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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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with the State Committee on Cults and the ATP, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era.  The embassy sponsored the participation of the commissioner on cults in an exchange program in the United States on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom.  The embassy also hosted a U.S. specialist who, during a three-week visit, met with members of religious communities and helped the Ministry of Education develop a national policy on, and draft the outline of a manual for, teaching about religion in public and private schools.

Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to churches, mosques, and other religious sites.  The Ambassador hosted an iftar for Muslim youth from Tirana’s Lanabregas neighborhood to encourage the integration of and tolerance for the recently established Roma community; the Ambassador stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance during the event.

The embassy continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the potential appeal of violent religious extremism.  As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values.  Other embassy-sponsored programs in Cerrik and Peqin helped establish “schools as community centers,” which promoted tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement.  The Ambassador met with students from Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim higher education institutions at Beder University and discussed advancing interfaith dialogue among youth.  The embassy continued to sponsor seminars with key religious figures and leaders in government and academia focused on the compatibility of religious faith and democracy.

Denmark

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future