Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i school of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths, but has banned several religious groups it considers “deviant.” Phase one of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC) has operated in parallel with the existing common law-based criminal justice system since 2014 and primarily involves offenses punished by fines or imprisonment, such as propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, close proximity of unmarried people of the opposite sex, and “indecent behavior,” which is defined broadly. The SPC applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. During the year, phases two and three of the SPC, which would include punishments such as stoning to death for fornication, sodomy, or apostasy, and amputation of the hand for thievery, were not implemented. The government has not published the criminal procedure code that is a necessary precursor to implementation of these phases of the SPC. During the year, religious enforcement officers investigated an international franchise on suspicion of “propagating a religion other than Islam.” A fatwa barring church and temple expansions or renovations remained in place; only six churches and one Chinese temple were recognized in the country. Throughout the year, the government published guidance for respecting Islam, especially during Ramadan, and stood by previous warnings that the public display of religions or cultures other than Islam, including Christmas decorations and Chinese traditional lion dances, could amount to an offense under the SPC and be prosecuted.

Some non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. Islamic authorities organized a range of proselytizing activities and incentives to explain and propagate Islam. Anecdotal reports indicated some Muslims who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. In August an individual on social media called for the demolition of churches along the highway in Malaysia near the border with Brunei, accusing the churches of proselytizing Christianity to Bruneian Muslims. The posting launched a social media debate in both countries about religious freedom. According to Christian and community leaders, more Muslims were open to allowing other religious groups to celebrate their holidays than in the years since the SPC was launched.

Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador and other U.S. government officials including the President, Secretary of State, U.S. Trade Representative, and U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities repeatedly expressed to officials at all levels concern that full implementation of the SPC, including the severe penalties in the remaining phases, would undermine several of the country’s international human rights commitments, including the freedoms of religion and of expression, and prohibitions on torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials also urged the government at the highest levels to defer the implementation of phases two and three of the SPC and encouraged the government to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment of Punishment (UNCAT); sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and engage in interfaith dialogue and open academic discussions on religion and human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 437,000 (July 2016 estimate). According to a 2011 census, approximately 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 official statistics (Brunei Darussalam Statistical Yearbook 2015), ethnically Malay Bruneians comprise 66 percent of the population, and are presumed to be Muslim as an inherited status. The Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes such as Dusun, Bisaya, and Murut make up approximately 4 percent of the population and are roughly 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder are other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining fifth of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Asia, and stateless residents. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.

The legal system is divided between civil law and sharia, which run parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. While the civil courts are based on common law, the sharia courts follow Islamic jurisprudence, including no law of precedence. 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. In some cases non-Muslims are subject to sharia courts.

Almost all crimes included in the first phase of the SPC, currently in force, were already prohibited in the country; however, the SPC applies some laws to non-Muslims for the first time, increases penalties such as fines, and broadens some definitions. Phase one of the SPC runs in parallel with the existing common law-based criminal law system and primarily involves offenses punishable by fines or imprisonment. It expands restrictions in longstanding domestic sharia law on drinking alcohol, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, close proximity between unmarried people of different genders, and propagating religions other than Islam. It includes a prohibition of “indecent behavior,” which 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.” The SPC applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, as well as to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempted from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers or payments of zakat (obligatory annual alms-giving). It states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation.”

The second phase of the SPC, which would include amputating the hands of thieves, is not scheduled to come into effect until one year after the publication of a Sharia Courts Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). The government has not published the CPC. Phase three of the SPC – which includes punishments, in certain situations, such as stoning to death for rape, adultery, or sodomy, and execution for apostasy, contempt of the Prophet Muhammad, or insult of the Quran – is scheduled to be implemented two years after the publication of the CPC. The punishments included in phases two and three include different standards of proof than 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, could be supported by a confession in lieu of evidence at the discretion of a sharia judge.

The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which the government 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 its main defense against extremism. A government body, the MIB Supreme Council, seeks to spread and strengthen the MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.

The Religious Enforcement Division under the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) is the lead agency in many investigations related to religious practices, but other agencies also play a role. MORA’s Religious Enforcement Division leads investigations on crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. Cases involving crimes that are not covered by sharia legislation such as human trafficking are investigated by the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF). Cases involving crimes covered by both sharia and the existing civil code are also investigated by the RBPF and referred to the Attorney General’s Chamber (AGC). In these cases, the AGC determines in each case if a specific crime should be prosecuted and whether it should be filed in the sharia or civil court. No official guidelines for the AGC’s determination process have been published.

The government bans several 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 Bahai Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas made by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is publicly available on the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ website. The SPC also bans 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.

The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the first phase of the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($13,840), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam, including the SPC itself, though no cases, arrests, or charges under this provision have been reported.

Muslims are legally permitted to renounce their religion until phase three of the SPC is implemented but must inform the Islamic Religious Council in writing. The law states the conversion of children is not automatic with the conversion of the parent. A person must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert to Islam. Children are presumed to be of the same religion as their parents.

The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks for leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information requested by the registrar. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, to reserve space in public buildings, and to apply for permission to raise funds. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The general penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to BND 10,000 ($6,920), 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. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private.

The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum and administered by the Ministry of Education (MOE), and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA. MOE schools teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge, which is required for all Muslim children aged seven to 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Ugama instruction in the 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 and is mandatory for Muslim students aged seven to 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency. Ugama is studied alongside the national curriculum. Alternatively, MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education. Muslim parents who fail to enroll their children in ugama school may face a BND 5,000 ($3,460) fine, imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both. The law promulgates the officially recognized Shafi’i school and does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs.

Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction in beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam during school hours. 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 religion to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law also requires practitioners to obtain official permission before teaching any matter relating to Islam. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer non-Shafi’i Islam education in private settings.

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 parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to mixed-faith parents. 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 proximity between the sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.

The country is not a party to the ICCPR.

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce sharia restrictions and prosecute offenses under the SPC. It continued to apply sharia to Muslims and, for certain offenses, non-Muslims, resulting in arrests, fines, and confiscations, as well as to impose traditional Islamic social norms more broadly. These included placing limitations on businesses, activities suspected of encouraging mingling of men and women, proselytizing, and religious education.

The authorities continued to arrest and prosecute persons for offenses under both the SPC and longstanding sharia. From January to August the government reported 52 criminal cases prosecuted under sharia including not respecting the month of Ramadan, intercourse or pregnancy out of wedlock, and alcohol consumption. During the same period the government also prosecuted 55 khalwatcases, resulting in 46 convictions including one of a non-Muslim. Not all of those investigated or accused of sharia crimes were formally arrested. There were some reports of administrative penalties, such as travel bans or suspension from government jobs, for individuals accused but not yet convicted of khalwat, but application of such practices reportedly was not consistent. Implementing regulations governing sharia proceedings were not issued by year’s end.

In August a local man was arrested for wearing women’s clothing in a public area as part of a joint operation between religious enforcement officers and the RBPF, but was not convicted. Other arrests and prosecutions under sharia were generally not reported by local media.

The government continued to enforce restrictions on non-Muslims proselytizing to Muslims or people with no religion. During the year, religious enforcement officers investigated an accusation of “propagating a faith other than Islam” against a manager of an international franchise.

Friday sermons were uniform across all mosques with approved texts drafted by MORA and preached by registered imams. The government periodically warned the population about “outsiders” preaching non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in December warned students studying abroad not to misuse the internet and to be cautious of religious gatherings so as to not “fall into any activities that violate any laws and religion.” In February the sultan called for the strengthening of da’wah (dissemination of Islamic teachings) amid “uncertain times” and “social ills” affecting the country.

During the Christmas season religious leaders and government officials warned citizens that the act of publicly displaying symbols of religions other than Islam could be seen as the propagation of religions other than Islam, an offense under the SPC. In February the minister of religious affairs spoke at an education seminar in which he encouraged Muslims to be respectful and tolerant of other religions as commanded in the Quran, while also reminding them of the restriction imposed in Islam that forbids one to imitate or copy other religious practices or beliefs. There were no reports of raids or charges, although businesses and members of the Christian community reported practicing self-censorship. As with past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the Chinese temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members. There were no reports of charges. Members of the royal family and the minister of religious affairs publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with extensive coverage in state-influenced media.

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 the tudong (a traditional Muslim head covering) and many women did so. Muslim civil servants were expected to join prayers in the workplace, and some employees reported being pressured by supervisors to attend. 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.

The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic religious teaching materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution.

The MOE required courses on Islam and MIB in all schools, with non-Muslims exempted from some religious requirements. The government reported many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. MORA posted religious teachers in some embassies abroad to teach Brunei citizens in those locations. 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. The government tolerated non-Islamic religious education in private settings, such as at home or in approved churches. All church-associated schools were recognized by the MOE and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to teach religions other than Shafi’i Islam.

Churches confirmed that a longstanding fatwa that discourages Muslims from assisting in perpetuating non-Muslim faiths continued to inhibit expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities. With only six approved churches in the country, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Chinese temples were also subjected to the same fatwa, with only one official Chinese temple in the country preserved as a cultural heritage. Data from 2015 indicated there were 99 registered mosques. Christian churches and associated schools were generally allowed, for safety reasons, to repair and renovate buildings on their sites, but the approval process remained lengthy and difficult and there were reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated permitting process requirements. Government officials denied permission for a church to shift the location of one of its facilities. Christian worshippers reported difficulty accessing churches on some Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled to other times.

Throughout the year, the government enforced business hour restrictions for all businesses, requiring they close for the two hours of Friday prayers. Religious enforcement officers continued to enforce a ban on restaurants serving dine-in food during the fasting hours of Ramadan, although take-out food to be consumed in private was permitted, and officers issued verbal warnings to restaurants and customers found in breach of the ban. According to Chinese social media, at least three restaurants were raided, with religious enforcement officers issuing warnings to those present. The government continued to enforce a ban on eating, drinking, or smoking in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, which was applied to both Muslims and non-Muslims. The government reported 17 convictions during the year for not respecting Ramadan.

The government maintained a longstanding ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, and a restriction against the import or consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslims. Religious authorities partnered with the RBPF in conducting “anti-vice raids” in which they confiscated alcoholic beverages and nonhalal meats brought into the country without proper customs clearance. They also monitored restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practices. In June the sultan warned the government to avoid shortcuts in halal certification that could violate Islamic law. Religious authorities allowed non-halal restaurants and non-halal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.

The government continued to favor the propagation of Shafi’i beliefs and practices, particularly through public events and the education system.

The government clarified that the use of certain words, such as “Allah” by non-Muslims, did not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity, and there were no reports during the year of charges or prosecutions based on violations of using words or expressions in question.

Incentives offered to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, included help with housing, welfare assistance, or funds to perform the Hajj. In April the Islamic Da’wah Center gave three Muslim convert families new homes using zakat funds, and in August, seven converts each received BND 14,000 ($9,688) in funding for the Hajj as a gift from the sultan. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media, which reported conversions to Islam increased in the first half of the year. According to government statistics, each year an average of 500 people convert to Islam. Converts included citizens and permanent residents, as well as foreigners. Official government policy supported the Islamic faith through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (a nation that remembers and obeys Allah).

Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings required approval from the sharia courts, and officiants, who are imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.

Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.

The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity, which were used in part to determine whether he or she was Muslim; for example, all Malays were assumed to be Muslim. Female Muslim citizens were required to wear a tudong in photographs on national identity cards and passports, and non-Muslim women were required to dress conservatively. Ethnic Malays traveling in the country were generally assumed to be Muslim and required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Religious authorities reportedly checked identity cards for ethnicity when conducting raids against suspected violators of sharia. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications and foreign Muslims were subject to the same laws governing local Muslims.

In February the sultan called on his officials to proceed with finalizing the CPC, the prerequisite for implementing phases two and three of the SPC. Officials continued to state the harshest punishments included in the later phases of the SPC, if implemented, would rarely if ever be applied because of the extremely high standards of proof required.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. There were fewer reports of public debate and more reports of Muslims being open to allowing other religious groups to celebrate their holidays than in the years since the SPC launched. For example, Christian leaders reported more Muslims wished Christians a “Merry Christmas” and attended holiday parties.

Some Muslims who wished to convert to another religion reportedly feared 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. Some non-Muslims said they felt pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam.

Residents who questioned the SPC or Islamic values on social media sometimes received online abuse and threats, and reported official monitoring. One social media user relayed how positive reactions to his postings criticizing sharia would disappear on some sites while only the negative comments remained. Some vocal activists who challenged established norms reported family and friends would pressure them to keep quiet out of fear they would attract the attention of authorities or damage the family’s reputation.

In August a self-identified Bruneian made a post on social media calling for the demolition of churches in Malaysia along the highway between Brunei and the Malaysian city of Miri. The individual accused the churches of proselytizing to Muslims by displaying “provocative” words praising Jesus Christ and God on exterior walls. The post launched a social media debate in which online users also identifying as Bruneian chastised the poster, many of whom applauded the religious unity displayed in Miri.

Some Muslim women who did not cover their heads before the SPC was implemented said they started to do so because of social pressure.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

After the sultan indicated he would continue implementation of the SPC, the U.S. President, Secretary of State, and U.S. Trade Representative exchanged letters with him and Foreign Minister II Pehin Lim Jock Seng in which U.S. officials urged the government to commit, including publicly, that implementation of sharia would be consistent with international human rights obligations and standards; to ratify the UNCAT and the ICCPR; and to establish a national human rights commission.

In July the Secretary of State met with the foreign minister II in Laos to emphasize the SPC, if implemented, should be fully consistent with Brunei’s international human rights commitments and obligations, including the UNCAT.

The U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities (SRMC) returned to the country in August to follow up on previous conversations and visits. He met with the sultan, the state mufti, minister of religious affairs, and other key officials. He urged the government to delay further implementation of the SPC until it could ensure that implementation would not undermine the country’s international human rights commitments. The SRMC encouraged open academic discussions on religion and human rights and interfaith dialogue. The meetings received wide and positive press coverage. The SRMC followed up on these points in a meeting with the foreign minister II in September.

The Ambassador and other U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns and suggestions about religious freedom throughout the year to government officials on all levels. U.S. officials coordinated with other governments including Australia and the United Kingdom to raise concerns about implementation of the SPC and suggested postponing implementation. U.S. embassy officials emphasized the seriousness with which the United States takes assurances from the government that the evidentiary and witness standards in the SPC would as a matter of procedure and policy be so exacting as to effectively guarantee that torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment will not be carried out in practice. The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials also raised concerns that a confession could be used in lieu of evidence, and that those accused could feel social pressure to confess. They urged officials to defer the publication of the procedural code that is a necessary precursor to the remaining phases of the SPC. Embassy officials also urged compliance with international human rights norms with religious enforcement officers and officials involved in drafting, implementing, and enforcing the SPC.

Embassy exchange programs exposed students to concepts of religious freedom in other countries and allowed them to discuss religion and religious freedom with individuals of other faiths. Events with U.S. government officials also encouraged discussion of these ideas. In August the SRMC engaged local youth in a roundtable conversation on “Being Muslim in America” and discussed the value of interfaith dialogue and interfaith action locally and around the world. The embassy also selected an official from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports to visit the United States on a three-week exchange project on community engagement with young people to examine policies and practices used in the United States to prevent at-risk youth and individuals from engaging in violent activities and becoming attracted to extremist views.

Embassy officials met with representatives of all principal religious groups, sharia court judges, and religious enforcement officers, as well as lawyers defending individuals charged with violations of sharia.

Embassy and other U.S. government officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of various religious groups, and facilitated discussions on religious freedom issues, including obstacles to practicing religions and beliefs other than Shafi’i Islam and laws and policies affecting religious freedom, including provisions of sharia. The embassy hosted a holiday reception that brought together the minister of religious affairs and leaders of religious minority groups. The Ambassador emphasized religious tolerance by participating in numerous Lunar New Year celebrations and attending a Christian schoolchildren’s Christmas event, while a senior embassy official represented the embassy at a Catholic Mass on Christmas Eve. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, as well as other official visitors, engaged legal, religious, and political leaders on the SPC and the country’s international human rights and religious freedom commitments.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. Discrimination, harassment and violence against the Rohingya Muslim group continued. In particular, in response to deadly attacks against security forces in October and November in northern Rakhine State, security forces undertook action about which there were numerous allegations of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, rapes, beatings, mass arrests, and destruction of buildings. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Approximately 70,000 people reportedly fled to Bangladesh as a result of the conflict, and approximately 23,000 were displaced internally. The government denounced the Buddhist Committee for Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha) for its propagation of hate speech and the State Sangha Monk Coordination Committee (SSMNC) said no previous Sangha convention endorsed MaBaTha, reportedly effectively delegitimizing the organization. Local administrators shut down a mosque in June in Kachin State following complaints from villagers about construction at the mosque, and a crowd subsequently burned the mosque to the ground. In June disputes over the legality of a mosque construction in Bago Division led a mob to attack and injure the leader of the mosque, destroying his home and the mosque itself. Police did not arrest anyone following the attack, saying any arrests would only worsen local tensions and that the size of the mob prevented them from intervening. The government reportedly imposed restrictions on the religious practice of minority populations, including Muslims, Christians, and others, including years-long delays in building permits for houses of worship, restricted access to social services, and various forms of discrimination, including in employment. The government continued its citizenship verification program in Rakhine State, which NGOs reported had been rejected by parts of the Rohingya Muslim community because of mistrust of the government, to identify individuals eligible for citizenship and issue identity documents. NGOs and religious groups said local authorities in some cases moved quickly to investigate and debunk rumors that could inflame religious tensions and spark violence.

MaBaTha’s influence reportedly waned significantly following the government’s public denunciation of the group in July, although members of the organization continued circulating anti-Muslim materials in some villages and continued fanning religious tensions using social media. There were mass protests in Rakhine State and Rangoon in July opposing the government’s use of the term “Muslim community in Rakhine State” to refer to Rohingya, instead calling for the use of the pejorative term “Bengali.” The latter denotes what the protesters believed is the Rohingya’s status as undocumented immigrants as well as their cultural and ethnic roots in Bangladesh. Followers of a Buddhist monk in Karen State constructed a Buddhist structure and planted a Buddhist flag inside an Anglican church, and constructed a pagoda near a mosque in the Muslim-majority village of Hlaingbwe in April. Buddhists also reportedly prevented Muslim residents from buying or renting land or conducting business and threatened madrassah leaders to stop teaching. Religious and civil society leaders increasingly organized intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

The U.S. government, including the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and the Ambassador, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about the violence in Bago Division and Kachin State, conditions in Rakhine State, including those facing Muslim communities and ethnic Rakhine, and the rise of anti-Muslim hate speech and tension. The embassy regularly highlighted concerns about religious-based tension and anti-Muslim discrimination and called for respect for religious diversity and tolerance. The embassy advocated for religious freedom and tolerance with all sectors of society.

Since 1999, Burma 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 October 31, 2016, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 56.9 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately 6 percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately 4 percent of the population. The Rohingya population, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim, is estimated at approximately 1 million by NGOs, with more than 800,000 stateless individuals in Rakhine State, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Rangoon.

There is significant correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and also among the Shan, Rakhine, and Mon ethnic groups. Christianity is dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. People of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Islam is practiced widely in Rakhine State and in Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Magwe, and Mandalay Divisions by some Bamar and ethnic Indians as well as ethnic Kaman Muslims and Rohingya. Chinese ethnic minorities generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Traditional indigenous beliefs are practiced widely among smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides that every citizen has the right to profess and practice his or her religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings of any class by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, are required to register to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities.

The law bars members of religious orders (such as priests, monks, and nuns) from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.” Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the State Sangha Monk Coordination Committee (SSMNC), the members of which are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs’ Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools.

The package of four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion,” remains in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women and introduces new obligations to be observed by non-Buddhist husbands and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones for which population control measures could be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which were already criminalized under the country’s penal code.

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

Government Practices

There were reports of killings, sexual abuse, arbitrary arrest, burning of structures, continued detention of Rohingya Muslims, restrictions on religious practice and travel, forced displacement, discrimination in employment, granting of building permits, and access to citizenship. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Following October and November attacks on security forces that killed dozens, Burmese military and police forces conducted “security operations” that suspended access to humanitarian aid, independent media, and human rights monitors over a broad area. The government reported that during these operations in northern Rakhine State there were approximately 100 civilian deaths, 200 arrests, as well as 900 homes burned down. According to UNHCR, the operations displaced approximately 93,000 civilians, of which approximately 70,000 fled to Bangladesh. While close linkages between religion and ethnicity made it difficult to categorize alleged incidents of abuse as solely based on religion or ethnicity, some refugees in Bangladesh reported to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights instances in which security forces forcibly shaved the beards of imams and burned or desecrated Qurans. Human Rights Watch released satellite imagery showing at least 1,500 structures had been burned down during the “security operations” and said the Burmese military was responsible; the government said the buildings were burned down by “extremists.”

On December 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would take back in 2017 2,415 Rohingya Muslims from the larger population of long-term refugees who were living in Bangladesh over the years that it had recognized as citizens of Burma.

On December 3, during conflict with ethnic armed groups, media reports indicated the Burmese military took refuge and stored weapons in the Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Mong Ko, northern Shan State. According to reports, the military left the area following the battle and subsequently bombed the church to prevent armed groups from obtaining the weapons there. The government said that the church was damaged by ethnic armed groups during fighting. On December 24, Kachin State Baptist Pastors Dom Dawng Nawng and La Jaw Gam Hseng were reported missing after they helped journalists report on the bombed church, according media reports. Civil society groups reported that the military had arrested the pastors and held both incommunicado. The pastors’ whereabouts remained unknown at year’s end.

On October 6, a Maha Aungmye Township, Mandalay Division court sentenced Dutch tourist Klaas Haytema to three months of hard labor in prison for “disturbing religious assembly.” Haytema had originally been charged with a more serious charge of “defiling a place of worship” after he unplugged an amplifier sound system broadcasting a Buddhist sermon in September, but the court changed the charge upon conviction. Haytema said he had no intention of insulting religion and had unplugged the amplifier after it woke him up at night. He was released December 27.

In October three Muslim men stood trial for illegally importing over 90 cows intended for ritual slaughter during Eid al-Fitr after MaBaTha monks reportedly pressured local authorities to ban the practice. According to a news report, the police were looking for 30 other people in the case and a local Muslim leader said the case amounted to religious persecution. The cows were confiscated and kept in police custody, drawing criticism from social media users that the monks’ complaints led to a waste of public resources. The cows were subsequently released to a local market and the three men were released on bail. The trial remained unresolved at the end of the year.

On February 26, a court convicted interfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt, Pwint Phyu Latt, and Zaw Win Bo of entering the country illegally and sentenced each to two years in prison and hard labor. On April 8, Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt were additionally convicted of unlawful association with banned organizations and each sentenced to an additional two years in prison. Zaw Win Bo was released April 17 through a presidential pardon while Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt remained in detention through the end of the year and continued to appeal the ruling.

Unlike in previous years, the government did not take action against individuals whose actions were construed to be insulting to religion. In January and April the president released and pardoned approximately 400 political prisoners and political detainees including Htin Lin Oo, an information officer of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who was detained in 2015 and charged with religious defamation for a public speech deemed as insulting Buddhism.

New Zealander Philip Blackwood was released from prison in January. Blackwood and two Burmese colleagues, Htut Ko Ko Lwin and Tun Thurein, were sentenced in 2015 to two and a half years of hard labor for posting an image to Facebook of the Buddha wearing headphones to promote their bar in Rangoon, and had been charged with insulting religion. Htut Ko Ko Lwin and Tun Thurein were not pardoned and remained in detention at the end of the year.

The government also released Shin Nyana, a monk sentenced in 2010 to 20 years in prison for teaching a religious doctrine that did not comport with Theravada Buddhism as part of the January presidential pardons.

Religious organizations said that an estimated 100 people of predominantly Buddhist faith had been arrested in violation of the Monogamy Law due to extramarital affairs, but that the 2015 laws adopted for the “protection of race and religion” remained largely unenforced around the country and the government did not draft any implementation guidelines. In July, however, the government defended the package of laws at the UN following criticism that it was discriminatory towards women. The Population Control Law drew local and international condemnation for providing the government the ability to designate geographic areas where a waiting period between births could be enforced, which some press and civil society groups said could disproportionately impact Muslim communities. The UN panel at the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women raised concerns that the law could be used to target ethnic minorities, such as Rohingya Muslims, and could allow state officials to enter into homes and perform spot checks. In response, the government delegation said there was no such thing in the country as targeting or marginalizing of minority groups, and that the law would be voluntary. As of the end of the year, the government said it had not used the law to designate any geographic area where a waiting period between births applied.

During the year, the number of Rohingya who left the country by boat to countries such as Thailand or Malaysia declined to its lowest level since 2011, with only a few hundred leaving the country by boat, and unlike in previous years, there were no reports of associated human rights abuses.

The government said it completed resettlement of all 3,700 internally displaced persons (IDPs) displaced by intercommunal violence in 2013 in Meiktila Township, Mandalay Division, completely closing the IDP camps at the beginning of the year. According to civil society and the government, the estimated 200 displaced persons who remained during the year resettled with family in Mandalay. The media reported some remaining IDPs were unable to return to their original homes and encountered barriers to resettling in neighboring communities. Some Muslim IDPs said they faced conflict from the residents of villages where they were resettled, who said they were trespassers. The Muslim IDPs said some of them were evicted by the villagers, and the township government and police said they could not guarantee their security. Interfaith leaders encouraged local governments to resolve these issues peacefully and indicated that by the end of the year all IDPs had resettled with family in other communities.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the registration process remained lengthy and, due largely to what they say is bureaucratic inefficiency in local administrative governments, was often not completed. Except in a few cases, however, organizations noted the lack of registration did not hinder the majority of religious practices.

There were reports of local authorities preventing Muslims from conducting prayer services at religious facilities in some villages.

There were approximately 3,900 Hajj pilgrims. The government expedited passport issuance for 280 of the pilgrims and simplified procedures for all Hajj travelers.

The government continued to subject all public events, including religious ceremonies and festivals, to security regulations and other controls. There were reports that any public religious event (i.e., outside a house of worship) required prior written permission from ward, township, police, district, and division-level authorities. All public religious celebrations also required prior written permission from religious affairs authorities and applications needed to be submitted approximately three weeks in advance. Some religious minority groups, primarily Christians and Muslims, reported longer delays in approving some of their applications.

Some Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several madrassahs.

The government continued to fund two state sangha universities in Rangoon and Mandalay, respectively, which trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Rangoon.

The government continued to financially support Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. Religious organizations said Buddhist groups generally did not experience difficulty obtaining permission to build new pagodas, monasteries, or community religious halls, in contrast with minority religious groups. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.

Some teachers at government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers, although such practices were no longer a mandated part of the curriculum. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography.

Due to movement restrictions, reportedly many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools. Authorities did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar Muslim university students who did not possess citizenship scrutiny cards from graduating. These students were permitted to attend classes and take examinations, but they could not receive diplomas unless they claimed a “foreign” ethnic minority affiliation.

On June 30, in Lone Khin Village, Hpakant Township, Kachin State, following months of complaints by Buddhist villagers over reported illegal construction at a mosque, village administrators ordered the mosque to be dismantled despite the Muslim leaders reportedly providing the administrators with the requisite construction permits. The religious leaders of the mosque appealed to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the State Counsellor’s Office, but on July 1, a crowd estimated between 400 and 1,000 people marched to the mosque and burned it to the ground. There were no reports of injury from the attack. Nearly 30 Muslim families fled the village after the riot, according to media reports. On July 5, authorities in Kachin arrested five people in connection to the incident. No formal charges were filed and the five individuals were reportedly released on July 6. Police reportedly responded to prevent the mob violence but stated they were unable to intervene due to the size of the crowds.

On June 23, in Thaye Thamain Village, Waw Township, Bago Division, local leaders and media reported that an argument over the legality of new construction near a local mosque following a Facebook post led to a group of approximately 200 villagers to attack and injure the man building the new structure, destroying his home and the mosque itself. The structure was reportedly slated to be a storehouse with no religious purpose. No one was arrested following the attack; the local government said any arrests would only worsen local tensions and police reportedly did not further intervene due to the size of the mob. All 44 villagers who fled the violence returned home within two weeks of the incident.

Religious leaders continued to note delays by local authorities in issuing permits for repairs of non-Buddhist religious buildings, as well as on permits authorizing construction of new facilities around the country. Christian communities in Chin and Kachin States reported that while applications to local authorities for property registration, construction, and renovation were not denied, the applications encountered delays spanning several years or were lost altogether. These included continued reports that local government officials delayed permits to restore crosses previously destroyed, or to renovate and build Christian churches in Chin State. Local authorities in Chin State also continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches from buying land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members circumvented this requirement by purchasing land on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

Christian and Muslim groups that sought to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with informal approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

Muslim groups reported official building requests encountered significant delays, and even when approved could subsequently be reversed. They also reported it remained extremely difficult for them to acquire permission to repair existing mosques, although authorities permitted internal maintenance in some cases. Historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Division, Mawlamyine in Mon State, and Sittwe in Rakhine State, as well as in Rangoon and other areas continued to deteriorate because authorities did not allow routine maintenance.

Rohingya were unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. Rohingya couples needed to obtain government permission to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State.

In Rakhine State, the government and security forces imposed restrictions on the movement of various ethnic groups, particularly Rohingya Muslims, including IDPs, both before and during the violence beginning in October. The government stated it imposed these restrictions because of reported threats of violence received from members of Rakhine communities. These restrictions impeded the ability of Rohingya and some non-Rohingya Muslims to pursue livelihoods, gain access to markets and other basic services, and engage other communities. According to civil society groups, government officials denied this population access to basic services, including hospitals. Additionally, as the vast majority of the restricted groups in the area were Muslim, individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim received additional scrutiny on movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion.

Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the Township Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and two guarantors. Travel was authorized under the form for 14 days. Authorities granted Muslims outside of Rakhine State more freedom to travel, but they still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State.

Muslim community representatives reported that in some cases Muslim-owned businesses encountered significant delays to procure government contracts without a Buddhist “front” person. Media and religious sources said local authorities in some villages restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority of which are owned by Muslims, which negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslim communities to celebrate Islamic holidays.

While the military and civil service continued outreach to various ethnic groups, including by inviting various ethnic groups to attend the Defense Services Academy in an effort to support a more ethnically and religiously diverse workforce; nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service remained Buddhist. Applications for civil service and military positions required the applicant to list his or her religion. Unlike in past years, there were no reports of officers being encouraged to convert to Buddhism in order to be promoted.

In June the government relaunched its citizenship verification exercise to address the status of the Rohingya in Rakhine State. As of the end of the year, more than 2,000 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims had gained either full or naturalized citizenship since the program began in 2015, primarily from Myebon and Kyaukpyu Townships. Recipients of naturalized citizenship were ineligible to participate in some political activities and professions, although all citizens had the right to vote. Although recognized by law as one of the 135 ethnic groups that automatically qualifies for citizenship, religious groups said some Kaman Muslims in Rakhine State chose to participate in the citizenship verification pilot as a quick means to gain status after being displaced by the 2012 violence and living in IDP camps alongside Rohingya. The government no longer required participants to identify as “Bengali” if they wished to be verified for citizenship, and did not permit race or religion on any of the forms at the earliest phases of the process. The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate but communities expressed a variety of objections to the exercise and the need for more assurances about the results of the process before taking part. Reportedly, the program initially received significant numbers of participants in Kyaukpyu and Myebon Townships, but was met with strong resistance in other townships of Rakhine State, with local Muslims rejecting the verification and identification forms, in some cases because individuals wanted to clearly state their ethnicity as “Rohingya” on their documentation. Reportedly, residents said they would not participate or accept the new cards until “Rohingya Muslim” was available as the identifying ethnicity and religion. Officials said they would not allow individuals to identify as such; government policy since May was to avoid using either terms of “Bengali” or “Rohingya,” saying both are emotive terms that could hinder progress between communities in Rakhine State.

Authorities required citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity, but there appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported that they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on applications for citizenship cards.

The SSMNC and the government denounced what they said was MaBaTha’s “propagation of conflict” and the government began drafting legislation to prohibit hate speech. On July 3, during a trip to Singapore following intercommunal violence against Muslims in Bago Division and Kachin State, Chief Minister of Rangoon Phyo Min Thein responded to questions about MaBaTha by stating the group was unnecessary. Despite criticism from MaBaTha, he clarified his statement on July 6 in Rangoon stating that MaBaTha was duplicative of the SSMNC and was an unnecessary, unofficial governing council of Buddhism in the country. MaBaTha said it would hold national protests absent an official apology. On July 8, MaBaTha said the government would be held responsible if it did not address the chief minister’s comments by July 14 – which the government refused to do. On July 13, during a plenary meeting, the SSMNC leaked a statement stating that no Sangha convention had endorsed MaBaTha’s legitimacy. This statement reportedly distanced the SSMNC from MaBaTha, delegitimized the organization in the eyes of many Buddhists around the country, and signaled that the group would be subject to state regulation. The Ministry of Religious Affairs continued to draft a law prohibiting hate speech through the end of the year and publicly warned MaBaTha that its existence would be uncertain if it continued using religion to spread conflict. MaBaTha subsequently reportedly called itself a religious missionary group committed to the peaceful resolution of religious conflict.

State-controlled media frequently depicted government officials and family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.

Although the law prohibits mixing of religion and politics, some local political parties developed campaign slogans and platforms to protect Buddhism. According to civil society organizations, anti-Muslim campaign slogans leading into the 2015 elections declined following the elections. The Arakan National Party convened a meeting in June with Arakanese (ethnic Rakhine) “nationalists,” monks, and civil society organizations in Sittwe, Rakhine State, to launch a poster campaign protesting the government’s use of the term “the Muslim community in Rakhine State” to refer to Rohingya Muslims, calling for the government to instead refer to Rohingya as “Bengali,” reportedly to imply that they are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh and not legal citizens of Burma. Earlier in June, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi had said the government would avoid using the term “Rohingya” when referring the group and instead use “‘the Muslim community in Rakhine State’ for the sake of harmony and trust between two communities.”

The government officially recognized a number of interfaith groups, including the Interfaith Dialogue Group of Myanmar, which organized monthly meetings and sponsored several religious activities promoting peace and religious tolerance around the country throughout the year. The group’s leadership included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders as well as other religious groups.

The government permitted foreign religious groups to operate. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities permitted Rangoon-based groups to host international students and experts.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During clashes between government security forces and a militant group the government called Aqa Mul Mujahideen following the October attacks in northern Rakhine State, there were reports of reprisal killings inside the Rohingya community, with Rohingya killing other Rohingya for being informants or “collaborators” with the government.

MaBaTha published and spread what the government considered to be anti-Muslim hate speech in print and social media, although Buddhist religious leaders said its influence waned following the government and SSMNC denunciation in July. Wirathu, a MaBaTha monk, continued using social media to inflame religious tensions by using terms widely considered racially and religiously derogatory and divisive towards Muslims as well as calling for violence against Muslims, including following the October 9 attack in Rakhine State. There were reports anti-Muslim literature continued circulating in some communities and included incitement to violence.

On July 3, thousands of Buddhists in Rakhine State, including monks, participated in protests against the government’s announced use of the term “Muslim community in Rakhine State” to refer to Rohingya, and demanded that Rohingya be referred to as “Bengali.” The Buddhists also protested the government’s announced change in nomenclature from “ethnic Rakhine” to “the Buddhist community in Rakhine State,” saying ethnic Rakhine Buddhists originated from Rakhine State and that their identity should not be attenuated. The government withdrew use of “the Buddhist community in Rakhine State” the day following the protest.

There were reports of some local Buddhist-majority village leaders preemptively placing sign posts deterring Muslims from buying land or moving into the villages. In October ethnic Rakhine groups in Minbya Township distributed pamphlets encouraging residents to avoid trading, employing, or interacting socially with Muslims in villages in central Rakhine State. In Karen and Mon States there were anti-Muslim sermons and campaigns to prohibit business dealings between Buddhists and Muslims. In other areas, Buddhists reportedly would not sell or rent property to Muslims.

In April in Karen State, followers of monk Myaing Gyi Ngu constructed a stupa (a mound-like structure that contains relics and is used as a place of meditation) and planted a Buddhist flag in the St. Mark Anglican Church. His supporters said the land had previously held a Buddhist structure. They subsequently built a pagoda in Hlaingbwe, a Muslim-majority village, near a mosque. This was the third religious building commissioned by Myaing Gyi Ngu, following similar construction in Hpa-An in September 2015. According to media reports, Buddhist authorities, local government authorities, the Myanmar Baptist Convention, and ethnic armed groups in the area asked the monks to stop to prevent religious tensions, but construction continued unabated. According to news reports, to avoid further conflict, Bishop Saw Stylo of the Anglican Church and other Christian leaders allotted tracts of the land for the Buddhists and said they would not pursue actions against them.

In October a small group of Buddhist monks gathered at a longstanding madrassah in Thaketa Township, Rangoon Division, demanding the owners to show authorized permits for the building and its religious activities. The monks reportedly threatened those in the madrassah unless they stopped teaching. After the monks left, the madrassah owners reported the incident to local police who reportedly did not respond.

Buddhist and Muslim communities continued collaborating to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered mechanisms. For example, in June in northern Shan State, stories reporting Muslim children had spray-painted images of the Buddha in a monastery began spreading through social media. Administrators of a local social media platform prevented photos of the vandalism from spreading further and worked with religious and community leaders to quell rumors and calm voices that were advocating violence. Subsequently, local police disciplined the children for vandalism and there were no reports of communal violence.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events and worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups worked throughout the year to draft legislation to counter hate speech and promote interfaith harmony. In Mandalay Division, various NGOs and interfaith leaders continued to hold meetings and public events to promote peace and religious tolerance for community leaders and youth. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance. A leader active in the Interfaith Dialogue Group, Catholic Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, was honored for his work by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in May where his speech, widely covered in Burmese press, called on the international community to encourage the country’s new government to take action against hate speech, reinstate and allow humanitarian access to displaced communities, address citizenship issues for Rohingya Muslims, and establish a credible independent investigation with international experts into the crisis in Rakhine State. He also focused on the importance of truly democratic societies celebrating religious diversity and protecting the basic human rights of every person.

In June the Rangoon Heritage Trust NGO recognized the country’s only synagogue as a site of historical significance and heritage. Only 11 other buildings in the city have received similar recognition.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, the Deputy National Security Advisor, the Deputy Secretary of State, the Counselor of the State Department, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and the Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stability Operations, consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom, the plight of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing religious minority communities in Kachin and northern Shan states in the midst of ongoing military conflicts, and hate speech on social media. They and other U.S. government officials consistently called for long-term and durable solutions to the root causes of longstanding issues in Rakhine State and the lack of citizenship status for Rohingya Muslims, including a voluntary and transparent path to restoration and provision of citizenship, and the reinstatement of access to humanitarian aid for the Muslim-majority region. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence such as that in Kachin State and Bago Division.

Embassy officials at all levels discussed the importance of addressing the lingering effects of past ethnoreligious-based violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric, and promoting religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high-level government officials, including then-President Thein Sein, civilian Vice President Henry Van Thio, State Counsellor Suu Kyi, the ministers of foreign affairs, home affairs, and the president’s office, the deputy minister of religious affairs, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, members of civil society, scholars, and representatives of other governments.

Embassy officials traveled to states containing ethnic minorities to discuss religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities. The Ambassador visited Rakhine and Kachin states, areas affected by ethnoreligious-based violence since 2012, and other areas that had suffered from and were identified as at risk of ethnoreligious conflict. An embassy-based conflict advisor traveled to nine states and divisions over the course of six months to analyze the root causes and effective prevention mechanisms of interreligious conflict. The Ambassador and embassy officials used this analysis to guide their public and official engagements with various religious leaders and organizations to promote religious tolerance. The Ambassador’s multiple visits to Rakhine State to assess the situation helped inform the embassy’s efforts and strategies in engaging the government and advocating for the rights of all communities in the state.

The embassy continued to call for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, and on its widely viewed Facebook page. Embassy representatives spoke out against intercommunal conflict and hate speech, and for religious freedom at high-profile events. Interfaith breakfasts hosted by the Ambassador, and publicized on Facebook, emphasized the value of bringing representatives together from diverse religious backgrounds. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, met repeatedly with Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations – including MaBaTha – and NGOs to promote religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance. The Ambassador hosted a breakfast on July 15 to bring civil society leaders and various faith communities together to discuss issues pertaining to religious freedom and communal relations in celebration of Eid al-Fitr. The embassy also shared multiple posts with its audience on Facebook about religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in the United States.

The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religious-based tension and anti-Muslim discrimination as well as called for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance. On April 20, the embassy released a statement on Rakhine State, welcoming the new government’s commitment to protect all communities. After the violent incident on October 9, the embassy issued a statement in support of the government’s stated efforts to resolve the underlying causing of conflict in Rakhine. U.S. Embassy facilities in Rangoon and Mandalay respectively also hosted numerous discussions for youth and civil society on religious tolerance. A U.S. government-sponsored program on supporting political and civic engagement provided several courses to civil society representatives on pluralism, as well as hosted a well-attended youth forum on interfaith advocacy in June. As in prior years, the embassy partnered with and supported numerous faith-based and civil society organizations working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma 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 October 31, 2016, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.


Executive Summary

The constitution states that Buddhism is the state religion and is promoted by the government through holiday observances, religious training, Buddhist instruction in public school, and financial support to Buddhist institutions. The law provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. There were reports that the government disrupted gatherings of Christian worshipers and arrested several of them under the suspicion they were holding political rallies. There was also criticism from Muslims about the government’s closure of a Muslim Cham radio program without any clear reason. Approximately 150 Vietnamese Montagnard Christian refugees reported being interrogated by Vietnamese police in Phnom Penh, drawing questions from activists as to why foreign police were allowed to question refugees. In December the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) escorted 13 of the Montagnards back to their villages in Vietnam.

There were some reports of barriers to the complete integration of the predominantly Muslim Cham people. A Cham man was killed for being suspected of practicing black magic.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the issue of the Montagnard Christians with the government. Embassy officials also discussed the importance of religious acceptance and diversity with government representatives, civil society organizations, and leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups. The embassy promoted themes of religious tolerance and understanding through a speakers’ series and other forms of engagement.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.0 million (July 2016 estimate). The 2013 Inter-censal Population Survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics said Buddhists make up 97.9 percent of the population, and an estimated 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist, according to the Ministry of Cults and Religions (MCR). The vast majority of ethnic Khmer Cambodians are Buddhist. Ethnic Vietnamese who reside in the country traditionally practice Mahayana Buddhism although there are many who have adopted Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic Vietnamese practice Roman Catholicism, and they make up the vast majority of Catholics in the country. Ethnic Vietnamese make up approximately 5 percent of the population. According to government estimates, approximately 2.6 percent of the population is Muslim, although some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimate the Muslim population to be 4 to 5 percent. The Muslim population is predominantly ethnic Cham, although not all Cham are Muslim. The Cham typically live in towns and rural fishing villages on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, as well as in Kampot Province. There are four branches of Islam represented in the country: the Shafi’i branch, practiced by as many as 90 percent of Muslims in the country; the Salafi (Wahhabi) branch; the indigenous Iman-San branch; and the Kadiani branch. The remainder of the population includes Bahais, Jews, ethnic Vietnamese Cao Dai, and members of various Christian denominations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The constitution establishes Buddhism as the state religion and provides for state support of Buddhist education; it also prohibits discrimination based on religion. The law requires that religious groups refrain from openly criticizing other religious groups, although this provision is rarely tested. The law also forbids religious organizations from organizing events, rallies, meetings, and training sessions that are politically focused.

The law requires all religious groups, including Buddhist groups, to register with the MCR to conduct religious activities. The law mandates that groups must inform the government of the goals of their religious organization, describe its activities, provide biographical information of all religious leaders, describe funding sources, commit to submitting annual reports detailing all activities, and refrain from insulting other religious groups, fomenting disputes, or undermining national security. Registration requires approvals from numerous local, provincial, and national government offices, a process which can take up to 90 days. The MCR, however, has no authority to punish religious groups for failing to register, and there are no associated penalties for failing to register. Registered religious groups receive an income tax exemption from the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

While the law formally bans non-Buddhist groups from door-to-door proselytizing and stipulates that non-Buddhist literature may only be distributed inside religious institutions, the MCR reports some Christian groups still carry out these activities without facing arrest. The law also prohibits offers of money or materials in order to convince people to convert.

The law requires separate registration of all places of worship and religious schools. Unregistered places of worship and religious schools may be shut down temporarily until they are registered, although the MCR reports it has not taken such action. The law also makes a legal distinction between “places of worship” and “offices of prayer.” The establishment of a place of worship requires that the founders own the structure and the land on which it is located. The facility must have a minimum capacity of 200 persons, and the permit application requires the support of at least 100 congregants. By contrast, an office of prayer may be located in a rented property and has no minimum capacity requirement. The permit application for an office of prayer requires the support of at least 25 congregants. Places of worship must be located at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) from each other and may not be used for political purposes or to house criminals or fugitives. The distance requirement applies only to the construction of new places of worship and not to offices of religious organizations or offices of prayer.

Religious schools must be registered with the MCR and the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MOEYS). Religious schools are advised to follow the MOEYS core curriculum which does not include a religious component; however, schools may supplement lessons with a religious curriculum in addition to the ministry-core curriculum. The government promotes Buddhist religious instruction in public schools in coordination with MOEYS, although non-Buddhist students were allowed to opt out of this instruction. The law does not mandate non-Buddhist religious instruction, and no other religions are taught in public schools. Non-Buddhist religious instruction may, however, be provided by private institutions.

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

Government Practices

In early June the government closed Radio Sap Cham, a daily hour-long radio program broadcasting since 2004 on issues related to the preservation of Cham identity, language, religion, and culture. It was the only Cham-language radio program in the country and the closure drew criticism from the Cham community on social media. The government did not elaborate on the reasons for shutting down the program.

In June the Ratanakiri provincial government dispersed a group of approximately 50 ethnic minority Jarai Christians who had gathered for a Bible study session, saying they had not obtained proper permission from the local authorities. Later that month, provincial police briefly detained three ethnic Jarai and ordered them to delete photographs of prayer meetings stored on their personal electronic devices. Local media reported that authorities broke up the gatherings because of fears the group was focusing on political issues.

In September the National Election Committee released a statement reaffirming the rights of Muslims to wear religious headscarves or caps in voter registration photographs, marking a departure from previous restrictions against wearing headscarves and caps in photographs used for official identification documents.

The government continued to promote Buddhist holidays, provide Buddhist training and education to monks and others in pagodas, and provide financial support to an institute that performed research and published materials on Khmer culture and Buddhist traditions.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, continued to hear testimony related to charges of ethnic- and religious-based genocide against the Cham population during the Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979.

According to Radio Free Asia, in June authorities allowed police from Vietnam to question a group of approximately 150 Vietnamese Montagnard Christian refugees in Phnom Penh. Activist groups and the representatives of the UNHCR said refugees should not be subject to interviews from police of the country they fled. According to media reports, the Montagnards expressed fear following the questioning that the Cambodian government would deport them back to Vietnam, which they reportedly fled because of religious and other reasons. In a statement to Radio Free Asia, government officials said they were unaware of the Vietnamese police visit; some of the Montagnards said, however, that the Vietnamese police were accompanied by local police. In October the Ministry of Interior announced that a majority of the remaining Montagnards had not been granted asylum following extensive interviews, stating “their answers do not comply with the convention on refugees.” Local media initially reported the ministry provided them two weeks’ notice to leave the country or face arrest and immediate deportation to Vietnam. In December the UNHCR escorted 13 of the Montagnards back to their villages in Vietnam. Because religion, ethnicity, and politics are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize the government’s actions as being solely based on religious identity.

During Ramadan, Prime Minister Hun Sen hosted an iftar for members of the Muslim community. In his speech, he told his guests there was no basis for political discrimination in the country and called on Buddhist followers to be tolerant and accepting of the Muslim and Christian communities.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports from some members of the Cham Muslim community of barriers to full integration into society. Local media reported some members of the majority Buddhist community and other minority ethnic groups continued to view the Cham with suspicion and superstition as purported practitioners of “black magic.” In some cases, those who were suspected of practicing black magic were killed by villagers or even their own family members. In April 62-year-old Soa Siv was beheaded by his daughter-in-law Mao Channy and her aunt Em Sun because they said he had killed Channy’s father with black magic.

In January unidentified individuals sent death threats and attacked teachers and school officials of a Muslim school for young women in a predominantly Cham community in Tbong Khmum Province, resulting in the deployment of police to protect the premises. In one instance, a rock thrown over the wall was reportedly wrapped in a piece of paper written with death threats mentioning the school’s founder and local Imam Muhammad Abdulrahman, as well as his son and the school’s teachers, according to Commune Police Chief Seng Ly. In other incidents, Abdulrahman reported unknown individuals throwing firecrackers against dormitory walls as students slept and placing feces in the water tanks from which students drink.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom with MCR representatives and other government officials. Embassy officials also discussed the issue of deportation and residency of Montagnard Christians with government officials and members of international and local NGOs.

The embassy underscored the importance of acceptance of religious diversity with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups, emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance in a democratic society. Embassy programs focused on faith-based communities and promoted pluralism through exchanges and youth programs.

The embassy continued several programs specifically focusing on the Cham population. One of the programs sought to help preserve Cham heritage, including religious heritage, through reading and writing instruction in the native Cham language, and included the preservation and study of religious artifacts from the ancient Kingdom of Champa from which present-day Cham trace their lineage. Another program consisted of a series of speaking engagements and focus groups in which Islamic leaders from around the world engaged with the Cham community to provide the Cham with a deeper understanding of the constructive role that various Muslim populations play throughout the world in their workforces and communities.

Other embassy programs invited Muslims to participate in workshops with guest speakers from throughout Southeast Asia. The workshops focused on interfaith cooperation, community leadership, and conflict resolution. Embassy officials toured the country on several occasions to meet members of the community, in the process promoting religious tolerance, showing respect for Cham culture, lessening the isolation of the Cham, and supporting Cham integration into the wider culture. They discussed ways the Cham could further integrate into society while preserving their cultural and religious identity, and lay the groundwork for genuine, long-lasting religious tolerance.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” In December the governor of Jakarta, a Christian, was charged with blasphemy for reportedly insulting the Quran. In April authorities in Aceh carried out the first implementation of the province’s special sharia law on a non-Muslim. Local authorities said the Christian woman who was caned had chosen to be punished under sharia rather than face civil punishments of fines or imprisonment, and that sharia regulations only applied to Aceh’s Muslim residents. Ahmadi Muslims reported incidents of detention, forced conversion, forced eviction, discrimination, and mosque closures. The government banned the Gafatar religious group and arrested three of its leaders for blasphemy and treason. There were reports authorities were complicit in the eviction of nearly 8,000 Gafatar members. Many religious groups outside the six officially recognized religions reported issues with identifying their religion on their national identification cards (KTP). The government took steps to address specific longstanding religious disputes, such as the displacement of Ahmadis on Bangka Island and defacement of Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, but not all were resolved. There were instances in which local governments and police gave in to the demands of groups, such as the Islam Defender’s Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum (FUI), Islamic Jihad Front (FJI), and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), which are locally labeled as “intolerant groups,” to close houses of worship for permit violations or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. The government at both the national and local levels at times reportedly failed to prevent or appropriately address intimidation and discrimination against individuals based on their religious beliefs. Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups, and elected politicians from religious minorities served in majority Muslim districts. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting the religious freedom of minority and majority religious groups.

There were two ISIS-inspired attacks on churches, which security services said were carried out by individual, lone-wolf attackers. One attack resulted in the death of a child and the other was a knife attack on a priest. An assailant threw a Molotov cocktail at a Buddhist temple in November. In response to most cases of attacks on religious facilities or figures, the government apprehended the individuals involved, and together with the community condemned the attacks and called for the protection of religious minority groups. Much of civil society, including religious organizations from all faiths, worked to counter intolerant messages and ideologies and promote tolerance of minority religious groups and pluralism. “Intolerant groups,” however, disrupted religious gatherings, illegally closed houses of worship, and widely disseminated materials promoting intolerance. Shia Muslims and Christians reported threats of violence and intimidation for gathering in public or attempting to return to their hometowns to celebrate holidays.

The U.S. government advocated for religious freedom at the highest levels, with both government and civil society leaders, and spoke out publicly against discrimination and religious violence. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited in October and discussed religious freedom with a variety of government officials, civil society leaders, and religious groups in Jakarta, Banda Aceh, Bali, and Surabaya. Embassy and consulate officials engaged on specific issues, including actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship and access for foreign religious organizations, arrests for blasphemy and defamation of religion the importance of tolerance and the rule of law, the application of sharia to non-Muslims, and religious identification requirements on national identification cards. With support from the U.S. and Indonesian governments, a nonprofit organization initiated the formation of the Indonesia-U.S. Council on Religion and Pluralism comprised of religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance and to combat violent extremism. The embassy and consulates carried the message of respect for diversity and religious tolerance to tens of millions of people in the country through outreach efforts, including events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 258.3 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, and other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.

The Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni. An estimated one to three million Muslims are Shia. Many smaller Muslim groups exist; estimates put the total number of Ahmadi Muslims at 200,000 to 400,000.

An estimated 20 million people, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as aliran kepercayaan. There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago. Many religious groups incorporate elements of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, making it difficult to disaggregate the exact number of followers.

There is a small Sikh population estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, primarily in Medan and Jakarta. There are very small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, Jayapura, and elsewhere. The Bahai Faith and Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) community report thousands of members, but no independent estimates are available. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists states it has more than 500 members.

The province of Bali is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the right to choose and practice the religion of one’s choice and specifies that freedom of religion is a human right that cannot be limited. The constitution states, “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God,” but guarantees all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief. The law restricts citizens from exercising these rights in a way that impinges on the rights of others, oversteps common moral standards and religious values, or jeopardizes security or public order.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) extends official status to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The law prohibits deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six official religious groups, or have the intent of preventing an individual from adhering to an official religion. The law also stipulates that in any case of defamation of the six officially recognized religions, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the MRA, and the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) must first warn the individual in question before he or she can be charged. The law also forbids the dissemination of information designed to spread hatred or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or race. Individuals may be prosecuted for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements under either of these provisions or under the laws against defamation, and can face a maximum jail sentence of five years. The internet law forbids the electronic dissemination of the same types of information, with violations carrying a maximum six-year sentence. Religious groups other than the official six may also register with the government, making them eligible to establish a place of worship, register marriages and births, and obtain national identity cards (KTPs). Laws allow followers of beliefs outside the six recognized religious groups to leave the religion section blank on their KTPs.

Organizations representing one of the six official religious groups are not required to obtain a legal charter if they are established under a notary act and obtain approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Unofficial religious organizations must obtain a legal charter as a civil society organization from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MRA before granting legal status to religious organizations. For an organization to be considered a religion, it must have a prophet, holy book, deity, and be recognized internationally. By law, all religious groups must be registered in some form. Under the law, civil society organizations are required to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God (although Buddhism and Hinduism are official religions), justice, unity, democracy, and social justice, and they are prohibited from committing blasphemous acts or spreading religious hatred. Violations of the law could result in a loss of legal status, dissolution of the organization, and arrest of members under the blasphemy law or other applicable laws. Indigenous religious groups may also register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as aliran kepercayaan rather than as religious organizations.

A joint ministerial decree bans both proselytizing by the Ahmadi Muslim community and vigilantism against the group. Violation of the proselytizing ban carries a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy. No Ahmadis have ever been charged with blasphemy, but provincial and local regulations based on this decree place tighter restrictions on Ahmadis than on recognized religious groups. The proselytizing ban does not prohibit Ahmadi Muslims from worshipping or continuing to practice within their community.

The government requires all officially registered religious groups to comply with directives from the MRA and other ministerial directives on issues such as construction of houses of worship, foreign aid to domestic religious institutions, and propagation of religion.

According to a joint ministerial decree, religious groups seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are in charge of implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the city or district level and comprise religious leaders from the six official religious groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

The law requires religious instruction in public schools. Students have the right to request religious instruction in any one of the six official religions. Individuals are not allowed to opt out of religious education requirements.

Under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a separatist conflict, Aceh Province has unique authority to implement sharia regulations. The law allows for provincial implementation and regulation of sharia, and extends the jurisdiction of religious courts to economic transactions and criminal cases. Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize homosexuality, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9:00 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 10:00 p.m. Female Muslim residents of Aceh are prohibited from wearing tight pants in public and must wear headscarves. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers. A new criminal code that took effect in Aceh during the year calls for caning of those convicted of homosexuality, adultery, and other offenses. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and public caning. There are also regulations limiting the amount of force that may be applied during a caning.

Many local governments outside of Aceh have enacted regulations based on religious considerations. Most of these are in majority Muslim areas, although local governments in non-Muslim majority areas also have enacted regulations based on religious considerations. Many of these regulations relate to matters such as religious education and only apply to a specific religious group. Some religiously inspired local regulations in effect, however, apply to all citizens. For instance, some local regulations require restaurants to close during Ramadan fasting hours, ban alcohol, or mandate the collection of zakat (Islamic alms). Other local regulations forbid or limit the religious activities of minority religious groups, especially Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

The marriage law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it contains an article stipulating that a marriage must be performed according to the rituals of a religion that is shared by both the bride and groom. This means that a man and woman of different religions who seek to marry may have difficulties finding a religious official willing to perform a wedding ceremony.

The law allows a Muslim man to have up to four wives, provided he is able to support each equally. For a man to take a second, third, or fourth wife, he must obtain court permission and the consent of the first wife. These conditions, however, are not always met in practice.

The marriage law makes polygamy illegal for civil servants, except in limited circumstances. Government regulations require Muslim male civil servants to receive permission from a government official and their first wives prior to marrying a second, third, or fourth wife, and prohibit female civil servants from becoming second, third, or fourth wives.

The law requires the leader of an aliran kepercayaan group must prove there are group members in at least three regencies before legally officiating a wedding. This constraint effectively bars believers of some smaller groups without such geographic presence from receiving official marriage services from a member of their faith, although groups can aid each other and facilitate marriages by a group with a similar faith tradition and rituals.

A joint ministerial decree requires domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the MRA to receive funding from overseas donors and forbids dissemination of religious literature and pamphlets to members of other religious groups as well as going door to door for the purposes of converting others.

Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the MRA to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.

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

Government Practices

There were arrests and charges for blasphemy and insulting religion, including charges filed against the governor of Jakarta for insulting the Quran and a man charged in Central Java who reportedly tore apart the Quran. In Aceh, there were public canings by local officials for sharia violations, including for the first time of a non-Muslim. There were reports of government attempts of forced conversions of Ahmadi Muslims to Sunni Islam. Members of the Ahmadi Muslim community on Bangka Island were threatened with forced expulsion from the island in January for not converting. The government banned the Gafatar group and there were reports authorities were complicit in the eviction of nearly 8,000 members from their homes. The government took steps to address certain longstanding religious disputes, including the displacement of Ahmadis on Bangka Island and defacement of Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, but not all were resolved. There were instances where local governments and police gave in to the demands of “intolerant groups” to close houses of worship for permit violations, or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. The National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) reported the government at both the national and local levels at times failed to prevent or appropriately address intimidation and discrimination against individuals based on their religious beliefs. Reportedly people who left the religion portion of their identity card blank were denied public services at times.

The Setara Institute, a domestic nongovernmental organization (NGO) that conducts advocacy and research on religious and political freedom, stated the central government made efforts to reaffirm constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, promote tolerance, and prevent religiously motivated violence. It also stated the central government did little to intervene at the local level or solve past religious conflicts through its mandate to enforce court rulings, override unconstitutional local regulations, or otherwise uphold the constitutional and legal protections afforded to minority religious groups. Local governments selectively enforced blasphemy laws, permitting regulations, and other local regulations in ways that affected various religious groups. For example, local governments issued decrees banning Ahmadi and Shia teachings, and reportedly did not act when threats were made against these groups. Government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedoms and committing other acts of intimidation. Police did not always actively investigate and prosecute crimes by members of “intolerant sectarian groups.” President Joko Widodo publicly stated he expected the police to protect religious communities of all faiths when the new National Police Chief Tito Karnavian was inaugurated in June.

The Setara Institute reported 44 cases of government abuses of religious freedom between January and August, compared to 70 cases in the first eight months of 2015. Abuses cited included the closure of houses of worship and statements by public officials that condoned violence towards minorities, especially Ahmadi Muslims and members of the Gafatar group.

On April 12, a 60-year-old Christian woman was caned in Aceh for selling alcohol, marking the first time a non-Muslim was punished under Aceh’s special sharia-based law. A ban on selling alcohol is both a local and sharia regulation that applies to all residents of the province. Muslims who violate the ban are punished under sharia while non-Muslims may choose to be punished under either sharia or civil procedures. Aceh provincial officials in charge of sharia law enforcement stated the woman chose to be punished under sharia rather than the criminal statutes, which may carry fines and imprisonment. Authorities in Aceh issued a public statement saying sharia did not apply to non-Muslims, foreigners, or Muslim Indonesians not resident in Aceh. In October Aceh authorities also publicly caned 13 men and women for violating sharia laws on proximity and intimacy, such as touching, hugging, and kissing between unmarried people. Aceh’s deputy mayor said that one 22-year-old woman who was pregnant was granted a temporary reprieve to be carried out after she gave birth.

The MRA maintained its authority at both the national and local level to conduct “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. In several West Java regencies, local governments continued efforts to force or encourage conversion of Ahmadi Muslims with a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj.

On January 5, the Regent of Bangka Belitung issued a letter threatening to expel 22 Ahmadi families from Bangka Island where they had lived for decades. The regent gave the families a deadline to convert to Sunni Islam or leave their homes, saying the Ahmadi Muslims were upsetting local community members and threatened local peace and stability. According to news reports, Ahmadi children also received death threats and on February 5, the Ahmadis left their homes. The regency said its decision to expel the Ahmadis was based on a meeting with the FKUB and on a joint agreement signed by three local ministers. On February 10, then National Police Chief Badrodin Haiti gave orders to Bangka police to protect Ahmadi families from expulsion from the island, and instructed police chiefs throughout the country to prevent acts of coercion or violence against Ahmadis. After these efforts the local government and Ahmadi community said the issue was resolved. Some Ahmadis chose to move to other regions with larger Ahmadi populations.

On March 23, the MRA, MOHA, and AGO released a joint decree banning Gafatar and all associated groups, saying the group’s teachings constituted a deviant form of Islam. On May 25, police arrested the founder and two top leaders of Gafatar on accusations the group was creating a separatist state. The police stated the group would face blasphemy and treason charges. As of the end of the year, the three individuals were awaiting trial.

According to a Human Rights Watch report in May, government officials and security forces were complicit in the forced eviction of 7,000 Gafatar members from their homes after the local government declared Gafatar to be an illegal organization that must disband its activities. The NGO said in other cases security forces prevented attacks on Gafatar members but only by forcibly evacuating them from Kalimantan to Java, then arbitrarily detaining, interrogating, and threatening them with criminal charges. Gafatar members indicated the number of evicted members was closer to 8,000 by year’s end and that many of those forced to move to Central and East Java were unable to obtain new KTPs after authorities had confiscated their previous identity cards during their stays in shelters. Reportedly, some were forced to undergo reeducation programs or mandatory all-day “patriotic education.” On January 19, approximately 1,200 Gafatar members were forced to evacuate their village in Mempawah Regency, West Kalimantan after a mob set fire to nine homes.

On June 14, police detained eight Ahmadis on Lombok for participating in Ramadan prayers in their village’s Sunni mosque. According to media reports, police detained the Ahmadis “for their own protection.” An Ahmadi spokesperson said police had asked members of the Ahmadi congregation to sign a letter denouncing their beliefs. The Ahmadi community refused to sign but agreed not to gather together in one place or carry out Ramadan prayers in public mosques with Sunnis. The eight detained were subsequently released. Village authorities also reportedly forced the Ahmadi members to surrender all Ahmadi-related books and forbade Ahmadi preachers from other regions from entering the village. Approximately 200 Ahmadis remained internally displaced in cramped apartments in the main city of Mataram after a mob expelled them from their Lombok village in 2006.

On July 29, a mob looted or burned down 12 Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, after a Buddhist woman of Chinese descent asked the Al Maksum Mosque to lower its loudspeaker volume. President Joko Widodo publicly condemned the act and called upon regional leaders to promote “unity in diversity” and build a tolerant society. He also sent the chief of national police to the city in an effort to contain the situation. Other local and national leaders, including Vice President Jusuf Kalla, called for greater religious and racial tolerance in North Sumatra. More than 20 local government, religious, and ethnic leaders representing the Muslim and ethnic Chinese communities signed a formal memorandum of understanding committing to promote harmony between different religions and ethnicities and supporting law enforcement action against those who would disturb interfaith relations. Police reported the arrests of 21 young men who were directly involved in the incident.

In December the Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as “Ahok”), the first Christian governor of Jakarta in more than 50 years, was charged with blasphemy for defaming the Quran during a campaign speech in September in which he told a crowd of voters it was wrong to manipulate verses from the Quran for political gain. The speech was met with criticism from the FPI, the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), and other Muslim groups who filed a police complaint to launch an investigation. Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said, “Let the police resolve the matter in a civilized manner, without Muslims being provoked and aggravated.” On November 4, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people participated in a protest in Jakarta organized by the FPI and other groups calling for Ahok’s arrest for blasphemy. The protest ended in riots that injured more than 100 people, and on November 16, authorities officially named Ahok a suspect. On December 2, a reported 200,000 to 450,000 people rallied in Jakarta in a second protest against the governor. Ahok apologized but denied he committed blasphemy, saying he had no intention to insult the Quran and that his comments were directed at his political opponents, not Islam.

On October 31, police in Central Java charged a man with blasphemy because he reportedly tore apart the Quran. Police said the man tore his girlfriend’s Quran as an act of jealousy during an argument. The man reportedly converted to Islam in December and as of the end of the year was waiting for trial.

Members of minority religious groups continued to seek official recognition from the government.

On July 26, the local government closed an Ahmadi mosque in Sukabumi, West Java. According to the local officials, the closure was undertaken to preserve public order following complaints against the mosque’s Ahmadi affiliation.

East Java Ahmadi leaders said a village leader shut down their mosque in rural Tulungagung in January, citing a 2011 decision by East Java Governor Soekarwo to freeze Ahmadi activities. Ahmadis stated the local leader, supported by local police, had misinterpreted a freeze (which would not have affected private activities) as a ban (which would have required the group to stop practicing its faith altogether). The mosque remained closed at year’s end.

Ahmadis reported feeling under constant threat from militant groups. An Ahmadi mosque in South Jakarta remained officially closed by the local government after a July 2015 incident in which members of the FPI blocked the entrance of the Ahmadi headquarters building and mosque. Ahmadis said legal uncertainty among local officials and police, anonymous threats of violence, insufficient police protection, and fear of publicity were the barriers to reopening the building.

There were other cases of local governments, sometimes supported by police, closing houses of worship of minority groups for permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups” even if the minority groups had a proper permit. NGOs estimated, however, that as many as 85 percent of houses of worship, the majority of which are Sunni mosques, were operating without a permit. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops. Some houses of worship that were established before the joint ministerial decree on house of worship construction came into effect were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure.

Mayor of Bandung Ridwan Kamil issued a ruling that an “intolerant group’s” December 6 disbandment of a large Christmas service held at a public convention center was against the law. He demanded the Muslim group, Pembela Ahli Sunnah, issue a formal apology.

National Police Chief Karnavian said an MUI fatwa prohibiting Muslims from wearing Christmas attire was not a law in the country and instructed police to arrest members of “intolerant groups” who conducted raids to enforce the fatwa. Karnavian reprimanded local police who circulated leaflets based on the MUI edict but said the police would not tolerate companies or store owners who forced their employees to wear Christmas attire. Karnavian’s remarks came after reports FPI members, accompanied by about 200 police officers, went to shopping malls in Surabaya to remind businesses not to require Muslim employees to wear Christmas attire such as Santa hats. President Joko Widodo and Minister of Religious Affairs Saifuddin also urged the public to respect Christians and to be tolerant of the country’s diverse religious groups.

Minority religious groups reported difficulty in meeting permit requirements for new and existing houses of worship and stated local government officials declined to approve construction permits, in one case for more than 15 years for a church. Many could not obtain the requisite number of outside signatures supporting the construction and often faced protest from “intolerant groups” making getting permits nearly impossible. Even when permits were attained, some houses of worship were forced to close or halt construction after facing legal challenges and public protest. Churches also reported “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money to continue operating without a permit.

On March 7, approximately 700 protesters who said they represented the Bekasi Islamic Outreach Forum marched to the construction site of Santa Clara Catholic Church in Bekasi to protest its construction. Local police protected the site and in general kept protesters under control. Minister of Religious Affairs Saifuddin issued a statement urging the dispute to be resolved through peaceful dialogue rather than through “excessive force aimed at disturbing interfaith harmony.” Construction of the church was still in progress as of the end of the year.

An Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) congregation in Bogor, West Java, continued negotiating issues related to its building permit after it was closed in 2010 by local authorities who complied with public pressure to close the church. The national ombudsman previously tried unsuccessfully to convince Bogor Mayor Bima Arya to uphold a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the congregation in its dispute with the local government over the building permit. The congregation regularly held services outside of the Presidential Palace.

Across the eastern part of the country, the requirement to cite support from 90 followers and 60 nonadherent neighbors to build a place of worship was not followed in practice. Balinese Christians and Muslims stated the official requirement to cite a specific number of supporters was undermined, either because governments did not issue permits when the requisite numbers were obtained or because neighbors were pressured to not approve. In many local cases, a few vocal opponents from the local majority religious affiliation were reportedly sufficient to stop construction approvals. State-recognized religious leaders in government-supported interfaith forums reportedly found ways to block aliran kepercayaan believers from constructing places of worship, largely through stringent house of worship permit requirements. Aliran kepercayaan adherents said they were fearful of being accused of atheism were they to fight this in court. Other religious minorities such as Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians faced problems even when seeking approval to move to temporary facilities while a primary place of worship underwent renovation. Protestant leaders said local and provincial governments did not understand different Christian denominations and were suspicious when members of congregations traveled far to attend church instead of going to whatever church was closest to their residence. Religious minority communities said administrative suspicions and inaction blocked renovation or construction of new facilities even when they fulfilled the legal prerequisites.

Civil rights activists said locally implemented sharia-based regulations violated the constitution and called on the central government to exercise its constitutional jurisdiction to revoke or review these regulations. A 2014 law reaffirmed the MOHA’s authority to revoke local regulations concerning religious matters that violated the constitution or national law, but there were no reports the MOHA had exercised this authority.

In May sharia police officers, who are part of the Aceh provincial government’s sharia implementation apparatus, stopped dozens of women in Lhokseumawe who were not riding motorcycles sidesaddle, and reprimanded approximately 100 people, both men and women, who were not dressed according to sharia regulations.

On July 4, Armed Forces Commander Gatot Nurmantyo issued an order to allow female soldiers to wear hijabs. In August a fifth-grade student at a state elementary school in Christian-majority Jayapura was given a written warning not to wear a hijab in school on the grounds that it was not in line with the school’s uniform.

In May the police chiefs of the Jakarta Metropolitan Area and East Aceh issued directives forbidding “intolerant groups” from conducting sweeps of food stalls open for business before sundown during Ramadan.

Aliran kepercayaan followers said they were pressured to send their children to a religious education class of one of the six recognized religions. Bahai followers said schools often allowed their children to spend religious education time in study hall, but parents were required to sign documents stating their children received official religious education. Ahmadi Muslim students reported religion classes for Islam only focused on Sunni teaching.

Civil servants who openly professed an adherence to an indigenous belief system said they had difficulty getting promoted.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs, some members of minority religious groups reported difficulties accessing government services and experiencing other forms of discrimination if they exercised this right. The lack of a KTP led to issues ranging from an inability to register for health insurance to problems applying for mortgages. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members reportedly chose to identify as a member of an officially recognized religion that is close to their beliefs or reflects the locally dominant religion. This practice obscured the real number of adherents to any particular religious group in government statistics. The government continued to allow aliran kepercayaan believers to omit religious information on their identity cards, but when accessing basic social services other government forms did not always permit leaving this section blank.

Several NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to delete the religion field from the identity cards. Religious minorities reported they sometimes faced discrimination after others saw their religious affiliation on the KTP. Members of the Jewish community said they felt uncomfortable stating their religion on their KTPs and often chose to state that they were Christians. According to a report in the Jakarta Post, followers of Javanese faith Sapto Darmo reported they were prohibited from burying the remains of their family members in public cemeteries after community members realized they did not identify as one of the six official religions on their KTP. Members of the indigenous Parmalim faith also reported being refused KTPs when the officials who processed their registration application saw that they did not declare a religion. Data from an NGO showed approximately 42,000 followers of several traditional faiths were denied basic civil registry documentations such as KTPs, birth certificates, and marriage licenses, and approximately 80,000 could not access public services. In response, the MOHA said members of indigenous religions were entitled to the same access to basic services, regardless of what they did or did not declare as their religion on their KTP, and that such discrimination was a violation of the law.

Minority Muslim groups also continued to report resistance when they tried to apply for KTPs as Muslims. Many Ahmadis continued to be able to acquire KTPs listing their religion as Islam; Ahmadis in Jakarta, however, reportedly faced difficulties acquiring KTPs, effectively denying them access to public services. Like other religious minorities, Ahmadis and Shia reported discrimination in the administration of public services if they chose to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs. Bahai followers also reported difficulties, as many local officials were unaware of the option to leave the religion section blank and refused to issue the KTP.

Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority groups. For example, the Governor of Jakarta was a Protestant, the Mayor of Solo was a Catholic, and a leading Shia figure held a seat in the House of Representatives, elected from a majority Sunni district in Bandung, West Java. As of July, President Joko Widodo’s 34-member cabinet included five members of minority faiths.

Foreign religious workers stated they found it relatively easy to obtain visas. Despite laws restricting proselytizing, foreign religious groups reported little government interference with preaching or religious conversions. Police provided special protection to some churches in major cities during Sunday services and Christian holidays.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

One child was killed and three children were injured in what security officials said was a lone-wolf ISIS-inspired attack on November 13 when a former terrorist prisoner detonated a Molotov cocktail in front of a church in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, following a Sunday service. The suspect was arrested and the president called for a thorough investigation and condemned religious violence. Investigation into the attack remained ongoing.

On August 29, a man attacked a priest holding Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Medan. The man had failed to detonate a homemade suicide bomb and instead assaulted the priest with a knife before being overpowered by parishioners. Police said the man was a lone-wolf attacker who was inspired by ISIS propaganda online, had a connection with an Indonesian in Syria, and was not motivated by sectarian tensions within Indonesia. The priest suffered minor injuries. Government officials and Muslim community leaders condemned the attack.

A Molotov cocktail was thrown at a Buddhist temple in Singkawang, West Kalimantan early in the morning on November 14. The government spoke out against religious intolerance, offered protection and assurances for the religious community affected, and as of the end of the year, had questioned eight people as part of an investigation into the incident, according to media reports.

NGOs warned of rising anti-Shia sentiment in East Java, the heartland of the Nahdlatul Ulema (NU) Sunni Muslim organization. According to reports, local NU-affiliated imams continued to block reconciliation and the return of Shia internally displaced people (IDPs) to their homes in a case that has continued for several years. Several days before Eid al-Fitr, certain local Sunnis in East Java prevented hundreds of Shia IDPs from returning to their homes on Madura for the holiday. They threatened to kill Shia who tried to return and harm people who assisted them. No violent clashes were reported during this event, but there were no reports of Shia being able to return home because of the intimidation and threats of violence. More than 300 Shia reportedly remained displaced and unable to return to Madura. Anti-Shia rhetoric was also common in some online media outlets and on social media.

On April 1, hundreds of people calling themselves the Aswaja (Adherents to the Sunnah and the Community), a loose coalition of a number of NU and Persatuan (an Islamic educational organization) schools, broke up a gathering of 100 Shia women in Pasuruan district south of Surabaya. The women were celebrating the birthday of the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, an important event in Shia tradition. Police, military, and district public order forces who were present to safeguard the event responded to Aswaja’s demands, and after two hours the Shia dispersed.

On April 6, more than 10,000 Shia from East Java gathered in Bondowoso for a religious commemoration, despite vows by 3,000 anti-Shia protestors to disrupt the event. According to local media, security forces deployed 1,751 police and military to prevent the protestors from disrupting the Shia gathering. The local police chief attended the Shia events as an observer to help prevent clashes, according to a Shia leader.

In Christian-majority North Maluku, on August 24, seven members of the Shia Jafariyah congregation led by Nawawi Husni were subject to intimidation by local residents after holding a religious event in Marikurubu Subdistrict. Local police were deployed to ensure the safety of the Shia members. The police later evacuated the congregation to the police headquarters after local residents tried to damage their houses. The Shia eventually returned safely to their homes.

Members of Manado’s small Jewish community reported being intimidated by their Christian neighbors after a weekly Shabbat observance.

People affiliated at the local level with the MUI used rhetoric religious minorities considered intolerant. The MUI issued edicts against members of Gafatar in February. On June 13, the MUI protested the clothing worn by two female hosts of a Ramadan television show, stating it depicted Christian crosses. On August 25, the MUI and FPI protested the uniforms of a group of people raising the national flag in Banten, stating their uniforms depicted the Christian cross.

In March a group of church leaders in a Christian-majority region of Papua called on local officials in the highland town of Wamena to prevent the expansion of an existing mosque, ban the use of mosque loudspeakers, prohibit the wearing of headscarves in public, and stop forcing Papuan children to attend Islamic boarding schools. Several prominent Papuan religious leaders disavowed the petition of the Wamena churches as harmful to religious harmony. Komnas HAM called on the church groups to revoke the petition but agreed that Papuan children, the majority of whom are Christian, should not be forcibly sent to Islamic boarding schools. Papuan provincial Governor Lukas Enembe convened a meeting with the Papuan FKUB, religious leaders, and police to call on all sides to engage in interfaith dialogue to prevent any further escalation.

Religious minorities in Bali stated the close association of Balinese traditional culture with Balinese Hinduism created problems for Balinese who converted to Christianity, Islam, or another religion. Religious minority leaders reported Balinese women could maintain their family and social ties after converting to a new religion under recently introduced laws articulating the rights of inheritance and custody, but the laws were ignored in practice. Balinese men who converted to a new religion faced social banishment and loss of inheritance rights.

According to news reports, unknown perpetrators vandalized an Ahmadi mosque in Purworejo village, Kendal Regency, Central Java Province on May 23. The Ahmadi congregation had been in an ongoing dispute with local leaders over the construction of the mosque and the local Ahmadi leader cited a recent argument with the local village head as the provocation for the incident. On May 25, the local government facilitated mediation and the Ahmadis agreed to halt construction on the mosque pending a police investigation. Following the police investigation, the local village leader initiated a community effort to reconstruct the mosque, and police publicly stated they would protect the Ahmadi’s right to worship in the community.

Many in the media, civil society, and the general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. NGOs reported large numbers of Christian-to-Muslim and Muslim-to-Christian conversions, particularly in urban centers and the province of West Java. Many people who converted faced discrimination. The largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – NU and Muhammadiyah, with some 40 and 30 million members, respectively – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups. On April 9, for instance, NU Chairman Said Aqil Siradj publicly called on all NU members to uphold tolerance and moderate values as part of Islam. Muhammadiyah Chairman Haedar Nasir called on Indonesians to respect other religions and reject all communal violence after the August temple burnings in Tanjung Balai. “Intolerant groups” that were accused of using religion to justify criminal activity and vigilantism, however, continued to take actions against minority religious groups, including intimidation, extortion, vandalism, and protest. “Intolerant groups” reportedly accept bribes to advance corrupt political and business interests through their protests and actions. Komnas HAM stated “intolerant groups” in West Java extorted “hundreds of millions” of rupiah (thousands of dollars) from churches by threatening to vandalize and protest outside churches if they did not comply.

Leaders of the High Council of Indonesian Traditional Belief Adherents reported their numbers were in decline, largely due to formal and informal discrimination from government practices and societal attitudes.

Religious groups cooperated with each other and with other organizations on interfaith conferences and events, advocating for respect and tolerance, and speaking out against violence. For instance, NU Deputy Secretary General Imam Pituduh told the Jakarta Postmembers of the organization’s youth wing “will be at the forefront of protecting Christian fellow citizens while conducting prayers and activities ahead of Christmas. This is in the name of tolerance.” A local Hindu leader in Bali suggested the people of Denpasar participate in the takbiran, which are festivities that occur the night before Eid al-Fitr. An estimated 1,500 non-Muslims in Denpasar participated. Muhammadiyah maintained an interfaith humanitarian network, and throughout the country, FKUB chapters took steps to affirm religious pluralism by mediating interreligious conflicts. Christians in Maluku provided free rides for Muslims going to prayer services during Eid al-Fitr after Muslims offered Christians rides to attend Christmas Eve services and safeguarded their churches during religious services in December 2015.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, the Consulate General in Surabaya, and the Consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of the government on specific religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities; closures of places of worship; arrests for blasphemy and defamation of religion; the undue influence of “intolerant groups” and the importance of the rule of law; the application of sharia to non-Muslims; religious registration requirements on KTPs; the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance; and promotion of tolerance in international forums. During his October visit, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom conducted public outreach and met with government, NGO, and religious leaders in Jakarta, Banda Aceh, Bali, and Surabaya to discuss the importance of promoting religious freedom and protecting the rights of all in the country, a message he also underscored through public outreach events.

Representatives of the embassy, consulate general, and consulate spoke publicly about the importance of religious tolerance and protecting minorities from acts of violence. Embassy staff at all levels met frequently with religious leaders, representatives of social organizations, and human rights advocates to clarify U.S. policy in support of religious freedom, discuss religious tolerance, and promote respect for religion. Embassy and consulate officials also met with members of minority religious groups who were victims of religious intolerance.

The United States-Indonesia Society, a nonprofit organization endorsed by the U.S. and Indonesian governments, collaborated with Indonesian and U.S. religious leaders to launch the Indonesia-U.S. Council on Religion and Pluralism in Yogyakarta on August 10-11. The nongovernmental council convened a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance, and to combat violent extremism in both countries.

The embassy held numerous events at its cultural center venues that directly and indirectly supported religious freedom. For example, the embassy sponsored a series designed for local audiences to hear directly from prominent local Muslims about their experiences in the United States. An August event in the series focused on the 2016 presidential election and discussed its relation to religious freedom. An Indonesian American imam and a local representative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies discussed the inclusion and involvement of the U.S. Muslim community in the presidential election, and broader themes of fundamental American values such as freedom of religion. Two local TV stations and three print media outlets covered the event.

Embassy and consulate staff appeared on a number of nationally televised programs to discuss themes related to religious tolerance and diversity. Previous participants in U.S. government-funded student exchange programs appeared with embassy and consulate officials to provide accounts of their experiences in the United States including religious tolerance. Embassy and consulate personnel also led discussions and gave presentations at venues throughout the country, conveying the importance of diversity and religious tolerance to thousands of high school, Islamic boarding school, and university students. Collectively, these outreach activities carried messages of religious tolerance and religious freedom to tens of millions of viewers.

During Ramadan, embassy and consulate staff held numerous events and outreach activities that promoted religious tolerance. The embassy again sponsored a team of reporters who visited the United States to create news and documentary stories on topics that included U.S. religious life. The stories were again featured as part of the Muslim Travelers reality show during Ramadan and received an award in 2015 from the Indonesian Broadcasters Association for Best Ramadan Program. Muslim Travelers videos can be viewed on the embassy’s YouTube page. The embassy hosted iftars to advocate for tolerance and pluralism through remarks and discussions to a wide cross section of society, including political figures, civil society representatives, and students.

Embassy and consulate staff conducted extensive print, TV, and digital outreach, including the Ambassador’s Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr greeting videos and other religious pluralism initiatives that reached millions of individuals throughout the country. The embassy continued to manage a regular English language-learning column titled “Miss Understanding” on Facebook that aimed to promote religious freedom, diversity, and pluralism. The embassy, consulate general, and consulate also sponsored study exchanges and other civil society programs focusing on religious pluralism and tolerance, including programs for rising leaders and scholars.


Executive Summary

Note: This report was updated 8/17/17; see Appendix H: Errata for more information.

The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.” The prime minister in August issued Decree 315, with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice, extending registration requirements to Buddhism, the most widely practiced religion, and defining the government’s role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. By the end of the year, the government was still preparing implementing instructions to explain how it will enforce the decree. The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith), and generally requires other religions to register within one of these groups. According to religious leaders, freedom of religion in Laos tends to decline in the hinterlands; international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said restrictions on registered or unregistered minority religious groups, particularly Protestant groups, remained disproportionately high in certain remote regions. There were continued reports of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians. For example, there were reports of detentions of Christians for discussing their religion, as well as detention or withholding necessary documentation from Christians to force them to renounce their faith. Christian groups also reported longstanding issues registering and constructing churches in some areas. Reportedly, Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes were in some cases subjected to persecution. Several Christian groups, some with longstanding requests for registration, reported the government will not register new religions until Decree 315’s implementing instructions are complete.

Tension continued, mostly in the countryside, between followers of traditional animist beliefs and growing Christian communities. There were reports that animists in some cases interfered with Christian burials, and that the conversion of young people to Christianity or the refusal of Protestants to participate in local non-Christian religious ceremonies sometimes resulted in friction.

The U.S. President visited the country in September and reiterated the U.S. commitment to promoting respect for human rights and religious freedom. In February officers from the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom visited the country and encouraged government officials to abide by their international commitments and ensure local authorities enforce the law as well as met with religious communities. U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases with the government in an effort to continue an open dialogue and encourage resolution of conflicts, including on implementation of the new prime ministerial decree. The embassy maintained regular contact with officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) and the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), responsible for aspects of administering religious organizations. Embassy officials were also in regular contact with religious leaders from a wide variety of denominations and faiths to learn of any issues they faced limiting abilities to practice their respective religions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.0 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2015 national census, 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent is Christian, 31.4 percent has no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent identify as other or a nonlisted religion. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of the majority of ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population. According to the LFNC and MOHA, the remainder of the population comprises at least 48 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship. Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, as well as among Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Bahais, Mahayana Buddhists, and followers of Confucianism in total constitute less than 3 percent of the population. The government defines atheists and animists as “nonbelievers.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right and freedom to believe or not believe in any religion and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group. The constitution also says the state respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions, and “mobilizes and encourages” Buddhist monks and novices as well as priests of other religions to participate in activities that are “beneficial to the country and people.” It prohibits all acts that create division between religious groups and classes of people.

Prime Ministerial Decree 92, issued in 2002, set forth regulations for religious practice. In August the prime minister issued Decree 315 on religious practice to replace Decree 92. The new decree, however, has not been implemented fully, does not have approved implementation instructions, and is not in official circulation as of the end of the year beyond reported distribution to a few senior religious officials.

The constitution, as well as Decrees 92 and 315, state that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens.

The government officially recognizes four umbrella religious groups: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahai Faith, and requires religious groups to register within one of these officially recognized umbrella groups. Recognized Christian groups are limited to the Catholic Church, the Laos Evangelical Church (LEC), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. All unregistered Christian groups wishing to be recognized must register as part of the LEC or the Seventh-day Adventist Church, instead of receiving separate recognition.

Under both Decrees 92 and 315, nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a local MOHA branch office, regardless of whether a group is recognized or registered nationally. Some cases require approval from the central-level MOHA. Under the new decree, Buddhism will operate under the same regulations as other registered religions, where previously many of these requirements were not applied to them.

Decree 92 allowed citizens to proselytize, print, and import religious materials, own and build houses of worship, and maintain contact with overseas religious groups. These rights were contingent upon receiving permission through an approval process.

The stated purpose of Decree 315 is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, members of religions, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of various religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.”

Decree 315 has not yet been implemented, so it is not known how it will be interpreted by authorities. The decree empowers MOHA to order the cessation of any religious activities or beliefs that are not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction. According to the decree, MOHA may stop any religious activity threatening to national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity between tribes and religions, including the threats to the lives, properties, health, or reputations of others. The decree requires MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.

The new decree prohibits individuals, organizations with a legal personality, and social establishments from causing division among different ethnic groups and religions.

The new decree stipulates that elected or appointed office bearers in committees of responsibility in religious establishments must be presented to national, provincial, as well as district and village level MOHA offices to be reviewed, considered, and certified. MOHA and the related lower-level offices also have authority to issue certificates for religious establishments.

Under the new decree, religious groups operating in multiple provinces are required to obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts are required to obtain provincial level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district level approval. If a religious group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, approvals at the corresponding level are required. If a religious activity takes place outside of a religious group’s property, it requires village authority approval. Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province. Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities other than routine events in advance to be reviewed, investigated, and approved by the local authorities within their jurisdictions.

Under Decree 315, all houses of worship must be correctly registered under the law and applicable regulations. Any maintenance, restoration, and construction activities at religious facilities must receive MOHA approval from all levels. Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask the minister of home affairs to investigate, consider, and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.

According to the new decree, those entering the religious clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable. For a period less than three months, the village authority, as well as a guardian or spouse, must approve. The shorter time period stipulations generally apply to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in their lives, often for a duration of less than three months.

Clergy and religious teachers traveling abroad for specialist studies must be approved by both the Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) and MOHA. Generally, any students going abroad for study requires approval from the MOES. Religious organizations conducting religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level in Laos.

Under Decree 315, the LFNC may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, aim to reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.” They are able to listen to opinions and concerns of religious communities in order to work with the respective police or other authorities to investigate and resolve issues.

Under Decree 315, the government continues to control written materials for mass consumption, including for religious use. It regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions. MOHA may require the relevant religious group to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religion, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country. Under the new decree, the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials is prohibited.

Buddhist clergy are required by the new decree to have identification cards and clergy from other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with a declaration made that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to convert his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.

Government Practices

There were reports of religious minority members who were subjected to attempted forced renunciations, imprisonment, arrest, and detention. In some cases local officials reportedly threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with certain orders. NGOs stated the relatively decentralized nature of the government structure contributed to abuses on the part of local officials, some of whom were reportedly unaware of laws and policies protecting religious freedom or unwilling to implement them. Religious groups said most, if not all, instances of abuse occurred in remote villages. According to religious leaders and government officials, the further one was from the capital city, the more likely abuses would occur.

There were multiple reports of arrests and detentions of Christian villagers who had reportedly discussed their religion with those of other religious groups. All were eventually released. Some were fined, but none reportedly paid.

There were reports from religious groups that Protestants in some villages were arrested for holding Christian services in their homes without permission. This particularly affected Protestants who had not been given approval to build church structures in their villages because of the moratorium on permits. Persons arrested for such alleged religion-related offenses, as with all criminal offenses, had little protection under the law and could be held for lengthy periods without trial and then released, according to reports.

In October in Huaphou Village, Xiengkhor District, Houaphan Province, local religious groups reported that village officers detained a couple, tied their hands and feet for an entire day, and told them to stop practicing Christianity. The couple was eventually released.

According to religious groups, in April in Khamkeut District, Bolikhamxay Province, a village forced 10 Christian families to leave for allegedly creating conflict and disrupting village harmony by dividing the village into followers of more than one religion. The 10 families were reportedly left homeless and unable to work or send their children to school.

Also in April at another village in Houaphan Province, religious groups reported police demanded five Christian families turn over their Bibles, renounce their faith, provide the names of all family members, and report who was responsible for converting them to Christianity. Authorities also denied the five families their family registration books, documentation required for all citizens to reside legally where they live, access schools, and maintain most aspects of life that require government interaction. Police questioned them about collecting tithes, why they did not cry for or offer food to the dead, and why they reportedly distributed religious literature illegally. Police also said the families degraded the village and district by practicing of their religion.

Religious groups reported multiple cases of Christian families being denied their house registration books, reportedly because of their religion. MOHA said they were aware of issues families that moved from one location to another faced due to errors in the application process or missing documentation. Religious groups reported that families had lived for generations in remote villages but still lacked family registration books and that when a village did begin to receive books, only Buddhist or animist residents had received them, but not Christians. These Christians were reportedly told that they would have to renounce Christianity or leave the village. MOHA said it had not received complaints related to – nor was it aware of – this issue.

Religious groups reported that in April, in Namtha District, Luang Namtha Province, authorities threatened 15 Hmong Christian families so the families would abandon their belief in Christianity.

In Sam Neua District, Houaphan Province, public school authorities reportedly told five Christian families to remove copies of their family registration books from school records, which left their children unable to take exams. Authorities reportedly told the families to either renounce Christianity or leave the village to get their registration books back.

Religious organizations reported that while Decree 92 was in effect, government policy continued effectively to preclude the registration of new religious groups, and registration procedures and timelines outlined in Decree 92 remained unclear. For example, religious organizations reported that according to the decree they were required to “provide a comprehensive set of documents” to the Central Committee of the LFNC “through the concerned local administrative authorities.” The decree did not identify the required documents or the length of the administrative process. Religious organizations reported LFNC authorities asked unregistered religious organizations to register as a subgroup of existing recognized churches, without regard to differences in religious beliefs.

Christian groups reported they were often denied approval to build churches because they had no registered members in the village. Church members, however, could not register unless there was a church, creating an unresolvable issue. As an attempted solution, church members built temporary structures to serve as unofficial churches. They said that as the Christian population grew, they tried to apply for a church permit, prompting government officials’ reported concerns that the structures were unstable, and could not be approved.

Religious groups said denied registrations were largely due to local village leaders belonging to the majority ethnic-religious group in a village, often Buddhist or animist, leading to reported biases against Christians, who were usually the minority.

Government officials said the country was open to all religions, although only four are currently recognized. The LEC continued to serve as an umbrella group for all registered Christian denominations other than Catholic or Seventh-day Adventist, as religious leaders reported applications for new Christian groups has been too difficult. Government officials reported in September one unrecognized Christian group that wished to register with the government separately from the LEC approached an official for advice who told the group to register with MOHA, but to wait until the new decree was being applied. Shortly thereafter, the official said two of the recognized Christian subgroups contacted him to ask he not allow the requesting religious group to register and receive recognition. Religious leaders stated one of the biggest difficulties that currently unrecognized and therefore unregistered groups faced is that, although registration of any religious group is permitted, in practice disparate groups have been forced under one of the recognized subgroups.

One Christian group has continued to seek independent recognition under the Christian banner since 2012 when their request was denied and has operated without legal status. The group’s attempt to purchase property was unsuccessful because they were unrecognized. On October 1, their only church in the country was closed.

Religious leaders indicated Christians appear to be the fastest growing religious community and Christians reported facing the most difficulties with local authorities and the general population. At a national government meeting in October during which an official gave statistics on religious populations, a National Assembly member reportedly asked why the number of Christians in the country had been allowed to increase so much and questioned what the government would do about it. The meeting chair did not allow the question to be answered and ended the session.

Some Christian leaders continued to say the central government has attempted to repress Christianity because it continued to see Christianity as a foreign and subversive religious practice. Many religious leaders said that although MOHA contended that conflicts originated at the local level, local officials had approval for their actions from either the central government or senior officials within the central government. In dealing with local conflicts regarding religious issues, officials at MOHA reported they first waited for the provinces to resolve the issue before getting involved. Government officials from MOHA and the LFNC reported some local officials were on occasion incorrectly applying regulations or in fact, creating their own regulations contrary to national law. MOHA said, because of financial limitations, there are many remote areas where it has yet to reach to disseminate the previous decree and will take some time to do so with the new decree.

Non-Buddhist religious group leaders stated a broad range of their activities such as congregating, building churches, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations were limited by requirements to obtain prior permission, sometimes from several different offices. Buddhists received many de facto exemptions from such requirements and were generally permitted to conduct activities without requesting permission.

Both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, the former and current prime ministerial decrees, and social harmony as reasons for restricting and overseeing religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian groups among minority ethnic groups.

Although groups not registered with MOHA or the LFNC were not legally allowed to practice their faith, several reportedly did so quietly without interference. Christian groups seeking official recognition as separate from the LEC continued to be the targets of restrictions, and authorities in several provinces insisted independent congregations join the LEC. In many areas, however, unauthorized churches were allowed to conduct services without hindrance by local authorities.

According to Muslim community leaders, Muslims were able to practice openly at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country. According to the Muslim Association, its leaders met regularly with LFNC officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government. Daily prayers and the weekly Friday prayer proceeded unobstructed, and all Islamic celebrations were allowed. Muslims were permitted to go on the Hajj. The government permitted groups from Thailand to conduct Tabligh teachings.

While animists generally reported little governmental interference, the government actively discouraged animist practices it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.

Representatives of Bahai communities in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang reported they generally practiced without interference, and Bahai groups faced few restrictions from local authorities. Local Bahai communities and the Bahai National Spiritual Assembly routinely held Bahai Nineteen-Day Feasts and celebrated all holy days without interference. The Bahai National Spiritual Assembly in Vientiane met regularly.

Religious leaders said they were effectively banned from proselytizing in public, although they were seemingly able to do so on a small scale, such as in private settings and among friends. Programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship that could therefore be seen by the public required prior approval from local or higher officials.

The government promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture. Mandatory cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples and, in several provinces, the lessons were required to pass to the next grade level. MOES allowed parents to take their children out if they were dissatisfied with the program. According to the ministry, there was no Buddhist curriculum taught in any public schools; however, several provinces did teach Buddhist curriculum in public schools. Christian students reported discomfort with being forced to pray in Buddhist temples as part of the requirement to pass to the next grade level. A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups existed throughout the country and accepted students from any religious denomination.

MOHA officials said they were concerned that imported religious materials and texts might have included religious content different from domestic practices, and as such required approval from the religious authority related to that imported material, to avoid misunderstandings.

Provincial, district, and local officials, as well as MOHA’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs (DERA) and LFNC representatives participated in town hall meetings with local Protestant leaders and community leaders to discuss conflicts involving the confiscations of churches in prior years.

As many as three-fourths of the LEC’s congregations throughout the country did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in homes. The LFNC’s Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that house churches be replaced with designated church structures whenever possible; local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal. Protestant groups reported they sometimes could not obtain permission to build new churches. According to MOHA, a moratorium on permits to build new churches continued, pending implementation of the new prime ministerial decree. Religious group representatives said the building permit process began at the local level and then required district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFNC and MOHA permission. They said local officials used the process to block construction of new churches.

Many religious leaders complained of lengthy delays in getting permits approved for church construction, and generally received no response to requests. According to the LFNC, many of the delays were related to legal matters on construction, or in some cases, a small cluster of Christian families in one village wished to build two or three churches in the same village resulting in more churches than local authorities think the number of Christians justify. The LFNC said this led to conflicts with other religions predominant in the village that often held an equal number of temples, and therefore local authorities did not permit additional churches to be built. The LFNC cited other examples in which a Catholic church, a Protestant church, and several Buddhist temples existed in harmony. The LFNC also said it was not aware there might have been cases where two different LEC subgroups, with quite different doctrines, might have tried to build separate churches in the same village and that might account for the number of churches.

In Savannakhet and Champasak Provinces, Catholics said the government restricted them from obtaining government jobs or being promoted. Other religious groups stated that in general, there were no non-Buddhist or non-animist government officials in higher-level posts at provincial or national levels.

During the year, the government promoted ethnic Lao culture, with a focus on Buddhist practices. Government officials attended some Buddhist religious festivals as well as Christmas and religious New Year celebrations in their official capacity. Under the new Decree 315, the government may continue to sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.

In cases where it came to officials’ attention, the government strictly enforced a prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners, which reportedly continued to be widespread although conducted mainly in small, private settings. Christian leaders from foreign countries reported local congregations often requested they not preach from the pulpit to avoid the perception that foreigners were proselytizing to citizens.

The government typically did not acknowledge any religious freedom abuses by its officials. Government authorities often blamed the victims rather than those responsible. Even when central government officials acknowledged certain actions, they often said the actions taken by local officials were not based on religion, but on local officials’ duty to maintain order. Religious groups stated that provincial government officials asked religious leaders not to report grievances to foreigners in exchange for greater religious freedom. Provincial government officials in turn reportedly did not inform the central authority about cases involving religious conflicts out of fear of losing funding and of losing recognition for being a model province. According to religious groups, the central government continued efforts to keep individuals who had been arrested, banished, punished, marginalized, or had otherwise been the victim of abuses due to their religious belief out of sight and mind of the international community.

The LFNC and MOHA continued to visit occasionally areas where abuses of religious freedom had taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law. LFNC and MOHA officials frequently traveled to the provinces to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain officials’ obligations under the constitution and the right to believe or not to believe in religion. During these sessions, LFNC and MOHA officials were exposed to religious law and participated in education seminars that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Islam from religious leaders.

According to the government and religious leaders, in an effort to promote consultation among all stakeholders concerning the drafting of Decree 315, the LFNC and MOHA organized a meeting for recognized religious group representatives. Participants made suggestions that would clarify roles and responsibilities of responsible agencies. Members of religious communities reported concerns that the new decree was a major change of existing rules and a potentially more restrictive set of regulations than what they said was its already restrictive predecessor. In spite of the government’s stated aim to take into account religious groups’ concerns, the government’s initial review of Decree 315 reportedly left some groups feeling that their concerns were not incorporated into the decree as expected. With the decree officially enacted, MOHA, in consultation with LFNC and other relevant ministries and organizations, continued to draft instructions for implementation as of the end of the year. The ministries said they would not include religious groups in the drafting process, but expected religious leaders to challenge the instructions by submitting complaints to MOHA and that revisions may be required after implementation commences. The government expected delays for any approvals required by the new decree would be the norm pending completion of the instructions, as was the case when awaiting amendments to Decree 92 to be finalized in the past.

In collaboration with the LFNC, an international NGO continued to conduct training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders throughout the year to help both sides better understand each other and the law, and to address religious leaders’ continuing concerns about the eviction of religious minority families and the subsequent confiscation of their property in various villages, as well as their frustration over the arduous registration process involving resistance from village leaders all the way up to MOHA.

According to government officials, some people who committed crimes unrelated to religion later said authorities pursued them because of their religion. The officials said that similar to their proportion of the general population, Buddhists make up the majority of prisoners, and said that no one has said that the government is cracking down on Buddhists. Officials also said there were cases where Buddhist or animist prisoners have converted to Christianity in prison, in the hope that their new religious group may press for their release or a reduced sentence.

The LFNC’s new president entered office in June. Since his appointment, religious leaders said he has reached out to religious communities, including visits to religious leaders in Savannakhet Province. They said they felt cautiously optimistic that his approach to their concerns has been favorable in comparison to that of his predecessor. The LFNC said it is planning quarterly meetings with religious groups both in Vientiane and in the provinces, if requested.

In December a representative of the LFNC attended an event honoring the beatification of 17 Catholic martyrs that included 11 French priests, one Laotian priest, and five Laotian laypeople, 16 of whom were killed by the then insurgent and subsequently government forces between 1957 and just prior to 1975, and one by the former regime. Some 100 Catholic priests and approximately 1,000 laypeople from around the region were in attendance. During the event, the LFNC representative gave a speech discussing Decree 315.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Christian sources reported interreligious tensions on some occasions among some minority ethnic groups, particularly in response to the growth of Christian congregations or disagreements over access to village resources. The refusal by members of non-Buddhist groups, particularly Protestants, to participate in Buddhist or animist ceremonies continued to be a source of tensions in rural areas. In some cases, villagers threatened Christians with expulsion from the village should they not renounce their faith. Christian group leaders, however, encouraged their members to work out a compromise allowing them to support local Buddhist or animist ceremonies without participating in them. Members of some Christian groups said they could not make such compromises, which they said would violate their religious beliefs.

Some members of ethnic groups that were associated with the United States during the Vietnam War era, and related conflicts in Laos, said they felt abandoned by the United States at the time and rejected Christianity, which they viewed as an American religion. This sentiment reportedly led to issues in remote areas where these ethnic communities placed additional pressure on Christians, including within families and from neighbors.

Christians reported concerns among many animists regarding burial practices. Christian groups did not cremate their deceased, and buried them on church land or assigned plots of land near villages. During the year, religious groups reported two cases where a funeral procession was to cross over rice fields in order to reach burial sites. In one case, a farmer requested 5 million Kip ($612) in compensation, as he said the passing of the deceased over his fields would cause a failed crop. The farmer eventually dropped his request for compensation, but authorities only allowed direct family members, and no other church members, to attend the funeral. Some animists said they were alarmed at the Christian practice of burying their dead within the village boundary confines, believing that the deceased’s spirit would bring disharmony to the village and conflict with the village spirits because the body was not cremated.

The LFNC said they have repeatedly seen cases in remote villages in which older family members, who were animists, reported that their Christian convert children or grandchildren damaged or destroyed animist relics. Elder animists said they opposed their younger family members adopting non-animist beliefs and threatened them via various means, including government intervention.

Several private preschools and English-language schools received support from religious groups of various denominations abroad. Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which traditionally filled the role of schools and continued to play this role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable. Two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, conducted religious education for children and youth. Bahai groups conducted religious training for children and adult members. The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Thakhek for students with high school degrees to study philosophy and theology for two to 10 years. The Muslim community offered limited educational training for its children.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. President visited the country in September and reiterated the U.S. commitment to promoting respect for human rights and religious freedom. In February officers from the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom visited the country and met with the LFNC, MOHA, and local government officials in Vientiane, Savannakhet, Khammuan, and Xieng Khouang. They encouraged the government to abide by its international commitments on protecting religious freedom and ensure local authorities enforce the law. U.S. embassy officers regularly advocated for religious freedom and amendment of relevant laws and decrees with a range of government officials. In multiple exchanges with MOHA, the National Assembly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and/or the LFNC’s Religious Affairs Department, U.S. embassy officials advocated for the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of arrest, abuse or harassment; cumbersome registration procedures; trends in and abuses of religious freedom; and government management of religious practices in the provinces, such as forced or threatened detentions, removal from villages, evictions, and other problems for recent converts. The LFNC and MOHA sometimes used this information to intercede with local officials.

The embassy actively engaged with MOHA and the LFNC to learn how the newly issued decree will be implemented.

The embassy offered MOHA and the LFNC assistance in disseminating information on aspects of the law providing legal protections for religious freedom to more remote areas, where reportedly understanding of these aspects may be lacking and there are many religious freedom issues. Both MOHA and LFNC said they were appreciative of the offer and said they would consider how to best make use of the embassy’s outreach. One religious leader suggested that the embassy include the Ministry of Public Security’s local-level counterparts, and others involved in law enforcement in the outreach process, to ensure that those who are involved in many of the issues are properly aware of their responsibilities to protect religious freedom.

Office of International Religious Freedom officers also met with religious communities and NGOs, including Buddhists, Bahais, Seventh-day Adventists, and unrecognized Christians, to discuss the challenges religious groups faced in obtaining government approval for many of their activities.

The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious leaders and advocacy groups to address religious freedom concerns. Embassy officers regularly consulted registered and unregistered religious groups regarding the reports of arrests of religious followers, cumbersome registration procedures, and abuses of freedoms, including during visits to Savannakhet, Khammuan, Bolikhamxay, and Xieng Khouang provinces conducted this year.


Executive Summary

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 control doctrine among Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal and subject to action by religious authorities. 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. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government arrested several people practicing forms of Islam other than Sunni and individuals who authorities said insulted religion or incited “religious disharmony.” The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes. Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty in using the word “Allah” to denote God. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report difficulty in gaining registration as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship; religious converts had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders stated that society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They cited public protests against non-Sunni Muslim groups, some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as heavily publicized social media posts targeting Muslim and non-Muslim groups. Women who did not dress in what others considered modest attire continued to report incidents of public shaming. A Catholic group reported increasing incidents of Islamic proselytism in its schools. At least eight incidents of vandalism at Hindu temples around the country were reported in a span of five months, although authorities stated this did not constitute a trend.

Official U.S. representatives regularly discussed with government officials and leaders issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, proposed legislation affecting religious groups, and increasing religious intolerance. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities visited and discussed religious freedom with government officials and civil society leaders. Embassy representatives also met with members of religious groups, including those not officially recognized by the government. The embassy’s continued engagement with the government and religious organizations included speaker programs and visitor exchanges to promote religious tolerance and freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.9 million (July 2016 estimate). Census figures from 2010 indicate that 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; and 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions. Other minority religious groups include animists, Sikhs, and Bahais. Ethnic Malays, who are defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the east coast of peninsular Malaysia – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The federal constitution states that “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. 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 the “Heads of Islam” within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the king. Sultans oversee the 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. The law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law, except in matters concerning Islamic law. A 1996 fatwa with the effect of law under the sharia code requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, but allows and supports Muslims proselytizing others. 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, however, must convert to Islam for the marriage to be officially recognized. A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without the explicit permission of his or her guardian; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15.

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests and can impose penalties on apostates, including enforced “rehabilitation.” In the states of Perak, Melaka Sabah, and Pahang, conversion from Islam to another religion is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam, and sharia courts remain unwilling to allow such conversions for those who are born Muslims and reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. In the states of Perak, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Sarawak, and Melaka, sharia allows one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

There is only one approved Islamic organization in each state. There is no legal requirement for other religious groups to register, but in order to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Office of the Registrar of Societies (RoS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and paying a small fee. Many churches and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, continue to find registration difficult, with RoS denying many applications for highly technical reasons. Once registered, these organizations continue to be registered as long as they submit annual reports to the RoS as legally required.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and surau (prayer rooms) – fall under the authority of the federal Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or surau. JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare 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 Islamic teachers before they may be allowed to preach in any particular mosque within a state or the Federal Territories.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. 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 and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have symbolically enacted hudood (Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the code to be implemented.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for Muslim males, although they may marry before those ages with the permission of their parents and the sharia courts. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry.

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for the individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donations to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation and are used by the government to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in a printed fashion; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is not printed, but 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.

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.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to forbid any non-Sunni practice of Islam, barred Muslims from converting to another religion, and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslim who contravened sharia codes. It also limited proselytization by non-Muslim religious groups and restricted the distribution of religious texts. The government prosecuted some deemed to have “insulted Islam” under sedition laws, often following criticism of the government’s policies on religion. Because Islam, Malay ethnic identity, and the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

The government continued actions against Shia Muslims engaged in religious practice. In October the Selangor State Islamic Department (JAIS) detained 50 Pakistani nationals believed to be Shia Muslims at an event to mark the day of Ashura. In November the Melaka State Islamic Department arrested 15 suspected members of what authorities said was a “deviant” Shia group. Those arrested were free on bail pending trial as of the end of the year. Under state sharia law, each faced up to three years in jail or a 5,000 ringgit (RM) ($1,115) fine for “insulting Islam.”

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines concerning 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 teach and enforce 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 the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. State 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).

Proceedings were ongoing in a civil court in the case of the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) against JAIS authorities. The case stemmed from a 2014 fatwa with the force of law labeling the NGO a “religiously deviant organization for subscribing to liberalism and pluralism.” In June a lower civil court ruled only the sharia court had the authority to decide on the validity of the fatwa; SIS filed an appeal of the decision to a higher civil court.

The government used sedition laws to restrict and punish speech seen as criticizing Sunni Islam. Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech allegedly denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In August authorities detained rapper Wee Meng Chee, who uses the stage name Namewee, in Penang State for releasing a music video they said “defiled a place of worship with the intent of insulting a religion of any class.” The video used the word “Allah” and sounds of the Islamic call to prayer and was partly filmed at a mosque as well as a church and Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist temples. Namewee was released on bail after four days and could face up to two years in prison. At year’s end, authorities had not charged him with a crime.

In September police conducted a predawn raid on the home of a former journalist after he posted remarks on social media about a recently deceased prominent Islamic political leader. Police detained him twice in 10 days while investigating him under laws against online “abuse” and causing “religious disharmony.” As of the end of the year, authorities had not charged him with a crime.

In June the head Islamic official of the Pahang State government referred to members of a mostly ethnic Chinese opposition party as kafir harbi (nonbelievers who can be slain for waging war on Islam) for their opposition to the adoption of hudood in the country. The police took no action against the religious leader despite calls to do so from civil society and opposition leaders.

Members of banned groups such as Shia, Ahmadi, and Al-Arqam Muslims, could not speak freely about their religious beliefs. Restrictions remained on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. The Sidan Injil Borneo (an evangelical church), based in Malaysia’s eastern island states, requested the Federal Court, the country’s highest court, consider the right of the church and its Malay language-speaking congregation to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The court is scheduled to consider the case in 2017.

The government prohibited publications, public events, and public debates that it stated might incite religious disharmony. Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion. In January JAKIM released pamphlets, flyers, and other promotional materials that said Shia Muslims were potential “radical” threats.

The government placed restrictions on religious assembly and denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Representatives of religious groups complained the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups. In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported that registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of groups that registered as companies include Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

The federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be deviant Islamic groups such as Shia, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers as these could only be done in an officially registered mosque.

In August a court in Kuala Lumpur upheld the government’s ban of four books by novelist Faisal Tehrani for allegedly spreading Shia teachings.

State governments had exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries. Non-Muslim groups reported 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. Observers said that this practice has been largely tolerated, but also has left the religious groups vulnerable.

Representatives from one Christian group reported continued frustration at local authorities’ unwillingness over the last several years to approve plans to build a new house of worship. The group said it planned instead to renovate existing warehouse space.

The federal government budget allocated RM 1 billion ($223 million) to JAKIM during the year for a wide variety of Islamic education and mosque-related projects. There were no specifically allocated funds in the government budget for non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and activities.

At primary and secondary public schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families reported difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education. Community leaders and civil liberties groups reported that religion teachers in many public schools, particularly in the peninsula of the country, pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils fully covering the face.

Civil liberty groups and non-Muslim religious leaders said that when civil and sharia jurisdictions intersected, civil courts continued to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where non-Muslims were affected by sharia judgments. The media and civil liberty lawyers reported that sharia courts often decided child custody cases where one parent converted to Islam while the other did not – and have historically favored the Muslim parent. When facing competing orders by civil and sharia courts regarding custody, they stated the police generally sided with the sharia decisions. In August, however, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the government’s plans to introduce amendments ensuring interfaith disputes involving civil marriages would be resolved in civil court. Parliamentary debate on the proposed amendments was expected to begin in March 2017.

In May the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) introduced a bill significantly raising current limits on sharia courts’ punishment powers. States must currently limit sharia court punishments to three years in prison; RM 5,000 ($1,115) fines; and six strokes of the cane. The most recent version of the PAS bill proposed to raise those limits to 30 years in prison; RM 100,000 ($22,297) fines; and 100 strokes of the cane. The bill generated substantial public discussion, with Muslim groups and some official state Islamic authorities supporting the effort. In a November speech Prime Minister Najib reiterated his ruling UMNO party’s position of cooperating with PAS on the bill in order to “develop Islam” and “empower the sharia courts.” Some other Muslim and non-Muslim groups opposed the legislation, which they stated infringed on the country’s civil laws and represented a first step toward the eventual enforcement of hudood.

It remained difficult for those registered as Muslims to have their religious identification changed by the authorities. In August the court of appeal in Sarawak State ruled against three converts to Islam who later said they had left the religion and wanted their identification information changed accordingly. The court decided that the matter needed to be resolved in the state sharia court but the applicants appealed their case to the civil Federal Court.

According to press reports, in April the National Registration Department (NRD) appealed a federal High Court ruling that a Sarawak man who was born into a Christian family that converted to Islam when he was a child had the right to reconvert to Christianity as an adult and have his identity card show his faith as Christian. Reportedly, the NRD argued that only a sharia court could make this decision, but the High Court judge disagreed saying, “…freedom of religion is his constitutional right and only he can exercise that right.”

Government officials made anti-Semitic, and in some cases anti-Christian, statements. In March Member of Parliament and Deputy Minister of Agriculture Tajuddin Abdul Rahman accused former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of working with Jewish-controlled media to bring down Prime Minister Najib.

Some government bodies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, were tasked with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that none had the power and the influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, citing the large footprint and budget for the Department of Islamic Development, compared to the limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders stated that society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They cited public protests against non-Sunni Muslim groups, some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as heavily publicized social media posts targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.

According to AsiaNews, in February Catholic school leaders reported and denounced what they said was increasingly aggressive proselytism in Catholic schools to convert Catholic students to Islam. The president of the Educational Commission of the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu, Sister Rita Chew, said the government denied such activity was taking place but Catholic schools and parents reported their children being taught Islamic prayers and some conversions had taken place.

Hindus protested Indian Imam Zakir Naik’s April speaking tour to the country because they said his message insulted Hinduism and promoted extremism. Naik was welcomed by the government.

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former coreligionists, including friends and relatives. Muslim women and girls faced social pressure to wear the tudong. Muslim women who did not wear the head scarf or dress modestly were often subject to shaming on social media. In September fans criticized local celebrity Nik Zaris Uqasha Senrose for removing her tudong.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. In July Muslim groups including PAS protested Selangor State’s approval of a concert featuring an American pop star deemed “too sexy” and therefore “un-Islamic” and inappropriate for the Muslim-majority city to be hosting the event during the holy month of Syawal. The singer performed in the concert.

At least eight incidents of vandalism at Hindu temples around the country were reported from April to November. In April police charged Fathi Munzir Nadzri with defiling a temple in Perak State, which carried a jail sentence of up to two years and a fine. In November the Sessions Court acquitted Nadzri on grounds of insanity, but prosecutors appealed the ruling. In July police arrested a suspect accused of two temple vandalism cases in Penang State. Hindu leaders and NGOs said police ignored the potential religious or ethnic motivations for the crimes and called on authorities to increase protection for places of worship and to investigate the cases of vandalism for any elements of “terrorism and extremism.”

According to media reports, in March a mosque in Lutong, Sarawak State, said it would open its new parking lot to churchgoers of the neighboring Anglican church. The priest said it was an example of the “true spirit” of the country and the tolerance in Sarawak.

Several months after protesters forced the congregation of a small Christian church to take down the cross on its outside wall in 2015, the church replaced the cross without protests following community mediation efforts from the Department of National Unity and Integration.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. and embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials and civil society leaders on religious freedom issues throughout the year.

In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the federal minister for unity, the chair of the National Human Rights Commission, and with the mufti overseeing Islamic affairs in the country’s capital and Federal Territories. The Ambassador at Large discussed the difficulties reported by minority groups, including non-Muslim and non-Sunni Muslim groups. He urged the authorities to provide equal protection to all religious groups. In May the U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities promoted religious freedom during meetings with religious and civil society leaders. He met with the federal minister for youth and sports and discussed interfaith dialogue and religious freedom issues in the context of preventing violent extremism. During a February visit to Kuala Lumpur, a Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor hosted a roundtable meeting with religious leaders and faith-based organizations. Among the topics discussed with the group, which included Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist representatives, were the negative effects of forbidding use of the word “Allah” to denote God for Christians worshipping in their native language, and the role of Islam in the courts’ inability to settle the limits of sharia in child custody and conversion cases. They also discussed the changing official view of Islam, which has led government religious authorities to limit the voices heard in mosques.

Embassy officials engaged with religious and civil society leaders throughout the year on topics of concern, including meetings to hear the concerns of Shia and Ahmadi Muslim groups deemed “deviant” by government religious authorities; the groups detailed the heavy restrictions on their worship activities. Embassy officials also met with a variety of non-Muslim groups who reported continued difficulties registering churches, building houses of worship, and facing societal discrimination. The embassy also engaged with groups of Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as the Islamic NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS). Embassy officers regularly attended the court proceedings in SIS’s civil case against JAIS and encouraged diplomats from other countries also to attend and provide support for the group.

The U.S. embassy promoted religious freedom issues through a variety of outreach programs around the country. In January embassy officers visited Islamic religious schools in rural Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, and Penang states to engage with influential religious leaders on various issues, including freedom of religion. In March a senior embassy official hosted an event for former participants of a U.S. government exchange program on their continued engagement in the country’s rural Muslim communities. In June the embassy hosted an iftar for Rohingya refugee children to showcase the U.S. commitment to religious minorities under threat. In August the embassy hosted a U.S.-based imam who spoke with a diverse set of audiences about issues faced by youth, life as a Muslim in the United States, and the positive role young people can play in developing a more tolerant society.

The U.S. embassy also inaugurated a months-long series of interfaith dialogues and forums in September with an emphasis on unity among Malaysians from different religious backgrounds.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religious profession and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of religion by law. President Rodrigo Duterte approved a “strategic peace roadmap” which the government said would address the aspirations of Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao. Security procedures drafted in Davao City following the bombing of a night market drew criticism from the Muslim community for suggesting that Muslim women not cover their faces in public and at security checkpoints. In September President Duterte made remarks likening himself to Hitler when describing the need to kill drug dealers and addicts as part of his antidrug campaign, receiving criticism from international Jewish organizations and international media. The president also made several statements during the year opposing the Catholic Church in response to criticism of his policies. The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at both the national and local levels, and the Department of Education (DepEd) continued to promote the standardization of madrassah curriculum between private and public institutions.

During the year, the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other Islamic militant groups carried out killings, attacks, bombings, and kidnappings for ransom. The government continued sustained law enforcement and counterterrorism operations against these groups.

There were instances of discrimination in economic opportunities and public statements – via the internet and social media – denigrating the beliefs or practices of particular religious groups, particularly Muslims.

The U.S. embassy routinely discussed religious freedom issues and the role of the peace process in increasing space for religious diversity, with government offices and nongovernmental organizations at all levels. The Ambassador gave remarks on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance at events around the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 102.6 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2010 census conducted by the National Statistics Office, approximately 81 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Approximately 9 percent belong to other Christian groups, including the following internationally based denominations: the Seventh-day Adventists, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons); and the following domestically established churches: Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan), Members Church of God International, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the Name Above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim and the remaining 4 percent did not report a religious affiliation or belong to other groups, such as the various animistic and syncretic religions of some of the Lumad, or indigenous tribes.

A more recent estimate, made in 2012 by the NCMF, indicates that approximately 10-12 percent of the total population is Muslim. Most Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups. The majority of Muslims reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Although most are Sunni, a small number of Shia live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur on Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila and Cebu.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religious profession and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion by law. No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights. The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state. The law treats intentional attacks directed against buildings dedicated to religion as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law.

The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status. Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and existing bylaws for SEC registration as religious corporations. The SEC requires existing religious corporations to submit annual financial statements. The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC. To be registered as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR. The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors. The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years. Established religious corporations may be fined for late filing of registrations with the BIR or failing to submit of registration datasheets and financial statements. There is no nontax penalty for failing to register, and some groups do not register.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory, parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space. Students who do not attend religious instruction, whether because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire, receive normal supervised class time. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. In July congress passed a new law mandating that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslims’ and the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples in the formulation of the curriculum on Filipino history.

By law, public schools must ensure the religious rights of students are protected. Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.

The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. Sharia courts only handle cases relating to personal laws on family relations and property. Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.

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

Government Practices

In July President Duterte approved a “strategic peace roadmap” with the expressed aims of addressing the aspirations of Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao. According to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the roadmap aims to uphold all preexisting Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) agreements within constitutional parameters, including the role of sharia. An expanded and inclusive Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) will be reconstituted and will involve additional stakeholders from the region with the aim of ensuring inclusivity. The new BTC will draft a bill designed to implement the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the goal of submitting it to congress by July 2017. Because religion, politics, and ethnicity are often closely linked in Mindanao, it was difficult to categorize the process of drafting a framework for peace in the region as being solely based on religious factors.

The Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) stated that, for many Muslims, the failure of the previous congress to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (draft legislation to implement the CAB with the MILF that preceded the “strategic peace roadmap”) amounted to failure of the government to implement an expansion of their religious freedom, which had been agreed upon by OPAPP and MILF negotiators.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns continued to monitor issues relating to religious freedom and received no complaints or cases involving the abuse of religious freedom again this year. The NCMF received at least one report of discrimination against Muslims on the basis of religion.

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment continued to administer logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi Embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported there were approximately 8,000 pilgrims during the year, meeting the limit set by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for pilgrims from the Philippines. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects

Following the September 2 bombing of a night market in Davao City which left 15 people dead, Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio said it would be a good security practice to disallow garments that cover faces in public and issued a written statement asking Muslims to refrain from wearing hijabs or burqas in public that cover their faces. The city government’s public safety office discussed plans to require Muslim women to remove their hijabs and burqas upon entering malls and at other checkpoints as a security measure. The city government said, in addition to burqas, other accessories such as sunglasses, hats, and facemasks that conceal one’s identity would also have to be removed. Some Muslim groups, including Suara Bangsamoro, criticized the plan saying it was discriminatory against Muslims and disrespectful of their religious belief and culture. At year’s end, the policy was not adopted and was still under consideration by the Davao City Council.

DepEd continued to support the Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in selected public elementary schools. For the 2015-2016 school year, a total of 1,638 public elementary schools administered the ALIVE program, including providing instructional materials and modules. Within those schools, 313,697 elementary students were enrolled in the ALIVE program.

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF, DepEd, both, or neither; registration was not mandatory. A total of 104 private madrassahs were registered with DepEd. Only registered schools could receive financial assistance from the government. DepEd’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. DepEd-registered madrassahs followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for teachers of the Revised Basic Education Curriculum subjects and for classroom and facility improvements. DepEd provided 27.9 million pesos ($563,000) in financial support to the registered private madrassahs, which served 5,719 students. The funding level for and attendance at private madrassahs decreased by more than 50 percent from the previous year. DepEd stated this was likely due to the successful implementation of the ALIVE program as children from private madrassahs may transfer to public institutions and learn the same curriculum without the cost of a private institution.

In September President Duterte likened himself to Adolf Hitler during a press conference, saying, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is [sic] three million drug addicts, there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” His statement drew criticism from the World Jewish Congress, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the Anti-Defamation League. The president later apologized. The recently appointed Ambassador to the UN, Teodoro Locsin, Jr., tweeted in August, “I believe that the Drug Menace is so big it needs a FINAL SOLUTION like the Nazis adopted.” Locsin later apologized and removed this tweet and another referencing Auschwitz as a solution to the drug problem.

In May then President-elect Duterte said the Catholic Church was the “most hypocritical institution” for questioning his morals in the lead-up to the May presidential election. In October President Duterte called members of the Catholic clergy “sons of whores” for questioning deaths resulting from an ongoing government-sponsored anticrime campaign. In December he said the Catholic Church was “only good in collection” in responding to poverty and drug addiction issues, referring to the practice of collecting cash donations during Mass, but said the Church “would not give anything.” President Duterte also said in December he did not believe in religion, especially the Catholic Church, which he said sowed fear into the faithful about hell. He said, “Be careful about religion, it is about gold.” As of the end of the year, there were no reports of governmental follow-up to these statements.

The government stated that it continued to promote interfaith dialogue to build mutual trust and respect among various religious and cultural groups. The Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns coordinated all interreligious and intercultural concerns and initiatives within the government on behalf of the Office of the President. For example, the task force participated in the 7th UN Alliance of Civilizations Focal Points meeting that centered on building trust and relationships as a response to violent extremism. The government also participated in the World Interfaith Harmony Week by hosting a culminating event called “Festival of Harmony,” a gathering of leaders of many religious groups, members of the diplomatic corps, key government officials, leaders of interfaith movements, and peace advocacy organizations. The event highlighted mutual cooperation between the government and the religious community in promoting religious freedom, dialogue, and peace.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The government attributed a series of killings, attacks, and kidnappings for ransom to the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other Muslim militants. The government continued sustained law enforcement and counterterrorism operations against the group and other violent extremist groups. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

In April the ASG beheaded a Canadian hostage after a ransom deadline passed. The group displayed symbols affiliated with ISIS in the video of the beheading. The group beheaded another Canadian hostage in June.

Also in April another small Muslim group known as Dawlah Islamiya in Lanao, or more commonly the Maute Group, kidnapped and subsequently beheaded two Christian sawmill workers they accused of spying for the government. The Mautes did not seek ransom.

A bombing on Mindanao outside a Catholic church during Christmas Eve Mass injured 13 people. Police said they suspected the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (a breakaway faction of the MILF) and the Maute Group were responsible for the attack.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with clan violence. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as being solely based on religious identity.

There were instances of discrimination in economic opportunities and public statements – via the internet and social media – denigrating the beliefs or practices of particular religious groups, particularly Muslims. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim community and Catholic and Protestant churches said that while relations among religious groups in society were generally amicable, there were reports of tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas.

Three days after being sworn in as the new Chairman of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) in September and after learning that Christian staff of the government body were reportedly growing apprehensive under his leadership as a Muslim, Abul Khayr Alonto told local media that non-Muslim personnel of MinDA would not be discriminated against or laid off. The University of the Philippines Institute of Islamic Studies reported instances where educational institutions had banned the use of the hijab, but indicated that the instances they were aware of were resolved through dialogue. The NCMF cited one example in which a qualified applicant for a food service job was told to apply elsewhere after indicating that he was Muslim.

Five Muslim students from Zamboanga City, which is predominantly Catholic, reported they felt discriminated against for wearing burqas and moved to Manila where they said they felt less discrimination.

Religious communities participated in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction and address discrimination. The PCEC participated in a dialogue with the leaders of the MILF in Sultan Kudarat and in another dialogue with religious leaders in Midsayap, Cotabato. Other interfaith groups, such as The Peacemakers’ Circle Foundation, participated in the government’s celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador utilized public speaking engagements to deliver messages in support of religious freedom and protection of civil liberties regardless of religious affiliation. U.S. embassy officials met with the NCMF and Muslim civil society groups to discuss government protection and promotion of religious freedom. Among other things they discussed the impact of foreign donor financing on religious education in Muslim communities. Embassy officials also met with representatives from the Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns to affirm the importance of support for all communities of faith.

On February 1, the Ambassador attended a Breakfast Dialogue Meeting hosted by Manila Catholic Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle as part of the celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week. The dialogue, which commenced the week-long celebration, gathered other religious leaders, key government officials, and other members of the diplomatic corps to promote interfaith harmony and dialogue as key elements for nation building.

On June 8, 125 Muslim and Christian students attended an iftar hosted by the embassy in Cotabato City. The program emphasized interreligious dialogue and youth empowerment across faiths. On June 28, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for a mixed Muslim and Christian audience at the Taguig National High School where he delivered remarks on religious tolerance and the importance of interfaith service projects.

In August the embassy sponsored an American researcher and professor for a speaking tour to discuss her research on Islamic law and jurisprudence as it relates to gender equity, human rights, and democratic governance. During her visit, she met with the NCMF, university students and faculty, Muslim prosecutors and lawyers, and civil society organizations in Manila, Cagayan de Oro, and Iligan City. CNN Philippines interviewed her. The theme throughout her lectures and public discussions was for all religions to be tolerant and receptive of each other’s differences with a specific focus within and between different Muslim traditions or interpretations of the Quran.

Through grant funding, the embassy supported a program in Marawi City, which engaged 25 madrassah teachers from the Muslim community to improve their English language proficiency and pedagogy and to encourage the development of secular community engagement activities with participants of different religious and cultural backgrounds. Improved English language skills for the madrassah teachers allowed them to increase intercommunal interaction with their non-Muslim counterparts who generally speak English.


Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued efforts to promote religious harmony and tolerance. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government also restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to religious harmony. In September a teenage blogger was sentenced to six weeks in jail for “wounding religious feelings” of Muslims and Christians after he posted online a photograph and two videos authorities said criticized Christianity and Islam. Jehovah’s Witness male citizens who refused national service remained subject to imprisonment as there are no exceptions to national service, including for conscientious objectors. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 13 conscientious objectors remained detained during the year. In June the minister of home affairs said that burning the Quran or any other holy book would be treated with zero tolerance in the country.

In February the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, made up of employer, union and government representatives, called for clear and nondiscriminatory policies regarding dress codes in the workplace in response to a job applicant who said she was told she could not wear a hijab at work.

The U.S. embassy engaged with the government and religious groups to promote and support religious tolerance. The U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities visited the country in May and met with government officials as well as religious leaders from Muslim and other religious communities to discuss potential initiatives promoting religious freedom in the country. The embassy hosted a variety of events and programs to facilitate interfaith dialogue and to promote messages of tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (July 2016 estimate). The local government estimates 3.9 million of this total are citizens or permanent residents, of which 81.5 percent state a religious affiliation. Approximately 33.2 percent of the total population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian, 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Unification Church.

According to a 2015 national survey, 74.3 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese, 13.3 percent ethnic Malay, 9.1 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. Among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent are Muslim, and 12.1 percent are Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states that every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs and it does not prohibit restrictions in employment by a religious institution.

The government maintains a decades-long ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the church was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious belief. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish their literature, which is banned. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.

The Presidential Council for Religious Harmony reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of Council for Religious Harmony members be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The law authorizes the minister of home affairs to issue a restraining order against any person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister ascertains the person causes feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or excites disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. Restraining orders are discretionary, depending on the situation, and prevent a person in a position of authority within a religious group from making or participating in additional statements; failure to comply can result in criminal action. Any restraining order issued must be referred to the Council for Religious Harmony, which recommends to the president that the order be confirmed, cancelled, or amended. Restraining orders lapse after 90 days, unless confirmed by the president. The minister must review a confirmed restraining order at least once every 12 months and may revoke such an order at any time. The law prohibits judicial review of such restraining orders. In addition, under the penal code, “wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will between different religious or racial groups” can result in detention and or imprisonment.

The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups can apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemption. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered society may be punished with a fine, imprisonment, or both.

The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) established under the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth, administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, and the Hajj, and includes representatives from Sunni as well as Muslim minority groups such as Shia. The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law will be used but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over the affairs of marriages where both parties are, or were married as, Muslims, including maintenance payments such as alimony and child support, disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, as well as inheritance. The law permits a person involved in a sharia court divorce case to apply for leave to begin civil proceedings concerning division of property or custody of children. Orders of the sharia court are enforced by the ordinary civil courts. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeal board, which is composed of three members of the MUIS, selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of seven individuals nominated every two years by the president of the country. The ruling of the appeal board is final and may not be appealed to any other court. The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives and reviewing the husband’s financial capability. Additionally, under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam, including cohabitation outside of marriage and publicly expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-aided, religiously affiliated schools. Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. The constitution states that no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, the law allows seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate primary-age students, provided these schools continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools. The law empowers the Ministry of Education to regulate schools, including prohibiting students from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform. The law prohibits the wearing of headscarves in public schools. International, other private, and government-aided religious schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning. All madrassahs are under the purview of the MUIS. As of the end of the year, registration of religious teachers with the MUIS was voluntary, although 80 percent were registered.

The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. A person in possession of a prohibited publication can be fined up to 2,000 Singapore dollars ($1,384) and jailed for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in allotted zones and meeting the maximum plot ratio and story height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or leased to religious organizations and must be available to rent out for other nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to determine it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group that the parliament or the government refers

The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection. Male citizens or second generation permanent residents are required to undertake 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.

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

Government Practices

In September a court sentenced 17-year-old blogger and self-identified atheist Amos Yee to six weeks in jail after he pleaded guilty to six charges of “wounding religious feelings” of Muslims and Christians. Yee had reportedly posted online a photograph and two videos criticizing Christianity and Islam that authorities and the judge said were “offensive and insulting words and profane gestures to hurt the feelings of Christians and Muslims” and “generating social unrest” respectively. This was Yee’s second prison sentence in two years; he was sentenced to four weeks in 2015 for reportedly posting a video likening the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to Jesus Christ, stating both were “power hungry and malicious.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses official website reported 13 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the armed forces detention facility for refusing to complete national service on religious grounds as of year’s end. Conscientious objectors were generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 36 months, in military detention barracks. Although they remained technically liable for national service, servicemen who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They did not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.

Government officials regularly cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. In a May interview, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated religious harmony is a matter of constant effort, social policy, and integration and part of the country’s identity. During an iftar in June, Minister of Home Affairs K Shanmugam said that in other countries, freedom of speech allows one to burn the Quran or any other holy book and attack Muslims or members of other religious groups, whereas Singapore treats such acts with “zero tolerance” and perpetrators would “go to jail; no two ways about it.”

Missionaries, with the exception of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and representatives of the Unification Church, were permitted to work and to publish and distribute religious texts. The government, however, reportedly banned foreign preachers who were deemed to be intolerant and promoted exclusivist practices and doctrines. While the government did not formally prohibit proselytism, it continued to discourage its practice in speeches and through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly as it deemed proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.

Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers and at some schools, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” The government did not comment publicly on the policy during the year. Some in the Muslim community continued to petition for a change in the government policy.

The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived.

As part of the Ministry of Education’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony.”

The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.

The government appointed all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board, and nominated four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards managed various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.

The government supported the operation of an “interracial and religious confidence circle” (IRCC) in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs gave religious group leaders a forum for promoting religious harmony at the municipal level. Under the auspices of the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth, the IRCCs conducted local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities. Throughout the year, interfaith dialogues were held in different communities around the island.

The government continued to engage religious groups through the community engagement program (CEP), created to foster social cohesion and minimize ethnic or religious discord in the event of a terrorist attack or other civil emergency. The government trained community leaders involved in the CEP in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. Through the year, the CEP continued to conduct outreach activities to strengthen intercommunal and interreligious bonds.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, encouraged by the NGO Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), opened an exhibit in September that featured four galleries aimed at sharing the importance of religious harmony in the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February in response to a job applicant who said she was told she could not wear a hijab in the workplace, the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, a group comprised of employer representatives, union leaders, and government officials, called for employers to communicate their dress code policies clearly. The group said any such policies should be based on the nature of the work environment and should not be differentiated by an employee’s race or religion. Women who wore the hijab posted about their personal experiences and frustrations with certain workplace hijab bans on Facebook, Instagram, and various blog sites.

The IRO, which includes leaders of the 10 religious groups with the most adherents in the country, sought to inculcate a spirit of friendship among the leaders and followers of various religious groups and promote mutual respect, assistance, and protection by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year.

Critical Xchange (CRIX), a local Muslim NGO, partnered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to host a fundraising iftar for Syrian refugees in Jordan attended by representatives from the IRO, the MUIS, the Young Sikh Association, the Hindu Endowment Board, the Catholic Association and several smaller churches, and a variety of Muslim groups including the Dawoodi Bohras, Ismailis, Jafaris, Salafis, and Ahmadi Muslims.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom and pluralism with government representatives such as the minister in charge of Muslim affairs on several occasions, particularly in the context of religious holidays, interfaith dialogues, and official visitors from Washington.

Embassy and visiting U.S. officials met with leaders from various religious communities to promote interfaith activities and discuss issues of common interest. The Ambassador visited the Badawi Mosque quarterly.

In May the U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities visited the country and met with government leaders, including the minister in charge of Muslim affairs, director of the internal security department, and the minister for environment and water resources. He also met with leaders from Muslim and other religious groups as well as Southeast Asian media outlets to discuss regional Muslim affairs and possible future initiatives to promote religious freedom in the country.

The embassy’s June iftar was attended by the minister in charge of Muslim affairs, senior representatives from Malay Muslim organizations, representatives from ethnic and religious groups, government officials, diplomats from Muslim-majority countries, and participants from U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.

In June the embassy assisted the Malay Youth Literary Association, a local NGO with roots in the Muslim community, launch a large initiative in which volunteers of all religions helped to send food provisions, such as rice, oil, Eid al-Fitr cookies, beverages, and canned food, to 350 elderly and low income families of all religions throughout the country during the month of Ramadan.

The embassy organized a youth interfaith workshop in collaboration with CRIX hosting 25 young faith leaders, which aimed to start a dialogue on social issues of common concern. The participants shared their experience of their own and other spiritual traditions and proposed ideas for interfaith projects they could undertake in the country.


Executive Summary

Although a popular vote approved a new constitution in August, the interim constitution enacted by leaders of a 2014 military coup continued to be in effect at year’s end, while the new constitution was pending royal endorsement. The interim constitution does not specifically address either religious liberty or protection from discrimination based on religion, but states, “all human dignity, rights, liberties, and equality of the people shall be protected.” The new constitution as drafted provides for religious freedom and equal protection of all persons regardless of religious belief. In September Amnesty International released a report saying the government, from 2013 to 2015, tortured or ill-treated at least 24 Malay Muslim suspected insurgents in the largely Muslim border provinces that make up the Deep South. The government rejected the findings of the report. Human rights groups continued to denounce insurgent attacks on civilians, while also protesting the unlawful detention and warrantless searches carried out against members of the Muslim community. Authorities continued to detain some Chinese Falun Gong and Pakistani Christian refugees and asylum seekers on immigration charges, and released others to third countries. In May authorities issued an arrest warrant for the abbot of the largest Buddhist temple in the country on embezzlement and money laundering charges, but had not arrested him by year’s end. Violence continued in the Muslim-majority Deep South where there has been a longstanding separatist conflict in which religious and ethnic identity are closely linked. Following coordinated bombing and arson attacks targeting tourist sites outside of the Deep South in August, authorities arrested suspected insurgents. Suspected insurgents reportedly attacked several schools in the Deep South during the year, killing several civilians, including a student and parent, teacher, volunteer security guards, and police.

During the year, some Buddhist monks regarded as part of the Buddhist “nationalist” movement took to social media to call for violence against Muslims and complained about what they said was the state’s accommodation of Islam. Female monks, who were ordained abroad, because of the prohibition of women’s ordination in the country, reported receiving death threats. In April the residence of two female monks was set on fire. In the lead-up to the August constitutional referendum, there was public debate over a new provision in the constitution mandating the state promote and protect Theravada Buddhism, which raised concerns among some citizens, particularly Muslims in the Deep South.

U.S. embassy and consulate general officers discussed the parity of rights for religious minorities, particularly with respect to the new constitution, with government officials from the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Religious Affairs and the National Buddhism Bureau. In March the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Bangkok and met with asylum seekers from Pakistan, Vietnam, and Burma to discuss religious persecution in their home countries. In order to increase interfaith cooperation and peacebuilding, the U.S. embassy sponsored two centers in the Deep South designed for Buddhist and Muslim youth; cohosted programs with a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) on interfaith and peacebuilding dialogue; and recruited universities to participate in a program to counter hate speech and extremism on social media around the world.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 68.2 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2010 census, the population is 93 percent Buddhist and 5 percent Muslim. NGOs, academics, and religious groups state that 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include animists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, and Taoists.

Most Buddhists also incorporate Hindu and animist practices into their worship. The Buddhist clergy (sangha) consists of two main schools of Theravada Buddhism, Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community. The same religious hierarchy governs both groups.

Islam is the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala, Satun, and Pattani) near the Malaysian border referred to as the “Deep South.” The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population nationwide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as ethnic Thai. Statistics provided by the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture indicate that almost all Muslims (99 percent) are Sunni.

The majority of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese practice either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese, as well as members of the Mien hill tribe, also practice forms of Taoism.

The majority of Christians are ethnic Chinese, and more than half of the Christian community is Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2014 interim constitution grants the military government significant power to limit or suppress fundamental human rights protections. The interim constitution does not specifically mention either religious liberty or protection from discrimination based on religion but states, “all human dignity, rights, liberties, and equality of the people shall be protected.”

On August 7, a national referendum endorsed the new constitution, which was still awaiting royal endorsement and had not yet come into effect at year’s end. The new constitution carries over provisions from the 2007 constitution on religious freedom and states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice. It also carries a new provision that these freedoms shall not “be harmful to the security of the State.” The new constitution continues to say that the State will patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but a new provision adds a mandate for the special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”

On August 22, the prime minister as chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the ruling military government, issued a special order guaranteeing the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country but mandating all state agencies monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.”

The law specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy. Violators can face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($559), or both. The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups. Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 2,000 to 14,000 baht ($56 to $391), or both.

The government officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. The government will not recognize any new religious groups outside the five umbrella groups. While there is no official state religion, the constitution continues to require the king to be Buddhist and says he is the “Upholder of religions.”

Religious groups belonging to one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits such as tax exemption, visa status, or government subsidies. Registration is not mandatory and religious groups may still operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized. Under the law, the RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which the National Buddhism Bureau, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the prime minister, oversees. The RAD may only register a new religious denomination within one of the five recognized religious groups if a national census shows it has at least 5,000 adherents, has a uniquely recognizable theology, is not politically active, and has received formal approval from the existing recognized umbrella group. The RAD holds a meeting with the umbrella group made up of already-recognized denominations to determine whether the requesting group should receive registration.

In order for a religious organization to register with the RAD, the leader of the organization must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, as well as the locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites. Registration is voluntary but once approved, the RAD issues a certificate of registration and the organization is then eligible for benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income tax, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s officials.

The law requires religious education for all students at both the primary and secondary levels; students cannot opt out. Lessons contain information about all of the five recognized umbrella religious groups in the country. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of a particular religion may study at a private religious school and can transfer credits to the public school. Individual schools, working in conjunction with their local administrative boards, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. There are two private Christian universities open to the public with religious curricula. There are additionally 10 Catholic grade schools whose curriculum and registration the Ministry of Education oversees. The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body. The Sangha Supreme Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand create special curricula for Buddhist and Islamic studies required in public schools.

The Central Islamic Council of Thailand, whose members are all Muslims and appointed by royal proclamation, advises the Ministries of Education and Interior on Islamic issues. The government provides financial assistance to Islamic educational institutions, and provides funding for construction of mosques, and funding for participation in the Hajj. Several hundred Islamic schools exist at the primary and secondary levels throughout the country. There are four possibilities for obtaining Islamic education in the Deep South: government-subsidized schools offering Islamic education with the national curriculum; private Islamic schools that sometimes offer non-Quranic subjects such as foreign languages (Arabic and English) but whose curriculum may not be approved by the government; traditional pondoks, or private Islamic day schools, offering Islamic education according to their own curriculum to students of all ages; and tadika, an after-school religious course for children in grades one through six, often held in a mosque.

The constitution continues to prohibit Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election or running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, as of December 2015, there are over 40,000 Buddhist temples in the country with approximately 360,000 clergy who are thus ineligible to vote or run for office. Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress. Except for the chularajmontri (grand mufti) himself, imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.

The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process, outside of the national civil code, for family law, including inheritance, for Muslim residents of the Deep South. Provincial courts apply this law and a sharia expert advises the judge. The law officially lays out the administrative structure of Muslim communities in the Deep South including the process of appointing the chularajmontri, who the king appoints as the state advisor on Islamic affairs.

The RAD sets a quota based on census figures on religious populations by the National Statistics Office for the number of foreign missionaries permitted to register and operate in the country: 1,560 Christian, 6 Muslim, 20 Hindu, and 41 Sikh. Registration confers some benefits, such as longer visa validity.

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

Government Practices

Since the 2004 escalation of violence in the Deep South, approximately 6,700 Buddhists and Muslims have been killed, and another 12,000 injured with slightly more Muslims than Buddhists among the killed and injured. There were reports authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including pretrial detention and searches without warrant. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment. Human rights organizations reported the government continued to arrest suspected Malay Muslim militants, some of them juveniles, and in some cases held them for a month or more under emergency decree and martial law provisions. Human rights groups continued to denounce insurgent attacks on civilians while also protesting the reported torture and warrantless searches authorities carried out against members of the Muslim community.

In September Amnesty International released a report saying the military tortured or ill-treated at least 24 Malay Muslim suspected insurgents in the Deep South between 2013 and 2015, including incidents of waterboarding, suffocation with plastic bags, strangulation, and beatings. The government rejected the findings of the report and subsequently warned Amnesty International in advance of the report’s public rollout that its local staff and representatives could be arrested and prosecuted for visa violations; Amnesty International subsequently cancelled its public launch of the report in Bangkok.

After August bombings and arson attacks in tourist areas outside the traditional conflict zone in the Deep South, the NCPO increased investigation and arrests of suspected insurgents. The four victims killed and most of the 36 injured in the attacks were Thais. Two suspects were arrested and undergoing trial in a military court as of year’s end. A reported October bomb plot near Bangkok resulted in the arrest of at least 44 Malay Muslim students and youth, almost all of whom were released shortly afterwards. Human rights organizations said these arrests were arbitrary and illegal.

Authorities conducted large-scale raids to track down immigrants overstaying their visas. Among them, reportedly thousands of Pakistani Christian refugees, some of whom were registered by the United Nations as asylum seekers, and others who were undocumented, faced detention in crowded detention centers and often waited years for resettlement. Those without asylum-seeking status faced eventual deportation. Because the country is not a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, even UN-designees may be considered to be in the country illegally; as a result, authorities have reportedly routinely arrested, detained, and sometimes deported asylum seekers, many of whom said they face religious persecution in their home countries.

Since the 2014 military coup, authorities have arrested on immigration charges over 29 of the approximately 160 practitioners of Falun Gong who sought asylum in the country from China, raising concerns from human rights organizations. In 2015, a Supreme Administrative Court ruling allowed the Falun Gong to register as an NGO. Activists, however, said they feared the Thai government was assisting with requests to extradite Chinese dissidents to forge closer ties with Beijing. Many of the Falun Gong practitioners who entered Thailand undocumented and await resettlement after attaining refugee status through the UN said they could still be arrested and repatriated. A Thai government spokesperson said the government had increased law enforcement efforts against illegal entrants or those who had overstayed their visas.

In May police issued a warrant for the arrest of Abbot Chaiyaboon Dhammajayo of the Dhammakaya Temple (the largest Buddhist temple in the country), the head of the fastest growing Buddhist movement in the world, for embezzlement and money laundering in connection with what authorities said were fraudulent donations. Authorities, however, had been unable to charge him formally as the abbot did not appear for court summons and his whereabouts remained unknown. His supporters said his failure to appear was due to illness. In December Dhammajayo, whose supporters wanted him named Supreme Patriarch, was demoted from Abbot of the Dhammakaya Temple to an honorary abbot by an official Sangha directive and relieved of his official duties on grounds of his prolonged illness. The investigation into Dhammajayo drew worldwide protests and his followers said the abbot was targeted because the popularity of his temple threatened the country’s political and religious elite. Supporters said the charges and investigation were ill-founded and politically motivated because of reports that the movement had links to a former, deposed prime minister.

Since 1984, the government has not recognized any new religious groups. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society groups continued to report unregistered religious groups operated freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities.

The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the 360,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, only 100 were women. Because a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality legal protection by the government. The issue of female monks and other Buddhist internal governance issues were outside the government’s jurisdiction. Officials have neither formally opposed nor supported female ordination and have allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples, primarily tax exemption, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Some bhikkhunis expressed concern a new provision in the draft constitution passed in August on the government’s duty to protect and promote Theravada Buddhism could further curtail the rights of women to practice freely as monks. Government officials reportedly threatened some bhikkhunis with arrest on charges of impersonating a monk. Under the law, bhikkhunis also receive no special government protection from public attacks as is usually provided to monks.

The first bhikkhuni ordained by going abroad, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Abbess of the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, has led a movement advocating for recognizing bhikkhunis and allowing their ordination within the country. Her movement continued to encounter resistance. In December the abbess led a group of 72 bhikkhunis and novices to the Grand Palace in Bangkok to attend royal funeral rites for the late King Bhumibol. When they attempted to enter the palace through the monks’ gate, representatives from the National Buddhism Bureau and a Buddhist university reprimanded them for wearing monks’ robes and directed them to disrobe and enter through the laypersons’ entrance.

The predominantly Muslim Deep South voted against the NCPO’s draft constitution in August. According to civil society experts, the Deep South’s opposing vote was a result of their belief that the new charter’s clause on religion would weaken religious tolerance. Many within the Muslim community said it viewed the specific provision to promote and protect Buddhism as an effort by the NCPO to accommodate the powerful Buddhist lobby that campaigned for government support of Buddhism as the state religion. Muslims and some Buddhists, including bhikkhuni and non-Theravada Buddhists said, however, they were concerned the explicit constitutional protection of Theravada Buddhism signaled government support for a monolithic interpretation of Buddhist doctrine and practice, which would fail to protect other Buddhist denominations and non-Buddhist groups.

The NCPO’s special order of August 22 required authorities (including the Sangha Supreme Council, National Buddhism Bureau, the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, the National Security Council, and the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center) to present measures to the cabinet by the end of the year promoting mutual understanding and reconciliation among people of different religious faiths as a way to reassure the public that religious freedoms would be secure under the new constitution. According to officials at the National Buddhism Bureau, the joint committee had completed its draft of measures, which was pending cabinet and NCPO approval at year’s end.

The only Islamic government-certified full university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students. Approximately 3,600 students and 400 academic personnel were affiliated with the school as of the end of the year.

According to human rights organizations, Muslim professors and clerics, particularly in the southernmost provinces, faced additional scrutiny because of continuing government concern about Malay Muslim separatist activities.

In July the Bangkok Civil Court ordered the closure of an Islamic school in Narathiwat Province in the Deep South for what authorities said was support of the Malay-Muslim separatist movement. This was the second shutdown of an Islamic school in the region since 2015; the Office of Education Administration estimated that 10 Islamic schools were shut down during the year. Following a September bomb attack in Tak Bai District, Narathiwat Province reportedly carried out by insurgents, local authorities increased security at 111 schools in the Deep South, setting up security checkpoints along main roads to check for weapons, and deploying police and military to the schools. There were other incidents, including shootings, bombings, and arson, in the province following the September attack. Police in Pattani Province continue to escort teachers to schools for their safety.

There were 80 royal projects underway for the Muslim community as of the end of the year, some of which were to be executed or completed by the NCPO. Among those initiated by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej were the first translation of the Quran into Thai and the construction of Muslim centers funded by royal subsidies. Despite the king’s constitutional role as the defender of the Buddhist faith, the monarch has also traditionally played a significant role as a promoter of religious tolerance, according to representatives of the Muslim community.

The government allocated approximately 399 million baht ($11.2 million) for the fiscal year (October 1-September 30) to the RAD as an agency under the Ministry of Culture. About 367 million baht ($10.3 million) of that went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development. The budget included grants of approximately 20 million baht ($560,000) to subsidize Islamic affairs; 18 million baht ($503,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups; and over 2 million baht ($56,000) to subsidize Christian, Brahmin, Hindu, and Sikh affairs. Religious groups submitted budget requests and received approval by the RAD based on population size reported in the national census. The RAD fiscal year budget also included allocations for religious lectures, Buddhist Sunday school, Islamic study centers, religious activities for persons with disabilities, and interfaith events. The government also provided funds to promote and facilitate Muslim participation in the Hajj.

The National Buddhism Bureau, funded separately from the RAD, received 5.3 billion baht ($148 million). The majority of that budget, 3.5 billion baht ($98 million), went to the preservation, promotion, and development of religious art and culture. 1.6 billion ($45 million) was allocated to projects for education management. 262 million baht ($7.3 million) was allocated to Deep South conflict resolution and development projects.

The government continued to recognize 39 elected Provincial Islamic Committees nationwide. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing persons to serve as imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the southernmost provinces reported acting as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnic and religious conflicts.

Religious groups proselytized without reported interference. Thai Buddhist monks working as missionaries were active, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, there were 5,161 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide. Buddhist missionaries must pass training and educational programs at Mahi Makut Buddhist University and Mahi Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. No foreign monks are permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.

Muslim and Christian missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies. Islamic organizations had small numbers of citizens working as missionaries in the country. Christian organizations across all denominations had larger numbers of missionaries, both foreigners and nationals, operating in the country. Sikhs and Hindus had smaller numbers of missionaries.

There were 11 registered foreign missionary groups that operated in the country during the year: six Christian denominations, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups. There were 1,560 registered foreign Christian missionary organizations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which is not an officially recognized Christian group, has obtained a special quota for 200 missionaries through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. Many unregistered missionaries, however, lived and worked in the country without government interference. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported that being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents of violence as being solely based on religious identity.

According to the NGO Deep South Watch, 307 people were killed and 628 injured during the year (a slight increase from the previous year) in the conflict in the southernmost provinces. Of those killed, almost 75 percent were civilians, over 60 percent were Muslim, and almost 35 percent were Buddhist. The insurgents reportedly carried out the violence represented different groups, mostly ethnic Malay Muslim, and all advocated restoring the Pattani Sultanate that once occupied what are now the southernmost provinces.

Muslim insurgents continued to target government schools which teach both a Muslim and national curriculum that insurgents reportedly perceived as imposing Thai Buddhist culture and attempting to assimilate the Malay Muslim population. Insurgents reportedly often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, to be affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. The first school-related attack of the year occurred in Panarea District, Pattani Province on June 27, injuring a school security official. On September 6, a bombing attack outside a school in Narathiwat Province killed a father and his four-year-old daughter and injured at least 10 other civilian adults including teachers, parents, and traffic officers. By the end of the year, there were three additional attacks targeting security officials, civilian defense volunteers, and teachers at government schools in the Deep South, resulting in two more deaths and multiple injuries.

Nineteen monks have been killed or wounded since 2009 and none were killed during the year. One imam was shot and killed in Pattani Province on June 26 during the spate of violent attacks that occur annually during the month of Ramadan. The day after the end of Ramadan, two separate bomb attacks near the Pattani Central Mosque and the Bannang Sata Mosque in Yala Province killed a police officer and a villager, and injured others.

A bombing outside a noodle shop in downtown Pattani on October 25 killed a Thai Buddhist woman and injured 18 others, including several children. The attack occurred on the anniversary of the deaths of 85 Thai Muslims during an antigovernment protest in 2004.

According to human rights and civil society groups, a decade of constant violence has decreased interaction between the Muslim and Buddhist communities.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Violence in the Deep South hindered the ability of individuals to practice the full range of religious activities, according to human rights organizations.

According to media reports, anti-Muslim media attacks in the northern provinces have deepened tensions between Buddhists and Muslims throughout the country, and while there were no reported incidents of conflict outside of the Deep South other than the attacks in August, there were increasing reports of anti-Muslim sentiment online. For example, some Buddhist monks regarded as part of the Buddhist “nationalist” movement used social media to call for violence against Muslims and complained about what they said was the state’s accommodation of Islam. The government made efforts to remove inflammatory content posted on Facebook and other social media platforms online. Some observers stated that extremism and radicalization among the Buddhist community were increasing, fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment and, according to religious studies experts, seldom reported. Others stated the majority of the Buddhist community continued to advocate for interfaith dialogue and cultural understanding between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

There was public debate about Buddhism in the lead-up to the national vote on the new constitution, which passed on August 7 and is expected to be enacted in 2017, particularly on the mandated special promotion of Theravada Buddhism. The nongovernmental Committee to Promote Buddhism as the State Religion formed in late 2015, lobbied during the year for the government to make Buddhism the state religion in the new constitution. The committee, led by Buddhist activists and academics, included a mixture of laypersons, monks, and government retirees among its reported 100,000 members. The committee said it viewed the new provision promoting and protecting Theravada Buddhism as a partial success. Religious scholars and experts, however, said they believed the advocacy of Buddhism as the state religion was not solely based on what they said was potentially a growing anti-Muslim sentiment but was prompted also by fears of the decline of Buddhism through corruption, secularization, and social changes that they saw as weakening Buddhist values throughout the country.

In late January monks and representatives of elected government bodies from 25 districts in Chiang Mai met to oppose an attempt to revive the “Halal Industrial Zone” project by the Chiang Mai Islamic Committee. Twelve Buddhist organizations submitted a letter to the governor of Chiang Mai in February opposing the establishment of the halal zone, saying it would destroy the cultural heritage of the area. No subsequent decisions were made about whether to continue or cancel the project.

As the population of bhikkhunis has risen, they have reported increasingly receiving death threats, and were often viewed as insurgents by the Buddhist clergy. In April arsonists set fire to the residence of two bhikkhunis and reportedly targeted the women living there because they were female monks. Staff members employed at the residence, however, stated the bhikkhunis were likely targeted not because they were female monks, but because of opposition to social welfare support the bhikkhunis were providing to some members of the local community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy and consulate general officers and visiting high-level officials discussed religious freedom with government officials from the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Religious Affairs, and with the National Buddhism Bureau. They raised the importance of mutual respect and parity of rights for religious minorities, especially in regard to the drafting of the new constitution.

Embassy and consulate officers regularly visited Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders, academics, and elected officials as part of the embassy’s effort to promote tolerance and reconciliation regarding complex religious issues in society.

In March the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Bangkok where he met with asylum seekers in the country, including Pakistani Christians, Vietnamese Montagnard Christians, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma to discuss their refugee statuses and issues with religious persecution that they faced in their home countries.

The U.S. embassy sponsored two centers in Pattani and Yala Provinces in the Deep South, which served as platforms for peace building and conflict mitigation projects targeting Buddhist and Muslim youth. Collaborating with a local NGO, the embassy hosted programs on interfaith and peacebuilding dialogue. The embassy also recruited a number of Thai universities to participate in a program co-sponsored by the State Department and Facebook to push back on hate speech and extremism around the world.

The embassy continued two initiatives to improve the capacity of local civil society to aid in the process of peacebuilding. The first initiative focused on building trust between Muslims and Buddhists in six communities in Yala Province through youth leadership and community activities. The second focused on using person-to-person engagement to bridge conflict from the bottom up.

The embassy and consulate also regularly engaged with media outlets associated with religious minority groups, and reached out to hill tribes and Muslim communities throughout the country with messages supporting religious freedom, including respect for individual rights and the importance of religious pluralism.


Executive Summary

The constitution states that all people have the right to freedom of belief and religion. Current law, however, provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. In November the National Assembly passed a new Law on Belief and Religion, which is scheduled to come into effect in January 2018. The implementation decree for the new law remained pending release. According to legal experts, the new law maintains many current restrictions such as prescribing a multistage registration process, but significantly reduces the waiting period for a religious group to obtain recognition; specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality; and streamlines processes for religious groups to obtain recognition or certificates of registration for specific activities. In January the head pastor of an unregistered Degar evangelical church died from injuries sustained during a police beating in December 2015. Government authorities continued to limit the activities of unrecognized religious groups and those without certificates of registration for religious activities, particularly those groups the government believed to be engaged in political activity. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less interference. The government continued to restrict the activities of recognized religious groups in education and health, although less so than in previous years, and severely restricted such activities by groups without certificates of registration. Religious leaders, particularly those of groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of governmental harassment, including physical assault, short-term detention, prosecutions, monitoring, restrictions on travel, property seizure or destruction, and denials of registration and/or other permissions, especially in the Central and Northwest Highlands. Government treatment of religious groups varied from region to region and among the central, provincial, and local levels. Religious followers reported local or provincial authorities, rather than central authorities, committed the majority of harassment incidents. Some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close governmental management of their leadership structures, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. The government granted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) official national-level recognition in June. In September authorities permitted the Catholic Church to open its first institute of higher education in the country since 1975.

There were some reports of tensions within the H’mong ethnic group concerning religious observance.

During their visits, the U.S. President and Secretary of State called for improvements in religious freedom in meetings with senior government officials. U.S. embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups. They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups, and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. U.S. officials maintained regular contact with religious leaders across the country. The U.S. President met with civil society and religious leaders during a visit to the country in May. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom concerns with government officials during the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in April. The Ambassador at Large visited the country in March and the Assistant Secretary in May, meeting a broad range of recognized and unrecognized religious groups and advocating for improvements to freedom of religion in law and practice. The embassy and senior U.S. officials submitted recommendations on language for the Law on Religion and Belief to government leaders during the law-drafting process aimed at bringing the text more in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments to protect religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 95.3 million (July 2016 estimate). According to statistics released by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA) in December, approximately 27 percent of the population consists of religious believers. According to previous CRA statistics, 95 percent of the population professes “religious or spiritual beliefs,” with more than half of the population identifying as Buddhist. Within that community, Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant affiliation of the Kinh (Viet) ethnic majority, while approximately 1.2 percent of the population, almost all from the ethnic minority Khmer group, practices Theravada Buddhism. Roman Catholics constitute 7 percent of the total population; Cao Dai, 2.5 to 4 percent; Hoa Hao Buddhists, 1.5 to 3 percent; and Protestants, 1 to 2 percent.

Smaller religious groups that together comprise less than 0.2 percent of the population include a devotional form of Hinduism mostly practiced by 50,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area; approximately 100,000 Muslims, who are scattered throughout the country (approximately 40 percent are Sunnis; the remaining 60 percent practice Bani Islam); an estimated 8,000 members of the Bahai Faith; and approximately 1,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints (Mormons). Religious groups originating within the country (Buu Son Ky Huong, Tu An Hieu Nghia, To Tien Chinh Giao) and religious groups relatively new to the country (such as Brahmanism) comprise a total of 1.4 percent. A small, mostly foreign Jewish population exists in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Other citizens claim no religious affiliation, or practice animism or the veneration of ancestors, tutelary and protective saints, national heroes, or local, respected persons. Many individuals blend traditional practices with religious teachings, particularly Buddhism and Christianity.

Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 14 percent of the population. Based on adherents’ estimates, two-thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including groups in the Northwest Highlands (H’mong, Dzao, Thai, and others) and in the Central Highlands (Ede, Jarai, Sedang, and M’nong, among others, including groups referred to as Montagnards or Degar). The Khmer Krom ethnic group overwhelmingly practices Theravada Buddhism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all people have the right to freedom of belief and religion, including the freedom to follow no religion. The constitution acknowledges the right to freedom of religion or belief of those whose rights are limited, including inmates or any foreigners and stateless persons. The constitution states all religions are equal before the law and the state must respect and protect freedom of belief and religion. The constitution prohibits citizens from violating the freedom of belief and religion or taking advantage of a belief or religion in order to violate the law.

The 2004 Ordinance on Religion and Belief and implementation Decree 92, issued in 2012, serve as the primary documents governing religious practice. Both the ordinance and Decree 92 reiterate citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion while also stipulating that individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; proselytize in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder, infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor and/or property of others, or impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct superstitious activities or otherwise violate the law.

In November the National Assembly passed the country’s first Law on Belief and Religion, which is scheduled to come into effect in January 2018 and will supersede the 2004 ordinance. The government did not release the implementation decree for the new law by the end of the year; the decree will impact the final interpretation and enforcement of the new law and is expected to supersede Decree 92.

The new law continues to provide for significant government control over religious practices and permits restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. “Strictly prohibited” acts include “undermining national defense, national security, national sovereignty, public order, public safety, and the environment,” “doing harm to social ethics or others’ health, life, dignity, honor, or property,” “sowing division among the people,” and “abusing belief and religious activities to gain personal benefit.”

The new law reduces the waiting period for a religious group to obtain national-level or provincial recognition from 23 years to five years, lessens the number of religion-related procedures requiring advance approval from authorities, aims to clarify the process by which religious organizations can obtain registration for their activities and recognition, and for the first time specifies the right of legal status for recognized religious groups. The law also specifies that religious groups be allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws.

The CRA is responsible for implementing the 2004 ordinance and all other related ordinances, decrees, and regulations, and will be responsible for implementing the new law. The CRA maintains offices at the central, provincial, and in some areas, district level. Current regulations and the new law lay out specific responsibilities for central-level, province-level, and local-level CRA offices, and delegate certain religion-related management tasks to provincial-level and local-level people’s committees (i.e. local leaders). The central-level CRA is charged with disseminating information to authorities and assuring uniform compliance with the legal framework on religion at the provincial, district, commune, and village levels.

Current regulations and the new law state forcing others to follow, or renounce, a religion or belief is prohibited.

Current regulations prescribe a multistage process to obtain recognition. A religious organization must first apply for and obtain a “registration of religious practice” from the commune-level government by providing a dossier of information, including on its structure, leadership, membership, and activities. A registration of religious practice allows a group of individuals to gather at a specified location to “practice worship rituals, pray, or express their religious faith.” After operating lawfully for 20 years under a registration of religious practice, a religious organization is permitted to apply for a “registration for religious operation” with the provincial or national-level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the group’s activities. A registration for religious operation allows the group to conduct religious ceremonies, services, and preaching at the registered venue; hold congresses to adopt its charter and statutes; elect or designate its leaders and organize training courses on religious tenets; repair and renovate its facilities; and conduct missionary, charity, and humanitarian activities. Three years after obtaining a registration for religious operation, a religious organization becomes eligible to apply for legal recognition after electing its leaders through a national convention. The application for recognition must include information about the organization’s leadership, number of believers, history of operations, tenets and canons, and bylaws. Under current regulations, applications for recognition must be approved by the prime minister (for religious organizations operating in more than one province) or the chairman of the provincial people’s committee (for religious organizations operating within one province).

At every stage of the registration and recognition application process, current regulations specify time limits for an official response, which can be up to 45 days, depending on the scope of the request. Although current regulations require government authorities to explain formally any denial in writing, the denial may be for any reason, given the significant discretion the law gives to those authorities. There is no mechanism for appeal.

The new law also prescribes a multistage process for a religious organization to receive recognition. First, an unrecognized religious organization must obtain a certificate of registration for religious activities from the provincial-level CRA (if the organization will operate only within one province) or national-level CRA (if the organization will operate in multiple provinces). To obtain such registration, the organization must submit a detailed application package with information about its doctrine, history, bylaws, leaders, and members and proof it has a legal meeting location. The relevant CRA office is responsible for approving a valid application for registration within 75 days of receipt. The CRA is required to provide any rejection in writing.

Under the new law, religious organizations with a certificate of registration (“registered religious organizations”) are allowed to preach, organize religious ceremonies, and conduct religious classes at approved locations; organize conferences to approve its charter and bylaws; elect or appoint leaders; repair or renovate religious facilities; and conduct charitable or humanitarian activities. Under the new law, however, a wide variety of these religious activities continue to require advance approval or registration from government authorities. The new law states that all such activities must also comply with other laws governing construction and charitable activities.

The next step is for a registered religious organization to seek recognition. Under the new law, a religious organization is permitted to apply for recognition after it operates continuously for at least five years with legal registration, has developed a legal charter and bylaws, has leaders in good standing without a criminal record, and manages assets and conducts transactions as its own entity. After meeting these requirements, a registered religious organization must submit a detailed application package to the provincial or national-level CRA, depending on the geographic extent of the organization. The application must include information about the structure, membership, location, history, charter, and finances of the organization. The relevant CRA office is responsible for approving a valid application for recognition within 75 days of receipt. The CRA is required to provide any rejection in writing.

Under current regulations, the government has regulatory oversight of religious groups, which must be officially registered or recognized as formal religious organizations. Current regulations stipulate that local government authorities must approve the leadership, activities, and the establishment of seminaries or religious classes, and require religious organizations to register their religious leaders and officials with the CRA at the central or provincial level. Current regulations specify curriculum guidelines for religious training institutions.

Under both current law and the new law, religious organizations have the right to publish religious materials, produce and export religious objects and icons, construct and maintain religious facilities, and accept donations from domestic and foreign sources. Both current law and the new law imply, but do not specify, that these rights apply only to recognized religious organizations. Religious organizations must also follow other laws governing publishing.

Current regulations do not specify whether religious organizations have legal personality. The new law, however, states a recognized religious organization will attain the status of a “noncommercial legal person” from the date of its recognition. There is no provision for registered but unrecognized religious organizations to attain such legal personality. Organizations previously recognized before the implementation of the new law will retain their recognized status and organizations with certificates of registration before the implementation of the new law will retain their certificates of registration. Affiliates of a recognized organization are permitted to apply for their own legal personality.

The new law specifies that religious organizations and their affiliates, clergy, and believers have the right to file complaints or civil and administrative lawsuits, or make denunciations (formal complaints about government officials or agencies) under the relevant laws and decrees. The new law also states that organizations and individuals have the right to bring civil lawsuits in court regarding the actions of religious groups or believers. There are no specific analogous provisions in the current regulations.

The 2005 prime ministerial Directive on Some Tasks Regarding Protestantism instructs authorities to help unrecognized and unregistered Protestant congregations to register so they can worship openly and work to attain recognition. The directive specifically instructs authorities in the Central and Northwest Highlands to help groups of Protestants register their religious activities and practice in homes or “suitable locations,” even if they do not meet the criteria to establish an official congregation. The directive also instructs local officials in the Central Highlands, central Vietnam, and the southern Annamese Mountains region to allow unrecognized “house churches” to operate as long as they are “committed to abide by the law” and are not affiliated with separatist political movements or “Degar Protestantism.” CRA officials stated during the year that the 2005 directive would remain in place after the new law comes into force.

Both current regulations and the new law provide a separate process for unregistered, unrecognized religious organizations or groups of individuals to receive permission for specific religious activities by submitting an application package to the commune-level people’s committee. Current regulations require the people’s committee to respond in writing to such an application within 15 working days of receipt, while the new law requires a response in writing within 25 days of receipt.

Both current regulations and the new law specify that a wide variety of religious activities require advance approval or registration from the national-level CRA, provincial-level CRA, or local authorities. Under the new law, these activities continue to include “belief activities” (defined as traditional communal practices related to ancestor, hero, or folk worship); “belief festivals” being held for the first time; the establishment, split, or merger of religious affiliates; the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); establishment of a religious training facility; conducting religious training classes; holding major religious congresses; organizing religious events, preaching, or evangelizing outside of approved locations; traveling abroad to conduct religious activities or training; and joining a foreign religious organization.

According to current regulations, certain religious activities do not require advance approval, but instead must be notified to the appropriate authorities. Activities requiring notification include recurring or periodic “belief festivals;” dismissal of clergy; conducting fundraising activities; notification of enrollment figures at a seminary or religious school; and the repair or renovation of religious facilities not considered cultural-historical relics. Under the new law, additional activities requiring notification and not advance approval include the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious clergy (such as monks); transfers or dismissals of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); conducting operations at an approved religious training facility; routine religious activities (defined as “religious preaching, practicing religious tenets and rites, and management of a religious organization”); and internal conferences of a religious organization.

Both current law and the new law specify that religious organizations must follow numerous other laws for certain activities. Current law and the new law specify that religious organizations be allowed to conduct educational, health, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws. In addition, both current law and the new law state that construction or renovation of religious facilities must abide by relevant laws and regulations on construction, and foreigners participating in religious activities must abide by immigration law.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public and private schools. Private schools are required to follow a government-approved curriculum, which does not allow for religious instruction.

Both current law and the new law specify that publishing, producing, exporting, or importing religious texts must be in accordance with laws and regulations related to publishing. The Law on Publishing requires all publishers be licensed public entities or state-owned enterprises. Publishers must receive prior approval by government authorities for the publication of all documents, including religious texts. By decree, only the Religious Publishing House may publish religious books. In practice, however, other licensed publishers print books related to religion. Publishers have received permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English. Other published texts include, but are not limited to, works pertaining to ancestry worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai. Any bookstore may sell legally published religious texts and other religious materials.

The constitution states the government owns and manages all land on behalf of the people. According to the new law, land use by religious organizations must conform to the Land Law and its related decrees. The Land Law recognizes licensed religious institutions and schools may acquire land use rights and be allocated or leased land. The law specifies religious institutions are eligible for state compensation if their land is seized under eminent domain. The law allows provincial-level people’s committees to seize land via eminent domain in order to facilitate the construction of religious facilities.

The current law states provincial-level people’s committees may grant land-use certificates for a “long and stable term” to religious institutions if they have permission to operate, the land is dispute-free, and the land was not acquired via transfer or donation after July 1, 2004. According to the law, religious institutions are not permitted to exchange, transfer, lease, donate, or mortgage their land use rights. In the case of land disputes involving a religious institution, the law gives the chairperson of the provincial-level people’s committee the authority to settle disputes. The law allows parties who disagree with the chairperson’s decision to appeal to the minister of natural resources and environment or to file a lawsuit in court.

In practice, if a religious organization has not obtained recognition, members of the congregation may acquire a land use title individually, but not corporately as a religious establishment. The renovation or upgrade of religious facilities also requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation. Decree 92 stipulates authorities must respond to a construction permit application within 20 days, although the law does not provide for accountability of authorities if they do not comply with the deadline.

The 2005 prime ministerial Directive on Some Tasks Regarding Protestantism calls on authorities to facilitate the requests of recognized Protestant denominations to construct churches and to train and appoint pastors.

Individuals are no longer required to specify their religious affiliation on national identification cards. During the year, the government began issuing new cards, which no longer listed religious affiliation.

Separate provisions of the new law exist for foreigners legally resident in the country to request permission to conduct religious activities, teach, attend local religious training, or preach in local religious institutions. The law requires religious organizations or Vietnamese individuals to receive government permission in advance of hosting or conducting any religious activities involving foreign organizations, foreign individuals, or travel abroad. Current regulations also contain requirements for foreigners conducting religious activities within the country, including those involved in religious training, ordination, and leadership, to seek permission for their activities.

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

Government Practices

In January the head pastor of an unregistered Degar evangelical church died from injuries sustained during a police beating in December 2015. Religious leaders, particularly those of unregistered groups and those from ethnic minorities, reported various forms of governmental harassment, including physical assaults, short-term detention, prosecutions, monitoring, restrictions on travel, property seizure or destruction, and denials of registration and/or other permissions, particularly in the Central and Northwest Highlands. Government authorities continued to limit the activities of unrecognized religious groups and those without certificates of registration for religious activities, particularly those the government believed to be engaged in political activity, while members of recognized groups or those with registrations were able to practice their beliefs with less interference, according to reports. The government continued to restrict the activities of recognized religious groups in education and health, although less so than in previous years, and severely restricted such activities by unrecognized groups. Government treatment of religious groups varied widely from region to region and among the central, provincial, and local levels. Religious followers reported local or provincial authorities, rather than central authorities, were responsible for the majority of harassment incidents, often by the use of suspected plainclothes police officers. Some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close governmental management of their leadership structures, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. The government granted Mormons recognition in June. In September authorities permitted the Catholic Church to open its first institute of higher education since 1975, in Ho Chi Minh City.

Pastor Ksor Xiem, head pastor of the unregistered Montagnard Degar Evangelical Church in Ayun Pa District, Gia Lai Province, died in January from what a nongovernmental organization (NGO) said were internal injuries sustained during a police beating in December 2015. District public security officials reportedly ordered the pastor to report to the local police station on Christmas Eve where they demanded he renounce his faith. Police reportedly “used various tools to beat him up” after the pastor refused to comply. He lost consciousness and was returned to his family. Authorities reportedly interfered with the funeral and later threatened other church members with prison should they fail to cease all religious activities. The government stated Ksor Xiem died due to disease.

In February activists and independent media stated guards at the An Phuoc prison in Binh Duong Province, where Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh was serving his 11-year prison sentence for “undermining state unity,” treated Chinh inhumanely by putting him in solitary confinement, beating him, and serving him rotten food. His wife, Tran Thi Hong, also reported the guards attempted to beat him to prevent him from telling her about poor prison treatment. Chinh conducted a hunger strike from August 8-28 to protest poor prison conditions. Hong stated that in September Chinh and other prisoners found bits of glass and copper wire in their prison food. Hong reported in December that officials transferred Chinh from his prison in Binh Duong Province to Xuan Loc Prison in Dong Nai Province and for two days refused to disclose his new location to his family. She reported authorities denied Chinh a Bible in prison. Gia Lai Province officials stated Chinh was imprisoned for violating the law and stated Hong’s reports were inaccurate and politically motivated.

Hong reported local police in Pleiku, Gia Lai Province repeatedly detained, harassed, assaulted, and threatened her throughout the year. On March 30, police temporarily detained Hong and her son, locked them out of their house, and confiscated several personal belongings while they were on their way to meet with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. On April 14, Pleiku police detained and reportedly beat her after she refused to report the contents of her meeting. Hong reported that during a police interrogation session on May 12, four female officers pinned her to the ground, repeatedly pinched and pulled her skin, and struck her in her head, knees, legs, hands, and feet. On May 13, four female officers reportedly physically struck her for three hours and forced chopsticks into her mouth when she refused to sign a confession paper prepared by police. On May 27 and 28, police reportedly broke into her home and forced her to attend interrogation sessions at a local police station. Local police also reportedly summoned Hong for questioning every day from June 1 through June 10. In May and June Hong held two hunger strikes to protest this treatment. Police harassment, including regular home searches and seizures of her personal property such as her cell phone, continued through July and August. In November Hong reported at least 10 police officers surrounded her home and prevented her and her children from leaving during the U.S. Ambassador’s visit to Pleiku. Hong reported in December police officers prevented her from attending Christmas services.

During the year, the family of imprisoned Hoa Hao and land rights activist Tran Thi Thuy reported prison officials at An Phuoc Prison in Binh Duong Province had repeatedly denied her medical treatment for a tumor on her uterus and an open wound on her abdomen, despite repeated requests. Thuy reportedly was told she would not receive treatment unless she “confessed” to the crime of “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration,” of which she was convicted in 2011. Police had taken Thuy to a police hospital in September 2015 and in March, but the hospital and prison officers reportedly refused to share Thuy’s medical records with her family. Thuy’s family reported she continued to be forced to work in poor conditions in prison, and stated family members also were regularly harassed by police.

On April 6, hundreds of police officers equipped with guns, tear gas, and batons reportedly raided a Catholic church in Huong Phuong Parish, Quang Binh Province, ahead of the parish’s Week of Adoration. At least three parishioners reported injuries and others reported suffering from tear gas exposure. Multiple parishioners reportedly were detained temporarily. In December 2015, authorities had prevented parishioners from setting up a decorative gate for the church in celebration of Christmas.

Members of ethnic minority groups collectively known as Montagnards (or Degar) in the Central Highlands stated the government continued to monitor, interrogate, arbitrarily arrest, and discriminate against them, in part because of their religious practices. During the year, senior Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and provincial officials continued to say certain Montagnard church congregations in Kon Tum and Gia Lai Provinces, including churches linked to Degar (or Dega) Christianity, were affiliated with the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), a group that opposed the government during and after the Vietnam War. Officials also said Degar Christians incited violent separatism by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands from 2001 through 2008. Montagnards stated Degar Christianity was a peaceful religious denomination without links to any separatist movement. Some Protestant church leaders and Montagnards also stated that local authorities seized their land or property in part because of their religious beliefs. These leaders stated local authorities discriminated against their followers, threatening to exclude them from state-run social welfare programs and rations of salt and fertilizer allocated to ethnic minority villages if adherents did not denounce their faith. According to Human Rights Watch, provincial authorities routinely directed officials to organize public renunciations of Degar Christianity or other “unauthorized Christian beliefs” among ethnic minority communities. Leaders and members from these unregistered congregations reported police harassment, such as being detained for questioning, increased surveillance, and confiscation of cell phones and Bibles. Other Montagnard Christians who were affiliated with nationally recognized denominations reported in March they were allowed to congregate and worship with few restrictions. In some cases, Montagnards stated ongoing social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia and Thailand, sometimes seeking asylum. Local officials reportedly harassed and intimidated family members of individuals seeking asylum in Thailand. For example, district and provincial police raided the Gia Lai Province home of a Degar Christian seeking asylum in Thailand while his wife and children were praying, accusing the family of plotting to escape the country. Officials confiscated personal papers, Christian hymn books, a smart phone, and 56 million dong ($2,460). Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

From February 12 to 13, local authorities in Quang Ngai Province detained Mennonite Pastor Y Pui Ya, reportedly for teaching the Bible to approximately 100 ethnic minority students, primarily from the Kor and H’re ethnic groups.

Following his March meeting in the Central Highlands with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Pastor Y Nuen from the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ in Dak Lak Province (from the Ede ethnic minority) reported provincial police detained and questioned him for several days in April, and kept a close watch on him afterwards. Y Nuen stated Dak Lak Province authorities detained his brother Y Jon Auyn from January 13-21 in a prison in Krong Pac District and repeatedly assaulted him. Y Nuen reported another brother was also detained overnight and assaulted by police, and that his wife had been repeatedly questioned by police for their religious activities.

On June 12, approximately 30 police officers and local officials from the Vietnam Fatherland Front, Women’s Union, and Communist Youth League reportedly broke into a Catholic house church in Muong Khuong District, Lao Cai Province, disturbing a Sunday Mass. Police assaulted one individual who tried to film the incident and took him to a local police station for questioning. On May 28, local police officers blocked all paths leading to the house church to prevent villagers from attending another Sunday Mass. According to social media reports, authorities banned local priest Nguyen Van Thanh from conducting services at the church.

On May 7, Catholic priest Nguyen Van The reportedly was assaulted repeatedly by plainclothes security officials with iron rods and batons in Son Duong District, Tuyen Quang Province after he organized a community service event for ethnic minorities. Activists reported The frequently criticized local officials’ economic projects as hurting the livelihoods of the Tay and other ethnic minority groups in the area.

On multiple occasions in January and February plainclothes police officers in Lam Dong Province reportedly attacked human rights activist and Catholic former prisoner of conscience Tran Minh Nhat and his family members with stones, causing head injuries. From January through April local police reportedly verbally threatened his family members, prevented him from travelling to receive medical treatment, burned his crops, killed his livestock, and sprayed his house with pesticides. Nhat continued to give interviews to foreign media outlets and post on social media about religious freedom, which authorities reportedly had warned him repeatedly against doing.

In September independent Hoa Hao and human rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen reported a group of suspected plainclothes police punched and kicked him and his wife on the street in Ho Chi Minh City while they were returning home from a place of worship. The government stated it had no record of such an incident. In December Truyen reported MPS officials detained him and his wife for four hours, separately questioning them on their relationship with imprisoned human rights defender Nguyen Van Dai.

On March 29, suspected plainclothes police reportedly assaulted and threatened Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) leaders during their visit to a house church in Loc Ninh Commune, Dong Hoi, Quang Binh Province, assaulting and spraying fermented shrimp paste on congregants. This incident was the most recent in a series of attacks against the ECVN by suspected plainclothes police since early 2015.

On July 31, authorities at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City reportedly stopped Mennonite Pastor Pham Ngoc Thach and confiscated his passport when he was boarding a flight to attend the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference in Timor-Leste. Police issued him a document stating he was ineligible to travel overseas for national security reasons. Authorities reportedly prevented Cao Dai Popular Council Representative Nguyen Van Phuc from attending the same conference, and temporarily detained and questioned independent Hoa Hao adherent Bui Van Tham upon his return from the conference.

In January authorities charged three individuals in connection with a December 2015 assault on Catholic priest Dang Huu Nam of Phu Yen Parish, Nghe An Province, which required his hospitalization. The local police chief and one of his deputies were suspended for their suspected role in the assault. On August 4, Hanoi police took Nam to the Cau Giay District police station and reportedly interrogated him about his links to “antistate” group Viet Tan and his role in organizing environmental demonstrations. Catholic activists reported the Nghe An Province People’s Committee issued an official note on October 7 urging that Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop reassign Nam to a position outside of the province and accusing Nam of manipulating parishioners, slandering the government, and collaborating with Viet Tan. During the year, Nam had helped organize a series of demonstrations against provincial officials and an international steel company over fish deaths and environmental pollution along the coastline of several provinces in Central Vietnam.

On August 12, Nguyen Van Minh, an independent Hoa Hao follower arrested in 2014 and sentenced to three years in prison, was released after serving his full term. On October 30, Bui Van Trung, an independent Hoa Hao follower arrested in 2012 and sentenced to four years in prison for “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties,” was released after serving his full prison term.

On May 17, authorities granted amnesty and early release to Catholic priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, approximately three months before the end of his eight-year jail term for “conducting propaganda against the State.”

In April independent Hoa Hao followers and activists reported that local authorities, police, and suspected plainclothes police in An Giang, Dong Thap, Vinh Long, and Can Tho Provinces established checkpoints to monitor and prevent followers from travelling to participate in a major religious commemoration. In An Giang Province, traffic police reportedly stopped adherent Nguyen Cong Thu and a group of suspected plainclothes police reportedly beat him until he lost consciousness. In Dong Thap Province, police prevented former prisoner of conscience and Hoa Hao follower Duong Thi Tron from leaving her house. Other followers reported local authorities threatened to punish them if they joined commemorative services held at other adherents’ houses.

In April the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV)-affiliated Phu Phong Evangelical Church in Binh Dinh Province reported local authorities mobilized forces to seize a plot of land adjacent to the church’s sanctuary for the construction of a public garden, without prior approval of the congregation. Church leaders said this action was the most recent in a series of government seizures of church property at that location. Church members reported unidentified individuals entered the church sanctuary on April 13, destroyed church property, and attacked several followers, causing minor injuries. The government confirmed that local authorities had confiscated a portion of the church’s land in 1975 for community purposes and decided in 2014 to build a park on the land. Local authorities said they considered, but ultimately rejected, the church’s request for return of the land, and communicated this decision to the church on March 30. The government stated church members had disrupted public order on April 13 and denied officials had injured any followers.

On January 2, bloggers and activists reported nearly 200 local officials, police, and suspected plainclothes police in Thua Thien-Hue Province broke into the Thien An Catholic Monastery. These individuals reportedly threatened, insulted, and physically attacked several residents, and chopped down trees on the monastery’s property. The authorities reportedly attempted to pressure the monastery into surrendering the monastery’s land for a tourism project. On May 29, authorities reportedly dismantled religious structures on a disputed parcel of land, including a crucifix built by monastery residents in 2015 in an attempt to reinforce the monastery’s land claim. On June 20, according to media reports, local authorities mobilized 200 people and bulldozers to destroy property and structures of the abbey. Per media reports, local authorities since 2015 have attempted to expand an entertainment complex owned by two local corporations into land claimed by the monastery.

Multiple Buddhist clergy of the recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha who supported land rights activists or were outspoken about suspected corruption within the organization reported local authorities continued to harass them and members of their pagodas in Bac Giang and Ha Nam Provinces and Hanoi. They reported the harassment included intimidation of monks and nuns, expulsion by force of clergy from their buildings, suspected plainclothes police breaking into religious buildings, the destruction of pagoda property, and theft of cash donations from villagers.

Mennonite pastors of unregistered churches in Binh Duong Province, Quang Ngai Province, and Ho Chi Minh City reported that police, local authorities, and suspected plainclothes police monitored, intimidated, and harassed church leaders and congregants throughout the year.

In March independent Cao Dai followers reported a group of recognized Cao Dai leaders, local authorities, and police in Long An Province entered a local independent Cao Dai temple without permission, locked the premises, and told the independent followers to surrender the temple to authorities. After the independent Cao Dai followers refused, the group left without incident. In June authorities and police in Quang Ngai Province reportedly came to the houses of several independent Cao Dai congregants to question them about the recent visit of an independent Cao Dai activist, Master Hua Phi, to their houses.

Independent Hoa Hao followers reported authorities in An Phu District, An Giang Province, harassed dozens of adherents before, during, and after an April 29 religious commemoration. Authorities reportedly verbally threatened, interrogated, and assaulted multiple Hoa Hao followers. Adherents also reported police in An Giang and Dong Thap Provinces harassed and blocked them from attending a June 22 religious ceremony at Quang Minh Pagoda, physically assaulting several followers, including Mai Thi Dung, an independent Hoa Hao activist, and her daughter, several days before the group’s founding anniversary. Vo Van Buu, Dung’s husband, reported individuals tried to prevent the family from traveling to attend services to commemorate the anniversary in another province. The government stated Quang Minh Pagoda was not registered as a place of worship and that independent Hoa Hao followers organized illegal activities, disrupted order in the area, and did not register with authorities as visitors as required by law. The government stated that certain adherents insulted and attacked police during the above mentioned incidents.

According to a report by the Interfaith Council, in January security officials prevented Pure Hoa Hao followers from attending a ceremony celebrating the birthday of the Hoa Hao founder in An Giang Province. The report stated that authorities in Vinh Long, An Giang, Dong Thap, and Can Tho asked Hoa Hao followers not to come to the ceremony. Security officials in these provinces closely followed Hoa Hao members, and in some cases detained them in their own houses. In particular, security officials verbally harassed or assaulted older Hoa Hao members and threatened them not to come to the ceremony.

During the year, the government continued efforts to implement national directives to suppress the growth of the Duong Van Minh religious group, asserting the group was a threat to national security, political stability, and social order in the Northwest Highlands provinces of Cao Bang, Bac Can, Thai Nguyen, and Tuyen Quang. Local and central authorities continued to call on the ethnic minority H’mong people in these provinces to disavow the group, whose followers advocate a simplified version of traditional H’mong funeral ceremonies and to dismantle all nha don, public buildings used for funeral rites by the group. Duong Van Minh adherents reported approximately 200 police and plainclothes security officials destroyed a nha don on August 29 in Thang Muoi village in Ham Yen District, Tuyen Quang Province and assaulted and injured eight followers. Adherents reported security officials in Tuyen Quang, Cao Bang, Bac Kan, and Thai Nguyen Provinces destroyed seven nha don between August 29 and September 9. Duong Van Minh followers said they sent complaints to local, provincial, and central-level government officials in September but had not received a response by year’s end. The government stated the Duong Van Minh group was not a “lawful religious organization,” that the nha don were “illegally built for political purposes,” and that followers had intimidated and acted violently against local officials.

In total, the government has granted recognition to 38 religious organizations and one dharma practice (a set of spiritual practices) affiliated with 15 distinct religious traditions as defined by the government. The 15 religious traditions are: Buddhism, Islam, Bahai, Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Phat Duong Nam Tong Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao Tam Tong Mieu, Khmer Brahmanism, and Hieu Nghia Ta Lon Buddhism. Distinct denominations within these religious traditions must seek their own registration and/or recognition.

Both registered and unregistered religious groups stated government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, if at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals. Some groups reported they successfully appealed local decisions to higher-level authorities through informal channels. A few religious leaders reported authorities sometimes asked for bribes to facilitate approvals. Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the failure of applicants to complete forms correctly or to provide complete information. Local authorities also cited general security concerns, such as political destabilization or potential conflict between followers of established ethnic or traditional religious beliefs and newly introduced Christian beliefs. Some Protestant house churches stated local authorities used registration requirements to harass followers and exert pressure on the religious groups to cease religious activities.

In January Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang reported local authorities in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, rejected his congregation’s application for registration without providing specific reasons.

Local authorities in some Central Highlands provinces reportedly continued to pressure smaller SECV congregations, some with as many as 100 followers, to combine into larger groups of up to 1,500 individuals in order to gain official registration. Church leaders called such requests unreasonable, saying many of the congregations were composed of a variety of ethnic minority groups with different languages and incongruent worship practices. Mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure in the rural highlands prevented other SECV churches from sustaining the required minimum number of followers necessary to qualify for local registration.

Some registered and unregistered Protestant groups reported local authorities, particularly in the Central Highlands, continued to pressure newer congregations to affiliate with existing congregations or other, more established denominations. Pastors reported during the year this practice was widespread in ethnic minority villages in Gia Lai and Kon Tum Provinces. In at least one reported case, authorities continued to offer a congregation a greater level of recognition if its leadership acted more cooperatively with the government.

On August 19, police in Dak Nong Province questioned a local pastor about his father’s activities in the United States and pressured him to combine his three churches in order to centralize control over religious activity, according to an NGO report. The pastor stated he remained under close monitoring by local authorities. The government stated local police had lawfully questioned the pastor about his unregistered charitable activities and said his father had fled the country illegally and made false statements about religious freedom in Vietnam.

According to many Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas or with majority ethnic minority populations faced difficulty registering with provincial authorities, uneven and inconsistent enforcement of national laws, and a lack of accountability on the part of provincial authorities. Catholic leaders stated the most problematic regions were in the Central Highlands (Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Kon Tum, and Lam Dong Provinces), the Northwest Highlands, and Hoa Binh Province.

In March Catholic leaders in Kon Tum Province reported their dialogue with local officials regarding authorities’ plans to close unregistered house churches had improved compared to 2015, but noted provincial and certain district-level authorities still refused to approve requests to establish new parishes, refused the Church’s appointments of local priests, and placed arbitrary restrictions on Church activities. Kon Tum Province authorities stated in March they were in the process of approving eight new parishes. Catholic leaders said, however, provincial officials routinely sought to “negotiate” during the approval process to reduce the size of churches.

During the year, Catholic leaders stated they hoped to expand beyond their current four parishes in Hoa Binh Province, but said local officials refused to register additional parishes and physically prevented parishioners from attending masses; national-level officials reportedly told Church leaders to “be patient.” Priests reported officials in Ha Nam Province continued to refuse to allow the Church to rebuild its original compound around the Basilica of So Kiem.

Some Buddhist, Protestant, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao groups, such as the UBCV and Pure Hoa Hao, did not affiliate with any government-recognized or government-registered religious organizations, nor did they seek their own registration or recognition. Unregistered Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Christian religious groups, such as members of the Interfaith Council, regularly reported some provincial authorities used local registration laws as a pretext to pressure, intimidate, threaten, extort, harass, and assault them, and discouraged their members’ participation in the groups.

During the year, the CRA announced it had granted national-level registrations to three Catholic orders, the Congregation of the Phat Diem Lovers of the Holy Cross, Daughters of Mary Immaculate, and Dominican Sisters of St. Rose of Lima. Catholic leaders reported the Dien Bien Province People’s Committee officially approved during the year the Church’s 2007 application to recognize the Dien Bien parish. During the year, the SECV and ECVN, the two largest evangelical Christian Churches in Vietnam, announced authorities granted local registrations to 23 congregations, including two in Gia Lai Province in the Central Highlands.

Multiple registered and unregistered religious groups reported their ability to meet openly for worship had improved in recent years. For example, a group of independent Hoa Hao followers in An Giang Province reported during the year that they were able to hang portraits of their founder in a location visible from the street, without official harassment.

In May the abbot of the unregistered UBCV-affiliated An Cu Pagoda in Da Nang reported local authorities and police intimidated and banned him from traveling to Ho Chi Minh City to meet with his patriarch, Thich Quang Do, and from traveling to Hue to attend a service in honor of Buddha’s birthday in the same month. Police reportedly kept a close watch on his pagoda throughout the year and prevented adherents from coming to it on major Buddhist holidays.

Religious believers, particularly members of organizations that had not applied for or been granted legal registration, continued to report intimidation by local security officials for attending religious services. In a number of instances, local officials forced church gatherings to disperse, advised or required groups to limit important celebrations in scope or content, closed unregistered house churches, or pressured individuals to renounce their religious beliefs and cease religious activities.

Falun Gong practitioners reported in August that Hanoi plainclothes police prevented them from practicing in a local park, spraying water on them to force them to leave.

According to representatives of Shen Yun, a Falun Gong-affiliated performing arts group banned in China, authorities cancelled their license to hold performances from December 22 to January 8, 2017. Shen Yun representatives said the Chinese government pressured the Vietnamese government to rescind the performance license.

Members of the military reportedly were not permitted to read the Bible or practice religious rites while on duty, and had to take personal leave to conduct such activities, according to religious freedom experts. There are no clear regulations for religious expression in the military, with individual unit commanders having significant discretion, experts reported.

In some cases, authorities continued to deny some prisoners and detainees the right to worship. MPS officials refused to allow lawyer and Protestant prisoner of conscience Nguyen Van Dai access to a Bible for the first eight months of his pre-trial detention. Police finally permitted his wife to send him a Bible in July. Other prisoners reported they were allowed to read the Bible or other religious materials and practice their beliefs while incarcerated.

The government continued to restrict the number of students who could enroll in Catholic and Protestant seminaries to numbers the churches’ leadership said were inadequate to meet demand. Catholic and Protestant leaders stated, however, the number of students permitted to enroll continued to increase compared to the past several years.

Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Bahai, and Buddhist groups were allowed to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities. Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

In September the Catholic Institute of Vietnam, the Church’s first new institute of higher education since 1975, opened its first master’s level class in Ho Chi Minh City. Catholic leaders, however, said they had only received a permit for the institute to conduct educational activities, and still faced hurdles receiving land permits. Church leaders stated they hoped the government eventually would allow them to operate religious secondary schools.

Although the law prohibits publishing of all materials, including religious materials, without government approval, in practice some private, unlicensed publishing houses unofficially printed and distributed religious texts without active government interference.

On September 8, media sources and Abbot Thich Khong Tanh of the UBCV’s Lien Tri Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City reported local authorities evicted the pagoda’s residents and razed the building. Municipal leaders had long planned to redevelop the Thu Thiem neighborhood, where the pagoda was located, into an extension of the city’s urban core. Local authorities said they attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate with pagoda leadership, including with offers of what they said were significant compensation and a new building to replace the pagoda. Authorities said they moved religious items to a storage facility, that Tanh said was unsuitable, before razing the pagoda. Tanh said authorities threatened on multiple occasions over several years to evict the pagoda’s residents on short notice unless they accepted compensation and relocation to the new site. Tanh rejected the proposed replacement building as unsuitable, said authorities were using the redevelopment plan as a way to dislodge the group, and sought reconstruction of the pagoda at the original location or a replacement location closer to the original site. Reportedly the monks were living in various locations throughout Ho Chi Minh City.

Relocation discussions between authorities and leaders of the Dong Men Thanh Gia (Lovers of the Holy Cross) Thu Thiem Catholic Convent and Thu Thiem Catholic Church continued at year’s end.

In January authorities in Cua Lo Town, Nghe An Province, requested the Mai Linh Catholic congregation dismantle a soccer field it had built on parish land, stating it was built illegally. According to the Catholic Church, local authorities improperly had issued land use certificates for this parish land to two families, while refusing to recognize the Church’s land use rights for the remaining plots. Parishioners said local authorities planned to sell the land for personal profit.

The Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres in Hanoi reported a local property development company sought to construct an apartment building, using land-use certificates improperly issued by city officials, on convent land seized by authorities in 1954. In late July the company reportedly agreed to suspend construction temporarily pending further talks with the sisters and local authorities. On September 27, a state-run pharmacy company blocked with barbed wire a path linking the convent complex to a nearby plot of land the sisters had used as a warehouse and for vegetable gardens.

In March followers of the unregistered Church of Christ in Kon Tum Province (from the Halang ethnic minority) and the Evangelical Church of Christ in Dak Lak Province reported local authorities kept a close watch on them, questioned them on their religious practices, and sometimes banned them from gathering for worship in house churches, including preventing a local Christmas gathering in 2015. Church followers reported police questioned and harassed them after their meeting with U.S. officials. The government stated that local authorities met with church leaders to remind them of religious regulations but denied any harassment.

As in previous years, UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do reported authorities permitted him to leave the Thanh Minh Monastery where he resides only for quarterly medical check-ups. Government representatives stated in March that he was not under house arrest and was free to leave the pagoda at any time; UBCV members affirmed he could travel outside the pagoda, but only if he refrained from engaging in religious activity. Other UBCV leaders stated the government continued to monitor their activities and restrict their movements, although they were able to meet with some foreign diplomats, visit other UBCV members, and maintain contact with associates overseas. From April to August, Le Cong Cau, the General Secretary of the UBCV Hoa Dao Institute, reported local police in Thua Thien-Hue Province prevented him from traveling to Ho Chi Minh City to meet with Thich Quang Do and foreign diplomats, although he reportedly met Thich Quang Do in September. Between March and May, Cau reported local police interrogated him on a number of occasions, investigating him for “abusing democratic freedoms.”

In January Catholic activists reported Nghe An Province officials refused to allow Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, to visit Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop in the Vinh Diocese.

Church members reported Ho Chi Minh City authorities continued to hold the passport of Pastor Pham Dinh Nhan, the head of the unregistered United Gospel Outreach Church; the passport was first confiscated in 2013. They said authorities permitted his personal travel abroad but confiscated the passport after each trip.

During the year, authorities lifted travel restrictions on certain religious leaders. Catholic priest Trinh Ngoc Hien reported Hanoi authorities had granted him a passport at the end of 2015 after many years of refusing to do so. A Baptist pastor reported Ho Chi Minh City authorities granted him a passport and allowed him to travel abroad for the first time in 10 years.

In August Catholic priest Phan Van Loi in Hue reported a group of unidentified individuals threw waste and stones into his house and onto his roof. On a separate occasion, another group of unidentified individuals poured glue into his house’s lock, requiring him to saw off the lock. Loi stated authorities took these actions in retaliation for his activism for religious freedom and human rights.

Throughout the year, Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang reported suspected security officials in Ho Chi Minh City threw rocks, waste, and rotten eggs at Mennonite churches and Quang’s home.

Protestant and Catholic groups reported legal restrictions on operating faith-based medical and educational facilities made them wary of attempting to open hospitals or parochial schools, despite government statements welcoming religious groups to expand participation in health, education, and charitable activities. Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools seized from the Catholic Church in past decades.

In some cases local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services. For example, in Hanoi, city officials allowed Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers. In Kon Tum and Gia Lai Provinces, officials allowed the Catholic Church to operate several dormitories and orphanages for ethnic minority children and to operate ambulances.

Most representatives of registered religious groups reported adherence to a religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental civil, economic, and secular life. Practitioners of various religions served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly. Many nationally recognized religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government-affiliated organizations under the guidance of the CPV. High-ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha. The official resumes of the top four CPV leaders stated they followed no religion.

Religious leaders reported that religious adherents faced significant obstacles to pursuing careers in the government or CPV, particularly in security or military-related jobs. While Catholics and Protestants could serve in the enlisted ranks (including during temporary mandatory military service), commissioned officers could not be religious believers and religious adherents were excluded through the military recruitment process. The Association for the Protection of Freedom of Religion reportedly sent a petition to the government in 2015 to request that soldiers be allowed to attend church while on duty, but did not receive a government response.

Government treatment of foreigners seeking to worship or proselytize varied in practice from locality to locality. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, municipal officials allowed multiple foreign religious congregations to meet and conduct charitable activities with tacit, but not official, permission. Members of a foreign evangelical Protestant congregation in Da Nang reported authorities prevented them from renting meeting space from a private business and threatened to revoke the business’ license if it did not stop hosting religious meetings. Municipal officials reportedly said that foreign worshippers were not allowed to meet in their private residences and that the congregation could only meet at a registered church.

Religious activists reported that blogs run by suspected security officials posted an increased number of articles critical of the Catholic Church and Christianity during the year. Such articles criticized specific Catholic clergy by name and included calls for expelling Christians from Vietnam. These reports increased in October, after Catholic priests and parishioners in Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces organized multiple demonstrations to protest pollution linked to an international steel company.

In September an academic affiliated with the MPS publicly criticized Christianity at a National Assembly-hosted forum, defended government actions to monitor and control Catholic and Protestant churches, and stated that Christian denominations had to become “more Vietnamese” before they could be accepted in the country.

A wide range of senior and provincial-level government officials stated during the year that Vietnam fully respected the religious freedom of its citizens and criticized reports of religious freedom abuses and travel restrictions as inaccurate. The government stated it continued to monitor the activities of certain religious groups because of their political activism and invoked national security and solidarity provisions in the constitution and penal code to override laws and regulations providing for religious freedom. This included impeding some religious gatherings and blocking attempts by religious groups to proselytize to certain ethnic groups in border regions deemed to be sensitive, including the Central Highlands, Northwest Highlands, and certain Mekong Delta provinces.

Multiple religious groups stated the new Law on Belief and Religion was a modest step forward for religious freedom. Some Protestant pastors and Catholic media outlets stated the law would reduce government control over religious life for recognized and registered groups, including by simplifying procedures for such organizations to conduct religious activities. A coalition of independent, unrecognized religious organizations welcomed a new provision allowing individuals in pretrial detention to read religious books and practice religious beliefs. Leaders of expatriate churches said they appreciated new provisions allowing them to register their congregations. Multiple religious groups welcomed provisions reducing the waiting period for a registered religious group to obtain recognition from 23 years to five years.

Other religious leaders and international human rights organizations said the new law enshrined in the country’s legal framework significant restrictions and bureaucratic controls over religious activity. Many religious leaders expressed concern the law continued to give significant discretion to the government regarding approving or denying various types of applications. According to news reports, an August letter from the Catholic National Bishops Conference spoke of several positive aspect of the law but said the law did not address building new houses of worship. A press report stated activists said the law would make it easier for the government to violate religious freedom and expressed concern about provisions on land use and the requirement for permission to train religious personnel. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Catholic priest Phan Van Loi of the Interfaith Council said the new law was not in place to protect religious freedom but rather to serve and cater to the rules of the Communist Party. Religious leaders noted existing laws and regulations on education, health, publishing, and construction were restrictive toward religious groups and would need to be revised to allow religious groups greater freedom to conduct such activities in practice. The UBCV and independent Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Khmer Krom Buddhist communities also stated the law’s definition of religion was not consistent with the ICCPR and criticized the government for excluding them from the process of legislative consultation. These groups also stated the law should allow religious organizations to conduct activities without the need for government approvals. Certain Protestant leaders said the new legal framework could make it more difficult for religious groups to proselytize and expand into new districts.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Members of the Duong Van Minh religious group, who are primarily ethnic H’mong, reported some tensions with other H’mong who practice different traditional burial rites.

Starting in May, Catholic priests in Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces helped organize a series of demonstrations calling for stronger environmental protections and criticizing an international steel company over fish deaths and pollution along the coastline of several provinces in Central Vietnam. The priests also assisted parishioners in filing complaints and lawsuits against the government for financial compensation.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador, in meetings with senior government officials, called for continued improvements in religious freedom. Other visiting senior U.S. officials raised religious freedom concerns during their meetings with government officials and civil society representatives. The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom concerns with government officials at the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in April. The Ambassador at Large traveled to Hanoi and the Central Highlands in March to discuss religious freedom with local officials and a wide range of registered and unregistered groups, including groups with ethnic minority members. On a separate visit in May, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor advocated for improvements to freedom of religion in law and practice. Senior U.S. officials submitted to government leaders recommendations for revisions to the draft Law on Religion and Belief to bring the text in line with the country’s constitution and international commitments to protect religious freedom.

The Embassy in Hanoi and the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City regularly raised concerns about religious freedom with a wide range of government officials and CPV leaders, including the president, prime minister, and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CRA, the MPS, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and other offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and the provinces.

The Ambassador and officials at the embassy and consulate general urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups; sought greater freedom for recognized and registered religious groups; and urged an end to restrictions on unregistered groups. Embassy and consulate general officials raised specific cases of government harassment against Catholics, Protestant groups, the UBCV, independent Hoa Hao groups, the Duong Van Minh religious group, and ethnic minority house churches with the CRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and provincial and local-level authorities. U.S. government officials called for the increased registration of church congregations around the country and for improvement in registration policies to make them more uniform and transparent.

U.S. government officials also urged the government to resolve peacefully outstanding land rights disputes with religious organizations. The Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officials, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom strongly encouraged transparent negotiations between local authorities and UBCV Abbot Thich Khong Tanh regarding the Lien Tri Pagoda throughout the year until officials demolished it in September. After the demolition, U.S. government officials continued to encourage Tanh and local authorities to negotiate regarding a new location.

The U.S. President met with civil society and religious leaders during a visit to the country in May. The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officials traveled throughout the country, including to the Northwest and Central Highlands, to monitor religious freedom, meet with religious leaders, and stress to government officials that progress on religious freedom and human rights was critical to an improved bilateral relationship. Representatives of the embassy and the consulate general had frequent contact with many leaders of religious communities, including recognized, registered, and unregistered organizations.