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Democratic Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religious belief.  During the year, international NGOs, media, and religious organizations reported the government subjected religious organizations and leaders, most prominently Catholic, to intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and in some cases violence due to the Catholic Church’s support for credible elections, involvement in protest marches in January and February, and the implementation of the December 2016 Sylvester Agreement between the government and opposition parties.  On January 21, security forces used lethal force to disrupt peaceful protests organized by the Catholic Lay Association (CLC) and some Protestant church leaders in support of credible elections and implementation of the December 2016 agreement.  At least six persons were killed, and as many as 50 injured when government security forces, including members of the Republican Guard, fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at protesters inside church compounds.  As many as 100 persons were subjected to arbitrary arrest, including several dozen choir girls.  On February 25, state security forces killed two individuals, including Rossy Mukendi Tshimanga, who was shot by a rubber bullet inside a church compound during a protest organized by the CLC.  Due to the political nature of many of the CLC’s activities and practices, however, it is difficult to establish the government’s response as being solely based on religious identity.

Antigovernment militia members in the Kasai region and in North Kivu Province attacked and targeted Catholic Church property, schools, and clergy, according to Church sources.  On April 8, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Father Etienne Nsengiunva in Kyahemba in North Kivu.  In Kasai, media reported the Kamuina Nsapu rebel group continued to threaten members of the Catholic Church.  On April 1, unidentified armed men abducted Father Celestin Ngango in Kihondo in North Kivu after Easter Mass and demanded a ransom.  The kidnappers released Ngango approximately one week later.  Several CLC members said they received threats due to their support for credible elections, implementation of the December 2016 agreement, and peaceful protests.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met with the foreign minister, minister of justice, minister of human rights, national police commissioner, and other senior government officials several times during the year to raise concerns about the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and harassment of CLC members.  U.S. embassy officials met regularly with the government to discuss religious freedom issues, including government relations with religious organizations.  Embassy officials also met regularly with religious leaders and human rights organizations and discussed relations with the government, the electoral process, their concerns about abuses of civil liberties, and the government’s use of excessive force in response to church-led demonstrations.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 85.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  The Pew Research Center estimates 95.8 percent of the population is Christian, 1.5 percent Muslim, and 1.8 percent report no religious affiliation (2010 estimate).  Of Christians, 48.1 percent are Protestant, including evangelical Christians and the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimbangu (Kimbanguist), and 47.3 percent Catholic.  Other Christian groups include the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Greek Orthodox Church.  There are small communities of Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and followers of indigenous religious beliefs.  Muslim leaders estimate their community to comprise approximately 5 percent of the population.

A significant portion of the population combines traditional beliefs and practices with Christianity or other religious beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and the right to worship subject to “compliance with the law, public order, public morality, and the rights of others.”  It stipulates the right to religious freedom may not be abrogated even when the government declares a state of emergency or siege.

The law regulates the establishment and operation of religious groups.  According to law, the government may legally recognize, suspend recognition of, or dissolve religious groups.  The government grants tax-exempt status to recognized religious groups.  Nonprofit organizations, including foreign and domestic religious groups, must register with the government to obtain official recognition by submitting a copy of their bylaws and constitution.  Religious groups must register only once for the group as a whole, but nonprofit organizations affiliated with a religious group must register separately.  Upon receiving a submission, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) issues a provisional approval and, within six months, a permanent approval or rejection.  Unless the MOJ specifically rejects the application, the group is considered approved and registered after six months even if the ministry has not issued a final determination.  Applications from international headquarters of religious organizations must be approved by the presidency after submission through the MOJ.  The law requires officially recognized religious groups to operate as nonprofits and respect the general public order.  It also permits religious groups to establish places of worship and train clergy.  The law prescribes penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment, a fine of 200,000 Congolese francs ($130), or both for groups that are not properly registered but receive gifts and donations on behalf of a church or other religious organization.

The constitution permits public schools to work with religious authorities to provide religious education to students in accordance with students’ religious beliefs if parents request it.  Public schools with religious institution guardianship may provide religious instruction, but government-owned schools may not mandate religious instruction.

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

Government Practices

Catholic Church leaders reported acts of violence and intimidation against Church officials in response to Church support for implementation of the December 2016 agreement and for supporting peaceful protest marches in January and February.  Because religious and political issues overlap, however, it was difficult to categorize some incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  On January 21, security forces forcibly disrupted protests led by the CLC and some Protestant church leaders in support of elections and implementation of the December 2016 agreement.  UN observers and others stated they witnessed members of the Republican Guard and other security force members fire directly at protesters, killing at least six persons and injuring as many as 50.  In some cases, government security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition into church compounds.  Among those killed was Therese Kapangala, a 24-year-old woman preparing to take vows as a nun.  She was shot and killed outside her church in Kinshasa.  The United Nations reported that 121 persons were arbitrarily arrested across the country for participation in the demonstrations.  During another round of CLC-organized protests on February 25, state security forces killed two individuals, including Rossy Mukendi Tshimanga, who was shot by a rubber bullet inside a church compound.  Another person died in the town of Mbandaka from wounds sustained during a confrontation with an off-duty police officer.  The United Nations reported that 194 persons were arbitrarily arrested.

CLC leaders were reportedly subjected to threats and harassment due to their support for implementation of the December 2016 agreement, credible elections, and peaceful protests.  Catholic leaders and institutions were also threatened after Church leaders expressed concern over violence they attributed to government security forces and the Kamuina Nsapu antigovernment militia in Kasai.  Church leaders in Kasai Province said local armed groups associated with Kamuina Nsapu forced them to accept armed group control of their communities.  In 2017, members of Kamuina Nsapu vandalized and burned numerous Catholic churches, schools, and buildings.

The MOJ again did not issue any final registration permits for religious groups and had not done so since 2014, reportedly due to an internal investigation into fraudulent registration practices.  The government, however, continued its practice that groups presumed to have been approved were permitted to organize.  Unregistered domestic religious groups reported they continued to operate unhindered.  The MOJ previously estimated that more than 2,000 registration applications for both religious and nonreligious NGOs remained pending and that more than 3,500 associations with no legal authorization continued to operate.  Foreign-based religious groups reported they operated without restriction after applying for legal status.  Under existing law, which was under review, nonprofit organizations could operate as legal entities by default if a government ministry gave a favorable opinion of their application and the government did not object to their application for status.  According to 2015 registration statistics, the latest year for which the MOJ had statistics, there were 14,568 legally registered nonprofit organizations, 11,119 legal religious nonprofit organizations, and 1,073 foreign nonprofit organizations.  Religious nonprofits that were legally operating and registered included 404 Catholic, 93 Protestant, 54 Muslim, and 1,322 evangelical nonprofits, the latter including those belonging to the Kimbangu Church.

The government continued to rely on religious organizations to provide public services such as education and health care throughout the country.  According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 72 percent of primary school students and 65 percent of secondary school students attended government-funded schools administered by religious organizations.  The government paid teacher salaries at some schools run by religious groups depending on the needs of the schools and whether they were registered as schools eligible to receive government funding.

Muslim community leaders again said the government did not afford them some of the same privileges as larger religious groups.  The government continued to deny Muslims the opportunity to provide chaplains for Muslims in the military, police force, and hospitals, despite a complaint filed in 2015 with the president and his cabinet.

In July the MOJ responded with an acknowledgement of receipt to a letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal representative asking that the state protect its members against the Kimbilikit cult’s insistence that all community members, regardless of religion, participate in their rituals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Members of the Kamuina Nsapu antigovernment militia in the Kasai region attacked and targeted Catholic Church property, schools, and clergy, according to Church sources.  In Kasai, Kasai Central, and Kasai Oriental Provinces, the Catholic Church reported threats and attacks against the Church by unidentified assailants believed to be members of the Kamuina Nsapu, other armed groups, or government security forces.  In September in Kananga in Kasai Central Province, Kananga Catholic Archbishop Marcel Madila stated there was “deep fear and insecurity” throughout Kasai Central Province after a rash of robberies and assaults targeting nuns, parishes, and civilians.  Archbishop Madila reported four attacks against nuns in Bena Mukangala, Kambote, Malole, and Tshilumba.  In North Kivu on April 8, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Father Etienne Nsengiunva in Kyahemba.

On April 1, in Kihondo in North Kivu, unidentified armed men abducted Father Celestin Ngango after Mass and demanded a ransom.  He was released one week later.

Some religious leaders reported continued tensions between Christian and Muslim communities in the north but also signs of improved relations in the eastern part of the country linked to the government’s ongoing fight against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).  On November 27, for example, both Muslim and Christian leaders peacefully marched in Beni expressing their support for joint offensive operations against the ADF.

In Budjala in Sud Ubangi Province, Voice of America reported that on March 30, Christians burned a mosque and the home of a man who allegedly killed a Christian man he caught in a sexual relationship with his wife.

Leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported generally positive relations with the rest of the community but noted that 21 cases of assault on or suspected killings of Jehovah’s Witnesses dating from as early as 2015 were languishing in the court system or never sent to court for criminal prosecution after the arrests of suspects.  They also reported three assaults during the year that they stated were due to their religious beliefs in rural areas of Wapinda, Equateur Province, Luono, Kwango Province, and Fube, Katanga Province.

In South Kivu Province, Muslims in the Katana area said they had not received funds to rebuild their mosque after it was burned down in October 2016, despite a promise in November 2016 from the former governor of South Kivu to provide funds to rebuild the mosque.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires met with the foreign minister, minister of justice, minister of human rights, national police commissioner, and other senior government officials to discuss concerns about the treatment of CLC members and security forces’ use of excessive force against peaceful protesters.  Embassy officials met regularly with government officials to discuss religious freedom issues, such as government relations with religious organizations.  Embassy officials also regularly urged the government, security force leaders, and community and political leaders to refrain from violence and respect the rights of civil society, including religious groups, to assemble and express themselves freely.

Throughout the year, U.S. officials engaged with members of religious groups and human rights organizations.  In meetings with members of the Muslim Association of Congo, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Nunciature, and Jewish community of Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, U.S. officials discussed religious freedom and religious groups’ relationship with the government and other religious organizations.  Issues discussed included the electoral process, the religious groups’ concerns about abuses of civil liberties, and the government’s use of excessive force in response to church-led demonstrations.

Denmark

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees the right of individuals to worship according to their beliefs.  It establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the national church, which has privileges not available to other religious groups.  Other religious groups must register with the government to receive tax and other benefits.  In August a law to ban masks and face coverings in public spaces, including burqas and niqabs, entered into force.  The government added seven new individuals, including two Americans, to a “hate preachers” list during the year, banning them from entering the country.  In December parliament enacted a law instituting a handshake requirement for persons becoming citizens that critics said targeted Muslims.  In June a citizen-driven petition to ban circumcision for individuals younger than age 18 acquired enough signatures to be debated in parliament.  The measure, strongly opposed by the Jewish and Muslim communities, was scheduled for a vote in 2019, and a majority of political parties said they would vote against it.  In January the government unveiled an action plan against what it called “ghetto” communities, which critics interpreted to mean Muslims, that included mandatory religious teaching on Christmas and Easter during day care for children receiving government benefits.  The immigration and integration minister made statements critical of Islam.

Police reported 142 religiously motivated crimes in 2017, 61 percent more than in 2016.  There were 67 incidents, including assault and a death threat, against Muslims and 38 against Jews.  Separately, the Jewish community in Copenhagen reported 30 anti-Semitic acts in that city in 2017, including aggravated harassment, threats, and hate speech.  Jewish and Muslim community leaders stated most victims did not report incidents because they believed police would not follow up.  The Nye Borgerlige Party adopted a platform critical of Islam.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with foreign ministry and other government representatives, including at the cabinet level, to raise Jewish and Muslim concerns over proposals to ban male circumcision and the prohibition on masks and face coverings.  They also met with religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, the ELC, Buddhists, and humanists and atheists, as well as nongovernmental organizations, to discuss their concerns and stress the importance of religious tolerance and diversity.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to an October estimate by Statistics Denmark, the government statistical office, 75 percent of all citizens are members of the ELC.

The University of Copenhagen’s Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies estimated in October 2017 that Muslims constitute 5.3 percent of the population.  Muslim groups are concentrated in the largest cities, particularly Copenhagen, Odense, and Aarhus.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates other religious groups, each constituting less than 1 percent of the population, include, in descending order of size, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Serbian Orthodox Christians, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pentecostals, and nondenominational Christians.  Although estimates vary, the Jewish Society (previously known as Mosaike) stated the Jewish population numbers approximately 7,000, most of whom live in the Copenhagen metropolitan area.  A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found 30 percent of persons identified as religiously unaffiliated.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the ELC as the country’s established Church, which shall receive state support and to which the reigning monarch must belong.  The constitution also states individuals shall be free to form congregations to worship according to their beliefs, providing nothing “at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done.”  It specifies that, “rules for religious bodies dissenting from the established Church shall be laid down by statute.”  It stipulates that no person may be deprived of access to the full enjoyment of civil and political rights because of religious beliefs, and that these beliefs shall not be used to evade compliance with civic duty.  It prohibits requiring individuals to make personal financial contributions to religious denominations to which they do not adhere.

The law prohibits hate speech, including religious hate speech, and specifies as penalties a fine (amount unspecified) or a maximum of one year’s imprisonment.  If a religious leader disseminates the hate speech, the penalties increase to a fine or a maximum of three years’ imprisonment.

The law permits the government to prevent religious figures who are foreign nationals and do not already have a residence permit from entering the country if the Ministry of Immigration and Integration determines their presence poses a threat to the public order.  In such cases, the ministry places the individuals on a national sanctions list and bars them from entry into the country for a two-year period, which may be renewed.

The ELC is the only religious group that receives funding through state grants and voluntary taxes paid through payroll deduction from its members.  Members receive a tax credit for their donations to the ELC.  The voluntary taxes account for an estimated 86 percent of the ELC’s operating budget; the remaining 14 percent is provided through a combination of voluntary donations by congregants and government grants.  Members of other recognized religious communities cannot contribute via payroll deduction but may donate to their own community voluntarily and receive an income tax credit.  The ELC and other state-recognized religious communities carry out registration of civil unions, births, and deaths for their members.

On May 31, the government enacted a law prohibiting masks and face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, in public spaces.  Violators may be fined 1,000-10,000 kroner ($150-$1,500).  The maximum fine is for those who violate the law four or more times.

The Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs has responsibility for granting official status to religious groups besides the ELC through recognition by royal decree (for groups recognized prior to 1970) or through official registration.  According to the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs, there are (as of November) 315 religious groups and congregations the government officially recognizes or that are affiliated with recognized groups:  208 Christian groups, 62 Muslim, 17 Buddhist, nine Hindu, three Jewish, and 16 other groups and congregations, including the Baha’i Faith, the Alevi Muslim community, and followers of the indigenous Norse belief system Forn Sidr.

Recognized religious groups have the right to perform legal marriage ceremonies, name and baptize children with legal effect, issue legal death certificates, obtain residence permits for foreign clergy, establish cemeteries, and receive tax-deductible financial donations and various valued-added tax exemptions.  A religious community law enacted in December 2017 effective on January 1 allows only religious communities recognized before 1970 to issue name, baptismal, and marriage certificates.  According to the law, this privilege will expire for all religious communities except the ELC in 2023.  Members of other religious communities or individuals unaffiliated with a recognized religious group may opt to have birth and death certificates issued by the health authority.

Groups not recognized by either royal decree or a government registration process, such as the Church of Scientology, are entitled to engage in religious practices without any kind of public registration, but members of those groups must marry in a civil ceremony in addition to any religious ceremony.  Unrecognized religious groups are not granted fully tax-exempt status, but they have some tax benefits; for example, contributions by members are tax-deductible.

The religious community law that came into force in January codifies for the first time the registration process for religious communities other than the ELC and eliminates the previous distinction between those recognized by royal decree and those approved through registration.  For a religious community to be recognized, it must have at least 150 members, while a congregation, which the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs considers as a group within one of the major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam), must consist of at least 50 adult members to be approved.  For congregations located in sparsely populated regions, such as Greenland, the government applies a lower population threshold, varying according to the total population of the region.  The guidelines for approval of religious organizations require religious groups seeking registration to submit a document on the group’s central traditions; descriptions of its most important rituals; a copy of its rules, regulations, and organizational structure; an audited financial statement; information about the group’s leadership; and a statement on the number of adult members permanently residing in the country.  Groups must also have formal procedures for membership and make their teachings available to all members.  The Ministry of Justice makes the final decision on registration applications after receiving recommendations from a group consisting of a lawyer, religious historian, sociologist of religion, and nonordained theologian.

The law bans judges from wearing religious symbols such as headscarves, turbans, skullcaps, and large crucifixes while in court.

All public and private schools, including religious schools, receive government financial support.  Public schools must teach ELC theology; the instructors are public school teachers rather than persons provided by the ELC.  Religious classes are compulsory in grades 1-9, although students may be exempted if a parent presents a request in writing.  No alternative classes are offered.  The ELC course curriculum in grades 1-6 focuses on life philosophies and ethics, biblical stories, and the history of Christianity.  In grades 7-9, the curriculum adds a module on world religions.  The course is optional in grade 10.  If the student is 15 years old or older, the student and parent must jointly request the student’s exemption.  Private schools are also required to teach religion classes in grades 1-9, including world religion in grades 7-9.  The religion classes taught in grades 1-9 need not include ELC theology.  Collective prayer in schools is allowed if it does not include proselytizing.  Prayers are optional at the discretion of each school.  They may consist of ELC, other Christian, Muslim, or Jewish prayers, and students may opt out of participating.

Military conscription is mandatory for all physically fit men older than 18.  Women may participate but are not obligated to do so.  Military service is typically four months.  There is an exemption for conscientious objectors, including on religious grounds, allowing conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian service, which also has a period of four months, instead.  An individual wishing to perform alternative service as a conscientious objector must apply within eight weeks of receiving notice of military service.  The application is adjudicated by the Conscientious Objector Administration and must show that military service of any kind is incompatible with the individual’s conscience.  The alternative service may take place in various social and cultural institutions, peace movements, organizations related to the United Nations, churches and ecumenical organizations, and environmental organizations throughout the country.

The law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning, including kosher and halal slaughter.  The law allows for slaughter according to religious rites with prior stunning and limits such slaughter to cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens.  All slaughter must take place at a slaughterhouse.  Slaughterhouses practicing ritual slaughter are obliged to register with the Veterinary and Food Administration.  Violations of this law are punishable by fines or up to four months in prison.  Halal and kosher meat may be imported.

A law that came into force on May 1 requires clergy members with legal authorization to officiate at marriages to have an adequate mastery of the Danish language and to complete a two-day course on family law and civil rights, administered by the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs.  The law also includes a requirement that religious workers “must not behave or act in a way that makes them unworthy to exercise public authority.”  Religious workers perceived as not complying with the new provisions may be stripped of their right to perform marriages.

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

Government Practices

During the year, the government added seven new individuals, including two Americans, to a “hate preachers” list that barred those individuals from entering the country.  The Ministry of Immigration and Integration stated these individuals threatened the nation’s values and public security.

In April Minister of Justice Soren Pape Poulsen stated the government enacted the law banning face coverings because concealing the face was antithetical to the social interaction and coexistence that was crucial in a society.  According to a 2010 survey by the University of Copenhagen, an estimated 150 to 200 women in the country wore a niqab and three wore a burqa.  Widespread media reporting portrayed the ban as targeting Muslim women.  Poulsen called the niqab “incompatible with the values in Danish society,” while Martin Henriksen, the immigration spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party, one of the country’s largest political parties, called the vote a “statement from parliament that the burqa and niqab do not belong in Denmark.”  Religious groups and several human rights groups protested the ban.  Amnesty International said the law “essentially criminalizes women for their choice of clothing, making a mockery of the freedoms Denmark purports to uphold.”

In August an estimated 1,300 Muslims and non-Muslims wearing veils marched from Norrebro, a neighborhood in Copenhagen with a high concentration of immigrants, to a local police station to protest the law banning face coverings.  Ministry of Justice officials declined to prosecute protesters, stating wearing a burqa or niqab in this instance was an act of protest and protected as freedom of expression.

In the first six months of the ban, 109 violations were filed with the National Police, resulting in 22 charges and 13 fines; 31 other cases resulted in a warning, with the person either removing the face covering or leaving the public space.  Eight other inquiries were dismissed because the violation was in connection with a demonstration.  Media reports stated the first fine involved a woman who wore a niqab in a shopping complex.  She received a 1,000 kroner ($150) fine, and authorities asked her to remove the veil or leave the public space; she chose to leave.  The Muslim community reported one family emigrated because of the law.

According to the a November 15 executive order from the minister of church affairs, the religious community law that entered into force in January incentivized individual congregations within a religious community to formally register with the government in order to receive tax benefits.  Some religious groups also anticipated that under the new law, individuals would be able to make tax-deductible donations to specific congregations rather than to the broader religious community to which the congregation belonged.  As such, the total number of registered religious communities and congregations was expected to increase.

In June parliament debated a citizen-driven petition to ban circumcision of individuals younger than 18.  Although the petition proposed banning circumcision of minors of both sexes, the law already prohibited female circumcision.  The petition acquired the necessary signatures pursuant to a new law requiring petitions with more than 50,000 signatures to be debated in parliament.  According to a January poll by research firm Megafon, 83 percent of persons expressed public support for the ban.  Advocates of the ban led by NGO INTACT Denmark stressed their concern for the rights of children, but Muslim and Jewish communities opposed it and formed an interreligious working group to lobby the government against it.  The debate on banning circumcision also played out on social media.  For example, individuals posted anti-Semitic comments – such as “bloody child abuse is part of Jewish rituals” – on INTACT Denmark’s Facebook page.  On July 11, Rabbi Melchior of the Jewish Society said, “The opponents of circumcision are not anti-Semites, but if they succeed in convincing the politicians into banning it, it will be an anti-Semitic act.”  Finn Rudaizky, a former leader of the Jewish Society of Denmark, stated in June that, “In addition to children’s welfare activists, many others use the situation to show that they are against Jews, Muslims, and they can express anti-Semitism and xenophobia without admitting to it.”

In October Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen linked the country’s historical rescue of the Jews in 1943 to the debate on circumcision, vowing to protect the Jews once again.  A majority of parliamentarians came out against the ban on its first reading in November, and at year’s end, the bill sat with the Health and Elderly Committee for further study before a final parliamentary vote scheduled for the spring of 2019.

In January the government announced a new action plan to eliminate “parallel societies” emerging from what it called “ghetto” communities.  Part of the government’s definition of “ghetto” community was a non-Western majority population, which media widely interpreted to mean Muslims.  Initiatives parliament enacted during the year included doubling of penalties for crimes committed in ghetto-designated communities and mandatory enrollment of children in day care or loss of child benefits.  The Muslim community expressed concerns about the compulsory day care, which had a component of 25 hours per week of instruction, including religious teaching about Christmas and Easter.

In February Minister of Immigration and Integration Inger Stojberg wrote an article titled “The Sad Truth about Islam” for the BT newspaper and also posted on social media.  Stojberg stated Danes had “lost” and “become scared by a religion [Islam] whose fanatics have threatened us to silence.”  She said, “[I]t is primarily the followers of the so-called religion of peace, Islam, which actually engages [sic] with weapons, violence, and terror.”  Citing the play The Book of Mormon, which had recently opened in Copenhagen, in the article, Stojberg said performing a similar play in the country about Islam was “unthinkable.”  Stojberg has had round-the-clock police protection since 2015 due to numerous threats against her.

In May Stojberg called for Muslims fasting during Ramadan to take time off from work because she believed they were unable to perform their jobs safely.  Colleagues from her own Liberal (Venstre) Party called for Stojberg to provide evidence to support her statement; she did not respond.

On December 20, parliament enacted into law a proposal introduced by the Conservative and Danish People’s Parties requiring persons obtaining Danish citizenship to shake hands during naturalization ceremonies.  Critics said the law, scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019, targeted Muslims, who declined on religious grounds to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.  Media reported some of the mayors who conducted naturalization ceremonies objected to the law, which they called awkward and irrelevant to an applicant’s qualifications.  Mayor of Sonderborg Erik Lauritzen announced he would overlook the handshake requirement if applicants showed respect for authorities another way; Mayor of Aabenraa Thomas Andresen stated he would not feel comfortable reporting a noncompliant applicant and urged the national government to administer the ceremony rather than the municipality.  Imam Falah Malik from Nusrat Djahan Mosque called on applicants to show respect another way but, if a handshake was required between members of the opposite sex, to skip the ceremony.  Parliamentarian and spokesperson on immigration for the Danish People’s Party Henriksen said of the law, “If one can’t do something that simple and straightforward [shake hands], there’s no reason to become a Danish citizen.”

In September TV2 Ostjylland reported the municipality of Horsens would offer citizens a chance to specifically opt out of halal or kosher meat at municipal institutions starting in January 2019.  Horsens city councilor from the Danish People’s Party Michael Nedersoe said, “This is an offer for those people who don’t want a Muslim prayer over their food or think halal slaughter is on the edge of animal abuse.”  The Danish People’s Party had called on municipal authorities to try to ban halal meat from municipal institutions during local elections in November 2017.  Henriksen, the party’s immigration spokesperson, said at the time, “It’s wrong when the food in public institutions is blessed by an imam.”  Opponents in Horsens to the originally proposed ban on halal meat, such as Horsens city councilor Saliem Bader from the Social Democratic Party, stated the new proposal did not ban halal meat but rather offered people a chance to opt out of eating it.

The government continued to provide armed security, consisting of police and military, for Jewish sites it considered to be at high risk of terrorist attack, including Copenhagen’s synagogue and community center and schools.  Officials from the Jewish Society reported continued good relations with police and the ability to communicate their concerns to authorities, including the minister of justice.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of religiously motivated incidents against Muslims, Jews, and members of other religious groups.  Jewish community leaders from the Jewish Society and B’nai B’rith stated anti-Semitic behavior emanated from Muslims rather than far-right or far-left ideologues.  Both Jewish and Muslim community leaders said most incidents were not reported because of a widespread belief police would not follow up or prosecute perpetrators.

According to police statistics for 2017, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 67 religiously motivated hate crimes against Muslims, 38 against Jews, and 37 against other religions.  The total of 142 crimes was 61 percent higher than the 88 reported in the previous year.  Forty-two crimes, typically vandalism, occurred at gravesites or religious institutions; 43 in public settings such as supermarkets, parks, or buses; 31 on the internet; 21, typically involving graffiti, at private residences; and five in the workplace or schools.

Representatives of Copenhagen’s Jewish Society separately reported 30 anti-Semitic acts against Copenhagen’s Jewish community, its community center, or synagogue in 2017.  The acts included two cases of aggravated and physical harassment, three cases of threats or intimidation, 24 cases of anti-Semitic slurs or language, and one uncategorized case.

In July the Copenhagen District Court charged Imam Mundhir Abdallah from the Masjid al-Faruq Mosque under the law against hate speech in religious preaching for posting a YouTube video in 2017 calling on Muslims to kill Jews.  Omar El-Hussein, who committed a terrorist attack at the Jewish synagogue in Copenhagen in 2015, had attended the same mosque the day before going on his shooting spree.  At year’s end, the case was pending trial.

In August a woman in the city of Odense prevented a Muslim woman from taking her parking space.  A video recording showed the woman stating she would not give up her parking spot because the other woman wore a headscarf.  The incident received prominent national news coverage.

police reported in 2017 was one where three men beat up a man in a parking lot after asking if he was Muslim.  In another case, a man threatened a Muslim woman with his dog and said, “You’re going to die… I don’t like Muslims…you are going to hell.”

In October 2017, a man posted threats of violence against Muslims as part of a self-described “poem as cultural input” on his Facebook page that authorities determined to be “macabre and threatening words.”  In October the Aalborg District Court convicted the man of hate speech and fined him 4,000 kroner ($610).

In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 592 individuals identifying themselves as Jewish residents of Denmark responded to the online survey.  One-quarter said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 29 percent reported being harassed over the same period.  Twenty-four percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 85 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.

Members of both the Jewish and Muslim communities spoke highly of each other’s efforts in forming an interreligious working group to lobby government leaders against the proposed ban on circumcision.

A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found 20 percent of persons agreed that government policies should support religious values and beliefs in the country; 43 percent agreed with the statement that Islam was fundamentally incompatible with the country’s culture and values.

Nye Borgerlige, a political party established in 2015 and holding a single municipal political office in the country, described Islam as incompatible with Danish values.  The party, which said it would contest national elections in 2019, called on the state not to grant recognition to Muslim communities or award grants to Muslim schools and to refrain from selling public land on which to build mosques.  The party also advocated a ban on headscarves in public schools and for public officeholders.  In June Nye Borgerlige leader Pernille Vermund cited Mogens Glistrup, founder of the Progress Party, which was widely described as anti-Muslim, as her party’s inspiration.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with foreign ministry and other government officials, including cabinet members, to raise Jewish and Muslim concerns over the ban on masks and face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, and the proposed ban on circumcision of minors.

Embassy officials met with various religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities throughout the year.  In January the U.S. Department of State’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia met with government officials and religious community leaders on ways to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment.

In February the Ambassador met with Jewish community leaders from the Jewish Society to discuss the community’s concern regarding the proposed ban on circumcision.  In March embassy officials met with the Muslim Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim associations to discuss circumcision, the then-proposed ban on masks and face coverings, and its general views regarding religious freedom and tolerance in the country.  The Ambassador also met with the bishop of the ELC to reaffirm U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and tolerance.

In February and March embassy officials met with representatives from the Buddhist, humanist, and atheist communities to discuss concerns regarding registration as religious organizations and their access to politicians.  In October embassy representatives raised concerns about the pending circumcision ban with members of parliament’s Ecclesiastical Affairs Committee.

In October the Ambassador gave the keynote speech for Jewish organization B’nai B’rith, emphasizing the strong U.S. government commitment to religious freedom.  Her remarks were widely shared among the organization’s European branches.  The embassy amplified the Ambassador’s engagements with religious community officials throughout the year in embassy social media postings and on Facebook and Twitter.

Djibouti

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but mandates equality for persons of all faiths.  The government maintained its authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including assets and personnel of all mosques.  Non-Muslim groups register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which conducts lengthy background checks as part of the registration process.  The government continued to implement a decree for state control of mosques, and the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs’ High Islamic Council closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons.  Unlike in past years, the ministry did not take any disciplinary action against imams deemed extremist.  The Ministry of Education for the first time permitted refugees (students and teachers) to miss class to observe their respective religious holidays.  Additionally, the ministry launched an initiative to highlight religious tolerance in national civic education.  The government granted the request of the country’s Christian community to allot plots of land on the outskirts of Djibouti City to build the country’s second Christian cemetery.

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

U.S. embassy officials shared the Secretary of State’s Ramadan and Eid al-Adha messages on the importance of religious freedom with government and civil society leaders at an embassy-hosted iftar and on social media.  U.S. embassy officials met regularly with religious minority leaders to discuss equitable treatment of religious groups by the government.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 884,000 (July 2018 estimate), of which 94 percent is Sunni Muslim.  Shia Muslims, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is, and atheists constitute the remaining 6 percent.  Non-Muslims are generally foreign-born citizens and expatriates, highly concentrated in Djibouti City.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the registered refugee population at approximately 27,500, of whom 44 percent are from Somalia, 37 percent from Ethiopia, 16 percent from Yemen and 3 percent from Eritrea.  No data exists on the religious affiliations of refugees, but they engage in both Islamic and non-Islamic worship.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

It is illegal for any faith to proselytize in public.

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs has authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including mosques, religious events, and private Islamic schools.  The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education jointly oversee the school curricula and teacher certification of approximately 40 Islamic schools.  The public school system is secular.

The president swears an Islamic religious oath.

Muslims may bring matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance either to family courts, whose code includes elements of civil and Islamic law, or to civil courts.  Civil courts address the same matters for non-Muslims.  Citizens are officially considered Muslims if they do not specifically identify with another religious group.

The government requires all foreign and domestic non-Muslim religious groups to register by submitting an application to the Ministry of Interior, which conducts a lengthy background investigation of the group.  The investigation reviews group leadership, religious affiliation, sources of finance, and the group’s objectives within the country.  Ties to extremist religious sects, strong political agendas, and relations with unfriendly foreign nations are factors that would cause a group’s application to be rejected.  Domestic and foreign Muslim religious groups must inform the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs of their existence and intent to operate and are subject to neither registration nor investigation by the Ministry of Interior.  Muslim and non-Muslim foreign religious groups must also gain approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to operate in the country.  Once approved, every foreign religious group signs a one-year agreement detailing the scope of its activities.  Foreign religious groups must submit quarterly reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and renew their agreements every year.  The quarterly report details activities, origin of funding for activities, and scope of work completed, and it identifies beneficiaries.  Non-Muslim religious groups may not operate in the interim while awaiting registration.

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

Government Practices

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs continued its efforts to implement a 2014 decree executing a law on state control of mosques, which converted the status of imams, including refugee imams, to civil service employees of the ministry and transferred ownership of mosque properties and other assets to the government.  Government officials reiterated a decree aimed at eliminating political activity from mosques, providing greater government oversight of mosque assets and activities, and countering foreign influence.  Although imams were under the direction of the government, mosques’ properties continued to be controlled by individual congregations, since the government department designated to manage these assets was not yet operational.  The ministry’s High Islamic Council sent instructions on and closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons.  The ministry reported no serious incidents of extremist views within mosques.  During the year, however, it issued several warnings to imams for polarizing speech.  Almost all mosques in the country had an imam who was a civil service employee.

The government continued to permit registered non-Islamic groups, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, to operate freely, according to Christian leaders.  No other Christian groups had legal recognition from the government.  The government subsidized the cost of utilities at church properties of registered non-Islamic groups, since it considered some church properties to be part of the national patrimony.  Religious groups not registered with the government, such as Ethiopian Protestant and non-Sunni Muslim congregations, operated under the auspices of registered groups.  Smaller groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’is, were not registered with the government but operated privately without incident, according to Christian leaders.  Observers stated these groups and other religious minorities hosted worship gatherings in private housing and usually at night.  The groups coordinated loosely with the country’s security forces, who impose curfews and noise restrictions.

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

The government granted the request of the Christian community to allot plots of land on the outskirts of Djibouti City to build a second Christian cemetery.  The Christian coalition, composed of Catholic Christians, Protestants, and Ethiopian Orthodox, also requested permission to build an adjoining church, to which the government did not respond.

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

Local public schools continued to observe only Islamic holidays, but under the direction of the Ministry of Education, schools in refugee camps for the first time permitted students to miss class for their respective religious holidays.  The ministry also launched an initiative to highlight religious tolerance in national civic education.  Government officials began to implement changes to curriculum that encouraged religious inclusivity.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with Ministry of Education and Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs representatives to discuss allowing religious minorities within refugee camps to observe their respective holidays.

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

Embassy personnel shared the Secretary of State’s Ramadan message on the importance of religious freedom with government, religious, and civil society leaders, including at the Dikhil iftar, and on the embassy’s Facebook page.

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

Dominica

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of thought, freedom to practice one’s religion, and freedom from oaths contrary to one’s beliefs.  Rastafarians said they continued to press the government to legalize marijuana use.  Representatives of the Rastafarian community reported authorities did not enforce the law against using marijuana when they used it in their religious rites.  Members of the Rastafarian community stated their relationship with the government had improved significantly.

Interdenominational organizations worked to advance respect for religious freedom and diversity regardless of denominational affiliation.  Members of the Dominica Christian Council and the resident Roman Catholic bishop said they did not consider religious freedom to be an issue for Christians or to their knowledge for other religious groups.

Embassy officials raised religious freedom with the government, including with the chief welfare officer of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Family, and Gender Affairs.  They discussed Rastafarian allegations of extra scrutiny by police and immigration officials due to Rastafarians’ use of marijuana in their religious rites.  U.S. embassy representatives engaged civil society leaders, including members of the Rastafarian community, members of the Dominica Christian Council, and the resident Catholic bishop, on religious freedom issues, including freedom of religious expression and societal discrimination based on religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 74,000 (July 2018).  According to data from the 2011 census, approximately 53 percent of the population is Catholic.  Evangelical Protestants constitute approximately 20 percent of the population.  The largest evangelical Protestant groups are Pentecostals with 6 percent, Baptists with 5 percent, and the Christian Union Mission with 4 percent.  Seventh-day Adventists constitute 7 percent of the population.  Other smaller religious groups include Anglicans, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Rastafarians.  Nine percent of the population professes no religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of thought, freedom to practice one’s religion, and freedom from taking oaths contrary to one’s beliefs.  By law, the government may make exceptions to constitutionally required provisions in the interests of public order and morality if the exceptions are for activities “shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”

Religious groups seeking nonprofit status must register with the Attorney General’s Office.  They must submit a letter signed by five executives of the religious group and provide the official name of the religious group with an address identifying the place of worship.  The registration fee is 25 Eastern Caribbean dollars ($9).  The Attorney General’s Registry Office reviews and approves applications.  Any organization denied permission to register has the right to apply for judicial review.  By law, religious groups also must register buildings used to publish banns of marriage (announcements of marriage) or used as places of worship.

The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and to provide religious instruction.  Students of different religions may attend private schools run by religious groups of another affiliation.  Public schools may hold nondenominational prayers, and attendance is optional.  The law requires the vaccination of all children to attend both public and private schools.  Parents may homeschool their children.

The government imposes no legal regulations on foreign missionaries beyond the standard immigration laws for entering and remaining in the country.

The government prohibits the use of marijuana for any purpose, including for religious purposes.

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

Government Practices

Rastafarians continued to press the government to legalize marijuana use.  Representatives of the Rastafarian community reported authorities did not enforce the law against using marijuana when they used it in their religious rites.  Members of the Rastafarian community stated their relationship with the government had improved significantly.  Rastafarian leaders said their children were not eligible to attend public schools because the schools required immunizations for all students, and the Rastafarians did not vaccinate their children due to their religious beliefs.  There were no reports of police arrests of Rastafarians during the year in connection with marijuana for religious use.

Members of the Christian community reported they had a positive working relationship with police.  The Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Family, and Gender Affairs collaborated with the Christian community’s Interdenominational Committee on Crime and Violence in its work to reduce crime and provide opportunities for youth.

The government subsidized teacher salaries at all private schools run by religious organizations, including those affiliated with the Catholic, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches.

At public schools, teachers, principals, and students continued to lead nondenominational prayers during morning assemblies, but students were not required to participate.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Interdenominational organizations worked to advance respect for religious freedom and diversity regardless of denominational affiliation.  Members of the Dominica Christian Council and the resident Catholic bishop said they did not consider religious freedom to be an issue for Christians or to their knowledge for other religious groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom with the government, including with the chief welfare officer of the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Family, and Gender Affairs.  They discussed Rastafarian allegations of extra scrutiny by police and immigration officials due to Rastafarians’ use of marijuana in their religious rites.

Embassy representatives engaged civil society leaders, including members of the Rastafarian community, members of the Dominica Christian Council, and the resident Catholic bishop, on religious freedom issues such as freedom of religious expression and societal discrimination based on religion.

Dominican Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief.  A concordat with the Holy See designates Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and extends to the Catholic Church special privileges not granted to other religious groups.  Privileges include funding for expenses such as administration and construction, visa exceptions, and exemptions for customs duties.  Some participants in an interfaith event in November said they did not approve of the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, the lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provided, and the treatment of non-Catholic churches as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  In June the Ministry of Education signed agreements to incorporate 15 Christian schools, including non-Catholic Christian schools, into the national education system and provide them with teaching, administrative, and other support staff.  Some non-Catholic groups said they still paid customs duties and had to apply for refunds even though the law allows for exemptions.  Representatives of some non-Catholic groups stated that while the special privileges given to the Catholic Church through the concordat were unfair, these privileges did not hinder their ability to practice their religion in public and in private.

In February the School of Law at Santo Domingo’s Pontifical University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) cohosted an international conference called Religious Liberty as a Fundamental Right.  Participants emphasized the importance of laws and the need for the objective administration of justice by judges as a means to guarantee religious liberty.

In November an official from the Ministry of the Presidency participated in an interfaith gathering hosted by the Ambassador.  Representatives from 25 religious groups and faith-based organizations also attended the event, where issues discussed included religious freedom, the concordat, government financial support of churches, and legal protections for churches.  In October an embassy official met with the Interfaith Dialogue Table to discuss religious freedom and the organization’s plans for interfaith initiatives in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2017 Latinobarometer survey, the population is 48 percent Catholic, compared with 57 percent in a 2015 Latinobarometer survey and 64 percent in 1995.  The same survey indicates 21 percent of the population is evangelical Protestant, compared with 13 percent in the 2015 survey, and 21 percent have no declared religion or identify as atheist or agnostic, compared with 13 percent in 2015.  Other faiths include Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, and nonevangelical Protestants.  The Dominican Council of Evangelical Unity estimated in March that evangelical Protestants make up 30 percent of the population, with the number of Pentecostals growing the fastest.

There are approximately 2,500 to 3,000 Muslims throughout the country.  Most of the approximately 350 members of the Jewish community live in Santo Domingo, with a small community in Sosua.  There are small numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, and Baha’is.

Most Haitian immigrants are Catholic.  According to the Dominican National Statistics Office, in 2017 there were 497,825 Haitian immigrants in the country.  An unknown number practice Voodou or other Afro-Caribbean beliefs such as Santeria.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of “conscience and worship, subject to public order and respect for social norms.”  A 1954 concordat with the Holy See designates Catholicism as the official state religion and extends special privileges to the Catholic Church not granted to other religious groups.  These privileges include the special protection of the state in the exercise of Catholic ministry, exemption of Catholic clergy from military service, permission to provide Catholic instruction in public orphanages, public funding to underwrite some Catholic Church expenses, and exemption from customs duties.

To request exemption from customs duties, non-Catholic religious groups must first register as NGOs with the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Finance.  Registration with the Attorney General’s Office, which applies to nonprofit organizations generally and is not specifically for religious groups, is a two-step process.  First, the organization must provide documentation of a fixed address and the names of seven elected officers, have a minimum of 25 members, and pay a nominal fee.  Second, the organization must draft and submit statutes and provide copies of government-issued identification documents for the board of directors.  After registering, religious groups may request customs duty exemption status from the Ministry of Finance.

The law provides for government recognition of marriages performed by religious groups registered with the Central Electoral Board.  The law requires churches to have legal status and presence in the country for at least five years, provide a membership list, and train clergy on how to perform marriages.  Churches are responsible for determining the legal qualification of couples, and they must record all marriages performed and make those lists available for government inspection.  Failure to comply with the regulations governing marriage can result in misdemeanor sanctions or fines.

The concordat grants the Catholic Church free access to prisons.  The government states it allows access to all faiths in prisons.  All faiths have the right to perform religious acts in prisons, in community or alone.

As part of the concordat with the Holy See, the law requires religious studies based on Catholic Church teachings in all public schools.  The concordat accords the Catholic Church the right to revise and approve textbooks used in public schools throughout the country.  The concordat also provides parents with the option of exempting their children from religious studies in public schools at both the elementary and secondary levels.  Private schools are exempt from the religious studies requirement; however, private schools run by religious groups may teach religious studies according to their beliefs.  A law mandating reading the Bible in public schools is not enforced.

The government imposes no immigration restrictions or quotas on religious workers.  Foreign missionaries may obtain a one-year multi-entry business visa through the Ministry of Foreign Relations after submitting a completed application form, original passport, two passport-size photographs, and a document offering proof as to the business activity from the institution or person in the country with whom the missionary is affiliated.  Foreign missionaries may renew the visa before the original one-year visa has expired.

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

Government Practices

Non-Catholic religious groups continued to report the government provided the Catholic Church significant financial support unavailable to them, including properties transferred to the Catholic Church and subsidies to the salaries of Catholic Church officials.

At the interfaith event in November, some of the 26 participants expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, the lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provides, and the treatment of non-Catholic churches as NGOs rather than as religious organizations under the law.

A non-Catholic religious organization said the government still required it to pay customs duties on imported food and other items and then apply for a refund instead of receiving an exemption as allowed by law.  Religious groups continued to report difficulties when applying for and receiving customs duty refunds from the Ministry of Finance.

In June the Ministry of Education signed agreements to incorporate 15 Christian schools, including non-Catholic Christian schools, into the national education system and provide them with teaching, administrative, and other support staff.  The agreements allowed these schools to continue offering the same religious instruction as before the agreements.  The voluntary transfer of the schools to state administration was the result of a 2014 presidential promise to spend 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on education.

In October a legislator introduced a resolution in the Congress of Deputies to enforce the law requiring the reading of the Bible in public schools, which would occur after raising the national flag and singing the national anthem.  One prominent legislator declared the resolution violated the constitution and the country’s status as a secular state, but many others declared strong support for it.  Legislative leaders sent the resolution to the education committee for further deliberation.

In December the minister of education told Catholic and Protestant religious leaders that he sought a “strategic alliance” between churches, schools, and the family as a means to reform the country’s education system.  He also invited church participation in improving the quality of education based on Christian values and principals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February the Pontifical University in Santo Domingo and the Church of Jesus Christ cohosted an international conference, Religious Liberty as a Fundamental Right.  Participants emphasized the importance of laws and judges in ensuring religious liberty.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In November an official from the Ministry of the Presidency and representatives from 26 religious groups and faith-based organizations participated in an interfaith gathering hosted by the Ambassador at the embassy for a discussion on religious freedom.  The representatives were leaders from the Catholic Church; Interfaith Dialogue Table; National Co-fraternal Council of Evangelical Churches; Center for the Investigation and Study of Religion; Christian Church Liaison Office of the Presidency; Social Service Executive of Dominican Churches; the Church of Jesus Christ; Jewish community; and Protestant community.  Issues discussed included the concordat, government financial support of churches, and the legal status of churches.  The Ambassador spoke of the importance of religious freedom to her personally, noting that in 1938 the Dominican Republic took in Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.  She emphasized religious freedom is a fundamental value of the United States and one of the foundations of its success as a nation.  In October an embassy official met with the Interfaith Dialogue Table, which included representatives from Protestant and Catholic churches, to discuss religious liberty and the organization’s plans for future interfaith initiatives.

Ecuador

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals the right to choose, practice, and change religions; it prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the legal system.  The law requires all religious groups to register with the government; failure to do so can result in the group’s dissolution and liquidation of physical property.  On November 14, President Lenin Moreno signed an executive decree that formally dissolved the Ministry of Justice, Human Rights, and Worship (MOJ), as part of the government’s downsizing.  He stated that the government would integrate responsibilities for issues related to religion and religious groups into the Secretariat of Policy Management (SPM) within 90 days.  According to a MOJ official, by year’s end, the government had not finalized the changeover but had begun transitioning functions to the SPM.  The MOJ continued to manage the registration process during the transition, including the registration process for religious groups.  According to the MOJ, approximately 3,638 religious groups were registered with the office and more than 1,000 additional groups were in the process of registration by the end of the year.  Many religious groups stated that at times the registration process had been onerous and disruptive to their activities but said the difficulties were bureaucratic in nature.  During the year, the interfaith National Council on Religious Freedom and Equality (CONALIR), which includes representatives of the Adventist, Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant faith communities, continued to promote a draft religious law to revise the 1937 religion law and foster greater religious freedom and equality.  In August the group began conducting a series of human rights workshops on the importance of religious equality under the law.  Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic representatives expressed concern about a presidential decree issued in May requiring all schools to teach a definition of gender not in line with their religious beliefs.  In response to religious groups’ stated concerns, President Moreno revised the decree on July 19.  Numerous religious leaders said the Moreno government exhibited greater support for the protection of religious freedom than the previous administration.

Many religious leaders said that societal knowledge of religious traditions and practices outside of Catholicism was generally lacking.  A new interfaith working group, including representatives from the Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Muslim communities, formed in October.

Embassy officials met with government officials in the Ministry of Interior and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman to discuss the registration process and government promotion and protection of religious freedom and other related human rights.  The Ambassador hosted a roundtable with religious leaders on September 6 to discuss challenges facing their communities and changes taking place under the current administration.  Leaders from the Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities attended the event and met monthly on their own after the roundtable to discuss areas of common interest.  On October 30, President Moreno and Foreign Minister Jose Valencia participated in a ceremony and reception commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Jewish community in the country, which the Ambassador also attended.  The Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable on September 26 with Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss coastal communities’ challenges and advances in freedom of religion.  Embassy officials spoke with representatives from CONALIR to encourage the continuation of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2012 survey by the National Institute of Statistics and Census, the most recent government survey available, approximately 92 percent of the population professes a religious affiliation or belief.  Of those, 80.4 percent is Roman Catholic; 11.3 percent evangelical Christian, including Pentecostals; and 1.3 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Seven percent belongs to other religious groups, including Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, the Church of Jesus Christ, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Greek Orthodox-affiliated Orthodox Church of Ecuador and Latin America, Presbyterians, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’is, spiritualists, followers of Inti (the traditional Inca sun god), and indigenous and African faiths.  There are also practitioners of Santeria, primarily resident Cubans.

Some groups, particularly those in the Amazon jungle, combine indigenous beliefs with Catholicism.  Pentecostals draw much of their membership from indigenous persons in the highland provinces.  There are Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country, with the highest concentrations in coastal areas.  Muslim, Church of Jesus Christ, Jewish, and Buddhist populations are primarily concentrated in large urban areas, particularly Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca.  Many evangelical Christian churches are not affiliated with a particular denomination.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants all individuals the right to practice and profess publicly and freely the religion of their choice and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  It states the government has a responsibility to “protect voluntary religious practice, as well as the expression of those who do not profess any religion, and will favor an atmosphere of plurality and tolerance.”  Individuals have the right to change their religion.  The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the country’s legal system.  The constitution grants the right of self-determination to indigenous communities, including provisions granting freedom to “develop and strengthen their identity, feeling of belonging, ancestral traditions and form of social organization.”

A 1937 agreement (concordat) with the Holy See accords juridical status to the Catholic Church and grants it financial privileges and tax exemptions.  Other religious groups must register as legal entities with the government under a separate 1937 religious law and a 2000 decree on religion.  If a religious group wishes to provide social services, it must also register under a 2017 executive decree regulating civil society.  The 2017 decree dictates how civil society organizations must register to obtain and maintain legal status.  Current regulations require individual religious congregations and organizations to conduct this registration process through the MOJ.

The National Secretary for Policy Management’s Office of Planning maintains a national database of legally recognized civil society organizations, including religious groups.  Registration provides religious groups with legal and nonprofit status.  An officially registered organization is eligible to receive government funding and exemptions from certain taxes.

To register as a religious group, the organization must present to the government a charter signed by all of its founding members and provide information on its leadership and physical location.  Three experts in religious matters appointed by the MOJ evaluate the application, in consultation with religious organizations already legally established in the country.  The 2017 decree does not specify the criteria for selection of religious experts.  The registration process is free.  Failure to obtain legal status through registration may result in the dissolution of the group and liquidation of its physical property by the government.  To register as a social or civil society organization, religious groups require the same documentation, as well as approved statutes and a description of the mission statement and objectives of the organization.  According to the MOJ, registrants must deliver the paperwork to the MOJ’s Quito office in person.

The law prohibits public schools from providing religious instruction, but private schools may do so.  Private schools must comply with Ministry of Education standards.  There are no legal restrictions specifying which religious groups may establish schools.

Foreign religious missionaries and volunteers must apply for a temporary residence visa to work in the country and present a letter of invitation from the sponsoring organization to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The letter must include a commitment to cover the applicant’s living expenses and detail the applicant’s proposed activities.  Applicants also must provide a certified copy of the bylaws of the sponsoring organization and the name of its legal representative as approved by the government.

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

Government Practices

On November 14, President Moreno signed an executive decree that formally dissolved the MOJ.  On August 21, he announced he would dissolve the MOJ as part of an ongoing government downsizing program, but he did not specify which government entity would assume the functions exercised by the MOJ.  The decree states that the SPM would assume responsibilities for issues related to religion and religious groups within 90 days.  According to an MOJ official, the government had begun transitioning functions to the SPM but had not finalized the changeover by year’s end.  The MOJ continued to manage the registration process during the transition, including the registration process for religious groups.  MOJ representatives said there was a reduction in personnel in their office, from seven analysts in 2017 to four, who reviewed registration paperwork.  They also confirmed the MOJ would continue to provide registration services to religious groups until the government formally reassigned such functions to another entity.

Many religious groups stated the registration process had been onerous and disruptive to their activities at times, but the difficulties were bureaucratic in nature.  Numerous leaders noted long processing delays started under the previous administration; one evangelical Christian leader cited an example of registration paperwork for legal representatives having taken two to three years to process.  A Muslim leader attributed the delays to a reduction in MOJ staff members in the processing office.  Many noted that the 2017 decree had not been in effect long enough to assess whether it had improved the registration process.  Guayaquil-based leaders said the administrative costs and registration delays occurred because the Guayaquil satellite office sent the registration forms to Quito for final processing.  Evangelical Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders agreed the delays and onerous requirements led many groups, especially small groups, not to apply for registration.  According to these leaders, unregistered groups often met in private homes.  Without a legal representative, groups were unable to open bank accounts or engage in formal land transactions.

The MOJ said it assisted approximately 36 individuals per day with the registration process for both religious and civil society organizations.  Training and in-person assistance were available only in Quito.  MOJ representatives said it took approximately one to three months to register as a social organization if the group correctly completed all paperwork the first time.  If paperwork contained errors and/or organizations did not respond to the MOJ with additional information in a timely manner, the registration process took approximately six months to one year.  They stated that the revised registration process under the 2017 decree made it easier for foreigners to start social groups and participate as legal representatives.  According to the MOJ, since 2010 the number of religious groups registered increased from approximately 2,000 to an estimated 3,560 religious groups.  Officials stated that approximately 1,140 were in the process of registration as of September.

Evangelical Christian and Catholic representatives expressed concern about their ability to teach children in their community about gender and family in a manner consistent with their beliefs.  They stated that a presidential decree, published on May 15, required private religious schools to teach a definition of gender not in line with their religious beliefs.  The original text of the decree required schools to teach the “mainstreaming of gender identity, new masculinity, women in their diversity, the prevention and eradication of violence against women, and the elimination of gender stereotypes.”  In response to religious groups’ stated concerns, President Moreno revised the decree on July 19.  The new text states that curriculum must teach “the equality of men and women in all political, economic, and social spheres, the socio-cultural construction of roles and values associated with the behavior of men free from sexism [machismo] or supremacy over women, the prevention and eradication of violence against women, the development of nondiscriminatory conduct, and the elimination of all forms of stereotypes…”  According to media reports, religious groups held peaceful marches in Quito and Guayaquil at the end of July to express their continued concerns about possible reforms to educational texts.

Jewish and Muslim leaders said customs regulations interfered with their ability to import kosher and halal foods, beverages, and plants for use in religious festivals.  A Jewish leader stated that problems arose from onerous paperwork, phytosanitary restrictions, and regulations limiting imports of certain plant and animal products.

At year’s end, a case filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and accepted for review in 2014 was still pending before the Constitutional Court.  The case involved a conflict in the northern town of Iluman between Jehovah’s Witnesses who wanted to build a new assembly hall and indigenous residents who opposed it.  Two lower courts had previously ruled in favor of the residents, concluding that their right to self-determination was a valid rationale for preventing the practice of religion.  Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that in 2017, they had reached an agreement with the indigenous community to continue their activities while the legal case was pending.

Numerous religious leaders stated that the Moreno government, which took office in May 2017, verbally expressed greater support for freedom of religion than the previous administration.  They said the Moreno government was more open to their opinions and did not restrict their ability to function in society, unlike the previous administration.

On October 30, President Moreno and Foreign Minister Jose Valencia joined the Jewish community in celebrating the 80th anniversary of its official founding in the country.  President Moreno gave remarks highlighting the positive contributions of the Jewish community.  On November 9, the Foreign Ministry hosted an event to honor and posthumously reinstate diplomat Manuel Antonio Munoz Borrero, whom the government dismissed from his position as consul in Stockholm in 1942 for providing passports to Jews escaping the Holocaust.

A new interfaith working group including representatives from the Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities formed in October.  On November 27, President Moreno met with the group.  Members discussed their concerns about the National Assembly’s new draft education law and their interest in working with the government to address social issues.  They delivered a letter expressing their shared concerns about the education law.  They also discussed ideas for collaboration to improve the well-being of the nation through interfaith initiatives and faith-based outreach.  On November 28, President Moreno released a social media video acknowledging the positive meeting.  He stated, “It was heartwarming to note that for the first time in Ecuador, representatives from all of the churches and communities of faith met together to work on a project for his neighbor and to contribute to the education law reform.  We are forging a community united by spirituality!”

Representatives from interfaith group CONALIR, which includes representatives from the Adventist, Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant faith communities, stated they met with members of the National Assembly to promote a draft religious law, developed by a group of interfaith leaders and pending since 2009, to foster greater religious freedom and equality.  The draft law would revise the 1937 religion law and 2000 decree on religion.  CONALIR said it would create greater equality between other religious groups and the Catholic Church, which benefitted from a separate 1937 agreement with the Holy See that accorded juridical and tax exempt status to the Catholic Church.  CONALIR leadership stated that a new religious law should articulate the government’s commitment to equality for all religions, and reinforce the constitutional principle of freedom from discrimination based on religious beliefs.  Additionally, the group proposed updating the registration process for religious groups, and reforming tax and labor laws specifically to recognize the nonprofit status of all religious groups and their need to rely on volunteer labor for certain activities groups.  In August the group began conducting a series of human rights workshops on the importance of religious equality under the law.

Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders stated that the current administration had not forced any private religious schools to close during the year, unlike during the previous administration.  Church of Jesus Christ leaders reported no issues with opening new religious schools.  Catholic leaders noted that costs had kept them from re-opening previously closed schools in smaller and more rural communities.

All religious leaders said they were concerned about the elimination of the MOJ as the point of contact for religious groups and the uncertainty over which entity would regulate the registration process in the future.  They underscored the need for a religious ministry or office focused on religious issues in the government.  They also stated their opinion that religious issues were not a top priority among the many other pressing demands on the Moreno government.  CONALIR leadership said it regretted that the new human rights ombudsman had not released by the end of the year a public awareness video produced in 2017 on religious freedom.  The Ombudsman’s Office stated that the office was still reviewing an official study on religious freedom in the country before deciding whether to release the video.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Many religious leaders said that society exhibited a general lack of knowledge about religious traditions and practices outside of Catholicism, such as traditional female head coverings in the Islamic and Greek Orthodox faiths.  A Buddhist leader said that society frequently confused Hindu practices with Buddhist practices.  Baha’i leaders stated that individuals, but not institutions, had prejudices against minority religious groups.  Some religious leaders expressed concerns about what they considered an erosion of traditional religious values in issues such as gender identity and education.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed with the MOJ the new registration process and continued delays some groups reported in registering or updating their information.

The Ambassador hosted a roundtable with religious leaders on September 6 in Quito to discuss challenges facing their communities and changes taking place under the Moreno administration.  Leaders from the Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities attended the event.  Following the roundtable, Baha’i, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim leaders, as well as a representative from the U.S. embassy, met in October to develop concrete actions on interfaith issues and social projects.  In November the group met with President Moreno.  The group elected a steering committee to follow up on topics such as education, support to vulnerable populations, and CONALIR’s proposed religious law.  The embassy remained engaged with the group through the end of the year.

The Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable on September 26 to discuss coastal communities’ challenges and advances in freedom of religion.  Leaders from the Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Jewish communities attended the event.  Embassy officials also spoke with representatives from CONALIR to encourage the continuation of interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.

On October 30, the Ambassador, along with others from the diplomatic community, attended a ceremony and reception commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Jewish community in the country at which President Moreno spoke.  In connection with the anniversary commemoration, the Ambassador hosted a visiting American Jewish Committee representative and leading members of the Jewish community for a discussion of continuing efforts to fight anti-Semitism in the region.

The embassy and consulate used social media platforms in Quito and Guayaquil to highlight the Ambassador and Consul General’s religious roundtable discussions with representatives from different religious communities, International Religious Freedom Day, and other efforts to promote social inclusion and religious diversity.  Separately, embassy and consulate officials met with leaders of the Buddhist, Catholic, Orthodox Church of Ecuador and Latin America, evangelical Christian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, and Muslim communities to discuss challenges associated with the government’s registration process and societal respect for religious diversity.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution states that citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.”  The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.”  The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship.  In February authorities launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS in part to respond to the November 2017 attack on a mosque in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals; the mosque was reportedly targeted because it was frequented by Sufis.  In November a court sentenced an alleged supporter of ISIS to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta in 2016 and 2017 that killed more than 80 persons.  According to multiple sources, prosecutors employed charges of denigrating religion to arrest anyone who appeared to criticize Islam or Christianity, with a disproportionate number of all blasphemy charges brought against the country’s Christian population.  Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 783 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings out of 5,415 applications for licensure, and authorized the building of 14 new churches since September 2017.  Local authorities frequently responded to sectarian attacks against Christians through binding arbitration sessions rather than prosecuting perpetrators of violence, leading to complaints by members of the Coptic community.  In December President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree creating the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents and to address them as they occur, applying all relevant laws.  The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications to imams, and register and license all mosques.  In May, based upon a 2015 policy, the ministry announced a ban on imams from Friday preaching at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques.  In October the ministry announced the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse.  In January Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches was “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church are “martyrs.”  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed two Christian governors, including the country’s first-ever female Christian to hold the position, the first such appointments since April 2011.

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Attacks continued on Christians and Christian-owned property, as well as on churches in the Upper Egypt region.  On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  Reports of anti-Semitic remarks on state-owned media, as well as sectarian and defamatory speech against minority religious groups, continued during the year.  Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine, held conferences on interfaith dialogue, and gave statements condemning extremism and supporting improved relations between Muslims and Christians.

The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of the Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly meetings in September.  U.S. officials, including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior-level delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law.  In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy and consulate general officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 99.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  Most experts and media sources state that approximately 90 percent of the population is officially designated as Sunni Muslims and approximately 10 percent is recognized as Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent).  Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

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

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

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are seven Jews.  There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists or religious converts.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world.  The grand imam is elected by Al Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term.  The president does not have the authority to dismiss him.  While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its 2018 budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 13 billion Egyptian pounds ($726.66 million).

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

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

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

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates that Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men.  Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam.  Christian and Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men.  A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert.  If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved.  Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

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

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

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

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

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

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries.  According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($2,800).  The penalty doubles for repeat offenders.  Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law.  A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines.  Any imam who fails to follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.  The ministry also issues prewritten sermons, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques.  Imams are subject to disciplinary action including dismissal for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

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

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

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

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

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.”  The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,700) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) as penalties for discrimination.  If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($5,600).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

In February security forces launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS, in part to respond to a November 2017 attack on a mosque in Al-Rawda village in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals at worship; the mosque was reportedly attacked because it was frequented by Sufis.  Although the government reported significant successes in the campaign, ISIS attacks continued in North Sinai.

In November a court sentenced an alleged ISIS supporter to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  Authorities did not identify the defendant.

On July 12, police thwarted an attempted suicide bombing at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Qalioubiya, near Cairo.  After encountering security forces, the attacker detonated an explosive vest in the vicinity of the church, killing a police officer and civilian.  On August 11, security forces foiled a suicide bombing at the Coptic Virgin Mary Church in the Cairo suburb of Mostorod.  After being denied entry to the church, the bomber died when he exploded his suicide belt; no one else was injured.

During the year, courts imposed death sentences on several people convicted of killing Christians.  On February 12, a court confirmed a death sentence against the killer of Semaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest from Beni Suef.  The killer stabbed Shehata to death in the Cairo suburb of El-Salaam City in 2017 and carved a cross on his forehead.  On April 1, the Cassation Court upheld the death sentence of the killer of liquor storeowner Youssef Lamei, who had confessed to slitting Lamei’s throat outside his store for selling alcohol in January 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 people.  ISIS claimed responsibility.  International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and asserted the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In March media reported that Matthew Habib, a Christian military conscript who had complained to his family of persecution from superiors due to his religion, committed suicide while on duty.  Although the official cause of death was determined to be multiple self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the family alleged that Habib had been killed by a more senior officer.

On January 31, the Giza misdemeanor court sentenced 20 individuals to one-year suspended jail sentences for an attack on an unlicensed Coptic church in Kafr al-Waslin village south of Cairo, carried out on December 22, 2017.  Each was fined 500 pounds ($28) on charges of inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity, and vandalizing private property.  The court also fined the owner of the unlicensed church 360,000 pounds ($20,100) for building without a permit.  The Archdiocese of Atfih has reportedly applied for the Kafr al-Waslin Church to be legalized.

On January 2, press reported that the public prosecutor filed murder charges against an individual accused of killing 11 people on December 29, 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.  On December 1, the prosecutor general referred 11 additional suspects to trial for forming a terrorist group, murder, attempted murder, and other charges related to the attack.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, citing its 2016 report, reported in October that 41 percent of all blasphemy charges had been brought by authorities against the country’s Christian population

March 14, police in Beni Suef Governorate arrested social studies teacher Magdy Farag Samir on charges of denigrating Islam after he included wordplays in a set of questions for students about the Prophet Muhammad.  Samir was detained for 15 days while police investigated the charges.  A court acquitted him on April 19.

In December a court in Upper Egypt upheld a three-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Christian Abd Adel Bebawy for a Facebook post that allegedly insulted Islam.  Authorities arrested Bebawy in his home village of Minbal on July 6 and the original court passed the prison sentence in November.  Bebawy’s lawyers stated that he reported the hacking of his Facebook account in July and that the post was immediately deleted.  On July 9, reportedly in response to Bebawy’s social media posts, a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian-owned homes in Minbal.  Police arrested over 90 Muslim attackers, charging 39 with a variety of crimes related to the attack.

On May 3, police arrested atheist blogger Sherif Gaber and detained him for four days.  Authorities accused Gaber of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube.  Police had earlier arrested Gaber on similar charges in 2015 and 2013.  In October Gaber tweeted that he had been prevented from leaving the country and that authorities had charged him with three additional felonies and that the charges now included blasphemy, contempt of religion, supporting homosexuality, and religious extremism.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), during several incidents of interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt from August 22 to 25, security forces delayed providing protection to Christians.  On August 22, in the village of Esna in Luxor Governorate, a crowd of Muslims gathered to protest Christian worship in a church that was seeking legalization.  Following Friday prayers on August 24, the crowd gathered a second time.  While the police prevented this second gathering from escalating, local sources report that authorities arrested five Christians, who were charged with conducting religious rituals in an unlicensed church and incitement, and 15 Muslims.  All those arrested were released in September.  Also on August 24, a crowd gathered in the village of Sultan in Minya Governorate to protest efforts by a local church to seek official legalization.

Security forces arrested members of what they described as a terrorist cell in Nag’ Hammadi in Qena Governorate during Coptic celebrations for Easter in April.  Security forces increased their presence in Coptic institutions and communities around Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays.

Religious freedom and human rights activists said government officials sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, including by closing churches in violation of the 2016 church construction law.  On April 14, a group of Muslim villagers hurled stones and bricks, breaking the windows of a building used as a church in Beni Meinin in Beni Suef Governorate.  The attack followed a government inspection of the building, a step toward legalizing the church.  Authorities arrested 45 Muslim and Christian residents of the village, and, following an agreement according to customary reconciliation procedures (a binding arbitration process, often criticized by Christians as discriminatory), all arrestees were released and the church remained unlicensed and closed.

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of sectarian violence committed in previous years.  Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  Authorities charged four people with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six others owned by Christians.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests, particularly in Upper Egypt.  In November the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reported that from September 28, 2016, when the church construction law was issued, to October, authorities shuttered nine churches that hosted religious services prior to the closure orders.  Four of these churches were closed during the year, with Copts denied access and religious services in them prohibited.  In July media reported that police closed a church in Ezbet Sultan after a series of protests and the destruction of Christian-owned property.  During one protest, Muslims reportedly chanted, “We don’t want a church.”

In a November report, EIPR documented 15 instances of sectarian violence related to the legalization of 15 previously unlicensed churches from September 2017 to October 2018.  The churches had been functioning for several years and were well known to both state institutions and local residents.  EIPR’s report also documented 35 cases of violence since the church construction law was issued, not including incidents associated with the construction of new churches.

On August 22, in Zeneiqa village in Upper Egypt, police closed a church following protests by local Muslims against legalization of the church.  They arrested five Copts and five Muslims, plus an additional 10 Muslim residents during protests held a week later.  In March local mosque personnel in Al-Tod village near Luxor encouraged Muslims to protest the licensing of a church that had been in use for a decade.  Protestors built a wall to block access to the church.  Christians and Muslims took part in a customary reconciliation session led by Muslim elders and, reportedly under pressure, the Christians agreed to abandon their application for a church license.

According to official statistics, from September 2017 the government approved 783 of the 5,415 applications for licensure of churches.  According to a local human rights organization, the increased pace of legalization and construction of churches was causing sectarian tensions in some communities where Muslim citizens did not want a legal church in their village.

As it did in recent years, the government in October closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura.  The government explained the closure was due to construction, but multiple news reports described it as an attempt to discourage the celebration of Shia religious rituals.  The main area of the mosque remained open; only the room containing the shrine was closed.

In September the Ministry of Awqaf cancelled the preaching permit of prominent Salafi cleric Mohamed Raslan and banned him from delivering sermons for refusing to recite the official sermon written by the ministry.  The ministry reinstated his license after he apologized publicly and committed to follow the government’s weekly sermon.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.

In May the government announced a policy to ban imams from preaching on Fridays at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques and restricted their use to daily prayers.  In a statement, the Ministry of Awqaf said the measure would prevent “fundamentalist” preaching during Ramadan.  The May announcement repeated a policy first announced in 2015 that resulted in the closure of 27,000 zawiyas and forbade preaching in them.  Authorities also increased the penalties for mosques using their loudspeakers for anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

In October the Ministry of Awqaf announced that the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse in the country and cited the ministry’s “complete” control of Islam as expressed through “the media, lessons, seminars and [public] forums.”  Public issuances of fatwas were, according to a senior advisor at the Dar al-Iftaa, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, restricted to Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar University, 40 clerics from Dar al-Iftaa, and a small number of clerics affiliated with the Ministry of Awqaf.  The ministry announced that any unauthorized cleric offering religious sermons or issuing fatwas would be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution for “carrying out a job without a license.”

In September the Court of Urgent Matters suspended a July ruling by an administrative court that had allowed policemen with long beards to return to work.  The court upheld MOI regulations on facial hair and stated the government had an obligation to keep the police force a “secular organizational entity.”

During Ramadan in May the government put in place regulations governing the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan.  Authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

On June 22, a video showing adherents performing Sufi religious rituals in a mosque sparked demands on social media to ban Sufi rituals inside mosques.  In response, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended the mosque attendant for participating in the incident, and announced a public campaign to raise awareness of “correct Islam.”

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from worshiping privately in small numbers.  However, Baha’i sources said the government refused requests for public religious gatherings.  According to members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, security officials engaged in surveillance and frequent home visits during which adherents were interrogated and sometimes threatened.  The National Security Services (NSS) also summoned members to their offices for interrogations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on April 3, a security officer who has interrogated and threatened its members in the past questioned a male Witness at length, asking numerous probing questions about the operations and activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.  In July NSS officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Beni Suef and confiscated their religious materials.  NSS officers did the same with two other Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived later.

Twelve Baha’i couples filed lawsuits requesting recognition of their civil marriages, four of which were approved by October.  While Baha’i sources hailed the first issuance of a civil marriage license that took place in 2017, they reported that courts remained inconsistent in their rulings on the matter.  By year’s end, standardized procedures for issuing civil marriage licenses to couples with no religious affiliation designated had not been developed.

In May the country’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that regulators must block the YouTube service for one month because of the availability of a video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.  A lower court had ordered in 2013 the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to block YouTube because of the video, but the decision had been appealed and the court’s ruling has not been implemented.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet.  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011 when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests.  The new Governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services.  Christians admitted at the entry-level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks of government entities, according to sources.  According to a press report, a senior Christian judge in line for promotion to the leadership of the Administrative Prosecution was reportedly denied the position in May due to her religion.  When a Muslim judge challenged the failure to promote her, he was dismissed.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities.  In January for the first time, a Christian was appointed as dean of the dental school of Cairo University.  The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country.  Sources reported, however, some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) stated that it continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In the fall, kindergarten and first grade students began instruction under the new curriculum.  According to the MOE, the new curriculum for subsequent grade levels would be introduced yearly.  Local English-language press reported in May that curriculum reform plans, aimed at encouraging tolerance, included a textbook for use in religious studies classes to be attended jointly by Muslim and Coptic Christian students.  Muslim and Christian students previously attended separate religion classes.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa, whose ministry oversees Islamic studies courses in the country’s schools, announced the plan.  The press reported that the planned textbook drew criticism from conservative Muslims.

In January the grand mufti issued a fatwa that defined greeting Christians on Coptic Christmas as an act of righteousness.  During the same month, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church were “martyrs.”

In August Al-Azhar issued a statement criticizing ISIS for issuing fatwas justifying the killing of non-Muslims and stressed its prohibition.

In June the Ministry of Awqaf completed training in Quranic interpretation and other Islamic texts for 300 female preachers (wa’ezaat).  In July the government published an action plan for “renewing religious discourse” that included hiring and training imams and expanding the role of women in religious preaching.  The ministry opened a new training academy for preachers in October and announced that women could begin to serve as preachers in mosques and schools, serve on governing boards of mosques, and sing in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

In December President al-Sisi decreed that the government create an agency tasked with countering sectarian strife.  The new Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents would be headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs and composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the NSS, and the Administrative Oversight Agency.  The new committee was charged with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents, address them as they occur, and apply all antidiscrimination and antihate laws in carrying out these responsibilities.  The committee had the authority to invite ministers, their representatives, or representatives of concerned bodies to meetings.  The government stated that the strategy would include awareness-raising campaigns, promotion of religious tolerance, and possible mechanisms for dealing with individual incidents.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance.  In February the grand imam received a delegation from the Anglican Communion and stressed the importance of dialogue between religions.  In July the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury organized an interfaith conference in London for young Muslims and Christians.  In October Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, where they stressed their commitment to religious dialogue.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Media reported the attackers used automatic weapons to spray the buses indiscriminately, targeting men, women, and children.  The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.  Media reported that ISIS repeatedly vowed to attack the country’s Christians as punishment for their support of the government.  Following the attack, authorities stated they killed 19 individuals suspected of involvement in the assault in a shootout west of Minya.  The government did not present evidence to link these individuals to the attack, and a local human rights activist argued these shootings might have constituted extrajudicial killings.

On January 14, armed assailants killed a man in North Sinai upon discovering he was Christian, according to press.  Following a series of attacks against Christians in North Sinai that began in January 2017, more than 250 Christian families left the region, according to EIPR.  Displaced families reported they remained unable to return to their homes.

On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf in Beheira while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  The church had been used for religious services for three years, and had applied for a license in January 2017.  According to the press, calls to attack the church had come from a nearby mosque.  Police arrested 11 Muslims and nine Christians.  All of those arrested were released following a customary reconciliation session, and the church remained open.

There were reported incidents of mob action against, and collective punishment of, Christians.

On January 17, Muslim villagers attacked the houses of three Christian families in the village of Al-Dawar in Beheira after a Christian man was accused of attempting to sexually assault a Muslim woman, according to press.  Muslim villagers used stones and Molotov cocktails to attack local Christian property.  Police arrested the Christian accused of sexual assault and two of his relatives, but none of the Muslim attackers.  Following a customary reconciliation session attended by a number of parliamentarians, the village mayor and elders, it was agreed that the accused Christian would pay a fine and be expelled from the village.

In late August and early September local press reported Muslim residents of the village of Dimshaw Hashem in Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt protested Christian religious services held in an unlicensed church, and looted four Christian-owned houses before setting them on fire.  The attack injured two Coptic villagers and a firefighter.  Coptic Orthodox Bishop Macarius told the press numerous Christian villagers had informed local police about an imminent attack and that the police failed to take action.  After the attack, police arrested and criminally charged multiple protesters, releasing them on September 27.  EIPR subsequently criticized authorities for pressuring Copts to accept customary reconciliation in addressing the attacks.  Referring to this case, Human Rights Watch stated that customary reconciliation “allows perpetrators to evade prosecution, while authorities offered no concrete future protections to the worshippers and their families.”

Similar to the previous year, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in government-sponsored customary reconciliation as a substitute to criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches.  However, customary reconciliation continued to take place without its participation.  Human rights groups and Christian community representatives said that the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system.  Human rights activists said that, as part of the process, Christians were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities.  According to the press, the country’s participation in the World Cup highlighted the absence of Christian players from the national team and major club teams.  The Christian community told the press clubs excluded Christian players from tryouts.  Press reported there were no Christian players on the national soccer team for more than 15 years.  A single Christian player played for one of the 18 top clubs the previous season.  Coptic Pope Tawadros II told the press that the lack of Christians in Egyptian soccer was “extraordinary.”

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.  In March exiled Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim told the press senior officials who maintained good relations with Christians were kafirs (infidels).  Dar Al-Iftaa condemned the statement, and said Ghoneim wrongly interpreted Islamic texts.  Television preacher Abdullah Roshdi said that “It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief.”  Dar al Iftaa and Al Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued.  Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned TV endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  In a June interview on a state-owned channel, law professor Nabil Hilmi said, “Jews control the money and the media,” adding that they have a 50-year plan to reach Mecca and Medina.

In May Chair of the Hebrew Language Department at Menoufia University, Professor Amr Allam, said on a weekly show on a state-owned channel that “Israeli violence…is embedded in the Jewish genes.”

Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements continued in the wake of the December 2017 U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent move of the embassy to Jerusalem.  According to a MEMRI report, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb blamed Israel for terrorism in the Middle East in a January interview on a state-owned channel.  He described Israel as a “dagger plunged into the body of the Arab world,” and said that were it not for “Zionist entity abuse…the Middle East would have progressed.”  He said Arab infighting worked to the advantage of Israel, which he claimed would “march on the Kaaba and on the Prophet’s Mosque [in Medina].”

In January Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church co-sponsored a conference addressing terrorism.  Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, secretary general of the Egyptian Family House, an Al-Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church initiative created to send religious leaders to defuse community tensions following sectarian violence, called for religious scholars to challenge terrorism and include education to protect future generations from what he termed the mistaken ideas of extremism.  He stated that all Muslims suffered from the consequences of terrorism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of Egypt’s Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly session in September.  The Vice President discussed religious freedom issues during his visit to Cairo in January.  Other U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Charge d’Affaires, and other Department of State, embassy, and consulate general officials, raised religious freedom concerns with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Awqaf, as well as with members of parliament, governors, and representatives of Islamic institutions, church communities, religious minority groups, and civil society groups.  In their meetings with government officials, the Charge and other embassy and consulate general officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Throughout the year, embassy officers and visiting U.S. officials met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant churches.  Issues raised included cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations including on national identity cards.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists, and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in government engagements.  Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, the chairman of the Sufi Council, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’i communities.  The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media throughout the year, including three posts on the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report that reached 30,000 people and four on the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that reached 20,000 people.

El Salvador

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states that all are equal before the law.  It prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states that other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration.  On October 23, a judge issued an arrest warrant for a former military captain suspected of killing Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass.  On April 17, a court ordered the attorney general to bring new charges against former President Alfredo Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the 1989 killings of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter.  The court repealed a 2000 ruling that the statute of limitations had expired in the case.

According to international news reports, on March 29, an armed group stopped Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez and parishioners in San Miguel, who were traveling.  The group set the parishioners free but abducted Vasquez and subsequently shot and killed him.  According to media reports, criminals continued to routinely disrupt and target religious communities through extortion, killing, or beating pastors and their congregants, arbitrarily limiting freedom of movement, and stealing religious artifacts.  Leaders of Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and other Christian communities continued to report that members of their churches sometimes could not reach their respective congregations in MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang-controlled territory due to fear of crime and violence.  In certain sectors of the country, gang members controlled access in and around communities, and there were reports that gangs expelled or denied access to church leaders and charity groups with religious affiliations.  Gangs reportedly demanded churches divert charitable items to their families.  Reports continued of gang members extorting organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, and demanding a “tax” to allow organizations to operate in some territories.  According to media reports, gangs reportedly manipulated or infiltrated religious organizations.

U.S. embassy officials raised with the ombudsman for human rights the importance of government officials’ carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs.  In meetings with Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i groups, embassy officials discussed the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories, stressing the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a May survey by the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion, 45.9 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, 35.5 percent as evangelical Protestant, and 14.3 percent with no religious affiliation.  Approximately 4.4 percent state “other,” which includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.  A small segment of the population adheres to indigenous religious beliefs, with some mixing of these beliefs with Christianity and Islam.  Muslim leaders estimate there are approximately 20,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion.  It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The ombudsman for human rights monitors the state of religious freedom in the country, including issuing special reports and accepting petitions from the public for violation of the free exercise of religion.

The penal code imposes criminal sentences of one to three years on individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others, or damage or destroy religious objects.  The law defines an offense as an action that prevents or disrupts the free exercise of religion, publicly disavows religious traditions, or publicly insults an individual’s beliefs or religious dogma.  Sentences increase to four to eight years when individuals commit such acts to gain media attention.  Repeat offenders may face prison sentences of three to five years.  There were no prosecutions under this law during the year.

The constitution states members of the clergy may not occupy the positions of president, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court justices, judges, governors, attorney general, public defender, and other senior government positions.  Members of the clergy may not belong to political parties.  The electoral code requires judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and members of municipal councils to be laypersons.

A 2016 law defines gangs as terrorist groups.  A 2014 law restricts support of, and interaction with, gangs, including by members of clergy; however, rehabilitation and ministry activities are legal.

The constitution allows religious groups to apply for official recognition by registering with the government.  The constitution gives legal status to the Catholic Church and exempts it from registration requirements.  Religious groups may operate without registering, but registration provides tax-exempt status and facilitates activities requiring official permits, such as building places of worship.  To register, a religious group must apply through the Office of the Director General for Nonprofit Associations and Foundations (DGFASFL) in the Ministry of Governance.  The group must present its constitution and bylaws describing the type of organization, location of its offices, its goals and principles, requirements for membership, functions of its ruling bodies, and assessments or dues.  DGFASFL analyzes the group’s constitution and bylaws to ensure both comply with the law.  Upon approval, the government publishes the group’s constitution and bylaws in the official gazette.  DGFASFL does not maintain records on religious groups once it approves their status, and there are no requirements for renewal of registration.

By law, the Ministry of Governance has authority to register, regulate, and oversee the finances of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and all religious groups except the Catholic Church, due to its special legal recognition under the constitution.  Foreign religious groups must obtain special residence visas for religious activities, including proselytizing, and may not proselytize while on visitor or tourist visas.  Religious groups must register in order to be eligible for this special residence visa for religious activities.

Public education is secular.  The constitution grants the right to establish private schools, including schools run by religious groups, which operate without government support.  Parents choose whether their children receive religious education in private schools.  Public schools may not deny admittance to any student based on religion.  All private schools, religiously affiliated or not, must meet the same academic standards to obtain Ministry of Education approval.

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

Government Practices

On October 23, soon after the Catholic Church declared Salvadoran Archbishop Romero a saint, Judge Rigoberto Chicas issued an arrest warrant for Alvaro Rafael Saravia, a former military captain suspected of killing Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass.

On April 17, a court ordered the attorney general to bring new charges against former President Alfredo Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the 1989 killing of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Central American University in San Salvador.  The court overturned a 2000 ruling that the statute of limitations expired in the case.

Clergy and faith-based NGO workers said the government sometimes arbitrarily detained, questioned, or searched their person because of their ministry work with active and former gang members.  Some religious leaders stated they avoided violence prevention and rehabilitation efforts, fearing prosecution or being perceived as sympathetic to gangs, even though courts had ruled that rehabilitation efforts were not illegal per the constitution.  Clergy said police sometimes mistakenly detained young congregants and youth leaders from several Christian denominations as suspected gang members.

The Legislative Assembly passed a reform bill on August 16 making permanent the penitentiary reforms commonly known as “extraordinary measures” temporarily in effect since 2016.  The bill allows restricting nongovernmental access to prisons, including access of clergy in certain cases, such as when a prisoner loses visitation privileges because of misconduct.  This legislation followed increasing reports of gang members who were also evangelical Protestant pastors gaining entrance to prisons and functioning as couriers between incarcerated gang leaders and gang members outside the prisons.  In some prisons, the government encouraged religious organizations to work with prisoners to persuade them to renounce gang life.  The government also consulted with and jointly implemented rehabilitation and reinsertion programs with faith-based organizations.

The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights again reported it had not received notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 141 new requests for registration of religious groups from January through August 29.  Of these, the Ministry of Governance approved 55, and 84 were pending.  According to government officials, two religious entities did not complete the registration process.  The ministry reported it had denied one application due to the group’s lack of required documents.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to international news reports, on March 29, unidentified armed individuals stopped Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez and parishioners in San Miguel while traveling to Mass.  The group released the parishioners but abducted and later shot and killed Vasquez.  By year’s end, authorities had not detained anyone for the crime.

On July 15, according to local news reports, MS-13 gang members killed Protestant pastor Jose Isaac Garcia Zaldana after he reportedly convinced approximately six gang members to leave the gang and join his congregation.  According to media, days before his killing, gang members beat him in the street, and a police officer threatened to kill him after he witnessed the officer smoking marijuana with known gang members.

According to media reports, on July 25, members of the Barrio 18 gang (also called the 18th Street gang) attempted to enter an evangelical Protestant church in Santa Cruz Michapa and remove a congregant during a church service.  The pastor resisted, barring the door before shooting and killing one of the assailants.

Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders, leaders of other Christian denominations, and statisticians and criminology researchers continued to state that clergy sometimes could not reach their respective congregations in MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang-controlled territory throughout the country due to fear of crime and violence.  According to media reports, MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang members beat and killed pastors who actively encouraged gang members to leave their gangs.  In the departments of Ahuachapan, Cabanas, Cuscatlan, La Libertad, La Paz, La Union, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Salvador, San Vicente, Sonsonate, and Usulutan, gang members controlled access in and around communities, and there were reports that they displaced church leaders and charity groups with religious affiliations.  Pastors said congregants could not attend religious services if they had to cross ever-shifting boundaries that gangs had arbitrarily established that used addresses on national identification cards to identify outsiders.

According to media, criminals continued to target congregants in violent muggings outside of churches.  On May 6, an unidentified individual stabbed a congregant who refused to turn over his cell phone as he and his family were leaving the El Calvario Church in San Salvador.  There were also continuing reports of gang members extorting organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, demanding payments in exchange for allowing them to operate in some territories.  According to media reports, gangs demanded churches divert charitable items to their families.  Reports of criminals targeting churches, stealing religious relics and other valuable cultural items, and violently assaulting parishioners continued.  Media reported that in September unidentified individuals stole from El Calvario Church in San Salvador one of the oldest religious figurines in the country.

Religious leaders continued to participate in the government-led National Security Plan, including in the monitoring and implementation of the plan, which the government enacted in 2015.  This effort linked community leaders, law enforcement personnel, and government officials in 50 municipalities with the highest levels of violence throughout the country to prevent and reduce that violence through joint efforts to improve education, social assistance, economic development, and security.  Religious leaders participated alongside local leaders of media, unions, academics, and others in the municipal and national councils to help with efforts to improve security in their communities.

According to representatives of the Lutheran Church, interfaith groups continued to meet throughout the year and helped reinforce what they said was commonly held societal respect for the contributions of the country’s religious communities.  The Religions for Peace collective, comprising Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, Baha’i, Jewish, and indigenous representatives, worked together on the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace, focusing on reintegration programs for all prisoners, regardless of religious affiliation, after release from incarceration.

Members of the LGBTI community said they faced rejection and discrimination within their own congregations.  The Anglican Church stated it would accept LGBTI members without preconditions such as celibacy promises that some other churches reportedly demanded of some LGBTI congregants.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials frequently discussed with the ombudsman for human rights and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security the importance of government officials’ carrying out their official duties to protect the rights of all individuals, including religious freedom, regardless of the officials’ personal religious affiliation or beliefs.

Embassy officials met with religious minority groups, including the Muslim and Baha’i communities, and included faith-based NGOs in embassy working groups.  One group addressed gang violence, which affected religious groups.  With visiting officials from the Department of State, embassy officials met with faith-based human rights monitors from the University of Central America’s Human Rights Institute, Cristosal (associated with the U.S. Episcopal Church), Communities of Faith in Action (ecumenical Christian), and the Passionist Social Service (Catholic).  Embassy officials sought feedback on challenges to religious freedom caused by criminal activity and government bias against churches ministering to gang communities, as well as discrimination against religious members of the LGBTI community.  The embassy also used social media to promote religious tolerance and respect for religious diversity.

Equatorial Guinea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.  The law states that the country has no national religion, but by decree and practice, the government gives preference to the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Church of Equatorial Guinea, which are the only religious groups not required to register their organization or activities with the Ministry of Justice, Religious Affairs, and Penitentiary Institutions (MJRAPI).  The government provides funds to the Catholic Church and its schools for educational programming.  Catholic masses remained a normal part of official ceremonial functions, such as the nation’s Independence Day.  The law requires a permit for door-to-door proselytism; authorities routinely granted permission for religious groups to proselytize and to hold activities outside of registered places of worship but generally denied permission for religious activities not within the prescribed hours.  Evangelical Christian groups continued to hold activities outside the prescribed period without government intervention.  On December 17, the MJRAPI convened a meeting with representatives of all major religious groups in which the attorney general announced plans to reassess the religious group authorization process and possibly develop new regulations that would allow the ministry to more closely monitor, assess, and support religious groups.  This meeting followed a Ministry of Education inspector’s visit to a public school in which he saw Jehovah’s Witness children refuse to sing the national anthem, in accordance with their religious beliefs.

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

U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials, including the MJRAPI director general of religious affairs, to discuss religious freedom.  Embassy staff members also met with the Imam for Malabo and the Catholic Archbishop of Malabo.  They met as well with the respective presidents of the evangelical Christian and Pentecostal communities to discuss their experiences as minority religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 779,000 (July 2018 estimate).  The most recent local census, conducted in 2015, estimates the total population at 1.2 million.  According to the most recent government estimate, 88 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 5 percent is Protestant.  Many Christians reportedly practice some aspects of traditional indigenous religions as well.  Two percent of the population is Muslim (mainly Sunni).  The remaining 5 percent adhere to animism, the Baha’i Faith, Judaism, and other beliefs.  Most of the Muslim population are expatriates from West Africa.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, and prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.  The law states there is no national religion and individuals are free to change religions.  Christians converting to Islam are permitted to add Muslim names to their Christian names on their official documents.

Neither the Catholic Church nor the Reformed Church of Equatorial Guinea is required to register with the MJRAPI.  The only religious group to receive state funding for operating educational institutions is the Catholic Church.

Some long-standing religious groups such as Methodists, Muslims, and Baha’is hold permanent authorizations and are not required to renew their registrations with the MJRAPI.  Newer groups and denominations may be required to renew their registration annually.  To register, religious groups at the congregational level must submit a written application to the MJRAPI director general of religious affairs.  Those seeking to register must supply detailed information about the leadership (e.g., curriculum vitae) and members of the group; construction plans of religious buildings; property ownership documents, accreditations, and religious mandate; and a fee of 100,000 Central African francs (CFA) ($170).  The director general of religious affairs adjudicates these applications and may order an inspection by the MJRAPI before processing.  The government may fine or shut down unregistered groups.  The law requires a permit for door-to-door proselytism.

An MJRAPI decree specifies that any religious activities taking place outside the hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. or outside of registered places of worship require preauthorization from the MJRAPI.  The decree prohibits religious acts or preaching within private residences if those acts involve persons who do not live there.  Foreign religious representatives or authorities must obtain advance permission from the MJRAPI to participate in religious activities.  The decree exempts the Catholic Church.

The government recognizes official documents issued by authorized religious groups, such as birth certificates and marriage certificates.

The constitution states individuals are free to study religion in schools and may not be forced to study a faith other than their own.  Catholic religious classes are part of the public school curriculum, but such study may be replaced by non-Catholic religious study or by a recess with a note from a leader of another religious group.

Protestant groups, including the Reformed Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Methodists, Baptists, and other Christians, operate primary and secondary schools.  These schools must be registered with the government and fulfill standard curriculum requirements.

All foreigners, including foreign evangelical missionaries, are required to obtain residency permits to remain in the country.

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

Government Practices

While the government continued routinely to grant permission for religious groups to hold activities outside of places of worship, except in private homes, it usually denied permits to hold activities outside of the prescribed hours of 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., according to religious leaders.  All religious groups, including a small number of Baha’i and Jewish groups, were allowed to hold services as long as they finished before 9 p.m. and did not disturb the peace.  Evangelical Christian groups continued to hold activities outside the prescribed period with no repercussions.

Evangelical Christians reported residency permits were prohibitively expensive at 400,000 CFA francs ($660) for a two-year period, leading some missionaries to risk the consequences of not obtaining or renewing such permits.  The local police reportedly enforced the requirement with threatened deportation and requested a small bribe as an alternative.  There were no deportations reported.  The residency permit fee for foreign missionaries was the same as for all other foreigners; however, if the missionary coordinated with the MJRAPI, the residency permit could be obtained for free, provided missionary status could be proven and the requisite security checks were passed.  The residency permits were not required for Catholic missionaries.

Catholic masses remained a normal part of all major ceremonial functions, such as National Day on October 12 and the President’s Birthday on June 5.  Catholic leaders were the only religious leaders to regularly meet publicly with the highest-level government officials.  Catholic and Reformed Church leaders were often seated in preferred locations at official functions.

Some non-Catholics who worked for the government continued to report that their supervisors strongly encouraged participation in religious activities related to their government positions, including attending Catholic masses.  Government officials stated it was expected that they attend the President’s Birthday Mass at the Catholic Church.

The government again allowed the Muslim community to celebrate Eid al-Adha in Malabo Stadium.  Hundreds of Muslims participated.

In accordance with the parliament’s approval of a law in September 2017 making the National Day of Prayer an annual event to be celebrated on the first Sunday in April, religious groups again marked the event.  In contrast with the previous year, there was no official government representation.

In early December an inspector from the Ministry of Education observed Jehovah’s Witnesses children at a public school in the remote district of Nsok Nsomo, Ebibeyin Province, who refused to sing the national anthem, in accordance with their religious beliefs.  The Department of Religious Affairs under the Ministry of Justice then requested a meeting with representatives of every principal religious group.  The invitation letter asked the representatives to bring their holy writings and a summary of their beliefs.  After the religious groups submitted their documentation to the director general of religious affairs at the December 17 meeting, the attorney general informed the religious groups that the government planned to reassess the entire religious group authorization process.  He stated the Department of Religious Affairs was considering drafting new regulations so it could properly monitor and assess religious groups’ needs in order to be a better resource.  The attorney general did not refer to the incident with the Jehovah’s Witnesses children.

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

U.S. embassy officials met with the director general of religious affairs to discuss religious freedom and tolerance.

Embassy officials also met with the Imam for Malabo, the Catholic Archbishop of Malabo, evangelical Christian pastors, Protestant leaders, and representatives of the Baha’i Faith and Jewish communities for their insights, as well as to discuss the need to promote mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect for all religious groups, especially for minority religious groups.

Eritrea

Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion.  The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.  Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to additional security service scrutiny.  The government appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community.  International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media continued to report members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions.  Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions, and detention without explanation of individuals observing the recognized faiths.  In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur died of unknown causes in police custody, where he had been kept since October 2017.  Reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters, including minors, at or soon after his funeral.  In 2017, the government closed a secondary school sponsored by an Islamic organization but later allowed the school to reopen for one year; in contrast, a private school sponsored by an Islamic organization remained closed.  NGOs reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside of Asmara.  International media and NGOs reported authorities conditionally released some Christians from unregistered groups from prison during the year after they had renounced their faith in 2014.  Authorities continued to confine Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios under house arrest, where he has remained since 2006.  The government granted entry to prominent Ethiopian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June as part of the first set of flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara after the airways reopened; onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.  NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.  The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994.  Some religious organization representatives reported an improved climate for obtaining visas for foreign colleagues to visit Eritrea and increased ability to call their counterparts in Ethiopia.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious community sources created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom.  Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended celebrations or funerals organized by the recognized religious groups.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the March protests surrounding the death of Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur, the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios.  Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with visiting senior Eritrean officials in Washington on multiple occasions during the year.  Embassy officials met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of religious groups, both registered and unregistered.  Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of interlocutors, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, as well as UN officials.  Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Since 2004, Eritrea 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 November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.  Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at six million (July 2018 estimate); a population census has not been conducted since 2010.  There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation.  Some government, religious, and international sources estimate the population to be 49 percent Christian and 49 percent Sunni Muslim.  The Pew Foundation in 2016 estimated the population to be 63 percent Christian and 37 percent Muslim.  The Christian population is predominantly Eritrean Orthodox.  Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals, constitute less than 5 percent of the Christian population.  Some estimates suggest 2 percent of the population is traditionally animist.  The Baha’i community reports approximately 200 members.  Only one Jew reportedly remains in the country.

A majority of the population in the southern and central regions is Christian.  A majority of the Tigrinya, the largest ethnic group, are Christian.  The Tigre and the Rashaida, the largest minority ethnic groups, are predominantly Muslim and reside mainly in the northern regions of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and the freedom to practice any religion.

Proclamation 73/1995 calls for separation of religion and state; outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, including concerning foreign relations and social activities; establishes an Office of Religious Affairs; and requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities.  Members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law are subject to penalties under the provisional penal code.  Such penalties may include imprisonment and fines.  The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official recognition.  Each application must include a description of the religious group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other religious groups; names and personal information of the group’s leaders; detailed information on assets; a description of the group’s conformity to local culture; and a declaration of all foreign sources of funding.

The Office of Religious Affairs has registered four religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation).  A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval.  The government has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002.

The government appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Sunni Islamic community.

Religious groups must obtain government approval to build facilities for worship.

While the law does not specifically address religious education in public schools, Proclamation 73/1995 outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, and education is not included as an approved activity.  In practice, religious instruction is commonplace within worship communities.

By law, all citizens between 18 and 50 must perform national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy.  A compulsory citizen militia requires persons not in the military, including many who had been demobilized, elderly, or otherwise exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend militia training.  Failure to participate in the militia or national service could result in detention.  Militia duties mostly involve security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling.  Militia training primarily involves occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures.  The law does not provide for conscientious objector status for religious reasons, nor are there alternative activities for persons willing to perform national service but unwilling to engage in military or militia activities.

The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups.

The government requires all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to departing the country.  The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.  Starting in September, an exit visa or other travel documents are not required to cross the newly opened land border with Ethiopia.

The law limits foreign financing for religious groups.  The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign

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

Government Practices

The UK-based religious freedom advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses news service reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside Asmara.  Both had been in detention since 2008 without charge.  The organizations stated that 76-year-old Habtemichael Tesfamariam died on January 3, and Habtemichael Mekonen, age 77, died on March 6.

In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur died of unknown causes while in police custody.  He was reportedly in his late 80s or early 90s when he died.  He had been in custody since October 2017.  NGO and international media reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters (including minors) at his funeral.  It was not clear how many protesters remained in detention at year’s end, although sources indicated authorities released many of them.

CSW reported in October that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including three men who had been imprisoned without charge for 22 years, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim detainees remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and in March.

Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who appeared in public in July 2017, remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting the government’s interference in church affairs.

Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.

The government did not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service and continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service.  The government continued to hold Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons.  Authorities prevented prisoners held for national security reasons from having visitors, and families often did not know where the government held such prisoners.  Authorities generally permitted family members to visit prisoners detained for religious reasons only.  Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter.

In July and August international media and NGOs reported the release from detention of more than 30 Christians from unregistered groups.  Reports stated the government released 35 Christians after they renounced their religion four years earlier.  Another individual reported that one Jehovah’s Witness was transferred from prison to house detention but was still surveilled by security authorities.

Christian advocacy organizations reported the detention of 19 members of the Full Gospel Church in Godaif, Asmara, in July, and of 21 Christians at a gathering in Asmara in August.  The status of the members was unknown at year’s end.

Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.

The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders.  Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching religious beliefs to others.

The government permitted the Al Diaa Islamic secondary school, which the government had closed in 2017, to reopen in September.  Al Mahad, another school originally founded as an Islamic-based primary and secondary school, remained closed since 2017.  Al Mahad reportedly faced increasing government pressure, including to deemphasize the religious aspects of its curriculum; in recent years, the government permitted the school to teach only elementary school-age children.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.  The government also required all customers to present a national identification card to use computers at private internet cafes, where most individuals accessed the internet.  This identification requirement rendered Jehovah’s Witnesses generally unable to use the internet.

Arrests and releases often went unreported.  Information from outside the capital was extremely limited.  Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge.  International religious organizations reported authorities interrogated detainees about their religious affiliations and asked them to identify members of unregistered religious groups.

The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.

When the government opened the land border with Ethiopia in September, the government did not require exit visas or other travel documents for Eritreans crossing into Ethiopia.  How long this procedure would remain in effect was unclear.  The government continued to require all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to airport departure.  The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.  Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences.

The government continued to allow only the practice of Sunni Islam and continued to ban all other practice of Islam.

Official attitudes toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities differed.  Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting.  Local authorities sometimes denied government coupons (which allowed shoppers to make purchases at discounted prices at certain stores) to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.

Diaspora groups noted authorities controlled virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups.  The leaders of the four groups continued to state their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice, but individuals privately reported restrictions on import of religious items used for worship.  Whether authorities used these restrictions to target religious groups was unclear, since import licenses remained generally restricted.  Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.

The government permitted church news services to videotape and publish interviews with foreign diplomats during the public celebration of the Eritrean Orthodox holiday Meskel.

Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged.  Religious structures used by unregistered Jewish and Greek Orthodox groups continued to exist in Asmara.  The government protected the historic Jewish synagogue building, maintained by an individual reported to be the country’s last remaining Jew.  Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Christ, remained shuttered.  The government allowed the Baha’i center to remain open, and, according to reports, the members of the center had access to the building except for prayer meetings.  The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, but the government did not permit religious services on the site.  The Anglican Church building held services but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.

Government control of all mass media continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government repression against them, according to observers.  Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship, according to group members.

The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the mufti of the Sunni Islamic community and the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower-level officials for both communities.  Lay administrators appointed by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice managed some Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.

The government continued to permit a limited number of Sunni Muslims, mainly the elderly and those not fit for military service, to take part in the Hajj, travel abroad for religious study, and host clerics from abroad.  The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened to import foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.

The government granted entry to the prominent Ethiopian Pentecostal Christian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June.  Onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.

The government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations.  The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers Church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas.  Students attending the Roman Catholic seminary, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials.  Some Catholic leaders stated, however, national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.

Three ministers, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims.  Foreign diplomats, however, reported that individuals in positions of power, both in government and outside, often expressed reluctance to share power with Muslim compatriots and distrusted foreign Muslims.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Government control of all media, expression, and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom.  Churches and mosques were located in close proximity, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on various religious holidays and other events.  Senior Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran religious leaders sat as honored guests alongside the ranking Eritrean Orthodox officials during the high-profile public celebration of Meskel on September 27.

Some Christian leaders continued to report Muslim leaders and communities were willing to collaborate on community projects.  Ecumenical and interreligious committees did not exist, although local leaders met informally, and religious holidays featured public displays of interfaith cooperation.  Representatives of each of the official religions attended the state dinners for several visiting foreign officials.  Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their faith.

In January media reported that unknown persons vandalized the Jewish section of the main cemetery in Asmara.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials to raise religious freedom concerns, including the protests and subsequent arrests in March; they also advocated for the release of Jehovah’s Witnesses and an alternative service for conscientious objectors refusing to bear arms for religious reasons; and expressed concern over the continued detention of patriarch Abune Antonios.  Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with visiting senior Eritrean officials in Washington on multiple occasions during the year.  Embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom with a wide range of partners, including visiting international delegations, Asmara- and regionally based diplomats accredited to the government, UN officials, and other international organization representatives.  Embassy officials used social media to highlight the importance of religious tolerance and public diplomacy programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Embassy staff met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of most religious groups, including unregistered groups.  Some embassy requests via the government to meet with religious leaders went unanswered, however.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, section 402(b), for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.  Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Estonia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion.  It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  The law provides the procedure for registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities.  Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits.  The government continued to provide funds to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities.  On January 26, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.

In August unidentified individuals burned and defaced the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial with anti-Semitic graffiti.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.  Jewish groups expressed concern about a September 2 demonstration involving the temporary erection of a monument depicting an Estonian soldier in a World War II-era German uniform.  In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases involving religion, compared with six cases in 2016.

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom and the importance of religious tolerance with government representatives.  The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including producing a featured video to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day.  The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to support dialogue on anti-Semitism and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 million (September 2018).  According to the 2011 census, 29 percent of the population is religiously affiliated, 54 percent does not identify with any religion, and 17 percent does not state an affiliation.  According to current data from the Council of Churches, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church has 180,000 members (13.8 percent of the population), while the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP) has 170,000 members (13.1 percent).  The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church has 30,000 members (2.3 percent).  The Union of Free Evangelical and Baptist Churches of Estonia and the Roman Catholic Church in Estonia both have more than 6,400 members (1 percent together).  Other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Russian Old Believers, collectively constitute 1.1 percent of the population.  According to the 2011 census, there are small Jewish and Muslim communities of 2,500 members and 1,500 members, respectively.  Most religious adherents among the Russian-speaking population belong to the EOCMP and reside mainly in the capital or the northeastern part of the country.  According to census data, most of the country’s community of Russian Old Believers lives along the west bank of Lake Peipsi in the eastern part of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.”  The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  The law states that violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison.  The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service as provided by law.

The law regulates the activities of religious associations and religious societies.  Religious associations are defined as churches, congregations, unions of congregations, and monasteries.  Churches, congregations, and unions of congregations are required to have a management board.  The management board has the right to invite a minister of religion from outside the country.  The residence of at least half of the members of the management board must be in the country, in another member state of the European Economic Area, or in Switzerland.  The elected or appointed superior of a monastery serves as the management board for the monastery.  Religious societies are defined as voluntary organizations whose main activities include religious or ecumenical activities relating to morals, ethics, culture, and social rehabilitation activities outside the traditional forms of religious rites of a church or congregation.  Religious societies do not need to affiliate with a specific church or congregation.

The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers religious associations and religious societies.

To register, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit a notarized or digitally signed application, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes.  The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits if they apply for them, such as a value-added tax exemption.  There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.

The law does not prohibit activities by unregistered religious associations.  Unregistered religious associations, however, may not act as legal persons.  Unlike registered religious associations, unregistered associations are not eligible for tax benefits.

Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations.  To register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, who may be physical or legal persons.  The minimum number of founders is two.  The society must submit its registration application either electronically or on paper to the Tartu County Court registry office.

The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion.  Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs.  The state funds police and border guard, military, and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination and must guarantee religious services for individuals of all faiths.

Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools, funded by the state.  All schools must provide religious studies at the primary and secondary levels if students request these studies.  The courses offer a general introduction to different faiths.  Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers or clergy provided by religious groups.  There are also private religious schools.  All students, regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation, may attend religious schools.  Attendance at religious services at religious schools is voluntary.  The majority of students attending a private religious school are not associated with the school’s religious affiliation.

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

Government Practices

According to the NGO register, six religious associations registered during the first 10 months of the year, including evangelical Protestant, Pentecostal, and other groups.

The government allocated 596,000 euros ($683,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches.  The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox Churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities.  The government provided the funds for ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs broadcast on the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing.

Following the burning and defacing of the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial in August, Prime Minister Juri Ratas and Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu publicly condemned the vandalism and declared the state would “seriously investigate” the incident.  The investigation continued at year’s end.  The state forestry agency and heritage organization repaired the damage on August 23.

On January 26, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn.  Schools participated in commemorative activities throughout the country.  On January 26, the Ministry of Education and Research, in cooperation with the Estonian Memory Institute, sponsored a Jewish culture and history seminar for history and civics teachers from across the country and the public on Holocaust history and commemoration.

On September 25, the government hosted the visit of Pope Francis to Tallinn.  At a meeting with civil society, diplomatic, and cultural leaders during the visit, President Kersti Kaljulaid stated, “The freedom of religion is precisely one of the unyielding bedrocks on which our democracy is founded.”

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases involving religion, compared with six cases in 2016.

According to representatives of the Jewish community, either on August 20 or 21, unidentified individuals burned and defaced the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Jewish groups expressed concern about a September 2 demonstration, organized by activists affiliated with the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, involving the temporary erection of a monument depicting an Estonian soldier in a World War II-era German uniform.

According to many religious and other civil society leaders, there was societal support for religious freedom and tolerance in the country.  Interreligious events involving religious minorities were frequent, including conferences celebrating Estonian religious life and the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the state of religious freedom and tolerance in the country with officials from the ministries of internal, social, and foreign affairs and engaged the government on the importance of promoting religious tolerance.

The embassy again joined with the Ministry of Education to fund the travel of two teachers to a summer teacher-training program on Holocaust education in the United States.  The teachers said they had incorporated what they had learned into the Holocaust education portion of the national curriculum.

The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including making a video about a female American Anglican pastor serving in the country and retweeting the Secretary of State on publishing the 2017 religious freedom report.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with members of the Jewish community, leaders of religious associations, representatives of the Council of Churches, and NGOs to discuss religious tolerance.

Eswatini

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to worship, alone or in community with others, and to change religion or belief.  Although the law requires new religious groups to register, unregistered groups were able to operate freely.  The 2017 decree requiring public schools to teach only Christianity and excluding the teaching of other religions remained in effect.  Muslim leaders reported cases of not receiving prompt services from government officials.  The government reportedly provided favorable treatment to Christian beliefs and organizations in various circumstances, such as access to free radio and television time.  In contrast with prior years, there were no reports of security officials monitoring prayer sessions in mosques.  The government protected the right of Muslim workers to close businesses in order to attend Friday afternoon prayer sessions, despite government-mandated business operating hours.

Muslim leaders continued to report negative and/or suspicious views of Islam in society.

The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials engaged with government officials on issues such as the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions and the importance of developing and maintaining interfaith dialogue in the country.  During an iftar hosted by a senior embassy official, government officials and Muslim and Christian religious leaders participated in a broad discussion of religious freedom issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  Religious leaders estimate that 90 percent of the population is Christian, approximately 2 percent is Muslim (of whom many are not ethnic emaSwati), and the remainder belongs to other religious groups, including those with indigenous African beliefs.  According to anecdotal reports, approximately 40 percent of the population practices Zionism, a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship (some adherents of which self-identify as evangelical Christians), while another 20 percent is Roman Catholic.  There are also Anglicans, Methodists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and very small Jewish and Baha’i communities.  Zionism is widely practiced in rural areas.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to worship, alone or in community with others, and to change religion or belief.  These rights may be limited by laws that are “reasonably required” in the interest of defense, public safety, order, morality, health, or protecting the rights of others.  The constitution provides religious groups the right to establish and operate private schools and to provide religious instruction for their students without interference from the government.

The constitution recognizes unwritten traditional laws and customs, which are interpreted by traditional courts, granted equal status with codified laws, and protected from amendment or regulation by the parliament and/or national courts.  The law requires religious groups to register with the government.  The Ministry of Home Affairs is the government agency responsible for monitoring religious affairs in the country.  To register as a religious group, Christian groups must apply through one of the country’s three umbrella religious bodies – the League of Churches, Swaziland Conference of Churches, or Council of Swaziland Churches – for a recommendation, which is routinely granted and does not impede registration, according to church leaders.  The application process requires a group to provide its constitution, membership, and physical location, along with the umbrella body’s recommendation, to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Trade, which then registers the organization.  For indigenous religious groups and non-Christian religious organizations, authorities consider proof of a religious leader, a congregation, and a place of worship as sufficient grounds to grant registration.  Registered religious groups are exempt from taxation, but contributions are not tax deductible.

Religious groups must obtain government permission for the construction of new religious buildings in urban areas, and permission from the appropriate chief and chief’s advisory council for new religious buildings in rural areas.  In some rural communities, chiefs have designated special committees to allocate land to religious groups for a minimal fee.

Christian religious instruction is mandatory in public primary schools and incorporated into the daily morning assembly.  Christian education is also compulsory in public secondary schools.  There are no opt-out procedures.  Religious education is neither prohibited nor mandated in private schools.

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

Government Practices

The 2017 directive declaring Christianity the only religion in the public school curriculum and banning the teaching of other religions remained in effect.  According to religious leaders and civil society organizations, school administrations permitted only Christian religious youth clubs to operate in public schools.  Christian clubs sometimes conducted daily prayer services in public schools and were permitted to raise funds on campus.  Christian clubs’ activities were normally conducted during lunch breaks, weekends, and school holidays.

In contrast with prior years, there were no reports of security officials monitoring prayer sessions in mosques.  Muslims reported incidents of not receiving prompt services from government officials, such as obtaining identity documents or processing immigration and customs paperwork at border posts.

Religious leaders said the government continued to protect the right of Muslim workers to close businesses in order to attend Friday afternoon prayer sessions at mosques despite government-mandated business operating hours.  Businesses owned by members of the Baha’i community were allowed to close shops in observance of Baha’i religious holidays.  Public schools, however, did not allow early departure for Muslim students to attend Friday prayers or excuse Baha’i or Muslim students from attendance on their respective religious holidays.

Non-Christian groups reported the government continued to provide some preferential benefits to Christians, such as free transportation to religious activities and free time on state television and radio.  Government-owned television and radio stations broadcast daily morning and evening Christian programming.  The government continued to provide each of the three Christian umbrella religious bodies and their affiliates with free airtime to broadcast daily religious services on the state-run radio station.  Non-Christian religious groups stated they had stopped requesting free radio and television airtime following years of government denial of such access.

The monarchy, and by extension the government, aligned itself with Christian faith-based groups and supported many Christian activities.  Official government programs often opened with a Christian prayer, and several government ministers held Christian prayer vigils (which civil servants were expected to attend).

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Muslim community continued to report negative views of Islam in society.  According to Muslim leaders, when some members of society heard international radio reports of violence committed by groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram, they attributed this behavior as representing all Muslims in the country or Islam in general.

Religious leaders expressed interest in resuming meetings of the Interfaith Working Group established in 2016.  Muslim leaders reported that they saw this as a key to increasing societal respect and tolerance for Islam, stating they believed the suspicion Muslims faced was due more to ignorance than intolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials engaged with the government, including the principal secretary of education, the head of the Human Rights Commission Secretariat, the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation task force, and others on issues such as the directive banning the teaching of non-Christian religions and the importance of developing and maintaining interfaith dialogue in the country.

A senior embassy official hosted an iftar attended by Muslims, Christians, and government officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry or Commerce, Industry, and Trade.  During the event, religious leaders and government officials had a wide discussion of religious freedom issues, including the topic of mandatory Christian education in public schools.

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, the embassy hosted a roundtable on religious freedom.  Government officials and religious leaders representing Muslim, Baha’i, Rastafarian, and various Christian traditions attended.  Participants discussed the Christian-only public school religious education directive, as well as land rights and other policy issues affecting their congregations.  The Muslim community reported the embassy’s efforts to bring together religious leaders in 2017 and 2018 led to improved relations among religious leaders of different faiths.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state.  On January 20, security forces fired teargas on a group of youth singing politically charged messages in Woldia town during Epiphany celebrations.  The Amhara regional government pledged to investigate the incident.  The local Human Rights Council (HRCO) reported security forces subsequently shot and killed eight Orthodox Church members; this was followed by further protests and killings.  On February 16, the government declared a state of emergency (SOE) that restricted organized opposition and antigovernment protests, which also affected religious activities.  The House of Peoples’ Representatives voted on June 5 to lift the SOE, effective immediately.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  On August 1, representatives of the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to the country and reunited with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation effort had the direct support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and ended a 26-year schism in the Orthodox Church.  On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and build the country.

On August 4, in the Somali region, an organized group of Muslim youth reportedly killed six priests and burned down at least eight Ethiopian Orthodox churches during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.  On August 25, in Bure town, followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stoned a man to death after accusing him of attempting to set a church on fire.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups.  The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) said it continued to hold foreign actors responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.  The Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE) stated that the major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

U.S. embassy and Department of State officers met officials from the Ministry of Peace, which includes the previous Ministry of Federal and Pastoralist Development Affairs, throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance, radicalization, and ongoing reforms led by Prime Minister Abiy.  Embassy representatives also met with the leaders from the EIASC, Catholic Church in Ethiopia, IRCE, the Jewish Community, and EOC to discuss how these groups could contribute to religious tolerance.  Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim community and with NGOs to discuss their concerns about government interference in religious affairs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 108.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  The most recent census, conducted in 2007, estimated 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOC, 34 percent are Sunni Muslim, and 19 percent belong to Christian evangelical and Pentecostal groups.  The overall population, however, has since changed significantly, and observers in and outside the government state those numbers are not necessarily representative of the present composition.  The EOC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in the Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions.  Established Protestant churches are strongest in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region, Gambella, and parts of Oromia.  Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and practitioners of indigenous religions.  The Rastafarian community numbers approximately 1,000 and its members primarily reside in Addis Ababa and the town of Shashemene in the Oromia Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs.  It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law in order to protect public safety, education, and morals, as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion.  The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another.  The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

The SOE put in place on February 16 and lifted on June 5 included provisions affecting religious activities such as the requirement for authorization from the SOE Command Post for public gatherings and a prohibition on chanting political slogans during religious holidays.

Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches.  The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols.  Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity, and 15 for registration as a ministry or association.  During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper and, if there are no objections, registration is granted.

Unlike other religious groups, the EOC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force.  Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery.  Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits.  Religious groups must renew their registration at least every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.

Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports.  Activity reports must describe evangelical activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.

Under the constitution the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.

Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state.  The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays for workers to attend Islamic prayers.  Private companies are not required to follow this policy.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values.  The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques.  The Charities and Societies Agency, an agency of the government accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction.  The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.

The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.

A government proclamation prohibits certain charities, societies, and associations, including those associated with faith-based organizations that engage in rights-based advocacy, and prevents civil society organizations from receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources.  Rights-based advocacy includes activities promoting human and democratic rights or equality of nations, nationalities, peoples, genders, and religions; protecting the rights of children or persons with disabilities; advancing conflict resolution or reconciliation; and enhancing the efficiency of the justice system or law enforcement services.  Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

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

Government Practices

On January 20, during Orthodox Christian Epiphany celebrations, also known as the Timket festival, security forces fired teargas in Woldia town, North Wollo Zone of the Amhara Region, on a group of youth who, while following a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (Tabot), the most sacred item in the church, shifted to political messaging in their cheers and songs, according to media reports.  The Tabot fell to the ground during the incident, after which the youths threw rocks at the security forces.  According to an August 9 report by independent rights group Human Rights Council (HRCO), government security forces shot and killed eight and wounded 16 followers of the EOC during the protest.  Subsequently, residents of Woldia and nearby towns Kobo, Robit, Mersa, Wurgessa and Dessie staged protests, which the report stated turned violent; according to the HRCO, security forces killed eight of those protesters and injured nine others.  Government officials promised to investigate the incident, but as of year’s end there was no public report of findings or of anyone being held accountable.

The government released Ahmedin Jebel and his co-defendants from Kality Prison on February 14.  Ahmedin, a member of the Muslim Arbitration Committee, a group formed in 2011 to protest the government’s interference in religion and to advocate for the resolution of Muslim grievances, was arrested in 2012 along with several other activists.  The government brought terrorist charges against him and several codefendants, and they were found guilty.  In August 2015, the court sentenced Ahmedin to 22 years in prison.  Prior to his release, he was one of the few Muslim activists who remained in jail following the pardoning of several other detainees in recent years.

The SOE made protests illegal for four months.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  No religious group reported repression of religious freedom under the SOE.

Reports of government imposition or dissemination of Al-Ahbash teachings (a Sufi religious movement rooted in Lebanon and different from indigenous Islam) declined during the year.

The Directorate for Registration of Religious Groups within the Ministry of Peace reported 816 religious institutions and 1,640 fellowships and religious associations were registered as of late in the year.

The EIASC remained the lead religious organization for the country’s Muslims, managing religious activities in the approximately 40,000 mosques and annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca.  Some Muslims stated there was continued government interference in religious affairs, and some members of the Muslim community stated the EIASC lacked autonomy from the government.

Protestants continued to report that local officials discriminated against them with regard to religious registration and the allocation of land for churches and cemeteries.

On August 1, the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to Ethiopia after 27 years of exile in the United States, to reunite with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation ended 26 years of schism in the Orthodox Church.  Following the reconciliation, the two patriarchs were designated as equal heads of the reunited church, with Abune Merkorios assuming spiritual leadership and Abune Mathias assuming administrative leadership.  Media reported that Prime Minister Abiy played a central role in the mediation efforts by tasking mediators, and by personally attending and addressing a mediation conference in Washington D.C.

In collaboration with the government-sanctioned rights body Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an inquiry committee of the EOC on August 8 reinstated 300 priests of the Addis Ababa Diocese, who were suspended in 2016 by the diocesan leadership.  In addition to concluding the priests should be paid their two-year salary in full, the committee dismissed 14 individuals, including the manager of the Addis Ababa Diocese, for illegally suspending the priests and violating their rights.

On July 3, Prime Minister Abiy initiated an effort to resolve disputes within the Muslim community by bringing together leaders of the EIASC and the Muslim Arbitration Committee (MAC), previously rival groups.  The prime minister’s office stated the government maintained its neutrality when arbitrating between the two groups.  In a joint meeting, the two sides apologized to each other and pledged to resolve their disputes.  They agreed and set up a committee of nine members, three from each group as well as three elders and religious scholars.

On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after more than two decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media that they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and help build the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 4, according to national and international media reports, an organized group of Muslim youth killed six priests and burned down at least eight EOC churches in the Somali Regional State during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.

Participants at the annual Irreecha festival in late September celebrated peacefully, free of the violence that marred the event in 2016.  The PM’s office issued the following statement: “As we celebrate Irreecha, let’s all cherish our rich cultural heritages and unite in a shared purpose to build a bright future for our children.”

The IRCE, an organization established by seven religious institutions and operating independently from the government and whose mission is to promote interfaith harmony throughout the country, reported that major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

In May Muslim community leaders said that Islam in the country was threatened by internal fracturing due to discord within the community.

The EIASC expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community.  The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers continued to engage with the Ministry of Peace and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on religious tolerance, countering violent extremism related to religion, and promotion of shared values.

Embassy representatives held meetings with religious leaders, including the Office of the Patriarch of the EOC, the president of the EIASC, and the cardinal heading the Catholic Church in the country, to discuss the role of faith-based organizations in improving religious tolerance within society.  Embassy officials met with recently released leaders of the MAC.

Embassy officials engaged with members of the IRCE to discuss religious tolerance and attacks on places of worship.  The embassy’s dialogue with the IRCE sought to strengthen the IRCE’s capacity to reduce religious violence through increased dialogue among religious communities and to assist the IRCE in achieving its stated goal of creating a platform to unify disparate religious groups around common interests and promoting interreligious harmony.

Fiji

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief.  It also mandates the separation of religion and state.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation and inciting hatred or “disaffection” against any religious group.  Religious groups must register with the government.  A law on education permits noncompulsory religious instruction in schools owned and operated by various religious denominations.  The senior management of a leading newspaper was acquitted in May of charges related to publishing a letter to the editor that the government characterized as antagonistic toward the country’s Muslim community.

There were four acts of vandalism at Hindu temples in January.  According to the Fiji Sun daily newspaper, the country experienced a proliferation of anti-Muslim comments on social media in the lead-up to the November 14 national election.

Embassy officials held meetings with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government officials to promote religious tolerance, in addition to meetings with Christian, Hindu, and Muslim religious leaders with the aim of encouraging and maintaining an active interfaith dialogue.  The embassy used social media to highlight U.S. support of religious diversity in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 926,000 (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2007 census, approximately 64.5 percent of the population is Christian, 28 percent Hindu, and 6.3 percent Muslim.  The largest Christian denomination is the Methodist Church.  Other Protestant denominations account for 10.4 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 9.1 percent, and other Christian groups 10.4 percent.  There are small communities of Baha’is, Sikhs, and Jews.

Religious affiliation runs largely along ethnic lines.  According to the 2007 census, most iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) citizens, who constitute 57 percent of the population, are Christian.  The majority of the country’s traditional chiefs belong to the Methodist Church, which remains influential among indigenous people, particularly in rural areas where 49 percent of the population lives.  Most Indian Fijians, who account for 37 percent of the total population, are Hindu, while an estimated 20 percent are Muslim and 6 percent Christian.  Approximately 60 percent of the small Chinese community is Christian.  The small community of mixed European and Fijian ancestry is predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief.  The government may limit these rights by law to protect the freedoms of others, or for reasons of public safety, order, morality, health, or nuisance.  The constitution also mandates separation of religion and state.  Citizens have the right, either individually or collectively, in public and private, to manifest their religion or beliefs in worship, observance, practice, or teaching.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation, and laws make inciting hatred or “disaffection” against religious groups a criminal offense.  The constitution provides that individuals may not assert religious belief as a reason for disobeying the law.  The constitution places limits on proselytizing on government premises and at government functions.

By law, religious groups must register with the government through trustees who may then hold land or property for the groups.  To register, religious bodies must submit applications to the registrar of titles office.  Applications must include names and identification of the trustees, signed by the head of the religious body to be registered, a copy of the constitution of the proposed religious body, land title documents for the land used by the religious body, and a registration fee of 2.30 Fiji dollars ($1).  Registered religious bodies may receive an exemption from taxes after approval from the national tax agency, on the condition they operate in a nonprofit and noncompetitive capacity.  By law, religious bodies that hold land or property must register their houses of worship, including their land, and show proof of title.  There is no mention in the law of religious organizations that do not hold land.

Permits are required for any public meeting on public property organized by religious groups, outside of regular religious services and houses of worship.

There is no required religious instruction under the law.  Private or religious groups sometimes own or manage school properties, but the Ministry of Education administers and regulates the curriculum.  The law allows religious groups the right to establish, maintain, and manage places of education, whether or not they receive financial assistance from the state, provided the institution maintains educational standards prescribed by law.  The law permits noncompulsory religious instruction in all schools, enabling schools owned and operated by various religious denominations but receiving government support to offer religious instruction.  Schools may incorporate religious elements, such as class prayer, as long as they do not force teachers to participate, and students may be excused should their parents request it.  The government provides funding and education assistance to public schools, including schools owned and operated by religious organizations, on a per pupil basis.  Some schools maintain their religious and/or ethnic origin, but they remain open to all students.  According to the law, the government ensures free tuition for primary and secondary schools.

The country ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in August, and the covenant entered into force in November.

Government Practices

On May 22, the Suva High Court acquitted three staff members of the Fiji Times newspaper and the author of a letter to the editor on charges of sedition for violating a law that prohibits publishing articles that incite and cause dislike, hatred, and antagonism toward any community.  The charges stemmed from a letter to the editor published in 2016 in the Fiji Times’ indigenous language edition that prosecutors originally said incited communal antagonism against the Muslim community.

In October the Fiji Times reported that in the run-up to national elections in November, the majority of political parties said race and religion were issues that mattered to the people and were raised and expressed by the people.  Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) said the prime minister was wrong in suggesting that SODELPA was “for the iTaukei,” (who are mostly Christian).  Rabuka said his party affirmed the freedom and dignity of all ethnicities and religions.

According to the Fiji Sun, 60 percent of 1,000 persons interviewed in an October poll said the opposition was using race or religion in its election campaign.  In July the Fiji Sun reported a Nukuloa resident said a provisional candidate of the National Federation Party opposition told him the attorney general, who is Muslim, will “make everyone a Muslim” if the governing Fiji First Party won in the election.

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and other cabinet ministers continued to emphasize religious tolerance during public addresses at home and overseas.  They stated the country is a multifaith nation with religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution and it must unite to defend the rights of citizens to practice their religion.  Prior to its ratification, in May the parliament held public consultations on the ICCPR, including treaty provisions on religious freedom, with civil society and human rights organizations, political parties, and the public.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January the Hindu organization Shree Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha increased security at Hindu temples because of four acts of vandalism.  The Council of Churches, government, and police issued statements condemning the acts.  No arrests were made.

The Fiji Sun reported the country experienced a proliferation of anti-Muslim comments on social media in the lead-up to the November 14 national election.

In November some Catholic parishes celebrated Diwali at a special Mass they stated was to show respect to Hindus.  Archbishop Peter Loy Chong said such a Mass would be held at the cathedral and stated, “Fiji is blessed with a diversity of religious traditions.  May our religious diversities be a source of strength, unity, and richness.”  He added that religion had public value and could not be confined to the private sphere.

Also in November interfaith leaders teamed up in campaigns to mark the “16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women and Children.”  The campaign also included a 60-second commercial showing church leaders naming gender-based violence as a sin and which was shown in cinemas and on national television.

The Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as Hindu and Muslim groups operated numerous schools, including secondary schools, which were eligible for government subsides based on the size of the student population.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with government officials and local religious leaders.

Embassy officials met with Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious leaders to discuss the importance of respect for religious freedom as a universal human right.

The embassy utilized social media to promote religious pluralism and tolerance, such as posts highlighting diverse religious traditions.

Finland

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community.  The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies.  Religious communities must register to receive government funds.  In September an appeals court upheld a 2017 lower court ban of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country.  After a court ruled that a long-standing military service exemption which applied only to Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the nondiscrimination clauses of the constitution, parliament began debating a bill to end the exemption.  Some politicians again made negative remarks against Muslims in social media.  The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) advocated banning circumcision and stricter religious registration criteria.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 55 complaints of religious discrimination during the year, compared with 46 in the previous year.  Police reported 235 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2017, 10 of which it determined were specifically motivated by the victim’s religion.  After its banning, the NRM continued to publish anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim language online, as did other groups.  Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population after plans for a “Grand Mosque” in Helsinki failed to materialize.  Groups promoting interreligious dialogue expanded their capabilities during the year, with government support.

U.S. embassy staff met with various ministry officials to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, religious education, and male circumcision.  Embassy staff also discussed with the Jewish and Muslim communities their concerns about the law banning certain forms of animal slaughter, government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and a rise in religiously motivated harassment.  They also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minorities, youth groups, and interfaith networks.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  The government statistics office estimates that, as of December 2017, approximately 71 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent identifies as Muslim, and 26.3 percent does not identify as belonging to any religious group.  Census results combine the other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.3 percent of the population.

According to a survey from the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Muslim population was approximately 65,000 in 2016; Muslim religious leaders estimate the number rose to 100,000 in 2018, of which approximately 80 percent are Sunni and 20 percent Shia.  With the exception of Tatars, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia and North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.  The Muslim population has been growing rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.”  It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community.  It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion.  The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes blaspheming against God, publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies.  Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment for up to six months.  Authorities have rarely applied the law, most recently in 2009.

The law explicitly prohibits religious discrimination and prescribes a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law and investigating individual cases of discrimination and having the power to levy fines on violators.  The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling and promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities.  Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal or through the district court system.  Litigants may appeal the decisions of the tribunal and the district court system to the higher Administrative Court.

In May parliament unanimously approved a reform of the Church Act, which governs the practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Among other changes, the new act, scheduled to come into force in 2019, devolves certain responsibilities back to the Church that previously required parliamentary approval, such as allowing Church authorities to present new policy proposals and hold votes online rather than requiring in person meetings.

Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government.  To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community.  To register as a community, a group must have at least 20 members, have as its purpose the public practice of religion, and have a set of rules to guide its activities.  A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims.  Nonprofit associations, including registered and unregistered religious groups, are generally exempt from taxes.  According to the MEC, there are approximately 130 registered religious communities, most of which have multiple congregations.  Persons may belong to more than one religious community.

All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments.  Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, now set at between 1 to 2 percent of member income.  Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership.  Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person.  Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.

Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Orthodox Church are also eligible to apply for state funds.  The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements (a minimum of 20 members and the ability to collect fees) may receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.

The ELC is required to maintain public cemeteries and account for the spending of government funds.  Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries.  All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy.  The law authorizes the ELC and Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Population Register Center.  State registrars do this for other persons.

Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12 years of age.  The parents of a child between the ages of 12 and 17 must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate religious affiliation.

All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion.  All students must take courses either in ethics or in religious studies, with the choice left up to the student.  Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community.  Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics.  Students age 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or ethics.  If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates.  The government does not prohibit or restrict private religiously based schools.

Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and general instruction in ethics.  Teachers of religion must have the required state-mandated training for religious instruction.  The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community.  The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.

The government allows conscientious objectors to choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service.  In February the Helsinki Court of Appeals overturned a long-standing exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses from military service.  After a conscientious objector who was not a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged the exemption policy, the court ruled in his favor, stating the legal exemption gave preferential treatment to one particular religion and thus violated the nondiscrimination clauses of the constitution.  Per current legislation, conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service.  Following the court ruling, all conscientious objectors are entitled to the same exemption from duty regardless of their religion.  Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.

The law bans certain types of animal slaughter, requiring that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be killed and stunned simultaneously in cases of religious practice.

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

Government Practices

On September 28, the Court of Appeals in Turku upheld a 2017 Pirkanmaa District Court ban on the NRM, its regional chapters, and the NRM-linked Nordic Tradition group, which had distributed anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic material and spoken out against what the group called “the criminal capitalist world order and Zionism.”  The NRM criticized the decision and stated the prohibition would lead to greater popular support, citing an October announcement of solidarity from the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group.

The Helsinki police reduced by half the staffing for a police unit dedicated to addressing hate crimes and crimes involving infringements on the rights of individuals to practice their religion.  The unit, established in 2017, had precipitated a large rise in investigations of incitement to violence, some of which involved violations of religious freedom.  Police spokesmen described the reduction in force as a reallocation of resources, as parliament had declined to renew the 1.26 million euro ($1.44 million) grant for the unit, requiring it to draw funding from the general police budget.

On January 14, then speaker of parliament Maria Lohela spoke at an event at the Helsinki Synagogue and pledged the government’s support to defend all Jews in the country.

The ombudsman for children at the MOJ continued to advocate a change to the registration process for religious organizations, whereby a board of experts assesses groups for their compliance with certain criteria prior to issuing a formal registration.  In a February media interview, the ombudsman criticized the child-rearing practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular what he said were reports of the shunning of minors who renounced the Church and the reliance by Jehovah’s Witnesses on their own internal investigations rather than on the police in cases of alleged abuse against children.  He stated the government should amend the law to include regular review of religious organizations to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights, in particular the best interests of children.  According to the ombudsman, a religion deemed noncompliant could be compelled to redress its treatment of children or face revocation of its registration.  Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives in the country criticized the statements as a threat against their religion.

Press reports described the reform of the Church Act governing the practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a move toward greater autonomy for the Church administration and greater transparency in internal decision making.  Minister of Education and Science Sanni Grahn-Lassonen told a meeting of the Church synod that “the easing of regulations will improve the flexibility of administration and church autonomy,” comments that official church press statements echoed shortly thereafter.

Parliament debated an animal welfare bill, scheduled for a vote in 2019, that would require prior stunning of animals before slaughter in all cases, eliminating the existing exemption allowing simultaneous stunning and killing in cases of religious slaughter.  Jewish and Muslim leaders criticized the proposed amendment, saying it would ban all kosher and halal slaughter.  These leaders also criticized the restrictions in the existing law, which hindered their communities’ ability to slaughter animals in a religiously approved manner and forced them to import meat at higher prices.

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public health-care funding for such procedures.  In its guidelines, the ministry stated that only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent.  Religious communities, including members of Muslim and Jewish communities, expressed disagreement with the guidelines; however, the ministry stated it had not received any protest during the year from religious representatives regarding the recommendation that only a licensed physician perform circumcision.

In April the ombudsman for children at the MOJ sent a public request to the MSAH that it establish legally binding regulations for nonmedical circumcision and ensure it is performed on minors only with informed consent or prohibited entirely.  The request stated the ombudsman would prefer to prohibit all nonmedical circumcision of minors.  There were reports the government continued to discuss the possibility of criminalizing male circumcision.  By year’s end neither the Jewish nor the Muslim community had made an official response to the ombudsman’s proposal.

In July the Ministry of Defense published a report advocating a repeal of the conscription exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses, citing changes since the government first instituted the exemption in 1987 that allowed men to complete their conscription duties as an employee in the civil service.  The representative body for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country stated the alternative civil service could be an adequate substitute, although the organization did not take an official stand on participation in military service, leaving the decision to the approximately 100 male Jehovah’s witnesses who reached conscription age each year.  On September 20, parliament accepted a bill for debate that would terminate the legal exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The bill was under debate at year’s end.

In February police raided a mosque located in a Helsinki shopping mall.  While a police spokesperson described the raid as a response to general complaints of criminal activity in the building, Muslim community representatives said it exacerbated already tense relations between Muslims and the police and showed ignorance on the part of the authorities.

Responding to media reports that school districts had been unable to provide sufficient faculty to provide instruction in all of the faiths to which their students belonged, the minister of education stated in August that her ministry would continue to adhere to the established religious education policy and not offer combined religious courses.  According to the minister, “The current model, which protects the teaching of individual religion, the knowledge of religion, and the ability to understand different religions, has proved its value in Finnish society.”

Following news reports in 2017 that large numbers of Muslim asylum seekers had converted to Christianity during their time in the country and would face persecution should the government reject their application and remove them to their country of origin, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) sought out training from the Finnish Ecumenical Council and representatives from other faiths.  With ministry sponsorship, the council conducted training in late 2017 and 2018 for more than 200 asylum review officers on how to assess converts during asylum adjudication.

NGOs working with migrants continued to advocate for improved interpreting services for asylum seekers, many of whom belonged to religious minorities.  They also raised concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without persecution by other migrants held within the same center.

While the government did not release detailed reports on asylum applicants categorized by religion, it stated the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia applying for asylum because of what they said was religious persecution there had increased.  In addition, media reports stated more than 200 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses applied for asylum from January to August, compared with approximately 100 who did so in all of 2017.  According to the same reports, immigration courts had approved only a small number of asylum applicants, and immigration officials were careful to state that membership in the church would not in and of itself guarantee asylum.

In May the Office of the Prime Minister announced that it would fund an independent investigation into allegations Finnish volunteers in the Nazi Waffen-SS killed Jews and other civilians during World War II.  The announcement followed a January letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to President Sauli Niinisto requesting the government study the participation of Finnish troops in Nazi killings, particularly in Ukraine.

In July Jussi Halla-aho, Chair of the Finns Party and Member of the European Parliament, criticized the decision by the country’s flagship school of higher learning, Helsinki University, to offer for the first time a course in Islamic theology.  In a public statement online, Halla-aho stated the goal of the course in theology “is to help us Finns better understand the Islamic minority which has been forcibly created here and of course prevent them from radicalization.”

The government again allocated 114 million euros ($130.73 million) to the ELC and 2.5 million euros ($2.87 million) to the Orthodox Church.  The MEC allotted a total of 524,000 euros ($601,000) to all other registered religious organizations.  All of the allocations were unchanged from 2017.

The MEC awarded a total of 80,000 euros ($91,700) to promote interfaith dialogue, the same amount as in 2017.  Two organizations split the funding:  the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions in Finland and Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2017, the latest period for which data were available, police reported 235 hate crimes involving members of religious groups, including crimes involving assault, threats and harassment, discrimination, and vandalism, compared with 149 such incidents in the previous year.  There were 153 incidents involving Muslims, 45 involving Christians, nine involving Jews, two involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 26 involving other or unknown religious groups.  Police, however, could only ascertain that 10 of these crimes were specifically motivated by the religion of the victims.  They could not determine how many of the other incidents were at least in part religiously motivated.  The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 55 complaints of religious discrimination in the same year, compared with 46 complaints in 2016.  Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite its banning, the NRM continued to operate a website and make statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims and maintained an active online presence through its website and social media.  The second priority of its political platform read, “With all means possible work towards reconquering power from the global Zionist elite.”  The NRM continued to post anti-Semitic graffiti in public spaces and printed other materials glorifying Adolf Hitler.

Kansallismielisten Liittouma (Nationalist Alliance), established in 2017, mobilized hundreds of demonstrators to an August rally in Turku commemorating the one-year anniversary of a terrorist attack by a Moroccan migrant to whom authorities had denied asylum.  The alliance described itself as a network for associated far-right groups in the country and contained members of established groups such as NRM, Soldiers of Odin, Finnish Defense League, and Suomen Sisu.  Member of Parliament Ritva Elomaa of the Finns Party participated in the demonstration and gave a public statement of support.  The demonstration sparked an anti-Neo-Nazi demonstration of approximately 1,000 marchers who condemned the presence of what they called Neo-Nazis in the city.

The website Magneettimedia, known for its anti-Semitic content, continued to post defamatory statements online.  In September it published an article entitled “The Concentration of Power in the Jewish Elite” stating that the “global Jewish or Zionist conspiracy” is behind “the collapse of modern society.”  The former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, continued to publish anti-Semitic editorials in the newspaper KauppaSuomi, a periodical available through his large chain of department stores with what it said was a circulation of 270,000.  In addition to these two outlets, online Finnish media outlets critical of Islam and Judaism increased in popularity, notably Oikea Media and Kansalainen.fi.  Major Finnish consumer brands continued to boycott the Karkkainen chain of department stores, citing anti-Semitic public statements by Karkkainen.

Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population.  Plans for a “Grand Mosque and Oasis Center” in central Helsinki collapsed in December 2017 amid questions about the foreign financing of the project and political resistance both inside and outside the Muslim community.  According to press reports, conservative politicians and nationalist groups said they opposed the project due to concerns it would foster violent extremism.  With the exception of a handful of purpose-built mosques, the majority of mosques were located in converted commercial spaces.

According to press reports, a mosque of the Islamic Society of Northern Finland located in Oulu was vandalized twice in December.  In the first incident, unknown persons defaced the interior of the mosque and destroyed its inventory of frozen halal meat.  In the second incident, on Christmas Eve, the perpetrators smashed a mosque window.

A member of the Jewish community said privately that high-profile Jewish sites in Helsinki were regular targets for graffiti during the year.  He said the community preferred not to publicize the incidents.

Due in part to the sponsorship of the national government, civil society groups dedicated to promoting interreligious dialogue expanded their capabilities during the year.  The National Forum for Cooperation of Religions, which brought together representatives from the largest religious denominations, gathered testimony from their respective congregations for a report on hate crimes commissioned by the public victim-support service.  The group had not issued the report by year’s end, but preliminary findings indicated that Muslim women were at particular risk for harassment in public spaces.  Representatives of religious groups attended ceremonies hosted in their counterparts’ houses of worship.  Finn Church Aid, associated with the ELC, hosted its first interreligious iftar celebration; the late-night June event brought together representatives from the major religious denominations in the capital region, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA), and municipal governments.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy staff met with officials from the MOJ, MOI, and MFA to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the treatment of religious converts in asylum adjudication, and regulations covering male circumcision and government registration of religions.

Embassy staff met with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and community activists, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.  Topics discussed with members of the Jewish and Muslim communities included their shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, the increasing number of religiously motivated crimes, proposed legislation that would prohibit forms of religious animal slaughter, and the response to efforts to build a new Islamic house of worship.  Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with members of the Muslim community, most notably at an embassy-hosted iftar celebration with representatives from different Muslim congregations and youth groups.  Topics discussed with representatives of the Jehovah’s Witness community included changes to the military service exemption and the increase in the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses applying for asylum based on persecution for their faith.

On November 1, the Ambassador gave public remarks condemning anti-Semitism at a memorial organized by the Central Council of the Jewish Communities of Finland for the victims of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.  Representatives of the Muslim and Christian communities of Helsinki attended in support of the victims and in opposition to acts of anti-Semitism.

France

Executive Summary

The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion.  The president and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces to protect sensitive sites, including religious ones.  In June the government thwarted an attempted extremist plot to attack Muslims.  In April authorities expelled an Algerian imam because of his radical preaching in Marseille.  The government denied an Algerian Muslim woman citizenship after she refused to shake the hands of male officials.  The government announced a 2018-2020 action plan to combat hatred, including anti-Semitism, and a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and funding of Islam within France.  In July the interior minister announced expansion of a “precomplaint” system designed to facilitate reporting of crimes, to include anti-Semitic acts.  The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools.  President Emmanuel Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.”  In May the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the application of counterterrorism laws and called the government closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.

Religiously motivated crimes and other incidents against Jews and Muslims occurred, including killings or attempted killings, beatings, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism.  The government reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, compared with 1,038 in 2017, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property.  According to government statistics, there were 100 crimes targeting Muslims, including an attack against Muslim worshippers outside a mosque, a 17 percent decrease compared with the 121 in 2017.  The government also reported an additional 51 acts against Muslim places of worship or cemeteries.  There were 541 anti-Semitic crimes, consisting of physical attacks, threats, and vandalism, an increase of 74 percent compared with the 311 incidents recorded in 2017.  Anti-Semitic incidents included the killing of a Holocaust survivor, an acid attack against a rabbi’s baby, and threatening letters against Jewish groups citing the killing of the Holocaust survivor.  Violent anti-Semitic crimes totaled 81, compared with 97 in 2017.  A student leader at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) generated considerable debate after wearing a hijab on national television.  According to a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in February, 43 percent of respondents thought Islam was not compatible with the values of the republic.

The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and with the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues.  The Ambassador, embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance.  The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and advance tolerance.  The embassy funded a visit to the United States for four nongovernmental organization (NGO) directors on an exchange program that included themes of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance.  It also sponsored the participation of three imams at a conference in Rabat focused on building interfaith relationships.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent study by the National Institute for Demographic and Economic Studies, conducted in 2008 and published in 2010, 45 percent of respondents aged 18-50 reported no religious affiliation, while 43 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 8 percent as Muslim, 2 percent as Protestant, and the remaining 2 percent as Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or other.

A poll conducted in March by the private firm Opinionway found 41 percent of respondents older than 18 years identify as Catholic, 8 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 1 percent Buddhist, and 1 percent Jewish; 43 percent said they have no religious affiliation.

According to a survey conducted in March by the Catholic Institute of Paris and St. Mary’s Catholic University in the United Kingdom, 64 percent of young people aged 16-29 in France declared themselves without a religion compared with 23 percent who said they were Catholic and 10 percent who said they were Muslim.

The MOI estimates 8-10 percent of the population is Muslim.  The Muslim population consists primarily of immigrants from former French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa and their descendants.  According to a Pew Research Center study published in November 2017, Muslims number 5.72 million, 8.8 percent of the total population.

According to a 2017 Ipsos study published in Reforme, a Protestant online news daily, there are an estimated 600,000 Lutheran, 600,000 evangelical, and 800,000 nondenominational members in the Protestant community.  Many evangelical churches primarily serve African and Caribbean immigrants.

A 2016 report by Berman Jewish Data Bank estimated there are 460,000-700,000 Jews, depending on the criteria chosen.  According to the study, there are more Sephardic than Ashkenazi Jews.

The Buddhist Union of France estimates there are one million Buddhists, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants.  Other religious groups estimate their numbers as follows:  Jehovah’s Witnesses, 120,000; Orthodox Christians, most of whom are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches, 80,000-100,000; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 66,000; Church of Scientology, 45,000; and Sikhs, 30,000.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The law, as well as international and European covenants which France adheres to, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion.  Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1700) and imprisonment of one month.  Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.

Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group.  Penalties for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000-75,000 euros ($51,600-86,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries.  For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($51,600).  The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.

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

Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status.  Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide.  In order to qualify, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include religious training and the construction of buildings serving the religious group.  Among excluded activities are those purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature.  The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive.  If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status.  According to the MOI, 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status.

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

Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.”  The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court.  Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,600).  The core provisions of the legislation will expire at the end of 2020 unless renewed by parliament.

The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters.  If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity.  Police officials may not remove it themselves.  If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity.  Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours.  Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course.  Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($34,400) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison.  The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

On June 23, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) arrested 10 men linked to a suspected far-right extremist plot to attack Muslims, according to media reports.  The suspects were arrested in the Paris and southwestern regions and on the island of Corsica and charged with criminal association with a terrorist enterprise.  Among the detainees was a retired police officer whom investigators considered the head of the network.  The suspects, who were previously unknown to authorities, reportedly had an “ill-defined plan to commit a violent act targeting people of the Muslim faith,” according to a source close to the investigation.  LCI TV reported the group was planning to “target radical imams, Islamist inmates released from prison, and veiled women chosen at random in the streets.”  In a June 24 statement, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb hailed the arrests and welcomed “DGSI’s constant commitment to the protection of the French people from any violent action, no matter where it comes from.”

In January investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four and injuring 40.  The magistrates said they found the evidence against Diab inconclusive and ordered his release.  Prosecutors appealed Diab’s discharge, and on October 26, the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling.  The court had not issued a ruling by year’s end.  Diab was extradited from Canada in 2014.

On July 10, a senate report stated authorities had closed four places of worship under the counterterrorism law between November 1, 2017 and June 8.  On December 13, the newspaper La Voix du Nord reported the prefect of the North Department applied the counterterrorism law to close the As-Sunnah prayer room in Hautmont for six months.  According to a statement issued by the prefecture, the prayer room’s activities and the ideas disseminated there “provoke violence, hatred, and discrimination, and praise acts of terror,” and the prefecture closed the prayer room “with the sole purpose of preventing the commission of acts of terrorism.”

On April 20, authorities expelled Algerian imam El Hadi Doudi, the leader of the Salafist As-Sounna Mosque in Marseille, to Algeria.  This decision followed the closing of As-Sounna for six months by the Bouches-du-Rhone Prefecture in December 2017 because of what it stated was Doudi’s radical preaching, which, according to press reports, inspired attendees to join ISIS.  According to authorities, sermons at the As-Sounna Mosque, sometimes disseminated via internet, preached in favor of armed jihad and the death penalty for adulterers and apostates, and used insulting or threatening terms towards Jews.  The As-Sounna Mosque, which had approximately 800 worshippers for its Friday prayers before its closure, was one of 80 places of Islamic worship in Marseille.  The mosque did not reopen after the six-month closure, because, according to the Marseille online newspaper Marsactu, the city of Marseille invoked its legal “preemption right” to take possession of the site.  According to a report in Le Parisien newspaper in May citing an interior ministry source, the purposed of the preemption was to prevent the mosque from reopening, while according to a report in La Provence newspaper citing a source in the Marseille municipality, the city acquired the property for purposes of urban renewal.

In an April 12 interview, President Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.”  In September Interior Minister Collomb stated that since 2017, the country had expelled 300 radical imams.

On May 16, the prefect of the Herault Department closed a small Muslim prayer room in in a townhouse in Gigean, which the authorities said they had considered a Salafist “reference point” for six months.  According to the prefectural decree posted on the townhouse, the prayer room was “an influential place of reference of the Salafist movement, advocating a rigorous Islam, calling for discrimination, hatred and violence against women, Jews, and Christians.”  Information as to whether the prayer room reopened after the six-month period was unavailable at year’s end.

The government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship.  On March 30, NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers reported the government deployed 70,000 law enforcement personnel from March 31 until April 7 to protect places of worship during Easter celebrations.

In April authorities denied an Algerian woman citizenship for refusing to shake hands with male officials at a French nationalization ceremony in the Department of Isere in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Region due to her religious convictions.  The country’s top administrative court, the Council of State, ruled there were sufficient grounds to do so since the woman’s refusal “in a place and at a moment that are symbolic, reveals a lack of assimilation,” and that the decision was not detrimental to her freedom of religion.

On September 4, a court in Nanterre fined the Union of Clichy Muslim Association (UAMC) 17,000 euros ($19,500) for organizing Friday street prayers on 34 occasions without first informing city or prefecture officials of its plans.  The UAMC had been conducting the street prayers as a protest in front of the mayor’s office in Clichy-la-Garenne, after the town declined to renew the UAMC’s lease on a space it had been using as a mosque and expelled the group from the site in 2017.  The UAMC had rejected as inadequate an alternative space offered by the town.

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

On June 19, the administrative court of Nice ordered the Mayor of Cannes to refund a fine levied on a woman for violating an “anti-burkini order” at the beach.  In August 2016, municipal police had fined the woman and told her she could not remain at the beach while wearing a burkini.  After the terrorist attack in Nice in 2016, Cannes and several other coastal cities banned burkinis on the beaches.  However, later that same year, the Council of State ruled that these decrees were illegal.

On August 10, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) criticized a 2014 Supreme Court ruling upholding the 2008 dismissal of a woman from a private nursery in the town of Chanteloup-les-Vignes for refusing to remove her veil at work.  The council stated that prohibiting a person from wearing a headscarf in the workplace interfered with her right to manifest her religion.

On October 23, the UNHRC found the country violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqabs in two separate cases in 2012.  The committee received the complaints in 2016 and issued the decisions in the two cases concurrently.  The government had 180 days to report to the committee action taken to respond to the violation and to prevent similar violations in the future.  On October 23, the government issued a statement declaring “the total legitimacy of a law [prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces] whose goal is to uphold the conditions for living together harmoniously while fully exercising one’s civil and political rights,” and adding, “Everyone is free to appear in public wearing clothing that expresses a religious conviction, so long as it allows the face to be seen.”  The statement cited a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court that the law complied with the constitution and a European Court of Human Rights ruling that the law did not infringe upon freedom of conscience or religion and was not discriminatory.  In its statement, the government said it would convey its views in a follow-up report to the UNHRC.

On December 11, the senate adopted a resolution reaffirming the importance of the 2010 law prohibiting the concealment of the face in public spaces and calling on the government to maintain the legal framework “relative to the wearing of the full-face Islamic veil in the public space.”

UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Fionnuala Ni Aoilain expressed concern that counterterrorism legislation enacted in 2017 restricted freedom of religion, movement, and expression in the country.  After a weeklong visit in May, Ni Aoilain said, “the scope of these measures constitutes a de facto state of qualified emergency in ordinary French law.”  She said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the “broad application” of counterterrorism law and called the closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.

Pursuant to the 2014 agreement between France and the United States on Compensation for Certain Victims of Holocaust-Related Deportation from France Who Are Not Covered by French Programs, the United States established the Holocaust Deportation Claims Program.  Under the agreement, which entered into force on November 1, 2015, France provided a lump sum of $60 million to the United States for distribution to eligible claimants.  At year’s end, payments to claimants from this fund totaled $30,028,500.

Speaking on March 19 at the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the broad outlines of a three-year national action plan, covering the 2018-2020 period, to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the country, with a strong focus on countering online hate content.  Accompanied by seven other ministers and the head of the Interagency Delegation to Counter Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hatred (DILCRAH), Philippe stated the action plan would have four key targets:  countering online hate content; improving victim protection services; anti-racism education; and developing new areas of mobilization against hate.

The plan would encompass specific measures, including:  advocating for an EU-level law to require social media platforms to more quickly remove hate content on their servers; imposing heavy fines on social media companies that failed to remove hate content within 24 hours; increasing the capacity and staffing of the government’s Pharos online platform to register and remove online hate content; creating a national anti-racism prize named after Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man killed in 2006, to recognize the efforts of youth fighting racism and anti-Semitism; and launching a campaign to increase awareness of racism in sport.  The prime minister said a three-person committee would develop the details of the action plan and submit it to the government for review and implementation.

In a July 5 speech before the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), then-Interior Minister Collomb announced the extension of law enforcement’s online “precomplaint” system to racist and anti-Semitic acts in order to facilitate action and “prosecute anti-Semitic offenders even more effectively.”  The system previously was restricted to property crimes.  Grievants may submit their identity and contact information, the location of an incident, and other relevant facts on a government website and, after filling out the precomplaint, go to a police station to sign and validate the complaint to initiate an investigation.

On May 15, the Observatory for Secularism, a body comprised of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its fifth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals.  According to the report, the subject of secularism remained a sensitive one, although “direct attacks on secularism” were not widespread.  The report stated there was a need for training and education to overcome “deep ignorance” of the law.

President Macron delivered his New Year’s greetings to the country’s religious communities at the Elysee Presidential Palace on January 4.  He welcomed two representatives each from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups.  Prime Minister Philippe and then-Interior Minister Collomb also attended.  Macron’s speech focused mainly on secularism, which he underlined as a fundamental pillar of the country, before highlighting the essential place for religion in society and the importance of teaching theology.  The president hailed the role played by Christian charitable organizations in assisting refugees while recalling the “ethical tension” between the right of asylum and “the reality of our society, its capacity to welcome.”  Macron also said he would meet religious community leaders on a regular basis behind closed doors to consult on various topics.  He cited the need to “structure” Islam in the country and to train imams to fight radicalization.  “I will help you,” he said.

On June 12, then-Interior Minister Collomb attended an iftar hosted by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the official government structure responsible for relations with the country’s Muslim community.  Collomb, whose ministry oversees government relations with religious communities, strongly defended secularism and stated the government “will never accept … the stigmatization of a religion” nor “to reduce Islam to Islamism.”  He said the country must focus on the preventing radicalization, training for imams, sources of financing of mosques, and structuring the administration of Islam in the country.  “It is up to the Muslims of France to address these issues in the long-term,” he said.  Attendees at the event included Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, other government officials, and ambassadors.

On June 25, then-Minister Collomb announced a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and the funding of Islam in the country.  Prefects in each department would hold listening sessions with local representatives from the Muslim community on issues related to institutional representation, financing of Islamic places of worship, and training of imams.  He stated the dialogue would strive to include all the diversity of the Muslim community, including younger and female voices, as well as civil society members, according to an administrative circular he sent to prefects.  The government said it expected to release the results of the dialogue in 2019.

Speaking before the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France (CEF) on April 9, President Macron said he supported “repairing” ties between the state and the Catholic Church.  Macron was the first sitting president to speak at a CEF event.  He stated the Catholic Church should engage in the political debate on key issues important to the Church, such as treatment of migrants, possible legislative changes concerning bioethics, and medically assisted reproduction for single women and lesbian couples, and generally encouraged Catholics to engage more in politics.  His appearance generated criticism from left-wing politicians, including Jean-Luc Melenchon, Alexis Corbiere, and Olivier Faure, who said it flouted the strict separation of church and state mandated by the law on secularism.

President Macron met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on June 26 to discuss immigration and other challenges facing Europe.  The Vatican described the meeting as “cordial” and said it highlighted the “good existing bilateral relations” between the two nations.  Speaking later to the press, Macron described the meeting as “intense” and said he told Pope Francis that the “progressive way to handle the migrant crisis was through a true policy of development for Africa.”

On January 9, Prime Minister Philippe, then-Interior Minister Collomb, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, and government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux attended a memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where two years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other people hostage.  Former President Francois Hollande and former Prime Ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve also attended the event.

On July 22, Prime Minister Philippe held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of July 1942 in which 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps.  “There is one area in which we must do better, that of the restitution of cultural property,” stolen during the Nazi occupation, Philippe said.  A Ministry of Culture report submitted in April to Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen criticized the current policy of restitution as inefficient and lacking ambition, coordination, leadership, and visibility.  As a result, the Commission for the Compensation of the Victims of Spoliation was to examine all cases of restitution and transmit its recommendations to the prime minister, according to an official statement released by the Ministry of Culture.  In addition, the Ministry of Culture said it would take a more active role in the search and restitution of stolen properties.  The report identified 2,008 cultural works with no identified owner.

Recalling his plan to fight racism and anti-Semitism launched in March, Prime Minister Philippe reiterated his “absolute desire to change French law and European law to remove hate content on the internet, to unmask and punish its authors.”

President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions including the March 7 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 French Judaism Day observance.

In a November 9 Facebook post, Prime Minister Philippe announced the number of anti-Semitic acts committed in the first nine months of the year rose by 69 percent compared to the same period in 2017.  Philippe did not quote the exact numbers of anti-Semitic acts or their nature, such as physical attacks, threats, or vandalism.  Underlining that his announcement coincided with the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom by the Nazis against Jews, PM Philippe wrote, “Every aggression perpetrated against one of our citizens because they are Jewish echoes like the breaking of a new crystal…. We are very far from being finished with anti-Semitism.”  Referencing Elie Wiesel’s “danger of indifference,” Philippe pledged the government would not be indifferent and recalled recent acts taken to combat anti-Semitism.  Acts he cited included toughening of rules against hate speech online; mobilizing a national rapid-response team from the Ministry of Education and DILCRAH to support teachers reporting cases of anti-Semitism; and the trial use of a network of investigators and magistrates specifically trained in the fight against hate acts, which could later be extended nationwide.

On December 20, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanqer announced the launch of an online platform that teachers could use to report cases of anti-Semitism and racism to the education ministry.

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

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

On June 11, the Diocese of Vannes moved a 25-foot-tall statue of Saint Pope John Paul II from public land in Ploermel in Brittany to a Catholic school in the same town.  In 2017, the Council of State had ruled the statue could remain on public land but ordered the removal of the cross on the statue within six months because it violated the law separating church and state.  Rather than removing the cross, the diocese elected to move the entire statue to Church-owned land.  Some Christians and politicians criticized the decision, calling it another example of efforts to erase the country’s Christian heritage.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to the latest government estimates available, the MOI reported registered crimes targeting Muslims (threats or violence) totaled 100, down from 121 in 2017; there were an additional 45 acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship and six acts of desecration against Muslim cemeteries.  The reported anti-Semitic crimes (threats or violence) increased to 541, compared with 311 in the previous year.  Despite an overall increase resulting from a significant rise in threats, violent acts against Jews fell from 97 to 81.  Anti-Semitic threats rose from 214 in 2017 to 358, and acts of vandalism totaled 102.  The government also reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property, compared with 1,038 in 2017.  The government did not provide a detailed breakdown of anti-Muslim or anti-Christian acts registered during the year.

On March 23, Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, aged 85, was found dead in her Paris apartment.  An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed at least 11 times before being burned in a fire, which was ruled to be arson.  Authorities arrested two individuals in connection with the killing and placed them in pretrial detention.  The Paris prosecutor’s office was investigating the killing as a hate crime.  After the incident, thousands of people participated in a “white march,” a silent gathering to commemorate the victim, in Paris.  On May 27, President Macron stated Knoll was “murdered because she was Jewish.”

In February unknown individuals placed acid in the stroller of a rabbi’s baby daughter in Bron.  The child suffered burns on her back and legs.  According to an ongoing police investigation, anti-Semitic motives were involved.

In March police arrested four teens suspected of beating a Jewish boy with a stick and taking his kippah outside a synagogue north of Paris.  The suspects reportedly called the boy and his siblings “dirty Jews.”

On August 24, a man attacked two male worshippers with a bicycle chain as they were leaving a mosque in the town of Lens, near Calais.  The Mayor of Lens, Sylvain Robert, condemned the attack in a statement.  According to the mayor, during his court hearing, the accused cited “ideological and racist” justifications for his act.  On September 26, the Lens Court sentenced the accused to an 11-month prison sentence for aggravated assault, referencing the racist nature of the attack.

In July a psychiatric evaluation of Kobili Traore, charged with killing his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, Sarah Halimi, in 2017, determined Traore was not responsible for his actions and therefore unable to stand trial.  Authorities were planning to conduct a third psychiatric evaluation of Traore, who remained incarcerated at year’s end.  On February 27, reversing a previous decision, the judge presiding over the case added the charge of anti-Semitism as a motive for the crime.  The magistrate made this decision after hearing testimony from Traore.  In a statement, CRIF hailed the judge’s decision and expressed “satisfaction” and “relief.”

Authorities scheduled a new trial for March 2019 in Paris Criminal Court for Abdelkader Merah on the charge of complicity in the killing by his brother, Mohammed Merah, of seven persons outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012.  In November 2017, prosecutors appealed the 2017 acquittal of Abdelkader Merah on the complicity charge; the court had convicted him on the lesser charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy.

By year’s end authorities had not set a date for the trial of five individuals arrested in November 2017 and charged with carrying out an attack on a Jewish family in Livry Gargan earlier that year.

On July 6, a court in Val-de-Marne sentenced three young men who carried out a rape and robbery of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Creteil in 2014.  Abdou Salam Koita and Ladje Haidara, who committed the rape, were present in court.  Houssame Hatri, who made anti-Semitic slurs during the attack, remained at large and was convicted in absentia.  The three, who were sentenced to eight, 13, and 16 years in prison, respectively, bound and gagged their victims before carrying out the rape and stealing jewelry and bank cards.  “Jews do not put money in the bank,” one of them reportedly said.  During the attack Hatri also reportedly said that the attack was “for my brothers in Palestine” before suggesting the perpetrators should “gas” their victims.  Two accomplices received sentences of five and six years in jail.

On June 29, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into anti-Semitic letters received by at least six Jewish associations, including CRIF.  The letters, signed by “The Black Hand,” were posted June 18 and referred to the killing of Mireille Knoll, according to press reports.  The letters read in part, “Dear Jews, you bitterly mourn the death of an old Jew murdered for her money.  We think you pay little for the number of crimes you commit every day.  Enjoy it, because the day of punishment will come.”

In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 3,869 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of France responded to the online survey.  Twenty-two percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 27 percent reported being harassed over the same period.  One-fifth of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 93 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.

The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, released in March, included the results of a poll conducted in November 2017 by the Ipsos Institute, a research and consulting company, involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,003 residents over the age of 18.  According to the poll, 38.2 percent of the respondents (2 percent fewer than in 2016) believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 19.7 percent thought Jews had too much power in the country.  The same poll found 29.5 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 43.9 percent (2.1 percent fewer than in the previous year) of them considered it a threat to national identity.  The report also cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as of prayer and women wearing a veil.  According to the report, there was a decrease in anti-Semitic and racist acts compared with 2016, “despite a general context favorable to the rejection of the other, notably marked by terrorism, the arrival of migrants, unemployment, the importance of security issues reported in the media, and the rise in populism in Europe.”

In May Maryam Pougetoux, aged 19, the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, set off a debate by wearing a hijab on national television.  Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of Le Printemps Republicain (Repulican Spring), a group created to defend secularism, stated in a Twitter post, “We aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of Pougetoux wearing a hijab, arguing it contradicted her support for abortion rights and other “feminist principles.”  Then-Interior Minister Collomb called her appearance “shocking,” while Marlene Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said she saw in Pougetoux’s act a “form of promotion of political Islam.”  Hijabs are permitted on college campuses.

According to media reports, on June 28, a judge fined a tobacco shop owner in the town of Albi 1,000 euros ($1,100) for refusing goods and services to a Muslim woman who was wearing a jilbab.  The woman had come to the merchant’s store to pick up a parcel she had delivered there.  The woman’s face was visible when she presented her identity card to the shop owner, and she offered to remove her veil in a setting where no men were present, according to reports.  The judge also ordered the shop owner to pay to each of the four women who accompanied the plaintiff to the store 800 euros ($920) for moral damages and 500 euros ($570) for legal fees, as well as 800 euros ($920) in damages each to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Movement Against Racism and Friendship Between Peoples, and one euro ($1) to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).

On Easter Monday (April 2), unidentified individuals vandalized the church of Fenay, near Dijon.  According to the parish priest, the attackers broke the door of the sacristy with an ax, then threw down and trampled the consecrated hosts.  “This is a deliberate act of desecration,” said the priest, who filed a complaint, according to press reports.  The investigation continued at year’s end.

On January 26, unknown individuals painted a large swastika at the entrance to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

On June 17, Strasbourg celebrated the 11th anniversary of its interfaith dialogue initiative, which continued to bring together religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.

In July, for the second consecutive year, young Christians and Muslims from across the country, Europe, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East participated in a three-day “weekend of friendship” event at the Taize Ecumenical Community in the Department of Saone-et-Loire.  The approximately 200 participants addressed a series of questions from the organizers on prayer, religious freedom, and fasting.

In December 80 civil society representatives from 25 countries attended the ninth annual Muslim-Jewish Conference in Paris, exchanging best practices and discussing ways to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment.  The organizers said interfaith dialogue was more important than ever and committed to supporting Jewish and Muslim communities in the country and around the world.

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

In June embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met MFA Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights Francois Croquette regarding the 2014 Agreement on Compensation for Certain Victims of Holocaust-Related Deportation from France Who Are Not Covered by French Programs between France and the United States.

The Ambassador met in Paris with Grand Rabbi of France Haim Korsia, Rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris Dalil Boubakeur, Apostolic Nuncio Monsignor Luigi Ventura, Rector of Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris Patrick Chauvet, CRIF president Francis Kalifat, and Joel Mergui of the Central Consistory (the leading Jewish institution administrating Jewish religious affairs), to discuss their views on religious freedom and tolerance.  In these meetings, the Ambassador stressed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting freedom of religion, the benefits of interfaith dialogue in promoting peace and countering radicalization, and the importance of collectively countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

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

The Ambassador and embassy officials engaged regularly with senior Israeli embassy representatives on efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in France.  U.S. embassy officials closely monitored and reported on anti-Semitic incidents in the country and the official government position on the BDS movement.

In September the embassy hosted a conference in partnership with the German Marshall Fund on inclusive leaders, including those promoting interfaith collaboration and dialogue, from NGOs Coexister, Sparknews, The Next Level, and the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, which focused on developing leaders and creating stronger networks across sectors, including interfaith relations.

The embassy awarded small grants to various NGOs across the country to support projects that aimed to advance religious tolerance and integration.  One grant for $17,500 to Coexister was to fund a documentary film based on the group’s 2019-2020 Interfaith World Tour, a yearlong voyage around the globe centered on the theme of material and immaterial religious heritage and designed to observe interfaith initiatives and gather best practices to share with youth organizations across the country.

In April the embassy identified and funded the travel of three imams to the two-day conference for European imams in Rabat organized by the U.S. NGO Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (CECF) in partnership with the U.S. embassy in Rabat and the Imam Training Center in Rabat.  The conference focused on interfaith relationship building, radicalization prevention, and countering violent extremism in each imam’s home community.

In April the embassy funded a program in the United States for four NGO leaders.  Representatives from Parle-moi d’Islam (Speak to Me about Islam), focused on the prevention of youth radicalization, Coexister, which promotes diversity, social cohesion, and peaceful coexistence across faiths, and the Hozes Institute, dedicated to training imams in French language and culture, participated.  The program included meetings with the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix and with a panel of female religious leaders in New York City that examined how U.S. religious groups function in the context of a democratic society and illustrated U.S. approaches to interfaith dialogue.

On September 28, the Consulate General in Strasbourg hosted an interfaith lunch to discuss issues affecting religious communities, including the separation of church and state, state funding of religion, and the official status granted to four religions (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Judaism) in Alsace-Moselle by the Alsatian Concordat of 1801.

On September 19, staff from APP Bordeaux joined faith leaders, elected Bordeaux officials, members of the academic community, and various social organizations at a gathering to promote interfaith dialogue and support nondiscrimination initiatives.  As part of the event, participants attended a screening of the short-film “Ramdam,” produced by Bordeaux-based film director Zangro, which depicted the trials and tribulations of a fictional imam living in Mont-de-Marsan.