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Afghanistan

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors.  In response to these attacks, in September President Ashraf Ghani announced a plan to divide Kabul into four security zones, creating a security zone in the Dasht-e Barchi area similar to the one that protects embassies and international organizations in central Kabul and increasing the ANDSF presence there.  President Ghani also announced plans for the Kabul Municipality and Capital Zone Development Authority to implement development projects in the area, including road construction.  Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community, however, said these were insufficient, symbolic measures from the government.  The Ministry of Interior again increased security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura.  There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions – a sharp contrast from recent years.  On September 18, media reported the government had prevented attacks by arresting 26 ISKP militants in Kabul suspected of planning attacks on Ashura.

As in the previous four years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty.  Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.

The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages, with no quota on either group.  It charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses.  MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims.  Ahmadi Muslims reported they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.

MOHRA reported that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end, an increase from 4,589 in 2017.  Government officials said the ministry was able to hire additional clerics under the year’s budget due to the implementation of new procedures and a new payroll system.  These mullahs continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($160) from the government.  For highly educated mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons or khatibs, MOHRA provided a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($190).  Mullahs applying to be prayer leaders in MOHRA-registered mosques continued to have to hold at least a high school diploma, although a bachelor’s degree or equivalent verified by the Ministry of Higher Education was preferred.  MOHRA reported approximately 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered.  According to MOHRA, the ministry lacked the financial resources to create a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques.  Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about the new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize.  Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable.  Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near the cremation sites.  In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals.  The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations.  Sikh and Hindu community leaders said President Ghani reaffirmed this promise in an August 2017 meeting, but as of the end of the year, the government had not taken action.  Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged new efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.

MOHRA reported there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country, up from 4,093 in 2017.  The government reported that approximately 50,000 mosques were registered with the ministry.  The government registered some additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many.  More than 300,000 students were enrolled in madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to the latest available estimate.

The registration process for madrassahs continued to require a school to demonstrate it had suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students lived on campus.  MOHRA continued to register madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the MOE continued to register madrassahs not associated with mosques.  In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students received individual instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels.  Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allowed students to pursue higher education at government universities.

MOHRA could not estimate the number of unregistered madrassahs but stated it was likely unregistered madrassahs “far outnumbered” registered madrassahs.  The MOE was authorized to close unregistered madrassahs, but ministry officials again said it remained nearly impossible to close any due to local sensitivities.  According to ministry officials, some madrassahs were closed in conflict areas during the year, but not out of concern for potential negative societal repercussions.  Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery.  Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could institute violent extremist curriculum intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies.  Eighty MOE-registered madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level.  An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE.

Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government.  The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition.  President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah included messages in support of religious tolerance in speeches invoking national unity and in meetings with minority religious groups.  For example, on September 19, media reported that President Ghani had stated the ongoing war was against the “national unity and religious freedom” of the country.  President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims the access to the courts or other legal redress as Muslims, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

According to media reports and representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, some members of these communities, such as Sikhs and Hindus, were told they did not have equal rights because they were “Indians,” not Afghans, even when they were citizens of the country.  Members of minority religious communities reported the state, including the courts, treated all citizens as if they were Muslims, and some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims remained uncodified.  They said the result was non-Muslims continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence.

Sikhs and Hindus continued to report their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Special Land and Property Court.  Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.  Hindu and Sikh community leaders said they had pending court cases of land seized by municipal authorities and warlords from four years ago.  Whenever community advocates reproached the court, government officials said their cases remained under review.

Although some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government such as Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh, High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili, and then Second Chief Executive Deputy Mohammad Mohaqeq, Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics.  Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population.  Observers said these debates were often about the predominantly Hazara ethnicity of the majority of the country’s Shia rather than about religion.

A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, and one as an elected member in the lower house.  After the only Sikh candidate, Awtar Singh Khalsa, for lower house parliament elections was killed in a July 1 suicide attack in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, the IEC granted an extension on July 5 for the registration for a Sikh candidate to run in parliamentary elections in October.

Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation.  The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques.  The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation.  Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

On June 4, the Ulema Council convened approximately 3,000 religious scholars at the Loya Jirga tent in Kabul to issue a propeace fatwa.  Although the religious scholars said the effort was more of a symbolic attempt to challenge the religious legitimacy of “holy war” invoked by violent extremist groups, including the Taliban and ISKP, they said the fatwa included principles of religious tolerance.  The scholars stated, “Divisions among Muslims based on language, tribe, or sect are against Islam” and that “those who cause such division should be punished.”  This included all forms of intra-Muslim violence, including through suicide attacks.

The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance.  The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism.  The ONSC also continued to coordinate the efforts of relevant government institutions and NGOs to formulate the strategy through an interministerial working group.  Government officials said the strategy had reached the final stages of review during the year.

Albania

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support remained at 109 million lek ($1.02 million), the same as in 2017 and the previous year.  The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 28 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 24 percent.  The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff.  The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.

The government implemented an April 2017 decision to subsidize the price of electricity and water for places of worship as a means of indirect financial support for religious communities.  Leaders of the five main religious communities confirmed they were paying a lower price for electricity and water.

The VUSH reported that, although there was still no formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, the State Committee on Cults provided a written commitment to extend financial support to evangelical Christian churches.  The Cults Committee stated it submitted VUSH’s request for financial support to the government.  The VUSH, the Orthodox Church, and the AIC expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them.  The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets had shown indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities.

The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built during the 1990s.  The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that from 2014 through September it legalized 330 religious buildings, including 104 Catholic churches, 153 mosques, and 47 tekkes.  The Orthodox Church reported ALUIZNI approved only two full and two partial legalizations out of the Church’s 23 requests.

The ATP acknowledged the slow pace in adjudicating claims, attributing it to the large volume of files – 551 cases – under review.  The ATP reported it rejected 17 claims during the year, which claimants may challenge in court.  The law grants 10 years to execute a compensation order from the ATP – awarding the property in dispute, monetary compensation, or different property – from the date the order is finalized.  In response to a Constitutional Court declaration that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims.  ALUIZNI reported that, between 2012 and 2018, it compensated the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, AIC, and Bektashi for land illegally occupied by builders.

The Orthodox Church reported the ATP had reviewed only 10 percent of the 890 properties for which the Church had submitted claims.  The Church expressed its concern about delayed court proceedings and said the State Advocate, an institution in the Ministry of Justice that provides government institutions with legal counsel and representation, appealed the few court rulings that favored the Church.

Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, three in Permet, and one in Elbasan.  The government reportedly legalized 31 tekkes during the year.  The Bektashi community said it continued to have problems with the local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, noting the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption.

The Bektashi stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title over the course of several years for numerous properties that the Bektashi said they obtained through a court ruling.  The Bektashi community said it brought a complaint to the Ministry of Justice and Office of the Prime Minister, but had not received a response.

The AIC reported the unlawful expropriation of some of its land, citing corruption in the judiciary as the cause.  For example, the AIC claims it owned land near the Trade Chamber building in Tirana but said it was transferred in a corrupt judicial holding to another entity.  The other entity exchanged the land claimed by the AIC for two parking garages, further alienating title from the AIC.

VUSH members continued to report difficulties in acquiring land on which to construct places of worship due to local government tax assessments and regulations.  They said they continued to rent existing buildings instead.

The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering its property with the local registration office in Korca, and the registration office in Tirana did not provide one of the VUSH’s organizations with a foundation blue print.  The VUSH filed a complaint challenging the Tirana refusal, but said the city had not responded by year’s end.

VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes.  The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position.  The AIC paid the locally imposed fees for its entities located in Tirana.

Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a new, cross-thematic curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students.  They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting, and the teachers slated to provide the instruction did not have training in theology.

As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not adopted regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.

A State Committee on Cults census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related NGOs, and 40 centers.  The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three.  The Catholic Church does have any associated NGOs, foundations, or centers, while the VUSH has 158.

In April Prime Minister Edi Rama warned in a speech that Russia was intent on radicalizing Muslims in the country and urged the European Union not “leave a space for other countries to fill.”  (The country is seeking EU accession.)  He criticized European politicians for stirring anti-Muslim sentiment.

Algeria

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In May authorities prosecuted 26 Ahmadi Muslims in Bejaia for insulting the precepts of Islam, operating an association without approval, and collecting money without authorization.  Their case went to trial in June.  The court acquitted three persons, sentenced a married couple in absentia to six months in prison, and sentenced the remaining individuals to three months in prison.

The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups.  According to media reports, authorities arrested, jailed, and fined several Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities not related to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in the local community Muslims might attend.  According to media reports, authorities charged five Christians from Bouira Province, three of whom belong to the same family, with “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.”  On December 25, a judge at the court of Bouira acquitted the five individuals.

In March a court in Tiaret convicted two Christian brothers on proselytism charges for carrying more than 50 Bibles in their car.  Prosecutors said the accused planned to use the Bibles for proselytism, while the brothers said they were for church use only.  The court upheld the proselytism charges and fined each man 100,000 dinars ($850).

In May a court convicted a church leader and another Christian of proselytizing for transporting Bibles.  The court fined each individual 100,000 dinars ($850) and sentenced each to three months in prison.

In July a court in Dar El-Beyda dropped all charges against Idir Hamdad, a man arrested in April 2016 at the Algiers airport for carrying a Bible and several religious artifacts including crucifixes, scarves, and keyrings.  The court originally sentenced Hamdad in absentia in September 2017 to six months in prison and fined him 20,000 dinars ($170) on charges of importing unlicensed goods.  On May 3, following his lawyer’s appeal, the court overturned the prison sentence but upheld the fine.  On July 9, the prosecutor appealed, asking for a harsher sentence, but the court dropped all charges against Hamdad.  In its verdict, the court found that Hamdad was prosecuted “simply because he converted to Christianity, and what he was carrying was only gifts.”

Throughout the year, the government conducted investigations of at least 85 Ahmadi Muslims, according to leaders of the Ahmadi community.  Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations.  There were reports of police confiscating passports and educational diplomas from the Ahmadis, and pressuring employers to put Ahmadi workers on administrative leave.  Some of those investigated during the year were placed in pretrial detention, put on trial, and given prison sentences of up to six months.  Others appealed charges and court decisions, were placed under house arrest, or were freed after pretrial detention or serving a prison sentence.  As of December no Ahmadi Muslims were in prison.

Between November 2017 and December 2018, according to the president of the EPA, the government closed eight churches and a nursery associated with the EPA for operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes.  In June authorities reopened three churches in Oran, Ain Turk, and El Ayaida they had closed between November 2017 and February 2018.  As of the end of the year, three churches affiliated with the EPA in Bejaia and one non-EPA church in Tizi Ouzo remain closed.  Media reported that on December 4, in Oran, the provincial government cancelled the closure of a Christian bookshop associated with the nursery.  The bookshop owner, Pastor Rachid Seighir, was not compensated for the losses incurred since authorities ordered the shop’s closure in November 2017.

The UN Human Rights Committee in July adopted a report including the following language:  “the Committee remains concerned by reports of closures of churches and evangelical institutions and various restrictions on worship by Ahmadi persons.  It also expresses concern regarding allegations of attacks, acts of intimidation and arrests targeting persons who do not fast during Ramadan…”

A lawyer for the Ahmadi community said judges and prosecutors on several occasions questioned Ahmadi defendants in court about their religious beliefs and theological differences with Sunni Islam.  Members of the Ahmadi community said government officials tried to persuade them to recant their beliefs while they were in custody.

In April Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, was released after spending 18 months in prison for posting statements in 2016 on his Facebook page deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.  In July 2017, authorities commuted his sentence as part of a presidential amnesty.  A court originally sentenced Bouhafs to five years in prison plus a 100,000 dinar ($850) fine; authorities later reduced that sentence to three years.

In May a court in Tiaret upheld a verdict against Noureddine Belabbes and another Christian, who previously had been found guilty of proselytizing and fined 100,000 dinars ($850) and legal expenses after their arrest in 2015 for transporting Bibles.  Authorities originally sentenced Belabbes and his colleague in 2017 to two years in prison and a 50,000 dinar ($420) fine, but after a March appeal, the judge overturned the prison sentences and instead gave them suspended prison sentences of three months each and doubled the fines.  Belabbes stated that he would not appeal the judgment.

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

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

According to the MOI, although religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their applications within 60 days of submission, the 60-day clock did not begin until the ministry considered the application complete and had issued a receipt to that effect.  Nongovernmental organizations and religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt proving they had submitted a completed registration application.  Ahmadis reported their request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns had not received a government response.

The Ahmadi community reported administrative difficulties and harassment since they are not a registered association and are unable to meet and collect donations.  Members of the Ahmadi community said they tried to register with the MRA and Ministry of Interior (MOI) as a Muslim group but the government rejected their applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims.  The government said it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis refused to file as anything but Muslims.

In accordance with the 2012 Associations Law that all organizations needed to reregister with the government, several religious groups registered under the previous law continued to try to reregister with the government.  The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church submitted paperwork to renew their registrations in 2014 but as of year’s end had still not received a response from the MOI.

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

Most Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006.  Other MRA officials, however, met regularly with Christian leaders to hear their views, including complaints about the registration process.  Christian leaders stated some Protestant groups continued to avoid applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations.  Other Christian groups, particularly in the Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.  There were no reports of the government shutting down house churches during the year.

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

The government did not grant any permits for the importation of Christian religious texts during the year, and at least one request remained pending from 2017.  Representatives of the EPA stated they had been waiting more than a year for a new import authorization; the last such authorization was in October 2016.  Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight.  The government enforced its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

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

According to religious community leaders, the government did not always enforce the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

In August a local Muslim man applied to a court in Tebessa to marry a Belgian Christian woman.  The court rejected his request because the woman “is Christian and does not embrace Islam.”

Sources stated that Christian leaders were able to visit Christians in prison, regardless of the nature of their imprisonment.

Church groups reported the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in an increase in de facto visa refusals.  One Christian leader said the government did not grant or refused 50 percent of visas requested for Catholic Church workers.  As of the end of the year, three members of the Catholic Church had been waiting a year for visas.  Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as a significant hindrance to religious practice.  One religious leader identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization.  Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups.

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

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight.  The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism include dedicated state-run religious TV and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media.

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

Government officials continued to invite leading Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions.  President Abdelaziz Bouteflika invited Christian and Jewish community representatives to the November 1 parade to commemorate the beginning of the revolution, according them the same status as Muslim, cultural, and national figures.

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

Government officials regularly made statements about the need for tolerance of non-Islamic religious groups.  In May imams, representatives from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and municipal officials participated in an interfaith event at a Catholic church in Algiers on the significance of the Virgin Mary in Islam and Christianity.  The same group attended an exhibition on the 99 names of Allah at a Catholic church during Ramadan.

In December a cardinal of the Catholic Church beatified 19 Catholics killed during Algeria’s civil war at a ceremony in Oran.  Algerian authorities facilitated the beatification process by providing transportation, security, and visas to members of the Catholic Church who attended the ceremony.

Andorra

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

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

On July 26, the government submitted to parliament a draft law, the first of its kind in the country, providing for equality and nondiscrimination, including religious equality.  The draft legislation would establish sanctions of up to 24,000 euros ($27,500) in cases of discrimination, including on the basis of religious affiliation, and stipulates the burden of proof in cases would rest with the defendant, who would have to demonstrate, if accused, there had not been discrimination.  The law would also establish an Equality Observatory to monitor and assess the state of equality and nondiscrimination in the country.  Parliament was reviewing the draft legislation and expected to vote on it before the end of the legislative term in March 2019.

There were no reports that government officials, at the national or local level, responded to requests by Muslim and Jewish officials to allow the construction of a cemetery where these groups could bury their dead according to their rituals and traditions.  Jews and Muslims could use existing cemeteries, but these did not allocate separate burial areas for these communities to use.  As a result, most Jews and Muslims continued to bury their dead outside the country.  Government officials said they were discussing the issue with municipalities.

In March the Supreme Court upheld a December 2017 finding by the Criminal Court (Tribunal de Corts) that a 2014 assault by two individuals on a Jewish man outside of a discotheque in the city of La Massana did not constitute an anti-Semitic hate crime.

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

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

Angola

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On October 16, a joint executive decree revoked the 2015 MJHR circular, thereby abolishing the ecumenical associations and mandating all unregistered religious groups to submit within 30 days individual requests for recognition or cease operations.  The government began closing churches in November after the 30-day period came to an end.  At year’s end, the government reported it had closed more than 900 houses of worship, including eight mosques.  By year’s end, 94 unregistered religious groups submitted their files for recognition.  The number of officially recognized religious groups remained at 81.  At year’s end, the government had not recognized any new religious groups.

Government officials at the highest levels continued to state concern about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which were alleged to have exploited vulnerable populations with limited financial means by requiring them to provide recurring payments or dues to worship or belong to these organizations.  In President Lourenco’s address to parliament on October 15, he reaffirmed the government’s commitment to respect freedom of religion, but stressed the government would not tolerate churches that operate solely as for-profit businesses and prey on poor and vulnerable segments of the population.

The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups officially or issue any licenses to Muslim groups to practice their religion legally.  The Muslim community requested official recognition of its groups but was unable to meet the requirements of the 2004 law, including having 100,000 legal members and a religious doctrine aligned with the country’s constitution.  In the past, government officials had stated some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution.  The Islamic Community of Angola (COIA) as well the Islamic Foundation of Angola (FIA) requested official recognition following the October 16 joint executive decree.  According to COIA, there were 69 unregistered mosques in the country.

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

On November 6, the government launched the nationwide Operation Rescue law enforcement campaign to combat criminality, including the operation of unlicensed religious groups.

Some religious leaders, civil society members, and media outlets continued to accuse the government of trying to coerce religious groups to align themselves with the ruling party in exchange for authorization to operate freely.

On December 1, there was a protest in Luanda against the closing of churches under Operation Rescue organized by the Order of Evangelical Pastors of Angola (OPEA).  OPEA stated the government’s closure of churches violated freedom of religion and involved the use of excessive force and coercive power.  OPEA also said police engaged in violence against pastors, some of whom police arbitrarily detained, and violated the sanctity of their churches.  The leader of COIA said Operation Rescue violated the exercise of freedom of religion because eight mosques were closed despite the fact that COIA submitted registration documentation by November 4, in accordance with the new joint executive decree.  Pastors in Lubango from the Church of the Christian Coalition in Angola and Christian Vision Church criticized the government’s failure to consult religious leaders before abolishing the ecumenical associations.

On July 24, the Huambo Provincial Court tried and convicted 32-year-old Justino Tchipango, deputy leader of the Light of the World religious group, and sentenced him to 18 years in prison for the killing of nine police officers during clashes in 2015 between law enforcement and followers of the religious group in Mount Sumi, Huambo Province.

The leader of the Light of the World religious group, Jose Kalupeteka, sentenced to 28 years in prison in 2016 by the Huambo Provincial Court for the killing of nine police officers, appealed to the Supreme Court, but there was no decision on the appeal at year’s end.  On December 18, authorities transferred Kalupeteka from prison in Benguela to his native province of Huambo at the request of his family, which along with civil society had requested the transfer since his sentencing.  Civil society groups maintained Kalupeteka’s trial and conviction were politically motivated and called on the government to open an independent investigation during the year.

On July 30, the Supreme Court invalidated a 2015 decree issued by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights recognizing the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World as the only legitimate Tocoist church in the country.  The court ruled it is not the role of the MJHR to unify the different religious denominations in the country, but rather only to ensure religious groups obey the law.

On January 8, President Lourenco announced the government would allow Catholic radio station Ecclesia to extend its signal beyond Luanda Province to other provinces.  Radio Ecclesia submitted a request to operate nationwide in 2009, but the previous government never approved the request.  During the year, Radio Ecclesia began to operate in several additional provinces.

Antigua and Barbuda

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Following marijuana decriminalization, the government publicly apologized to the Rastafarian community for previous discrimination.  The Rastafarian community had argued against previous prohibition of marijuana, stating it was a restriction to their religious practice and that marijuana was integral to the community’s religious rituals.  In the wake of decriminalization, Rastafarian leaders said publicly the government had taken steps to recognize the dignity and worth of the Rastafarian community.

Public schools generally continued to require children be vaccinated, which Rastafarians stated was against their religious beliefs; however, some private schools offered exemptions to this policy.  Some Rastafarian children attended private schools not requiring immunizations.  While the government generally does not provide subsidies to private schools, during the year it helped the Rastafarian community establish schools for its children and started subsidizing private Rastafarian-run schools not requiring vaccinations for school entry, including paying salaries for some teachers.  Other Rastafarians chose to home school their children.

Argentina

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In March the Cassation Court upheld a federal ruling against Senator and former President Fernandez de Kirchner on “aggravated concealment” charges, seeking her arrest on allegations that the purpose of a 2013 memorandum of understanding the Kirchner administration signed was to cover up possible Iranian involvement in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.  Eighty-five persons died in the bombing.  In November the lower court’s request to lift her immunity from prosecution as a sitting senator expired after a senate’s session did not achieve a quorum.  While the new tribunal could issue a new request, the legislature could not take action on the measure until the onset of new congressional sessions in March 2019.  Fernandez de Kirchner, her former Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who died on December 30, and 11 others were indicted in December 2017 and awaited trial at year’s end.

At the September UNGA, President Macri urged international support for the country’s demands that Iran cooperate in the continuing investigation of the AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.

In mid-November closing arguments ended in the AMIA community center bombing case seeking to establish local complicity in the 1994 incident, including charges against former President Carlos Menem and other former security and intelligence officials.  The oral stage, which is the final stage of the trial, remained ongoing at year’s end.  In October 2017, Interpol renewed Red Notices seeking the location and arrest of five Iranians, one Lebanese, and one Colombian for their suspected roles in the AMIA bombing.

Judicial inquiries into the 2015 murder of Alberto Nisman, the lead federal prosecutor responsible for the investigation of the 1994 AMIA bombing, continued during the year.  On June 2, a federal appeals court affirmed the lower court’s preliminary finding that Nisman was murdered.  In December 2017, a federal judge indicted Diego Lagomarsino, Nisman’s former assistant, as an accessory to his death, as well as four security officials for criminal cover-up and failing to ensure Nisman’s protection.

The Macri administration cosponsored with the Jewish community and the Israeli embassy, for the first time in 26 years, a public commemoration of the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, and government officials expressed their commitment to transparency and pursuing justice.

On April 19, a group of parents in Tucuman Province filed suit against having a religious curriculum in the province’s public schools, citing the 2017 Supreme Court decision that incorporation of religious education in public schools was unconstitutional and stating that educators were exclusively teaching Catholicism in the schools.  Political observers commented that provincial education laws in Catamarca, Cordoba, La Pampa, and San Luis Provinces had similar provisions that could come under judicial review.  In December 2017, the Supreme Court ruled the incorporation of religious education in public schools in Salta Province was unconstitutional in a suit filed by the Association of Civil Rights and supported by parents and the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches in the Argentine Republic (ACIERA).  According to media reports, the provincial government subsequently made efforts to remove obligatory religious education in public schools, although such classes remained optional in some schools.

Secretary of Worship Alfredo Abriani publicly prioritized the passage of a draft religious freedom bill, first submitted in 2017, but there was no action on the legislation by year’s end.  The bill would eliminate the requirement that non-Catholic religious groups register with the government to receive the same benefits accorded to the Catholic Church, allow for conscientious objection on the basis of religion, and protect religious dress, holidays, and days of worship.

On August 24, the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), representing the Catholic Church, announced its intention to cease receiving certain public funds provided as direct financial support by the national government.  On November 3, the group announced ongoing negotiations with the Macri administration to decrease such payments, primarily allocated for the salaries of Catholic bishops and seminarians.  State-funded financial support amounted to approximately 152 million Argentine pesos ($4.04 million) during the year, or 7 percent of the Church’s annual budget.  Although congress passed the 2019 national budget, it did not make public the government’s allocations to the Catholic Church.  Secretary of Worship Abriani stated the national budget would include allocations to the Catholic Church.  Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their dependence on federal funding.

Many Jewish groups said they viewed relations with the Macri administration as positive and productive.  Close collaboration among these groups and the government continued, particularly in light of what they characterized as the administration’s commitment to resolve the Nisman killing and to pursue justice in its investigations of the 1994 AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy.

Secretary of Worship Abriani, the human rights secretary, the Buenos Aires director general for religious affairs, and other government representatives continued to host and attend religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches.  On September 4-5, the City of Buenos Aires hosted the Third World Congress on Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue, aimed at promoting interreligious dialogue and understanding.  Participants included representatives from the Catholic Church, Orthodox Greek Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Orthodox Episcopal Anglican Communion, and Church of Jesus Christ.  Other attendees included the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary and the Islam for Peace Institute.

On August 22, Buenos Aires hosted an interfaith festival highlighting diverse religious communities in the country at the Costanera Sur convention center.  The event sought to recognize and celebrate the religious diversity of Buenos Aires, according to local government officials.

On September 26-28, the government supported the fifth annual Group of 20 (G20) Interfaith Forum hosted by international religious and civil society groups.  The conference considered the G20 2018 summit theme of “Building Consensus for Fair and Sustainable Development” from a faith-based perspective.  Vice President Gabriela Michetti provided opening remarks.

From October 29 to November 1, 500 youth from more than 15 countries participated in the Third World Youth Meeting hosted by Jewish and other religious organizations with the support of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, and Technology.

INADI continued to spearhead education campaigns directed at public and private schools to facilitate a better understanding among youth of religious tolerance and respect for diversity.  On July 26, INADI announced a new private-sector partnership, “Business for Diversity,” to counter discrimination and encourage diversity in the workplace, including religious diversity.  On July 10, INADI signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Argentine Federation of Maccabean Community Centers to counter discrimination based on religion in sports.  INADI continued to work with UNICEF to counter cyberbullying, including religious discrimination.

In April the MFA provided the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) with copies of approximately 140,000 World War II Holocaust-era documents for research purposes.

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

Armenia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On March 30, Epress.am, an independent online outlet focused on human rights reporting, reported that police officers from the town of Hrazdan attempted to pressure a youth who identified as atheist to “return” to the AAC.  According to the report, unidentified police officers, under false pretenses, took the youth to the Children’s Support Center to meet with a psychologist, where he was held overnight.

Starting in June, the “New Armenia, New Patriarch” initiative group, comprising AAC self-identified secular activists and two former members of the AAC clergy, protested and demanded the resignation of Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.  On June 6, the group made a statement accusing Catholicos Karekin II of weakening the AAC and of “submitting the country to sects, homosexuals, atheists, and opportunists.”  On July 14, protesters blocked the Catholicos’s vehicle at the Gndevank monastery complex in the Vayots Dzor Region and blocked him as he tried to walk away from the venue.  Protesters insulted him in the presence of police.  According to an AAC priest from the Vagharshapat Cathedral, in addition to pushing and pulling him, the protesters restricted the Catholicos’ freedom of movement and threatened to lock him in the monastery.  On July 15, on Facebook Livestream, Prime Minister Pashinyan described these developments as an internal church matter into which the government should not interfere and urged the clergy to discuss and find a solution to those internal disagreements.  He also emphasized the government’s role in upholding the law, stating he was not satisfied with police actions, which he had observed in videos of the incident.  The prime minister stated he had tasked police to examine carefully the Vayots Dzor incident and assess whether the protesters’ actions were justified.  According to the police press service, the police chief instructed officers to investigate the incident and assess police actions; however, according to the AAC representative in Echmiatsin, police dropped the case because they said there was no threat to the Catholicos’ life.

On July 6, the same group of activists broke into the AAC chancery in Echmiatsin, which includes the Catholicos’ residence and offices, and staged around-the-clock protests.  According to an AAC priest, in response to the Church’s request for police assistance, police initially stated that churches and monasteries were public spaces and they could not remove the protesters.  After three days, however, police removed them.  The activists continued to hold occasional rallies in downtown Yerevan and threatened to track all of the Catholicos’ movements.

On May 8, the National Assembly elected as prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who had led protests against former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan that led to Sargsyan’s resignation on April 23.  On several occasions, Pashinyan reiterated that state and church were separate and the government would not interfere in church affairs.  The new government indefinitely halted the process of adoption of a package of laws called “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” initiated by the former government.  According to religious freedom experts and many members of the religious community, the most recent version of the draft package, published in November 2017, sought to control religious organizations, including by banning religious expression under certain circumstances and banning foreign funding of religious organizations.  The draft also included mandatory public reporting, with the possibility of suspending an organization for failure to report.  Representatives of evangelical Protestant churches said government authorities could selectively apply such provisions to target “unwanted” minority religious groups.

According to representatives of the Baha’i community, authorities detained Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the community, in December 2017 and held him until July on what members of the community said were religious grounds.  In July the trial court judge released him on bail.  His trial continued at year’s end.  Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights lawyers said they were concerned about the case, including the surveillance of members of the Baha’i community preceding Manasyan’s arrest.

In early September there were media reports that minority religious “sects” infiltrated a school in Yelpin village in Vayots Dzor Region, which caused a number of parents to refuse to send their children to the school.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, after a group of four teachers filed a police report stating the school principal was involved in corruption, the latter started a smear campaign against the teachers, leading to local activists and council members accusing the teachers of being members of religious “sects.”  Activists demanded the teachers’ dismissal, stating they could “indoctrinate” the students.  Once it became clear that three of the four teachers were AAC followers and that the other teacher was a member of an evangelical Protestant church, the latter became the sole target of the protests, even though the activists admitted they had no proof she was preaching or proselytizing during school activities.  Because of the boycott, the school cancelled all but one of the teacher’s classes, resulting in reduction of her pay.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, which represented the teacher, the latter was subject to reprisal and discrimination because of her religion.  The governor’s office stated it had taken measures to resolve the issue, explaining to the teachers of the school and the parents of the students that according to the constitution everyone enjoys freedom of conscience, religion, and belief.  The governor’s office disciplined the school principal.  According to the Center for Religion and Law, the evangelical Protestant teacher’s working conditions had not changed by year’s end.

The vast majority of public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11.  According to official information, the HAC was taught in all public schools with no exceptions, although during the year there were anecdotal reports that at least one public school and two schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.  During a parliamentary briefing on November 14, the new minister of education stated the HAC course needed serious revisions.  According to the deputy minister, the reform would likely take approximately three years and would include a review of the HAC with a new focus on history of religions in compliance with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools.  In the interim, beginning with the 2019-20 academic year, national minorities could choose an alternative course to the HAC.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.”  While all Yezidi schools were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended mixed schools were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections.

Several non-AAC religious groups said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and crossing that reportedly occurred during those classes and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC.  The Ministry of Education stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda.  NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC publicly voiced concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity.  There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course, without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites.  According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year, six AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in four public and two private schools.

Human rights activists expressed their concern that religious elements were a consistent part of the public education process and were present even outside the AAC course.

Based on a Ministry of Education pilot program launched in 2012, school administrations had the option to include an additional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four.  During the new school year, 74 schools followed this option.

According to the government, no religious groups other than the AAC requested to visit a military unit.  The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.

According to the government, during the year, the AAC conducted visits, up to three times per week, to each of the 12 penitentiaries to engage in spiritual discussions with incarcerated followers and to hold services, baptisms and other religious events.  Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited some of the penitentiaries four, 16, and seven times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year.

Jehovah’s Witnesses said they continued to face difficulties in building places of worship because of interference by local officials throughout the country.  At year’s end, three pending cases continued before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Seventh-day Adventists reported their dissatisfaction over some schools operating on Saturdays or school- or state-level examinations scheduled for Saturdays, a day of worship for the community.  The group stated, however, that on an individual level their members were able to resolve the issue.  The new government stopped the practice of designating AAC holidays as nonworking days, making the following or preceding Saturday a working day.

As of May 123 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program.

Australia

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In September Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for new religious freedom laws to “safeguard personal liberty.”  Legislation was not introduced but caused a debate within the country.  The prime minister said he planned draft legislation for early next year.  According to a December 12 article in The Australian newspaper, elements of the planned legislation included taking steps to protect religious schools, charities, and individuals from discrimination; requiring education departments to make clear to parents how to remove a child from religious instruction at school; and moving to abolish statutory or common law offenses of blasphemy in all jurisdictions.  The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney said that there had been attempts to penalize those who support traditional marriage and that legislation was necessary, among other things, because “lately there has been a hard-edged secularism that wants to stamp out religion from public life.”

In October the prime minister stated the country would ban religious schools from expelling lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) students.  The opposition leader gave support to the plan and also proposed that religious schools lose the right to fire gay staff.  A group of Anglican schools wrote to members of parliament saying changes in the exemption to the country’s antidiscrimination law that currently allows religious schools not to have LGBT teachers would undermine their faith’s core values and that “until such time as religious freedom is codified in legislation, the exemptions should remain.”  Legislation was not introduced by the end of the year, and parliament referred the issue to the Australian Law Reform Commission for review.

The One Nation Party had two senators in the federal parliament and maintained a platform calling for stopping Muslim immigration and admission of Muslim refugees, banning the burqa and niqab in public places, installing surveillance cameras in all mosques, and prohibiting members of parliament from being sworn in under the Quran.  Katter’s Australia Party had one senator and one member in the House of Representatives who maintained a platform calling for a country based on Christian values and for a ban on Muslim immigration.

The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer and then the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901.  Participation in the prayers remained optional.  The Australian Greens and other groups continued to call for the practice to end.

In July the Catholic Church rejected the 2017 recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that priests be required to report evidence of pedophilia heard in the confessional or face prosecution.  Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the Church was committed to both child safety and the seal of the sacrament of confessional.  The Church accepted a commission recommendation that it compensate each victim of child abuse by Church personnel up to 150,000 Australian dollars ($106,000).

In December Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of five charges of “historical child sexual offenses” by a Melbourne court.  Pell maintained his innocence.  He faced an additional trial for alleged similar actions in Ballarat.

The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 172 complaints on the grounds of religion (approximately 2.4 percent of total discrimination complaints) in the last three years.

In July a judge in the Victoria Supreme Court refused to allow a woman to wear a niqab in the court’s public spectator gallery during her husband’s trial on terrorism.  The judge offered the woman the option of viewing the proceedings live from another place in the building.

The government continued to provide funding for security installations – such as lighting, fencing, closed-circuit television cameras – and for the cost of employing security guards, in order to protect schools and preschools facing a risk of attack, harassment, or violence stemming from racial or religious intolerance.  This funding was available at both government and nongovernment schools, including religious schools.

The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs.  The government’s national multicultural policy, The People of Australia, continued to be based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion and included religious tolerance as a component.  The government provided a range of youth-focused early intervention, outreach, and education programs to promote religious tolerance as well as “deradicalization” programs for prison inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses.  Effectiveness of the programs was a point of debate throughout the country.

Austria

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to the 2018 report on the country by the international NGO Freedom House, many minority religious groups stated the legal division of religious groups into three categories impeded their claims for recognition and “demoted them to second- or third-class status.”

On November 20, parliament enacted a law providing for financial support for the costs of preschools to the provinces, which included an obligation for provincial governments to ban headscarves for children in preschools.

The government continued to implement the ban on the wearing of full-face coverings in public that went into effect in October 2017.  According to data from the interior ministry, authorities filed charges in 96 cases during the year:  62 in Vienna, 11 in Lower Austria, eight in Upper Austria, five in Styria, four in Tyrol, three in Salzburg and one each in Carinthia, Vorarlberg, and Burgenland.  Because authorities did not file charges when persons paid fines immediately, there were an unspecified number of additional cases in which police enforced the law.  A woman fined in October 2017 for covering her face while bicycling told the press she would appeal to the Administrative Court; however, by year’s end, there were no official reports of legal challenges to the ban.

Citing the ban on face coverings as well as the prohibition on foreign funding of mosques, the 2018 Freedom House report lowered its rating of the country from four to three on a scale of four in the category of freedom to practice and express religious faith or nonbelief.

In October the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a plea by a woman challenging her 2011 conviction by a Vienna court, later upheld on appeal, for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad in 2009.  The ECHR found that insulting the Prophet Muhammad “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.”  The ECHR stated the Austrian courts had “carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.”

The government continued to deny funding for pastoral care the IGGIO provided to Muslims in prison.  Only the Roman Catholic Church received government funding for pastoral care in prisons pursuant to the law covering relations between the government and the Catholic Church.

On November 22, the government coalition parties introduced a bill stipulating a ban of headscarves for children, 10 and under, in elementary schools.  The bill was referred for discussion to the parliamentary education committee and at year’s end was still pending debate.  The IGGIO called the proposed ban a “symbolic” and “diversionary tactic” that would open the door to a general ban on headscarves in public.

Some Scientologists and representatives of the Unification Church continued to state the Federal Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered societal discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities.  The office offered advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults,” including the Scientologists and members of the Unification Church.  The office was nominally independent but government-funded, and the minister for women, family and youth both appointed and oversaw its head.

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

In June the government completed an investigation of several mosques of the Arab Cultural Community over allegations the mosques preached extremist teachings and concluded the allegations were unfounded.  Mosques of the Arab Cultural Community had been operating outside the auspices of the IGGIO, despite a 2015 law requiring they incorporate under the IGGIO as an umbrella organization.  The government allowed the mosques to continue operations under the IGGIO.

In July the governor of Lower Austria rejected proposals by the provincial councilor for animal protection to reduce kosher and halal slaughtering in the province to an “as-needed” basis.  The councilor had sought a list of the Jews and Muslims in the province to determine the amount of halal and kosher meat required to meet demand.  The Jewish and Islamic communities had previously voiced concerns about the proposal and said they would not provide any lists of their members.  The governor stressed that the government would not require any registrations of persons intending to buy kosher or halal meat.

In August FPOe deputy party leader Johann Gudenus announced the government would draft a law specifically targeting “political Islam” as an illegal political activity and an “abuse of religion.”

Also in August, a decree by the Ministry of Social Affairs provided for stricter controls against illegal ritual slaughtering.  The decree included stricter monitoring of farmers who sold sheep to private persons, a practice which primarily affected Muslims.  Muslim groups stated the existing provisions to prevent illegal slaughter were sufficient, and criticized the decree as a populist measure.

The government continued to apply a policy of banning headwear in official identification documents, with an exception for religious purposes as long as the face was sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.

On December 11, parliament adopted an amendment to existing law banning certain symbols, including the symbols of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups.  The amendment, scheduled to enter into force in March 2019, expanded the ban to include symbols of other groups the government considered extremist, including the Muslim Brotherhood.  Interior Minister Herbert Kickl said the law was a clear sign of the country’s zero tolerance policy towards extremist groups, including those professing religious extremism.

The international NGO Anti-Defamation League conducted teacher-training seminars on Holocaust awareness with Austrian schools, reaching approximately 100 teachers.  In addition, provincial school councils and the education ministry invited Holocaust survivors to talk to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.

The counseling office for extremism prevention of the Ministry of Women, Family and Youth cooperated with the IGGIO to conduct training courses for imams on community work and prevention of extremism, including promoting religious tolerance.

Education Minister Heinz Fassmann, as well as Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish representatives, attended an IGGIO-hosted iftar in May to express support for the Muslim community.

In February Lower Austrian FPOe politician Udo Landbauer resigned as his party’s top candidate in the Lower Austrian elections and from all party functions following revelations of anti-Semitic lyrics mocking the Holocaust in a 1997 songbook of the fraternity Germania zu Wiener Neustadt, of which Landbauer was chairman.  He remained a candidate, but lower down on the party’s list.  In November Landbauer returned to the Lower Austrian FPOe as its acting chairman and acting floor leader in the provincial legislature.  The Viennese weekly Falter reported that Herwig Gotschober, FPOe District Councilor in Vienna-Leopoldstadt and press officer to Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, was chairman of another fraternity, Bruna Sudetia, that also used a songbook containing anti-Semitic lyrics.  Following public controversy over the Germania zu Wiener Neustadt songbook, the FPOe formed a commission of historians in 2017 to examine the party’s history and its past connections to National Socialism, including an analysis of its past party platforms.  The party said the commission would include experts from Israel and the United States.  At year’s end the party had not released any details on the composition of the commission or its work.

Jewish and Muslim community members and NGOs expressed concern over the participation of the FPOe in the coalition government with the People’s Party (OeVP).  For example, IKG Vienna President Oskar Deutsch continued to describe the FPOe as an anti-Semitic party and expressed concern about its attempts to appeal to Jewish voters by rebranding itself as anti-Muslim.  In a November FPOe Facebook video on the introduction of photos on social security identification cards, the party alluded to Muslims abusing social services by portraying the persons on the card as “Ali” and “Mustafa,” wearing a fez and displaying a mustache.  Vice Chancellor and FPOe Chairman Strache publicly distanced the party from the video, saying it was “exaggerated,” “provocative,” and “unnecessary.”  He said the charge that foreigners were primarily responsible for abusing social services was overblown.  At the annual ceremony commemorating the liberation of the concentration camp Mauthausen in May, Deutsch referred to charges of 23 anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi incidents among FPOe rank and file since the party became a junior partner in the coalition government in December 2017.  In January the FPOe ran a campaign with posters entitled “Muhammad – Rank 3 of Baby Names in Vienna – Any More Questions?”  The NGO Mauthausen Committee, a group commemorating victims of Nazi concentration camps, concluded FPOe’s campaign represented anti-Muslim racism, since it engendered fear of Muslims.

In December 2017, the coalition government announced a program, “Together.  For our Austria,” that pledged to engage, including internationally, to prevent the persecution of religious minorities and combat ideological and religious extremism.  The program included a suggestion to include new provisions in the criminal statute to combat violence motivated by religious fundamentalism.  It reiterated the country’s commitment to religious freedom, while also highlighting what it described as the need to combat “political Islam” and the dangers of radicalization, anti-Semitism, violence, and terrorism.  It defined political Islam as an ideological rejection of the country’s modern constitutional state that sought the Islamization of political and social life.  Specific proposals to prevent radicalization include limiting foreign financing of religious organizations, monitoring and potentially closing private Islamic schools not complying with legal requirements, and entrusting law enforcement with the authority to close places of worship that supported terrorism.

In June the Mauthausen Committee published a report linking the FPOe with right-wing extremism.  The report stated extremist activities of FPOe politicians had increased, citing 68 incidents occurring in the four and a half years before the 2017 parliamentary elections, compared with 38 incidents in the six months after those elections.  According to the report, of the 38 cases, 14 were connected with anti-Semitism and eight involved FPOe leaders or members of the federal government.

For example, in March the FPOe Party Chairman of Imst District, Wolfgang Neururer, sent images of Adolf Hitler to FPOe members on social media, with one of the pictures captioned, “Adolf, please show up!  Germany needs you!”  The public prosecutor in Innsbruck was investigating Neururer and another FPOe Party official in Imst.  In January the FPOe appointed Heinrich Sickl to the Graz municipal council.  Sickl, according to the Mauthausen report, was co-editor of Aula, a publication that disseminated anti-Semitic content.  The report added that two other FPOe politicians, Members of Parliament Axel Kassegger and Wendelin Molzer, held leadership positions in Aula.  In response, on June 8, Sickl, who was also head of the FPOe’s Styrian association of university graduates, announced Aula would cease publication as of June.  Following the closure of Aula, the party’s Styrian chapter founded a new publication called “Freilich” under Sickl’s leadership and released its first issue in December.

During the year, according to the Mauthausen report, FPOe District Councilor in Vienna-Leopoldstadt and diplomat, Jurgen-Michael Kleppich, was recalled from the Austrian Embassy in Israel after he posted a picture on social media of his grandfather in a Nazi uniform.  According to the report, Robert Kiesinger, a consultant at the FPOe educational institute, posted a cover page of a Nazi calendar from 1943 as his Easter greeting on social media.  The calendar showed a “life rune,” a banned Nazi symbol.

The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums.  Law enforcement authorities stated the government provided the protection due to general concerns over the potential for anti-Semitic acts against Jewish institutions.

In November Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hosted a high-level conference on “Europe beyond Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism – Securing Jewish Life in Europe” in Vienna.  The event brought together leaders from Europe and the Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic and focused on concrete measures to combat anti-Semitism, including providing better physical security for Jewish communities, and reinforcing legislation and improving education to combat anti-Semitism.

On November 19, Interior Minister Kickl hosted a conference in the context of Austria’s EU Council presidency on values, rule of law, and security in response to anti-Semitic threats.  Kickl warned against “the new intensity of anti-Semitic threats in Europe … triggered by political Islam,” and pledged to expand protection of Jewish facilities in the country.

In December, at the conclusion of the country’s EU Council presidency, the council adopted a declaration on the fight against anti-Semitism and the development of a common security approach to protect Jewish communities and institutions.  The declaration included calls on member states to adopt a “holistic strategy” to fight all forms of anti-Semitism; endorse the working definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; take measures against hate crimes and incitement to hatred and violence against Jews; emphasize Holocaust education for all; introduce training about intolerance and anti-Semitic prejudice in schools and vocational and integration programs; and increase efforts to ensure the security of Jewish persons and institutions.  Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev thanked Chancellor Kurz for his “personal efforts” leading to the adoption of the declaration.

On a June trip to Israel, Chancellor Kurz said, “We Austrians know that in light of our own history, we have a special responsibility toward Israel and the Jewish people.  I can assure you that Austria will fight all forms of anti-Semitism in Europe with determination, be it the still-existing one or also new imported anti-Semitism.”  Kurz also called for Holocaust education and spoke against anti-Semitism at a press conference in Berlin in March with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In February Education Minister Heinz Fassmann (OevP) stressed the country’s commitment to pursue a policy of zero tolerance toward anti-Semitism at the “An End to Antisemitism!” conference in Vienna.  The European Jewish Congress organized the conference, held at the University of Vienna, in collaboration with the University of Tel Aviv and New York University.

On January 8, Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl (FPOe) spoke to the newspaper Kurier and expressed concern over what she said was rising Islamist-based anti-Semitism in Europe, pledging to work against it.

FPOe Party Chairman Vice-Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache repeatedly called for zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or the glorification of Nazism.  For example, he issued a statement on November 9, commemorating the 80th anniversary of the 1938 Kristallnacht Nazi pogroms against Jews.  He called for zero tolerance again in a Facebook message on the eve of the right-wing “Akademikerball” party in February.  In a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Austria in November, Strache termed the National Socialist era as the “darkest chapter in Austria’s history,” which had resulted in terrible suffering of human beings, and warned that everything must be done to prevent a reoccurrence.

In March President Alexander Van der Bellen gave a speech during the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Nazi German annexation of the country.  Van der Bellen said Austrians “were not only victims, but also perpetrators, often in leading positions” during German occupation.  He added, “The German Wehrmacht came overnight.  But the contempt for human rights and democracy did not come overnight,” and that support for Nazism and anti-Semitism in the country existed before 1938.  At the same event, Chancellor Kurz said, “We must never forget this dark chapter of our history” and pledged the government would create a new memorial commemorating more than 65,000 Austrian Jews killed during the Holocaust.  In an October visit to the historic Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna’s 18th district, Kurz said the government would provide support to restore the cemetery.  The cemetery was closed at the end of the 19th century and partly destroyed during the National Socialist era.

The government continued to refuse residence permits for foreign imams financed by foreign sources.

In October, referring to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian Consulate General in Istanbul, the three opposition parties, the Social Democrats, NEOS, and List Pilz/Jetzt, questioned the legitimacy of the Vienna-based King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID).  They criticized what they described as the deterioration of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia over the previous two years.  Liste Pilz/Jetzt called for the center to close.  Foreign Minister Kneissl rejected the calls for closure of KAICIID, stating the government could not “just close an international organization,” but adding that her ministry would “closely monitor reforms of the center to reach progress in interreligious dialogue.”

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

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