On August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul, declaring the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate” throughout the country. On September 7, the Taliban announced an interim “caretaker government” made up exclusively of male Taliban members. On September 22, the Taliban expanded its interim “caretaker government,” adding some representatives of religious and ethnic minority groups including Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Nuristani, and Khawaja, but no women. By year’s end, the U.S. government had not yet made a decision as to whether to recognize the Taliban or any other entity as the Government of Afghanistan or as part of such a government.
Following their takeover in August, the Taliban did not establish a clear and cohesive legal framework, judicial system, or enforcement mechanisms. The Taliban conveyed that those laws enacted under the former government of Afghanistan that were in effect prior to their takeover remained in effect unless the laws violated sharia. Taliban leaders issued decrees specifying acceptable behaviors under their interpretation of sharia, but variously described them as “guidelines” or “recommendations” and unevenly enforced them. Press reports following the Taliban takeover raised fears the group would consider Christian converts as apostates. These reports, combined with statements from some Taliban leaders starting in August reserving the right to enforce harsh punishments for violations of the group’s strict interpretation of sharia, drove some Christian converts into deeper hiding, according to International Christian Concern, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on persecution of Christian communities. At year’s end, there were no reports of Taliban representatives having directed sharia-related punishments. According to Amnesty International, Taliban fighters killed 13 Shia Hazaras in Daykundi Province on August 31; the Taliban denied the allegations. In November and December, the Taliban detained 28 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Kabul. According to members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the Taliban falsely accused them of belonging to ISIS-Khorasan (an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, also known as ISIS-K). The Taliban held 18 of them through year’s end. The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW)reported the Taliban expelled Shia Hazara members from their homes in several provinces in October, in part to redistribute land to Taliban supporters. In August, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that the group would respect the rights of members of religious minority groups, including Shia Hazaras. On November 16, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told the press, “We are providing a safe and secure environment for everyone, especially the Hazaras.” Both prior to and immediately following the Taliban takeover, predominantly Shia Hazara communities expressed fear the Ashraf Ghani administration and the Taliban lacked the ability to protect them from violence and discrimination. According to Hazara community and NGO representatives, Shia Hazaras continued to face longstanding and widespread discrimination by Ghani government officials in public service delivery, public sector hiring, and other areas before August 15.After the Taliban takeover, Taliban leaders publicly pledged to protect the rights of Sikhs and Hindus, although some Sikhs and Hindus reported they had ceased to congregate at their gurdwaras (places of worship), and others sought to resettle abroad due to fear of violent attacks by the Taliban and ISIS-K. In November and December, high level Taliban representatives held meetings with leaders of Shia, Sikh, and Hindu communities, reportedly to offer protection and improve relations. According to community representatives, in these meetings the Taliban laid out rules for the behavior of women, forbade the playing of music, and presented restrictions on businesses owned by minority religious group members. Some Hazara political figures expressed continued concern over the Taliban’s commitment to support freedom of worship but commented that this engagement represented a shift from the Taliban’s approach between 1996 and 2001. According to civil society groups, at year’s end, approximately 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 400 at the start of the year. The Taliban closed the Ministry for Women’s Affairs in September, announcing the reconstituted Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, charged with enforcing the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia, would be housed in the same building. While enforcement varied by province and district, local Taliban representatives enforced decrees on gender segregation, women’s dress and head covering, men’s facial hair, unaccompanied women, and music. On December 3, Taliban “Supreme Leader” Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a decree stating that women should not be considered property and must consent to marriage. Media reported the Taliban framed the decree as a call to adhere to broader Islamic law on women’s rights. Some observers praised the decree; others said it did not go far enough because it did not mention a woman’s right to work or to access education and other public services.
the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (ISIS-K claimed responsibility. ISIS-K also conducted such attacks against other groups. In total, for the first six months of the year, 20 incidents targeted the Shia Hazara community resulting in 143 killed and 357 injured, compared with 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other anti-government elements in 2020. According to UNAMA, during the second half of the year, attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS-K increased and expanded beyond the movement’s previous areas of focus in Kabul and the eastern part of the country. Between August 19 and December 31, the United Nations recorded 152 attacks by the group in 16 provinces, compared with 20 attacks in five provinces during the same period in 2020. In addition to targeting the Taliban, ISIS-K also targeted civilians, in particular Shia minorities, in urban areas. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on two Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar cities on October 8 and 15. On October 8, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 70 to 80 members of the Hazara community at a mosque in Kunduz. On October 15, a suicide bomber attack targeting the largest Shia mosque in Kandahar, the Fatima Mosque (also known as the Imam Bargah Mosque), killed more than 50 worshippers and injured at least 100. Two December 10 attacks in western Kabul targeting a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood remained unclaimed at year’s end. Prior to the Taliban takeover, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities. According to the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), over the last two decades, the Taliban and other extremist groups had killed 527 religious scholars, including approximately 50 Sunni and Shia religious leaders killed between February 2020 and July 2021. Prior to their August takeover and as previous years, the Taliban killed and issued death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. Taliban fighters killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country, and the Taliban warned mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for Ghani administration security officials. On May 8, unidentified individuals detonated a car bomb in front of the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in a predominantly Shia Hazara community, killing at least 85 civilians and injuring another 216. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. According to press interviews in October, Shia Hazaras struggled to take what some characterized as a “life or death” risk to go to mosque on Fridays.
Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Sunni Muslim minority groups continued to report that some Sunni Muslims verbally harassed them, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public prior to August 15. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians continued to live in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted to or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately and in small groups, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. Prior to the Taliban takeover in August, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, which they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.
The U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations on August 31. In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence. On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar. The U.S. delegation expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.” After August 31, the U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the so-called Taliban Political Commission in Doha, Qatar, through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit. efore the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities. To enhance the Ghani administration’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism and foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) and MOHRA, among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and NGOs, to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.5 million (midyear 2021). According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 80-85 percent of the population, and Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, together constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 400 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most members of the Sikh and Hindu communities are in Kabul, with smaller numbers in Ghazni and other provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the country numbers in the hundreds. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions. There are no known Jews in the country, following the departure of the country’s last known remaining Jew after the Taliban takeover.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religion and ethnicity in the country were often closely linked. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated that prior to the Taliban takeover, they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions.
According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. They said fears of violent societal repression had further increased since the Taliban takeover.
According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution, including harassment from neighbors and coworkers. They also said that following the Taliban takeover in August, relatives and neighbors who were aware of their identities were more likely to treat them harshly or report them to the Taliban, whether out of self-preservation or to curry favor with the Taliban.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, women of several different faiths, including Sunni and Shia Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. Clerics in numerous provinces preached that woman must wear modest dress and that the faithful should publicly enforce a strict implementation of sharia law. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts in urban areas, including in Kabul, before the Taliban takeover, in contrast to other more secure, Ghani administration-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and to increase their security in public. Prior to the Taliban takeover, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, considered by the religious leaders to be inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. Following the Taliban takeover, media reported instances of local Muslim religious leaders becoming more prohibitive of such activities.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, Ahmadiyya Muslims said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadiyya Muslims reported an increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community said they were able to intermittently perform weekly congregational prayer at a nondescript location in Kabul. According to international Ahmadiyya Muslim organizations with close ties to Ahmadi Muslims in the country, following the Taliban takeover, fear of persecution by the Taliban and its sympathizers had driven community members to refrain from worship at their center in Kabul. Approximately 100 Ahmadi Muslims departed the country in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover. As of year’s end, hundreds remained in country. Ahmadi Muslims said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadi Muslim representatives said they did not initially report or publicize these threats because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from Taliban representatives.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, Christian representatives reported public opinion, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches. Following the Taliban takeover, Christians described raids by Taliban on the homes of Christian converts even after they had fled the country or moved out. Christian sources stated the Taliban takeover emboldened intolerant relatives to threaten them with violence and inform on converts should they continue their practice of Christianity.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, some Sikhs and Hindus had refused to send their children to public schools because other students harassed their children, although only a few private school options were available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. According to community members, since the Taliban takeover, the small number of remaining Sikh and Hindu children did not attend school due to school closures related to COVID-19 and inclement winter weather.
Until the Taliban takeover, Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone known Jew departed Afghanistan in late August, saying he feared the Taliban would be unable to protect him from an ISIS-K attack.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, NGOs reported some Muslims remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
On August 31, the U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations.
In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence. On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar. U.S. government officials expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.” U.S. representatives also expressed concern over the status of religious minorities in a meeting with senior Taliban representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan, in December. The U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the “Taliban Political Commission” in Doha after August 31 through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit.
Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and its importance as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials promoted understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, senior embassy officials engaged leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities in June to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith freely.
Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to promote cooperation with ulema councils and emphasize the potential strong impact international Islamic scholars could have on moderating the Taliban. The embassy coordinated with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity. While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, the embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On May 20, the Ambassador, responding to a Taliban-attributed attack in Ghor in which three Hazara shopkeepers were killed, condemned via Twitter the Taliban’s and ISIS-K’s targeting of Hazaras. This followed the Ambassador’s condemnation of the May 8 attack on a Kabul girls’ school in a Hazara community that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 persons.
Following the Taliban takeover, the United States continued to support the Afghan people. The United States remained committed to providing humanitarian assistance and basic needs support to the Afghan people and continued to advocate for the need to respect the human rights, including religious freedom, of all Afghans through its engagements with the Taliban.
The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” The government enforces the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which states offenses such as apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by corporal and capital punishment, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, or caning. Apart from caning, however, no capital or corporal punishments have been handed down or enforced since 1957. A 2019 de facto moratorium on the death penalty remained in place. The SPC, in force in parallel with the common law-based secular penal code, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. Under the SPC, the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers under the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia. The government permitted members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued its official ban of religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. All places of worship were closed in August due to a COVID-19 outbreak, but MORA and Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) did not officially inform non-Islamic places of worship of the closure. The government did not ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT), but the Foreign Minister reported the ratification process was ongoing. Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minorities again reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019 but noted that the law continued to impose restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize. Custom and Excise officers confiscated a Bible mailed to a foreign worker by his wife for personal use in October. Custom officials reported the worker could reclaim the Bible because it was for personal use, but the process required a claimant to seek written approval from RBPF, the Internal Security Department, and MORA’s Islamic Learning Center before it could be returned.
Non-Muslims and Muslims continued to face social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. Following the death in May of Cardinal Cornelius Sim, the country’s first Roman Catholic cardinal, many individuals from various faith backgrounds used online forums to praise the Cardinal’s work. Legislative council member Khairunnisa binti Haji Ash-ari faced social media criticism after she reintroduced a 2012 proposal for MOHA to open village head positions to women in the March annual parliamentary sessions. Many social media users stated women should be ineligible for these positions due to Islamic responsibilities mixed in with the village head’s otherwise administrative role. Social media users expressed anger concerning the acquittal of a religion teacher on sexual abuse charges, saying the government gave him preferential treatment due to his association with MORA. Reports indicated that some individuals who wished to convert to another religion feared ostracism by friends, family, and their community.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers engaged throughout the year with senior government officials regarding the effects of the SPC on religious freedom, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority religious rights. The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities. U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC. Embassy officials visited places of worship and spoke with leaders of various religious groups to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC for non-Muslims and the limitations placed on the open practice of religions other than Islam. Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 471,000 (midyear 2021). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions, including indigenous beliefs.
There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups. According to 2019 official statistics (the most recent), ethnic Malay citizens comprise 66 percent of the population and are defined by law as Muslims from birth. The ethnic Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and stateless permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes, such as the Dusun, Bisaya, Murut, and Iban, make up approximately 4 percent of the population and are estimated to be 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder followers of other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining 18 percent of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other South Asian countries. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one-quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.
The legal system is divided between secular law and sharia, which have parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. The civil courts are based on common law. The sharia courts follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no concept of legal precedent and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC.
The SPC spells out provisions for corporal and capital punishment for murder, theft, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, blasphemy, and other acts deemed crimes under sharia. Depending on the type and specifics of the offense, these punishments include fines, imprisonment, whipping, caning, amputation of hands or feet, or death (including by stoning). The SPC identifies murder, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, and blasphemy as capital offenses, although the law requires either a confession or the testimony of multiple pious Muslim male eyewitnesses to support a death sentence. Apart from caning, however, no capital or corporal punishments have been handed down or enforced since 1957. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty, announced by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in 2019, remained in effect during the year.
Most SPC sections apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, and they also are applicable to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempt from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers and pay zakat (obligatory annual almsgiving). The SPC states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation,” but without further definition.
The SPC incorporates longstanding Sharia-based domestic laws that prohibit drinking alcohol, propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close physical proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex. It prohibits “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”
Punishments included under the SPC have different standards of proof from the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, may be supported by a confession in lieu of witness testimony at the discretion of a sharia judge. If neither qualifying testimony nor a confession is available, the possible sentences are limited to caning, imprisonment, or fines.
The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which it defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and is its main defense against “extremism.” The government-run MIB Supreme Council seeks to spread and strengthen MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.
MORA’s Religious Enforcement Division leads investigations of crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. The RBPF investigates cases involving crimes not covered by sharia legislation, such as human trafficking. RBPF and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both the secular and sharia laws. In such cases, an “assessment committee” composed of secular and sharia prosecutors and secular and sharia law enforcement officers decides which court system will try the case. The deliberations of the assessment committee to determine whether specific cases will proceed through secular or sharia court are not public, and the government does not make public the committee’s bases for its decisions.
The government bans religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is available on MORA’s website. The SPC also bans most non-Sunni forms of Islam and any practice or display of “black magic.”
The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam. MORA officials state that the use of certain words such as “Allah” by non-Muslims does not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.
Under the SPC, Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion. Non-Muslims must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert or renounce their religion. If either parent converts to Islam, their children younger than 14 years and seven months automatically become Muslim.
The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks of leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information the registrar requests. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds. The Registrar of Societies, under MOHA, oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,400), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.
The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private places in which gatherings do not require approval.
The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 BND ($14,800), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam as well as the SPC itself.
Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith. All religious texts are listed as restricted items for import and require a government import permit before shipment.
The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum that are administered by the Ministry of Education, and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.
Ministry of Education schools teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children between the ages of seven and 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Non-Muslims are exempted from all religious study requirements and receive teaching on moral behavior. Non-Muslim students are still required to take MIB classes.
Ugama instruction in MORA schools is a seven-to-eight-year course that teaches the day-to-day practice of Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school. Under a 2012 government order, ugama instruction is mandatory for Muslim students between the age of seven and 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency; many students attend ugama schools in the afternoon after Ministry of Education schools have adjourned. Parents may be fined up to 5,000 BND ($3,700), imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year, or both, for failure to comply with the order. The law does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs. MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education.
Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction on beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam. Under the SPC, schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law requires that any person wishing to teach on matters relating to Islam must obtain official permission. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer private religious education in private settings, such as someone’s home.
All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to one Muslim and one non-Muslim parent. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.
Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (close physical proximity between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.
A regulation requires businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for an exemption if serving non-Muslims.
MORA has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and describes it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification). The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM/C. In his 2017 fatwas, the State Mufti declared that both male and female circumcision are required and specified that female circumcision involves a “small cut above the vagina.”
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In response to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Minister of Religious Affairs announced all mosques and other places of worship would close on August 7 until at least 70 percent of the population was fully vaccinated. As a result, many religious services moved online. Unlike for the closures mandated in 2020, MOHA and MORA did not inform members of minority religious groups about the rules for closing and reopening of churches and places of worship, and instead, they had to rely on press conferences and news articles for details.
By year’s end the government still had not ratified the UNCAT, which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014. Foreign Minister Dato Erywan stated, however, that the government was in the ratification process.
Legal sources reported that sharia courts continued to prosecute criminal, divorce and probate cases until August 7, when the country locked down to contain a second wave of COVID-19. Prior to the COVID outbreak, local media outlets reported on cases heard in the sharia and civil courts, but coverage of sharia court hearings ceased during the lockdown while reporting on civil court proceedings continued.
The government did not issue official or public condolences or acknowledge the death in May of the country’s first Catholic cardinal, Cornelius Sim. Cardinal Sim had led interfaith dialogues and gatherings of interdenominational faith leaders from churches throughout the country and frequently acted as the Christian community’s liaison with the government.
Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minority groups reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019, but they said the law continued to prohibit the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize Muslims or other non-Muslims. MORA announced 414 residents had converted to Islam in 2020, 94 of whom belonged to the Iban indigenous community who inhabit rural areas, areas where the sultan had called on MORA to do more to increase the spread of Islam. One non-Muslim said that some Muslims viewed COVID-19 as a curse from God which led to an increase in efforts to convert Christians to Islam, but also said that members of the Christian community in general believed they were under less scrutiny and pressure compared to when the SPC was introduced in 2019. The said the SPC’s blasphemy provisions could be used to constrain non-Muslim groups’ activities but expressed more concern about subtle government pressure than about the possibility of harsh punishments under the SPC.
The government continued to periodically warn the population about the preaching of non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism.
MORA awarded contracts worth more than 13.5million BND ($9.99 million) to local companies to build three new mosques in a virtual signing ceremony in October, adding to more than 99 registered mosques according to 2015 government data. Under the contracts, construction of the mosques would take two years and were projected to serve more than 6,000 congregants. The mosque construction fund was partially financed by monthly salary deductions from Muslim government workers, except those who took the necessary steps to opt out of automatic salary deductions.
MORA continued to provide all mosques with approved sermons for Friday services. The government required that registered imams deliver the sermons and forbade deviance from the approved text.
There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear a head covering (known locally as a tudong), and many women did so. When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards, Muslim females were required to wear a tudong. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.
As in past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the country’s sole Chinese Buddhist temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members (comprised of the members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and several other Chinese business associations). Members of the royal family publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with extensive coverage in state-influenced media.
The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic instructional materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. Authorities generally continued to ban the import of non-Islamic religious texts, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviated from the Shafi’i school of Islam. Customs officials continued to check personal packages entering the country to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or perceived sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.
Custom and Excise officers confiscated a Bible mailed to a foreign worker by his wife for personal use in October. Custom officials reported the worker could reclaim the Bible because it was for personal use, but the process required the claimant to obtain prior written approval from the RBPF, the Internal Security Department, and MORA’s Islamic Learning Center.
Christian leaders continued to state that a longstanding fatwa discouraging Muslims from supporting non-Islamic faiths inhibited the expansion, renovation, or construction of new non-Islamic facilities; in accordance with the fatwa, government officials slowed or did not process building plans and permits for churches. Christian religious groups said that authorities generally only permitted churches and associated schools to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety. The process for obtaining approval to renovate church buildings and associated school buildings remained lengthy and difficult, and there were continuing reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated requirements. With only six approved churches in the country, the last built in the 1960s before the country gained independence, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Several sources reported that schools associated with Christian churches had to pay government business taxes despite being nonprofit organizations. They said this measure was not applied to other nonprofit private schools with no religious affiliation. The Chinese temple was also subject to the same fatwa. Christian worshippers continued to report difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled.
The government reported that many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses on their transcripts could be advantageous. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.
Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. All church-associated schools were recognized by the Ministry of Education and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.
The Minister of Religious Affairs reported the ministry was researching and evaluating school schedules for religious schools in response to public online criticism regarding difficulties Muslim parents faced in sending children to MORA religious schools. Parents said children were forced to change school uniforms and eat lunch in the car while traveling from nonreligious schools in the morning to attend religious classes in the evening. Parents also reported they were often late to work after lunch due to religious school schedules.
Throughout the year, the government continued to enforce restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers.
Religious authorities again allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but they continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.
The government continued to offer incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing and welfare assistance. The government allocated travel funding so that those who could not participate in the Hajj due to COVID-19 travel restrictions during the year could do so in the future. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. According to government statistics, 414 individuals converted to Islam during the year, compared with 293 in 2020. Converts included citizens and permanent residents as well as foreigners. Government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (one that remembers and obeys Allah).
In a January roundtable meeting with members of LGBTQ community, participants discussed what they stated were societal pressures stemming from the country’s deep-seated Islamic culture and discussed MORA’s “raid” of a private party during which members of their community were targeted.
Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Islamic weddings continued to require sharia court approval, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, also required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.
Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.
The government continued to require residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity and were used in part to determine whether he or she were Muslim; for example, all ethnic Malays, including those traveling in the country, were assumed to be Muslim. Malays were required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.
Social media users criticized MORA’s December 22 instructions requiring shops to remove Christmas images and products one month after many stores had already started Christmas promotions. California-based Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf was among establishments the MORA official visited, prompting some social media users to call for greater religious tolerance. Although December 25 remained an official holiday on which government offices closed, including MORA, according to the social media accounts MORA officials stated the enforcement measures were needed to “control the act of celebrating Christmas excessively and openly, which could damage the faith of the Muslim community.” The government allowed Christmas decorations in private residences.
MORA faced online criticism after it punished a local nonhalal restaurant catering to non-Muslim customers for violating laws prohibiting dine-in service during Ramadan fasting hours. While similar incidents and the ensuing online criticism had occurred in previous years, comments were more numerous and personal during the year in the wake of the MORA Minister’s son receiving a five-year prison sentence for embezzlement and corruption.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Non-Muslims and Muslims face social pressure to conform to Islamic behavioral guidelines. Some male Muslims reportedly felt pressure from family and friends to attend Friday prayers even though they did not hold strong religious beliefs. Members of the LGBTQ community expressed fears about openly expressing their sexual or gender identity, saying they believed it would bring shame on their families for violating religious mores.
Following the death of Cardinal Sim in May, individuals from a variety of faith backgrounds made numerous comments in online forums praising the Cardinal for his efforts to serve the people of the country, according to local press.
Legislative council member Khairunnisa binti Haji Ash-ari faced social media backlash when she reintroduced a 2012 proposal for MOHA to open village head positions to women in the March annual parliamentary sessions. In her speech she pointed out that women held positions of significant leadership in the government and private sector, and there should be no issue in electing a village head regardless of gender. Many social media users did not agree, using Instagram to state women should be ineligible due to the Islamic responsibilities mixed in with the village head’s otherwise administrative role. The Minister of Home Affairs said the matter would be taken into consideration but by year’s end had taken no action. One local online newspaper, The Scoop, turned off comments due to “abusive and derogatory” language and remarks containing misogyny, racism, and prejudice.
Social media users expressed anger after a court acquitted a religious teacher charged with sexual abuse. Comments on Reddit, Borneo Bulletin’s Instagram, and Media Permata’s Instagram drew comparisons and contrasts with another sexual assault case reported on the same day in which a court handed down a lengthy sentence to the defendant. Many commentators said the justice system in the country was flawed because it accorded leniency to the rich and powerful, and stated the court gave the acquitted teacher preferential treatment due to his association with MORA. They also questioned the need for six witnesses in prosecuting the religious teacher’s case, while this was not required in the other case.
There were again reports that some individuals who wished to convert to another religion continued to fear social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same if they were not young enough to have been automatically converted with their parents. Some non-Muslims said they continued to feel pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam. While the SPC outlined harsh punishments for Muslims converting to another religion, there were no known cases during the year of the government having applied those penalties. Non-Muslims reported, however, that government officials monitored their religious services and events to ensure that no Muslims attended and that there was no anti-Islamic content.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials raised U.S. concerns regarding the effects of the SPC, the importance of ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority religious group rights with government officials, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Attorney General’s Chambers, and the Chief Justice of Brunei. The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities. U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC.
Embassy officials visited places of worship and met with religious leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC for the non-Muslim community and the limitations placed on the open practice of other religions. Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy.
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code provides for hudud punishments (those mandated by sharia), including amputation, flogging, and stoning, and specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. In January, parliament amended the penal code to criminalize insulting “divine religions or Islamic schools of thought” and committing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.” Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said these new provisions put religious minorities at a higher risk of persecution. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates that five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” According to numerous international human rights NGOs and media reporting, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda and, in the case of members of some religious minorities, detained them and held them incommunicado. Amnesty International reported an “alarming rise” in the execution of ethnic minority prisoners since mid-December 2020. Authorities denied prisoners access to attorneys and convicted them based on “confessions” extracted under torture. In January, authorities executed Baluchi Javid Dehghan (also known as Dehghan-Khold) in Zahedan Central Prison on charges of “enmity against God,” “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic,” and alleged membership in banned Sunni separatist groups. The NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR) reported that as of October, government executions continued at an “alarmingly high” rate, with at least 226 people put to death, 125 of them under “retributive” (eye-for-an-eye) justice. According to the database of the NGO United for Iran, Iran Prison Atlas, least 67 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned at year’s end for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners listed in the database, the government sentenced at least 62 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or “armed rebellion against Islamic rule” (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minority prisoners, including beatings, sexual abuse, degradation specifically targeting their religious beliefs, and denial of medical treatment. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 1 to September 24, the government sentenced at least 77 individuals to flogging, based on its interpretation of sharia, and carried out these sentences in at least eight cases. NGOs reported that in January, authorities transferred women’s rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, originally charged in 2014 with “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “spreading propaganda” for criticizing the government’s policy of stoning women to death for adultery, to Amol Prison in Mazandara Province, far away from her family. According to IranWire and the London-based NGO Article 18, which focuses on religious freedom in Iran, in September, security forces in Shiraz and Mazandaran Province conducted multiple arrests of Baha’is in their homes or workplaces in the last week of September without providing reasons or charges. In a July report, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran (UNSR) Javaid Rehman stated there continued to be reports of forced evictions of members of the Sunni Baluch minority in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. An August report by the UN Secretary General highlighted that the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences for 10 Kurdish political prisoners on charges involving “acting against national security,” “spreading corruption on earth,” and “membership in Salafi groups.” According to an October report by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), at least 10 Baluchi individuals were summoned to court following a rally in the village of Ramin to prevent the destruction of the Eidgah (land reserved for Eid prayers for Sunni followers). Officials continued to disproportionately arrest, detain, harass, and surveil non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, according to Christian NGOs. On March 9, the Tehran Appeals Court reduced Saba Kord-Afshari’s prison sentence, which she received in 2019 on a set of charges relating to protesting the compulsory hijab, from 24 years to seven years and six months in prison. UNSR Rehman’s July report and NGOs said authorities continued to confiscate Baha’i properties as part of an ongoing state-led campaign of economic persecution against Baha’is. Authorities issued an order in April denying Baha’is permission to bury their dead in empty plots at the Tehran-area cemetery designated for Baha’is, forcing them to bury them at a mass grave site. Sunni Muslims stated the government did not permit them to build prayer facilities sufficient to accommodate their numbers, and government restrictions forced many Christian converts and members of unrecognized religious minority groups, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret. Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as members of other unrecognized religious minority groups, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported textbooks at all grade levels and across many subjects contained antisemitic material. Government officials continued to disseminate anti-Baha’i and antisemitic messages using traditional and social media. On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution expressing concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred” against recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.
According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs. Yarsanis reported experiencing widespread discrimination. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their distinct mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis. According to human rights NGOs, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members. Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements. Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class. Baha’is reported continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries. According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), on September 8, a Baha’i cemetery in Dena County, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province was partly destroyed by unknown individuals using heavy machinery.
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran. During the year, the U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn and promote accountability for the government’s abuses against and restrictions on worship by members of religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. On March 9, the United States sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) interrogators Ali Hemmatian and Masoud Safdari for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Evin Prison, including torturing activists advocating for religious freedom. On December 7, the United States sanctioned the Special Units of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Iran’s Counter-Terror Special Forces (NOPO) for violently suppressing protests in November 2019. It sanctioned two LEF commanders, Hassan Karami and Seyed Mousavi Azami, as well a Basij commander, Gholamreza Soleimani, and the Governor of Qods City, Leila Vaseghi, for their roles in carrying out crackdowns against peaceful protesters. Two prisons, Zahedan Central Prison and Isfahan Central Prison, as well as the warden of Qarchak Women’s Prison, Soghra Khodadadi, and IRGC commander and brigadier general Mohammad Karami were also sanctioned for their roles in the “flagrant denial” of the rights of prisoners and other citizens, including religious minorities. The Treasury Department statement announcing the sanctions said, “Zahedan Prison holds several political prisoners who belong to the Baluch ethnic minority group. According to public reports, on January 3, 2021, Baluch prisoner Hassan Dehvari was executed in Zahedan Prison. Dehvari was sentenced to death for ‘armed rebellion against the Islamic Rule.’ His prison sentence was escalated to execution after he engaged in several acts of peaceful protests, such as signing statements condemning executions of Sunni prisoners and condemning the mistreatment of fellow prisoners.”
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.9 million (midyear 2021). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.
According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.
According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.
The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religion Database, there are approximately 579,000 Christians. NGO Open Doors USA estimates the number is 800,000, and Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.
Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.
There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the NGO Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.
According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.
According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians, although the World Religion Database estimates this number to be 64,000.
According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives of the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.
The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.
According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. The 2020 World Religion Database estimates their number to be 239,000. Often, however, these groups do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for apostasy.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”
The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from other religions to Islam. Sharia as interpreted by the government considers conversion from Islam apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.
By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempt to convert a Muslim to another faith or belief. The law considers these activities to be proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.
The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“enmity against God,” which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities [Islam]”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.
On January 13, parliament passed amendments that added two provisions to the penal code criminalizing “insulting legally recognized religions and Iranian ethnicities.” The Guardian Council approved the amendments on February 3, and then president Hassan Rouhani signed them into law on February 18. Under the amendment to Article 499 of the code (which criminalizes membership in any group that “disturbs the security of the country”), authorities may impose a sentence of between two to five years in prison and/or a monetary fine where violence is involved, and between six months and two years and/or a monetary fine if no violence is involved, on anyone who “insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognized under the constitution.” Under the amendment to Article 500, authorities may impose prison sentences of two to five years and/or a fine on anyone who commits “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.”
The constitution states the four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. The government considers any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979 to be Muslim.
Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (also known as Ahl-e-Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.
Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or if unregistered individuals attend services. The law does not recognize as Christian individuals who convert to Christianity. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.
The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretations of Islamic legal sources. The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The IRGC also monitors churches.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”
The Ministry of Education determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level, through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs. Applicants to university must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology, based on their official religious affiliation.
Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education supervises private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.
The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education, or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulations state Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of one of the four officially recognized religions (i.e., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).
According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, a group of 86 popularly elected and Supreme Leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the Supreme Leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or Majles) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council, composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, President, and parliament, and supervises elections for those bodies. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).
The constitution bans parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system, or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.
Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliamentary seats reserved by the constitution for members of recognized religious minority groups. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.
The constitution states that in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school, within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.
According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”
The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”
The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyyah, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive blood money. This law also reduces the blood money for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal blood money as men, but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents and not for other categories of death, such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.
The criminal code provides for hudud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes. As part of hudud, the code allows for qisas (retribution in kind). The code also allows for ta’zir, which allows judges to use their personal discretion to determine punishment.
By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.
The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the Supreme Leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.
Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws. The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.
The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.
The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification, it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”
According to numerous international human rights NGOs and media reports, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and producing anti-Islamic propaganda. In February, Amnesty International reported an “alarming rise” in the execution of ethnic minority prisoners since mid-December 2020. Officials arrested Kurdish individuals, including civil society activists, labor rights activists, environmentalists, writers, university students and political activists. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to January reports by the NGOs IHR and Iran International, authorities executed three Sunni prisoners – Hamid Rastbala, Kabi Saadat-Jahani and Mohammad Ali Arayesh – on December 31, 2020, at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad. Ministry of Intelligence officers arrested the three men in 2015 for suspected membership in Hizb al-Forghan, a militant Sunni group, and in the National Solidarity Front of Iranian Sunnis. Branch One of the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad sentenced them to death for “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic.” The men denied being members of Hizb al-Forghan, which was active in the country from 1992 to 1997, when the three men were boys between ages 10 and 12. According to HRANA, prior to their execution, authorities deprived the prisoners of contact with their families for months, including a final meeting, and denied the men legal representation during the trial. In an August 2020 letter, Rastbala said that following their arrest, interrogators tortured all three and threated to arrest or rape family members to convince them to make televised confessions of their “crimes.”
According to Iran International and United for Iran, on January 30, the Justice Department of Sistan and Baluchistan Province announced that authorities executed Javid Dehghan-Khold in Zahedan Central Prison. He had been sentenced to death on charges of “enmity against God/moharebeh” and “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic” for alleged membership in banned Sunni separatist groups Jaish ul-Adl and Jaish al-Nasr of Iran. A court also convicted Dehghan-Khold of taking part in an attack that killed two Revolutionary Guard officers in 2015 and the kidnapping of five border guards in the city of Saravan in 2017. According to his lawyer, Dehghan-Khold denied membership in these groups or participation in the attacks. The Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) in a January 29 post on Twitter condemned Dehghan-Khold’s execution as part of “the series of executions – at least 28 [Iranians] – since mid-December, including of people from minority groups.” According to Amnesty International, the court had “relied on torture-tainted ‘confessions’ and ignored the serious due process abuses committed by Revolutionary Guard agents and prosecution authorities during the investigation process.”
CHRI and HRANA reported that on February 28, authorities executed four Sunni Ahwazi Arabs – Jasem Heidary, Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji, and Nasser Khafajian (Khafaji) – in Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz City, Khuzestan Province, without any advance notice to their families. Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Heidary in December 2017 and allegedly tortured him into falsely confessing to being a member of an armed group. Security forces detained the other three men in June 2017 as suspects in an armed attack on a military outpost and police station near Ahvaz in May 2017. Officials charged all of the men with “armed rebellion against Islamic rule” (baghi). According to Amnesty International, family members who visited the men in prison observed bruises on their bodies, indicating prison authorities had physically abused them. Following the executions, Ministry of Intelligence agents told the four families they were not permitted to hold public memorials or invite family to their homes to mourn. Amnesty International said the families were told the men “would be buried in la’nat abad [damned land].”
In March, IHR reported that a woman, Maryam (Masoumeh) Karimi, was executed in Rasht Central Prison at the hands of her own daughter. Authorities had sentenced Karimi more than 13 years earlier for having killed her husband, who was reportedly abusive and had refused to separate from her. In accordance with the rules of qisas, Karimi’s estranged daughter, as the victim’s next-of-kin, carried out her execution by hanging on March 15. IHR stated that for unknown reasons, Karimi’s father, her co-accused in the killing, was not executed on the same day, but prison officers brought him to the gallows to see her corpse.
On October 10, World Day Against the Death Penalty, IHR released its findings on the country’s use of capital punishment. According to IHR, as of October, government executions continued at an “alarmingly high” rate, with at least 226 individuals – one juvenile offender, nine women, and 216 adult men – put to death. One hundred and twenty-five executions were qisas executions for murder, compared with 164 for the same period in 2020. The qisas executions included the juvenile offender, five adult women, and 119 adult men. Among the men, officials executed eight in Zahedan Prison, including Sunni Baluch prisoners Elias Qalandarzehi and Hassan Dehvari, on charges of armed rebellion against Islamic rule/baghi for alleged involvement with Jaish al-Adl, and Sunni Ahwazi Arab Ali Motayyeri [Motiri] on charges of moharebeh, afsad-i fil arz (“spreading corruption on Earth”) and killing two individuals from the Basij paramilitary militia forces. According to United for Iran, authorities held Motayyeri in solitary confinement for more than one year and subjected him to physical and psychological abuse to force a false confession. According to Dehvari’s attorney, authorities escalated his original prison sentence to execution after he peacefully protested inside Zahedan Central Prison, including by signing statements condemning the executions of Sunni prisoners. Dehvari’s attorney said his execution was carried out despite a retrial request pending with the Supreme Court.
In April, IHR released its annual report on the government’s use of the death penalty, covering the 2020 calendar year. According to the report, murder was the most common charge brought against those executed, and 211 of the 267 individuals executed had been sentenced under the qisas code. IHR said that between 2010 and 2020, the government carried out at least 1,678 qisas executions.
In October, UNPO, the Kurdistan Human Rights Association Geneva, the Baluchistan Human Rights Group, and the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization submitted a joint report to the UNSR in which they stated executions of the predominantly Sunni Baluch minority and of Kurdish citizens increased between June and October, with at least 39 Baluchi citizens and 56 Kurds executed during that time period. According to IHR’s report entitled Women and the Death Penalty: A 12-Year Analysis, between January 1, 2010, and October 10, 2021, three of the at least 164 women who were executed were convicted on security charges. One of these was Shirin Alamhooli, who was executed in 2010 on charges of moharebeh/enmity against God and membership in PEJAK, a Kurdish opposition group. According to IHR, Alamhooli did not speak Farsi at the time of her interrogations and legal proceedings. In her letters from prison, she described experiencing three months of physical and mental abuse.
Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported judicial authorities and members of the security services continued to repress them, including through extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. The UN Secretary General’s August report compiled by OHCHR, IHR, and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. The Secretary General’s August report also stated the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for 10 Kurdish political prisoners on charges involving “acting against national security,” afsad-i fil arz/spreading corruption on earth, moharebeh, and membership in Salafi groups.
According to the UNSR Rehman’s July report, on February 22, IRGC officers killed 10 Sunni Baluchi fuel smugglers (sookhtbars) in Sistan and Baluchistan Province at its border with Pakistan. The shootings triggered demonstrations, during which security forces fired lethal ammunition at protesters and bystanders, killing at least two persons and seriously injuring others. The death toll was difficult to verify, following the disruption of local mobile data networks from the 24th to the 27th of February. Reuters reported the death toll in Saravan and other parts of Sistan and Baluchistan Province as “possibly up to 23.”
According to Amnesty International, authorities held Ahwazi Arab Falah Heidari incommunicado following his arrest on May 20. A source told Amnesty International that security and intelligence agents interrogated Heidari and his son, Safa Heidari, for information about the political activities of Falah’s brother, Abdorrahman Heidari, who was based abroad and was the spokesperson for the political group Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz. According to Amnesty International, Ministry of Intelligence interrogators also questioned Falah Heidari about the religious beliefs and practices of his other son, Alaa Heidari, who had left Iran several years earlier, sought asylum abroad after converting from Shia to Sunni Islam and had since engaged in online proselytizing activities. Authorities aimed to have Falah Heidari pressure his relatives to stop their activities or to relay authorities’ threats to kill or abduct and forcibly return Abdorrahman and Alaa to the country. On May 30, an IRGC officer interrogated Falah Heidari’s 15-year-old daughter about her family’s contact with her paternal uncle and brother abroad, as well as her family’s political opinions and religious beliefs.
According to UNSR Rehman’s July report, the UN Secretary General’s August report, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), in January, authorities arrested and arbitrarily detained more than 100 Kurdish civil society activists and forcibly disappeared some of these individuals. Observers stated that there was credible evidence to believe some of these activists were expressing their Sunni religious identity while standing up for Kurdish rights. According to HRW, of the 89 individuals who remained detained at year’s end, authorities subjected at least 40 to enforced disappearance and refused to reveal any information about their whereabouts to their families. While authorities did not provide information about the reasons for these arrests, according to IHR and HRW, the arrests were “due to the individuals’ peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression and association, including through involvement in peaceful civil society activism and/or perceived support for the political visions espoused by Kurdish opposition parties seeking respect for the human rights of Iran’s Kurdish minority.”
Human rights NGOs reported poor conditions and the mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. BIC reported Baha’is and other prisoners also faced a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to overcrowding.
In February, IranWire and CHRI reported that Behnam Mahjoubi, a Gonabadi dervish, died after suffering seizures in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Authorities had originally arrested Mahjoubi and several other Gonabadi dervishes for participating in street protests in 2018 following the death under police interrogation of a Gonabadi Sufi dervish. Mahjoubi had been serving a two-year prison sentence since June 2020, despite the state medical examiner’s concluding he was not in sufficiently good health to withstand incarceration. Amnesty International stated that during his incarceration, authorities injected Mahjoubi with unknown substances and subjected him to electric shocks on multiple occasions.
CHRI reported that in a letter from Rajaee-Shahr Prison in Karaj to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, dated February 3, former political prisoner Arash Sadeghi said authorities denied several fellow prisoners medical treatment, including Raheleh Ahmadi, who was serving a 31-month sentence in Evin Prison for opposing the country’s mandatory hijab law. According to CHRI, Ahmadi suffered from mobility issues and her lawyer and medical specialists said there was a possibility she could become paralyzed. In his letter, Sadeghi also wrote that Monireh Arabshahi, who was serving 5.5 years in Kachuei Prison in Karaj for peacefully protesting the mandatory hijab law, had developed a speech impairment due to an untreated inflamed thyroid gland.
On September 28, IranWire reported authorities continued to reserve the harshest treatment for prisoners who were religious minorities. This mistreatment included beatings, harassment of family members, and forbidding visits and phone calls. A former Yarsani inmate told IranWire that authorities shaved Yarsani prisoners’ traditional mustaches as a means of humiliating and degrading them. In Dieselabad Prison in Kermanshah Province, to harass Sunni prisoners, the guards would play “music and eulogies that insulted the caliphs and their beliefs.” One source told IranWire that authorities routinely tortured Sunnis in detention to obtain confessions. “If you’re both a Sunni and a Kurd, these two characteristics are enough for you to be guilty.”
The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran stated that from January 1 to September 24, the government sentenced at least 77 individuals to flogging, based on its interpretation of sharia, and carried out these sentences in at least eight cases.
In October, media reported the government continued to practice qisas, including hand or finger amputations for theft. According to these reports, in October, authorities sentenced one man to be blinded as punishment for having blinded his neighbor in one eye during a fight in 2018.
According to IranWire, on June 15, authorities transferred Amir Hossein Moradi to the Tehran Police Investigation Center, which, according to IranWire, suggested a new case was being prepared against him. Authorities arrested Moradi following the November 2019 protests, charging him and two other defendants with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” Later in the month, the Twitter account 1,500 Images, run by activists in contact with the family members of individuals killed and arrested during the November 2019 protests, which initially began over a fuel price increase but quickly turned into antigovernment demonstrations, warned about Moradi’s deteriorating health, reporting, “He is sick whenever he eats and has been taken to the hospital several times on a stretcher” and that he “is in a critical condition.”
On September 23, HRW reported the judiciary had confirmed the September 21 death of Shahin Nasseri, a prisoner who said he had witnessed the torture and forced confession of fellow inmate Navid Afkari when they were both detained in Shiraz Prison. The government arrested Afkari and his brothers Habib and Vahid in 2018 on charges that included “enmity against God.” Authorities executed Afkari in 2020. His brothers remained in solitary confinement at year’s end. Nasseri’s former lawyer posted on Twitter that Nasseri had called him several times on September 20, the day before his death, to report that his interrogators had threatened him with physical violence.
The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 67 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned as of November for “religious practice.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 62 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or armed rebellion against Islamic rule/baghi, which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 20 persons to prison for “insulting Islamic sanctities” and for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.” According to the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, there were 82 persons serving prison terms for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as of November 1.
In the July report, UNSR Rehman again expressed concern at the reportedly high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azeri, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.
According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, in March, authorities sentenced Kurdish Sunni imam Mamoutsa Rasoul Hamzehpour to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “activities on the internet.” According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested Hamzehpour in the city of Piranshahr in 2020 at his home, which they searched. The news report stated Hamzehpour was regarded as a prominent cleric in West Azerbaijan Province and had been arrested several times in the past.
According to IranWire, security forces conducted multiple arrests of Baha’is in the last week of September without providing reasons or charges. Authorities held four Baha’is from Shiraz City – Negar Ghaderi Sadi, Moin Misaghi, Hayedeh Forootan, and his son, Mehran Mosalanejad – in solitary confinement in Shiraz Police Detention Center 201 for at least one month following their arrests on September 22. Sources said officers ransacked Misaghi’s house, spilling a bowl of soup on his one-and-a-half-year-old baby, causing the child to suffer burns. At Negar Ghaderi’s house, officers confiscated mobile telephones, tablets, satellite dishes, and several prayer books. Authorities previously raided these four individuals’ homes in April and confiscated personal items, including religious books and pictures. IranWire reported that on September 23 in Ghaem Shahr, Mazandaran Province, Intelligence Ministry agents entered the home of Baha’i Sheida Taeed, confiscated her mobile phone, passport, computer, family photographs, and other personal items, and arrested her without a warrant. BIC’s representative to the UN posted on Twitter that authorities appeared to be targeting young parents, and their children in particular, with arbitrary arrests.
IranWire reported that on September 23, Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Baha’i Sheida Taeed in Mazandaran Province. A source told IranWire that eight agents of the Mazandaran Intelligence Bureau entered Taeed’s home, which they searched for two hours. After confiscating personal items, including her mobile phone, laptop, computer, letters, family pictures, and passport, they arrested her without a warrant. According to IranWire, this was the third time authorities had detained or arrested Taeed since 1989.
According to HRANA, Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi continued at year’s end to serve her sentence at Evin Prison, along with 19 other female prisoners of conscience. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the November 2019 antigovernment protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison.
According to widespread media reports and Amnesty International, security forces reacted violently to protests that began in Khuzestan Province in mid-July over water shortages. As protests spread across the country, government forces fired on crowds with live ammunition, birdshot, and tear gas, killing at least nine protestors, including a 17-year-old boy. Security and intelligence forces swept up dozens of protesters and activists, including many from the Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority, in mass arrests.
Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.
UNPO’s October joint report to the UNSR stated that in June, officials summoned at least 10 Baluchi citizens to court following a rally in the village of Ramin to prevent the destruction of the Eidgah (land reserved for Eid prayers for Sunnis). The report also stated that since June, authorities had arrested or detained three Sunni clerics and religious activists without disclosing the charges, including Baluchi Sunni cleric Jafar Hanzarani from Iranshahr County, Sistan and Baluchestan Province, whom police arrested on August 21 without charge. According to the same report, IRGC intelligence officers arrested Baluchi religious activist Khalilullah Zaeem on September 28, also without an official charge.
According to Article 19, a London-based international human rights organization, the new amendments to the penal code passed in January that criminalized insulting Iranian ethnicities or “divine religions or Islamic schools of thought” (Article 499) and committing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” (Article 500) put religious minorities such as Baha’is, Yarsanis, Mandaeans, Sufi dervishes, Christian converts, atheists, and followers of Erfan-e Halgheh (Inter-Universalism) at a higher risk of persecution. In July, human rights advocate Ewelina Ochab wrote in Forbes magazine, “Such provisions are destined to be abused against religious minorities.” In his July report, UNSR Rehman stated these two amendments would “further suppress freedom of religion and belief as well as freedom of expression, especially for religious minorities, and in particular, non-recognized minorities such as Baha’is, atheists, converts to Christianity and Gonabadi dervishes.”
In his July report, UNSR Rehman also noted other official policies targeting religious minorities, including documents published in March that indicated that the suppression of Baha’is and Gonabadi dervishes was “official policy in Sari, Mazandaran Province.” The report stated the documents contained plans by local authorities to “rigorously control the movements” of Baha’i and Gonabadi dervish residents and to impose restrictions on Baha’is in education and commerce. According to the UNSR’s report, authorities harassed, arrested, and forcibly disappeared dozens of Baha’is in April and June in incidents in Shiraz and Isfahan.
Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with operating illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.
According to human rights activists, the government continued to subject Christians who converted from Islam to arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. The NGO Article 18 reported that on April 19, intelligence agents in Dezful, Khuzestan Province, arrested four Christian converts – Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Esmail Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, and Mohammad Ali (Davoud) Torabi – and in August charged them with “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” due to their membership in a house church. Authorities arrested and interrogated four additional male Christian converts at the same time and ordered them to sign commitments to refrain from further Christian activities. Authorities reportedly beat some of the Christians during their interrogations, including Narimanpour.
Article 18 reported that on January 18, the morality police rearrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, saying her trousers were too tight, her headscarf was not correctly adjusted, and she should not be wearing an unbuttoned coat. Mohammadi, who was released from prison in February 2020 after being incarcerated for participating in January 2020 prodemocracy protests, stated she had been unable to return to work as a gymnastics instructor because intelligence agents pressured her former employer not to rehire her.
According to Article 18 and HRANA, on August 22, the Albroz Court of Appeals sentenced three Christian converts – Milad Goodarzi, Amin Khaki, and Alireza Nourmohammadi – to three years each in prison. In November 2020, authorities raided the men’s homes and confiscated personal items, including laptop computers, mobile phones and religious books. At their first trial in June, the Revolutionary Court of Karaj sentenced the three men to five years’ imprisonment each and a 400 million rial ($9,500) fine for “spreading propaganda against the state” and “engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam.” The latter charge stemmed from an amendment to Article 500 penalizing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” that went into effect on February 18.
Media reported that on 27 January, the 4th Branch of Bushehr Court of Appeal upheld the one-year prison sentences of three Christian converts – Sam Khosravi, Sasan Khosravi, and Habib Heydari – agreeing with the lower court that they were guilty of the “organization of house churches and promotion of Christianity, which are clear examples of propaganda against the state.” Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Sam and Sasan Khosravi, their wives Maryam Falahi and Marjan Falahi, Heydari, and Pooriya Peyma and his wife Fatemeh Talebi at their homes in Bushehr Province in July 2019. In June 2020, authorities fined the women and gave the men prison terms of one year for Habib, Sam, and Sasan, and 91 days for Pooriya. The court also sentenced Sam and Sasan Khosravi to two years of internal exile and a ban on working in their profession, the hospitality sector, while exiled.
According to IranWire, on March 14, authorities informed Christian converts Homayoun Zhaveh and Sara Ahmadi their case “had advanced” and they could receive a summons to prison at any moment. Intelligence agents arrested the couple in June 2019 during a trip they took with several other Christian families to Amol in Mazandaran Province. Authorities first held the couple in Amol before taking them to Evin Prison. Authorities released Zhaveh after one month, but Ahmadi spent 67 days in detention, half of them in solitary confinement in the Ministry of Intelligence’s Ward 209. On November 14, 2020, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Zhaveh and Ahmadi to two years and 11 years in prison, respectively, for “membership and leadership of [a] church.” On appeal Ahmadi’s sentence was reduced to eight years in December 2020.
According to Article 18, on September 5, authorities arrested three Christian converts – Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh – during raids on a house church and a private home in Rasht. The officials held the three converts incommunicado at an unknown location, possibly an IRGC detention center, for nearly two weeks. On September 18, authorities transferred Mashoodkari and Sarparast to Lakan Prison and released them on bail on September 21. Authorities released Poor-Rezazadeh on bail on October 3. Authorities did not file official charges, but during interrogations, they accused the men of “acting against national security.”
Article 18 reported that on April 21, authorities arrested four Christian converts – Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Esmaeil Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, and one other person – and detained them for two days. Authorities released the four individuals on the condition they refrain from further Christian activities. Government representatives subsequently summoned them to the 4th branch of the prosecutor’s office of the Civil and Revolutionary Court of Dezful, Khuzestan Province, to answer charges of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
According to human rights activists, Baluchis continued to face government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They stated authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent. According to the UN Secretary General’s August report, between January 1 and June 18, authorities executed at least 26 Baluchi individuals, the majority on narcotics charges. The same report stated there were “a large number of executions of members of minorities” during the first half of the year, including from the Kurdish and Arab minorities. The report also noted that from January 1 to June 15, at least 24 border couriers (kolbar) and fuel smugglers (sookhtbar), predominantly from the Kurdish and Baluch minorities, “were killed as a result of the government’s excessive use of force.”
Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes (Majzooban Noor), reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions continuing inside Qarchak Women’s Prison, as well as reports of Shia guards requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.
On June 16, HRANA reported that Hossein Sepanta continued to face medical neglect of long-term injuries in his eighth year inside Adelabad Prison in Shiraz, Kerman Province. Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.” Authorities beat him during his incarceration, causing a spinal cord disorder. United for Iran posted on Twitter on July 25 that authorities moved Sepanta to a Ministry of Intelligence cell inside the prison after he reportedly started a hunger strike, making it impossible for the NGO to obtain new information on his condition.
According to a January report by IranWire, in December 2020, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence. According to his Instagram page, he continued to post messages in support of opposition figures like Mehdi Karroubi as of October.
According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late February, government security services arrested five Kurdish religious activists – Musa Brusan, Taha Karimi, and Saber Mohtadi from Brukan; Abdul Latif Mahmoudi Deli from Oshnaviyeh; and Naseh Sorkhabi from Piranshahar – in West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on February 27. According to the NGO, authorities accused the five individuals of “collaborating with and joining Salafist groups.” NGOs reported that the Kurds were denied access to a lawyer.
There continued to be reports that authorities harassed and arrested Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a December report by Iran International, the Supreme Leader’s representative in Golestan Province, Kazem Nour-Mofidi, dismissed Mowlavi Hossein Gorgij, the Friday prayer imam in Azadshahr City and an outspoken and popular Sunni cleric, as punishment for his Friday prayer remarks that allegedly insulted Shia “sanctities.” Nour-Mofidi appointed a new Sunni imam. Gorgij’s followers protested in Azadshahr, and Gorgij issued a statement saying his remarks were misunderstood and that he meant no disrespect toward Shia.
HRANA reported in July that nine Sunni prisoners held in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province, since at least 2016 wrote a letter to UNSR Rehman requesting an investigation into their cases. The prisoners – Eisa Eid-Mohammadi, Farhad Shakeri, Eid al-Hakim Azim Gargij, Abdolrahman Gargij, Habib Pir-Mohammadi, Abdolbaset Orsan, Mohammad Reza Sheikh Ahmadi, Morteza Fakuri, and Abdullah Hosseini – said authorities beat and tortured them into providing false confessions and threatened their family members. HRANA said they received death sentences and long prison terms based on false charges of being members of dissident groups and groups the government labeled as “terrorist,” for example, Hizb al-Forghan, and of committing acts of “propaganda against the regime.”
BIC reported authorities arrested 64 Baha’is between January and December. Prison officials kept many in solitary confinement for long periods and detained individuals for weeks or months before releasing them on bail. BIC stated that authorities set bail at exorbitantly high levels, requiring families to hand over deeds to properties or business licenses. In nearly all cases, authorities searched their homes and/or workplaces and confiscated personal belongings, particularly books, photographs, computers, copying machines, and other supplies, as well as items related to the Baha’i Faith. Some victims reported officers beat them when taking them into custody. According to BIC, during the year, authorities required 18 Baha’is to begin serving prison sentences or resume sentences following temporary release.
According to BIC, on June 8, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Baha’i Shahrzad Nazifi, a women’s cross-country motorcycle racing trainer, to eight years in prison for “managing unlawful groups for the purpose of disturbing national security.” On January 21, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Baha’is Sofia Mobini and Negin Tadrisi to five years each in prison on national security charges. Subsequently, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, from the same court, without arraignment, adjusted their sentences to 10 and five years’ imprisonment, respectively, for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization with intent to disturb national security,” under Article 499 of the penal code. The Court of Appeals later restored their original five-year prison sentences. Intelligence agents arrested Mobini and Tadrisi in 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day.
In March, HRW reported that Baha’i historian and writer Touraj Amini had begun serving a six-year prison sentence in January. Authorities first searched Amini’s house in 2019, confiscating numerous books and his laptop. HRANA later reported that a court in Karaj sentenced Amini to one year’s imprisonment and two years in domestic exile in 2020. An Alborz Province appeals court later reduced the sentence to six months in prison and rescinded the exile. According to HRW, Amini is a historian specializing in the history of Iranian religious minorities prior to the 1979 revolution.
The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that in early October, the Revolutionary Court of Orumiyeh sentenced Sunni Kurds Anvar Chaleshi and Kamel Jabarvand (also known as Saydan Maskan) to seven years in prison for “acting against national security” through “membership in the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.” IRGC officers arrested the men in December 2020 and transferred them in a MOIS detention center in the al-Mahdi base in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province in January, following their interrogation.
Activists and NGOs reported that the government continued to detain or disappear Yarsani activists and community leaders for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community. According to NGO reports, on June 28, a district court in Kermanshah arrested Kheyrollah Haghjouyan of the Yarsan Civil Rights’ Activists Advisory Council for his remarks criticizing the government’s discriminatory practices against the Yarsani community and for commemorating the eight-year anniversary of the deaths of three Yarsani activists who self-immolated to protest the forced shaving of mustaches – considered an insult in the Yarsani religion – of Yarsani prisoners in Hamadan Prison. The court accused Haghjouyan of “insulting the sanctities and officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
According to a March report by CHRI, judges continued to use internal exile as a form of punishment for political prisoners, including peaceful activists, religious minorities, and dissidents. Exile could be ordered as the primary punishment, for example for those found guilty of moharebeh or “armed rebellion,” or as a supplemental punishment for various crimes, to be carried out after the completion of a prison sentence. Judges chose exile locations from a list prepared by the Ministry of Interior; these were usually remote towns in regions with extreme poverty. CHRI reported that during the year, judges also sent individuals into “prison exile” by transferring them in the middle of their prison terms to severely under-resourced prisons far from their families and friends. According to CHRI, the concept of exile or banishment is rooted in Shia theology and is referred to as “denial of country” (nafiye balad). CHRI stated that prison exile also harmed the detainee’s family by putting the individual in a location family members could not easily visit.
CHRI reported that on January 24, Golrokh Iraee Ebrahimi, a civil rights activist who protested against the practice of stoning women accused of adultery, was transferred from Gharchak Women’s Prison in Tehran to the central prison in Amol, Mazandaran Province, far from her parents. Authorities originally arrested and charged Ebrahimi in 2014 with “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “spreading propaganda.” According to her husband, prison officials held Ebrahimi in an unsanitary ward with approximately 50 other inmates, where the risks of infection from COVID-19 and other diseases were high. Contrary to law, prisoners were not being separated by type of offense or duration of sentence, and many of the other inmates in Ebrahimi’s ward were serving narcotics-related sentences. According to the NGO Humanists International, in April, Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Iraee in absentia to an additional one year in prison, banned her from membership in political organizations, and imposed a two-year travel ban on charges of “propaganda against the state.” Iraee was denied legal representation during the trial. She remained in Amol Prison at year’s end, unable to make telephone calls or contact her family.
Human rights NGOs reported that in February, authorities summoned Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert, to respond to allegations of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic in favor of hostile groups.” He appeared in court on February 8. Authorities arrested him and detained him in Chabahar Prison in Sistan and Baluchestan Province for 19 days, and then released him on bail. Firouzi had been in internal exile as part of his 2015 sentence for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After first serving six years in Rajai Shahr Prison, he was released in November 2019 and reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence. Authorities later extended his exile by 11 months, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. The government informed him in November that he would not be required to serve the 11-month extension of his internal exile.
In the July report, UNSR Rehman stated there continued to be reports of forced evictions of the Sunni Baluch minority in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Citing a report by HRANA, HRW said a court in Borazjan, Bushehr Province, sentenced six Baha’is to lengthy prison terms on vaguely defined national security charges, including propaganda against the state “by spreading the beliefs of the Baha’i Faith.” The six convicted Baha’is were Maryam Bashir, Mino Bashir, Hayedeh Ram, Frank Sheikhi, Borhan Ismaili, and Derna Ismaili. Authorities charged Borhan Ismaili with “spreading” the beliefs of the Baha’i Faith and acting against national security interests and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. The court sentenced the other individuals to 12 and a half years in prison for “assisting” in this propaganda, the evidence of which included social media posts on Facebook. At year’s end, the case remained subject to appeal.
The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to exercise what sources stated was perhaps the greatest degree of religious freedom among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.
In November, Humanists International stated in its Freedom of Thought Report 2021 that although “‘enmity against God’ is framed as a religious offense and may be used against humanists and other religious dissenters, it [was] most often used as a punishment for political acts that challenge[d] the regime (on the basis that to oppose the theocratic regime is to oppose Allah).”
According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target these Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.
Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas or participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.
Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.
The government continued to require all women to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body-length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women.
According to media reports, on August 9, authorities in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province arrested a man for running over two women with his vehicle for “bad hijab” and not heeding the Islamic dress code. The two women, one of whom was reportedly seriously injured, were taken to the hospital. Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei ordered an investigation into the attack. Meeting with officials on August 9, he stressed the judicial duty of “supporting those who enjoin good and forbid wrong and defend Islamic values.”
The NGO Frontline Defenders reported that on March 9, the Tehran Appeals Court reduced Saba Kord-Afshari’s prison sentence, which she received in 2019 on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab, from 24 years to seven years and six months in prison. According to the NGO, on January 26, guards physically assaulted Kord-Afshari and forcibly transferred her from one ward of Qarchak Women’s Prison to another. Kord-Afshari undertook a hunger strike from May 8 to 18 to protest the continued incarceration of her mother, women’s rights defender Raheleh Ahmadi, in Evin Prison, despite Ahmadi’s deteriorating physical and mental health.
On June 21, UN human rights experts condemned the continued imprisonment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” On July 21, authorities released her from Qarchak Women’s Prison on temporary leave to receive treatment after she contract COVID-19 there. Her husband told media that conditions in Qarchak Women’s Prison were “catastrophic.” Authorities summoned Sotoudeh back to prison one month after her release. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. According to HRW, in 2020, authorities arrested and then gave conditional release to Sotoudeh’s attorney, Payam Derafshan, whom the NGO described as “a respected human rights attorney.” According to the HRW report, the IRGC committed “revolting abuse and medical negligence” on Derafshan during his detention in Evin Prison, including injecting him with a substance that resulted in physical and psychological damage.
The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.
The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from performing burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, 100 miles away, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires that the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.
Citing a report by the Baha’i National Center, in April, HRW reported that authorities instituted a prohibition on the Tehran Baha’i community from burying their dead in a section of a cemetery, Golestan Javid, near Tehran that previously was allocated for their use. In an April 23 statement, the Baha’i National Center said the office overseeing the cemetery threatened Baha’is trying to use the designated part of the cemetery. HRW stated that the new policy was part of “a broader, decades-long government repression” of the Baha’i community. The NGO reported that the Baha’i representative to the UN in Geneva stated that the prohibition was intended to coerce the Baha’i community into burying the dead in areas of the nearby Khavaran cemetery, believed to be the site of a mass grave for political prisoners killed by the government in 1988. NGOs and the media identified Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s newly elected President, as being heavily involved in those killings. In April, Amnesty International stated that the mass grave was bulldozed multiple times and had become a symbol of the struggle for truth and justice. The Amnesty report said, “As well as causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Baha’i minority by depriving them of their rights to give their loved ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, Iran’s authorities are willfully destroying a crime scene.”
In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed “alarm” at the government’s order denying the Baha’i community access to that part of the Khavaran cemetery assigned for their use, saying, “This order violates the Baha’i community’s right to freedom of religion and belief.” He said that the order was “one of the many occasions where Baha’i cemeteries have been desecrated or where burial rituals have been restricted.”
According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsani religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship.
MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s late leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.
According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsani religion remained banned. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.
There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.
UNSR Rehman’s July report stated authorities continued to confiscate Baha’i properties they characterized as “illegitimate wealth.”
BIC reported that in August, judicial authorities issued court orders informing six Baha’i property owners of the imminent seizure of their properties in Semnan Province. These court orders followed raids security forces carried out on hundreds of Baha’i-owned properties in November 2020, including these properties in Semnan, during which they confiscated ownership deeds. According to BIC, the judiciary ruled these properties belonged to Baha’i institutions rather than to the individuals. However, the institutions in question were banned by the government in 1979 and formally dissolved in 1983, with the government confiscating all connected properties. According to BIC and other NGOs, the confiscations were part of an ongoing state-led campaign of economic persecution against Baha’is. In a 2020 decision upholding the government’s 2019 confiscations of Baha’i property in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, a court ruled that Baha’is had “a perverse ideology,” which was “heretical and ritually unclean,” and therefore had no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.
In February, HRANA reported tax authorities in Bandar Lengeh city, Hormozgan Province, acting on a court order, confiscated the business, homes, and bank accounts of two Baha’is – Mohabatullah Thaabet and Erfaan Noahnezhaad. According to HRANA, they had operated a workshop making composite beams, paid taxes, and kept accounts as required for five years prior to authorities forcing them to close in 2019 “because of their Baha’i beliefs.”
Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented construction of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population. Three news sources opposed to the government previously stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.
Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their religion. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.
According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize private Christian churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs reported that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.
Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.
According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals to be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.
In February, the ADL published a report entitled, Incitement: Antisemitism and Violence in Iran’s Current State Textbooks. The report stated that “incitement to hatred against Jews and Israel are extensively interspersed throughout multiple fields of the curriculum such as history, religion, and social studies” at all grade levels in the academic year 2020-2021. According to the report, school textbooks “overwhelmingly teach hateful messages about Jewish people across both ancient and modern history” in furtherance of a narrative pitting Islamic leaders against the enemies of Islam. Children were also taught that Jews were untrustworthy, Zionism was “racist,” and the state of Israel must be destroyed.
The ADL report stated a 10th grade textbook on “defense preparation” claimed Zionism and global arrogance had used “religious tools with new definitions of Islam and sect and the creation of takfiri [extremist] groups” to undermine Islam, including ISIS. An 11th grade sociology textbook asserted, “The gathering of media power in the hand of wealth owners and Zionist associations…makes the cultural identity of non-Western societies vulnerable[.]”
The ADL report stated that state school textbooks depicted Baha’is as “a conspiratorial creation of the West rather than adherents to a legitimate faith” who, along with Buddhists and Wahhabi Muslims, were “physically unclean.” An 11th grade history textbook stated the Baha’i “sect” was “deviant” and a “trick of colonialism to destroy the religious and cultural foundations of Islamic countries.”
Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools, but only after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools.
Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms.
Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. According to HRW, Iranian authorities systematically refuse to allow Baha’is to register at public universities because of their faith. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980.
The July UNSR report stated documents published in March indicated it was official policy to impose restrictions on Baha’i education and commerce in Sari, Mazandaran Province. In 2020, UNSR Rehman reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”
According to BIC, on March 17, authorities expelled two Baha’i students – Hananeh Afshar and Sana Fakhri Tazangi – mid-semester from the University of Applied Science and Technology in Shiraz, Fars Province. The Baha’i women learned via a text message that the university had changed their student status to “registration cancelled” and had voided their credits from prior semesters. The president of the university showed them a letter from a Ministry of Education official that requested the expulsion of nine Baha’i students from the Universities of Applied Science and Technology across the country. Authorities expelled three other Baha’i students – Sina Shakib, Shima Fattahi Mirshekarlu, and Mahsa Forouhari – from their universities mid-semester under similar circumstances.
In January 2020, the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions changed to allow only citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. The Atlantic Council stated in September 2021, “Baha’i families, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans, and other religious minorities or atheists must either lie to receive a national identification card or be denied access to services, such as insurance, education, banking, and, most recently, public transportation.” Previously, application forms for an ID card had an option for “other religions.”
The Atlantic Council reported in September that Sabean-Mandaeans experienced hate speech and discrimination. One member of the community told a researcher, that “we cannot even choose and officially register a Mandaean name for our children because the state has always instilled a great fear of being interrogated in us.” According to the individual, Sabean-Mandaeans were often called “infidels and impure Muslims in the mosques.” They did not have the right to work in governmental agencies. Authorities denied self-employment permits “under various pretexts” and, in some cases, shut down their businesses.
According to an October 29 report by CHRI, the state-run Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced plans to launch university-level religion courses dedicated to the “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” that conformed to the government’s interpretation of Islam.
According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed Baha’is “unclean.”
Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report that the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a 2020 article in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”
In January, IranWire reported that the Yarsani Consultative Assembly of Civil Activists issued a statement calling on the government to stop discriminating against Yarsanis, including depriving of them of government employment, the right to hold public office, the right to post-graduate education, and the right to serve as directors of companies. The assembly protested the compulsory teaching of Islamic sharia to Yarsani children. The assembly also called for amending the constitution to include the Yarsan religion as a recognized minority religion.
According to the U.S.-based think-tank Middle East Institute, under the Ebrahim Raisi administration, which assumed power in August, not a single mid-ranking position was held by a Sunni Muslim or a woman during the year.
Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic year), the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.
According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens. In March, a local Jewish community source told the Times of Israel the government permitted the Jewish community to maintain youth organizations, kosher facilities, and four Jewish schools. In November, Voice of America reported the law barred Jews, in addition to other recognized minorities, from serving in the judiciary and security services, and it further prohibited Jews from holding authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Media reported local sources were careful to avoid publicly discussing politics or the State of Israel.
According to BIC, during the year, the government campaign of hate speech and propaganda against Baha’is “reached new levels, increasing in both sophistication and scale.” BIC stated there was a growing and coordinated network of hundreds of websites, Instagram accounts, Telegram channels, and Clubhouse chat rooms containing content such as “Baha’is are unclean and enemies of your religion,” “Associating with Baha’is is banned,” and “Purchasing any goods from a Baha’i store is forbidden.” BIC stated discriminatory online material existed alongside videos, print newspaper articles, books, seminars, exhibitions, graffiti, and fatwas “from both official outlets and others sponsored by the government but purporting to be independent.”
International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored propaganda aimed at deterring the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity. In December, Article 18 stated that although government officials issued Christmas greetings on social media as a propaganda tool, government persecution of Christians increased around the holiday. One academic told Article 18 the regime feared that an interest in Christmas and other elements of Western culture would lead Muslims, especially youth, to convert to Christianity. The academic said the government was “more afraid of the religious significance and consequences of these behaviors than of fearing a celebration that belongs to other countries. Negative reactions to the celebration of Christmas, or open repression of Christian converts, are signs of this fear.”
In its annual report on the year 2020 published in April, Amnesty International stated, “Freedom of religion and belief was systematically violated in law and practice. The authorities continued to impose on people of all faiths, as well as atheists, codes of public conduct rooted in a strict interpretation of Shia Islam. The authorities refused to recognize the right of those born to Muslim parents to convert to other religions or become atheists, with individuals seeking to exercise this right risking arbitrary detention, torture and the death penalty for ‘apostasy.’ Only Shia Muslims were allowed to hold key political positions. Members of religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Gonabadi Dervishes, Yarsan (Ahl-e Haq), and converts from Shia Islam to Sunni Islam or Christianity faced discrimination, including in education and employment, as well as arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment for practicing their faith.” The report added, “The authorities continued to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations against members of the Baha’i minority, including forcible closure of businesses, confiscation of property, bans on employment in the public sector, denial of access to higher education and hate speech campaigns on state media. Raids on house churches persisted. Sunni Muslims continued to face restrictions on establishing their own mosques.”
In its annual report on the year 2021, HRW noted the country’s “law denies freedom of religion to Baha’is and discriminates against them. Authorities continue to arrest and prosecute members of the Baha’i faith on vague national security charges and to close businesses owned by them. The government also discriminates against other religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims…. Minority activists are regularly arrested and prosecuted on vaguely defined national security charges in trials that grossly fall short of international standards.”
In July, Article 18 reported that in a video published by Roshangar Media, senior Armenian and Assyrian representatives distanced themselves from the house church movement of evangelical Christian converts. Iranian-Armenian Catholic archbishop Sarkis Davidian reportedly said in the video, “We do not encourage people to change their religion. People must remain in their religion.” Iranian-Assyrian parliamentary representative Shaarli Anouyeh Tekyeh, in the same video, said evangelical churches were “repugnant to us.” In an August 2020 Article 18 report, an Armenian journalist said despite harassment of minorities being “institutionalized in the very fabric of the Islamic Republic… representatives of religious minorities find themselves almost forced to defend the interests and discourse of a government that has deprived them of many of their rights, in an attempt perhaps to regain those lost rights or to prevent their further deterioration.”
Government officials continued to employ antisemitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. On February 22, Supreme Leader Khamenei posted a message on Twitter saying, “That international Zionist clown [the UN] has said they won’t allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. First of all, if we had any such intention, even those more powerful than him [sic] wouldn’t be able to stop us.” On June 27, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in Newsweek, “that [President] Raisi was responsible for systematically propagating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most dangerous tracts in history, provides an unsettling reminder of just how engaged Iran’s government and leaders have been in inciting antisemitism.” According to the ADL, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.
In May, the government-controlled arts promotion organization Hozeh Honari hosted an exhibition of submissions to its third Holocaust-denial cartoon contest and offered cash awards to several of the participating artists. The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation reportedly broadcast the exhibition’s closing ceremony live. Many of the cartoons at the exhibition, also published in a book produced by Hozeh Honari, featured antisemitic imagery and stereotypical caricatures of Jews. The contest had financial sponsorship from the partly state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran through its subsidiary and the largest mobile operator in Iran, Hamrahe Aval. In an interview on state-run Channel 4 on September 9, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the visual arts director of Hozeh Honari and director of IranCartoon.com, who also organized these exhibitions 2020, 2016, and 2006, said the Holocaust was the “Achilles heel” of the Zionists, that Israelis had “benefited” from the Holocaust, and that the figure of six million Jewish victims was “very exaggerated.”
The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and some self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and charitable associations.
Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.
On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 78 states in favor, 31 against, and 69 abstentions. The resolution, introduced by Canada with 47 cosponsors, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i Faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences during the COVID-19 pandemic….” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights….” The resolution also called upon the government “to eliminate, in law and in practice, all forms of discrimination on the basis of thought, conscience, religion or belief, including restrictions contained in newly enacted provisions Article 499bis and Article 500bis of the Islamic Penal Code, as well as economic restrictions, such as the closure, destruction or confiscation of businesses and properties, the cancellation of licenses and the denial of employment in certain public and private sectors, including government or military positions and elected office, the denial of and restrictions on access to education, including for members of the Baha’i Faith, and other human rights violations against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities….” The resolution condemned “without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust,” and called upon the government “to end impunity for those who commit crimes against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.
According to a media reporting, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.
Violence and social stigma continued to target Baha’i individuals, according to Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights, and perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity. There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith.
Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries. IranWire reported that in September, HRANA released a video showing the partial destruction of a Baha’i cemetery in the village of Kata, Dena County, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province. According to HRANA, the attack occurred on September 8. In a manner that would have been difficult without machinery, much of the cemetery’s exterior wall and bathroom had been knocked to the ground and stone shrines were smashed.
In July, IranWire reported an Assyrian Christian nicknamed “Farough” suffered employment discrimination following a workplace injury at an industrial factory in 2016 in which he lost three fingers on his right hand. Farough said that when he returned to the factory after his recovery, “They were supposed to do an expert examination and pay me blood money, but when I was paid, I realized that the amount I received was much lower based on the fact that I was a religious minority.” Farough said a Muslim colleague with similar academic credentials was promoted and given a raise. “I meanwhile have all the right conditions for employment and career advancement but, just because I am a Christian, I am deprived of any promotion.”
According to human rights NGOs, including CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.
Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.
Sunni students reported that professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.
IranWire reported that according to a survey released by Iran Open Data in October, 48 percent of 2,000 adult respondents said they drank alcohol. When asked about drinking frequency, 24 percent of respondents reported that they “sometimes” drank, while 9 percent said they drank “weekly,” and 6 percent said they drank “daily.” Fifty-two percent of participants said they did not drink alcohol.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and did not have opportunities during the year to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.
The U.S. government continued to call publicly and in multilateral forums for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn and promote accountability for its abuses of members of religious minority groups in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials, use of social media, reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.
On June 13, the Special Envoy for Iran posted to Twitter, “It’s been 3 years since human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 and a half years in prison and 148 lashes for defending women’s rights in Iran. From prison she cont[tinue]s to advocate for the humane treatment of political prisoners. She should not have spent a single day in prison.”
On July 28, the Department of State released a statement on the protests that started over water shortages in Khuzestan Province, home to the predominantly Sunni Muslim Ahwazi Arab minority. It condemned the use of violence against peaceful protestors and supported their rights “to peacefully assemble and express themselves, without fear of violence and detention by security forces.”
On March 9, the United States designated IRGC interrogators Ali Hemmatian and Masoud Safdari pursuant to Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2021 for their involvement in gross violations of human rights. According to NGOs, Hemmatian and Safdari operated in Ward 2A of Evin Prison and tortured political prisoners, including activists advocating for religious freedom and protestors, during their interrogations. On the same day, the U.S. representative to the Human Rights Council’s Interactive Dialogue together with the Special Rapporteur on Iran called for Iran to “end its systematic use of an arbitrary and unfair justice system to detain and impose sentence against human rights defenders, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, journalists, members of minority groups, such as the Baha’i, and others who dissent from the government.”
On December 7, the U. S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, sanctioned the Special Units of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Iran’s Counter-Terror Special Forces (NOPO) for violently suppressing prodemocracy protests in November 2019. OFAC sanctioned two LEF commanders – Hassan Karami and Seyed Mousavi Azami – as well a Basij commander Gholamreza Soleimani and the Governor of Qods City, Leila Vaseghi, for their roles in carrying out crackdowns against peaceful protesters. OFAC also sanctioned two prisons, Zahedan Central Prison and Isfahan Central Prison, as well as the warden of Qarchak Women’s Prison, Soghra Khodadadi, and IRGC commander and brigadier general Mohammad Karami for their roles in the “flagrant denial” of the rights prisoners and other citizens, including religious minorities. The Treasury Department statement announcing the sanctions said that “Zahedan Prison holds several political prisoners who belong to the Baluch ethnic minority group. According to public reports, on January 3, 2021, Baluch prisoner Hassan Dehvari was executed in Zahedan Prison. Dehvari was sentenced to death for ‘armed rebellion against the Islamic Rule.’ His sentence was escalated to execution after he engaged in several acts of peaceful protests, such as signing statements condemning executions of Sunni prisoners and condemning the mistreatment of fellow prisoners.”
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution states “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system, with state governments having responsibility for sharia law. Individuals diverging from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that taught and enforced government-approved Islamic practices. Sources stated that there was selective persecution of non-Muslim faiths through legal and extralegal means. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) continued its public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of a Christian pastor and his wife. A government-appointed panel formed in 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s findings on the enforced disappearances of another Christian pastor and a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings in 2016 did not release its findings on the grounds that the report is classified as “secret” under the Official Secrets Act. In a case on same-sex sexual activity, the Federal Court (the country’s highest court) held that existing federal law preempted a Selangor State sharia law, although both laws restricted such activity. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) stated publicly it would monitor online activity of Malaysians amid concerns over the spread of false information and statements “that touch on the 3Rs – race, religion and royalty.” The government continued to selectively prosecute persons for allegedly “insulting” Islam, such as in the case of transgender activist Nur Sajat, while it largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. Reports continued of forced conversions, especially among indigenous populations. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report challenges in registering as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship, although some religious groups successfully registered as companies. The High Court ruled that a regulation issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1986 banning the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims was unlawful and unconstitutional. The government appealed the ruling. The Deputy Religious Affairs Minister said state governments were directed to take steps to ensure religions other than Islam would be further limited in propagating their beliefs to Muslims and announced his intent to introduce legislation to “control and restrict the development of non-Muslim religions.” Federal and state governments sought to limit the ability for transgender individuals to worship in mosques.
Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity. SUHAKAM Commissioner Madeline Berma said that it was increasingly common to see social media users mocking the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus. Individuals lodged more than 5,000 reports to the police against Islamic preacher Syakir Nasoha, who made disparaging remarks about non-Muslims in a viral video, but nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said the police took no action. Religious organizations held virtual interfaith events and webinars to discuss religious freedom throughout the year.
U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of the three Christians and a Muslim activist in 2016 and 2017. The Ambassador visited a number of houses of worship to show the importance of respecting religious pluralism. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 33.5 million (midyear 2021). According to the most recent census in 2010, 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions; and less than 1 percent each other religious groups that include animists, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Baha’is. Almost all Muslims practice Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school. Ethnic Malays, defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the peninsular east coast of the country – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims. Ethnic Chinese Malaysians are mainly Buddhist and live mostly in the West coast states, especially in Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Melaka, and Johor. There is a very small Malaysian Thai Buddhist community living in the northern parts of Kedah and Kelantan states. Two-thirds of the country’s Christian population inhabits the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The federal constitution states, “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but it gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization aimed at converting Muslims to another faith. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. Federal law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as “Heads of Islam.” Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states and are the highest Islamic authority within their respective states. In the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the King, selected to a five-year term from among the nine sultans in an established rotation order. Islamic law is administered by each state. The office of mufti exists in every state to advise the sultan in all matters of Islamic law. Sultans oversee sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils, who manage the operations of the courts. In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the King assumes responsibility for this process.
Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law except in matters concerning Islamic law. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. However, since 2018, the Federal Court, the country’s highest, has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors and that such jurisdiction may not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment.
The Sharia Judiciary Department (JKSM) is the federal agency charged with coordinating the sharia courts. The federal Department of Development of Islam (JAKIM) is the permanent secretariat of the federal Fatwa Committee, which consists of 14 muftis, one from each state and one representing the Federal Territories. The Sharia and Civil Technical Committee within the Attorney General’s Chambers oversee the process of sharia lawmaking at the federal level. A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.
Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare them as “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests, especially for those born Muslim and ethnic Malays, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. Penalties for apostasy vary by state. In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or prison term. In Pahang, courts may impose up to six strokes of the cane. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death, but courts have never imposed this penalty, and its legality remains untested. NGOs report that most converts from Islam prefer to do so privately, without legal approval. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam. In some states, sharia courts allow one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the sharia court to officially recognize the marriage.
A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15. A 2018 decision of the Federal Court ruled against the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents. The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.
Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting a religion, enforced most often for such speech regarding Islam. The penal code punishes “offences relating to religion” including “injuring or defiling a place of worship,” “disturbing a religious assembly,” “trespassing on burial places,” or “uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious dealings of any person.” Convictions for these offenses under sedition laws within the penal code may result in prison sentences of up to two years or a fine, the amount of which is not defined in the penal code, or imprisonment of up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property. The penal code also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion,” with offenders facing imprisonment between two to five years. NGOs report that prosecutions for blasphemy usually involve those who offend Islam, but an insult to any religion may be subject to prosecution.
Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison, caning, or a 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam. According to some state laws, Muslims may be fined 1,000 ringgit ($240) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia in some states, individuals who sell food to fasting Muslims or Muslims who do not fast are also subject to a fine, a jail sentence, or both.
JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare all Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques. JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all teachers of Islam before they may preach or lecture on Islam in public.
There is no legal requirement for non-Muslim religious groups to register, but to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Registrar of Societies (ROS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and by paying a small fee. These organizations are legally required to submit annual reports to the ROS to remain registered. The ROS may inspect registered organizations and investigate those suspected of being used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order, or morality.”
Tax laws allow an exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for individual donors. Donors giving zakat (Islamic tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.
Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state. Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual same-sex sexual relations and prostitution. Caning is also permitted for a wider variety of offenses under provisions in the federal penal code such as for rape, drug trafficking, illegal migration, bribery, and criminal breach of trust.
The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, including imprisonment and caning. The law allows Muslims to proselytize without restriction.
State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.
All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and prayer rooms – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or prayer room.
Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.
Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. When civil and sharia jurisdictions intersect, civil courts largely defer to sharia courts, creating situations in which sharia judgments can affect non-Muslims.
Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have enacted hudood (Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of that code. The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.
The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, except in Selangor state, where Muslim and non-Muslim females must be 18. Sharia courts may make exceptions for marriage before those ages with the permission of parents. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry but may marry as young as 16 with the approval of their state’s chief minister.
National identity cards specify religious affiliation, and the government uses them to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card. Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.
Foreign missionaries and international students enrolling in religious courses must apply for entry with the Department of Immigration. These classes of visas are issued to applicants on a year-to-year basis and a national body representing the respective faiths must endorse the applicant’s qualifications.
JAKIM coordinates the Hajj, endowment (waqf), tithes, and other Islamic activities.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
SUHAKAM’s public inquiry continued into the disappearance in 2016 of Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu. SUHAKAM interviewed dozens of witnesses since the inquiry began in February 2020. Philip Koh, a lawyer representing the family, criticized the Attorney General’s Chambers regarding what he stated was its lack of cooperation with the inquiry. In November, Sitepu’s family issued a statement. The family said, “Please return her remains to us. People do not, and cannot, just vanish into thin air with no trace.”
The government did not release results from a government-appointed panel formed in June 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Royal Malaysia Police intelligence unit, Special Branch, was responsible for the 2016/17 “enforced disappearance” of Shia Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat and Christian pastor Raymond Koh, and it made no progress in its investigation, according to SUHAKAM. According to a lawyer for the two families, the government sent a reply affidavit in September stating it would not release the Special Task Force report, which was completed in 2019, because it was classified under the Official Secrets Act of 1972 and its release would undermine the “national interest.”
The wife of Pastor Raymond Koh, Susanna Liew, continued her legal action against the federal government and several senior officials for what she stated was failure to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping in 2017, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure. In May, a magistrate judge ordered court proceedings to continue in December 2022 against Lam Chang Nam for allegedly extorting 30,000 ringgit ($7,200) from Koh’s family by offering information on Koh’s whereabouts. Prosecutors initially charged Lam with kidnapping Koh, although they later withdrew the charges.
Despite calls from the Kuala Lumpur High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s former husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing as of the end of the year. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her former husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. In July, the High Court allowed Gandhi to file a suit against the police and the government for alleged inaction in executing a warrant to arrest her former husband for contempt and return her daughter. At year’s end, the Inspector General of Police had not disclosed the daughter’s location nor announced any progress on the case.
In May, Member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah sought a High Court ruling to revoke an October 2019 Sharia High Court contempt order against her for her September 2019 press release stating that the sharia court discriminated against women. The prosecution in the sharia case said Chin’s comments harmed the reputation of the court. The High Court review remained pending at year’s end.
In February, the Federal Court held that a federal law preempted a similar Selangor State law outlawing same-sex sexual activity. The ruling stemmed from an appeal of a Selangor State sharia court’s 2019 conviction of a man for “intercourse against the order of nature.” The court found that existing federal legislation outlawing the same activity for the same reason preempted the state law, and on constitutional grounds ruled that the sharia court did not have jurisdiction.
Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In January, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) said it would monitor social media platforms for the spread of false information and statements that “touch on the 3Rs – race, religion and royalty.”
In April, Datuk Abdul Aziz Sheikh Ab Kadir, chairman of the Negeri Sembilan State Islamic Religious Council, which administers Islamic religious affairs in the state, said the word “Allah” was sacred and specifically for Muslims and could not be used by other religions.
In February, the Federal Court ruled on an appeal of a Selangor High Court decision and Court of Appeals dismissal of Rosliza Ibrahim’s legal bid for a declaration that she was Buddhist and not Muslim. The Federal Court found that Rosliza, born to an unmarried Muslim man and Buddhist woman, had not inherited her Muslim father’s faith, as the Islamic Family Law Enactment 2003 in Selangor did not recognize his paternity due to his unmarried status.
In April, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called for an internal investigation into public university lecturer Dr. Kamarul Zaman Yusoff, accusing him of stoking religious tensions in comments he made about a member of parliament. Kamarul accused Democratic Action Party Member of Parliament Steven Sim of providing a motorcycle to one of his constituents, a Malay youth facing financial difficulties, and characterizing it as an attempt at “Christianization.” He also warned Malay Muslims against accepting help from “Christian evangelists.”
Lawyers continued to call for the Ministry of Education to issue a directive forbidding religious conversion of students in school. In January 2020, a Christian family in Sarawak State sued authorities over the conversion of their son, a minor, to Islam by a ustaz (religious teacher) in his school without the parents’ knowledge or consent. The case remained pending at year’s end.
In January, SUHAKAM called for legal action after receiving complaints of indigenous children in Sarawak State being forced to observe Islamic rituals such as mandatory attendance of religious classes and wearing veils and traditional Islamic attire. SUHAKAM attributed this largely to interfaith marriages in which one of the spouses no longer wished to practice Islam, often leading to their children being registered as Muslims, despite being raised as followers of other faiths.
JAKIM continued to implement federal guidelines on what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that taught and enforced government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure detainees adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. The Religious Affairs Ministry reported 14 state-level cases in the country involving “deviant” teachings or worship under sharia from January-September, compared with 33 cases in 2020.
In February, then-Religious Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri urged authorities to take “necessary action” against a Hindu man who claimed in a video that he convinced his wife to leave Islam and embrace Hinduism. Zulkifli said the law empowered states to formulate laws to control the spread of other religions to Muslims, including attempts to persuade, coax, or invite the latter to leave their religion either through preaching, marriage, or any other means. Police investigated the man under the Sedition Act, Multimedia and Communications Act, and the penal code, and the case remained pending at year’s end.
NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert and for non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to change the religious designation on their identification cards. In November, Kelantan State enacted new sharia laws that included making it illegal to convert from Islam with punishments including a maximum prison term of three years, a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), or six cane strokes.
In March, the High Court granted a woman’s bid to be declared a Buddhist and have her original name restored on a new identity card without the identification of “Islam.” She woman said had been converted to Islam as a child by her father without her mother’s consent.
The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it limited Malaysians’ ability to travel to Israel.
All foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to conduct religious talks were subjected to mandatory background checks for what the government termed national security reasons, to ensure these missionaries were free from “deviant” teachings.
In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a private company. Some religious groups reported registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not create limitations on the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization to then conduct certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property. However, registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.
The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and practices, denying certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and non-Islamic NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the ROS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say the ROS had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups.
State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex). In January, the Islamic Affairs and Religious Department in Kelantan State detained seven Muslim couples on suspicion of committing khalwat during a seasonal “antivice” operation in conjunction with the Lunar New Year celebration. A government representative said the operation was intended to “track down those who took the opportunity of the long public holiday to commit immoral behavior.” Four Muslim women were also issued summonses for wearing “sexy and tight clothing in public.”
In March, Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Ahmad Marzuk Shaary said state governments had been directed to take steps to ensure that religions other than Islam would be further limited in propagating their beliefs to Muslims. The Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department further posted on his official Facebook account that the constitution already empowered states and the federal territories to amend their laws to control and curb the propagation of non-Muslim religions. His post stated, “This power is derived from Article 11(4) of the Constitution, which stipulates that everyone has the right to worship and practice their faith as they see fit but may not propagate or influence others into practicing their religion.” He also stated the government would request states that already had legislation to control the propagation of non-Islamic religions to Muslims in place to further enhance their enforcement activities.
In September, Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Marzuk announced his intention to introduce legislation to “control and restrict the development of non-Muslim religions.” In response, Hindu organizations reiterated that the constitution does not give the government the right to legislate any form of control or impose any restrictions on the beliefs and practice of non-Muslims and that the proposal was also against “Keluarga Malaysia” (the “Malaysia Family” concept promoted by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob). The president of the Federation of Taoist Associations of Malaysia described Marzuk as “totally unfit to be a deputy in charge of religious affairs in a multiracial country.” Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said religious matters were under the jurisdiction of the respective states and if the federal government adopted this type of legislation, “It won’t be legally binding.” The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) welcomed the Law Minister’s assurance.
Officials at the federal and state levels continued to oversee Islamic religious activities, distribute all sermon texts for mosques to follow, use mosques to convey political messages, and limit public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam.
Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Muslim groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers, as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque.
In July, Inspector General of Police Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani said police were tracking down a group known as Perjalanan Mimpi Yang Terakhir (PMYT), believed to be spreading “deviant” teachings, including that the group’s leader, Sittah Annur, could communicate directly with Allah, the angels, and the Prophet Muhammad, and that PMYT was revealed to her to guide the people. In September, police arrested Annur and detained her for investigation under the section of the penal code that covers causing disharmony, disunity, feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or prejudicing the maintenance of harmony or unity on the grounds of religion, as well as under the communications law covering improper use of network facilities or network services. Police subsequently released her on bail.
In January, the High Court said it would decide in March whether 39 Ahmadi Muslims should be considered Muslim following an appeal by the Religious Affairs Department (JAIS) against a 2018 High Court decision stating that the sharia court had no jurisdiction over the Ahmadi community, since JAIS refused to recognize them as adherents of Islam. The High Court did not announce a decision in March and there were no follow-up reports by year’s end.
In January, the Kedah State government cancelled the public holiday for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Federal Human Resources Minister M Saravanan said the state government, led by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), should have consulted representatives of Indian descent in the federal parliament before making the decision.
In January, the Federal Court allowed the Selangor Islamic Religious Council to intervene in a hearing in which the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) asked the court to invalidate a Selangor State law that enabled sharia courts to review decisions made by state religious authorities. In October, the court postponed a decision on the case. In 2019, the High Court dismissed the NGO’s application to a civil court requesting review of a 2014 Selangor State fatwa that found the organization to be “deviant.” SIS stated in the application that the fatwa infringed upon the constitutional rights of SIS and its members. The fatwa said SIS deviated from the teachings of Islam because the group subscribed to the principles of liberalism and religious pluralism. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The fatwa also ruled the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. At year’s end, no action had been taken against SIS, which continued to function nationally.
Criminal cases remained pending against Abdul Kahar Ahmad and 16 followers for spreading the teachings of a “deviant sect” that had been banned in 1991. In September 2020, JAIS arrested Kahar and 16 followers, although it subsequently released Kahar and three of them on bail, while the other 13 remained in custody. Media reported Abdul Kahar “declared his repentance.”
In March the High Court ruled that a regulation issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1986 banning the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims was unlawful and unconstitutional. The judge stated that Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Christians in East Malaysia had been using the word “Allah” in their religious practice for generations. The government appealed the decision, and the state Religious Councils of Selangor, the Federal Territories, and Johor filed bids to be included in the appeal. In September, the Johor State Religious Council withdrew its bid to be included in the appeal. The case leading to the ruling related to a Sarawak Christian who had CDs with “Allah” printed on them seized by customs officials upon her return from Indonesia. Leaders of the Bersatu, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and PAS political parties called for the government to appeal the decision.
In September, Perlis State issued a fatwa banning jokes that make fun of Islam or “can lead to immorality, sin and wickedness.” In an edict released by Mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the state fatwa committee said jokes were allowed in Islam, but not those made at the expense of the religion and that brought harm to others.
In September, the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia issued letters to two local broadcasters to stop displaying male and female undergarments on their home shopping networks, stating that the preservation of “manners, decency, and the sensitivities of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in Malaysia is of utmost importance.”
The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.”
Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services.
The Prime Minister’s office ordered government agencies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, to encourage religious harmony and protect the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. The latter department’s annual budget was approximately 343 million ringgit ($82.16 million), while 1.5 billion ringgit ($359.28 million) was designated for the development of Islam under JAKIM.
During the year, JAKIM continued to fund a wide variety of Islamic education- and mosque-related projects, such as signing a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Tourist Center to provide programs to attract Muslim tourists. There were no funds in the government budget specifically allocated to non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities. In June Malaysian Hindu Sangam President Moham Shan announced 2.45 million ringgit ($587,000) of federal funds were distributed to 1,145 registered Hindu temples throughout the country from December 2020 through May.
At public primary and secondary schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with the recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader, although this occurred less often than in past years, as most schools met virtually due to COVID-19 protocols. Critics expressed concern over the religious overtones and symbols in schools. Particularly in the country’s peninsula, community leaders and civil liberties groups said religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces, except for their eyes.
Homeschooling remained legal, but some families continued to report difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.
The government continued its policy of not recognizing marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims, and it considered children born of such unions to be illegitimate.
In September, the Perlis State fatwa committee declared that “men who appear like women,” such as transgender individuals, were forbidden from entering mosques while not in gender-conforming clothing and were prohibited from performing the Hajj or Umrah. The statement accompanying the fatwa said the presence of such individuals would “disturb the worship environment of mosques.” Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Marzuk said the government was looking into emulating Perlis State in banning transgender individuals from entering mosques in the federal territories because it was “appropriate to maintain the sanctity of mosques and avoid confusion among the community.” Penang State Mufti Datuk Seri Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor said transgender individuals should change their appearance if they want to be in mosques or surau (smaller houses of worship) so that they “do not look out of place and avoid making other worshippers uncomfortable.” Representatives from SIS said, “The fatwa and statement of the mufti not only contradict the federal constitution but in fact [are] not in accordance with inclusive Islamic traditions.” Media quoted a transgender man as saying the fatwa “is such a cruel ruling especially to those who attend prayers at the mosques or even Friday prayers. This goes against Islam’s nature of inclusivity and acceptance.’’
In January, the Selangor JAIS brought in transgender social media influencer Nur Sajat for questioning relating to a video posted online of her reciting Islamic prayers while dressed in women’s clothing in 2018. JAIS officers allegedly beat and slapped her while in custody. They subsequently charged her with “defamation of Islam,” punishable with a fine not exceeding 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) or imprisonment not exceeding three years, or both, and released her on bail. Sajat did not appear for her court date on February 23, citing a medical condition. JAIS then issued a warrant for her arrest without bail and sent JAIS officers looking for Sajat, with police support. Nur Sajat then fled the country, saying she feared that the religious authorities would criminally prosecute her for practicing her faith.
Wan Norhayati Wan, known as “Ibu Yati,” stated that from March 3 through July 29, Selangor Islamic Religious Authorities detained her without charge, based on controversial comments she posted on social media about the “Arabization” of Malay culture. She said that during this time, authorities repeatedly questioned her, deprived her of contact with her lawyer, and detained her in unsafe conditions, provided inadequate water, food, and access to medicine, and at times held her with possible COVID-19-positive detainees. In July, the Selangor Sharia High Court charged Ibu Yati and two others with “expounding religious doctrines contrary to Islamic law” and spreading them through Facebook between December 2020 and February 2021.
In May, the High Court dismissed a libel and sedition lawsuit filed by Christians Maklin Masiau and Lawrence Jomiji Kinsil Maximilhian against PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang, who published an article in 2016 accusing Christian missionaries of preying on poor and uneducated people in impoverished communities in states such as Sabah by paying them to convert to Christianity. In dismissing the case, Judge Akhtar Tahir called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “an abuse of the court process,” and he ordered the plaintiffs to pay 50,000 ringgit ($12,000) each to cover Hadi’s legal costs. The judge also said Hadi’s comments in 2016 concerned only Christian missionaries and not Christians in general and that the plaintiffs should instead be blamed for seditious tendencies because “they resurrected it [Awang’s article] to make it a new issue.”
In November, the High Court set March 2022 as the date for judicial review of Buddhist Ong Seng Teng’s 2020 complaint over the National Registration Department’s (NRD) refusal to issue a birth certificate for his son, born in November 2019. The NRD cited the refusal as a religious issue because Ong’s wife (the boy’s mother) was born Muslim, and sharia courts had never granted her 2016 application to leave Islam and convert to Buddhism. The NRD denied the family’s request to list the boy’s religion as “Buddhist” on his birth certificate because the mother’s religious status mandates the child be registered as a Muslim.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
As in years past, local human rights organizations and religious leaders said society continued to become less tolerant of religious diversity. In February, SUHAKAM Commissioner Berma said that it was increasingly common to see social media users mocking the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus.
In June, the Islamic Center at the government-run Universiti Teknologi Malaysia cancelled for “undisclosed reasons” a virtual talk by renowned Malay-Muslim classical dancer Ramli Ibrahim on how multicultural performing arts should transcend race. Ramli said there were religious motivations underlying the cancellation.
In June, two Hindu groups went to court to compel police to detain and investigate Muslim preacher Muhammad Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu for allegedly uploading to social media in 2019 a sermon that the groups found insulting. The two groups said police had been negligent in failing to detain and fully investigate Zamri, despite having received nearly 800 reports regarding the preacher’s alleged offenses. The groups sought a declaration stating that Zamri was “a threat to the security and peace of the multi-ethnic and multi-faith country of Malaysia.” In September, Zamri’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case.
In October, individuals lodged more than 5,000 reports with the police against Islamic preacher Syakir Nasoha, who made disparaging remarks about non-Muslims in a video posted to TikTok October 1. In the one-minute clip, Nasoha said, “At the end of time, disciples of non-Muslim religions will be scrambling together to kill Muslims.” Local NGO Global Human Rights Federation President S. Shashi Kumar said, “This is a deliberate attack on non-Muslims,” and he called on police to arrest Nasoha. He also asked that National Unity Minister Halimah Mohamed Sadique immediately introduce a National Harmony and Reconciliation bill in parliament to help address racial discrimination and sectarianism in the country. In December, 60 multiracial civil society groups presented a memorandum to police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur questioning the delay in arresting Nasoha and stating police had taken no action.
In March, police investigated Puteri Mujahidah Wan Asshima Kamaruddin for a video she uploaded on Facebook threatening to “destroy the Christian community” in response to the High Court’s ruling that allowed non-Muslims to use the word “Allah” in religious publications. In the video, which went viral, Mujahidah said, “We don’t want to share the word ‘Allah’ with people from other religions,” and she referred to non-Muslims as “heathens.”
Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from Muslims, including friends and relatives.
Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear headscarves or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming in public and on social media.
Religious groups hosted virtual interfaith dialogues and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. In May, the NGO Komuniti Muslim Universal hosted a webinar on “The Future of Freedom of Religion & Belief in Malaysia Post General Election 15” to foster collaboration between parliamentarians and faith and civil society leaders in strengthening the protection of freedom of religion and belief in the country.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as with other agencies, on religious freedom and tolerance issues throughout the year, including concerns about the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the continued disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, Pastor Joshua Hilmy, and Ruth Sitepu.
Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, who described heavy government restrictions on their religious activities and continued societal discrimination. The embassy also met with Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government such as SIS, and with MCCBCHST to discuss strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance.
In March, the Ambassador met and raised religious freedom issues with the leadership of International Islamic University Malaysia and Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, two of the most prominent Islamic universities in the country, as part of the embassy’s continuing to build relationships with influential Islamic thought leaders.
In April, the Ambassador toured several religious sites in Kuala Lumpur, including the National Mosque, Sin Sze Si Sze Ya Taoist Temple, the Sri Maha Mariamman Hindu Temple, the Sri Jayanti Buddhist Temple, and the Gurdwara Sahib Sentul, a Sikh temple, to highlight the importance of religious pluralism. In November, he reiterated this message during visits to religious sites in Penang, including Masjid Kapitan Keling, St. George’s Anglican Church, and the Taoist Kong Hock Keong Temple. The embassy drew on these visits in social media messaging to highlight its commitment to support mutual respect and understanding among the different religious groups in the country.
In April, the Ambassador launched Values 2021, an embassy-sponsored civic education program for students at Islamic madrassahs to learn about other cultures and their intersections with religious faith. In partnership with University Sains Islam Malaysia and the Religious Affairs Ministry, the program worked to develop and train teachers and students on civic education principles. More than 1200 teachers and students started the year-long initiative focusing on leadership, financial literacy, community service, and good governance. Prior to the program launch, the Ambassador met virtually with the Minister for Religious Affairs, who expressed his gratitude for the partnership and conveyed a strong need to develop the next generation of leaders with programs based on “strong principles and moral standing.”
In April, the Ambassador and embassy officers collaborated with the leadership of Masjid Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, one of the oldest mosques in the country, to distribute food packets to people in need from the local community. The mosque’s chief imam, Ustaz Yahya, met with the Ambassador, who highlighted the embassy’s support for religious tolerance and diversity as well as the embassy’s interest in giving back to the community. The event was part of the embassy’s 2021 Ramadan outreach program to highlight multiculturalism and respect for diversity. The event received wide media coverage, including on national television broadcaster Radio Television Malaysia (RTM), as well as local Islamic television and radio. RTM’s Breakfast Grille, an English-language program, also interviewed two embassy officers during Ramadan to discuss their experience as a multiethnic, multireligious family.
In April, the Ambassador hosted an iftar that highlighted the embassy’s engagement with religious groups and institutions aimed at advancing mutual respect and understanding. Prominent religious leaders, influencers, scholars, and civil society members attended the event, including the chief imam of the Masjid Jamek Mosque.
The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.
The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the President, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.” On May 6, Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed was seriously injured in a bomb attack that also wounded five other persons. While media accounts say that Nasheed may have been targeted because he criticized individuals characterized as religious extremists, authorities say he was targeted because the perpetrators believed he publicly mocked and insulted Islam. Nine men whom the government described as supporters of ISIS were charged with the attack under antiterrorism legislation and eight were on trial at year’s end. The ninth, Adhuham Ahmed Rasheed, entered into a plea bargain agreement that sentenced him to 23 years’ imprisonment in December. In court, Rasheed said he had participated in the attack due to his religious beliefs. The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as flogging, stoning, and amputation of hands. Although nine persons were sentenced to flogging during the year, no sentences were carried out as the appeals process continued for each of them. In April, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) parliamentary faction stated that authorities should investigate social media comments, including death threats directed against MDP member of parliament (MP) Mohamed Waheed, who was criticized by a religious scholar for allegedly making comments opposing sharia during a party rally. The MDP said Waheed was opposing the actions of the previous administration, not sharia. Waheed asked the Maldives Police Service (MPS) to investigate, but there had been no arrests by year’s end. In November, the government recharged Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba for “criticizing Islam” and “producing or distributing obscene material” in 2019. Mujuthaba had been convicted and sentenced on separate charges in 2020 and served one year in prison. In September, parliament announced an investigation into statements made by an MP who called for greater freedom of religion in the country. In June and July, religious scholars, religiously affiliated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and island councils launched a public campaign against a government-proposed amendment to the penal code that would criminalize public accusations that an individual had violated or insulted Islam and public allegations that a Muslim was a non-Muslim. After consultations with Islamic scholars and taking into account some of their views, parliament ratified the amendment, which became law in December. In July, the Maldives Customs Service announced it was launching a joint investigation with the police into incidents of Christian literature being mailed from abroad to institutions, companies, and individuals in the country. In December, customs officials reported they were unable to verify the origin of these items, and police reported the investigation closed. MPS reported it was investigating one website and 14 distinct Twitter handles for “criticizing Islam” as of September. In November, the Criminal Court ordered internet service providers to block access to online content that targeted Maldivians “with the intention of spreading religions other than Islam.” The Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday services. The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.
NGOs continued to report that persistent online and in-person threats against individuals perceived to be insufficiently Muslim effectively foreclosed the possibility of meaningful discussion of religious issues in the country. NGOs continued to report instances of individuals deemed “secularists” or “apostates” receiving death threats and being cyberbullied. In August, the NGO Maldives Journalists Association published a threat perception survey of journalists in which 37 percent of the 70 local journalists who participated reported “being labelled ‘irreligious’ and threatened by radicalized or violent extremist individuals or groups online.” Respondents to the survey also reported an increase in anonymous social media accounts believed to be linked to government officials or groups characterized as religiously extremist that harassed journalists. NGO reported the government continued to fail to take action against online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam.
There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Maldives, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and the embassy in Colombo represents U.S. interests there. In meetings with government officials, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to investigate threats against individuals targeted as “secularists” or “apostates,” to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern regarding harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 391,000 (midyear 2021). In 2021, the government estimated the total population at 568,261, including 112,000 documented and 63,000 undocumented foreign workers, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. While most citizens follow Sunni Islam (a requirement of citizenship), there are no reliable estimates of religious affiliations. Most foreign workers are likely Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian, although there are no reliable estimates available of the number of followers of different faiths among foreign workers.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates Islam as the state religion, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings. It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam. According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.
The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” In deciding whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must consider the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.
Since an amendment in December, the penal code criminalizes violence against individuals based on their religion or calls for violence against individuals based on their religion, with sentences of up to four years and two years, respectively.
The constitution makes no mention of freedom of religion. Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis for discrimination. The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenets of Islam.”
The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion. By law, a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence. Although the law does not stipulate such punishment, sharia jurisprudence is often understood by the public and religious scholars to provide for the death penalty in cases of conversion from Islam (i.e., apostasy), but the government has made no such statement.
The law states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.” Any statement or action found to be contrary to this objective is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, disrupting religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society. According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.
Laws criminalize speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam.” According to the law, a person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by “engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing ‘idols of worship’; and/or attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause ‘religious segregation.’” In December the penal code expanded the definition of “criticizing Islam” to include “insulting or spreading misinformation about Islam, Allah, the Prophet, or Sunnah through an act or expression in a public forum, using a communications device or otherwise, with the intention of undermining Islam.” Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.
An amendment to the penal code passed in December criminalizes as a hate crime public allegations or portrayals of individuals as persons who violate or oppose Islam based on an act they carried out or a belief they expressed, without having violated an accepted principle of Sunni Islam and while the issue mentioned is known to have different interpretations among Islamic scholars. The amended penal code also criminalizes public allegations or portrayals of a Muslim as a non-Muslim or an apostate when the accused has not carried out an act of apostasy, uttered an expression of apostasy, or violated Islam. Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year. The amended penal code also states these offenses do not apply to public statements detailing Islamic rulings as provided in the Quran or Sunnah.
By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA. Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization. To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies from a university recognized by the government, and not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court. The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate. Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit making statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination, discouraging access to education or health services in the name of Islam, or demeaning the character of and/or creating hatred toward persons of any other religion. The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions. Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300). The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.
Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison or house arrest. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty. If the offender is a foreigner, authorities may revoke the individual’s license to preach in the country (if they have one) and deport the individual.
By law, mosques and prayer houses are under the control of the MIA. The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.
The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.” By law, those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300), and deportation.
By law, a female citizen may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A male citizen may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.
The law prohibits importation of any items the MIA deems contrary to Islam, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials. Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment. It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages to foreigners on resort islands. Individuals must request permission from the Ministry of Economic Development to import restricted goods.
The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools. By law, educators who teach Islamic studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government. By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic studies may receive authorization to do so only if they subscribe to Sunni Islam. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. The curriculum incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices. In practice, foreign, non-Muslim children are allowed to opt out of studying Islam.
The constitution states Islam forms a basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.” The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law, but sharia is not considered applicable to non-Muslims.
The penal code prescribes flogging for unlawful sexual intercourse (adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations), incest, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, failing to fast during Ramadan, or (for Maldivian citizens only) consuming pork or alcohol. Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for certain offenses under sharia – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt. The penal code requires that all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to these offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.
The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters. The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms. The President names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives. The Minister of Islamic Affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to the President’s approval.
The constitution stipulates the President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic.”
On May 6, individuals labeled by the government as Islamic extremists attempted to kill Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed, seriously wounding him and injuring five others. MPS stated that Nasheed had been targeted because the perpetrators believed he was an “infidel” who publicly mocked and insulted Islam. Media analysts said it was likely Nasheed was targeted because of his outspoken criticism of religious fundamentalists. Nine men the government described as ISIS supporters were charged with the crime under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and eight were on trial at year’s end. The ninth, Adhuham Ahmed Rasheed, entered into a plea bargain agreement under which the Criminal Court sentenced him to 23 years’ imprisonment in December. In court, Rasheed said he had participated in the attack “due to some religious beliefs (he) had.”
The government reported that nine adults were sentenced to flogging as of June, eight for extramarital sex and one for same-sex relations, but none of the sentences were carried out, pending completion of appeals.
In April, the MDP parliamentary faction stated that authorities should investigate “actions by some intended to endanger the life of MDP MP Mohamed Waheed.” On April 15, religious scholar Sheikh Adam Nishan bin Adam al-Maaldheefee posted on his Facebook page a video clip of Waheed speaking at a party rally criticizing the political opposition for advocating for the death penalty when they were in power during the former administration. Adam said Waheed was criticizing sharia penalties and opposing sharia. His post was followed by hundreds of comments on Facebook and Twitter calling Waheed an apostate, with some also calling for his death, including one posted by Mohamed Ashraf, an Islamic Studies teacher in a government school. The MDP said Waheed did not criticize sharia, but rather the actions of the Yameen administration. The statement noted that Waheed represented the Ungoofaaru constituency, the same constituency represented by former MP Afrasheem Ali, who was killed in 2011 after being branded an apostate. Waheed filed an official complaint with MPS asking for an investigation into the threats against him, and he was provided with military security. MPS had not made any arrests in this case as of December. In August the Ministry of Education dismissed Ashraf, who had posted the death threat against Waheed.
As of November, pretrial hearings continued against six men who were charged in 2020 with supporting a terrorist organization, promoting materials supporting terrorist organizations, and producing or distributing obscene materials under the Anti-Terrorism Act and penal code. All six were released from custody in September 2020 and remained free through 2021. The group was led by Maldivian ISIS leader and recruiter Mohamed Ameen, who was arrested in 2019 and remained in custody with his trial underway at year’s end.
In November, the government recharged Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba with “criticizing Islam” and “producing or distributing obscene material,” although he was not in custody as of year’s end. The original case against him, filed in a magistrate court in Thinadhoo Island, was returned to the Prosecutor General’s Office because of administrative errors and refiled at the Criminal Court. The charges stem from social media posts by Mujuthaba in 2019 that had been deemed by the government to be critical of Islam. MPS officials reported they had continued to investigate death threats made against him in 2019 but had not made any arrests or filed charges from that investigation as of year’s end. Mujuthaba had been previously convicted on separate charges of obstructing justice in 2020 and served one year in prison. The UN Human Rights Council said that Mujuthaba had been kept in extended pretrial detention and had suffered torture and solitary confinement during his sentence, which ended when he was released on March 29.
In September, the parliament secretariat announced an investigation into statements made by Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party MP Abdulla Jabir, who, during a session of parliament, called for greater freedom of religion in the country. Minister of Islamic Affairs Ahmed Zahir and President of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs Mohamed Rasheed Ibrahim told media that Jabir’s statements violated Islamic tenets. A day later Jabir recanted his statement and apologized. Groups of religious scholars and some island councils, however, continued to urge the government to take action against Jabir. The government had taken no action against him as of year’s end.
In June and July, 101 religious scholars, 106 religiously affiliated NGOs, and 123 island councils signed petitions, issued statements, held online discussions, or organized peaceful protests as part of a campaign they termed “Ban Secular Bill” to oppose the first draft of a government-proposed amendment to the penal code that would criminalize public accusations that an individual had violated or insulted Islam, public allegations that a Muslim was a non-Muslim, and attempts to create societal hatred towards individuals based on their religious beliefs. These scholars, NGOs, and councils said the amendment would limit the efforts of religious scholars to spread Islamic awareness, hinder freedom of expression, lead to increased criticism of Islam, and provide legal protection for apostates and those who insult Islam. After the government held discussions with Islamic scholars, parliament revised the amendment to delete the reference to creating social hatred, clarify that the amendment’s restrictions did not apply to public statements detailing Islamic rulings as provided in the Quran or Sunnah, and to slightly modify other language before ratifying it in December.
During the year, the government did not take further action on an investigation launched in 2019 against employees of the NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), which had been deregistered in December 2019 because the group’s 2015 Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives contained content that mocked Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, according to MPS and the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment. MPS reported the investigation remained open at year’s end.
NGOs continued to report that the open investigation against MDN and failure of the government to publicly refute statements by popular religious figures characterizing NGOs as “irreligious” prevented them from expressing solidarity or publicly supporting those subjected to harassment in case of similar action against their organizations.
The trial of six men for the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed, whose writing centered around political, social, and economic issues, including his critique of violent extremism, remained pending at year’s end. Rasheed’s sister said that he received direct death threats after reporting on a rally calling for more religious tolerance and freedom on international Human Rights Day in December 2011. Rasheed’s family heavily criticized the government for what they said was incompetence and lack of action.
Victims of online harassment and threats continued to say they believed themselves vulnerable because of the past lack of police responsiveness to their complaints and because similar incidents of online harassment had preceded the 2014 disappearance and killing of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 killing of Rasheed. MPS reported investigating five cases of online harassment during the year, four of them involving defamation and one involving a death threat. Of the five cases, one was concluded without any arrests or action, and the other four remained under investigation at year’s end.
In November, the Criminal Court ordered all local internet service providers to block access to websites, social media pages, YouTube channels, and online applications that targeted Maldivians “with the intention of spreading religions other than Islam.” The order was issued at the request of MPS following reports that Christian advertising in the local Dhivehi language directed at children had appeared on Facebook, YouTube, and some gaming apps. Access to those websites and social media platforms had not been blocked as of the end of the year.
The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) continued to maintain an unpublished blacklist of websites containing material it deemed un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. CAM did not proactively monitor internet content but instead relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites violating laws against criticism or defamation of Islam. MPS reported continuing investigations launched in 2020 against three websites for publishing un-Islamic content or content that violated Islamic tenets. During the year, MPS initiated two investigations involving individual “criticism of Islam in the form of hate speech.” All investigations remained ongoing at year’s end.
The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday services. The government maintained its ownership and control of all mosques, including their maintenance and funding. The government continued to permit private donors to fund mosques as well.
According to the MIA, foreign residents such as teachers, laborers, and tourists, including on resort islands, remained free to worship in their own residences, but congregating in public for non-Islamic prayer remained illegal, as was encouraging local citizens to participate in such activities.
Customs authorities said the MIA continued to permit the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The MIA also continued to allow some religious literature to be imported for scholarly research. In a July 6 statement, the Maldives Customs Service announced it was launching a joint investigation with MPS into Christian literature, published in the local Dhivehi language, being mailed to institutions, companies, and individuals based in the country. In December, customs reported it was unable to verify the origin of these items, and police reported the investigation closed. Customs officials reported two cases involving the import of non-Islamic religious idols and religious banners during the year. Authorities confiscated the items in one case and were continuing to investigate the other case as of year’s end.
In its Freedom in the World 2021 report, the global NGO Freedom House stated “in recent years, growing religious extremism, stoked in part by the Yameen administration, has led to an increase in threatening rhetoric and physical attacks against those perceived to be insulting or rejecting Islam. Secularist writers and defenders of freedom of conscience have faced pressure from the authorities as well as death threats.” Freedom House also noted Mohamed Rusthum Mujuthaba’s arrest in 2019 for his posts on social media.
According to the international Christian NGO Open Doors, all politicians in the country supported keeping it 100 percent Muslim, leaving effectively no space for any alternative. It continued to report that conversion to Christianity could easily result in being reported to Muslim leaders or authorities. Expatriate Christians, most of them working in the tourist sector and coming from India and Sri Lanka, reported being “closely watched.”
The MIA continued to conduct what it termed “awareness programs” through radio and television broadcasts in the capital Male and on various islands to give citizens information on Islam, and it continued to provide assistance and counseling to foreigners seeking to convert to Islam. The ministry, in partnership with religious NGOs, continued to send imams to outer atolls to conduct workshops for students, youth, and others in schools and government buildings for the stated purpose of strengthening the islanders’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.
The National Institute of Education continued to implement a curriculum for public and private schools incorporating Islam into all subject areas. One NGO, citing the MDN radicalization study from 2015, continued to say that passages in some textbooks portrayed democracy as being anti-Islam, encouraged antisemitism and xenophobia, glorified jihad, and demonized the West, but the NGO did not provide concrete examples from current textbooks. The MIA continued to permit foreign individuals to opt out of Islamic instruction as a standalone subject. The MIA continued to permit foreigners to teach their own children religious content of their choice, but only in private.
On December 5, the MIA filed a police case against Clique College in Male for playing Christian songs at a children’s sports festival held in the Hulhumale central park. The lyrics included the words “We believe in Jesus, We believe in the Holy Spirit.” In a statement about the incident, the MIA said it considered the incident “a very serious matter.” The college stated the song accidentally autoplayed from a playlist and the organizers immediately changed the song upon realizing that it was Christian. Representatives from the college stated that the institution does not promote Christianity.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs continued to state that persistent online and in-person threats against individuals perceived to be insufficiently Muslim effectively foreclosed the possibility of meaningful discussion on religious issues in the country. NGOs reported that the government continued to fail to take action against online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam. NGOs also reported fear of retribution and a lack of confidence that authorities would take action prevented persons from filing complaints of online harassment with authorities.
NGOs continued to report instances of individuals deemed “secularists” or “apostates” receiving death threats and being cyberbullied.
MPS continued to report a lack of cybercrime legislation posed obstacles to investigation of online hate speech perpetrated by anonymous accounts and on social media channels.
NGOs reported continued community pressure on women to wear hijabs and verbal harassment of women who chose not to do so.
NGO and journalist sources stated the media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment for being labeled “anti-Islamic.” In August, the NGO Maldives Journalists Association published a threat perception survey of journalists in which 37 percent of the 70 local journalists who participated in the survey reported “being labelled ‘irreligious’ and threatened by radicalized or violent extremist individuals or groups online.” Respondents to the survey also reported an increase in anonymous social media accounts believed to be linked to government officials or religious groups considered to extremist that harassed journalists.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and U.S. interests are represented there by the embassy in Colombo. In meetings throughout the year, embassy officials continued to encourage the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, to ease restrictions preventing individuals other than Sunni Muslims from practicing their religions freely, and to prioritize investigations into threats against individuals targeted for their perceived “secular” or “apostate” viewpoints. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern regarding harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state. The law prohibits blasphemy and apostasy and defines them as crimes punishable by death; however, the government has never applied this penalty for those crimes. On January 11, the parliament adopted a law on associations making it easier for NGOs, including faith-based organizations, to register and operate in the country. On November 9, the parliament approved a law protecting state symbols, reinforcing existing law that speech deemed to be insulting to Islam is a criminal offense and criminalizing the use of digital media deemed to insult Islam. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education (MIATE) continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups as well as with international partners to combat what it termed threats of extremism, radicalization, and terrorism, primarily through workshops promoting moderate Islam throughout the country. The government also collaborated with the Association of Mauritanian Ulemas (religious scholars) throughout the year to fight the spread of COVID-19.
During the year, there were calls for increased application of the country’s sharia-based criminal code. For example, on April 21, many social media users criticized a video program on social media after a young woman was featured in an interview discussing premarital sex and why it was wrong to objectify women. Following the interview, numerous individuals on social media called for the program participants’ arrest and prosecution under the country’s sharia criminal code. Authorities detained the four participants on April 23 but released them without charges on April 27.
U.S. embassy officials raised apostasy, blasphemy, and other religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Minister of Interior, Minister of Islamic Affairs, and Minister of Justice. Embassy staff also met with senior members of the Islamist opposition Tawassoul Party to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom. Embassy officials also worked closely with MIATE on programs to promote religious tolerance among the country’s religious scholars. The embassy promoted messages of religious freedom on its social media platforms in English, French, and Arabic, including one to celebrate International Religious Freedom Day on October 27.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.1 million (midyear 2021). According to Mauritanian government estimates, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 99 percent of the population. Unofficial estimates indicate Sunni Muslims are approximately 98 percent of the population, Shia Muslims 1 percent, and non-Muslims, mostly Christians and a small group of Jews, a further 1 percent. Almost all non-Muslims are noncitizens.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizenry and the state. The law and legal procedures derive from a combination of French civil law and sharia. The judiciary consists of a single system of courts that relies on a combination of sharia and secular legal principles.
The law prohibits apostasy and blasphemy. The criminal code mandates a death sentence for any Muslim convicted of apostasy or blasphemy, but the government has never applied capital punishment for apostasy or blasphemy.
The penal code stipulates that the penalty for persons of any gender caught engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage is 100 lashes and imprisonment of up to one year. The penalty for married individuals convicted of adultery is death by stoning, although the last such stoning occurred more than 30 years ago. The penal code requires death by stoning for Muslim males convicted of consensual homosexual activity, but this penalty has not been imposed since 1984.
The government does not register Muslim religious groups. The law allows for non-Muslim religious groups to register and operate. On January 11, the National Assembly adopted a new law on associations (the “NGO law”) that changes the registration system from an authoritative system controlled by the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to a declarative system in which NGOs are automatically granted authorization to operate 60 days after they submit their registration to authorities. Faith-based NGOs must also agree to refrain from proselytizing or otherwise promoting any religion other than Islam. The law requires the MOI to authorize in advance all group meetings, including non-Islamic religious gatherings and those held in private homes. Groups must submit an application in advance for MOI approval.
By law, the MIATE is responsible for enacting and disseminating fatwas, fighting “extremism,” promoting research in Islamic studies, organizing the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, and monitoring mosques. The government also appoints the High Council for Fatwa and Administrative Appeals, which advises the government on conformity of legislation to Islamic precepts, and which has sole authority to regulate fatwa issuance and resolve related disputes among citizens and between citizens and public agencies.
The law requires members of the Constitutional Council and the High Council of Magistrates to take an oath of office that includes a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.
Public schools and private secondary schools, but not international schools, are required to provide four hours of Islamic instruction per week. Religious instruction in Arabic is required for students seeking the baccalaureate.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On July 14, the Council of Ministers approved a draft law protecting state symbols. Among other measures, the new law reinforces existing law that speech deemed to insult Islam is a criminal offense. Specifically, the new law criminalizes digital media deemed to insult Islam, including the use of photos, social media, and video/audio recordings. On November 9, the parliament approved the law, and it went into effect by the end of the year.
According to government officials and civil society organizations, the new NGO law adopted in January makes it easier for NGOs, including faith-based organizations, to register and operate in the country. The government adopted the implementing decree for the NGO law on October 20, and several NGOs registered under the new provisions by the end of the year.
The possession of non-Islamic religious materials remained legal, although the government continued to prohibit their printing and distribution. The government maintained a Quranic television channel and radio station. Both stations sponsored regular programming on themes of moderation in Islam.
The government continued to forbid non-Muslims from proselytizing, although there was no specific legal prohibition. The government continued to ban any public expression of religion except that of Islam.
Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize. An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Islamic worship to the few recognized Christian churches. There are Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Nouakchott, Kaedi, Atar, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Non-Islamic religious services remained open only to foreigners – citizens could not attend. Some churches were not able to get authorization from the government, and this affected their ability to operate in the country. For example, some churches could not open a bank account in the church’s name. Several international Christian NGOs reported they continued to operate successfully in the country. Although the MOI authorized few group meetings early in the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, more meeting requests were approved once the last of the restrictions were lifted in September, according to NGOs and MOI officials.
On March 11, President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani met with the board of the Association of Mauritanian Ulemas. According to an official press statement, the President discussed ways to support religious leaders and collaborate on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the year, the government worked with the Association of Mauritanian Ulemas to stop the spread of the virus. The government collaborated with the association on messaging to encourage people to pray at home, wear masks, and get vaccinated.
During the year, the government continued to engage leaders of the Islamist movement in the country, and President Ghazouani met with both the current and former presidents of Tawassoul, the Islamist opposition party whose leaders stated they consider the party as promoting moderate and tolerant Islam. The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups, as well as with international partners, to combat what it termed threats of extremism, radicalization, and terrorism, primarily through workshops throughout the country. In November, the MIATE collaborated with religious scholars on workshops to promote moderate, tolerant Islam in the interior of the country.
The government continued to provide funding to mosques, Islamic schools and universities under its control, and the National Union of Imams. Through its traditional education program, the government granted monthly salaries for 403 new teachers in mahadras, the commonly used national term for madrassahs. The program targeted impoverished areas to reduce educational and social disparity.
Islamic classes remained part of the educational curriculum for non-international schools, but class attendance was not mandatory and not required for graduation. Academic results in Islamic classes did not count significantly in the national exams that determined further placement. Many students reportedly did not attend these classes for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons. The Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, Technical and Vocational Training, and National Education Reform and the MIATE continued to reaffirm the importance of the Islamic education program at the secondary level as a means of promoting Islamic culture and combating religious extremism.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On April 21, many on social media criticized and threatened four persons who participated in a video program called Al-Matrush (a local expression meaning “the intrusive”). During the program, a young woman challenged existing religious norms and talked openly about premarital sex, what women should look for in a partner, and why it was wrong to objectify women. Many in the public called for the four participants to be arrested and tried under the country’s sharia-based criminal code. Authorities detained the four participants on April 24, but the prosecutor decided not to file charges, and the four were released on April 27. Program organizers halted production in response to police warnings and societal pressure and the program had not restarted by the end of the year.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Minister of Interior, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Islamic Affairs. Embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom with other government officials as well, including when the four individuals were detained for participating in the Al-Matrush program. Embassy representatives also raised the issues of blasphemy and apostasy with government officials.
Embassy officials met with senior members of the Islamist opposition, Tawassoul, to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom. On several occasions, the Ambassador met with religious leaders to discuss issues related to religious tolerance, such as the importance of allowing non-Islamic religious groups to register and open official bank accounts in the country. Visiting U.S. officials also raised the importance of religious tolerance with a range of societal groups.
Embassy representatives frequently met with MIATE officials to design and implement programs to promote religious tolerance. On October 27, the Ambassador launched an $800,000 multiyear program with World Vision and MIATE which will work with religious community leaders to promote tolerance and fight against violent extremism related to religion. Under the program, imams will work with MIATE to review school curricula to ensure classrooms are promoting tolerance; another program element includes work with women leaders to launch an anti-extremism communication campaign.
The embassy used social media to share religious freedom posts in English, French, and Arabic, including on International Religious Freedom Day on October 27.
The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts. Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts. In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory, and customary courts in most of the 36 states. Religiously affiliated state schools must admit students of all faiths or no faith; Christian-owned state schools must allow students to wear the hijab, while Muslim-owned state schools require all female students to wear it. Civil society organizations and media stated that general insecurity again increased and was prevalent throughout the country, particularly in the North West region. There were kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the South as well as the North West, criminal groups in the South South, and criminal groups and separatists in the South East, but there was a significant reduction in the number of violent incidents and deaths in the North East linked to the terrorist insurgency there. There were numerous violent incidents between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian, but also Muslim, farmers in the North Central and South West regions and between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Muslim, but also Christian, farmers in the North West. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there were an estimated 1,112 deaths during the year from violence among ethnic groups, herdsmen, and farmers. The government continued security operations and launched operations that authorities stated were meant to stem the insecurity and violence throughout the country. Some observers, such as the nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Crisis Group (ICG), said the government’s efforts were inadequate. The Kaduna State Court released Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, head of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia political organization, and his wife in July. On several occasions, security forces clashed with IMN marchers, resulting in reports of casualties, including at least one death on each side, which both sides disputed. After detaining him for more than a year, the Kano State government in June charged Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, with deliberately “posting blasphemous statement(s)…insulting the Holy Prophet of Islam” and Muslims in Kano State calculated to “cause a breach of public peace,” among other charges. In January, the Kano State High Court vacated a sharia court’s conviction and death sentence of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu for blasphemy and remanded the case to the sharia court for retrial. The same high court acquitted a man convicted of blasphemy as a minor by the same sharia court and vacated his 10-year prison sentence. Kano State authorities banned Muslim cleric Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru-Kabara from preaching and charged him with blasphemy for comments he made during a television debate.
Terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA), attacked population centers and religious targets, including churches and mosques, and maintained an ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. ISIS-WA increased its use of improvised explosive devices, which resulted in dozens of military deaths. Observers also reported that ISIS-WA expanded efforts to implement shadow governance structures in large swaths of the region.
According to NGOs such as ICG, the level of insecurity and violence increased, including in the predominantly Muslim North West, where expanded numbers of criminal groups carried out thousands of killings, kidnappings, and armed robberies. Because issues of religion, ethnicity, land and resource competition, and criminality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely, or even principally, based on religious identity. According to information on its website, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO, reported 3,699 civilian deaths from the violence during the year, compared with 2,455 in 2020. According to a survey conducted by NGO Mercy Corps, a minority of the violence in the north of the country was interreligious, and both Christians and Muslims were perpetrators and victims. The NGO stated that “rather than religious belief or animus, we find that intercommunal violence is largely driven by insecurity and a lack of trust between ethno-religious groups competing for political power and control over natural resources.” The report also stated that “for a minority of northern residents … religious freedom remains a concern,” if indirectly, because fear of attacks created a fear of gathering in religious communities and “exacerbates tensions and mistrust between religious groups – the primary pathway to intercommunal conflict in the north.” There were instances of mob violence against clergy and members of religious groups and mass killings of Muslims and Christians that press reports and observers described as planned and carried out by organized groups. For example, in May, criminals shot and killed eight Christians and burned down a church and several homes in Kaduna State. In August, Christian youths killed 27 Muslims on a bus in Plateau State. On September 26-27, according to international NGO CSW and subsequent reports by other NGOs and press, Muslim herders killed at least 49 persons and abducted 27, most of whom were Christian, in several attacks on communities in religiously mixed southern Kaduna State. In June, the Tiv and Jukun communities, both of which are Christian, clashed over land and water resources, often razing churches. On October 25, gunmen killed at least 18 worshippers and abducted 11 during early morning prayers at a mosque in Mashegu Local Government Area in Niger State. On December 8, at a mosque in the same area, ICG reported an armed group killed between nine and 16 persons and injured 12 others during early morning prayers. CSW reported several cases during the year of Muslim men kidnapping young Christian girls and forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam.
The U.S. embassy, consulate general in Lagos, and visiting U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State – raised freedom of religion issues such as the resolution of widely publicized blasphemy cases, the role of religious leaders in peacebuilding and social trust, and reports of societal abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion during the year. These included meetings with government officials such as President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Presidential Chief of Staff Ibrahim Gambari, cabinet ministers – including Attorney General Abubakar Malami, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, and Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola – and National Assembly members. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials regularly met with interfaith and religious groups across the country, including the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Society for the Support of Islam, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna (JIBWIS), and the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC). They met with religious leaders in Plateau and Taraba States to discuss and encourage efforts to promote peace and religious tolerance in those states. The embassy continued to fund peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna and Plateau, and interfaith dialogue training for leaders in six North West and North Central states. The embassy awarded five small grants to faith-based and community organizations to support reconciliation in communities, primarily in the North Central region, experiencing ethnoreligious violence.
The Secretary of State determined that Nigeria did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom or as a Special Watch List country for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 when such designations were announced on November 15, 2021. Nigeria had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern in 2020 and a Special Watch List country in 2019.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 219.5 million (midyear 2021). The Pew Global Religious Futures project estimates the country is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, while approximately 2 percent belong to other or no religious groups. Many individuals syncretize indigenous animism with Islam or Christianity.
A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identifies as Sunni, the vast majority of whom belong to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, although a sizable minority follows the Shafi’i school of fiqh. The same study found 12 percent of Muslims in the country self-identify as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “just a Muslim” (42 percent). Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi brotherhoods, including Tijaniyyah, Qadiriyyah, and Mouride. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found 37 percent of Nigerians identify with Sufi orders (19 percent identified specifically as Tijaniyyah and 9 percent as Qadiriyyah). There are also Izala and Salafist minorities and small numbers of Ahmadiyya and Kala Kato (Quraniyoon) Muslims. A 2011 Pew report found roughly one quarter of Christians are Roman Catholic and three quarters Protestant, with small numbers of Orthodox or other Christian denominations. Among Protestant groups, the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches maintain the largest populations, while evangelicals, Pentecostals, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses report tens of thousands of adherents each. Other communities include Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.
Although accounting for far less than 1 percent of the population, there are also two distinct Jewish communities. The smallest of these are mostly foreigners, whom Israel and the diaspora recognize. A larger group of several thousand indigenous Nigerian Jews are not recognized internationally. There are also significant numbers of Sabbatarian groups, variously self-identifying as Christian, non-Christian, or neither. These groups include some that have adopted Jewish customs.
Islam is the dominant religion in the North West and North East regions, although significant Christian populations reside there as well. Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the North Central region. Christianity is the dominant religion in the South West, including Lagos, which is also home to significant Muslim populations.
In the South East region, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the South South, Christians form a substantial majority. There are small but growing numbers of Muslims in the South South and South East.
Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the North Central and South East, South South, and South West regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja. The Shia Muslim presence is heavily concentrated in the North West region, while Nigerian Jews and Judaic-oriented groups are prevalent in the South East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other qualities, as a distinct component of the “national ethic.”
The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law civil (i.e., secular) courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts. Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts. In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for noncriminal proceedings, but state laws do not compel participation in sharia courts in noncriminal cases. Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims, have the option to have their civil cases tried in secular or sharia courts. In addition to noncriminal matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both the complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Zamfara State law makes it mandatory for all Muslims to utilize sharia courts in such cases, but not in noncriminal cases. Criminal cases with possible sentences of death or life in prison may be heard by secular courts, usually at the preference of police.
Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide hudud punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning. Sharia penal code offenses and charges are only applicable to Muslims. Sharia courts operate under similar rules as common law courts, including requirements for mens rea and other due process considerations. According to the Chief Registrar of the Kano Sharia Court, by law defendants have the right to legal representation in all cases, and certain high crimes require the testimonies of four witnesses to be considered as admissible, corroborative evidence. Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal sentences through common law appellate courts, and these courts have sometimes found for the plaintiff in cases where they have sued individual states for assault for penalties, such as flogging, imposed by sharia courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the sharia panel of the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, often do and may seek advice from sharia experts. In some states with sharia penal codes, blasphemy or religious insult is a crime that may incur a fine, imprisonment, or in some cases the death penalty. The various states’ sharia penal codes do not prohibit apostasy or heresy.
According to the federal penal code, any person who carries out an act “which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanor” and may be subject to imprisonment for two years.
The Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) authorizes the federal government to intervene in the management of private entities and gives it broad and discretionary powers to withdraw, cancel, or revoke the certificate of any business or association; suspend and remove trustees (and appoint any one of their choice to manage the organization “in the public interest”); take control of finances of any association; and merge two associations without the consent and approval of their members.
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders stated that students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also states that no religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place of education maintained wholly by that community. The law requires schools that receive state funding (state schools) to admit and accommodate students of all faiths or no faith, regardless of the student’s or school’s religious affiliation. Christian state schools are required to allow Muslim students to wear a hijab. In Muslim state schools, the hijab is required of all female students, regardless of religion, as part of the uniform.
Katsina and Kaduna States have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including by issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison, a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,200), or both for operating without a license. In Kaduna State, the Interfaith Preaching Council issues permits to those who wish to preach in public and regulates against the use of foul, demeaning, or derogatory language against individuals or other religions based on recommendations from the Local Government Interfaith Committee. Violators of the law are subject to fines and/or two to five years’ imprisonment. Local government areas and states establish their own modalities for licensing public preachers, but do not license religious organizations.
In the states of Kano, Zamfara, and Sokoto, legally established Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, attempt to resolve interpersonal and family disputes between Muslims in those states, and work with police to enforce the respective states’ sharia penal code. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, Kano, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs commissions, ministries, or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Civil society organizations and media stated that insecurity was pervasive throughout the country and increased nationwide, particularly in the North West region. There were kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the South as well as the North West, criminal gangs in the South South, and criminal groups and separatists in the South East, but a significant reduction in the number of violent incidents and deaths in the North East. There was pervasive violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian, but also Muslim, farmers, particularly in the North Central, but also in the North West (where most farmers were Muslim), and South West regions. There were thousands of killings, kidnappings, and armed robberies. According to the Nigeria security tracker maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations, there were an estimated 10,399 deaths from violent conflict during the year, compared with 9,694 in 2020. Of the deaths in 2021, the council estimated 1,112 resulted from violence among ethnic groups, herdsmen, and farmers, some of which had implications for religion and religious freedom, according to multiple observers or, in the words of the council, “sometimes acquires religious overtones.” Other violent deaths were carried out by militants, Boko Haram, or government security forces. The council said the estimates were conservative and based on press reports.
During the year, the government undertook 20 targeted military operations, the stated aim of which was to root out criminals and armed gangs and to arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence. In May, the government launched Operation Whirl Strike, a security operation that it said sought to deter and minimize intercommunal violence in Benue and Nasarawa States. In October, the army launched Operation Golden Dawn with the stated intent of helping it confront security challenges that included armed criminal gangs, kidnapping, land disputes and communal clashes, chieftaincy disputes, assassinations, youth restiveness, and secessionist activities by the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra, the Indigenous People of Biafra, and Eastern Security Network. In addition, in November, the Police Service Commission announced it would recruit 30,000 constables over the next three years to meet manpower requirements for the fight against insurgencies, armed criminal gangs, and kidnapping.
In response to increased criminality in the North West and South East regions, the Nigerian Police Force deployed more personnel and equipment on major road networks. State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Nasarawa/Benue Agro Rangers and Livestock Guard, the Enugu Forest Guard, the Amotekun that worked across six South West states, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services. According to observers, local media and officials, particularly in the South West region, often initially said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for criminal attacks, but, upon further investigation, stated local armed criminal groups of various ethnicities perpetrated most incidents. In January, Chief Gani Adams, a traditional leader in Yorubaland, said, “The security threat we are having in the South West now, our people (Yoruba) constituted about 25-30 percent of the security threat.”
The government further implemented substantial reforms in the cattle-rearing industry with input from state and local stakeholders to facilitate and incentivize ranching over herding, with the stated aim of “combatting violence” between farmers and herders. To implement the National Livestock Transformation Policy (NLTP), in November, the federal government began to receive applications from states for allocated funds for herding-to-ranching projects, and disbursed funds to Nasarawa and Plateau States. According to NLTP Coordinator Andrew Kwasari, the work of constructing the first NLTP model farm for training the pastoralists began “in earnest” in Awe Local Government Area, Nasarawa State in December, adding that communities within the project site were “very happy with the initiative and committed to its success. The dialogue between the cropping and herding communities is most encouraging.”
Multiple sources, however, stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the scale of the violence. For example, in an update on the country issued in May, the ICG stated that, although the government had repeatedly pledged to curb violence, it lacked sufficient personnel and resources, and its military response had been inadequate. The ICG also said the government had made little progress toward resolving the farmer-herder conflict. The report cited the proliferation and evolution of the criminal gangs popularly known as bandits, stating the gangs spread from Zamfara to all neighboring states, including Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Kebbi, and Sokoto, and were expanding in number and size, acquiring more sophisticated weaponry, and carrying out an increasing number of abductions of students and others. The ICG said the insecurity could create more opportunities for jihadists in the region. According to the report, attempted peace deals (including offers of unconditional amnesties) with the gangs by state governors had been unsuccessful, and all the governors, except for Zamfara’s, had abandoned the deals. Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom also said the government’s efforts to combat the violence were inadequate.
During his Easter homily, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah said about conditions in the country, “The nation has since become a massive killing field, as both government and the governed look on helplessly.” He continued to criticize what he said was a lack of response from the government to violence in the country. President Buhari’s spokesperson Garba Shehu reacted to the Bishop’s statements by saying, “Some of the comments are no more than a sample of the unrestrained rhetoric Father Kukah trades in, which he often does in the guise of a homily… We urge well-meaning citizens to continue to support the ongoing efforts by the administration to secure the country and move it forward.”
The military remained engaged in a decade-long war against terrorist groups Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, both of which killed or kidnapped Muslims and Christians. Boko Haram’s Leader Abubakar Shekau was killed or killed himself in May, and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara died in August.
On October 19, the military announced it killed 24 suspected Islamist insurgents and recovered two gun trucks and destroyed another during an encounter with insurgents a few kilometers from Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. On October 25, Air Force spokesman Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet said the military carried out air operations targeting terrorist camps in the Lake Chad basin and stated several terrorists were killed. On October 28, the army announced it had taken delivery of 60 new armored personnel carriers to boost the war against the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and banditry in the North West. Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Faruk Yahaya said the deployment of new platforms to the battlefield underscored the government’s commitment to ensure that a state of normalcy was achieved across the country.
CAN stated Christians faced persecution from ISIS-WA and Boko Haram but that the problem also affected other groups. On November 20, CAN President Reverend Samson Ayokunle said the terrorist groups, “have joined other militant Islamic groups to be ferociously attacking churches, killing worshippers, and kidnapping for ransom. Though the madness has grown now and those who are not Christians are being attacked, killed, and kidnapped, this is because these criminal acts have become a lucrative business and it is whoever you can kidnap for money! If the government had responded appropriately when this criminal madness began and subdued these evil groups immediately, we wouldn’t be where we are now!”
The government’s proscription of the Shia group IMN as an illegal political organization remained in place, and the government continued to state that the proscription was not directed against Shia Muslims. On July 28, the Kaduna State Court acquitted IMN head Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, who had been imprisoned since 2015 on charges of “aiding and abetting homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of public peace” and released them.
In January, March, and May, protesters marching for the release of Sheikh El Zakzaky, calling themselves the Free Zakzaky movement, clashed with security forces. The NGO Shia Rights Watch stated that government security forces opened fire on Free Zakzaky protestors on May 7. IMN said some protesters were injured when police fired on them. According to press reports, police arrested 49 persons and stated that IMN protesters killed police officer Ezekiel Adama – which the IMN denied – and destroyed public property during the protest. On September 28, IMN members and security forces clashed again in Abuja during IMN’s annual march coinciding with the Shia Muslim Arbaeen religious observance. IMN spokesperson Ibrahim Musa stated security forces killed eight marchers but later lowered the number to one. According to press reports, the government arrested 57 persons and denied any marchers were killed.
Several Shia religious leaders, including Sheikh Salle Sani Zaria, Secretary General of the Rasulul A’azam Foundation of Nigeria, criticized IMN as a political group that was not representative of the majority of Shia Muslims in the country. In Kano in June, Zaria stated that Shia Muslims throughout the country “make their religious processions unimpeded every Friday.”
NGOs and others criticized the continuing lack of accountability for soldiers involved in the 2015 clash between the army and IMN members in Zaria in which, according to a Kaduna State government report, 348 IMN members and one soldier were killed.
In July, authorities detained for 20 days three visiting Israeli filmmakers making a documentary about Nigerian Jews in South East region on suspicion they were supporting the Indigenous People of Biafra, a group the government outlawed for its stated aims of seeking the separation of the South East region from the country, the leaders of which professed a connection to Judaism. Authorities released them without charge, and they left the country. The filmmakers were allowed to retain their recordings.
In January, President Buhari expanded his policy of directing senior government officials to convene meetings with local traditional and religious leaders throughout the country. According to the President, the meetings aimed to reinforce community-based early warning programs and thereby help prevent religiously motivated violence and property destruction. Such meetings included those between Presidential Chief of Staff Ibrahium Gambari and Ministers of Interior Rauf Aregbesola, Works and Housing Babatunde Fasola, and Trade and Industry Niyi Adebayo with the Oba of Lagos, Relwanu Akiolu, the Ooni of Ife, Adayeye Oniton II, the Olubadan of Ibadanland, Obasaliu Adetunji, several bishops from different Christian denominations, and local imams. Media reported Buhari also chaired several National Security Council meetings to consider solutions to insecurity, some of which included enhanced grassroots peacebuilding and increased security presence in certain areas.
The government also said it promoted interfaith dialogue at the state and local level to address violence. For example, the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency incorporated an interreligious council into its operations throughout Plateau State. The Kaduna Peace Commission sought out national religious leaders to convene a meeting within the state to condemn the chronic violence there. Taraba State enlisted the help of the Taraba Interreligious Council to draw up plans to initiate a state government agency to promote reconciliation and peacebuilding. According to several local NGOs, various early warning systems operating throughout the North Central and North West were also responsible for preventing attacks from occurring. One NGO, the Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, said that, since law enforcement was often exclusively reactionary, citizen peacebuilding committees in local communities fearing violence or noting the seeds of conflict alerted police and other authorities in Plateau and Kaduna States in order to thwart plans of attacks or to calm brewing disputes.
In June, authorities filed 10 criminal charges against Humanist Association of Nigeria president and former Muslim Mubarak Bala on counts of making statements calculated to cause a breach of public peace by insulting religion, which carry a sentence of up to two or three years in prison per charge. The government charged Bala with deliberately posting “blasphemous statement(s)” to his social media account, thus “insulting the Holy Prophet of Islam, … [and] the entire followers of Islamic religion in Kano State, calculated to cause breach of public peace.” The Kano State prosecutor said the government feared Bala’s statements would incite mob violence. After Bala posted statements on Facebook that state officials in Kano called “inflammatory and disparaging” towards Islam, police arrested him at his home in Kaduna State in April 2020 and transferred him to Kano State, where authorities imprisoned him without charge. Bala’s attorneys, NGOs, secular humanist groups, and others stated they believed he was arrested for his comments on Islam. According to Kano State Attorney General M.A. Lawan, when prosecutors indicted him in June, Bala was not charged with blasphemy under sharia because authorities did not consider him to be a Muslim. In December 2020, a Federal Capital Territory High Court ordered Bala’s release, but Kano State authorities did not release him because of what the authorities said was confusion over the federal court’s jurisdiction in ruling on Bala’s detention. Bala remained in detention at year’s end.
In January, the Kano State High Court acquitted 17-year-old Omar Farouq, whom a Kano sharia court had convicted of blasphemy in 2020 and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. The High Court ruled that Farouq lacked adequate legal representation during his sharia court trial.
Also in January, the Kano High Court remanded to the same Kano sharia court the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, whom the sharia court had convicted of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced to death in 2020. The High Court remanded this case to the sharia court for retrial, citing a lack of evidence presented. At year’s end, an appeal by Sharif-Aminu against the order for a new trial and seeking dismissal of the case was pending.
In February, Kano State authorities banned well known Muslim cleric Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru-Kabara from preaching following complaints from the Kano Ulama Council that his sermons would disturb the peace. In July, after he participated in a televised, three-hour debate in which he expounded on his religious views, Kano State authorities detained Nasiru-Kabara and charged him with blasphemy, saying statements he made during the broadcast insulted Islam. Authorities also ordered the closure of his mosque and affiliated religious schools and prevented his followers from protesting and carrying out the community’s annual Mauqibi religious festival procession. At year’s end, Nasiru-Kabara remained in detention, and his trial had not yet been scheduled.
At year’s end, Muslim cleric Abdul Inyass remained imprisoned pending an appeal of the death sentence he received following his blasphemy conviction in 2016. The Kano Sharia Court barred the public from his trial after a mob razed the courthouse following Inyass’ arraignment in September 2015.
According to the Chief Judge of the Kano High Court as well as the Chief Registrar of the Sharia Court in Kano, the secular court system has always vacated death sentences for blasphemy in that state on appeal. The Chief Judge said that a death sentence for blasphemy helps to assuage mobs who might seek to lynch the offending individual, keeping public peace while enabling the individual to quietly move out of the state.
There were reports that Hisbah Boards detained, abused, harassed, or intimidated individuals while enforcing their respective state’s sharia penal code. In January, Hisbah officials in Kano State reportedly arrested barber Elija Ode for giving a customer a “blasphemous” haircut before later releasing him, stating the accusation had been a “misunderstanding.” In July, a Kano Hisbah group arrested five Muslim men on “suspicion of homosexuality,” a crime punishable by caning, imprisonment, or death by stoning. The accused were tried, convicted, caned, and released within two weeks.
During the year, the Kano State Films and Censors Board (KSFCB), a government organization responsible for regulating music and film, began requiring poets and singers to obtain a license to perform all new materials. It also took into account the views of Kano’s Ulama Council, an informal gathering of respected Muslim clerics representing each of Kano’s various Muslim groups, to which the state government often defers on matters that could affect public peace. In June, Kano State authorities arrested Ahmad Abdul for allegedly insulting Allah in a song he released without vetting it with the KSFCB. Authorities subsequently released him after he apologized for circumventing the KSFCB.
In May, after an internal dispute among members of the local Muslim community over the installation of a new imam, the Osun State government closed the Inisha Central Mosque to forestall, according to the state government, a religious sectarian crisis from which the government feared violence. The government reopened the mosque in July.
CSW reported that in October, the Kaduna State government demolished 263 buildings in the predominantly Christian Gracelands community in Zaria, including six churches, a school complex, and homes. According to CSW, state authorities said the land belonged to an aviation college, but community members said state authorities had granted them certificates of ownership for the land more than 20 years earlier in most cases and that they had been paying all required taxes.
Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and federal government laws discriminated against them. For example, they stated the Kaduna State Town and Urban Planning Law only allowed the construction of houses of worship in authorized nonresidential areas to prevent the conversion of private homes into houses of worship. Representatives of both religions complained the law is implemented unevenly and in a biased manner.
In April, CAN President Ayokunle accused President Buhari of “Islamizing” the country through judicial appointments to courts of appeal, stating that out of 20 judges recommended, 13 were from the north and seven from the south. In a statement, the CAN leadership called for “serious adjustments” on already executed appointments, stating that “Under the watch of President Buhari, especially throughout his first term, the judiciary was literally an appendage of Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs [NSCIA] because its members were in charge of its affairs.” The NSCIA called CAN’s statement “scurrilous propaganda.” According to the NSCIA, there were 70 appeals courts justices (JCAs) – 34 from the north and 36 from the south – and that the three geopolitical zones of the south had two Muslim JCAs, while the zones of the north had 15 Christians.
In August, the Anglican Church spoke against a newly enacted Anambra State law on burials that dictated the type, manner, and time of the religious service or rites and how they would be performed. The law was passed originally at the urging of the Catholic and Anglican churches to curtail what they saw as a trend of extravagant funerals. The Anglican Church later stated the final text of the law had been enacted without the Church’s input, which it said violated the country’s constitution.
Violence erupted in March when the Kwara State Governor confirmed all female Muslim students could wear the hijab in Christian-owned but state-run “grant aid” schools, per a Court of Appeal decision. Following the announcement – which came after some Christian schools in the state had said the hijab violated their uniform policies – 10 state Christian schools closed for a week in protest. When they reopened on March 17, five persons were injured in Christian-Muslim clashes when the Baptist Secondary School and Cherubim and Seraphim College prevented Muslim students wearing the hijab from entering. According to local press reports, Muslims attacked these schools and their collocated churches in the Sabo Oke area of the state capital, Illorin, in retaliation, breaking windows and causing minor damage.
The Judaism Fellowship Initiative of Nigeria, representing more than 50 Nigerian Jewish and Judaic-oriented congregations, requested the government organize and facilitate pilgrimages for Jews to Jerusalem as the National Hajj Commission does for Muslims to travel to Mecca and state and federal government Christian Pilgrims Welfare Boards do for Christians to Jerusalem, parts of Jordan, and Rome.
While the CAMA law enacted in 2020 allowing the government to intervene in the management of private entities neither specifically addresses nor exempts nonprofit, nongovernmental, or religious organizations, nor contains language about religion, some NGOs and religious organizations continued to express concern about the law. CAN and the NIREC continued to state that the law might allow the government to exert administrative control over smaller religious organizations that are organized as NGOs or as small religious schools with high tuition costs that are not legally considered charities. They said such state control would infringe on constitutional rights of association and freedom of religion, although no such cases were reported during the year. According to some legal scholars, the law was enacted to counter fraudulent NGOs that have served as fronts for money laundering or other criminal behaviors. CAN sued the federal government over the law in February, and the case remained in litigation at year’s end.
State-level actors, including government, traditional, religious, and civil society organizations, regularly negotiated resolution of disputes. In February and March, prominent Muslim and Christian leaders organized by the Kaduna State Peacebuilding Commission led peacebuilding efforts following ethnic clashes in Kaduna State.
The community in Yelwan Shandam in Plateau State completed rebuilding the JIBWIS mosque that had been demolished during sectarian riots in 2004, and the mosque began operation in February.
In April, Akwa Ibom State authorities banned the use of state schools for church services after school authorities complained church attendees did not clean up following their services. Smaller Christian churches had often used the schools for worship services on Sundays but reverted to gathering in private homes or outdoors in compliance with the ban.
In April, the Bauchi State Interfaith Preaching Council indefinitely suspended Muslim cleric Malam Abubakar Idriss for preaching what it deemed incitement against rival ethnic groups.
President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo regularly condemned attacks on places of worship and those attempting to exploit religious differences. Buhari regularly consulted with key Muslim and Christian leaders and celebrated both official Christian and Muslim holidays. In a statement on February 15, Buhari appealed to religious and traditional leaders as well as governors and other elected leaders across the country to “join hands with the Federal Government to ensure that communities in their domain are not splintered along ethnic and other primordial lines.” Reacting to intercommunal violence stemming from conflict over resources in the South West region, in a statement on February 15, Buhari stated that his “government will protect all religious … groups, whether majority or minority, in line with its responsibility under the constitution.” Buhari again directed his Chief of Staff Gambari to lead a dialogue in each of the country’s geopolitical zones with state, local, traditional, religious, and security leaders. According to media reports, Gambari stated that he met with senior Christian and Muslim leaders, for example, CAN in September and NIREC in October, to address what the reports described as infringements on religious freedom and demonstrate the country’s high level of interreligious collaboration. In a meeting with supporters on June 30, Buhari said about the country’s rising insecurity, “Our problem is not ethnicity or religion. It is ourselves.”
Terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, continued to attack population centers and religious targets, including churches and mosques, and maintained an ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. ISIS-WA increased its use of improvised explosive devices, which resulted in dozens of military deaths. ISIS-WA also expanded efforts to implement shadow governance structures in large swaths of the region. According to the Nigeria Security Tracker compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations, however, the number of incidents and deaths attributed to the conflict declined significantly during the year. There were 136 incidents involving Boko Haram (compared with 245 in 2020), resulting in an estimated 247 civilian deaths (738 in 2020), 1,065 Boko Haram deaths (2,086 in 2020), and 354 deaths among security forces (617 in 2020).
In January, Boko Haram insurgents attacked Gujba town, headquarters of Tarmuwa Local Government Area in Yobe state. Residents said the insurgents came in gun trucks and used heavy machine guns and grenades to destroy the town’s primary state school and burned down a mosque and its only health center.
In April, Boko Haram attacked Kwapre, a community in Hong Local Government Area of Adamawa State. Local sources said they killed at least seven people, abducted several, and razed numerous houses and every church in the community.
In December, according to press reports, Boko Haram was suspected of firing projectiles carrying bombs at targets in the city of Maiduguri in Borno State just as President Buhari arrived on an official visit. Residents said one of the bombs fell on a mosque. Initial reports stated five persons were killed and at least eight injured.
On the seventh anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 mostly Christian pupils from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in April 2014, 103 remained in captivity, according to government and media reports. Seven Chibok girls escaped in February and a further two did so in August.
At year’s end, Leah Sharibu, captured by ISIS-WA in February 2018, remained a captive, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to government services, NGOs, media, academic, and other observers, the level of insecurity driven by rising criminality worsened during the year. Because issues of religion, ethnicity, land and resource competition, and criminality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely, or even primarily, based on religious identity. Numerous fatal clashes continued to occur throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders. There were also incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and Christian or Muslim farmers in the North West region. In addition, criminal groups continued to commit crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in the North West, North Central, and South East regions. According to security experts, the criminal activity in these regions increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year. Media reported on at least six attacks by bandits or armed criminal gangs on religious sites, including mosques and churches. Multiple academic and media sources said banditry and ideologically neutral criminality, rather than religious differences, were the primary drivers of violence in the North West region. Christian organizations, however, said clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, because they were viewed as soft targets who often traveled conspicuously without security in the evenings, were typically unarmed, had access to money, and generated significant media attention. While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders. Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom. According to data ACLED cited on its website, there were 3,699 civilian deaths from the violence during the year, compared with 2,455 in 2020.
In May, Mercy Corps released a report entitled, Fear of the Unknown: Religion, Identity, and Conflict in Northern Nigeria, which reported on the religious attitudes of northerners it surveyed to gauge the perceived influence of religious actors, beliefs, and identities in violent conflict in the north. The report, based on in-depth interviews of 165 persons and a survey of 750 persons in 15 communities in Kano and Kaduna States, concluded only some violence in the north had been interreligious in nature and that Muslims and Christians were both perpetrators and victims. According to the report, “Since 2016, deaths from conflicts over religious issues have waned relative to the number of people killed by criminal violence and conflicts over land and cattle grazing. While deaths from inter-religious violence increased in 2020, they still paled in comparison to those caused by crime and resource conflicts. These trends were confirmed in interviews and surveys. Equally important, interreligious violence has been perpetrated by, and on, both Muslims and Christians.” The report stated, “Christians appear to have suffered more attacks on average, and likely as a result, they were more likely to report feeling victimized. Yet a majority of Muslim and Christian respondents said that members of both faiths are responsible for violence in their area, as opposed to pinning blame solely on one side.” The report stated that conflict data from multiple sources indicated that in the previous decade “only nine percent of attacks explicitly targeted or were carried out by religious groups, and only 10 percent of fatalities were ascribed to conflicts over a religious issue.” The report found that the more religious persons were, the less likely they were to support or engage in violence. It stated that, “rather than religious belief or animus, we find that intercommunal violence is largely driven by insecurity and a lack of trust between ethno-religious groups competing for political power and control over natural resources.” While religion, according to the report, was usually not a direct cause of conflict, political and religious leaders, as well as the public, appealed to religious identity and solidarity to motivate persons to take action and to garner support to advance political, economic, or personal objectives. In addition, the Mercy Corps report stated religious leaders were important in both fomenting violence, by politicizing and emphasizing religious identity, and preventing it, by resolving disputes and promoting peace. The report also stated that “for a minority of northern residents… religious freedom remains a concern,” if indirectly, because fear of attacks created a fear of, or reluctance about, gathering in religious communities and “exacerbates tensions and mistrust between religious groups – the primary pathway to intercommunal conflict in the north [emphasis in the original].”
Numerous fatal intercommunal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders. According to the ICG, the causes of the North West turmoil were complex and interrelated, saying that “Environmental degradation and rapid population growth have aggravated resource competition between herders and farmers. Disputes over land and water prompted both herders and farmers to form armed self-defense groups, fueling a cycle of retaliatory violence that has taken on a communal dimension.” Several international and domestic experts stated that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought foreign transhumance (movement of livestock) groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they were unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups.
Citing witnesses, media and NGOs such as CSW reported that on September 26-27, Muslim herdsmen killed at least 49 persons and abducted 27 in attacks on communities in three Local Government Areas in Kaduna State. According to the reports, most of the victims were Christian. In Kacecere village in southern Kaduna, eight persons were killed and six injured on 27 September; in Gabachuwa community in southern Kaduna, one person died, an unknown number were injured, and 27 members of Evangelical Church Winning All were abducted on 26 September; and 40 persons were killed and eight injured and 20 homes burned down in an attack on Madamai and Abun villages on 26 September. A Catholic priest who witnessed the attack on Madamai and Abun described it as “well coordinated” and “a massacre against the natives.”
On June 2, Christian Post reported that Fulani herdsmen killed Pastor Leviticus Makpa and his three-year-old son in their home.
Morning Star News reported that individuals, which it described as “suspected Fulani herdsmen,” kidnapped and killed Reverend John Gbaakan Yaji, a Catholic priest of the Minna Diocese, on January 15, during a return journey from Benue State. His brother, who was travelling with him, was also kidnapped, and his whereabouts were unknown.
On July 16, Religion News Service reported that bandits killed 33 persons and burned down four churches and hundreds of homes in Kaduna State.
On August 14, Christian ethnic Irigwes youths attacked a convoy of five buses carrying Muslims from Bauchi State to Ondo State as it passed north of the Plateau State capital, Jos, killing as many as 27 and injuring 14 people. According to local media, the attack heightened existing communal tensions and led to further clashes elsewhere in Jos and neighboring communities. Authorities subsequently arrested 20 suspects, but there was no further information on the status of the case at year’s end.
According to media reports, armed bandits killed 10 worshippers at a mosque in Yasore, Katsina State on the evening of October 5.
Also in October, bandits attacked a village in Kaduna, killing 17 and kidnapping 18 as they exited the mosque from early morning prayers. Police killed one suspected perpetrator.
On May 24, the newspaper Christian Post reported that bandits shot and killed eight Christians and burned down a church and several homes in Kaduna State.
On September 29, NGO International Christian Concern reported that Reverend Yohanna Shuaibu, the chair of CAN in Kano State, died from wounds he suffered during a mob attack. The mob, which also burned down the pastor’s church, school, and home, reportedly believed that Shuaibu had played a role in converting to Christianity from Islam a man who had recently killed his sister-in-law. According to CAN and media reports, authorities arrested and charged six persons in connection with the killing.
According to ICG, on October 25, gunmen killed at least 18 worshippers and reportedly abducted 11 during early morning prayers at a mosque in Mashegu Local Government Area in Niger State. ICG reported that on December 8 at a mosque in the same area, an armed group killed between nine and 16 persons and injured 12 others during early morning prayers.
On October 31, according to press reports and the ICG, suspected bandits occupied the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Kakau Daji in Chikun Local Government Area, Kaduna State during Sunday services, killing two parishioners, wounding several, and kidnapping 65. The abductors reportedly demanded 99 million naira ($244,000) for the kidnapped parishioners, whom they released on December 4.
There were numerous attacks against schools in which armed groups kidnapped schoolchildren for ransom, which religious leaders stated impacted the broader activities of their religious communities. According to analysts, these kidnappings generally had a financial motive.
For example, in July, armed kidnappers abducted more than 120 students from Bethel Baptist High School in Kaduna State. The kidnappers demanded 500,000 naira ($1,200) ransom for each student. Subsequently, some students were either released or escaped from the kidnappers. In May, according to press reports, armed kidnappers abducted 136 students from an Islamic school in the town of Tegina in Niger state, killing one person and demanding an unspecified ransom. In August, the school’s principal told Reuters the kidnappers had called him and said six of the kidnapped students had died of illness.
On November 29, authorities in Zamfara State announced that the state’s Christian community had received a letter from a group of bandits threatening “ferocious attacks” unless all churches in the state were permanently closed. In response, CAN directed its constituent churches to hold services only during daylight hours as an interim measure from December to end of February, while calling on the Buhari administration to ensure the protection of Christians in Zamfara and their religious freedom. Media reported some Zamfara Christians were contemplating relocating to other parts of the country. Police authorities in Zamfara said they created a special squad to patrol and protect Christian worshippers, especially on Sundays, and had deployed plain-clothes personnel for intelligence gathering to find those behind the letter.
CSW stated in November that Christian families in states that have implemented sharia continued to face abuses, including the abduction, forced conversion, and forced marriage of underage girls and reported it was assisting seven families whose underage daughters were abducted by members of their local communities. In three cases, the local authorities in Rogo in Kano State were reportedly collecting dowries on behalf of prospective suitors and offering them marriage “at no cost” by January 2022. Local media reported three Muslim men abducted and forcibly converted to Islam three Christian girls from Nariya village in Garko Local Government Area, Kano State. The girls were in Hisbah protective custody at year’s end, while the Kano State chapter of CAN took the matter to the Kano State High Court for the girls’ return to their families.
On August 23, CAN President Ayokunle decried the violence and the government’s lack of adequate response by saying, “Stopping killing of the innocent by the criminals cannot be done by merely issuing press statements and holding periodical meetings with the security chiefs by the president. Until the government shows the political will by arresting and bringing the culprits to book, the shedding of innocent blood will not cease. We charge the Federal Government to fix the security challenges or throw in the towel.” On December 9, the Sultan of Sokoto cautioned assembled religious leaders about the reach of their influence at the quarterly NIREC meeting, stating, “We have to be careful in the way we handle, say and do things as religious leaders. We are not political leaders. Therefore, we have to be wary of what we say, where and how we say such things, because our followers will definitely believe in what we say. They will believe and feel that it is from the Holy Koran or the Holy Bible. We cannot go on telling things to people without thinking that they will believe. We cannot go on saying things that we know we don’t have full knowledge of.”
In June, local media reported Tiv and Jukun communities, both of which are Christian, clashed over land and water resources, often razing churches in Benue and Taraba States. After a pastor and his wife were killed in predominantly Jukun Tunga village, Taraba State, the predominantly Tiv neighboring village of Maigoge was attacked and its church burned.
The Enugu State government completed the rebuilding of two mosques that were destroyed during protests in 2020 in the state, and the mosques reopened.
A Pew Research Center study from 2018 found that more than 80 percent of self-identified Christians in the country said they attended worship services at least once per week. According to both Christian and Muslim religious organizations such as CAN and the Society for the Support of Islam, Nigerians attended prayers and services regularly, even in areas of conflict.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Secretary of State raised religious freedom issues with government officials in a visit in November, as did embassy and consulate general officials throughout the year. Issues included the resolution of widely publicized blasphemy cases and the role of religious leaders in peacebuilding and social trust, and societal abuses affecting religion. They met with officials including President Buhari, Vice President Osinbajo, Presidential Chief of Staff Gambari, cabinet secretaries – including Attorney General Malami, Foreign Minister Onyeama, Minister of Interior Aregbesola – and National Assembly members. U.S. officials also addressed religious tensions and efforts to bring religious groups together with several state governors – including the governors of Kaduna, Kano, Benue, Nasarawa, Taraba, Borno, Plateau, Akwa Ibom, Enugu, and Abia States – and other government officials throughout the country. They discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence, combat insecurity, and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance.
Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. On November 19, the Ambassador and the Secretary of State engaged with religious leaders on societal and religious issues surrounding the country’s insecurity. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups, including CAN, the Society for the Support of Islam, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna, and others throughout the year. In January, the Ambassador met with the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, the most senior Muslim leader in the country and head of NIREC, and other prominent religious leaders at an interfaith dialogue. In March, the Ambassador met with Muslim, Christian, and International Society of Krishna Consciousness leaders in Plateau State to discuss ongoing peacebuilding efforts in that region. In April, the Ambassador spoke at the Cardinal Onaiyekan Foundation for Peace, a Catholic civil society organization, on the role of women and religion. In August and September, senior embassy officials talked to the Taraba State Interreligious Council about its efforts to promote peace and understanding within religious communities in ethnically diverse Taraba State. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives regarding the main drivers of conflict in the country.
The embassy continued to fund peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna and Plateau. The programs trained leaders in farming and herding communities, including traditional, youth, religious, and female leaders, to build mechanisms to resolve tensions before they became violent conflicts, such as the development of early warning systems that could alert law enforcement and other authorities in advance of communal attacks. “Peace ambassadors” from embassy-funded projects continued to work to bridge the gap between victims, traditional/religious leaders, and the security apparatus in Kaduna State.
The embassy addressed conflict among targeted at-risk communities by facilitating dialogues between aggrieved parties, promoting respect for religious freedom, and training community and religious leaders to peacefully resolve disputes. Nine embassy-funded activities strengthened engagement and reduced tensions related to farmer-herders and other conflicts in Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Benue, Delta, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kogi, Plateau, and Taraba States.
The embassy continued to fund interfaith dialogue training for leaders in six North West and North Central states. The embassy awarded five small grants to faith-based and community organizations to support reconciliation in communities, primarily in the North Central region, experiencing ethnoreligious violence.
The Secretary of State determined that Nigeria did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom or as a Special Watch List country for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 when such designations were announced on November 15, 2021. Nigeria had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern in 2020 and a Special Watch List country in 2019.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis) is a non-Muslim.” According to NGOs, police failed to protect religious minorities and those accused of blasphemy. The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranged up to the death penalty, although the government has never executed anyone for blasphemy. According to the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a national nongovernmental organization (NGO), 84 persons were accused of blasphemy in 2021, a significant decrease from the 199 individuals accused in 2020. Other NGOs also assessed 2021 had seen a decrease in blasphemy cases compared with the previous year, but they could not verify actual case numbers. According to civil society reports, at least 16 of those charged with blasphemy during the year received death sentences. The Ahmadiyya community reported that two of the blasphemy cases registered against Ahmadis during the year could result in the death penalty. They reported that the cumulative number of Ahmadis charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 2019 was 61. Ahmadiyya community leaders continued to report they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including issuance of national identification cards, driver’s licenses, and passports. Ahmadi Muslims also remained barred from representation on the National Commission for Minorities within the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial governments passed a series of laws targeting Ahmadi Muslim beliefs. The Ahmadiyya community reported that police registered 49 cases against Ahmadi Muslims under these laws during the year. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians around the country engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of retaliation, inadequate staff, or apathy. NGOs reported perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. The government took some measures to protect religious minorities, including establishing a special police unit in all provinces to protect religious minorities and their places of worship. Police and security forces enhanced security measures during religious holidays in consultation with religious leaders.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals and mobs targeted and killed Christians, Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims in attacks believed to be motivated by religion or accusations of blasphemy. On December 3, several hundred Muslim workers from a factory in Sialkot, Punjab, attacked Priantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan Christian manager of the factory, for allegedly committing blasphemy by removing far-right extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) political party posters that included Islamic prayers. Attackers beat, kicked, and stoned him to death and set his corpse on fire, according to media reports. Prime Minister Imran Khan said the attack was “horrific” and ordered a high-level inquiry. Media reported that authorities arrested more than 100 individuals after the attack. On March 25, six Sunni Muslims died and seven were injured in a Shia-majority area when assailants opened fire on a passenger van traveling from Gilgit to Naltar. On February 11, a teenager shot and killed an Ahmadi homeopathic doctor, Abdul Qadir, in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On September 2, unidentified assailants shot and killed Maqsood Ahmad, a dual British-Pakistani citizen and Ahmadi Muslim in Nankana Sahib, Punjab. On August 19, three persons died, and 59 others were injured in a grenade attack on a Shia procession in Bahawalnagar, Punjab. It was the third sectarian attack in the area in two months. Armed sectarian groups, including factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia ethnic Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups increased compared with 2020, reversing the overall decline in terrorist attacks reported in previous years. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. Sunni groups held large sectarian rallies in Peshawar and Karachi in September and October, with speakers warning religious minorities, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, of dire consequences if anything they said was deemed blasphemous against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was the increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women and girls from religious minority communities, especially Hindus and Christians. The Center for Social Justice recorded 41 cases of forced conversions through October 31. There continued to be reports of attacks on Ahmadi, Hindu, and Christian holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. The government continued to implement its National Action Plan against terrorism, by countering sectarian hate speech and extremism and by conducting military and law enforcement operations against violent groups. According to Ahmadi civil society organizations, however, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, as provided for in the National Action Plan. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship.
Senior Department of State officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State, the Charge d’Affaires, and Consuls General, as well as other embassy officers, met with government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss religious freedom issues. These included blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect all religious minorities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. Embassy officers continued to engage civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority group representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with religious minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms and organized several outreach events throughout the year.
On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation in the national interests of the United States. Pakistan was first designated as a CPC in 2018.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 238.2 million (midyear 2021). According to the results of the most recent national census conducted in 2017, 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims; Hindus; Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants, among others; Parsis/Zoroastrians; Baha’is; Sikhs; Buddhists; Kalash; Kihals; and Jains.
Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population, and Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.
According to the 2017 census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.6 percent Christian, 0.2 percent Ahmadi Muslim, and 0.3 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Taking into account the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000 to 600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the results of the 2017 census and say the numbers underrepresent their true population and their political influence, because minority seat allocation in the national and provincial parliaments is based on census figures.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Mohammed,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years of imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority for possible removal or to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution.
The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed… the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Mohammed.” It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”
According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine, the amount of which is at the discretion of the sentencing judge.
The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which may carry the death penalty.
The government may use the antiterrorism courts, established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Antiterrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.
The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.
The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form. Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities run their own charity programs.
The constitution mandates that the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.
The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.
The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.
The constitution states that no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states that no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.
The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.
By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is considered ultraconservative. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of the five wafaqs.
The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted that is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.
The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) over criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.
The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”
There is no specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage; religious authorities sign marriage certificates, which are registered with the local marriage registrar. The provincial-level Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the national-level Hindu Marriage Act (applying to federal territory and all other provinces) codify legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the Hindu Marriage Acts allow marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion, or by fraud.” The acts allow for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. The Sindh provincial government has legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials in that province to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.
Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized.
The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights laws and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority. A constitutional amendment devolves responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.
According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities (primarily Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Kalash, and Parsis but excluding Shia and Ahmadi Muslims) at the federal and provincial levels of government.
The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces, although students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe Mohammed is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.
The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information on national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Mohammed is the final prophet and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.
The constitution requires the President and Prime Minister to be Muslim. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires elected Muslim officials to swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam. This requirement prohibits Ahmadi Muslims from holding elected office, as they recognize a prophet subsequent to the Prophet Mohammed.
The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the President and Prime Minister be Muslims.
According to NGOs, police failed to protect religious minorities and those accused of blasphemy, including a member of the Hindu religious minority, Dodo Bheel, who was physically abused and killed on June 30 by security guards at the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company where he worked. Authorities arrested the two guards involved, who were not Hindu, on July 14 and charged them with murder. Dodo Bheel’s family filed murder charges against the mining firm’s security contractor. In August, a fact-finding mission led by the Ministry of Human Rights recommended charges against police in Sindh Province for mismanaging the case, according to media reports. A Sindh High Court judge directed district authorities to produce a report on the incident and members of the ministry’s fact-finding mission said Dodo Bheel’s postmortem report showed 19 injuries inflicted with a blunt object. The investigation also revealed that security guards kept some of his Hindu coworkers in illegal detention for 14 days and physically abused them prior to handing them over to police. The police allegedly asked their families not to disclose what had happened to the injured men. On July 1, members of the local Hindu community blocked the mine access road and carried Bheel’s body in protest. Protests spread to other cities in Sindh after authorities arrested 150 members of the Hindu community on terrorism charges for protesting, although the protests were reportedly peaceful. On November 22, media reported Bheel’s brother appeared in court to withdraw murder charges against the mining firm’s security company. Media reported that his family sought to reach an out of court settlement with the mining company. At year’s end, the government had brought no charges against police, despite the recommendations of the fact-finding mission.
The NGO Center for Social Justice (CSJ) reported authorities charged and imprisoned 84 individuals in 2021 for blasphemy, compared with the 199 CSJ reported in 2020, when NGOs reported an uptick in blasphemy cases lodged against Shia Muslims due to heightened Sunni-Shia tension. Of these 84 individuals, Sunni and Shia Muslims made up 54 percent (CSJ did not include separate Sunni and Shia figures), Ahmadi Muslims 30 percent, Hindus 8 percent, and Christians 8 percent. At least 16 persons accused of blasphemy around the country during the year received death sentences, but none were carried out. The Ahmadiyya community reported that two of the blasphemy cases against Ahmadis in 2021 were registered under section 295-C of the penal code, which carries the death penalty. They reported that the cumulative number of Ahmadis charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 2019 was 61. Leaders from other NGOs agreed the actual number of blasphemy cases involving Ahmadis was likely higher, but uneven reporting and lack of media coverage in many areas made it difficult to identify an exact number. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to civil society reports, 81 percent of cases registered during the year against individuals accused of blasphemy were in Punjab.
In January, media reported that the Anti-Terrorism Court in Islamabad sentenced three men to death for sharing “blasphemous content on social media,” and a fourth man to 10 year’s imprisonment in a case that began in 2017. According to security officials, two of the men – Rana Nouman Rafaqat and Abdul Waheed – operated fake profiles and disseminated blasphemous material on social media, while a third man – Nasir Ahmad – uploaded blasphemous videos to a YouTube channel. The fourth man – Professor Anwaar Ahmed – was charged with voicing blasphemous views during a lecture at the Islamabad Model College where he was an Urdu teacher. Police took Ahmed into custody and fined him 100,000 rupees ($560), but the other three were in hiding at year’s end.
Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. Several individuals were accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. In November, a group of Ahmadi Muslim citizens charged under PECA and facing blasphemy charges in 2019 for publishing copies of the Quran appeared before the Lahore High Court. The petition against them was filed by Muhammad Hassan Muawiyah, brother of Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Religious Affairs and the Middle East Tahir Ashrafi. Muawiyah said that the Ahmadi community and non-Muslims were not authorized to publish copies of the Quran. The judge ordered police authorities to submit a report stating why they had not implemented the 2019 verdict to ensure that only “authorized entities” published the Quran and acted against the accused and those publishing “unauthentic” copies of the Quran. The hearing was postponed on November 30, the case remained ongoing at year’s end with the accused free on bail.
The trial of the killers of Tahir Naseem, a U.S. citizen Ahmadi Muslim killed in a courtroom in August 2020 while on trial for blasphemy, was ongoing before the Anti-Terrorism Court in Peshawar at year’s end.
On September 27, a court in Lahore fined and sentenced Ahmadi Salma Tanveer, a former school principal, to death for blasphemy under section 295-C of the penal code for distributing writings denying the “finality of the Prophet” in 2013. The court said, “It is proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused Salma Tanveer wrote and distributed the writings which are derogatory in respect of Holy Prophet Mohammed.” Police registered a blasphemy case against Tanveer for allegedly using derogatory remarks against Islam, based on the complaint of Qari Iftikhar Ahmad Raza, a prayer leader of a local mosque. Tanveer remained in prison in Lahore at year’s end, where she had been since 2013.
According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Junaid Hafeez; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; and Stephen Masih – remained in prison awaiting action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution.
In February, the courts granted Ahmadi Muslim Ramzan Bibi bail on her charge of blasphemy, 10 months after her arrest. In April 2020, Bibi donated money for a ceremony being held in a Sunni mosque in her village in Punjab, but the mosque returned the money because Ahmadis are barred by law from “engaging in Moslem practices” such as giving to mosques. She asked a non-Ahmadi relative why the money was returned, but the conversation turned into a dispute resulting in a verbal and physical altercation. Clerics of the village informed the District Police Officer that Bibi had committed blasphemy. Police arrested and charged her under Section 295-C of the penal code, which carries the death penalty. Her trial remained pending at year’s end.
In March, a prominent Sufi cleric from rural Sindh and his followers threatened the life of Sindhi fiction writer Amar Jaleel, accusing him of committing blasphemy during a 2017 literature festival after a video clip of Jaleel reading one of his short stories during that festival appeared on social media on March 28. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) political party figures led the public campaign against Jaleel, supported by right-wing newspaper Daily Ummat. On April 3, Sufi cleric Pir Umar Jan Sarhandi called for Jaleel’s death and offered money to anyone who carried out an assassination. Social media users demanded Sindh authorities arrest Sarhandi, but they took no action. The Sindh government promised that provincial authorities would not file blasphemy charges against Jaleel. National media reported, however, that the FIA launched an investigation of Jaleel using cybercrime laws at the request of the TLP.
On April 9, police filed blasphemy cases against two Christian nurses of the District Headquarters Hospital. Protesting hospital employees alleged that the two committed blasphemy by removing a sticker with a sacred Islamic inscription from a cupboard in the hospital. According to media reports, the police locked one of the nurses inside a police van to keep her safe from the protesters. In a similar incident, on January 28, police filed a blasphemy case against another Christian nurse, Tabitha Gill, at a maternity hospital in Karachi for “defiling the Prophet Mohammed” after she reportedly said she would pray for someone in the hospital. Coworkers at the hospital accused Gill of blasphemy after an argument and were seen slapping and beating her in a video that went viral on social media, but none of those seen in the video striking her were arrested or charged. An initial police investigation cleared Gill of any wrongdoing, but authorities subsequently registered a blasphemy case against her when a mob gathered outside the local police station demanding that she be recharged under blasphemy laws.
On August 7, police arrested Qaiser Zada, a transgender person, and her two brothers on charges of desecrating the Quran in Havelian, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Media reports say a witness saw Zada refuse sexual advances from a local Islamic scholar and was arrested along with her brothers after local residents accused them of burning a copy of the Quran. According to media reports, the residents beat Zada before handing her over to police. She and her brothers remained in custody at year’s end.
NGOs, legal observers, and religious minority representatives continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. They also raised concerns about the slow pace of adjudicating these cases, which led to some suspects remaining in detention for years as they waited for their initial trial or appeals, and some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings with spectators from groups supportive of harsh punishment for blasphemy, such as the TLP, who often threatened the defendants’ attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, advocacy groups reported that for security reasons, blasphemy trials were held inside jails, resulting in a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused of blasphemy persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.
NGOs and legal observers continued to say that the law requiring a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint may be filed contributed to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases. Some NGOs noted, however, that police did not uniformly follow this procedure. In some cases, the court remanded the accused to police custody for 14 days before they had been charged formally so a senior officer might carry out an investigation. In other cases, lower ranking police filed blasphemy charges without waiting for the required investigation by a senior police official. NGOs and legal observers again stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.
During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others after the accused had spent years in prison. On June 3, the Lahore High Court (LHC) acquitted and released a Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Masih, from Punjab’s Toba Tek Singh District. Authorities arrested them in 2013 for sending text messages to the complainants that the complainants said were blasphemous. In April 2014, a lower court had sentenced the couple to death and fined them 100,000 rupees ($560) each.
There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion. Enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare, however. Multiple cases of forced marriage and conversion of Christian women and girls were reported in Punjab. On February 16, a court in Faisalabad ordered the release of a 13-year-old Christian girl who, according to media reports, had been abducted at the age of 12, forcibly converted to Islam, and married against her will to a 45-year-old Muslim man in June 2020. Police rescued her in December 2020 and later moved her to a government-run shelter. A court in Faisalabad later allowed her to rejoin her family. Media reported that police dropped the investigation of the three Muslim men accused of abducting her and keeping her in chains for five months in 2020.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower-caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh, continued to occur along with multiple cases of forced marriages, child marriages, and forced conversions. In March, the Hindu community in Tangwani protested what they said was the abduction and forced conversion to Islam of a 13-year-old girl. A video of the girl went viral on social media in which she was seen sitting among men, who were shooting videos and taking photographs of her with their mobile phones. The girl’s father filed a case with local police and reported that her abductors and their influential supporters from a local mosque had set his house on fire after he refused to withdraw the case against them. On March 16, police rescued the girl and presented her before a court, which ordered that she be placed in a shelter. Police issued no charges on the arson allegation.
On July 26, a court in Badin, Sindh ordered police to reunite a young Hindu girl with her parents after her abduction, forced marriage, and forced conversion to Islam. Police had earlier rescued the girl from the illegal custody of a Muslim man after she posted a video widely seen on social media in which she was crying and pleading to be reunited with her parents. Following the court’s order, police arrested her purported husband, Qasim Khaskheli, and his two brothers, and charged them for their alleged aiding and abetting the rape, kidnapping, torture, and intimidation of the girl. She also declared that she had not converted to Islam and stated false documents were prepared by her purported husband. Police returned the girl to her parents in July and later released those arrested in the case.
Religious minorities and several organizations protested the government’s response to alleged cases of forced marriage and forced conversion, noting such incidents continue to happen regularly in all provinces. On May 21, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Religious Affairs and the Middle East Tahir Ashrafi stated that incidents of forced conversions and marriages had been rarely reported during the previous seven months. Several NGOs tracking forced conversions criticized Ashrafi’s statement, noting that forced conversions and marriages remained prevalent and demanded the government do more to protect victims of forced marriage and conversion.
On October 13, a parliamentary committee to protect religious minorities from forced conversions rejected a draft bill proposing an anti-forced conversion law after the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony opposed it. Lawmakers from religious minority communities protested the decision and requested the government review it. During a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul-Haq Qadri said the “environment is unfavorable” for formulating a law against forced conversions and warned that approval of the draft could disrupt peace in the country and “make minorities more vulnerable.” Qadri also urged the Prime Minister to “take other steps” to stop the conversions but did not suggest what those steps should be. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan said setting a minimum age for marriage in the forced conversion bill “goes against Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan.”
The Ministry of Interior maintained multitier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). On August 11, the Sindh provincial government barred 309 “firebrand” speakers and religious scholars from leaving their home districts for 60 days to avoid violent disturbances during Shia commemorations in the month of Muharram, more than double the number barred in 2020. These 309 individuals included both Shia and Sunni clerics who in the past had made controversial statements that the ministry said led to sectarian tensions. The Rawalpindi district administration banned 39 Islamic Ulema religious figures belonging to different sects from entering the district during Muharram, stating this was in order to maintain peace and interfaith harmony during the commemorations and related processions held there during Muharram.
According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during Muharram, authorities at the federal level also restricted the movement and activities of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing to keep the peace. Shia community representatives, however, accused authorities of bias by restricting their religious ceremonies and arresting community members. In October, Shia leaders said Karachi police beat and harassed mourners participating in a religious procession during the Shia Chehlum holiday.
According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Mohammed. Ahmadi leaders said that during elections, their community members were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, because authorities maintained the names of voters who registered as Ahmadi on separate voter lists. Many Ahmadis therefore continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections, according to the leaders. Ahmadiyya community representatives continued to say that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they were non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card.
Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives continued to state that Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, since those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961.
On October 26, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution requiring a declaration that Mohammed was the final prophet of Islam, which runs counter to Ahmadi beliefs, be included on government documents to register an Islamic marriage with the state.
In June, according to reports from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, police who arrived at the scene of a fight between Sunnis and Ahmadis in Sheikupura District, Punjab, took no action to break it up. The fight erupted when a group of Sunni Muslims attacked and blocked the funeral procession of an Ahmadi woman on its way to the cemetery. The attackers, comprised of local villagers and led by clerics, opposed the woman’s burial, arguing the cemetery belonged to “Muslims” only. According to bystanders, many suffered injuries in the fight. Eventually, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community was able to bury the woman in that cemetery.
Community representatives reported Christians continued to face difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars (usually church authorities). Members of parliament, church leaders, and advocates continued to debate the text of a 2019 draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, because the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of parliament and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice continued to consult with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but the denominations, church leaders, and NGO representatives had not agreed on elements of the draft law pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage by year’s end.
Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages in that province, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered as Hindus for the purposes of the law. In 2020, the Sindh provincial government began to implement the act, and NADRA began registering Hindu marriages in Sindh, according to Hindu community activists. Some Hindu activists reported implementation of the law remained slow and officials who could solemnize Hindu marriages were not being registered with the government.
The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel by marking Pakistani passports as “valid in all countries, except for Israel.” Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – is in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow Christians to travel to Israel.
In March, hundreds of pilgrims clashed with police while trying to enter a shrine closed by the Sindh provincial government due to COVID-19 restrictions. Police said the pilgrims broke open the main gate of the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 13th-century mystic Sufi saint, located in the town of Sehwan, Sindh. The crowds attacked police and threw stones, police officer Mohammad Mushtaq said. Several police suffered minor injuries. Investigations were ongoing at year’s end.
Some religious minority leaders continued to state the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency. Women from religious minority communities criticized political parties for only nominating men to seats reserved for religious minorities in all legislative bodies and demanded amendments to the Election Act to make mandatory the appointment of religious minority women to these seats.
The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to preach as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior could grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas were valid for one year and allowed one reentry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated the government could grant extensions for two years with two reentries per year, excluding applicants from India.
The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal.” Users were advised to report such content to a government website for action under PECA 16 (the 2016 PECA act).
In June, the PTA reported that uploading of content related to blasphemy and hate speech continued on social networking sites. A report prepared by the FIA’s cybercrime wing revealed that in 2020, the state blocked 111 accounts for containing blasphemous material, 47 for featuring hate speech, and nine for spreading sectarian hatred. From January through June 2021, the FIA cybercrime wing and the PTA removed 110 accounts, blocked 86 accounts for containing blasphemous content, 15 for hate speech, and nine for uploading sectarian material.
In November, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) reprimanded an FIA official for failing to identify and arrest individuals who allegedly uploaded blasphemous content on social media. The FIA informed the court it blocked some of those links, and the IHC directed it to strictly enforce regulations mandating the removal of blasphemous content.
In early January, the PTA asked social media platforms to take down the trailer of the movie, “Lady of Heaven” for sacrilegious content. In late January, the PTA told the IHC that it blocked 452 links that month to the trailer of a movie on the video-streaming platform Netflix on grounds that it contained sacrilegious material.
On January 22, the PTA blocked a U.S.-based website, “trueislam.com,” administrated by members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community-USA, from being viewed in Pakistan on charges that the website propagated blasphemous content.
On June 28, the Sindh High Court ordered the nationwide suspension of access to the video-sharing social media platform TikTok until July 8. The court issued the order in response to a petition filed by a citizen aggrieved by the “immorality and obscenity” spread by content on the platform. On July 20, the PTA again blocked access to TikTok “due to the continuous presence of inappropriate content on the platform and its failure to take such content down.” Reactions to the PTA’s measure were mixed, with many social media users praising the decision, but others expressing concerns that the government could similarly ban religious minorities. In November, the PTA lifted the ban on TikTok and released a statement saying it “will continue to monitor the platform in order to ensure that unlawful content contrary to Pakistan’s law and societal values is not disseminated.”
In April, a lawmaker from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party introduced a resolution in parliament calling for expulsion of the French Ambassador over the republication of caricatures depicting Islam in a French magazine in 2020, which PTI said were blasphemous. On April 21, the Sindh Provincial Assembly passed a unanimous resolution to condemn the publication of these sketches in France and demanded a federal movement against practices which “harm religious harmony throughout the world.” Lawmakers in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly passed a resolution on September 17 requiring official documents to include the Khatan-un-Nabiyeen, or “finality of the Prophet” along with the Prophet Mohammed’s name.
According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. The government also announced that a collaboration between the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB), provincial governments, and Sikh and Hindu community members would renovate several Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras during the year. As of September, the government’s Survey of Pakistan mapping agency had surveyed, geotagged, and digitized 93 percent of the properties to be renovated.
Media reported that in November, the Islamabad Capital Development Authority gave permission for construction to resume on a boundary wall at the site of the first Hindu temple to be built in the capital. In 2020, Islamist political parties opposed to the project filed a petition in the IHC to stop construction, and vandals destroyed part of the wall.
On February 5, a judicial commission led by police and justice sector reform specialist Dr. Shoaib Suddle submitted a report to the Supreme Court attesting that the ETPB failed to maintain most of the ancient and holy sites of the country’s Hindu minority community. According to the report, out of 365 Hindu temples, only 13 were being managed by the ETPB, leaving caretaking responsibilities of 65 temples with the Hindu community, with 287 left untended. In January (latest figures available), out of a total of 1,830 temples and gurdwaras across the country, only 31 were operating.
On June 11, the Supreme Court blocked plans to demolish the historic 716-square-yard Dharam Shala, a Hindu community center in Karachi, and ordered the Karachi commissioner to take possession of its land to protect the center from demolition. The court issued the verdict after Hindu community representatives told the court that the ETPB had leased the property to private individuals who started demolishing the Dharam Shala to construct a new building.
Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders stated local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and forbid Ahmadis from calling them mosques.
Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia Muslim, Christian, and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year, including around particular religious holidays or in response to specific threats. In July, a judicial commission on religious minorities established a special national police unit to protect religious minorities and their places of worship, a move welcomed by most religious minority communities. In mid-November, police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province reported the government there had established a new special security unit to protect religious sites and religious minority communities throughout the province. Ahmadiyya community representatives, however, noted their religious sites and cemeteries continued to lack police protection nationwide. In April, Lahore police provided security to the Christian community for Easter celebrations. The provincial government increased the number of police personnel and security forces near churches. The district police also directed its response units and special forces teams to patrol throughout the city. In August and September, the state provided increased security throughout the country for the Shia community’s Muharram processions. Police authorities said 19,000 police and paramilitary force personnel deployed in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi to secure the processions. Ahead of Christmas, police deployed officers to protect churches nationwide. Police also deployed snipers and used closed-circuit television cameras and metal detectors to ensure the security of churches and Christmas markets. In Sindh, police provided enhanced security at churches and Hindu temples, especially in Karachi, on the eves of festivals such as Christmas and Diwali.
In July, the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA) demanded that the federal interior ministry prevent the Ahmadi community from sacrificing animals on Eid al-Adha. In a letter written to the Chief Secretary of the government of Punjab, the LHCBA urged police to enforce blasphemy laws against Ahmadi community members taking part in religious rites during the holiday. Anti-Ahmadi groups used extensive online social media campaigns urging other non-Muslims to deny Ahmadis’ right to sacrifice animals during Eid al-Adha. The government reported no investigations or arrests.
The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year to review textbooks for derogatory material.
On August 16, Prime Minister Khan launched a new nationwide Single National Curriculum (SNC) for grades 1-5 that standardized primary school instruction across the country’s three types of educational institutions – private, public, and religious. Religious minority groups criticized the SNC’s emphasis on Islamic teachings across educational subjects and argued it violated constitutional restrictions on “compulsory religious instruction” as well as the constitution’s 18th amendment, which delegates most authority for education to provincial governments.
In July, a judicial commission for the protection of religious minorities led by Dr. Suddle expressed concern to the Supreme Court that Islamic religious content was included in compulsory education courses under the SNC, including in Urdu and English language courses, thereby compelling religious minority students to receive Islamic religious instruction. The commission recommended all Islamic content from the SNC be placed in Islamic studies textbooks, because that subject was compulsory only for Muslim students. Islamist groups opposed this suggestion.
While the law requires schools to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources continued to report many non-Muslim students had to participate in these courses because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadi Muslims to teach Islamic studies in public schools.
Civil society groups continued to report that some madrassahs, particularly those that were unregistered, taught doctrine they considered to promote violent extremism and intolerance toward religious minorities. These groups also noted the government sought to curb this practice through madrassah registration and curriculum reform.
Legal experts and NGOs reported that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for protecting the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests for information and recommendations.
Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Human Rights. Religious minority community members also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.
As of year’s end, the National Commission for Minorities continued to function without legislative authority and without power to resolve problems. In September, the commission requested the President approve a draft bill to empower it under a legal framework, and recommended the chairperson be a member of a religious minority group; the government took no action on the request by year’s end. Religious freedom activists and civil society groups raised concerns regarding the limited powers of the commission and the decision to exclude Ahmadi Muslims from being represented on the commission when it was first formed. Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they had never been approached about participating in the commission and would not join a body that required them to identify as non-Muslims.
Minority religious leaders said members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. For example, Christians reported incidents of what they perceived as discrimination in which otherwise qualified Christian students were passed over for scholarships solely because they were Christian. In another instance, a university admitted an Ahmadi Muslim student in Multan as part of a quota set aside for religious minorities. The university later cancelled the student’s admission without disclosing the reason. The Lahore High Court ordered the university to reverse its decision and uphold its original offer of admission to the Ahmadi student. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the government-required declaration students had to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Students’ refusal to sign the statement automatically disqualified them from fulfilling admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission if they did not claim to be Muslims.
In July, some students and religious groups protested the inclusion of a question related to the founder of the Ahmadiyya community in the test for doctorate admissions at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro. The protestors threatened to file a blasphemy case against administrators of the university. After negotiations, the university agreed to remove Ahmadi-related content from the admissions test.
Members of religious minorities, particularly lower-caste Hindus and Christians, reported cases of forceful evictions from their homes and villages by government officials assisting individuals desiring their land. On September 20, Christians living in the Landi Kotal area of the Khyber tribal district held a press conference to protest government orders to demolish their houses located adjacent to the town. They said local authorities ordered them to vacate their homes to expand a nearby jail. The affected families reported their ancestors had lived in the area since 1914 and they had no other place to live. On August 24, as part of an infrastructure project to improve the city’s stormwater drains, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) demolished a small church along a major stream and forcibly evicted some church members who lived nearby. KMC and the Sindh government took the action in spite of activists protesting on-site a day earlier and organizing a nationwide online campaign against the demolition using the #SaveStJosephChurch hashtag.
Residents of some lower-class Muslim communities also complained of discrimination by upper-class Muslims. On September 9, gravediggers unearthed the remains of 13 members of the Mallah community originally buried in Sann, Sindh and dumped them outside the graveyard. They said that Syed Zafar Hyder Shah, an influential person from an upper caste family ordered them to remove the graves. The incident sparked criticism from civil society representatives who termed the act “a notorious caste-based prejudice” that did not allow lower-caste individuals to be buried in the graveyard of Muslims. Police filed an investigation into the case against Syed Zafar and those who assisted him but made no arrests by year’s end.
Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. The Punjab government, under pressure from a group of Sunni clerics, transferred two Ahmadi local government officials out of Chakwal District on September 3. Dr. Waseem, a health department official, and Ayesha Kanwal, a shelter home official, were given three days to transfer and find work in other districts. According to religious minority activists, provincial governments also often failed to meet quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service. On September 28, the Supreme Court expressed concern regarding the government’s failure to implement a 5 percent job quota for religious minorities at both the provincial and federal levels. In September, media reported that more than 30,000 government jobs reserved for minorities were vacant across the country.
Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff continued to list being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. For example, the Lahore Waste Management Company continued to employ mainly street sweepers who were Christians, which HRCP criticized as the result of employment advertisements continuing to specify that religious minorities should apply. HRCP stated such advertisements infringed on human dignity and violated the constitutional guarantee of equality of all citizens.
In July, the Punjab Public Service Commission published an advertisement for 12 vacant positions in different departments. The advertisement stated, “According to clause (5) of the Punjab Waqf Properties Ordinance 1979, no person may be appointed an officer unless he is a Muslim.” Religious minority groups said the advertisement was discriminatory because it singled out Muslims as the only persons eligible to be appointed to positions of leadership at the commission.
Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities compared to the majority religious community, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. There were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, and an NGO said a few Christian officers had become generals. Ahmadiyya officers, however, rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.
On September 7, all daily Urdu-language newspapers again published reports and articles to mark the 1974 amendment to the constitution that declared Ahmadis as non-Muslim, and to pay homage to the politicians and clerics who helped enact the amendment.
Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. The groups that organized the conferences stated they were defending the teaching that Prophet Mohammed is the final prophet. Both secular and Ahmadi critics said the conferences were venues for hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims.
On September 7, the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Islami-Fazl (JUI-F) party held a large Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar, with party leaders and national and provincial parliamentarians in attendance. On October 14, Sufi Barelvi Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman hosted a larger conference in Peshawar that included political party leaders, national parliamentarians, and provincial lawmakers from multiple political parties. At the conference, JUI-F national leader Fazl ur Rehman and other JUI-F members attacked Pakistan’s national leaders for what they said was un-Islamic legislation on issues such as protecting Ahmadis and preventing forced conversion, and they vowed to resist international pressure to abolish blasphemy laws.
Human rights advocates and Ahmadiyya Muslim community members reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set fire to Ahmadi mosques. In several instances, they said police participated in the attacks. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years.
On January 15, police in Nankana, Punjab Province constructed a boundary wall abutting the minarets of an Ahmadi mosque, damaging them in the process. Police then blocked access to part of the mosque, informing Ahmadi officials they were acting at the request of several local officials. On January 26, in Toba Tek Sing, Punjab, two police officers, including the local commanding officer and several local citizens, broke multiple gravestones in an Ahmadiyya cemetery. The group then moved to the mosque, where they ordered the Ahmadis present to remove the name of Allah from public display. When the Ahmadis refused, one of the local citizens forcibly removed the plaques featuring Allah’s name. On April 11, in Muzaffargarh District, Punjab, police officers and local citizens toppled the minarets of an Ahmadiyya mosque and removed Islamic scriptures from Ahmadi tombstones. The same police officers arrested five Ahmadis at the mosque on blasphemy charges. They were later released, but their cases remained pending at year’s end. Also in April, the Ahmadiyya community noted that unknown assailants removed sacred religious words posted on the outside of nine Ahmadi homes in a district in Punjab. On July 31, the Ahmadiyya community reported local police desecrated and demolished the minarets of an Ahmadi place of worship in a rural settlement near Faisalabad, Punjab. It was the third such incident in the district; Ahmadi places of worship were also vandalized on June 17 and 24. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community also reported the desecration of 15 Ahmadiyya places of worship and 100 graves during the year in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
In April, the Ahmadiyya community and witnesses at the scene reported a group of individuals aided by police destroyed the minarets and dome of an Ahmadi mosque located in Muzaffargarh District, Punjab because by law, members of the Ahmadiyya community may not call their houses of worship mosques or have identifying features of mosques on their houses of worship. Police did not arrest members of the crowd for damaging the building, but instead arrested two Ahmadi men who were worshipers at the mosque. The police did not register cases against the two men and released them shortly after. There was no further information available on this case at year’s end.
Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, such as Christian and Hindu Dalits, from bonded labor practices. Hindu Dalits remained vulnerable to human rights violations and pressure by perpetrators to withdraw police cases.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs, Sunnis, Shia, and Hindus in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unknown.
In an incident that drew significant international outcry, a mob of several hundred Muslim workers from a sportswear factory in Sialkot, Punjab attacked Priantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan and Christian manager of the factory on December 3. Media reported that the mob beat, stoned, and kicked him to death, then dragged his corpse to the street and set it on fire. In widely seen videos on social media, Kumara was seen pleading for his life before he was killed. Witnesses reported that while the mob’s actions were fueled by accusations of blasphemy, the incident began because of personal animosity between some factory employees and Kumara. The aggrieved factory workers allegedly incited the mob by accusing him of desecrating posters that contained written Islamic prayers. Police were called during the incident, but the small number who responded were far outnumbered by the crowd and media reported that police did not intervene. Punjab Inspector General of Police Rao Sardar Ali Khan told reporters a case would be submitted to an anti-terrorism court as soon as possible to bring the killers to justice. Prime Minister Khan said the attack was “horrific” and ordered a high-level inquiry. Media reported that police arrested more than 100 individuals after the attack. There were no further developments on this case before year’s end.
On February 11, a teenager shot and killed an Ahmadi homeopathic doctor, Abdul Qadir, in his clinic in Peshawar. Ahmadiyya community members stated Qadir was killed because of his faith. According to media reports, local residents overpowered the assailant at the scene and handed him over to the police, who opened an investigation. At year’s end, he remained in detention and his trial was underway in a court in Peshawar.
On September 2, four unidentified assailants shot and killed a British-Pakistani man retired from the Pakistani army, Maqsood Ahmad, who was an Ahmadiyya community member in Nankana Sahib, Punjab. Family members said he was shot as he was irrigating his farmland in Dharowal. The police launched a murder investigation, but as of year’s end, the victim’s killers had not been found.
On September 30, unknown attackers gunned down a Sikh man, Satnam Singh, in Peshawar. The police said the attackers escaped from the scene but lodged a case against the “unknown assailants.” ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.
On March 25, six Sunni Muslims died and seven were injured when assailants opened fire on a passenger vehicle traveling from Gilgit to Naltar. The vehicle was traveling through a Shia-majority area. Police said the attack on the passenger van was retaliation for an earlier incident when Shia youth passing through Naltar Bala were ambushed and killed 18 months prior.
On August 19, three persons died, and 59 others were injured in a grenade attack on a Shia procession in Bahawalnagar, Punjab. It was the third sectarian strike in the area to occur in two months, including an attack on August 6 against a Shia worship site.
On March 24, media reported an unknown man attacked and killed Taqi Shah, a religious scholar from the Shia community in Jhang, Punjab over blasphemy allegations. The scholar had faced similar blasphemy charges in 2019. In March, police arrested a suspect, who subsequently confessed to killing Shah. There was no further information available on this case at year’s end.
On January 3, ISIS-K militants claimed responsibility for killing 11 coal miners belonging to the Hazara Shia community in Mach, Balochistan. Members of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta staged a protest against the government’s failure to protect the community in Balochistan. Human rights organizations criticized the Prime Minister for saying the Hazara protestors were “blackmailing” him by demanding he visit them in Balochistan to ensure justice for the victims. On January 6, Prime Minister Khan released a statement on social media against sectarian violence, stating the government was “taking steps to prevent such attacks in the future,” and traveled to Machh on January 9 to meet with families who lost loved ones in the attack.
The Hindu community in Sindh and Balochistan remained vulnerable to targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom. On May 31, unidentified assailants killed Ashok Kumar, a Hindu trader in Khuzdar, Balochistan after he reportedly refused to pay extortion money to criminals. This was the second Hindu trader since July 2020 to have been killed in Wadh for the same reason. Following the killing of Ashok Kumar, Baloch social media users urged the government to take steps to ensure security of religious minorities in Balochistan. In June, unidentified individuals distributed intimidating pamphlets outside of shops owned by Hindu traders in Khuzdar telling them not to allow female customers into their shops, or face consequences.
On February 25, unknown assailants killed Mahesh Kumar, a Hindu youth, and set his corpse on fire in Jacobabad, Sindh. The Hindu community protested and demanded police arrest the suspects. They reported police were slow to respond to the killing, while media failed to give appropriate coverage to the incident.
Civil society organizations and media said that armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including the TTP, and the once-banned anti-Shia group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, continued to perpetrate violence and other abuses against religious minorities. Groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS, also committed violent acts. Among the targets of these attacks were Shia Muslims, particularly the predominantly Shia Hazara community.
According to the SATP, there were five sectarian attacks by armed groups during 2021, compared with 10 sectarian attacks reported in 2020. Data on sectarian attacks varied because no standardized definition existed of what constituted a sectarian attack among reporting organizations. According to journalists, when reporting on attacks with a suspected sectarian motive, media often refrained from reporting the victim’s sectarian identity in an effort to avoid stoking tension among sectarian groups.
Sunni Muslim citizens levied multiple charges of blasphemy against members of the Shia community throughout the year. On August 19, police fired teargas shells and live rounds into the air in Hyderabad, Sindh to disperse a mob protesting because they believed a Shia man had committed blasphemy. The community pressured police to file a blasphemy case against the man. In another instance, on May 6, a group of Sunni religious leaders filed a blasphemy case against Shia scholar Allama Amjad Jauhari in Karachi for remarks they said insulted the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. The complainants said that Jauhari used derogatory language during one of his sermons at a Shia gathering; they requested the police take action against him. The next day police opened an investigation into Jauhari for alleged blasphemy. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
In its 2022 World Watch List report, which covered events in 2021, the international NGO Open Doors said that “Christians are considered second-class citizens and are discriminated against in every aspect of life” in the country. The report highlighted allegations that COVID-19 assistance was leveraged to try and get Christians to convert to Islam, that blasphemy laws continued to be used to target Christians with false allegations, and that Christian women and girls were targeted for kidnapping, forced marriage, and conversion to Islam.
Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. According to the NGOs Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) and the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked by men.
Christian activists stated young women from their communities were also vulnerable to forced conversions. According to online Christian media sources, in June, a 30-year-old man was accused of kidnapping, forcibly converting to Islam, and forcibly marrying a Christian girl in Gujranwala District, Punjab. The media reports stated that while the girl’s parents told police and the courts that she was 13 years old, the girl herself told the court that she was 19. According to the police, two of the suspects were taken into custody, but the girl later appeared before a local court where she said that she left her house, converted to Islam, and married her husband willingly. Consequently, the court allowed the girl to go with her husband and ordered the police to drop the case. The girl’s father protested, stating his daughter was a minor, and that the court should not have accepted her statement declaring she willingly converted and married. On July 1, the Lahore High Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, allowing the girl to remain with her husband.
In September, media reported that a Muslim man kidnapped, raped, and attempted to kill an eight-year-old Christian girl by hitting her with a stone, and leaving her unconscious on the ground. Police later arrested the accused under anti-rape and domestic violence laws. There was no additional information available on this case at year’s end.
Members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.
Representatives of the Kalash, an indigenous group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim schoolteachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.
Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with various political affiliations held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. English and local-language media often covered the events that featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric which Ahmadiyya community representatives said could incite violence against Ahmadis. In addition to the large JUI-F conference and rallies, the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami held a large event in September in Peshawar; both parties criticized the national government for failing to enforce Islamic law. The TLP, banned under the National Counterterrorism Authority’s Schedule-I list until it was removed in November, also held smaller rallies.
On September 8, Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm Nabuwwat, a Muslim missionary organization, organized a conference at Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore where speakers urged the government to “check un-Islamic and unconstitutional” activities of Ahmadis, ban them from proselytizing, and remove them from key official posts.
On October 8, JUI-F held Khatm-e-Nabuwat conferences in Multan where speakers, including JUI-F party chief Moulana Fazl ur Rehman, vowed to stop Ahmadis’ entry into high government posts.
Members of religious minority communities continued to report cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, and illegal confinement due to their faith. In September, media reported a group of Muslim landlords physically abused and held hostage a family from a Hindu community in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab for obtaining water from a mosque tap and therefore “violating the sanctity” of the place of worship. According to media reports, Alam Ram Bheel, a farm worker, and his family were fetching drinking water after work when a group of local landlords and accomplices beat them and held them until Muslim neighbors negotiated their release.
On July 26, a video went viral showing a Muslim man forcing a Hindu laborer to mock Hindu deities in Mithi, Sindh. In the video, the individual was seen swearing at the Hindu man and forcing him to say “Allahu Akbar.” Police arrested the Muslim man and registered a blasphemy case against him on behalf of the state. The Hindu man and his family pardoned the Muslim man, and the case was dropped. The Muslim man publicly apologized for his act. Religious minority activists criticized this case, stating that persons charged with blasphemy were rarely pardoned.
In September, several religious groups from the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam organized a series of rallies in Karachi to denounce Shia “defamation” of revered Sunni religious figures.
Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns.
There were also media reports of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. On August 17, police in Lahore arrested a member of the TLP for vandalizing a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh warrior who ruled over Punjab in the 19th century; the statute had been vandalized numerous times since its unveiling in 2019. In a video of the incident posted on social media, the TLP member shouted party slogans while pulling the statue apart, and onlookers immediately detained him. Both the Lahore police and Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar called for the individual to be prosecuted. Following the TLP member’s arrest, a magisterial court in Lahore granted him bail, and his case was pending at year’s end.
During a January 5 Supreme Court hearing, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa officials reported the suspension of more than 90 police officers from duty and more than 109 arrests related to a December 2020 incident in which a group of villagers destroyed a historic Hindu temple. The court directed a local cleric responsible for inciting the protestors and those who assisted him to contribute money to assist in the temple’s restoration. The temple was rebuilt and on November 8, Supreme Court Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed inaugurated it during the Hindu community’s Diwali celebration.
On July 24, a Muslim cleric in the village of Bhong, Punjab, filed blasphemy charges against an eight-year-old Hindu boy, claiming the boy had involuntarily urinated in a local mosque. In response, on August 4, hundreds of protestors vandalized a local Hindu temple, partially burning the building, destroying Hindu idols, and blocking a nearby highway for three hours. On August 7, Chief Justice Ahmed directed the Punjab police to arrest all involved in vandalizing and looting the temple. Police arrested 95 individuals, later freeing 10 while holding 85 in custody to face trial in anti-terrorism courts. The 85 were in custody at year’s end.
In May, a group of 200 Muslims attacked a Catholic church and 15 houses belonging to Christians in the village of Chak 5 in Punjab Province after a Muslim man accused boys cleaning the church of throwing dust on him. At least eight Christian community members suffered serious injury.
Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians continued to have difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor, with some advertisements for menial jobs specifying they were open only to Christian applicants.
Observers reported that English-language media continued to cover issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but vernacular print and broadcast media outlets continued to publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and editorials, some of which could be considered as inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media and was at times spread by senior members of mainstream political parties. Community members stated clerics routinely delivered anti-Ahmadi sermons in mosques.
On September 7, all daily Urdu newspapers again published reports and articles to mark the 1974 amendment to the constitution which declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Leading Urdu newspapers also published editorials and articles paying homage to the politicians and clerics who helped enact the amendment.
Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting congressional delegations and senior U.S. officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State, engaged government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform, laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims, the need to better protect members of religious minority communities, sectarian relations, and religious respect.
Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to collect information on religious freedom abuses not covered in the media, stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities, and continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect among religious groups and enhance dialogue. The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms throughout the year. On July 5, the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council, in collaboration with local interfaith leaders, convened U.S. and Pakistani faith leaders from the Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Baha’i, Christian, and transgender communities in Karachi. In his opening remarks, the Consul General in Karachi expressed the U.S. commitment to support religious minority rights as a bulwark against intolerance and emphasized that religious freedom is integral to a vibrant democratic society.
The embassy and consulate general sponsored outreach activities such as speakers and workshops to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders. The embassy and consulates general in Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar held several events to promote religious freedom. On October 28, the consulate general in Lahore arranged a webinar featuring a prominent scholar from the International Islamic University in Islamabad to promote tolerance and religious harmony. The consulate general also collaborated with Michigan State University to fund an exchange program for female Ulema religious scholars to deepen understanding and appreciation of diverse interfaith traditions.
An embassy-supported activity aimed at community resilience continued to implement small grants programs to engage diverse stakeholders including community and religious leaders, government officials, university administrators, youth, and women to identify and remove hateful materials and promote peace, tolerance, and acceptance among diverse communities in Karachi, northern Sindh, and southern Punjab. The embassy supported multiple activities engaging provincial ministers from Punjab and legislators from Punjab and Sindh Provinces to promote tolerance and diversity and mitigate religious intolerance. An embassy-supported project focused on increasing the individual capacity of religious leaders, elders, and youth from different religious backgrounds to promote interfaith peace and cohesion in their communities. These efforts aimed to address religious divisions by enhancing mutual understanding, integration, and collaboration among communities representing different religious schools and religious groups.
On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom and issued a waiver of the sanctions that accompany the designation in the national interests of the United States.
The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. According to the constitution, the Amir must be Muslim. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal, but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately. The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. In March, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) said it was “extremely concerned” by “systematic attempts over many years” by the government to blacklist and deport Baha’is, in particular a lifelong resident of the country whose residency permit renewal was refused in January on what the community described as “baseless charges.” He left the country in August. A ban on worship outside the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, which is located on government land and provides worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, and which the government described as temporary when instituted in 2020 as a measure both to limit the spread of COVID-19 and for security reasons, remained in effect. Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend services in the Mesaymeer Complex. The “villa” (or house) church community wrote multiple letters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and requested multiple meetings but received no reply. In April, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published a report on antisemitic material in textbooks of government schools, saying that while some material was removed from textbooks, the updated editions “still contained numerous passages that teach hateful antisemitic misinformation and myths.” In June, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) updated its review of the country’s textbooks, stating that its “review determined that the Qatari curriculum does not yet meet … international standards” and “was influenced by elements of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.” In December, in an updated report, IMPACT-se said, “…Since then [June], Qatar’s books have somewhat improved. They still have a long way to go when it comes to removing hateful content and consistently teaching tolerance, and yet the improvements that have occurred over the last two academic years…are still a pleasant surprise.” In December, the press reported that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry issued a directive regarding the need for suppliers, traders, and shopkeepers to refrain from selling goods bearing logos and symbols that do not comply with Islamic values.
On October 18, the privately owned newspaper Al-Sharq published a column by author Ahmad al-Mohannadi warning against what he considered attempts by Christian organizations to penetrate Muslim Persian Gulf societies via animated Bible-based missionary cartoons dubbed in Gulf dialects. In its 2021 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “There are two general categories [of Christians in country]: Christian foreigners, most of whom are migrant workers, and Christians who have converted from Islam. Foreign workers who are Christian are much freer to worship. Muslims who convert to Christianity face much more significant persecution. Converts from both indigenous and migrant backgrounds bear the brunt of persecution, and Qatari converts face very high pressure from their families.”
U.S. embassy leadership and other embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials, relevant government bodies, as well as with quasigovernmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and antisemitism. The Charge d’Affaires raised the reopening of worship space for the Christian community and freedom of worship for the Baha’i community with senior government officials. Throughout the year, embassy officers met with various faith communities, including the Hindu, Shia Muslim, Baha’i, and evangelical Christian communities, and they also met with the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.5 million (midyear 2021). Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent. Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all others are Shia Muslims. Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriates suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population. The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.
Other religious groups, which are composed exclusively of expatriates, include (in descending order of size) Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia. Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. According to the constitution, the Amir must be Muslim. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the Amir’s branch of the al-Thani family. The Amir exercises full executive power. The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.” It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.
Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and is illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.
The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions. The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.
To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must register with the MFA. The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations, which are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Interdenominational Christian Churches. Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the MFA with the support of the CCSC.
Non-Christian groups must also register with the MFA. Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures, such as private villas, recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution. Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religiously-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.
According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.
The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public. The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment. The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity.
The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials. The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities. The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles. To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.
The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity. All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The law designates the MEIA Minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers. The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the Amir.
The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.
A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; however, the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim. The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.
Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools. Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services. All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools. According to instructions from the Ministry of Education, these schools must offer Islamic instruction; non-Islamic formal religious education is prohibited.
A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims. The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters using Shia interpretations of religious law. In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam. Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.
A non-Muslim wife does not have the automatic right to inherit from her Muslim husband. She receives an inheritance only if her husband wills her a portion of his estate, and even then, she is eligible to receive only one-third of the total estate. A female heir generally receives one-half the amount of a male heir; a sister would inherit one-half as much as her brother. In cases of divorce, children generally remain with the mother until age 13 for boys and 15 for girls, at which time custody reverts to the husband’s family, regardless of the mother’s religion.
Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia. The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence. There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are subject to punishment according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging. Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases. Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned. Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies. The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.
The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018, and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia. The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”). The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.
In March, BIC said it was “extremely concerned” by “systematic attempts over many years” by the government to blacklist and deport Baha’is. The BIC press release cited the case of Omid Seioshansian, described as a Baha’i born in Qatar and whose family has lived there for generations, saying that authorities’ actions in not renewing his lifelong residency permit were attributed to “baseless charges” of unspecified criminal and national security violations. The BIC release stated that once so identified, Baha’is are “blacklisted and expelled” and then permanently refused reentry, even in cases where they have lived their entire lives in the country. In the case of Seioshansian, who departed the country for India in August, the government said its refusal to renew his residency permit was based on immigration law and age, since the country does not allow persons over age 60 to obtain residency. The local Baha’i community and BIC raised these concerns with the government, including the National Human Rights Committee. According to BIC, the government told UN and foreign diplomats that cases involving members of the Baha’i community were unrelated to each other and each involved national security concerns. BIC raised these issues with the UN Human Rights Council on two occasions during the year. Writing for the Religion News Service, Seioshansian’s brother Baher said, “The anti-Baha’i momentum has been building and has resulted in a dismissiveness toward Baha’is and their families that would have been unthinkable in the past,” and he stated deportations affecting the Baha’i community involved a wide range of nationalities, including Jordanian, British, American, Malaysian, Indian, and Canadian.
“Villa” churches were open during the year, with pandemic regulations in place. The church villas did not receive approval to reopen, but they did so anyway. Early in the year, the “villa” church community had written several letters to authorities asking to reopen their 150 (later consolidated to 61 at government orders) house churches under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) that had been closed under COVID-19 mitigation regulations. Not receiving an official government response to these inquiries, many of these informal churches reopened in September. At year’s end, they had faced no repercussions for reopening.
The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions were again unable to follow up on their 2019 visit. During the 2019 visit, the UN representatives said there were approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors prohibited by sharia. The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia; there were no statistics available regarding rates of corporal punishment during the year.
The CCSC continued to meet regularly with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space for the large number of parishioners. The MFA also met with unregistered congregations to discuss their interests and needs.
The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques. The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths. The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.
The MEIA estimated that there are approximately 2,300 mosques in the country. Government officials estimated that as many as 10 of these were Shia mosques, although online sources stated the number was closer to 15. Government officials stated the MEIA did not allow foreign funding for the building or upkeep of Shia mosques or other community facilities.
The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties. There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking in public during daylight hours in Ramadan. All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.
The government of Saudi Arabia restricted pilgrims allowed to make the Hajj in 2021 to residents of Saudi Arabia due to concerns regarding COVID-19. In October, the MEIA announced that Umrah tour operators had resumed arranging Umrah tours from Qatar to Saudi Arabia for pilgrims, including expatriates. In November, the MEIA launched a new online registration system allowing individuals to upload their personal data and tour contracts, thereby permitting greater government oversight of the process and compilation of more accurate statistics.
The national organizing body of the 2022 FIFA World Cup encouraged local residents to host visiting soccer fans at their private residences during the upcoming tournament, touting the initiative as “a chance to demonstrate to fans our culture and hospitality.” Some comments on social media criticized the suggestion, saying that it was a violation of the country’s religious values, Islamic principles, and conservative culture.
In April, the ADL published a report on antisemitic material in textbooks of government schools, saying that while some material was removed from textbooks, the updated editions “still contain numerous passages that teach hateful antisemitic misinformation and myths.” One text, for the seventh-grade textbooks for Islamic studies, said, “Treachery and treason are among the traits of the Jews.” According to the ADL, the eleventh-grade Islamic studies text “accuses Judaism of idolatry, deifying the Prophet Ezra, subordinating the Torah to the Talmud, and believing in amoral hedonism and supremacy.” An eleventh-grade history text stated that among the principles of the Nazis was “enmity toward the Jews, because they were the reason for Germany’s defeat” in World War I.
In June, IMPACT-se updated its review of the country’s textbooks in conjunction with a London-based NGO, the Henry Jackson Society. The study assessed more than 314 textbooks, building upon previous IMPACT-se research that used UN and other international standards as benchmarks. According to IMPACT-se, the “review determined that the Qatari curriculum does not yet meet those international standards. …. The curriculum reflects in many ways the same overall tension facing Qatar’s leadership between Qatar’s Islamist affinities and its desire to be seen as an open, neutral, and progressive leader in the Arabian Gulf. Textbooks teach Qatari children to accept others different than themselves and advocate for peace at the same time echoing antisemitic canards…. While the curriculum emphasizes nationalist identities over tribal affiliations, it is also influenced by pan-Islamic and pan-Arab nationalism, as well as elements of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood.” In December, in an updated report, IMPACT-se said, “…Since then [June], Qatar’s books have somewhat improved. They still have a long way to go when it comes to removing hateful content and consistently teaching tolerance, and yet the improvements that have occurred over the last two academic years in Qatar are still a pleasant surprise. …. For example, it has removed a passage which taught that Zionism ‘strives to rule the world and control it.’ And it has reduced problematic passages with regard to martyrdom and violent jihad – such as removing a passage that referred to jihad as ‘the peak of Islam.’ However, such progress remains incomplete at best.” The government stated it was seeking NGOs and outside experts that could assist it in a review of current school textbooks.
Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, the government continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards. Church leaders and religious groups said individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.
The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Journalists and publishers at times said they practiced self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.
In December, press reported that the Ministry of Commerce and Industry had issued a directive regarding the need for suppliers, traders, and shopkeepers to refrain from selling goods bearing logos and symbols that do not comply with Islamic values. The circular said its intent was to protect consumer rights, preserve Islamic values, and respect the country’s customs, traditions, and cultural heritage. Several observers stated their belief that the government’s actions in this regard were directed at items, including children’s toys, bearing rainbow colors of the LGBTQI+ pride flag.
The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings. The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.
According to church leaders, approximately 75,000 to 100,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend these services. Representatives of the CCSC stated there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing. In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these observances. The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors. Ministry of Interior security personnel asked churchgoers to show identification at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, were prohibited access to the complex.
Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship.
The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.
The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions. In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.
Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches. Some smaller unregistered churches used the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.
The country continued to host the headquarters of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a group widely viewed in the press and academia as being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni transnational organization that promotes political Islam. Although IUMS stated it was an independent association of scholars, observers said its close relationship with the government helped it to serve as an instrument of the country’s soft power. Following the 2020 recognition of Israel by some Arab states, the IUMS in a November 27 statement said any normalization of ties with Israel was religiously forbidden and called for concerted efforts to “liberate” all Israeli-occupied lands, especially the al-Aqsa Mosque compound and Jerusalem.
According to an analysis published in February by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the government provided support for the IUMS, which the WINEP report described as “the clerical arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.” In November, a report by the Carnegie Endowment said diminishing regional support for political Islamist groups was a factor in the recent rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain.
In June, the Ministry of Public Health issued a guide on halal food that authorities described as a “historic milestone.” According to a statement by the ministry, the importance of the guide “lies in clarifying the requirements of halal and verifying the validity, accuracy, and credibility of halal certificates” issued by licensed providers in the country.
On March 29, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the country’s male guardianship system that inhibits women’s freedom of travel, marriage choices, employment, and health decisions. According to the report, entitled “Everything I Do is Tied to a Man,” the country’s Family Law, as in many majority-Muslim-countries, is based on sharia, which treats marriages as contracts concluded by two mutually consenting parties” – although the report also states that “male guardianship is not unique to Islamic law and history.” The government issued a statement calling the report inaccurate, and social media users criticized the report, saying it contained neocolonialist overtones, assaults on Islam, and attacks on the country’s values and heritage.
According to the NGO Humanists International, the government funded, managed, and used the website Islam Web to “promote the Salafi literalist school of Sunni-Islam, a radical interpretation of Islam considered incompatible with the promotion of co-existence.” The NGO said that between its establishment by MEIA in 1998 and 2019, the site provided 245,000 fatwas and addressed 191,000 inquiries on topics related to culture, family, and the youth. “The website preaches in six languages: Arabic, English, French, Spanish, German, and soon, Indonesian. In January, a MEIA official said the website received two million visits every day.”
In May, the government organized an official visit to Doha of the leadership of the U.S. NGO Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, during which delegation members met with government officials, church leaders, and foreign missions to discuss the situation of religious freedom in the country.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On October 18, the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq published a column by author Ahmad al-Mohannadi warning against what he said were attempts by Christian organizations to penetrate Muslim-majority Persian Gulf societies via animated Bible-based missionary cartoons that are dubbed in Gulf dialects. He called for combating such attempts to save Muslim children from the expected impact of these videos.
In its 2021 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “There are two general categories [of Christians in country]: Christian foreigners, most of whom are migrant workers, and Christians who have converted from Islam. Foreign workers who are Christian are much freer to worship. Muslims who convert to Christianity face much more significant persecution. Converts from both indigenous and migrant backgrounds bear the brunt of persecution, and Qatari converts face very high pressure from their families.”
The NGO Middle East Concern stated on its website, “Expatriate Christians enjoy considerable freedom in Qatar, provided that their activities are restricted to designated compounds and, in particular, that they avoid interaction with Muslims that could be construed as proselytism.”
During an outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in May that coincided with the end of Ramadan, Al-Araby al-Jadeed, a London-based newspaper owned by Fedaat Media and based in Doha, published antisemitic editorial cartoons. One image showed “Israeli forces” shaped to resemble the COVID-19 virus in the courtyard of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, while another showed an Israeli soldier portrayed as some type of insect or monster dropping ordnance on buildings below, next to a sign saying, “escalation on the days of Eid.”
In September, press reported that the Ministry of Education said a private school in the country was facing legal action after it was found to be using an educational resource that included content contrary to Islam. The ministry said a parent of a student at the school alerted it on September 14 to the problematic curriculum. Government representatives visited the school and found it had not followed a ministry circular requiring schools to review new educational resources and submit them for ministry approval.
On July 20, a high profile Qatari social media figure who hosts a YouTube channel with more than 90,000 subscribers posted a video criticizing a Saudi government decision to allow a Saudi woman to compete against an Israeli in judo in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which were postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19), adding, “The Saudis made ‘a mockery of Islam and Muslims.” On August 26, he posted another video in which he stated Arab secularists dislike sharia punishments for certain offenses because they (secularists) are guilty of those offenses.
In his November 11 column in the newspaper Al-Sharq, Abdallah al-Amadi, former media advisor to the education minister, discussed at length a story in which God transformed the Jews into apes and pigs as punishment for violating their Sabbath. According to a Doha-based business group, Khalid Thani al-Thani, a member of the country’s royal family, owns the newspaper
On its website, Middle East Concern stated, “Qatari nationals or other Muslims who choose to leave Islam are likely to face strong family and societal pressure.”
A paper published by WINEP in January, based on an opinion survey in late 2020, stated that the “majority of Qataris express at least a ‘somewhat’ negative view of MB [Muslim Brotherhood],” although approval for the group in country (36 percent) was higher than in any other Arab state. Members of the small Shia community, whose members originated from Arab and Persian families who immigrated to the country in the twentieth century, reported that unlike previous generations, they faced no anti-Shia prejudice. Some community members said they attributed the currently warm relations with the Sunni majority to the country’s widespread prosperity, the high degree of societal integration, and to enlightened national leadership. Shia citizens included prominent wealthy members of the business community, among them the owner of one of the country’s larger conglomerates. The Shia community maintained husseiniyas (Shia prayer halls), in addition to mosques overseen by the government.
In December, social media campaigns criticized hotels for displaying Christmas decorations in their lobbies. Some Qatari citizens on social media condemned marking non-Islamic festivities and warned against the impacts of such displays on young generations. Some social media influencers posted messages discouraging congratulating non-Muslims on Christmas. Imams of a few mosques reportedly disseminated similar warnings in their Friday sermons.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy leadership met with the Prime Minister, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the officials of the government’s Communication Office to discuss the reopening of worship space for the Christian community; the free practice of faith by the Baha’i community as well as issues related to the residence status of the community; and other issues concerning religious tolerance and belief. U.S. government representatives raised concerns about antisemitism during the bilateral Strategic Dialogue in November.
Throughout the year, embassy leadership met with representatives of the Baha’i community to discuss ongoing concerns including the expulsion of lifelong members of the Baha’i community, allegations of unfair arrests, and lack of freedom to worship. Embassy representatives also met with the CCSC, which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern.
In August, embassy officials met with members of ECAQ to discuss the effects of the continuing lack of approval over the reopening of “villa” churches since March 2020. Embassy representatives attended Christmas services at an array of “villas” to show support for their activities.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided for under the law. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law bans “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In practice, there is limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious gatherings and public displays of non-Islamic religious symbols, but religious practitioners at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased sectarian tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations were marked by improved relations between the Shia and other communities and public calls for mutual tolerance. Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of the Shia community while carrying out security operations and legal proceedings against them specifically because of their religious beliefs. On June 15, authorities carried out a death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012. Government authorities stated al-Darwish received the sentence not for crimes he committed as a minor but rather for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult. As many as 41 individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), which stated that an undetermined number were Shia. On October 12, London-based human rights organization ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence of which he completed 15 years. On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA) fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations. In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020. The 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit and sell antisemitic publications. The fair permitted the sale of books about atheism as well.
Some social media platforms carried disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were found in some social media discourse. An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents. His social media posts depicted him in traditional Orthodox clothing and showed positive experiences with Saudis.
In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. Embassy officials engaged regularly with like-minded partners and with religious leaders and participated in interfaith discussions.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.8 million (midyear 2021). In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.
Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population.
According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 31.5 million Muslims, 2.1 million Christians, 708,000 Hindus, 242,000 atheists or agnostics, 114,000 Buddhists, and 67,00 Sikhs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam. The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.” The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.
The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. The law deems children born to Muslim fathers as Muslim.
The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the King. By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna. The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.
The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.
The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law also bans publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.
According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority. The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia. The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.” In the absence of a comprehensively codified criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.
In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would receive. In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount that a Muslim male would receive.
The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC. During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.
The law permits death as punishment for blasphemy against Islam. Courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.
In 2020, as the result of a Supreme Court decision, the government ended flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and replaced it with prison sentences or fines. As a result, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes. However, judicial officials have stated that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law): drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.
In 2020, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. The juvenile law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri (Islamic lunar) calendar. Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.
The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj. Saudi authorities continued to limit access to Mecca and Medina, including for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
The MOIA vets, employs, and supervises Sunni Muslim clerics. Those who preach at government-owned mosques are government employees who receive a monthly stipend. The MOIA permits only government-employed clerics to deliver sermons and vets the sermons in advance.
The MOIA must approve clerics traveling abroad to proselytize and they operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.
Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools must also follow the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students may receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week. The government permits private international schools to teach courses on other religions or civilizations.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The CPVPV provides counseling and reports individuals suspected of violating the law to police. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Muhammad.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.
A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”
Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Cyber Crimes Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine up to three million riyals ($800,000).
The government requires noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicate other religious designations, such as “Christian.”
The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. NGOs and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities. While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.
On February 7, according to NGOs, the government commuted the death sentences of Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher and Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016) to 10 years in prison. On October 27 and November 16, authorities released Shia youths Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher following completion of their 10-year prison sentences. Al-Nimr and al-Zaher, along with Dawood al-Marhoon, who remained imprisoned, were among a group of 13 Shia youth previously arrested as minors who faced possible execution, according to ESOHR. The government reviewed their sentences as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in 2020 abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors. In a March 3 statement, UN human rights experts welcomed the government’s decision to commute the death sentences given to the three men “for crimes allegedly committed when they were less than 18 years old.” The statement also said the government should “quash” the convictions and release the three men.
The news website Middle East Eye reported that authorities arrested Ali al-Nimr’s father Mohammed Bakr al-Nimr on February 24 in his home in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah. The government released Mohammed al-Nimr on February 26. The reason for his detention was not known.
On February 8, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), prosecutors amended charges against eight Shia detainees, seeking prison sentences rather than the death penalty for five of the eight – Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al-Bati, Mohammed Hussein al-Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj – who were minors at the time of the alleged commission of the offenses. The remaining defendants were Haidar al-Saffar, Hussein Saeed al-Subaiti, and Mujtaba Abu Kabus. According to ESOHR, in October, the government dropped the request for the death penalty against the five younger prisoners, but all eight still face trial. The men faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.” According to ESOHR, in late October, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which focuses on terrorism and national security cases, held a new hearing in the case of eight detainees, including the five minors. The NGO stated the hearing was the first after a break of more than seven months.
On February 10, the SCC sentenced Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 for participating in antigovernment protests, to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban, according to ALQST and Amnesty International. The SCC also sentenced al-Ghomgham’s husband, Mousa al-Hashim, to 17 years. The court sentenced four other Shia arrested along with them to prison, with sentences ranging from eight to 15 years: Ahmed al-Matrood received a sentence of 15 years, Khaled al-Ghanim 13 years, Ali al-Ouwaisher 10 years, and Mujtaba al-Muzain eight years.
On August 24, SANAD Rights Organization, a London-based human rights NGO, reported that Shia prisoner Mustafa al-Khayat, convicted on charges involving demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, awaited a death sentence upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020.
In February and March, authorities released three activists who had written about discrimination faced by Shia in the country, pending trial. According to an April tweet by Prisoners of Conscience, the government also released one of the men’s wives, who – like her husband – had been held for two years. In October, authorities found one of the men guilty under the Cyber Crimes Law and sentenced him to two years in jail, followed by a two-year travel ban. The judge ruled that the defendant would be credited with two years of time served but that the travel ban would remain in effect.
As many as 41 Shia individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR. The report added that trials of 32 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing, with 10 of them facing preliminary death sentences. As is the case for detainees of any religious group, international human rights NGOs said that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.
On June 15, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012 and charged with membership in a terror cell and participation in an armed revolt. Authorities stated that al-Darwish received the death penalty for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult. Reprieve, a London-based NGO opposed to the death penalty, said that Darwish’s execution “once again show[ed] that the Kingdom’s claim to have eliminated capital punishment for childhood crimes is not true.” The NGO said that the government told the UN Human Rights Council in February that “anyone who commits a death-eligible crime as a child” will be subject to “a maximum sentence of 10 years in a juvenile institution.” Reprieve also said that Darwish’s execution was contrary to a 2020 Royal Decree that abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors and capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years. On May 28, prior to al-Darwish’s execution, UN experts called on the government to halt the process leading to his eventual death, stating that authorities sentenced him for crimes when he was younger than the age of 18 and that the government did not provide due process and a fair trial. Following al-Darwish’s execution, on July 7, the UN experts stated that they were “shocked” after the government did not address their May 28 concerns and that the government’s failure to provide details to his family about his execution inflicted “additional, unjustifiable, and useless pain” on his loved ones.
On August 3, authorities executed Shia Ahmed al-Janabi under a ta’zir sentence for armed rebellion and protesting against the state in Shia-majority Qatif. On September 6, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Adnan al-Sharfa for joining a terrorist cell that aimed to “destabilize security in the country” and smuggling.
On July 1, ESOHR said at least four individuals accused of crimes committed as minors remained on death row, including Shia Jalal Hassan al-Labbad. ESOHR reported on December 3 that Labbad was still at risk of execution. Authorities sought the hudood penalty against Labbad in 2019 for hirabeh (unlawful warfare or insurgency) on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor.
In May, the NGOs Shia Rights Watch (SRW), Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), ALQST, and SANAD each reported that Shia Zaheer Ali Sharida al-Mohammed Ali died on May 8 in al-Hai’r Prison. They blamed prison authorities’ medical negligence for Ali’s death and said he contracted COVID-19 in April.
In August, the SCC upheld a ta’zir death sentence issued on February 21 against Shia citizen Mohammed al-Shakhouri, according to ESOHR and UN experts. Authorities arrested al-Shakhouri in 2017 and tried him in 2019 on charges of destabilizing the social fabric and national cohesion by calling for sit-ins and demonstrations and chanting antistate slogans. The government also charged him with possession of arms, as well as photos and information of individuals classified as terrorists. According to an August 27 letter by UN experts to the government, the appeals court upheld this verdict on August 2, and at year’s end the case was pending before the Supreme Court.
In the same August 27 letter to the government, the UN experts raised the case of Asaad Makki Shubbar, a Shia citizen, whom, according to the experts’ letter, authorities arrested in Asir Province in 2017 and held without trial for more than two years, subjecting him to “various types of torture and ill-treatment.” According to the letter, interrogators reportedly used “sectarian terms denigrating minority Shia believers and insulted [Shubbar’s] religious beliefs.” In 2019, the government charged him with several crimes under the counterterrorism law, including joining a group from Qatif in acts of sabotage, participating in demonstrations, chanting slogans, and calling for participation in demonstrations and sit-ins. The SCC sentenced Shubbar to death in January and, in July, the Specialized Appeals Court upheld his sentence. At year’s end, the case was pending before the Supreme Court.
On November 1, the Saudi Press Agency, citing MOI, reported that a ta’zir death sentence had been carried out against Makki Kazem al-Obeid in Damman. The ministry statement said that al-Obeid participated in attacks against security forces and was “linked to people wanted for terrorism-related activities.” The Committee for Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula “condemned the Saudi regime’s execution” of al-Obeid and said that he was a “Shia prisoner of conscience.”
In February, media reported authorities arrested 65-year-old Aisha al-Muhajiri, reportedly because she continued to preach and teach the Quran at her home in Mecca. Authorities also arrested two other women along with al-Muhajiri, one of whom, according to a news site, was 80 years old.
ALQST alleged in March 2021 that the health of imprisoned Shia cleric Mohammad al-Habib was deteriorating due to neglect. He was closely associated with Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016.
During the year, the SCC held several hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. Earlier in 2017, a criminal court convicted and sentenced al-Maliki to three months on charges of extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology. In December 2020, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor had sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reported by multiple sources, and thus deemed especially reliable). According to HRW, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.
The SCC continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam. The accused included prominent scholars of Islam Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them.
Amnesty International reported in August that authorities tried al-Odah before the SCC in a secret session, where they charged him with 37 counts. Amnesty International reported that since 2018, courts scheduled more than 10 hearings on his case, which were postponed for months at a time, with no clear explanation being provided to al-Odah or his family. Al-Odah’s son stated in a July tweet that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during four years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence. In July, his son said that authorities had denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls for almost a year. According to HRW, authorities barred 18 members of al-Odah’s family from traveling abroad since his arrest. In a report released in August, al-Odah’s son Salman told Amnesty International “No legal process or court was involved in the bans against my family, and no reason was given by any authority. The bans are mainly to pressure me into silence, even when I’m overseas, and to further pressure my father in jail.” In February, UN experts called for an explanation for the repeated postponements of his trial and asked for information regarding his “right to physical and mental health while detained.”
During the year, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics, religious leaders, and academics arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views and increased prison sentences previously issued against some of them, including Nasser al-Omar, Mohammed Mousa al-Shareef, Waleed al-Huwairini, Mohammed al-Bishr, Ali Badahdah, Yousef al-Ahmed, and Khalid al-Muhawish. At the time of their arrests, the government said those arrested had ties to a “foreign spy cell” and the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between four and 10 years in prison.
On August 24, SANAD reported that the government continued to detain Sheikh Saad Matar al-Otaibi, a scholar in Islamic politics and public policy and popular preacher on national TV, whom authorities arrested in 2017.
On April 15, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC commuted prison sentences against clerics Dr. Adel Bana’ma, Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, and Sheikh Ali Badahdah to four years from eight, five, and six years, respectively. On August 16, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted and on August 24 SANAD confirmed that authorities released Sheikh Khaled al-Ajeemi, whom authorities arrested in 2017, due to failing health. On November 24, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that authorities extended al-Harthi’s sentence to eight years.
On June 24, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC increased the prison sentence of religious leader Sheikh Yousef al-Ahmed from four to 13 years. In December 2020, the SCC sentenced al-Ahmed to four years in prison and a four-year travel ban on charges that included visiting prisoners of conscience and appearing in a television show hosted by Fahd al-Sunaidi, who is also serving a four-year prison sentence.
In November, ALQST reported that authorities detained Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, son of missing preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish, after he asked about the whereabouts of his father. On November 10, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted authorities held a secret trial of Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, which took place without his family or legal representation being present. Officials had previously arrested his brother, Abdulwahhab al-Dowaish, in August, according to ALQST. The NGOs DAWN and MENA Rights Group reported that security personnel arrested Sulaiman al-Dowaish in 2016 after he posted several tweets summarizing a religious lecture he delivered that day during a trip to Mecca that warned about the dangers of individuals providing their sons with great privileges and responsibilities without proper oversight and accountability. In March, ALQST reported that it obtained and confirmed information that high-ranking officials “brutally tortured” preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish after his 2016 disappearance. ALQST stated that the last reported sighting of al-Dowaish was in July 2018, and that nothing has been heard of him since then.
On September 1, ESOHR stated that from 2016 through the end of August 2021, the bodies of at least 88 persons executed or killed in Saudi security raids, including nine minors and three foreigners, were not returned for burial.
According to NGOs and Shia community members, prison officials held Shia inmates in some cases in separate wings of prisons, and they reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.
According to ESOHR, authorities detained Shia cleric Mojtaba al-Nimr on June 6 at King Fahd Airport when he returned from a trip to the Shia holy city of Qom in Iran. Mojtaba al-Nimr is a member of executed sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s family, although their exact relationship remained unclear.
Prisoners of Conscience reported that on September 14, authorities arrested Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud, a former professor of Islamic faith at Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, on charges that were not made public. There was no update on his case at the end of the year.
On October 12, ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence, of which he completed 15 years. “Qarni was subjected to brutal torture, and the Saudi authorities deliberately harmed him by giving him unsuitable medication,” ALQST said on Twitter, adding that it “questions the causes of death & calls for an international investigation.” Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that al-Qarni died after “extremist prisoners” had beaten him and that prison authorities had refused his request to be housed with other older prisoners. In addition, the authorities waited three days to inform al-Qarni’s family of his death. SANAD stated that authorities did not allow al-Qarni’s family to see his body before his funeral. In November, Prisoners of Conscience reported that prison authorities had beaten and withheld medicines from another prisoner arrested with al-Qarni in 2007, Mukhtar al-Hashimi.
In July, the website Together for Justice reported there were no updates since 2020 regarding the arrest of Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and imam of the Mansour al-Shuaibi Mosque in the al-Salama neighborhood of Jeddah. The site stated that until his detention was confirmed in September 2020, a month after his arrest, Basfar had not appeared before any court. On December 8, Prisoners of Conscience reported that Basfar remained in detention. At the time of Basfar’s arrest, observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk and that when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views counter to government policy.
In 2020, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities had arrested Saud al-Fanisan, the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, on undisclosed charges earlier in the year. In November, Prisoners of Conscience and SANAN both reported that the SCC had sentenced the 85-year-old al-Fanisan to two years’ imprisonment.
Several human rights NGOs signed a letter publicly calling on the government to return the remains of individuals executed in 2019 in connection with “terrorism crimes.” At the time, HRW reported that at least 33 of the 37 citizens executed by the government were from the country’s Shia minority. ESOHR reported that at the time authorities carried out the sentences, at least six of those executed were minors, a statement which the government denied. Separately, in August, SANAD reported that authorities were refusing the family of executed Shia activist Yousef al-Mushaikhis access to his remains. The government executed al-Mushaikhis in 2017, after arresting him in 2014.
According to an August 16 tweet sent by Prisoners of Conscience, the government sentenced three sons of prominent religious scholar Safar al-Hawali to four years in prison. Authorities arrested the three men, along with their father, his brother, and another son on undisclosed charges in 2018. In 2019, officials released the youngest son, after detaining him for seven months. According to the website Middle East Monitor, authorities charged Safar al-Hawali, in his seventies and facing chronic health issues, although details of the charges remained unknown. In an August 24 post, SANAD stated that a family member reported that one of the three brothers, Abdullah, had serious medical concerns, due in part to having only one kidney and to prison conditions. In a separate post, SANAD noted that in addition to the sentences given to Safar al-Hawali’s three sons, authorities also sentenced his brother, Saadallah, and his office manager, Ismail Hassan, to three and a half year sentences.
The SCC sentenced well-known preacher Nasser al-Omar to 10 years in prison. Authorities arrested al-Omar in 2018. He was a professor at the Faculty of Fundamentals of Religion at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, near Riyadh. Like Safar al-Hawali, he was associated with the Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) movement.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, in an April 27 televised interview, cautioned against adherence to one particular school of Islamic jurisprudence or Islamic scholarship. He said any Saudi with extremist views, even if that person had not yet committed a crime, “is a criminal and will face the full force of the law.” In the same interview, the Crown Prince said no sharia punishment could be enforced without a clear Quranic stipulation or an explicit stipulation from the Sunna. He also stated that only hadith were to be enforced.
The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.
At year’s end, authorities continued to imprison Raif Badawi based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols. In a June 18 post on its website, the NGO Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans Frontiers, or RSF) stated that the government continued to hold Badawi in solitary confinement and limited his contact with the outside world to two phone calls per week with his wife and children, were living in Canada. According to RSF, authorities monitored these calls, which were very short and sometimes suddenly disconnected. Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes, as well as a one million riyal ($267,000) fine. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes. The Supreme Court directed that flogging be ended in 2020.
According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end. It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.
In June, media reported that the Saudi Zakat, Tax, and Customs Authority said a customs officer at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam thwarted an attempt by an air traveler to smuggle suspected sorcery-related pieces into the kingdom. Authorities referred the smuggler and the seized items for possible prosecution.
In March, a Christian convert faced two court cases as well as threats of violence against him and his family, according to media reports. Authorities charged the man in court on March 11 with trying to convert Muslims after he allegedly discussed his own conversion to Christianity. A second court case, on March 26, concerned financial assistance he gave his sister, also a convert to Christianity, for her and her children to flee the country.
On November 17, RSF called for the immediate release of Yemeni journalist Ali Aboluhom, who received a 15-year prison sentence for tweets that, according to Saudi authorities, promoted apostasy, atheism, and blasphemy. According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, the Criminal Court in Najran sentenced Aboluhom on October 26 to 10 years in prison after convicting him of apostasy and atheism, and another five years in prison for publishing his writings on social media networks that “would prejudice public order, religious values, and morals.”
On November 23, local media reported that Public Prosecutor Sheikh Saud al-Muajab issued an order to arrest a man who posted a video on his Twitter account that showed him making remarks insulting the Divine Essence.
On September 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the Supreme Court increased prison sentences issued by the SCC against three clerics and academics: Sanhat al-Otaibi from four years to eight years, Ibrahim al-Nasser from three months to three years, and Omar al-Muqbil from six months to four years. In August, the NGO Together for Justice reported that authorities arrested al-Nasser in 2017 but did not disclose charges. Authorities arrested al-Muqbil in 2019 for criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority, calling them a threat to the country’s culture.
Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.
The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities. Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.
In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer.
Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances, such as prayers.
On May 23, the MOIA instructed mosques to set loudspeakers at only one-third of the maximum volume and limited the use of loudspeakers for the call for prayers and to signal for prayers to start. The MOIA mandated that full prayers and sermons could not be broadcast via loudspeaker. The MOIA said the changes were a response to complaints from the public, including from the elderly and parents whose children’s sleep was disrupted. On May 28, the MOIA modified its decree to allow use of loudspeakers during Eid and Friday prayers. On July 19, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested academic and legal advisor Dr. Omar Abdullah al-Saadoun for an article criticizing the decision to restrict the use of loudspeakers.
On March 17, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that domestic pilgrims between the ages of 18 and 70 would be allowed to perform Umrah. On April 8, an official source at the MOI said pilgrims who performed Umrah without a permit during the month of Ramadan would be fined 10,000 riyals ($2,700), along with a 1,000 riyal ($270) fine for anyone entering the Holy Mosque in Mecca without a permit. On June 12, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that it would limit the 2021 Hajj to approximately 60,000 vaccinated pilgrims, all living in-country, who had to be free of chronic diseases and be between the ages of 18 and 65. On August 7, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said the country would begin receiving Umrah pilgrimage requests from abroad for vaccinated pilgrims starting August 9 after nearly 18 months of barring overseas pilgrims due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Foreign Umrah pilgrims who took two approved doses of Covid-19 no longer needed to be institutionally quarantined upon arrival. On September 7, the ministry announced it increased the number of Umrah pilgrims to 70,000 per day under a plan to gradually raise capacity to two million per month. As of September 14, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah no longer required a quarantine or a negative COVID-19 test result prior to issuing a permit to perform prayers at the Holy Mosque in Medina. On September 18, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that 10 million pilgrims performed Umrah since October 4, 2020, following the launch of its “safe Umrah” procedures and the gradual return of pilgrims to the two Holy Mosques. On October 25, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah would no longer be required to wait for 14 days to book for the ritual.
On June 13, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah allowed women to attend without a male guardian as long as they performed the pilgrimage with other groups of women. Some pilgrimage service providers announced they would not accept women without a guardian. Some companies reportedly charged women more than men.
Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population. According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities. They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance. In May, local media reported that the community in the Eastern Province observed the anniversary of the death of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (the first of the Twelve Imams) in Shia mosques and husseiniyas (prayer halls). In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents. Shia activists reported that security authorities closed some Shia mosques and husseiniyas in Qatif and al-Ahsa, summoned the individuals in charge, and fined them 60,000 riyals ($16,000) for violating COVID-19 precautionary measures.
The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons. The MOIA does not vet sermons in advance, but imams must choose from a list of Friday sermons on the MOIA website. The ministry restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. The MOIA may also issue circular notes directing all imams to dedicate their Friday sermons to certain topics, such as denouncing political Islam groups. In this regard, MOIA supervisors may attend Friday sermons to ensure compliance with MOIA directives. According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval. However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.
On October 22, the website Arabi21 reported that MOIA Minister Abdul Latif al-Sheikh directed mosque preachers to dedicate the Friday sermon to warn against “Sururi” thought and the “terrorist al-Sururiya organization, which pursues secrecy to reach its goals, foremost of which is inciting people to revolt against the rulers, divide the Muslim community, sow division among them, and spread wars in their countries.” Commentators have referred to Sururism as a movement that is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, representing a blend of the country’s Wahhabi movement and Salafi jihadism.
On December 6, the MOIA said in a tweet that Minister al-Sheikh directed imams to use Friday sermons on December 10 to warn against the Tablighi and Da’wah group, a transnational Islamic revivalist movement that originated in India and also known as al-Ahbab. The minister directed that the sermon cover topics that included a declaration of “the misguidance, deviation and danger of this group, and that it is one of the gates of terrorism, even if they claim otherwise,” mentioning its prominent mistakes and its “danger to society,” and a statement that affiliation with partisan groups, “including (the Tablighi and Da’wah Group), is prohibited in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used antisemitic, anti-Shia, and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. The MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings and in unsanctioned sermons in areas of the country lacking government monitoring.
According to a January 3 report in the newspaper Okaz, the government fired seven imams and preachers in al-Bahah Province for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by the MOIA. On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the MOIA fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations. In September, the Minister of Islamic Affairs said the MOIA had purged religious institutions of individuals who had adopted extremist ideologies.
The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.
On April 15, former imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani tweeted that authorities dismissed him without reason as imam of a Riyadh mosque. His dismissal came hours after he appeared in a video announcing that he contracted COVID-19, despite receiving two doses of the vaccine.
On April 25, the Mirat al-Jazeera news website reported that authorities demolished the Shia al-Ahd Mosque in Qatif, which authorities said was part of a road expansion project. The website described the action as “part of an arbitrary and systematic sectarian campaign” aimed at the Shia community.
On June 27, according to ALQST, authorities released orator Mohammed Bou Jabara [Bojbara] on completion of a nine-month prison sentence. Security forces arrested Bojbara in October 2020 with eight other young persons on charges related to his participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after Ashura and the death of Imam Hussein). The same day, authorities released Shia activist Nassima al-Sadah upon completion of a three-year sentence, although a three-year travel ban remained in effect following her release.
Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained prohibited. Shia community members reported that authorities permitted Shia pilgrims to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj.
In a July 16 circular, Ajlan bin Abdul Aziz al-Ajlan, the head of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, announced that the country would allow shops to remain open during prayer times, explaining that the measure was intended to “improve the shopping experience and the level of services for shoppers and clients.” Commenting on the decision, Ali Sameer Shihabi, a commentator on Middle East politics and economics with a focus on Saudi Arabia, tweeted that keeping shops open during prayer time was a “hugely symbolic and practical step to end the dominance of the religious class in daily life.”
On August 30, the Minister of Islamic Affairs instructed all mosques to remove books that called for extremism and partisanship and banned unlicensed preaching activities, including proselytizing non-Muslims without permission. The minister also directed mosque officials to participate in “intellectual security” courses (aimed at countering extremist ideologies) held by MOIA or other state agencies.
On May 18, the CPVPV presidency tweeted a fatwa by CSS member Sheikh Fouzan al-Fouzan obligating citizens to report to government authorities anyone who criticized the government and religious scholars.
On January 1, CPVPV head Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sanad said in an interview with al Arabiya that the CPVPV fired hundreds of employees after reports confirmed that they embraced extremist ideologies.
Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas existed in areas inhabited by Shia residents. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas. MOIA maintained a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.
While authorities indicated that they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and community members said the mainly foreign-resident Ahmadi Muslims hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.
The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. On May 10, local media reported that the CPVPV in Riyadh Province intensified its field presence in markets and malls during the last 10 days of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.
The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.
According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty. There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran available only to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.
The government continued a multiyear project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. On February 15, an HRW statement said the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language.
In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, IMPACT-se reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020. According to IMPACT-SE, officials either removed or altered 22 anti-Christian and antisemitic lessons and five lessons about “infidels” and polytheists. The NGO reported that this removal included an entire textbook unit on the possible need for violent jihad to spread Islam and protect Muslim lands and praising it as an act of piety. Specifically, IMPACT-se stated that officials altered several lessons that explicitly blamed “the Jews” as a collective for attacking Muslims and Muhammad, instead attributing responsibility to Arabian tribes and in some cases removing references altogether; in addition, they removed references to forbidding friendships with Jews and Christians, formerly referred to as “infidels, as they are enemies of God.” The NGO also reported that authorities removed a series of ahistorical, harmful, and in some cases antisemitic assertions, such as Jewish connections to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount being fabricated by rabbis, and purported Jewish threats to the al-Aqsa Mosque.
In February, HRW noted separately that the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language but said current texts continued to disparage practices associated with religious minorities. HRW’s comprehensive review of Education Ministry-produced textbooks for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years found that they still stigmatized as un-Islamic and prohibited some practices associated with the Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions.
On January 27, the head of the General Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques inaugurated a Mediation and Moderation Academy in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with the goals of fighting extremist thoughts and promoting mediation and moderation in all aspects of life, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
On March 16, the Ministry of Education announced the establishment of intellectual awareness units in all universities and education departments that were intended “to promote loyalty to religion,” “to spread the values of moderation, tolerance and coexistence, and to prevent extremist thought and address its effects.”
Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import Bibles for personal use. There were no reports that the government confiscated personal, non-Islamic religious materials. Media reported the confiscation of sorcery-related items.
The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the Cyber Crimes Law. The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.
Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.
According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against members of Muslim religious minorities, notably Shia, including in the justice system, education, and employment.
At year’s end, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who assumed the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs in 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia as members, to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa. In both cities, five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.
Shia reported the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for employment credit for graduates of Shia religious training centers and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.
According to human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals were Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.
The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons. The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.
The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and authorities required Shia communities to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. There were no licensed Shia mosques in Jeddah and Riyadh. Shia in those areas were obliged to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where, some Shia said, they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia resident in the country reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.
State security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Media and other sources additionally reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.
Reports from Shia community members cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in Qatif and al-Ahsa. Community members reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.
Observers stated that judges at times discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. In certain circumstances, the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man.
The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.
In November, King Salman issued a royal approval to grant Saudi citizenship to Shia Islamic scholar and the Secretary General of the Arab Islamic Council in Lebanon Mohammed al-Husseini, along with 26 other Sunni religious scholars, academics, and physicians. According to the press, the King offered citizenship “in recognition of their distinguished services and outstanding contributions.”
There is no religious worker visa category, but non-Muslim clergy were able to enter the country to minister to their communities. Non-Muslim clergy also were able to bring religious items, including books, when traveling.
In May, local media reported that authorities removed the “Muslims only” phrase from traffic signs leading to the Holy Mosque in Medina, adding that the signs now read “Haram area,” in reference to Medina’s Haram, or sacred site. Authorities did not comment on the decision, but media reports attributed it to the kingdom’s efforts to promote moderation.
The Crown Prince announced in February a series of judicial reforms intended to codify the law to increase transparency and predictability in judicial decision-making.
According to an October 5 posting on its website, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that the 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit more than two dozen well-known antisemitic books for sale, including numerous editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. According to the ADL, other antisemitic books permitted at the 2021 fair featured references to blood libel, Holocaust denial, Jewish-Masonic conspiracy theories, and portrayals of Jews as evil puppet masters and the killers of divine prophets. The NGO also reported that there were two books demonizing the Baha’i Faith and Yezidism. Other observers reported that the fair permitted the sale of publications about atheism.
According to the ADL, following violence in Jerusalem between Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque and Israeli police, General President for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a May 11 sermon praying for God to “keep the al-Aqsa Mosque, God keep them from the attacker Zionists, the occupying, combatant brutes.” He added, “We seek refuge in you from their butchery and seek protection in you from their evils and all the rest of the enemies of religion.” The same day, Sheikh Salah al-Badir, an imam of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, delivered a sermon calling for God to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque from the usurper Jews and the traitorous occupying Zionists.”
On May 12, on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a member of the CSS, delivered a sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca calling on God to “grant victory to our brothers in Palestine over your enemy and their enemy.” He called for God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the occupier Zionists.” Saudi state television broadcast the sermon and promoted it on social media. In an Eid sermon at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, al-Humaid urged God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the befoulment of Jews. Oh God, it is incumbent upon you to deal with the usurper Jews and the aggressor Zionists.”
On May 13, separate Eid al-Adha sermons delivered at the Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina urged God to free the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from “usurping Zionists” and “occupying Jews.” On May 14, Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Mahir al-Muayqali likewise concluded his Friday sermon with a prayer to God to free al-Aqsa from “usurping, occupying Jews.” On June 11, Chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to free al-Aqsa from the “usurping occupiers.” On July 30, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping, occupying Zionist Jews.”
On April 8, local media reported that Mohammed al-Issa, the Secretary General of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), sent a letter to Facebook and Twitter urging them to combat Islamophobia. The letter was part of a campaign to denounce hate in social media platforms and curb anti-Muslim rhetoric.
On June 11, the MWL convened a Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan Conference, bringing together senior scholars from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to discuss topics such as peace, tolerance, moderation, and reconciliation in Islam.
On August 4, the MWL sponsored talks in Mecca involving approximately 80 Iraqi Sunni and Shia representatives. The two sides renewed calls for an end to sectarian violence and attacks on houses of worship, the release of innocent detainees, and the return of displaced persons to their homes.
On October 19, al-Issa and World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald Lauder met with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, urging him to advocate for religious freedom and an end to violence against houses of worship. On October 4, the MWL and WJC made a joint statement before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, pledging an interfaith commitment to promote and to protect human rights for all. It was the first time Jewish and Muslim representative groups presented a coordinated statement before a UN body.
On October 20, al-Issa met with students during a visit to Yeshiva University in New York, saying that religious communities “have a shared responsibility toward followers of different faiths to build bridges and improve relationships.” In a March video address to an online conference organized by the U.S. Department of Defense, al-Issa said that there was now greater awareness in the Muslim world of the dangers posed by political Islam, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In January, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi created controversy when he tweeted that Muslims could pray for mercy for non-Muslims, explaining that there was no religious text prohibiting such prayer.
In January, a group of Israeli drivers traveled to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Dakar Rally race, despite a ban on Israeli travelers to the country. On February 2, the English-language newspaper Arab News ran the first-ever op-ed in a Saudi newspaper authored by Israeli writers. In March, local media reported that the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities arranged the shipment of 650 pounds of matzah and kosher food to all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, for Passover.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but local residents said self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals. While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media was believed to be widespread when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family. Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms like “rejectionists” (referring to Shia who view as illegitimate the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Muhammad’s legitimate successors) which Shia consider insulting, and images of donkeys, comparing them to Shia, were occasionally found in social media discourse.
An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents. His social media posts depict him in traditional Orthodox clothing and show positive experiences with Saudis, whom he publicly described as “happy” to have a rabbi in the kingdom. International media described local residents as stopping to take photographs with the rabbi and offering Hebrew greetings.
Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.
On October 31, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) told the Saudi-owned al Arabiya English-language news channel that the first-ever Jewish dating website, JSG, which stands for “Jewish Singles in the Gulf,” launched in the Gulf. The aim of the website is to help unmarried Jews living in the country and its neighboring countries meet each other.
The global consulting firm PSB Insights conducted a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 35 percent of Saudi Arabian respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, consistent with 34 percent regionwide. Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires, as well as embassy and consulate officials, engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance issues. Embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, the National Society for Human Rights, members of the Shura Council, the National Committee for Interreligious and Multicultural Dialogue, the MFA, the MWL, the Ministry of Education, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior U.S. officials pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.
In meetings with government officials, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to inquire about the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns with members of religious minority communities, including Shia and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents. Embassy officials attended or sought access to a number of trials related to religious freedom. The embassy and Department of State officials also engaged Saudi officials regarding these detainees.
Embassy representatives also met with non-Islamic religious leaders to discuss their ability to gather and practice their faith. Embassy officials engaged regularly with like-minded partners and with religious leaders and participate in interfaith discussions and express support for the principles of tolerance and interfaith comity.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Most areas of the country beyond greater Mogadishu remain outside federal government control. Federal Member State (FMS) administrations, including Puntland, Jubaland, South West State, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and self-declared independent Somaliland, govern their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but do not fully control them. Somaliland’s constitution declares Islam the state religion, prohibits Muslims from converting to another religion, bars the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and requires all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia. According to several Christian advocacy groups working in the region, on January 25, Somaliland police in Hargeisa arrested six local residents on charges of offenses against the state religion and inciting others to disobey laws relating to public order. On August 5, a Hargeisa court dismissed all charges against the group and released them immediately. The Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education continued to implement its curriculum, declaring that a secular education with a focus on Islamic values and instruction in Somali was important in order to counter efforts by the terrorist group al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law.
During the year, the terrorist group al-Shabaab attacked government-linked forces and targets throughout the country and pressured noncombatants to support the group’s extremist ideology. According to media reports, al-Shabaab killed, injured, or harassed persons for a variety of reasons, including failure to adhere to the group’s religious edicts. During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, Somali security forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christian crusaders” intent on invading and occupying the country. During the year, the group conducted public executions of persons whom the group accused of committing crimes such as sorcery and spying, according to local and international press reports. Al-Shabaab continued its practice of targeting humanitarian aid workers, often accusing them of seeking to convert individuals to Christianity. Compared with the same period in 2020, there was a decrease in violence against aid workers. From January to October, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Access Unit recorded at least 194 security incidents that directly affected humanitarian operations, with two aid workers killed, eight injured, 11 detained, and one abducted.
Strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions continued. Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas. Those suspected of conversion reportedly faced harassment by members of their community.
Travel by U.S. government officials remained limited to select areas when security conditions permitted. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom remained focused on supporting efforts to bring stability and reestablish rule of law, in addition to advocating for freedom of speech and assembly.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.1 million (midyear 2021). Other sources, including the Federal Government of Somalia, estimate the population to be at least 15.7 million. According to the Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. According to the World Atlas, members of other religious groups combined constitute less than 1 percent of the population and include a small Christian community of approximately 1,000, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and those not affiliated with any religion.
The Somali Bantu population, the majority of whom are Muslim, largely inhabits the southern and central regions of the country near the Shabelle and Jubba Rivers. Some Somali Bantu also maintain traditional animist beliefs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The PFC provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion but prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam. It states all citizens, regardless of religion, have equal rights and duties before the law but establishes Islam as the state religion and requires laws to comply with sharia principles. While the PFC does not explicitly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions, sharia has been interpreted to forbid conversion from Islam. No exemptions from application of sharia legal principles exist for non-Muslims under the law.
Somaliland’s constitution makes Islam the state religion, prohibits Muslims from converting, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Other administrations, including Galmudug, Hirshabelle, Jubaland, and South West State, have constitutions identifying Islam as the official religion. These constitutions stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Galmudug, Hirshabelle, and South West State do not have laws directly addressing religious freedom.
The national penal code generally remains valid in all regions of the country. It does not prohibit conversion from Islam to another religion, but it criminalizes blasphemy and “defamation of Islam,” which carry penalties of up to two years in prison. Given sharia’s role as the ostensible basis for national laws and the prohibition under Islamic jurisprudence for Muslims’ conversion to other religions, the relationship among sharia, the PFC, and the penal code remains unclear.
The PFC requires the President, but not other office holders, to be Muslim. The Somaliland constitution requires Somaliland’s President and candidates for Vice President and the House of Representatives to be Muslim.
The judiciary in most areas relies on xeer (traditional and customary law), sharia, and the penal code. Xeer is believed to predate Islamic and colonial traditions, and in many areas, elders will look to local precedents of xeer before examining relevant sharia references. Each area individually regulates and enforces religious expression, often inconsistently. In areas controlled by al-Shabaab, sharia is the only formally recognized legal system, although reports indicate that xeer is applied in some cases. The PFC recognizes xeer as a mechanism for dispute resolution. In 2017, the federal government adopted a traditional dispute resolution policy that mainstreams the application of xeer but limits its application to mediating “nonserious” crimes. The application of xeer to criminal matters is not standardized.
The Somaliland constitution prohibits the formation of political parties based on a particular religious group, religious beliefs, or interpretation of religious doctrine, while the PFC and the constitutions of other FMS administrations do not contain this prohibition.
The Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs has legal authority to register religious groups. Guidance on how to register or what is required is inconsistent. The ministry has no ability to enforce such requirements outside of Mogadishu. Somaliland has no mechanism to register religious organizations and no specific requirements to register Islamic groups. Other FMS administrations have no mechanism to register religious organizations.
In Somaliland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Somaliland Ministry of Religion. Somaliland law does not articulate consequences for operating without permission. Other FMS administrations require formal places of worship and religious schools to obtain permission to operate from local authorities.
The Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs is responsible for monitoring religious affairs and promoting religious tolerance between practitioners of Islam and members of minority religious groups. Specific responsibilities of the ministry include arranging affairs for Somali Hajj pilgrims and developing messaging to counter al-Shabaab ideology. It also has the mandate to regulate religious instruction throughout the country. The law requires Islamic instruction in all schools, public or private. Private schools have more flexibility in determining their curricula. These schools must request approval from the Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education; however, requests are infrequent. Non-Muslim students attending public schools may request an exemption from Islamic instruction, but according to federal and FMS authorities, there have been no such requests.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.
The federal government continued to confront multiple challenges, including a persistent threat from al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization that promotes extreme interpretations of Islamic doctrine, including through violence, a stalemate in relations with the FMS governments, and attempts by external actors to increase influence at the subnational level. Despite the government’s reported attempts to strengthen governance, reform key security institutions, and carry out operations to combat al-Shabaab, the terrorist group continued to carry out attacks regularly in the capital and to control areas throughout the southern part of the country.
Federal and FMS governments maintained bans on the propagation of religions other than Islam. The federal government reportedly continued not to strictly enforce the registration requirement for religious groups opening schools for lay or religious instruction.
According to several Christian advocacy groups working in the region, on January 25, Somaliland police in Hargeisa arrested six local residents on charges of offenses against the state religion (Islam) and inciting others to disobey laws relating to public order. Three of them were also charged with apostasy and with spreading and teaching Christianity. These groups stated that Somaliland authorities denied their lawyers access to their clients ahead of the trial. On August 5, a Hargeisa court dismissed all charges against the group and released them immediately.
The Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education continued to implement its national curriculum framework, declaring that a secular education with a focus on Islamic values and instruction in Somali was important in order to counter efforts by the terrorist group al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law. In February, parliament adopted the Education Act which harmonized the structure of the education system, including religious education. This includes Somali as the language of instruction for primary school, Islamic religious instruction at all levels, and Arabic-language Islamic religion courses beginning at the primary level. Muslim clerics approved the new materials and trained teachers in Islamic ethics, according to ministry representatives.
Al-Shabaab continued to use insurgency tactics against the government and its foreign partners, striking civilian and military targets repeatedly. On January 31, al-Shabaab carried out a car bomb attack on Mogadishu’s Afrik Hotel, killing five persons, including former defense minister General Mohamed Nur Galaal. On February 23, a suspected al-Shabaab member threw what was reported to be a suicide vest near a police station in Mogadishu’s Hamarweyne district, injuring three persons, including a police station commander. On July 21, the terrorist group targeted the international airport in Mogadishu with mortars, resulting in injuries to two UN contractors. On November 11, an al-Shabaab suicide bomber targeted an AMISOM convoy in Mogadishu, killing at least three civilians and wounding several others. On November 20, the group killed Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled, known professionally as “Afrika”, a journalist and director of state-owned Radio Mogadishu, and wounded Sharmarke Mohamed Warsame, director of state-owned Somali National Television, and a driver in a targeted attack.
The army, security forces, and AMISOM peacekeepers held most urban centers in the country, while al-Shabaab maintained control or influence over land areas. While the group’s territorial control was fluid, the United Nations said that during the year, the group retained its ability to conduct attacks in Mogadishu and recovered areas where the group had previously faced pressure from government-aligned forces, including in the Lower Shabelle region and in Galmudug. The group’s stated objective remained the imposition of a strict version of Islamic law in “greater Somalia.” Al-Shabaab continued to impose its own interpretation of Islamic practices and sharia on other Muslims and non-Muslims. According to UN reporting, as of July 31, the terrorist group publicly executed 19 civilians, including a woman, after self-appointed “courts” accused 18 of them of spying for foreign forces and one of murdering two civilians. On May 22, al-Shabaab amputated the right hand of a male civilian for theft in Middle Shabelle region.
Al-Shabaab forces targeted and killed federal and local government officials and their allies. Many attacks involved the use of improvised explosive devices against government-linked forces and buildings, as well as soft targets such as popular hotels and restaurants frequented by noncombatants in areas under government control. Throughout the year, the group continued its practice of conducting public executions of persons whom the group suspected of committing crimes, including witchcraft and spying on behalf of foreign powers.
Al-Shabaab extorted zakat (an Islamic annual compulsory giving of a set amount, typically 2.5 percent of one’s wealth, to benefit the poor) and sadaqa (a normally voluntary charitable contribution paid by Muslims) from persons throughout central and southern areas of the country. According to multiple sources, al-Shabaab’s collection of zakat, sadaqa, and other extortion generated tens of millions in revenue.
Al-Shabaab continued to threaten parents, teachers, and communities who failed to adhere to al-Shabaab’s precepts.
Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christian crusaders” intent on invading and occupying the country.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued threatening to execute anyone suspected of converting to Christianity. In the areas it controlled, the group continued to ban cinemas, television, music, the internet, and watching sporting events. It prohibited the sale of khat (a popular stimulant plant), smoking, and other behavior it characterized as un-Islamic, such as shaving beards. It also enforced a requirement that women wear full veils. According to nongovernmental organizations and security experts, al-Shabaab continued to exploit federal government and FMS political infighting and ethnic clan rivalries for its own purposes, at times being seen as the only group that provided “justice,” however harsh, in places underserved or neglected by the government.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued to harass secular and faith-based humanitarian aid organizations, threatening the lives of their personnel and accusing them of seeking to convert individuals to Christianity. Compared with the same period in 2020, violence against aid workers decreased. From January to October, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Access Unit recorded at least 194 security incidents that directly affected humanitarian operations, including two aid workers killed, eight injured, 11 detained, and one abducted.
In areas under its control, al-Shabaab continued to mandate that schools teach a militant form of jihad emphasizing that students should wage war on those it deemed infidels, including in nearby countries, and against the federal government and AMISOM. In the Afgoye District of Lower Shabelle, al-Shabaab reportedly maintained boarding schools to indoctrinate youth from distinct clans and forced those clans to provide funding for the institutes dedicated to their youth.
ISIS Somalia functioned as a hub for funding, strategic guidance, and liaising among regional ISIS networks, according to terrorism experts. A small faction of Puntland-based ISIS fighters continued to carry out terrorist attacks with the objective of establishing an ISIS caliphate in the country. The UN Panel of Experts estimated the group’s strength was 340 in 2019 but had decreased since that time. The group had relatively free movement and recruited individuals from towns surrounding the Golis Mountains.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There reportedly continued to be strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions.
Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas and continued to be socially unacceptable in all, while individuals suspected of conversion and their families were reportedly subject to harassment from members of their local communities.
Christians and members of other non-Muslim religious groups continued to report an inability to practice their religion openly due to fear of societal harassment across most of the country. The small Christian community continued to keep a low profile with regard to religious beliefs and practices. Other non-Islamic groups likely also refrained from openly practicing their religion.
There continued to be no public places of worship for non-Muslims other than in the international airport compound.
The only Catholic church in Somaliland remained closed, and observers stated that its reopening would be controversial. The church was briefly reopened in 2017 but was closed again by authorities, under public pressure.
Private schools continued to be the main source of primary education. The majority offered religious instruction in Islam. Quranic schools remained key sources of early education for most children. The education system also includes Islamic institutes that run parallel to general primary education and general secondary education and that result in an Islamic education certificate. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, according to observers.
Although reliable data was hard to obtain, especially in the rural areas, the majority of young children appeared to be enrolled in Quranic schools, which fell under the authority of the Federal Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs and were typically managed by community-level organizations. According to government documents, parents remained the primary source of funding of all schooling in the country, but many Quranic schools received funding from external sources. The Federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education stated it was beginning to develop a preprimary curriculum, but general implementation, and particularly acceptance by Quranic schools, was unclear.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Travel by U.S. government officials remained limited to select areas in Mogadishu when security conditions permitted. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom focused on supporting the efforts of the government to bring stability and reestablish rule of law, in addition to advocating for freedom of speech and assembly. The embassy engaged with officials and opposition figures to dissuade the use of religion to threaten those with differing political or religious perspectives.
Embassy programs targeted socially marginalized individuals in areas where al-Shabaab maintained territorial control and continued to exert influence. They also focused on creating alternatives to al-Shabaab-administered sharia courts and justice systems.
United Arab Emirates
The constitution states that Islam is the country’s official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case. The law prohibits blasphemy and proselytizing by non-Muslims. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, in September designated four members of al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, as terrorists. Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, in August the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from Sharjah convicted of consensual extramarital sex, finding that local prohibitions were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty. In May, the public prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery. In September, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai Community Development Authority (CDA) in anticipation of building a temple in Dubai on government-granted land at what will be the former site of the Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022. In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition. Dubai authorities eased COVID-19 restrictions gradually during the year. Prayer halls were open to Muslim men throughout the year and authorities reopened prayer halls for Muslim women in June. Authorities permitted all houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity in August. Limits on capacity, however, remained stricter on places of worship than on businesses and entertainment venues. According to leaders of some communities, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Muslim faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted. COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so because of social distancing regulations and closures. Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion. In December, the government announced that effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend, after previously following the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend. Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious issues. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of limiting the spread of what the authorities characterized as extremist ideology. Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism. In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD) to license public and private prayer rooms and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD. Minority religious groups said the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding, and many congregations lacked their own space. During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first, purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site. Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.
According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local emirate governments, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020. In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces. In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), and incorporated it in Dubai. In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai. On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world. Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government that is focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location.
The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers engaged government officials on issues pertaining to religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, as well as licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious and religiously affiliated minority groups. They met with representatives of minority religious organizations and community groups, including the Jewish and Baha’i communities, and different Islamic groups during the year. In these meetings, U.S. officials discussed the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. Embassy and consulate general officials also regularly kept in contact with minority religious groups to monitor their abilities to freely associate and worship. Remarks by U.S. officials throughout the year encouraged efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.9 million (midyear 2021). Approximately 11 percent are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports. The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.
Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia. Although no official statistics are available on the percentage of the noncitizen population who are Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.
Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups, comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists and including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews. Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, and 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions. According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 125,000 atheists or agnostics, 72,000 Sikhs, and 49,000 Baha’is.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The constitution states that the country is an independent, sovereign, and federal state comprised of seven emirates.
The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years, a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600), and deportation in the case of noncitizens. Individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers also face jail sentences and/or fines.
The law defines blasphemy as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship. The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; but the penal code’s blasphemy provisions punish behavior viewed as contemptuous of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad or offensive to Islamic teachings.
The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims.
The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred. Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment that generally ranges from five to 10 years or more.
The law criminalizes any form of expression the government interprets as blasphemous or offensive toward “divine recognized religions,” inciting religious hatred, or insulting religious convictions. Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams to two million dirhams ($68,100-$545,000); noncitizens may be deported. The law prohibits any form of expression, including through broadcasting, printed media, or the internet, that the government determines is contradictory to Islam as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.
Federal law does not require religious organizations to register or obtain a license to practice, although the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions, such as opening a bank account or renting space. Each emirate oversees registration and licensing of non-Muslim religious organizations, and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance; these procedures are not published by the emirate governments. The federal government has also granted some religious organizations land in free-trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license that allows them some operational functions. In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the CDA. The governments of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also require religious communities to obtain permits for certain activities, including holding public events, collecting donations, and worshipping in temporarily rented spaces, such as hotels.
The federal law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan. Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 10,000 dirhams ($2,700). Most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants. In April, the governments of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi emirates issued guidelines lifting a requirement to install curtains or otherwise cover the front of restaurants as a precondition of serving food during Ramadan fasting hours. The law prohibits Muslims from knowingly eating pork throughout the year. Consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims is not criminalized at the federal level. The government announced a series of legal reforms in 2020 decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol by Muslims at the federal level, while allowing each emirate to regulate “the use, circulation, and possession or trade of alcoholic beverages,” which may include a ban for Muslims at the local level. The government of the Sharjah emirate bans all consumption of alcohol.
Federal law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.
Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools. In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes. All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include teaching on Islam. The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student – Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.
Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defaming any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure. All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government. Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry. Each emirate’s government is responsible for administrative oversight of schools.
Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas. This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, that wish to purchase property to build houses of worship.
The antidiscrimination law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts or expressions the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion; this provides a legal basis for restricting events, such as conferences and seminars. The law also criminalizes broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audiovisual or print media, or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred. Violations of the law carry penalties of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million dirhams ($272,000).
According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case. Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system. In the case of noncitizens, or noncitizens married to citizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply rather than sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance. The federal law applies if either spouse is Emirati. On November 7, the emirate of Abu Dhabi issued a decree allowing non-Muslims to apply civil law in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony, proof of paternity, and custody.
Sharia also applies in some criminal matters. Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters. When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties. In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties. Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties. Amendments to the federal law in November 2020 repealed an article giving reduced (lenient) sentences in what are called “honor crimes,” and the law now treats “honor killings” as normal murder cases.
Federal legal reforms in 2020 also removed flogging from the federal penal code, limited the jurisdiction of sharia courts to deal with blood money cases, and removed penalties for adultery, cohabitation outside marriage, and consensual extramarital sex. Local sharia laws and punishments regarding adultery and consensual extramarital sex, however, remain applicable.
Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law.
Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “best interests of the child” standard for several years. According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age. Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education. The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.
In custody cases involving noncitizens, UAE courts may apply the laws of the country of nationality of each child involved. In December, a new personal status law for most expatriates went into effect in the emirate of Abu Dhabi that allows for joint custody agreements, civil marriages, birth certificates for children of unmarried parents, the equality of men and women as witnesses, and new alimony and inheritance laws. The new law also allows for non-Muslim judges, creates a new court to hear these cases, and requires cases to be heard in both Arabic and English. This new personal status law does not apply to Muslim citizens of countries that base their law on sharia, including the UAE.
The country’s citizenship law does not include religion as a prerequisite for naturalization. Non-Muslim wives of citizens are eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children. There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim. Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will.
Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate. The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) as officially recognized to perform these acts.
Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live. Since 2020, personal status laws permit the general terms of a will to be dealt with according to the law of the country specified in the will or, in cases where a country is not specified in the will, the law of the deceased person’s country of nationality. This is not applicable to property purchased in the UAE, however, which remains subject to UAE law. Non-Muslims may register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights. In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry, which may cover assets held in the UAE as well as abroad. The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir. Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia. There are courts for personal status and for inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.
The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations or that promote damage to national unity or harm public order, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment. Promoting these activities using any means, written or otherwise, is punishable with not less than 15 and no more than 25 years of prison. The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam. These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals. Punishment may include up to life imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams to one million dirhams ($136,000-$272,000). Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million). Abuse of religion to promote sedition and strife or to harm national unity and social peace is punishable with not less than 10 years imprisonment and a fine of not more than 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).
The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.
The Fatwa Council, headed by the president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf, an independent federal legal authority that reports directly to the cabinet. The Awqaf director general holds the title of Deputy Minister, and he and the Awqaf board of directors are appointed by the cabinet. The Awqaf is responsible for managing domestic Islamic endowments, imam tutelage, education centers, publications, and general messaging.
Under the law, emirate and federal authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, including religious centers used by Shia Muslims, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons. The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material. The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques. The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.
The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities. Violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600). Under the cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of any type of donation without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams and 500,000 dirhams ($54,500-$136,000).
Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams and 500,000 dirhams ($68,100-$136,000).
In Abu Dhabi, the Awqaf is entrusted with overseeing Islamic religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications. Non-Islamic religious affairs fall under the mandate of the DCD, which regulates, licenses, and oversees non-Islamic houses of worship, religious leaders, religious events organized outside houses of worship, and fundraising activities across the emirate. The Abu Dhabi DCD uses a three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship. Under the system, instituted in 2020, the DCD issues licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations.
The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups. The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities. The law states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval. Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams to 100,000 dirhams ($140-$27,200). Repeated violations may result in the doubling of fines, not to exceed 200,000 dirhams ($54,500).
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year there were reports of persons held incommunicado and without charge because of their political views or affiliations, which often involved alleged links to Islamist organizations. The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities.
Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017, remained imprisoned at year’s end, following a 2018 court ruling upholding an earlier conviction under the cybercrime law of insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols.” As of year’s end, the government had yet to announce the specific charges against Mansoor but said that he promoted “a sectarian and hate-filled agenda,” as well as other accusations. In July, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that authorities held Mansoor in solitary confinement and removed his clothes, mattress, blanket, and toiletries from his cell. Authorities reportedly denied him access to lawyers, granted only a limited number of family visits, and subjected him to death threats, physical assault, government surveillance, and inhumane treatment while in custody.
The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, continued to restrict the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. According to HRW, in September, the government designated four members of al-Islah, all living in self-imposed exile, as terrorists: Hamad al-Shamsi, Mohammed Saqr al-Zaabi, Ahmed al-Shaiba al-Nuaimi, and Saeed al-Tenaiji. The designation included asset freezes, property confiscations, and criminalizing communications with their families. The four men told HRW that authorities threatened their families with prosecution for “communicating with terrorists.” The men learned of their designations only after the Cabinet of Ministers issued the decision.
Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, local sharia laws and punishments remained applicable. A member of the Sharjah Consultative Council reported that in August, the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from the Emirate of Sharjah convicted of having consensual extramarital sex, finding that local emirate laws were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty.
Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery. In May, local press reported Dubai customs authorities prevented five attempts in 2020 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery, including books, knives, talismans, amulets, containers of blood, and animal skins and bones, compared with 22 attempts in 2019. In May, the federal prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery. In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. In July, local media quoted a Dubai police official as saying that 80 percent of individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers were women, and that they likely “turned to sorcery” because they believed they had been bewitched.
Representatives of non-Islamic faiths again said registration and licensing procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates. The federal government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but, according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in many groups having ambiguous legal status and created difficulties for them in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases. Religious groups said the bureaucracy was slow to conduct security checks and issue necessary visas. The governments of individual emirates continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces, such as hotels or convention centers.
The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint men to be Sunni imams (except in Dubai), based on their educational background and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks. According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, except for those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.
Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All imams in Dubai’s more than 2,100 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. Dubai’s IACAD maintained more stringent qualification requirements for expatriate imams than for local imams, such as requiring them to demonstrate memorization of larger parts of the Quran, and starting salaries were much lower, a practice permitted under federal law. Expatriate imams also could not obtain other employment without permission from the authorities. Local communities said these additional requirements did not hinder their ability to find qualified imams.
The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, continued to manage Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams. The council complied with weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were technically eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request. Shia sources said they doubted the government would provide funding in practice, and therefore did not seek it.
Ismaili Muslims continued to appoint their own community leaders.
One source said it was difficult for his church to access funds or receive an extension of its operating license under Abu Dhabi DCD’s new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship. The source attributed these difficulties to it being a new system rather than a deliberate attempt by the government to discriminate against his church.
In September, the Church of Jesus Christ began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai CDA in anticipation of building a temple in the emirate on government-granted land at what will be the former site of Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022. Consultations remained ongoing and the Church of Jesus Christ had not yet submitted a formal application at year’s end. Church officials toured the site in October. The Church continued to maintain a chapel in Abu Dhabi.
In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition. Official recognition allowed the group to secure religious worker visas. According to local sources, at year’s end, discussions between the congregation and the government on plans to build a physical synagogue in Dubai were ongoing, and the congregation continued to rent hotel rooms for worship.
Community leaders stated the tacit Abu Dhabi guidelines requiring non-Muslim religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa continued to create difficulties for religious leaders who served their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who did not have a theology degree. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. Some religious community members stated the system discriminated against smaller and less recognized denominations and forced them to either end operations or join with other denominations.
Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services, and non-Muslims reported some pressure to attend ostensibly nonmandatory lectures and classes about Islam. Some Christian clergy stated incarcerated Christians did not have worship spaces. They said that when authorities granted them prison access, authorities permitted them to take Bibles to the prisoners. In several emirates, authorities did not allow Christian clergy to visit Christian prisoners.
The government continued to permit Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private but not in public. There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.
The government continued to maintain COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings for religious purposes throughout the year. From January to June, religious venues operated at 30 percent capacity. In Dubai, only men were allowed to attend mosques during this time. In June, Dubai authorities permitted women’s prayer halls for Muslims to reopen, also at 30 percent capacity. In August, authorities permitted houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity. During the same period, the Dubai government allowed entertainment and sporting events and social activities to operate at 60 percent capacity, entertainment venues (e.g., museums and cinemas) and restaurants to operate at 80 percent capacity, and business events and hotels to operate at 100 percent capacity. In September, the government increased the allowed capacity at houses of worship throughout the country, and further increased it in November. At year’s end, capacity in worship spaces was limited by the congregants’ ability to maintain mandatory social distancing.
According to representatives of various religious groups, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Islamic faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted. According to religious community leaders, Dubai authorities conducted regular inspections to ensure adherence to COVID-19-related restrictions. Religious community leaders stated Dubai authorities required them to report the number of COVID-19-positive cases in their congregations. Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion. Christian sources said they understood the need for such precautions. In November, authorities in Abu Dhabi permitted women to attend Friday prayers again at the Grand Mosque.
The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.
Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes and provided they observed the prohibition on proselytizing. While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions. In November, leaders of the Hindu community attended a ceremony marking the placement of carved stones as part of the ongoing construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple, expected to be completed in 2023. The ceremony included a religious blessing of the site. The Jerusalem Post reported that on November 28, UAE resident Rabbi Levi Duchman lit a Hanukkah menorah and recited holiday blessings at the Israel pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 (which opened in 2021, following a year’s delay). Members of Dubai’s Jewish community held multiple public and private celebrations throughout the holiday.
Christian community leaders stated the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai fined both drivers and passengers of buses transporting worshipers to churches for lacking proper RTA permits. Religious leaders said the rules and regulations were confusing, particularly the requirement to obtain permits from a government authority other than the CDA.
The Dubai Quran Award program continued to allow prisoners who memorized the Quran to have their sentences reduced or be granted amnesty.
In December, the government announced that, effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend. The country previously followed the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend. As part of the change, the government said that Friday midday sermons and prayers would be held at 1:15 p.m., slightly later than the previous schedule.
The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain websites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including some Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including ones with information on Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity. International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained content filtered by government censors.
Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.
Observers familiar with the media environment stated government officials warned journalists against publishing or broadcasting material deemed politically or culturally sensitive. Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly since most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported. Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.
The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the IACAD. On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” The Awqaf stated it continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. The Awqaf regularly held training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.
The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior Sunni imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Sermons sometimes dealt with contemporary topics; for example, in December, after President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan appointed the board of directors of the country’s newly established National Human Rights Institution, sermons praised the country for its human rights record. Other sermon topics reportedly included the power of contemplation, and prayer and piousness as keys to inner peace. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons. Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.
The Jaafari Affairs Council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.
The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline. The Awqaf also operated an online “e-fatwa” service.
Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.
Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting a religion other than Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.
Bookstores in the country carried pro-atheism, anti-organized religion titles by well-known authors in English and Arabic. These stores also sold books on non-Islamic religions.
Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them.
In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing IACAD to license public and private Islamic prayer rooms, and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD.
The Jaafari Council continued to regulate Shia worship spaces.
The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space, sometimes in private homes. In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic. Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.
Noncitizens, who generally made up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The country’s Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations continued to gather in other spaces, such as hotels, subject to COVID-19 capacity restrictions. There was one Sikh temple in Dubai, built on land provided by the government within a religious complex shared with Christian churches, the same complex in which the new Hindu temple construction, expected to be completed in 2023, was underway.
The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.
There continued to be no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place in hotels on the Sabbath and holidays. During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House project, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site. According to the Times of Israel website, in June, the government announced that the synagogue at the site would be named the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, after the 12th-century philosopher and rabbinical scholar Maimonides. The mosque would be named Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, and the church St. Francis Church.
Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.
Members of unregistered religious organizations stated that their organizations continued to face challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances. In Abu Dhabi, the DCD continued to require religious functions at hotels be pre-approved and overseen by registered clergy. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as these activities did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion. COVID-19-related restrictions, however, continued to disproportionately impact unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures, although restrictions on public gatherings eased as the year progressed.
In Dubai, non-Muslim community members reported continued delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds. Community representatives also reported restrictions on as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA. There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.
The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries. Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community. Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was generally sufficient to meet demand, although press reporting indicated some strains on capacity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the crematoriums. Hindu temples also provided cremation services to non-Hindus.
Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim religious minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.
Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious-related concerns.
Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications, although immigration officers said foreigners, including atheists and agnostics, had the option to leave the field blank. School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation in order to distinguish between Muslim students, who were required to take Islamic studies, and non-Muslim students, who were exempt. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis.
Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their places of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain. Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. The government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities.
Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms. In September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan extended New Year’s greetings to the country’s Jewish community on social media on Rosh Hashanah. In November, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan publicly commemorated the Hindu festival of Diwali.
Media reported that in September, Minster of Tolerance and Coexistence Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan spoke at the government-sponsored Eshraqat (“Radiance”) Festival in Abu Dhabi to students about “the role of education in preparing future generations with ethics and virtues who will renounce extremism and hate and promote the values of tolerance and coexistence.”
On November 16, the Minster of Tolerance posted to Twitter a “call for upholding the values of coexistence, tolerance, and humanity, and rejecting violence, fanaticism, and extremism for a better future for all mankind.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be strong cultural and societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam, particularly from family members. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020. Ajman police reported in October that six inmates converted to Islam in the previous three months, for a total of 47 inmates in five years.
According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local governments.
Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers. Media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas festivities and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.
Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores, although bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.
Private and government-run radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.
In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces.
There continued to be two Hindu temples, both predating the country’s independence, in Dubai. There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.
Construction of a new Anglican church in al-Mushrif, Abu Dhabi, remained stalled at 50 percent completion due to financial issues; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.
Following the opening of the first kosher restaurant in 2020, kosher food services continued to expand in Dubai. In March, a second kosher restaurant opened in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and a local company, led by a member of the country’s resident Jewish community, partnered with the established kosher kitchen to cater airline meals for Emirates and other airlines.
In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the AGJC, incorporated in Dubai. Rabbi Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi for the Jewish Council of the Emirates, led the group, along with its president, Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, a citizen of Bahrain. According to press reports, the AGJC was creating a Jewish court to preside over issues of civil disputes, personal status, inheritance, and Jewish ritual. It planned also to run the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency throughout the six countries. On June 4, the AGJC hosted an in-person Shabbat dinner for diplomats and Emiratis in Dubai. Rabbi Abadie, President Nonoo, and Alex Peterfreund of the UAE spoke about Jewish life in the Gulf and answered questions from Emirati participants about opportunities for Muslim and Jewish cooperation.
In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai. The “We Remember” exhibition at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum included first-hand testimonies of Holocaust survivors. The museum hosted visits from local school groups beginning in November.
Expo 2020 Dubai featured a thematic week on “Tolerance and Inclusivity” from November 14 to 20. The week highlighted the country’s efforts to support religious tolerance and included the launch of a “Global Tolerance Alliance,” announced by Minister al-Nahyan, and a “Global Interfaith Summit” that brought together various government representatives with local and regional religious leaders to discuss religious coexistence.
On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world. Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government and focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location. In his remarks, al-Nuaimi said, “The older generation operated in an environment where speaking about the Holocaust was tantamount to betraying Arabs and Palestinians. Public figures failed to speak the truth, because a political agenda hijacked their narrative.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers engaged government officials throughout the year on efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, and discussed licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious and religiously affiliated groups.
The Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of religious organizations and other groups associated with minority religious communities, including Jewish community and diaspora representatives and the Baha’i community, to learn more about issues affecting them as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to freely associate and worship; they discussed the ongoing efforts by different UAE-based groups to accomplish these objectives. The Charge and embassy and consulate general officers also met with Islamic organizations. In these meetings, U.S. officials discussed the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
As part of its Ramadan outreach activities, the embassy hosted iftars in April and May with government, media, religious, business, and cultural figures. Remarks by U.S. officials throughout the year encouraged efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures. Embassy and consulate general officers also participated in minority religious celebrations, such as Jewish Shabbat services, and consulate representatives attended a Hannukah event on November 29 at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum.
The USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 featured Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, on loan from the Library of Congress for its first overseas exhibition, to illustrate the long history of religious freedom in the United States. The USA Pavilion also cohosted with the Israel Pavilion a screening of the documentary “Amen-Amen-Amen: A Story of Our Times,” which highlighted the story of the Jewish community in the UAE and its presentation of a sacred Torah scroll to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in 2019.
The constitution declares Islam the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. Apostasy is a capital offense, and blasphemy is punishable by fines or imprisonment. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement more commonly known as the Houthis, continued throughout the year. Government control was limited in much of the country’s territory, which constrained its ability to address abuses of religious liberty. A September UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen (UN Group of Experts) report that covered the period July 2020 to June 2021 reported investigations of accusations that all parties to the conflict had carried out disappearances, unlawful detentions, and/or torture of religious minorities “to punish them for their religious beliefs.” Some analysts said political and economic issues were more significant drivers of the conflict than religion. In October, a prominent UAE-based Islamic scholar reported on social media that religious scholar Taher bin Hussein al-Attas was kidnapped outside his home in Tarim City, and the author of the post blamed the government. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement, particularly of Baha’is and Jews.
During the year, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of the country’s territory, which contained 70 to 80 percent of the population. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and UN sources, the group imposed a strict doctrinal regimen that discriminated against individuals who did not follow those practices. The government and Human Rights Watch attributed an October 31 missile attack on the Sunni-denominated Sheikh al-Hajouri Mosque and Center in Juba District of Ma’rib Governorate to the Houthis. The strike killed and wounded dozens, but no party claimed responsibility. Sources attributed various religious liberty abuses during the year to the Houthis, including a June 10 missile attack on another mosque in Ma’rib; the “systematic and silent extermination” of the Baha’i Faith community; the detention and physical mistreatment of Christian pastors; pressure on Christians to renounce their faith; and the continuing detention of Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country. The Houthis forced three Jewish families out of the country during the year, leaving only an estimated four to six Jews remaining in the country, including Marhabi. Media reported in November that the Houthis exiled Christian convert Mushir al-Khalidi after having detained him for four years. Sources also accused the Houthis of restricting religious practices by “taxing” religious events and issuing “decrees” to impose Houthi religious norms on other groups. An NGO that monitors education curricula said Houthi textbooks, which emphasized hatred of Jews, were a “blueprint” for radicalization and would incite violence and hate. The UN Group of Experts reported that in March, Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi incited violence and discrimination against Baha’is, Jews, and other religious minorities by saying these groups “don’t want to coexist… They want to take away the sovereignty of Islam.” Additionally, Houthi imams and Islamic scholars made antisemitic remarks throughout the year, and a popular Houthi chant was “Death to Israel.” The NGO Open Doors USA (Open Doors) reported Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS-Yemen (ISIS-Y) considered Christians to be apostates and operated with considerable impunity. According to a July UN report, AQAP was “well established in the central and eastern provinces” and was active in Shabwah, Abyan, and Bayda Governorates, while ISIS-Y was in decline but still active in Bayda and Dali Governorates.
Open Doors said pressure on Christians in all spheres of life including education, employment, family life, and the ability to observe religious practices was “at an extreme level.” Open Doors reported Christians also faced societal discrimination in the distribution of emergency assistance and health care, while those who converted to Christianity faced death threats and risked banishment from their tribes. The NGO said Christian women reportedly experienced sexual harassment, rape, and/or forced marriage to Muslim spouses. Due to the conflict, there was no way to ascertain the status of the country’s small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.
The Department of State suspended U.S. embassy operations in Sana’a in 2015, and U.S. diplomatic operations regarding Yemen have since been coordinated by the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), based in Saudi Arabia. Due to security concerns arising from the conflict, the U.S. government had limited to no access to religious communities in the country during the year. The YAU continued to closely monitor the conditions of religious minority detainees and to press for their release, while also promoting religious freedom through social media. The U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen spoke with foreign government officials, civil society organizations, and religious leaders during the year regarding the ongoing detention of Marhabi.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.4 million (midyear 2021). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), associating their beliefs with either the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or Zaydi Islam, a distinct form of Shia Islam. There are also significant numbers of Sunni followers of the Maliki and Hanbali schools, and others who are Ismaili and Twelver followers of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population is Sunni and 35 percent Zaydi. The humanitarian situation analysis NGO ACAPS estimates 55 percent of Muslims are Shafai Sunni and 45 percent are Zaydi Shia. Hindus, Baha’is, Christians (many of whom are economic migrants), and Jews together comprise less than 1 percent of the population.
There is no firm estimate of the number of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or the Dawoodi Bohra variant of Ismaili Shia Islam residing in the country. The pre-conflict Hindu population was 150,000 (2010 estimate), concentrated in Aden, Mukalla, Shihr, Lahaj, Mokha, and Hudaydah. Many members of the Indian-origin community have resided in the country for generations and hold Yemeni citizenship. According to one source, the current number of Indian nationals is fewer than 3,000.
According to a Baha’i Faith spokesperson, the Baha’i Faith community has as many as 2,000 members (2016 estimate). Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans. According to the UN Group of Experts, many Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian economic migrants transit the country on their way to find work in Saudi Arabia, causing the total number of Christians in the country at any given time to fluctuate. Open Doors estimates there are a few thousand Christians in the country, 95 percent of whom are converts from Islam. The Jewish community is an indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group. Reports estimate that four to six Jews remained in the country at year’s end.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation.
Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.
The constitution states that the President must be a Muslim who “practices his Islamic duties”; however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.
The criminal code states that “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities and 30 days to repent; upon repentance, they are spared the death penalty.
Blasphemy laws prohibit the “ridicule” of religions, punishable with up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of unspecified amount. If Islam is the religion subject to ridicule, the punishment is up to five years or a fine of unspecified amount. The criminal code prescribes five years’ imprisonment or a fine to anyone who “distorts willfully the Holy Quran in a manner that changes its meaning with the purpose of harming the natural religion.”
Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions recognized by law (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.
The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims.
There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.
The law prohibits NGO involvement in political or religious activities.
By law, the government must authorize construction of any new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically. The law criminalizes “assaulting the sanctity of faith” and prescribes up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 2,000 rials ($3) to a person who “destroys or misrepresents or profanes a mosque” or other government-authorized religious site or disrupts religious rituals.
Public schools must provide instruction in Islam, but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education. Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum, but the government is unable to enforce this requirement in Houthi-controlled areas, where instructional materials indicate schools are teaching Zaydi principles only and the Houthis have been systematically changing the curriculum to reflect their ideology.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Hadi, and Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement more commonly known as the Houthis, continued throughout the year. The government exercised limited legal or administrative control in much of the country’s territory throughout the year, which constrained its ability to enforce laws or address abuses of religious liberty committed by government or nonstate actors in areas not under its control.
Analysts stated that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam. Some analysts stated political and economic issues were more significant drivers of the conflict than religion.
A September UN Group of Experts report titled Situation of human rights in Yemen including violations and abuses since September 2014, which covered the period July 2020 to June 2021, reported investigations of accusations that all parties to the conflict had carried out forced disappearances, unlawful detentions, and/or torture of members of religious minority groups “to punish them for their religious beliefs.” The report did not provide specific examples of how the government engaged in these abuses.
On October 12, UAE-based Islamic scholar Ali al-Jifri reported on social media that unidentified gunmen kidnapped religious scholar Taher al-Attas outside his home in Tarim City as he returned from dawn prayers. The author of the post blamed the government, specifically the leadership of the First Military Region.
According to Open Doors, Christians were generally associated with the West and were therefore expected to have access to funds. The NGO stated, “For this reason, prison guards have sometimes held Christians longer in exchange for money.”
The government publicly condemned Houthi persecution of minority religious groups. In January, Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism Muammar al-Eryani wrote on Twitter, “Iranian-backed Houthi militia continues to prosecute minorities in [the] illegal trial for 24 Baha’i community, including six of their leaders deported outside Yemen after detention and looting of their assets in flagrant violation of int[ernationa]l humanitarian law.” In April, he issued a statement through the government’s official news outlet Saba condemning Houthi persecution of Jews and Baha’is. In August, al-Eryani wrote, “Members of the Baha’i sect have been subjected to organized terrorism by Houthi militia,” and told Saba the government condemned the Houthis for forcing out the last three Jewish families from the country and for the continued detention of Marhabi. He also accused the Houthis of undermining the country’s social fabric and traditional values of coexistence.
Houthis and officials residing in Houthi-controlled areas representing a faction of the largest secular political party, the General People’s Congress, jointly established the Supreme Political Council in 2016. The Supreme Political Council is a 10-member entity that purports to establish and determine a governing structure for the country under the Houthi-led regime in Sana’a. The government and the international community have deemed the Supreme Political Council unconstitutional and illegitimate, and the international community continues to recognize the government, led by President Hadi.
At year’s end, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of the country, containing 70 to 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis enforced a strict, doctrinal regimen based on Zaydism and discriminated against individuals who did not follow those practices, particularly religious minorities.
The government and Human Rights Watch attributed to the Houthis an October 31 missile attack on the Sunni-dominated Sheikh al-Hajouri Mosque and Center in Juba District, Ma’rib Governorate. The strike killed and wounded dozens, but no party claimed responsibility. Information Minister al-Eryani condemned the attack as a “horrific massacre” of civilians committed by the Houthis.
The Yemeni Coalition for Monitoring Human Rights Violations report Ma’rib: Civilians between Shelling and Mines, covering the period December 2014 to June 2021, stated the Houthis attacked a mosque on June 10, as well as an adjacent women’s prison in the al-Mujama’a neighborhood that belonged to the Ma’rib Police Department. The organization said two ballistic missiles and two armed drones struck during prayer time and killed 11 civilians, including a child, and wounded 24 others.
In October, the Australia-based anti-capital punishment organization Eleos Justice released a video of Baha’i leader Hamed Kamal bin Haydara, who described torture and “systematic and silent extermination” of Baha’is in the Houthi-controlled parts of the country. The Houthis detained Haydara in 2013, charged him with apostasy and espionage in 2015, sentenced him to death in 2018, and released but exiled him from the country in 2020.
In February, the Baha’i Faith International Community released a statement that said the Houthis continued to “intimidate and endanger the lives of Baha’is” and used baseless charges to seize their property. The statement indicated there were 19 Baha’is who continued to face the dilemma of either appearing in Houthi “court” to face false charges and unjust imprisonment or risk the Houthis branding them as “fugitives.” The September UN Group of Experts report stated the Houthis had seized and frozen the assets of 70 Baha’i Faith community members in the July 2020 to June 2021 period.
The Christian Post reported in March that the president of Open Doors stated the Houthis detained Christians and tortured pastors. According to the Christian Post, prisoners released from Houthi detention centers said Houthis targeted individuals suspected of being Christian. Media reported in November that the Houthis exiled Mushir al-Khalidi after detaining him for four years. Houthi intelligence services reportedly held Khalidi, who had converted to Christianity, and other Christians in solitary confinement and forced them to renounce their religious beliefs.
Media and Yemeni NGO Mwatana for Human Rights reported that the Houthis continued to detain Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Yemeni Jew whom they had held since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country, despite a Houthi “court” decision in 2019 to release him. The Houthis continued to demand the return of the scroll from Israel.
On March 29, the Jerusalem Post reported the Houthis forced the last three Jewish families out of the country, leaving behind only four elderly Jewish residents. The European Jewish Congress said the families’ departure left six Jews remaining in the country, including Marhabi. According to the Jerusalem Post, the Houthis reneged on their commitment to release Marhabi if these families departed the country.
ACAPS reported in November that the Houthis repressed non-Zaydi religious practices by imposing “taxes” and Zaydi norms on religious celebrations, including during weddings, at Salafi centers, and for Tarawih prayers conducted during Ramadan, and maintained a mandatory 20 percent charitable “tax” (zakat) on economic activities.
The U.S.-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project recorded 61 incidents of religious repression involving pro-Houthi forces from January to March. The incidents involved unspecified targeting of religious leaders, changing educational curricula, and issuing “decrees” and “regulations” to impose Houthi ideology.
Media outlet al-Monitor reported that Houthi leadership designated 34 public squares in Sana’a in which individuals could gather on July 28 to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, commemorating the occasion when, according to Shia beliefs, the Prophet Muhammad designated his son-in-law Ali as his successor. Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi gave a two-hour televised speech commemorating Eid al-Ghadir. According to al-Monitor, Yemenis did not celebrate this festival prior to the Houthis’ taking control of parts of the country. Ahmed Atia, former minister of Endowments and Guidance in the internationally recognized government, said in a televised interview that the Houthis exploited Eid al-Ghadir to manipulate the population to accept Houthi authority.
Arab News reported on August 17 that the Houthis used financial incentives to recruit children for camps where they were taught that “true Islam” consisted of loyalty to the Houthis and hating the United States and Israel. Parents of those children said they were afraid to speak out against the Houthis for fear of reprisals.
On April 15, Arab News quoted the assessment by the Israeli-based NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education that the Houthis’ changes to textbooks were a “blueprint” for radicalization and would incite violence and hate. The CEO of the institute told U.S.-based media outlet Forward that antisemitic rhetoric was “persistent” in Houthi education. He said, “Jews are subject to such a disproportionate focus, as unique enemies of Yemen, the people of Yemen, and of Islam.”
The ninth periodic report of the government’s National Commission to Investigate Alleged Violations to Human Rights, released in August, stated that in February, Houthi “officials” from the Endowments and Guidance Office of Sana’a demolished the historic al-Nahrain Mosque in the Old City of Sana’a under the pretext of preserving “faith identity.”
The UN Group of Experts reported in September that Abdulmalik al-Houthi had incited violence and discrimination against the Baha’i Faith and Jewish communities and other religious minorities by saying in March that these groups “don’t want to coexist…. They want to take away the sovereignty of Islam.”
The UN Panel of Experts reported that Abdulmalik al-Houthi demonstrated support for systemic persecution of religious minorities when he accused a western country “of seeking to establish Baha’i, Ahmadiyya, and atheism in Yemen in order to undermine Islam.”
Multiple media outlets throughout the year reported that the Houthis continued to use the antisemitic slogan, “Allah is greater, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews, victory to Islam.” The Panel of Experts stated children in Houthi summer camps were instructed to shout this slogan. In April, a video appeared on social media showing a large group of Houthi militiamen giving the Nazi salute while chanting the aforementioned slogan. Houthi-controlled media broadcast antisemitic statements and sermons. For example, media broadcast a Friday sermon on June 11 during which an unnamed imam from the Houthi “Oil Ministry” said Jews and their allies were among the “worshipers of the cross,” the “tyrants of the White House,” and the “Gulf camels” that were uniting to commit genocide against “the people of faith, wisdom, resistance, and steadfastness.” On May 4, Houthi Islamic scholar Ibrahim al-Ubeidi said on Houthi-controlled television that COVID-19 was a manmade disease produced by “America, the Great Satan that spreads corruption upon the land by means of the Zionist lobby,” that the virus was a “very dangerous Jewish-Satanic goal,” and that “they vaccinated us in order to control us.”
In northern areas under Houthi control, there were reports of continued Houthi efforts to impose their religious customs on non-Zaydi residents, including banning music, requiring women to wear full veils, and prohibiting the mixing of genders in cafes unless couples had children or carried a marriage certificate.
Open Doors reported that Islamic terrorist groups such as AQAP and ISIS-Y oppressed local Christians, including Christian converts, whom they viewed as apostates, including by prohibiting worship activities and the observance of rituals such as baptism. Open Doors said these groups operated with considerable impunity, “especially in Hadi-government-aligned areas.” According to a July UN report, AQAP was “well established in the central and eastern provinces” and was active in Shabwah, Abyan, and Bayda Governorates, while ISIS-Y’s presence in the country was in decline. The United Nations in 2020 stated ISIS-Y was active in Bayda and Dali Governorates.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Open Doors said pressure on Christians in all spheres of life, including education, employment, family life, and the ability to observer religious practices, was “at an extreme level.”
Open Doors reported that during the ongoing humanitarian crisis, Christians in both government-controlled and Houthi-controlled areas were particularly vulnerable because local Islamic leaders and mosques that distribute emergency assistance discriminated against non-Muslims. The organization also reported that hospitals refused care to Christians. Open Doors reported that Muslims who converted to Christianity were considered to have brought dishonor upon their families; they faced death threats and risked banishment from their tribes if they did not return to Islam. The NGO said Christian women experienced sexual harassment, rape, or forced marriage to a Muslim spouse.
Due to the conflict, there was no way to ascertain the status of the country’s minority Ismaili Muslim community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Department of State suspended U.S. embassy operations in Sana’a in 2015 and diplomatic operations related to Yemen have since been coordinated by the YAU, based in Saudi Arabia. Due to security concerns arising from the conflict, the U.S. government had limited to no access to religious communities in the country during the year. The U.S. government continued to engage with representatives of religious communities in the Yemeni diaspora and to closely monitor the conditions of religious minority detainees and to press for their release. It also condemned Houthi attacks impacting civilian targets and infrastructure. In October and November, the U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen spoke with foreign government officials, civil society organizations, and religious leaders regarding the ongoing detention of Levi Salem Musa Marhabi. The YAU also promoted religious freedom through social media. For example, the YAU posted on Twitter a July 29 message from the Secretary of State in which he said, “Religious freedom is a key element of an open and stable society. Without it, people aren’t able to make their fullest contribution to their country’s success.”