The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property according to the Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year, but converts from Islam to other religions reported they continued to fear punishment from the government as well as reprisals from family and society. The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions. The new penal code, which went into effect in February, includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam. Shia leaders continued to state that the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas. The government sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. Media reported the government arrested 26 militants preparing attacks on the Shia community during the community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts’ continued failure to grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. The Independent Elections Commission (IEC) granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in the October parliamentary elections following the death of the only Sikh candidate in a suicide attack in Jalalabad on July 1. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, again targeted and killed members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past two years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 22 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, causing 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured), all attributed to ISKP and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed imams and other religious officials throughout the country. On November 20, a suicide bomber killed more than 50 religious scholars gathered at a Kabul wedding hall to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including stoning any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with the ISKP reportedly engaged in similar activities. On February 27, in Tangi Wazir, Nangarhar Province, the ISKP stoned to death a man accused of engaging in extramarital sexual relations (zina), and subsequently issued a press statement about the killing. In April the ISKP stoned to death a 60-year-old man accused of raping a woman in Darzab District, Jawzjan Province. According to some religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISKP in their sermons.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued harassment from some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Christian groups reported public opinion remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims stated they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. The authoritative body of Islamic scholars, known as the Ulema Council, announced plans to establish a special committee to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” in society that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Community leaders reported that 500 to 600 Sikhs and Hindus, representing almost half their numbers, fled to either India or Western countries during the year, particularly in the aftermath of the July 1 bombing in Jalalabad. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported interference with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, from individuals who lived near cremation sites. On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa that also condemned discrimination based on religion.
U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and the protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In October the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials and civil society leaders to promote religious tolerance. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). Embassy officials met regularly with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. During the month of Ramadan, the embassy used social media platforms to share information on Islam in America, based on Department of State-created materials that profiled prominent Muslim-Americans and organizations. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days.
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. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. In March police completed the investigation of the case involving the 2016 killing of 22 persons, most of them non-Muslims, at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka and forwarded it for prosecution. Legal proceedings against the attackers continued through year’s end. On March 30, led by a local political Awami League party leader, approximately 80 armed members of the Muslim community in Jamalpur District attacked members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community at an Ahmadiyya mosque, injuring 22 Ahmadis. Despite government orders to the contrary, village community leaders, often working together with local religious leaders, continued using extrajudicial fatwas to punish individuals, mostly women, for perceived “moral transgressions.” In April the government announced its intent to fund an approximately 76 billion taka ($904.76 million) project to construct madrassahs in every electoral constituency. Various local organizations and media reports said the project was a political tactic by the government to use religion to influence voters during an election year. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.
In June unidentified individuals killed self-described secular writer and activist Shahjahan Bachchu. Security forces stated Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)-linked individuals may have been responsible for killing Bachchu, a former leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh and known for his secular beliefs and writings, for “offending Islam.” In March unidentified individuals killed a Hindu priest in Chatmohar Upazila in Pabna District. According to press reports, law enforcement suspected individuals with anti-Hindu sentiments may have killed the priest. In February approximately 30 Muslims attacked a Christian home in Vatara District and injured three family members. A police investigation continued at year’s end. Human rights organization Odhikar documented one killing and 34 cases of violent attacks resulting in injuries targeting Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.
In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, and other embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link between religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism. The U.S. government provided more than $345 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled Burma.
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 between 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. NGO representatives, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, expressed continued concern over the lack of a clear definition in the constitution and legal code for terms such as “inducement” to religious conversion, which they indicated was tantamount to anticonversion legislation. Churches that applied for registration continued to await approval from the government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO). Because of these delays, there was only one registered non-Buddhist religious group in the country: the Hindu Dharma Samudaya, an umbrella body representing the Hindu population of the country; registered Buddhist groups increased from 95 to 110. Media reports indicated authorities continued to support construction of Hindu temples, including a major project in the capital. The NGO Open Doors continued to maintain the country on its watch list, stating the government suppressed Christianity. NGOs reported that unregistered religious groups continued to be able to worship in private, but according to the law, they were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. Christians said they continued to hold religious meetings discreetly in private facilities; Christians living near the border with India continued to travel to Northeast India to worship and attend workshops, according to one foreign pastor. Open Doors reported that authorities did not permit a student to graduate because of her Christian faith.
According to NGOs, societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices continued. One Christian told Open Doors he was fired from his company after discussing his faith with his coworkers. NGOs reported continuing societal discrimination against Christians in their personal and professional lives, and converts experienced pressure from family members to return to Buddhist beliefs and customs.
The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan or a diplomatic presence in the country. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of both government and nongovernment figures, including on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and treatment of religious minorities.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 29 states have laws restricting religious conversions. Some human rights groups stated that these laws fostered hostility against minority communities. There were reports by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the government sometimes failed to act on mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some senior officials of the Hindu-majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made inflammatory speeches against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution. As of November, there were 18 such attacks, and eight people killed during the year. On June 22, two Uttar Pradesh police officers were charged with culpable homicide after a Muslim cattle trader died of injuries sustained while being questioned in police custody. In a separate incident, a court in Jharkhand sentenced 11 individuals, including a local BJP official, to life in prison for beating to death a Muslim, whom his killers believed to be trading in beef. On July 17, the Supreme Court said violence in the name of “cow vigilantism” was unacceptable and the onus of preventing such incidents lay with the states. Attacks on religious minorities included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. On January 10, Jammu and Kashmir police arrested eight men, including four police personnel, in connection with the kidnapping, gang rape, and killing of an 8-year-old girl. The men allegedly kidnapped the victim, took her to a nearby temple, and raped and killed her in an effort to drive her nomadic Muslim community out of the area. In September Uttar Pradesh authorities suspended three police officers after videos surfaced of them abusing a Hindu woman in Meerut for reportedly consorting with a Muslim man. The central and state governments and members of political parties took steps that affected Muslim practices and institutions. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. Proposals to rename Indian cities with Muslim provenance continued, most notably the renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj. Activists said these proposals were designed to erase Muslim contributions to Indian history and had led to increased communal tensions.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice their religious beliefs and proselytize. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data presented in the lower house of parliament on February 6, communal incidents increased by 9 percent from 2015 to 2017, with 822 incidents resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries in 2017. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of “cow vigilante” attacks, which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. On July 21, a group attacked and killed Rakbar Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer from Haryana, while he was transporting two cows at night. In December an estimated 300 persons, angered by reports of cows being slaughtered in the area, set fire to the police station in Chigrawati and killed a police officer. An 18-year-old protester was also killed in the violence. A mob assaulted two Muslim men, killing one, in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna District on May 17, alleging they were slaughtering a bull. Police arrested four assailants and filed a complaint alleging cow slaughter against the injured survivor. On January 20, a Christian pastor was found dead at his residence in Tamil Nadu. Members of his congregation alleged he had been murdered, and that he had been a victim of frequent past harassment by Hindu fundamentalist organizations. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s 2017 Annual Report released in January, there were 736 incidents of persecution against Christians in 2017 compared to 348 in 2016. Tradition and social custom continued to deny entry to women and members of Dalit communities (former untouchables) into many places of worship. In December the Shiv Sena Party published an editorial calling for government to curb the growth of the country’s Muslim population through such measures as compulsory family planning for Muslims. On September 28, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a move that, according to media, sparked political controversy across the country.
Senior U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In March a U.S. expert discussed racial and ethnic tolerance with audiences in Chennai and Mumbai. In June the Ambassador and the visiting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations stressed the importance of religious freedom during interactions with multiple religious leaders in Delhi. In almost every visit the Ambassador made in India, he engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. In August the Department of State Senior Bureau Official for South and Central Asian Affairs visited India and convened a roundtable with senior leaders representing a number of faith groups to exchange views on religious freedom and tolerance. In December the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials, religious minority groups, and civil society representatives in Delhi and Lucknow to discuss the challenges faced by religious minorities in India.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Social Accord (CSA), part of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities imposed restrictions and scrutiny on what the government considers “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register “nontraditional” religious groups. In April a Karaganda court convicted three men accused of being members of the Sunni missionary organization Tabligi Jamaat for disseminating ideas and recruiting members on the group’s behalf; the court sentenced them to three years imprisonment. In May a court sentenced a high school student to four years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord in connection with the creation of a group on social media and the dissemination of religious material it labeled as extremist. In January an Almaty court sentenced a Muslim to seven years imprisonment after he posted an interpretation of Quranic verses online. According to the local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK), authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment. Forum 18, an international NGO based in Norway, noted 165 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2018 and 284 such prosecutions in 2017. Forum 18, however, released a religious freedom survey for the period 2014 to 2018, noting increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief; unfair trials and torture of prisoners; and making exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permission. The government considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty. Government officials indicated at the end of the year that the draft legislation was unlikely to become law.
AROK reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017. In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” with negative coverage of the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) and other civil society organizations reported they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society. NGOs and academics reported that members of certain religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire, as well as Christian groups perceived as proselytizing, such as evangelical, Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witness churches, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.
The Vice President, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in dialogue with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MSD and CSA. This included raising concerns over the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of both the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. U.S. diplomatic officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates.
The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred. It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist and, in an increase in the number of arrests from 2017, arrested hundreds of individuals they accused of participating in what they termed as extremist incidents. The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) substantively revised draft amendments to the 2009 religion law to address public concerns on restrictions to religious freedom. The proposed amendments, however, include a ban on “door-to-door proselytizing.” Some religious groups believed the changes would also increase the difficulty of registering as a religious organization. As of year’s end, the SCRA had not submitted the amendments to parliament for review. According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups. The government did not provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to NGOs.
In January unidentified individuals burned the Baptist church in Kaji-Sai village, an incident that church leaders said was a deliberate arson attack. Also in January the international NGO Forum 18 reported a mob led by a local religious figure denied a Christian burial in a public cemetery in Jeti-Oguz District.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups and proposed revisions to the religion law. The embassy regularly met with religious leaders, including office directors of the grand muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups. Embassy outreach programs, especially for local youth, emphasized religious tolerance and dialogue.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the president, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.” Antiterror legislation bans the promotion of “unlawful” religious ideologies. The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as stoning and amputation of hands. In November the parliament repealed the Anti-Defamation Act, which had criminalized expression deemed to be at odds with Islamic tenets. In July then President Abdulla Yameen publicly stated his government intended to impose harsh legal punishment against individuals who insulted Islam, including stripping them of state benefits. In April then Minister of Defense and National Security Adam Shareef Umar said the government would not allow religions other than Islam in the country. Also in April the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) published a policy paper proposing financial penalties and either prison or house arrest for individuals who insult Islam. In September police destroyed a semi-submerged sculpture gallery installed by a resort after a court ruled the installation posed a threat to “Islamic unity and the peace and interests of the Maldivian state.” In February the Civil Service Commission dismissed a teacher and a school janitor for refusing to take off their niqabs in compliance with civil service dress code guidelines. The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religious affairs, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to target other individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, and label them “secularists.” They also reported continued community pressure on women to wear a hijab. In April police briefly arrested a male taxi driver who threatened to kill a woman for not wearing a hijab but did not press charges. In May a woman moved away from her island due to harassment after appearing in an online video speaking about societal pressure to wear the hijab and her wish to remove it. NGO representatives also stated they continued to see a rise in what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, asserting the government actively encouraged this trend.
There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and U.S. Embassy Colombo staff represent U.S. interests there. In meetings with government officials in both Colombo and Male, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely.
The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and bans religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. A new criminal code, which became effective in August, reduces the punishments for “convert[ing]… the religion of another person” or for engaging in any act that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of others from six to five years’ imprisonment. It also criminalizes “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally. In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs. Christian and Muslim groups continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but drastically curtailed their ability to hold public celebrations since 2016, a break from historical practice. The government once again rescinded its recognition of Christmas as a public holiday, a decision Christian groups said was a reflection of anti-Christian sentiment. For the first time under the constitution that went into effect in 2015, officials deported numerous foreigners for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity. In July authorities fined a Filipino and Indonesian couple and revoked their visas. Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the emphasis placed by some politicians on the re-establishment of the country as a Hindu state, which they said had a negative impact on the public perception of Christians. On July 2, police arrested four Christians in Taplejung District, accusing them of forcible conversion in a case involving the non-Christian husband of a Christian woman who had asked for help with her husband’s alcoholism. Authorities arrested two Christians on April 30 in Chitwan District on charges of forceful conversion and hurting religious sentiment, releasing the men a few days later. According to an online Christian media outlet, on May 9, police in Kathmandu arrested three women at a church on charges of attempting to convert through inducement. Authorities arrested six Christians in Terhathum District on charges of proselytizing in early May. On July 9, a court acquitted them of distributing literature. Police arrested nine Jehovah’s Witnesses in November for proselytizing. Police deported three to their countries of origin, released three on bail and three remained in prison. Police arrested nine Jehovah’s Witnesses in November in Bardiya and Rupandehi Districts on charges of proselytizing. Among these, authorities detained and deported three foreigners, two Japanese and one Australian. The district courts released three of the Nepali citizens on bail in December, while three remained incarcerated without access to religious material since their arrests in November.
In May assailants bombed the Mahima Church in Kailali District and arsonists targeted three churches in other districts. On April 28, arsonists attacked a Catholic church building in the Banke District, and members of Hindu Jagaran Nepal, which local experts described as a small pro-Hindu group with little influence, on April 30 threatened to destroy it. Eight to 10 unidentified men broke into St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Banke District and set it on fire on May 5. The fire caused minor damage; there were no injuries reported. Christian leaders stated their belief the attacks during the year on churches, as well as the 2017 arson attack on the Assumption Roman Catholic Cathedral in Lalitpur and 2017 shooting of a Federation of National Christians Nepal (FNCN) employee, represented an effort to foment panic among the Christian community. They also expressed concern about lack of police willingness to investigate the cases thoroughly. Police filed charges against 28 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim interreligious clashes in 2016 during which two persons in the Banke District were killed; as of year’s end, the case remained pending. Muslim leaders expressed disappointment at the district court’s decision to set the arrested individuals’ bail at a low amount. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other high-caste individuals continued to prevent persons of lower castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites.
Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and other U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the new criminal code, including the continued criminalization of conversion and new measures to criminalize proselytization. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. Following May’s multiple arson attacks, U.S. embassy officers met with victims and police, and urged the latter to investigate the cases thoroughly. Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution also states, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states “a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 77 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 28 of whom had received death sentences, although the government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. Some of these cases began before the beginning of the year but were not previously widely known. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered at least seven new blasphemy cases against seven individuals. On October 31, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. In what was described as an effort to end widespread violent protests orchestrated by the antiblasphemy movement Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) against the government in the wake of Bibi’s acquittal, the government promised protestors it would not oppose a petition seeking further judicial review of the case. Following violent antistate threats, the government later undertook a sustained campaign of detentions and legal charges against the TLP leadership and violent protestors. The original accuser’s petition for a judicial review of Bibi’s case remained pending at year’s end, although most sources believed it was likely to be dismissed. In October Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul Haq Qadri said the government would “forcefully oppose” any change to the blasphemy laws. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders and human rights organizations continued to express concerns that the government targeted Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, and Ahmadis continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights. Throughout the year, including during the general election campaign, some government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and perpetrators of such abuses often faced no legal consequences due to what the NGOs said was a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, and in private and civil service employment. In September the newly-elected government withdrew its invitation to economist and Ahmadi Muslim Atif Mian to join the Economic Advisory Council after significant public criticism, including from religious leaders. In a conference organized by UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed in October, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Qadri said the “Government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan will always stand against Ahmadis.” In March the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Christians and Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) however, both the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups and the number of casualties decreased compared to 2017, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. On November 23, a suicide bombing near a Shia prayer hall in Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed 33 people, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as some Sikhs. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility. There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although it was often unclear whether religion was the primary motivation. In February and May several Shia residents were killed by alleged Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants, the same group believed to be responsible for multiple subsequent killings in the same area in August. On April 2, gunmen shot and killed a Christian family of four traveling by rickshaw in Quetta, Balochistan. An affiliate group of ISIS-K claimed responsibility. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups; however, according to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. According to the SATP, attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group decreased relative to 2017. In four separate incidents, unidentified assailants shot and killed six members of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta in April. Assailants killed a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore on June 25 in what appeared to be a targeted attack, and robbers shot and killed another man in his jewelry shop in Syedwala on August 29 after singling him out as an Ahmadi. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam, including forced conversions of young women; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. There also continued to be reports of attacks on the holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of the Christian and Ahmadiyya minorities.
Senior officials from the U.S. Department of State, including the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss the need to combat sectarian violence, to ensure the protection of religious minorities, and blasphemy law reform. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote dialogue on interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. The Department of State publicly condemned terrorist attacks throughout the year, including the November attack near a Shia place of worship in Orakzai District, Khyber Pakhtunkha.
On November 28, the Secretary of State designated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws give Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of religious minority communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials at the local level continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims and converts to “free” (nondenominational and evangelical) Christian groups. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities. There were some reports of government officials being complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. In March the government declared a 10-day nationwide state of emergency, restricted social media access, and arrested more than 100 persons in response to anti-Muslim riots in Kandy District in which mobs attacked Muslim civilians, shops, homes, and mosques, resulting in at least two deaths, 28 injured, and extensive property damage to Muslims’ houses, shops, and mosques. According to the media, in February the government deployed police after at least five persons were wounded and several shops and a mosque damaged in anti-Muslim riots in Ampara District. Evangelical and nondenominational Christian churches continued to state police harassed them and local government officials often sided with the religious majority in a given community. Activists reported that on April 29, a group of Buddhists and Hindus forcibly entered the Sunday service of the Apostolic Church in Padukka in Colombo and threatened congregants. Police demanded the Christians stop the worship service immediately. According to activists, on July 8, a group of villagers and Buddhist monks disrupted a Living Christian Assembly service in Sevanapitiya, Polonnaruwa, stating it was a Hindu-majority village. The police ordered the Christian group to stop holding services. At year’s end, the government had not formally registered any free Christian groups as religious organizations. Local police and government officials reportedly continued requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities, citing a 2011 government circular that was no longer in effect. Police and local officials continued to cite a 2008 government circular to prohibit the construction of or to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship, despite the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs (Ministry of Buddha Sasana) determining in May that the circular only applied to Buddhist facilities.
Attacks on religious minorities continued. As of October the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 74 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services. According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence. Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force) continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrate religious and ethnic minorities, especially via social media during the Kandy riots in March. Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to engage in peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees that were created following the end of the civil war in 2010 between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority (mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority).
The U.S. embassy repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue. The U.S. government also funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building. In March the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities attended a conference led by the Religious Freedom Institute and engaged with the government and civil society leaders. He met with religious and community leaders and senior government officials to discuss religious freedom. The Ambassador publicly condemned the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy in March.
The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution states both that “[t]he citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character” and, separately, that “[r]eligious organizations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.” The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons under 18 from participating in public religious activities. Amendments to the religion law, which came into effect in January, require religious organizations to report all activity to the state, require state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increase control over religious education within the country and on those traveling abroad for religious education. The amendments allow restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. A Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam of Sari Sang mosque in Khujand to six years’ imprisonment for promulgating Salafi ideas. Since 2016, authorities sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations. A Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in an extremist organization. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques. Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their organizations. Both registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures. On October 5, the State National Security Services (SNSS) detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service. After holding 10 of the members for most of the day, the SNSS released them but threatened they soon would be charged and prosecuted. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a separate incident on January 21, when authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017. During the four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment. Authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including religious dress. According to the NGO Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs. Police forced the bearded men into a barber’s shop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.
A group pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility for the July killing of four foreign tourists, including two Americans, and the injuring of three others when the attackers drove a car into a group of cyclists. Authorities said the leader of the attack was a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which the government outlawed in 2015. Members of the Christian community reported that cemeteries in southern Khatlon Region were desecrated, with fences, crosses, memorial plates, and tomb ornaments looted for the value of their metal. Citizens generally remained reluctant to discuss societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, and some individuals who converted from Islam reported they experienced social disapproval.
The Charge d’Affaires and embassy staff encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers also raised concerns about government restrictions on religious practices, including the participation of women and minors in religious services; rejection of attempts of minority religious organizations to register; restrictions on the religious education of youth; harassment of those wearing religious attire; and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature. Embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address the same issues and discuss concerns over government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.
On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a Country of Particular Concern (“CPC”) under section 402(b) of the Act, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The Secretary also announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution maintains the separation of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs. The religion law requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to operate legally, a process also involving the concurrence of numerous government agencies. The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the country’s constitution or if it is not recognized as a religion by the relevant state body under the grand mufti’s leadership. The law also states that the government may dissolve a religious organization for activities violating the lawful interests of the country’s citizens or for harming their “health and morale.” It prohibits all activity by unregistered religious groups. According to the international religious freedom advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service. Authorities arrested and detained individuals, including members of religious communities, in harsh conditions. Forum 18 said there were more than 100 Muslim prisoners of conscience, most being held in the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison. According to Forum 18, in July the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of five Muslim men who were sentenced in 2017 to 12 years’ prison labor for meeting to pray and study the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi. The government did not register any new religious groups during the year. The government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors, and in September rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation that it do so. Local human rights activists stated Ministry of National Security (MNB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance. According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups continued to face harassment, raids, fines, seizure of literature, and house searches. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that authorities detained and questioned both adults and children regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics, to prevent the importation of religious literature, and to create difficulties for religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes. Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam continued to say the government scrutinized them more closely than ethnic non-Turkmen converts.
Individuals deviating from so-called “traditional” religious beliefs and practices continued to report societal criticism, harassment, and occasional physical violence, including denunciation by family members, friends, and neighbors for converting to a different religion. Members of registered Christian religious organizations continued to report ongoing hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation. Ethnic Turkmen who had converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minorities.
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy representatives, and visiting U.S. government officials continued to express concern about arrests and detention of members of religious communities, and harsh prison conditions. U.S. officials, including the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and urged the government to improve its treatment of religious minorities, create civilian service alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors, clarify registration and reregistration procedures for religious organizations, and lift restrictions on the importation and distribution of religious literature. In October the embassy held a roundtable with various religious organizations to discuss the status of their reregistration, limitations to the importation of religious literature, and restrictions to their religious rights.
Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, 2018 the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”
The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. In May the parliament approved a religious freedom “roadmap” to implement all twelve of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed. It simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements. The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 17 recognized religious groups. Through presidential pardons, the government released 185 prisoners convicted on religious extremism charges. In September the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Parpiev for diverging from his government-approved sermon. For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, run by a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, near Tashkent. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a significant drop in police harassment of their members: 114 cases compared with 240 in 2017. According to multiple sources, until late in the year, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, detain participating individuals, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences. One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups. Courts continued to sentence detained individuals to fines and prison; however, for the first time, higher courts overturned some of these sentences. Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. Authorities fined members of some groups, including unregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses, for engaging in collective worship and other religious activities. The Ministry of Education issued a new dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs, in schools. Media reported authorities ordered more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs or face expulsion. Police detained and fined nine bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques. According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education instructed educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers. Human rights activists said police continued to check the identities of worshippers and blocked entrance to most mosques for anyone under 18 years old. According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government banned a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley and surveilled Catholic masses. Media reported the government intentionally blocked access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private persons continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly among the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion. Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including government pressure to repudiate their new faith and on their family members to convince them to do so. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, and Baptists, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination. Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials.
Senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and recommended tangible steps the government could take to improve religious freedom. Steps raised included releasing individuals detained for engaging in peaceful religious activities; relaxing requirements for registering faith-based organizations so they may all operate legally and not be subject to fines or raids; allowing members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship; removing restrictions on the importation and use of electronic and hardcopy religious literature; and providing protection for public discourse on religion. Embassy officials urged the government to include religious prisoners of conscience in its annual amnesty and routinely met with religious groups and civil society regarding religious freedom and tolerance.
On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. Uzbekistan had been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006-2017 and moved to a Special Watch List after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.