled the advance of the communist forces, as well as innocent persons, including women and children. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cardinal Puljic could not travel to Bleiburg, Austria, for the annual commemoration. The Jewish Community, Israeli Embassy in Tirana, Albania, and SOC criticized the Cardinal’s plans to hold the commemorative Mass, which also drew sizeable but peaceful protests in the center of Sarajevo. The press reported that the Mass, which was also broadcast by a regional television station, included a prayer for all victims of World War II, and there was no mention of Ustasha leaders. Online newspaper Crux Now reported that in an interview with local Catholic radio station Marija, Cardinal Pujlic said he had received threats related to the memorial Mass and that his church had prayed “for all the victims, not for Ustashas or criminals.”

The IRC organized six training sessions for youth, religious leaders, and IRC staff on usage of social media in promoting positive narratives (stories designed to promote interreligious and interethnic dialogue). The IRC continued to monitor and condemn attacks on religious leaders and buildings. It also organized “youth corners” – booths in public areas providing pamphlets and other information promoting the work and mission of the IRC – in Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May, the Ambassador met with newly appointed Minister for Human Rights and Refugees Milos Lucic and discussed the importance of religious freedom and the government’s financial support to the IRC. Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, Ministry of Security, and MHRR and underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law for religious minorities.

Embassy officials had numerous meetings with the Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox communities and community leaders. The Ambassador had individual meetings or calls with the leaders of the traditional religious communities, and embassy officials attended events hosted by the religious communities to commemorate religious holidays. Embassy officials continued to have small in-person meetings and representational events with the representatives of the Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish communities. At these events, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity and urged the religious communities to continue efforts to foster reconciliation and condemn intolerance and hate speech. The embassy reinforced its messages of support following the events and meetings on its social media platforms; the postings, particularly on Twitter, included calls for tolerance and the importance of interreligious dialogue and reconciliation.

The embassy continued supporting the Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding master’s program, a long-term project in its fourth year of operation, implemented jointly by the Catholic Theological Faculty, Faculty of Islamic Studies (University of Sarajevo), and Orthodox Theological Faculty (University of East Sarajevo). During the year, the embassy supported the program by financing a Fulbright fellow. The program is accredited by the Universities of Sarajevo and East Sarajevo. Its goal is to bring together professionals and students across ethnic and religious backgrounds. Thirty-five students enrolled in the program since its inception; there were 12 enrollees for 2020-21.

The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and supported its activities by providing funding. In January, the embassy approved a one-year project to help the IRC better respond to hate speech and attacks against religious sites and officials. The project involved technical assistance to the IRC to improve its strategic messaging; increase cooperation with authorities, civil society, and the media; and bolster its outreach and networks among youth. Its main objective was to minimize the potential for escalation following negative events and send messages to prevent a cycle of recrimination and violence, while strengthening interreligious dialogue as a tool for promoting empathy and preventing violence. The project focused on five communities where hate-based attacks and speech had been prevalent in recent years (Tuzla, Trebinje, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and Zepce).

The Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited the country in February and participated in the signing ceremony for the project with the IRC leaders. During her visit, the Deputy Administrator toured holy sites of all four traditional religions with leaders of the IRC. She congratulated the members of the IRC for their efforts to set a positive example of tolerance and collaboration across faiths by engaging citizens of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Botswana

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, with certain exceptions, and protection against governmental discrimination based on creed. An antidiscrimination policy in schools adopted by the government allows students to wear religion-based clothing with their uniforms, including hijabs.

Representatives of religious organizations said the country continued to have a high degree of religious tolerance and robust interfaith relations.

U.S. embassy officials met with representatives of faith groups to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 Population and Housing Census reporting on the population 12 years of age and over, 79 percent of citizens are members of Christian groups, 15 percent espouse no religion, four percent are adherents of the Badimo traditional indigenous religious group, and all other religious groups together constitute less than one percent of the population.

Anglicans, Methodists, and members of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa make up the majority of Christians. There are also Lutherans, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Mennonites, and members of the Dutch Reformed Church and other Christian denominations. According to the 2011 census, there are approximately 11,000 Muslims, many of whom are of South Asian origin. There are small numbers of Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jews. Immigrants and foreign workers are more likely to be members of non-Christian religious groups than native-born citizens.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Under its broader protections of freedom of conscience, the constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, the right to change religion or belief, and the right to manifest and propagate religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution permits the government to restrict these rights in the interest of protecting the rights of other persons, national defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health when the restrictions are deemed “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The government has never exercised this provision. The constitution’s provision of rights also prohibits discrimination based on creed.

The constitution permits religious groups to establish places for religious instruction at their expense. The constitution prohibits requiring religious instruction or participation in religious ceremonies in a religion other than one’s own. The constitution also prohibits compelling an individual to take an oath contrary to that individual’s religious beliefs. The penal code criminalizes “hate speech” towards any person or group based on “race, tribe, place of origin, color or creed” and imposes a maximum fine of 500 pula ($46) per violation.

All organizations, including religious groups, must register with the government. To register, a group must submit its constitution to the Registrar of Societies section of the Ministry of Nationality, Immigration, and Gender Affairs. Registration enables religious groups to conduct business, sign contracts, and open an account at a local bank. In order to register, new religious groups must have a minimum of 150 members. For previously registered religious groups, the membership threshold is 10. Any person who manages, assists in the management of, or holds an official position in an unregistered group is subject to a fine of up to 1,000 pula ($93) and up to seven years in prison. Any member of an unregistered group is subject to penalties, including fines up to 500 pula ($46) and up to three years in prison. According to 2019 data from the Registrar of Societies, there are 2,318 registered religious organizations.

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

Government Practices

Optional religious education remained part of the curriculum in public schools; this curriculum continued to emphasize Christianity, but it also discussed other religions practiced in the country. Government regulation of private schools did not distinguish among Christian, Muslim, or secular schools. In February, the government adopted a nondiscrimination policy in schools that allows students to wear a hijab or religiously-based head covering.

The government continued to pursue court cases involving unregistered churches (sometimes called “fire churches”) coming into the country to “take advantage of” local citizens by demanding tithes and donations for routine services or special prayers. The government required pastors of some of those churches to apply for visas, even those from countries whose nationals were normally allowed visa-free entry. The government ordered the Enlightened Christian Gathering (ECG) in November 2019 to close its church branches in the country following cancellation of ECG’s registration in 2017 over questions of financial impropriety. The Church had appealed the decision, but during the year dropped its court challenge to its deregistration. The ECG, founded by a Malawian pastor who faced charges of fraud and money laundering in South Africa late in the year, had 14 branches in the country.

Although it was common for government meetings to begin with a Christian prayer, members of non-Christian groups occasionally led prayers as well.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of religious organizations stated interfaith relations were robust, and they said there was a high degree of tolerance for religious diversity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with Muslim, Buddhist, Church of Jesus Christ, Baha’i, and other religious representatives to discuss religious freedom, interreligious relations, and community engagement. Topics included government tolerance of minority religious groups.

Brazil

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and it provides for the free exercise of religious beliefs. The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any religion. According to media reports, a military officer threatened an Afro-Brazilian religious group multiple times, including with weapons. In July, media outlets reported an electrician would press charges against the mayor of Belford Roxo in Rio de Janeiro State because the mayor’s staff threatened him and made derogatory statements about his Afro-Brazilian Candomble religion. The city government later apologized. On July 31, a Sao Paulo court awarded custody of a 12-year-old girl to her maternal Christian grandmother, removing the girl from her mother, who had supported her daughter’s choice to practice Candomble. In an August 14 appeal decision, the court restored custody to the mother. During the year, high level government officials made public remarks that religious minorities considered derogatory. In January, President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed Culture Minister Roberto Alvim after Alvim included in remarks excerpts from a speech by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. In October, the Santa Catarina Liberal Party leadership removed a history professor from its candidate list for a local town council election in Pomerode due to his association with neo-Nazi symbols and for not being ideologically aligned with the party. In February, in response to attacks on Afro-Brazilian religious places of worship, known as terreiros, the municipal government in Baixada Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro State, inaugurated the Center for Assistance to Victims of Religious Intolerance to support victims of religious intolerance in the region. On January 21, municipalities throughout the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance. In May, the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly held the Sao Paulo State Religious Freedom Week, a series of virtual meetings to promote freedom of religion and tolerance.

According to national human rights hotline data and other sources, societal respect for practitioners of minority religions continued to be weak, and violent attacks on terreiros continued. Although less than two percent of the population followed Afro-Brazilian religions, 17 percent of the cases registered by the human rights hotline during the first six months of 2019 involved victims who were practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions, down from 30 percent the previous year. According to the National Secretariat of Human Rights of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights, the national human rights hotline received 410 reports of religious intolerance in 2019, compared with 506 in 2018. Media reported individuals set fire to, bombed, and destroyed Afro-Brazilian places of worship, sometimes injuring or threatening worshippers. From January to August, the Jewish Federation of Sao Paulo recorded 149 incidents and allegations of anti-Semitism in the country in its annual Anti-Semitism Report. A global survey released in June by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) showed that the percentage of Brazilians who harbor some anti-Jewish sentiment increased from 19 percent in 2019 to 26 percent in 2020. Authorities investigated the physical assault on a Jewish man in rural Sao Paulo in February. Three attackers shouted anti-Semitic offenses while they beat the victim and cut his kippah with a knife. Media and religious organizations reported increased accounts of hate speech directed at religious minorities on social media and the internet, in particular anti-Afro-Brazilian and anti-Semitic comments. On December 13, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Marcelo Crivella inaugurated the Monument in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. Religious organizations hosted interfaith community events, including the 11th Annual Walk against Religious Intolerance in Salvador, Bahia, which drew approximately five thousand Candomble followers.

In October, the Ambassador met with the Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights. In September, embassy representatives met with the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights’ Secretariat of Global Protection to discuss the importance of religious freedom. On September 1, the Ambassador met virtually with the President of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops. In July, the embassy and consulates held an interfaith virtual roundtable to discuss the state of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity in the country. In July, a representative from the consulate in Rio de Janeiro met with a representative of the local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jewish Federation of Rio de Janeiro (FIERJ) to discuss challenges faced by the Jewish community in Rio de Janeiro and cases of anti-Semitism in the state. A consulate representative met with Candomble priest and head of the Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance (CCIR) Ivanir dos Santos to learn about the challenges faced within the Candomble community due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new cases of religious intolerance involving followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, and possible areas in which the United States could serve as a partner for promoting religious freedom. In August, the embassy held a virtual roundtable with four speakers, including a representative of an Afro-Brazilian community known as a quilombo (founded by runaway slaves), who discussed the challenges for members of the community who participate in religious events in the terreiro. The Rio de Janeiro Consul General wrote an op-ed in honor of the August 22 International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, published by Bahia newspaper Correio. On October 8, embassy representatives hosted a roundtable with representatives from three religious faiths and two interfaith organization representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country and raise concerns regarding attacks on religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 211.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2019 Datafolha survey, 50 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, the same as the previous survey in 2016 but down from 60 percent in 2014. Atheists and those with no religion represent 11 percent, and the proportion of evangelical Christians is 31 percent, compared with 24 percent in 2016. Two percent practice Afro-Brazilian religions, and three percent are Spiritists. According to the 2010 census, which is the most recently available data from official sources, 65 percent of the population is Catholic, 22 percent Protestant, eight percent irreligious (including atheists, agnostics, and deists), and two percent Spiritist. Adherents of other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, as well as followers of non-Christian religions, including Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Afro-Brazilian and syncretic religious groups, such as Candomble and Umbanda, make up a combined three percent of the population. According to the census, there are approximately 600,000 practitioners of Candomble, Umbanda, and other Afro-Brazilian religions, and some Christians also practice Candomble and Umbanda. According to recent surveys, many Brazilians consider themselves followers of more than one religion.

According to the 2010 census, approximately 35,200 Muslims live in the country, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil estimates the number to be 1.2 to 1.5 million. The largest communities reside in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Foz do Iguacu, as well as in smaller cities in the states of Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.

According to the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, there are approximately 125,000 Jews in the country. The two largest concentrations are 65,000 in Sao Paulo State and 33,000 in Rio de Janeiro State.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and the free exercise of religious beliefs is guaranteed. The constitution prohibits the federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any specific religion. The law provides penalties of up to five years in prison for crimes of religious intolerance, including bullying, employment discrimination, refusal of access to public areas, and displaying, distributing, or broadcasting religiously intolerant material. Courts may fine or imprison for one to three years anyone who engages in religious hate speech. If the hate speech occurs via publication or social communication, including social media, courts may fine or imprison those held responsible for two to five years. It is illegal to write, edit, publish, or sell literature that promotes religious intolerance.

Religious groups are not required to register to establish places of worship, train clergy, or proselytize, but groups seeking tax-exempt status must register with the Department of Federal Revenue and the local municipality. States and municipalities have different requirements and regulations for obtaining tax-exempt status. Most jurisdictions require groups to document the purpose of their congregation, provide an accounting of finances, and have a fire inspection of any house of worship. Local zoning laws and noise ordinances may limit where a religious group may build houses of worship or hold ceremonies. The law protects the right to use animal sacrifice in religious rituals.

Government regulations require public schools to offer religious instruction, but neither the constitution nor legislation defines the parameters. By law, the instruction must be nondenominational and conducted without proselytizing, and alternative instruction for students who do not want to participate must be available. Schools are required to teach Afro-Brazilian religion, history, and culture. The law allows public and private school students, except those in military training, to postpone taking exams or attending classes on their day of worship when their faith prohibits such activities. The law guarantees the right of students to express their religious beliefs and mandates that schools provide alternatives, including taking replacement exams or makeup classes.

The law prohibits public subsidies to schools operated by religious organizations.

A constitutional provision provides the right of access to religious services and counsel to individuals of all religions in all civil and military establishments. The law states that public and private hospitals as well as civil or military prisons must comply with this provision.

A Sao Paulo State law establishes administrative sanctions for individuals and organizations engaging in religious intolerance. Punishment ranges from a warning letter to fines of up to 82,000 reais ($15,800); the increase reflects changes in the law.

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

Government Practices

In March, media reported that the Rio Grande do Sul Public Defender’s Center for the Defense of Human Rights opened an investigation of reports of religious intolerance against an Afro-Brazilian religious group located in a suburb of Porto Alegre. According to media reports, a military police officer threatened the followers multiple times, including with weapons. The reports stated that he and several other persons drove vehicles into the middle of the group’s religious celebrations. The incident was referred to the military police to evaluate the officer’s conduct. The case was pending at year’s end.

In July, media outlets reported electrician Wanderson Fernandes said he would press charges against the mayor of Belford Roxo in Rio de Janeiro for religious intolerance. According to Fernandes, the mayor’s staff deliberately destroyed a sidewalk in front of a Candomble temple, made derogatory statements about his religion, and verbally threatened him in the mayor’s presence for criticizing the mayor’s policies. In July, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office sent a formal request to the mayor to provide his version of events. According to Fernandes, the Belford Roxo city government repaired the sidewalk and formally apologized for the incident.

On July 31, a Sao Paulo court awarded custody of a 12-year-old girl to her maternal Christian grandmother, removing the girl from her mother, who had supported her daughter’s choice to practice Candomble. The grandmother filed for custody, stating the child faced physical and psychological harm after the mother shaved her daughter’s head for a Candomble religious ceremony. Although court documents were not publicly available due to the minor status of the child, media reported authorities found no evidence of physical or psychological harm and the girl said Candomble was her religion of choice. In an August 14 appeal decision, the court returned custody to the mother.

According to the Brazilian Federation of Muslim Associations (FAMBRAS), women said they faced difficulties in being allowed to wear Islamic head coverings such as the hijab when going through security in airports and other public buildings.

In June, several media outlets published a video recording of Palmares Foundation President Sergio Camargo verbally harassing a religious leader and coordinator for promoting policies and protection of religious diversity. The Palmares Foundation is a public institution connected to the Ministry of Culture that promotes Afro-Brazilian art and culture. Mae Baiana, the religious leader, filed a complaint with the Federal District police department specializing in hate crimes based on religion. The federal police opened an investigation of the case.

Prominent Jewish organizations publicly stated their outrage at what they considered anti-Semitic comments made by high level government officials. In May, former Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub compared a Federal Police operation against fake news to Kristallnacht. Multiple Jewish organizations condemned the comparison, and the Israeli embassy in Brasilia posted on Twitter, “There has been an increase in the use of the Holocaust in public speeches in a way that belittles its memory and this tragedy that happened to the Jewish people.” The same month, on his personal blog, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo criticized COVID-related stay-at-home orders by comparing them to a Nazi concentration camp. Multiple Jewish organizations condemned Araujo’s statements as inappropriate and disrespectful. In a series of tweets responding to the criticism, Araujo publicly rejected anti-Semitism and stated his comments were taken out of context. During the year, Araujo spoke out regarding the importance of religious freedom. On November 16, at the 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief, he stated, “Religious freedom should not be an afterthought. Religious freedom is essential to freedom as a whole.” By year’s end, there was no official investigation into comments that were alleged to be anti-Semitic.

Also in May, the President of the Brazilian Jewish Confederation objected to President Bolsonaro’s use of the slogan “Work, unity, and truth will set Brazil free,” noting its similarity to the Nazi inscription at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp: “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will set you free”). Supporters of Bolsonaro said the slogan was based on a New Testament passage: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

In January, President Bolsonaro dismissed Culture Minister Roberto Alvim after Alvim included in remarks excerpts from a speech by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Referring to his decision to remove Alvim, Bolsonaro stated, “I reiterate our rejection of totalitarian and genocidal ideologies, as well as any kind of explanation for them. We also express our full and unrestricted support for the Jewish community, of which we are friends and share common values.”

In October, the Santa Catarina Liberal Party leadership removed history professor Wandercy Pugliesi from its candidate list for a local town council election in Pomerode due to his association with neo-Nazi symbols and for not being ideologically aligned with the party. Pugliesi had a large, tiled swastika symbol in his personal pool and named his son Adolf; police seized Nazi-related materials from him in 1994. Fernando Lottenberg, President of the Brazilian Jewish Confederation, praised Pugliesi’s removal. The local Santa Catarina Jewish Federation’s President called Pugliesi’s actions “appalling and regrettable.”

The NGO Center for Articulation of Marginalized Populations (CEAP) reported Afro-Brazilian victims of religious intolerance in Rio de Janeiro State continued to view police and the judiciary as being indifferent, in general, to attacks on Afro-Brazilian places of worship. It cited what it said were a lack of investigations and arrests in these cases. In response to attacks on Afro-Brazilian religious places of worship, the municipal government in Baixada Fluminense, Rio de Janeiro, inaugurated a new building in February that housed the Center for Assistance to Victims of Religious Intolerance. The center offered professional legal, psychological, and social assistance to support victims of religious intolerance in the region.

In July, Sao Paulo State increased sanctions for engaging in religious intolerance. Punishments range from a warning letter to fines of up to 82,000 reais ($15,800).

In November, during the International Religious Freedom Ministerial hosted by Poland, Foreign Affairs Minister Araujo stated his government’s commitment to protecting religious freedom at home and abroad and announced Brazil would host the 2021 ministerial.

On January 21, municipalities around the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance. The CCIR and CEAP organized a series of seminars and debates at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal Justice Cultural Center to discuss respect for, and tolerance of, religious diversity, including countering religious persecution against practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions. Also on January 21 in Sao Paulo State, the city of Sao Carlos’ Human Rights Department held a film screening, followed by a discussion of different actions that could be taken to address religious intolerance. Officials from the Department of Human Rights of the Municipal Secretary of Citizenship and Social Assistance organized and attended the event.

During the year, the Inter-Religious Forum for a Culture of Peace and Freedom of Faith, an entity of the Sao Paulo State Secretary of Justice and Citizenship with representatives from 22 religious groups, established a partnership with the Sao Paulo Court of Justice to create a panel to mediate and resolve religious conflicts. COVID-19 restrictions delayed the formation of the panel.

In May, the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly held the Sao Paulo State Religious Freedom Week, a series of virtual meetings to promote freedom of religion and tolerance. Governor Joao Doria opened the first meeting, an International Forum of Religious Freedom and Citizenship, saying, “The ability to coexist with differences is what makes the world happier and a better place to live in. Now, more than ever, we need dialogue, understanding, and union.” State Deputy Damares Moura, President of the State Parliamentary Group for Religious Freedom, organized the event; an estimated 7,000 persons participated.

The CCIR and CEAP launched a series of events to coincide with the 13th observance of the Walk Against Religious Intolerance in Rio. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCIR organized virtual seminars and debates from August 27 to September 27. Activities convened participants from various faiths to discuss challenges to religious intolerance and call attention to crimes of religious intolerance.

On December 13, Rio de Janeiro Mayor Crivella inaugurated the Monument in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. Acting Governor Claudio Castro said, “The inauguration of this monument sends an important message of respect, love, and tolerance that is fundamental for today’s society.” The memorial, which organizers began planning in 2017, was the result of a partnership between the municipal government, the Brazilian-Jewish community, and private donors. Prominent national and regional leaders, many from the Brazilian-Jewish and evangelical Christian communities, delivered remarks emphasizing their commitment to preserving the memory of Holocaust victims and solidarity with the Jewish people and Israel. Supreme Court Justice Luiz Fux said, “This memorial is so that we do not suffer from the vice of indifference and also to express our indignation at the Holocaust.” Plans for the monument include a small museum and cultural space to be used for Holocaust education activities and programming.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although less than two percent of the population followed Afro-Brazilian religions, a disproportionate amount of the cases registered by the human rights hotline involved victims who were practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions; 17 percent of the cases registered by the human rights hotline during the first six months of 2019 involved victims who were practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions, down from 30 percent the previous year. Media reported multiple incidents in which individuals and groups destroyed terreiros and sacred objects.

Some religious leaders again stated that attacks on Afro-Brazilian religious groups were increasing, attributing the increase in violence to criminal groups and a climate of intolerance promoted by evangelical Christian groups.

In February, three men assaulted a 57-year-old Jewish man in rural Sao Paulo State. The men shouted anti-Semitic epithets, including, “Hitler should have killed the Jews and freed the world” during the beating, cut the victim’s kippah with a pocketknife, and broke some of his teeth. At year’s end, police were investigating the case but had not identified the attackers.

According to media reports, on September 6, unidentified individuals set fire to an Umbanda temple in the municipality of Nova Iguacu, in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro State. Religious leader Emilson Furtado filed a complaint with Rio de Janeiro’s Civil Police Office for Racial Crimes and Crimes of Intolerance. At year’s end, police continued to investigate the case.

In July, media reported a self-described evangelical drug lord calling himself “Aaron, brother of Moses” seized control of five favela communities in northern Rio de Janeiro to establish a zone called the “Complex of Israel.” Media reported that “Aaron” replaced Catholic symbols with Israeli flags and the Star of David as a demonstration of power, territorial control, and faith. The President of the Rio de Janeiro Jewish Federation gave an interview to the news outlet Rede Globo in July condemning the inappropriate use of Jewish symbols. Police identified “Aaron,” but at year’s end, they had not made an arrest.

Police concluded their investigation of a 2019 incident in which self-named Drug Traffickers for Jesus reportedly attacked a Candomble temple in the Parque Paulista neighborhood of Duque de Caxias, in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro State. The individuals broke into the temple, forced the priestess to destroy sacred objects, and threatened to set fire to the building if the practitioners did not stop holding regular religious services. Police identified who ordered the plot and who participated in the attack, and authorities pressed charges against seven individuals, including the alleged leader of the group, Alvaro Malaquias Santa Rosa.

On June 9, armed men entered one of Bahia State’s oldest Candomble terreiros and destroyed several sacred objects. Media identified the vandals as employees of a packaging company. Representatives of the company denied all allegations, while stating they were in the midst of a land dispute with the terreiro, which the company claimed had illegally installed fences on the perimeter of its property. According to Terreiro Icimimo, at year’s end, authorities had not identified or arrested any of the vandals.

Media reported incidents of evangelical Christian missionaries traveling to isolated and recently contacted indigenous communities to proselytize and spread their religion. Indigenous organizations raised concerns that these attempts violated indigenous peoples’ constitutional right to maintain their cultural heritage and sacred practices and threatened their safety. According to media reports, on April 16, the Federal Court of Tabatinga banned three evangelical Christian missionaries and the Christian missionary organization New Tribes Mission of Brazil from entering indigenous communities in the Javari Valley region. The order also included a fine of 1,000 reais ($190) for noncompliance. In his decision, Judge Fabiano Verli said that this was not a religious freedom issue and that Brazil, as a secular state, must prioritize protecting vulnerable populations from the spread of COVID-19.

From January to August, the Jewish Federation of Sao Paulo recorded 149 incidents and allegations of anti-Semitism in the country in its annual anti-Semitism report. From January to August 2019, the Federation recorded 194 incidents. The report was based on a range of sources, including traditional media, social media, and reports from other branch offices of the organization. The survey reported sightings of swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti.

A global ADL survey, released in June, showed the percentage of Brazilians who harbor some anti-Jewish sentiment increased from 19 percent in 2019 to 26 percent in 2020. A survey from the Henry Sobel Human Rights Observatory found that acts of intolerance and anti-Semitic attitudes were increasingly common in social and political spheres. The organization recorded 30 such acts during the first six months of the year, compared with 26 in all of 2019. According to anthropologist Adriana Magalhaes Dias at the State University of Campinas, there were 349 active neo-Nazi organizations in the country. She said the largest concentrations were in Sao Paulo, with 102 groups; Parana, with 74; and Santa Catarina, with 69.

In June, a pastor in Rio de Janeiro, Tupirani da Hora Lores, stated in a sermon delivered at the small, evangelical Christian Geracao Jesus Cristo Church that he prayed for God to “destroy the Jews like vermin.” In another sermon, he said God should bring about a second Holocaust. Sinagoga Sem Fronteiras, an organization representing a network of Jewish communities, filed a complaint for incitement against da Hora Lores with federal police, who said they were investigating the case. According to FIERJ, at year’s end, the investigation remained pending.

Neo-Nazi groups maintained an active presence online. In May, Safernet, an NGO that promotes human rights on social networks and monitors radical websites, reported the creation of 204 new pages of neo-Nazi content in the country during the year, compared with 42 new pages in May 2019, and 28 in May 2018. At year’s end, the Public Ministry was investigating many of these cases.

There were reports of private entities and individuals inciting violence against or engaging in verbal harassment of religious minorities on social media and in the press. FIERJ reported 42 complaints of anti-Semitic incidents on social media, of which it determined that 12 constituted anti-Semitism.

Media reported a group of men interrupted a virtual lesson at the College of Business Administration, Marketing, and Communication in Sorocaba, Sao Paulo, on August 20, to shout Nazi, racist, and sexist epithets at the teacher and students. During the attack, they posted images of Adolf Hitler and his followers marching with the Nazi flag.

In May, media reported Federal Senate President Davi Alcolumbre was the target of anti-Semitic harassment on social media. A user said, “Jews are miserly. Jews are wicked and think only of their well-being.” Facebook deleted the user’s account after the Brazilian Jewish Confederation denounced the post.

According to FAMBRAS, there was an increase in anti-Muslim messages on the internet, mostly associating Islam with terrorism and spreading messages of hate against Muslim representatives and their religious symbols. According to FAMBRAS legal advisor Mohamed Charanek, Google removed from social media two videos associating halal food with terrorism and cruel practices to comply with a 2019 decision by the Third Civil Court of Justice of Sao Paulo. The organization said the videos were offensive and contained anti-Muslim sentiment. At year’s end, authorities had not identified the authors of the videos.

There were multiple reports of harassment of Afro-Brazilian religious practitioners on social media. In September, social media blogger Monique Elias posted online that she was a victim of religious intolerance. She said hate messages started in July, after she posted a video where she discussed her Candomble religion.

On August 13, a television host from private news network Arapuan mocked Afro-Brazilian religions on air. The Bar Association of Paraiba, the Interinstitutional Forum for Communication, the state Public Attorney’s Office, the Religious Diversity Forum, and some religious leaders filed complaints of religious intolerance against the network with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office. The host made a public apology on live television, but the network did not take action.

Hindu religious leader Rajan Zed accused national fashion brand Jon Cotre of religious insensitivity and sacrilege for using the image of Lord Ganesh, a Hindu deity, in its line of shorts. A spokeswoman for the company apologized and said, “Our intention was never to trivialize or offend.” The Sao Paulo-based brand removed ads from its website and stopped producing the shorts.

In February, the Paraiba State Commission of Soccer Referees ordered Edson Boca not to wear clothing that represented his Afro-Brazilian religion while he worked as a massage therapist for the Sao Paulo Crystal soccer team.

The Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights’ National Secretariat of Human Rights received 410 reports of religious intolerance via the nationwide Dial 100 Human Rights hotline in 2019, compared with 506 in 2018. Most of the reports involved discrimination but did not specify what kind.

The Rio de Janeiro Civil Police Office for Racial Crimes and Crimes of Intolerance received 32 reports of religious intolerance from January through September. At year’s end, authorities indicted two persons on charges of religious intolerance.

According to the Bahia State Secretariat of Racial Equality, there were 10 instances of religious intolerance in the state between January and August, compared with 34 instances in the comparable period in 2019. The State Secretariat for Human Rights in Rio de Janeiro reported 31 instances of religious intolerance between January and June, compared with 42 instances during the same period in 2019. Afro-Brazilian religious groups experienced the greatest number of occurrences, with four cases involving practitioners of Candomble and 19 cases involving practitioners of Umbanda. Municipalities in the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area registered 17 incidents, including three in Rio’s Baixada Fluminense Region.

On January 11, the Yle Axe Oya Bagan community in the Federal District hosted an event on combating religious intolerance, with the support of the State Secretary for Citizenship and Justice.

On February 20, approximately five thousand Candomble followers and supporters participated in the “Pedra de Xango” Annual Walk against Religious Intolerance in Salvador, Bahia. Candomble priest Mae Iara de Oxum organized the 11th annual event, which had the support of the Salvador municipal government and the Gregorio de Matos Foundation.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 82 percent of Brazil’s respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles of nine cited.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, the Ambassador met with Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights Damares Alves to raise concerns regarding reports of Christian missionaries attempting to contact isolated indigenous tribes with the aim of converting them to Christianity, noting concerns about their culture, health, and desire to remain isolated.

On September 10, embassy representatives met virtually with the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights’ Secretariat of Global Protection. They noted the President’s June Executive Order on religious freedom and explained the United States’ recommitment to the human rights enshrined within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On September 1, the Ambassador met virtually with the President of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, Dom Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo. The Ambassador stated the embassy and consulates were closely following threats to religious minorities in the country and underlined the importance of religious freedom.

In July, a consulate representative from Rio de Janeiro met FIERJ representative Paulo Maltz to discuss challenges the Jewish community faced and learn about possible cases of anti-Semitism in the state. A consulate representative also met with Ivanir dos Santos to learn about the challenges faced within the Candomble community due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new cases of religious intolerance involving followers of Afro-Brazilian religions, and possible areas in which the United States could serve as a partner for promoting religious freedom.

On July 29, embassy and consulate general officials held a virtual roundtable with representatives of Afro-Brazilian religions, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity to discuss the state of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity in the country.

On August 14, the embassy and consulates general held a virtual roundtable with four speakers, including a representative of an Afro-Brazilian community known as a quilombo, who discussed the challenges for members of the community participating in religious events.

The Rio de Janeiro Consul General wrote an op-ed in honor of the August 22 International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The Bahian newspaper Correio da Bahia published the op-ed, which highlighted a $500,000 grant by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, as well as the 2019 International Religious Freedom Award for Rio’s Ivanir dos Santos, CCIR head and a Candomble priest.

On October 8, embassy representatives hosted a roundtable with representatives from three religious faiths and two interfaith organizations to discuss the state of religious freedom and raise concerns about attacks on religious minorities.

On December 18, the embassy and consulates general hosted a webinar with an associate professor of political science from a U.S. university and author of a book on religion and democracy. She discussed religion, politics, and environmentalism in the country. The embassy disseminated her presentation via embassy social media platforms.

Brunei

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

Bulgaria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience. Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive benefits. The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration. In December, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began hearing an appeal by 14 Romani Muslims convicted in 2019 of spreading Salafi Islam, among other charges. Muslim leaders again said several municipalities denied permission to build new or rehabilitate existing religious facilities. The Evangelical Alliance and some other religious groups stated the government did not apply COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups equally, favoring the BOC. The European Court of Human Rights stopped the deportation of three Uyghur Muslims to China. In February, a Shumen court ruled the municipality’s ordinance restricting proselytizing was unconstitutional. A parliamentarian and member of the governing political coalition criticized the ruling, which was being appealed, calling Jehovah’s Witnesses a “dangerous sect.” In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Sofia mayor’s ban on the annual march honoring Hristo Lukov, leader of a pro-Nazi organization in the 1940s, restricting the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque. The academy of sciences published a report, backed by several government ministries, denying the World War II-era government had sent Jews to forced labor camps but instead had tried to save them from the Nazis.

The Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) Shalom reported death threats, increased incidents of anti-Semitic hate speech in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported fewer instances of harassment and threats, attributing the change to COVID-19 restrictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses said some media continued to misrepresent their activities. Protestants stated media published information about members of their community who tested positive for COVID-19, while not doing so for members of any other religious group. An Alpha research survey issued in January of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers found rates of mistrust of Muslims was 26 percent, of Jews and Protestants 10 percent, and of Catholics 8 percent.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives supporting interfaith dialogue with government officials, including representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local governments. The Ambassador and embassy officials also met with minority religious groups and supported civil society efforts to encourage tolerance and stimulate interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 76 percent of the population identifies as Eastern Orthodox Christian, primarily affiliated with the BOC. The census reports Muslims, the second largest religious group, are approximately 10 percent of the population, followed by Protestants at 1.1 percent and Roman Catholics at 0.8 percent. Nearly 95 percent of Muslims reported being Sunni; most of the rest are Shia, and there is a small number of Ahmadis concentrated in Blagoevgrad. Orthodox Christians of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Sri Chinmoy, and other groups together make up 0.2 percent of the population. According to the census, 4.8 percent of respondents have no religion and 7.1 percent did not specify a religion. According to a 2019 report by the think tank Agency for Social Analyses, 74 percent of individuals identify as Orthodox Christians, 10 percent as Muslims, 13 percent as atheists, and 3 percent with other religious traditions.

Some religious minorities are concentrated geographically. Many Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) live in the Rhodope Mountains along the southern border with Greece and Turkey. Ethnic Turkish and Romani Muslims also live in large numbers in the northeast and along the Black Sea coast. Some recent Romani converts to Islam live in towns in the central region, such as Plovdiv and Pazardjik. According to the census, nearly 40 percent of Catholics live in and around Plovdiv. The majority of the small Jewish community lives in Sofia, Plovdiv, and along the Black Sea coast. Protestants are widely dispersed. Many Roma are Protestant converts, and Protestants are more numerous in areas with large Romani populations. Approximately 80 percent of the urban population and 62 percent of the rural population identifies as Orthodox Christian. Approximately 25 percent of the rural population identifies as Muslim, compared with four percent of the urban population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted except to the extent its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines or organizations that incite religious animosity, as well as the use of religious beliefs, institutions, and communities for political ends. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.

The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s traditional religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups seeking legal recognition.

The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for persons attacking individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith, carry out their rituals and services, or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may receive prison sentences of up to one year. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom to acquire or practice a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($63-$190). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine may range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($310-$3,100).

To receive national legal recognition, religious groups other than the BOC must register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies and management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances and property and processes for termination and liquidation of the group. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon the court’s request. Applicants must notify the Directorate for Religious Affairs within seven days of receiving a court decision on their registration. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups, only that branches notify local authorities, and local authorities enter them in a register. Local branches are not required to obtain registration from the local court. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. The Directorate for Religious Affairs and any prosecutor may request that a court revoke a religious group’s registration on the grounds of systematic violations of the law. There are 203 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.

Registered religious groups must maintain a registry of their clergy and employees, provide the Directorate for Religious Affairs with access to the registry, and issue a certificate to each clerical member, who must carry it as proof of representing the group. Foreign members of registered religious groups may obtain long-term residency permits, but for the foreign member to be allowed to conduct religious services during his or her stay, the group must send advance notice to the Directorate for Religious Affairs.

The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups based on the number of self-identified followers in the latest census (2011), at a rate of 10 levs ($6) per capita to groups that comprise more than one percent of the population and varying amounts for the rest.

Registered groups have the right to perform religious services; maintain financial accounts; own property such as houses of worship and cemeteries; provide medical, social, and educational services; receive property tax and other exemptions; and participate in commercial ventures.

Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, but they lack privileges granted to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their names, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise.

The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($130) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($940) for repeat offenses.

The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Dozens of municipalities, including the regional cities of Kyustendil, Shumen, Stara Zagora, and Sliven, have ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature without a permit. The ordinances in Stara Zagora and Kyustendil remained in effect despite a 2018 Supreme Administrative Court ruling that they were unconstitutional. Several municipalities, including Shumen, Kyustendil, and Sliven, prohibit unregistered religious groups from conducting any religious activities. Some municipalities prohibit religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children.

By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required, to teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least 13 students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves the content of and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools and universities, provided they meet government standards for secular education.

The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints and does not charge for its services. The commission’s decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. Upon accepting a case, the commission assigns it to a panel that then reviews it in open session. If the commission makes a finding of discrimination, it may impose a fine of 250 to 2,000 levs ($160-$1,300). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.

The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request that the Constitutional Court abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.

The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities.

The penal code prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press, or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 10,000 levs ($3,100-$6,300), as well as “public censure.” The propagation of “fascism or another antidemocratic ideology” is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 5,000 levs ($3,100). Courts have found that Nazism falls within the purview of “antidemocratic ideology.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 to 10,000 levs ($1,900-$6,300).

The law provides for restitution of real estate confiscated during the communist era; courts have also applied the law to Holocaust-related claims.

The law allows religious groups to delay until 2029 paying back outstanding revenue obligations incurred before December 31, 2018.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began proceedings involving 14 Romani Muslims, 12 of whom appealed their lower-court convictions on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, and propagating Salafi Islam, characterized by the government as an antidemocratic ideology, and incitement to war. The prosecution appealed the sentences of 13 defendants to seek more severe punishments. In 2019, the Pazardjik District Court sentenced the group’s leader, Islamic preacher Ahmed Mussa, to 8.5 years in prison, while the rest of the men received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 42 months. The only woman in the group received a two-year suspended sentence.

Some religious groups complained of unequal treatment by the authorities during a COVID-19 state of emergency in effect from March 13 to May 13 when all indoor public gatherings were prohibited. Catholic, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and most Protestant churches switched to online services, while Muslims and Jews closed mosques and synagogues. BOC churches remained open, without penalty. In October, authorities initiated prosecution against Church of God-Bulgaria pastor Nikolay Vasilev, accusing him of holding an Easter service in Samokov in breach of the ban on public gatherings. According to press reports, more than 100 of the participants at the outdoor event received administrative fines. In a public declaration in April, the Evangelical Alliance stated the authorities’ actions against the Samokov church interfered in the internal affairs of a Protestant church in an attempt to disrupt its services and persecute its clerics and worshippers. According to Vasilev as well as videos from the event posted online, the organizers observed all required health measures, including maintaining appropriate physical distance and wearing masks. At year’s end, the trial had not been scheduled. The maximum penalty for a conviction is five years’ imprisonment and a 15,000-lev ($9,400) fine.

In February, the European Court of Human Rights ordered interim measures to stop the expulsion of three Uyghur Muslims who had been denied asylum in 2017 and were facing deportation to China. The State Agency for National Security ordered their expulsion in 2018 on national security grounds. NGOs reported the Uyghurs had already fled Bulgaria in 2019 to another European country.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said the legal requirement for reporting to the government the names and contact information of all clerics violated the freedom of nondeclaration of religious affiliation guaranteed by the constitution. The Church of Jesus Christ said the legal requirement for providing the government full access to the records of its clerics and personnel was a violation of privacy. The Papal Nuncio also said the requirement imposed a burden on the local Catholic community, which did not have enough staff.

In February, the Shumen Administrative Court determined that the provision in a Shumen municipality ordinance restricting proselytizing violated the country’s constitution but stated the provisions prohibiting religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children were an “adequate and proportionate measure to protect children.”

Dean Stanchev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition and part of the governing coalition, posted on social media his “outrage” at the court’s decision, describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “dangerous sect” and stating that the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) political party would continue to “fight against its [Jehovah’s Witnesses’] parasitic activities” in order to “clear them from public spaces and people’s homes.” At year’s end, both the municipality and Jehovah’s Witnesses had appealed the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court.

Contrary to previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not report any acts against their members while engaged in proselytizing. They attributed the change to reduced proselytizing due to COVID-19 restrictions. In February, the mayor of Dobrich and the local chief of police met with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses to apologize for a December 2019 incident in the city center, when police brought two proselytizing Witnesses to the local precinct and accused them of violating public order. The mayor and the police chief said the officers had acted out of ignorance and inexperience and committed to providing police with the necessary information to avoid further incidents.

In May, June, August, and December, the government allocated 10.2 million levs ($6.4 million) in funding for repair and maintenance of BOC facilities in Sofia, Varna, Krustova Gora, Rila, Shipka, and Koprivets. In June, the Council of Ministers said it would provide an annual subsidy of one million levs ($627,000) to the three monasteries under the BOC Patriarch’s jurisdiction.

In July, the Supreme Administrative Court overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled the Catholic Church did not owe property tax from a 2009 claim by Sofia Municipality, which had not recognized the religious status of two Catholic monasteries located in the municipality.

The Office of the Grand Mufti and regional Muslim leaders said several municipalities, including Sofia, Stara Zagora, and Haskovo, continued to reject, on what they said were nontransparent grounds, their requests to build new, or rehabilitate existing, religious facilities. In October, Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji raised the issue in a meeting with Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, but by year’s end, the mayor’s office had not provided any information on the city’s continued rejections of the construction applications.

According to Razgrad Mufti Mehmed Alya, local public perception about restoring the landmark Makbul Ibrahim Pasa Mosque in Razgrad, which had been closed for nearly 50 years, to a functioning mosque shifted from negative to positive due to efforts by Regional Governor Gunai Husmen in the previous three years. In October, local authorities used a 2.3-million-lev ($1.44-million) grant from the national government to start renovating the mosque, which was listed officially as a cultural monument and therefore owned by the national government. New Mayor Dencho Boyadjiev agreed that the mosque could reopen for religious services after restoration, while the Muslim community, in turn, agreed that the mosque would be available for tourist visits when not in religious use.

The Office of the Grand Mufti said it was continuing to search for ways to litigate its recognition as the successor to the pre-1949 Muslim religious communities for the purpose of reclaiming approximately 30 properties, including eight mosques, two schools, two baths, and a cemetery seized by the former communist government. Pending a decision on who was the rightful successor to the Muslim religious communities, the courts continued to suspend action on all restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti.

The national public school elective curriculum continued to provide three sets of classes at various grade levels in religious studies: one for Christianity, one for Islam, and one for all religions as ethical systems. In July, the Ministry of Education approved official school textbooks for students from first to fifth grade in the three programs that schools began using in the academic year. The Office of the Grand Mufti stated that some regional education inspectors attempted to persuade principals of schools offering an Islamic studies program to select members of their faculty to be trained as teachers for the program in order to replace teachers who were alumni of the High Islamic Institute. In November, the High Islamic Institute and the Office of the Grand Mufti commenced a project to retrain members of the Muslim community in pedagogical education as teachers of Islam.

In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld Sofia Mayor Fandakova’s ban on an annual march of right-wing extremists from across Europe to honor Hristo Lukov, the 1940s leader of the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The mayor’s ban cited serious concerns that a torchlight march in downtown Sofia would disrupt public order and restricted the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque in front of his house on February 22. In previous years, the Sofia Administrative Court had overturned the mayor’s banning of the march. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Democratic Bulgarian alliance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions had denounced the rally. On February 10, a Sofia prosecutor petitioned the Sofia City Court to deregister the rally organizer, Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, stating its activity violated individual rights; incited ethnic, racial, and religious hostility and homophobia; spread anti-Semitic propaganda; and undermined national integrity. At year’s end, the case continued in the Sofia City Court.

On January 17, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences organized a roundtable cohosted by the Ministry of Defense to present a report, Jews’ Labor Obligation during World War 2: Rescue Plan or Repressive Measure?, which denied that authorities forced the male Jewish population into labor camps in the early 1940s and stated that instead the Army Labor Corps drafted Jews as part of a government plan to save them from the Nazis. The Ministries of Education and Culture, VMRO, and several NGOs, such as the Bulgarian-Jewish Research Institute and the Independent Historical Society, supported the roundtable. Shalom criticized the event as “an alarming revisionist attempt to distort the history of the Holocaust” at all institutional levels. In a speech on January 30, Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva stated that sending Jews to labor camps during World War II was part of the “anti-Semitic repressive machine” established with anti-Semitic legislation.

In July, the municipal council in Blagoevgrad, at the request of Sunni Muslim community leaders, rejected a 10,000-euro ($12,300) donation from the Ahmadi Muslim Community to the city for general emergency relief assistance “in order not to legitimize the organization and its activity in the region.”

The national budget allocated 33.34 million levs ($20.92 million) to registered religious groups for current expenses, such as remuneration for their employees and clerics, education activities, and cemetery maintenance, as well as capital investments, such as construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, compared with 31.27 million levs ($19.62 million) in 2019. Of the 33.34 million, 27.2 million levs ($17.06 million) went to the BOC; 5.77 million levs ($3.62 million) to the Muslim community; 160,000 levs ($100,000) to Protestant denominations; and 70,000 levs ($43,900) each to the Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community. No other registered religious groups received government funding. Evangelical Alliance representatives again said Protestants did not receive their fair share of government funding, possibly because they were not represented by a single organization, even though their numbers exceeded one percent of the population.

According to NGOs, souvenirs exhibiting Nazi insignias and imagery continued to be widely available in tourist areas around the country and local governments lacked political will to deal with the problem. The National Coordinator for Combating Anti-Semitism stated that when alerted to them, the national government took steps to close vendors selling Nazi souvenirs.

In May, during Ramadan, President Rumen Radev met with Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji. Both stated that government and religious institutions must promote solidarity, charity, and mutual assistance among the people.

In August, Shalom expressed concern regarding a statement by Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, who invoked the name of a Jewish-American financier, saying that NGOs linked to him “want to take the power in order to introduce gay marriage.” Shalom stated that, while such statements did not mention the financier’s Jewish heritage, they “have a strong anti-Semitic character and suggest that Jews interfere in the social and economic affairs of countries in the world.”

In March, the Supreme Cassation Court found Boris Yachev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition, guilty of slander and ordered him to pay 3,000 levs ($1,900) to Jehovah’s Witnesses for a series of statements about them on his party’s SKAT TV that the court ruled “incite religious hatred and threaten to hinder [the religious group’s] activity.” The court overturned two lower court rulings that had found Jehovah’s Witnesses were not eligible to receive compensation for damages resulting from the statements. In his statements, which he made in 2014, Yachev vowed to use his position in parliament to “restrict the unhindered invasion by [religious] emissaries of Bulgarian cities and villages,” describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as “one of the most dangerous and arrogant sects” that needed to be restricted by legal means.

Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev served as the national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, publicly denouncing hate speech and anti-Semitism. On November 9, Georgiev commemorated the Kristallnacht anniversary, saying he is proud to be “part of a common cause for ensuring an environment free of any forms of hate speech” by remembering the lessons of history. On December 23, Georgiev denounced the defacement of Plovdiv Synagogue’s front gate with graffiti reading “Israel=Nazis,” calling it a “repulsive,” “undignified,” and “barbarian” act. He stated, “It is essential for every democracy to allow the free expression of political and civilian views, but not by vandalizing, insulting, and violating others’ rights.”

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In August, Shalom received a threat via email of a bomb at the synagogue in Plovdiv. In November 2019, Shalom received an emailed death threat from Black Front, an organization Shalom described as white supremacist. Authorities were investigating both threats.

Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites, in online media articles, and in the mainstream press, and anti-Semitic graffiti, such as swastikas and offensive inscriptions such as “dirty kikes,” appeared regularly in public places. Jewish community leaders also expressed concern regarding what they said was an increasing trend of anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda and graffiti.

On December 16, Sofia University fired Mihail Mirchev, a part-time professor, after its ethics commission found his lectures included negative ethnic stereotypes. The firing came after Shalom and other NGOs protested that Mirchev’s lectures featured racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic content such as, “Is it possible that Bulgaria could turn into a Jewish country if they, being fewer than one percent, own the state, the capital, the media, and the art?” Mirchev said his words had been taken out of context. In November, prior to Mirchev’s dismissal, Shalom’s criticism of him generated numerous anti-Semitic commentaries such as, “Jews can only learn from a heavy hand and a bullet in the back of the head.”

In November, Shalom notified Sofia Municipality about anti-Semitic and racist posters put up all around Sofia by activists of the Nationalist Social Club 131. In June, Shalom stated organizations such as Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity and Military Union-Bulgarian National Movement “Shipka” were spreading online propaganda stating Jews were involved with the COVID-19 pandemic in order to provide “a deadly pseudo-antidote” aimed at “mass extermination of people.” After authorities issued a summons to Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity leader Lyudmila Kostadinova informing her that she would be held criminally liable if she continued, the messaging stopped.

According to Jewish community leaders, incidents of vandalism continued, including damaging Jewish graves and painting swastikas and offensive graffiti. For example, in January, vandals broke tombstones and damaged fences in the Jewish cemetery in Shumen. In June, vandals defaced a playground and the facades of adjacent houses in Sofia with 56 swastikas. At year’s end, authorities had not identified any suspects in either incident.

On February 26, Sofia University withdrew honorary degrees it had awarded to Hans Frank, Bernhard Rust, Ewald Robert Valentin von Massow, and Eduard Kohlrausch between 1933 and 1940, complying with a petition from the Bulgarian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Their Children indicating the recipients had been members of the German Nazi Party. According to a university statement, its honorary doctors should not be persons “connected with a hateful ideology or involved in crimes.”

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 58 percent of Bulgarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it seventh of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported negative media characterizations of them again declined but that some local online media outlets, such as Konkurent, Blitz, and Utro, continued to misrepresent the group’s activities and beliefs. On April 21, local Ruse media Utro described Jehovah’s Witnesses as “the most dangerous sect in the world” and advised its readers to avoid any contact with the group. Unlike in previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported no cases of hostility or harassment against their members by nongovernment officials, which they attributed to the COVID-19-related restrictions that forced them to switch to online gatherings.

In June, the Evangelical Alliance protested to health authorities that a number of media publications released personal information, such as names and addresses, about members of the Protestant community, including pastors, who tested positive for COVID-19. The alliance stated, “Such information has never been released regarding persons of the Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Judaic, Armenian, or any other faith,” and asked health authorities to check whether they had disclosed the information to media. Information as to who released the information was unavailable at year’s end.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ reported three instances of harassment of missionaries in Varna and Sofia in the first 11 months of the year, a number comparable to the previous year. In 2018, there were 13 instances involving physical assault and harassment against members of the Church.

In June, BOC Metropolitan Ioanikiy called for the removal of a plaque from Sozopol’s main street commemorating the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run. In a letter to the local government, the Metropolitan stated that many countries considered the Sri Chinmoy Center a “totalitarian religious community” that “degrades the family institution, attacks Christians, and undermines the prestige of the Holy Orthodox Church.” Municipal councilors from the ruling GERB political party in Sozopol expressed support for the Metropolitan’s call to remove the plaque. At year’s end, the plaque, inaugurated by the mayor and the chair of the municipal council, remained in place.

In May, the Supreme Cassation Court refused to review the appeal of the Sri Chinmoy Center against the lower-instance Sofia City Court’s decision dismissing the organization’s claim against Desislava Panayotova, Director of the Center for Religious Research and Consultations and Chief Editor of the webpage of the BOC’s Holy Synod, for discrimination. Panayotova described in a 2008 media article the Sri Chinmoy Center as a “dangerous sect” that operates illegally and spreads “unhealthy religious teachings.”

In January, Alpha Research published a survey of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers/atheists on their attitudes toward religious minority groups which found 3.4 percent of respondents hated, and 5.6 percent feared, Muslims; two percent hated, and 0.4 percent feared, Jews; 1.5 percent hated, and 2.6 percent feared, Protestants; and 0.5 percent hated, and 0.6 percent feared, Catholics. The rates of mistrust of various groups – which the survey’s authors interpreted as reluctance to openly disclose hatred – were: of Muslims, 25.8 percent; Jews, 10.4 percent; Protestants, 10 percent; and Catholics, 7.6 percent. While the average rate of acceptance of a person of a different religion in one’s neighborhood or working environment was approximately 50 percent, only 3.2 percent of respondents would consider marrying a Muslim, 6.3 percent a Jew, 8 percent a Protestant, and 11.7 percent a Catholic.

On February 14, Regional Mufti of Plovdiv Taner Veli hosted the annual Tolerance Coffee, gathering representatives of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, local government officials, foreign diplomats, and representatives of civil society. According to the press release from the Mufti’s office, the event commemorated a 2014 attack on the local Cumaya Mosque and was intended to improve relations among religious groups and to prevent the future occurrence of such attacks.

The National Council of Religious Communities, whose members include representatives of Bulgarian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, continued to serve as a platform for the largest religious groups to organize joint events and defend a common position on religious issues, such as legislative proposals, political statements, and actions by others, and religiously motivated vandalism. In February, members of the council participated in working meetings of the Muslim Denomination and the Central Israelite Religious Council, in which the host groups presented their faiths and ongoing projects. On February 10, the council conducted an interfaith discussion in Sofia on each of its member group’s views on divine revelation. The council substantially curtailed activity soon thereafter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued discussions with representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local government administrations about cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives to support interfaith dialogue. In February, the Ambassador discussed religious tolerance during a visit to Vidin with Mayor Tsvetan Tsenkov.

Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the BOC, National Council of Religious Communities, Office of the Grand Mufti, Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Catholic, Protestant, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss religious discrimination, restitution of religious properties, and legislative proposals restricting foreign funding. Embassy officials also met with human rights groups, such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Inforoma Center, to discuss these issues.

The Ambassador discussed religious tolerance, support for interfaith dialogue, and opposition to persecution with the Grand Mufti in January. In February, the Ambassador visited the mosque in Vidin, which was under renovation with U.S. funding, where she discussed interfaith dialogue and mutual support with Regional Mufti Necati Ali and Orthodox Metropolitan Daniil. In March, the Ambassador discussed with the Papal Nuncio the Catholic community’s concerns regarding the funding of religious groups and new administrative requirements under the law, such as providing the government with contact information on clerics and other staff.

Burkina Faso

Executive Summary

The constitution states the country is a secular state, and both it and other laws provide for the right of individuals to choose and change their religion and to practice the religion of their choice. International media reported that terrorist groups, armed insurgents, and jihadists continued their campaign of violence and sometimes targeted places of worship or religious leaders in an attempt to divide the country along sectarian lines. On October 21, at a government forum on “national cohesion,” Speaker of the National Assembly Allassane Bala Sakande stated, “In this war against terrorism, we are not engaged against an ethnic group or against a religion, but we are engaged against those who hate Burkina Faso and the Burkinabe.” In July, Minister of Interior and Territorial Administration Simeon Sawadogo joined the Catholic Archbishop of Ouagadougou during Eid al-Fitr prayers led by the Grand Imam of Ouagadougou and called on the population to “cultivate religious tolerance.” The government issued a decree integrating traditional religions into the Office of National Religious Affairs (ONAFAR), a government office whose main mission is to promote interreligious dialogue, and prevent and manage conflicts of a religious nature.

Domestic and transnational terrorist groups operated throughout the year, resulting in numerous targeted killings based on religious identity, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Attackers killed imams, other clergy, and worshippers while attacking and destroying mosques and churches. Reports stated that they also forced communities in the northern part of the country to dress in specific “Islamic” garb. Terrorists attacked schools and killed teachers for teaching a secular curriculum and for teaching in French rather than Arabic, according to media reports. As of August, terrorist violence forced more than 2,500 schools to close, depriving more than 330,000 children of education, according to UNICEF. Expanding their targeted killings, terrorist groups increasingly attacked Christian religious leaders and worshippers and destroyed churches.

Human rights organizations and religious groups continued to express concern that religiously targeted violence threatened what they termed the traditional peaceful coexistence of religious groups in the country. Academic and other observers stated that the “stigmatization” of the mostly Muslim ethnic-Fulani community because of their perceived sympathy for Islamists aggravated existing societal tensions and posed a threat to stability.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the continued increase in religiously motivated attacks, particularly in the Sahel and Est Regions, with the government, including the Ministries of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Security, and the Office of the President. In addition, embassy staff met religious leaders to promote religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and civil dialogue. Throughout the year, the Ambassador or Charge d’Affaires met with imams and Catholic and Protestant leaders to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom and tolerance. During the year, the embassy conducted regular outreach with imams, Catholic priests, and Protestant leaders to understand the current threat to religious freedom and tolerance in the country as a result of the unprecedented violence against both Christian and Muslim worshippers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 20.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2006 census, 61 percent of the population is Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 19 percent is Roman Catholic, 4 percent belong to various Protestant groups, and 15 percent maintain exclusively indigenous beliefs. Less than one percent is atheist or belongs to other religious groups. Statistics on religious affiliation are approximate because Muslims and Christians often adhere simultaneously to some aspects of traditional or animist religious beliefs.

Muslims reside largely in the northern, eastern, and western border regions, while Christians are concentrated in the center of the country. Traditional and animist religious beliefs are practiced throughout the country, especially in rural communities. The capital has a mixed Muslim and Christian population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the country is secular, and both the constitution and other laws provide for the right of individuals to choose and change their religion and to practice the religion of their choice. The constitution states freedom of belief is subject to respect for law, public order, good morals, and “the human person.” Political parties based on religion, ethnicity, or regional affiliation are forbidden.

The law allows all organizations, religious or otherwise, to register with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, which oversees religious affairs. The ministry, through the Directorate for Customary Affairs and Worship, monitors the implementation of standards for burial, exhumation, and transfer of remains; helps organize religious pilgrimages; promotes and fosters interreligious dialogue and peace; and develops and implements measures for the erection of places of worship and the registration of religious organizations and religious congregations. Registration confers legal status, and the process usually takes approximately three to four weeks and costs less than 50,000 CFA francs ($95). Religious organizations are not required to register unless they seek legal recognition by the government, but after they are registered, they must comply with applicable regulations required of all registered organizations or be subject to a fine of 50,000 to 150,000 CFA francs ($95 to $280).

Religious groups operate under the same regulatory framework for publishing and broadcasting as other entities. The Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization may request copies of proposed publications and broadcasts to verify they are in accordance with the nature of the religious group as stated in its registration and it may conduct permit application reviews.

The government generally does not fund religious schools or require them to pay taxes unless they conduct for-profit activities. The government provides subsidies to a number of Catholic schools as part of an agreement allowing students from public schools to enroll in Catholic schools when public schools are at full capacity. The government taxes religious groups only if they engage in commercial activities, such as farming or dairy production.

Religious education is not allowed in public schools. Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant groups operate private primary and secondary schools and some institutions of higher education. These schools are permitted to provide religious instruction to their students. By law, schools (religious or not) must submit the names of their directors to the government and register their schools with the Ministry of National Education and Literacy. The government does not appoint or approve these officials, however. The government periodically reviews the curricula of new religious schools as they open, as well as others, to ensure they offer the full standard academic curriculum. The majority of Quranic schools are not registered, however, and thus their curricula not reviewed.

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

Government Practices

The government stated that terrorists attacked religious institutions with the aim of dividing the population. On October 21, at a government forum on “national cohesion,” Speaker of the National Assembly Allassane Bala Sakande stated, “In this war against terrorism, we are not engaged against an ethnic group or against a religion, but we are engaged against those who hate Burkina Faso and the Burkinabe.”

Following the kidnapping and killing of the grand Imam of Djibo by armed groups in Soum Province on August 11, President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said he “strongly condemned” the “barbaric assassination” which “aimed to undermine our model of religious tolerance and the foundations of our nation.”

Following a February 16 attack by approximately 20 armed assailants on the village of Pansi in Yagha Province during which a pastor and 23 others were killed, opposition political party head Jean Hubert Bazie said it was “imperative that the state secure places of worship, as well as other places where citizens gather” and called on the government to create a national body to monitor religious freedom and prevent interreligious confrontation.

The government allocated 75 million CFA francs ($142,000) each to the Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and animist communities, the same level as the previous year. Sources stated that this funding was meant to demonstrate equitable government support to all religious groups in the country. The government also provided funding to registered Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim (commonly referred to as “Franco-Arabic”) schools through subsidies for teacher salaries, which were typically less than those of public-school teachers.

On August 6, the government issued a decree integrating the traditional animist communities into ONAFAR, providing animist communities with representation in the government agency responsible for promoting interreligious dialogue as well as preventing and managing conflicts of a religious nature.

The government continued to routinely approve applications from religious groups for registration, according to religious group leaders, although the government indicated it had rejected some on “moral” grounds.

In September, the government intervened in a legal dispute between Christian and Muslim groups involving a plot of land in Ouagadougou where a mosque had been destroyed. In an October 7 statement, the government said that it “disapproves of the destruction of a place of worship” and that it had taken ownership of the disputed property and would fund reconstruction of the mosque.

In June, the Archbishop of Ouagadougou, Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo, joined Minister of Interior and Territorial Administration Simeon Sawadogo during Eid al-Fitr prayers led by the Grand Imam of Ouagadougou.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Human rights organizations and religious groups continued to express concern that religiously targeted violence threatened what they termed the “traditional peaceful coexistence” of religious groups in the country. Observers continued to report the stigmatization of the Fulani ethnic community because of its perceived association with militant Islamist groups. They said that this aggravated social tensions in some regions, since self-defense militias at times exacted vigilante justice on Fulani communities in northern and central regions of the country because of their alleged connection to “jihadists.”

On November 8, an unknown individual threw a Molotov cocktail into a mosque in the capital during Friday evening prayers, wounding six persons. Media reported a note left nearby said, “Close the mosque or we’ll launch grenades at you.”

Members of the Burkinabe Muslim Community Organization, the Catholic Archdiocese of Ouagadougou, and the Federation of Evangelical Churches continued to state that despite an increase in religiously motivated attacks, religious tolerance remained widespread and numerous examples existed of families of mixed faiths and religious leaders attending each other’s holidays and celebrations. Members of the largest religious communities promoted interfaith dialogue and tolerance through public institutions such as the National Observatory of Religious Facts, which conducted awareness campaigns throughout the country. They also worked through NGOs such as the Dori-based Fraternal Union of Believers, which encouraged various religious communities, specifically in the Sahel Region, to conduct socioeconomic activities with the goal of fostering religious tolerance.

As in previous years, new Muslim and Protestant congregations continued to open without approval and oversight from existing Muslim and Protestant federations. Religious leaders stated the Muslim and Protestant federations were often undermined by small new religious groups that did not fall under their oversight and that took positions counter to the federation’s messages of tolerance. They said the lack of oversight made it difficult for official religious groups to monitor and regulate the activities and messages of these new groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials raised the continued increase in religiously motivated attacks, particularly in the Sahel and Est Regions, with the government, including the Ministries of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, the Ministries of Defense and Security, and the Office of the President. Embassy staff regularly discussed events and policies affecting religious freedom with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, including the equitable registration process for religious groups, the equitable treatment of religious groups by the government, and the status of the relationship between the ministry and different religious groups.

The Ambassador and embassy officials met separately with Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant religious leaders to encourage their efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and advocate for religious tolerance and freedom.

Embassy representatives used social media platforms to reinforce messaging that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador regularly raised the need to counter the threats to the country’s tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.

The embassy funded literacy programming in registered Quranic schools in northern parts of the country, the curriculum of which focused on peaceful dialogue, nonviolent conflict resolution, and religious tolerance.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador or Charge d’Affaires met with imams, priests, and pastors to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom and tolerance. During the year, embassy officers conducted regular outreach with imams, Catholic priests, and Protestant leaders to understand the current threat to religious freedom and tolerance in the wake of the unprecedented violence against both Christian and Muslim worshippers perpetrated by terrorists. Throughout the year, embassy officials organized or supported several activities to respond to the social divisions between religious groups. For example, the embassy supported training for religious leaders on building tolerance and stability in their communities, conflict management, and fostering inter- and intrareligious cohesion.

Burma

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated