An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity;” or hinder secular education. Local courts sentenced 57 of the 77 individuals detained after the July 2018 attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, and subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities said those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Human rights defenders considered 48 of these individuals to be political prisoners at year’s end; they also reported that in court hearings throughout the year, these individuals testified that police and other officials tortured them to coerce false confessions. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. Leaders of the political opposition party Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Services officials in Gobustan Prison. Human rights defenders said they considered these and other incarcerated Muslim Unity Movement members to be political prisoners. Estimates of the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 45 to 55 at the end of the year. Authorities briefly detained, fined, or warned individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. The government’s requirements for legal registration were unachievable for communities with less than 50 members. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials. According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. A senior government official stated in May while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment. The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism, including the November 14-15 Baku Summit of World Religious Leaders.

Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, groups viewed as “nontraditional” were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers urged government officials to investigate allegations of serious physical abuse – including alleged torture – of those individuals detained after July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja, and engaged the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of traditional and nontraditional religious groups and civil society in and outside the capital to discuss the situation for religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials met with representatives of various religious groups in Baku and in the regions to discuss religious freedom in the country. Officials had consultations with theologians and civil society representatives and urged the government to implement the constitutionally provided alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.

The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.

To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.

By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradicts the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter and other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.

The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism,” referring to other criminal, administrative, and civil provisions of the law in prescribing punishments. The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as excluding any criticism of one’s religious beliefs by those outside of the same religious group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature, or setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions, and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms from 15 years to life.

The law also specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.

The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

An administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 ($2900) to 7,000 manat ($4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 ($4,100) to 9,000 manat ($5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses. There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education. If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.

The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist actions; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to the legislature. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in positions of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.

The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism,” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.

The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.

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

Government Practices

The Ganja and Lankaran Courts of Grave Crimes sentenced 57 individuals from the 77 persons detained after the July 2018 attack on the then mayor of the city of Ganja and subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. Security forces took 77 individuals into custody and killed five during operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government account of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed did not resist arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku, in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. Civil society activists and human rights defenders said they considered the vast majority of the verdicts as politically motivated.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were 17 incidents between September 2018 and August 2019 in Baku and eight other cities or towns. One follower said two police officers forcibly took a Jehovah’s Witness in Khachmaz to the police station in February. International religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that in February a State Committee official asked the Jehovah’s Witness why he was talking about the Bible and not the Quran. Officers reportedly seized his religious literature, threatened to have him fined, held him for 12 hours without food or water, mocked his beliefs, forced him to write two statements, and then freed him. The Forum 18 report said one police officer threatened to beat him during his detention.

In January former member of parliament Rahim Akhundov stated publicly he had been forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department of the Azerbaijani Parliament due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal unless he chose to resign voluntarily; he said the reason was fabricated. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home and informed parliamentary leadership that he had held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.

In February Muslim Unity Movement leaders Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Service officials in Gobustan prison. Authorities partially responded to their complaints, but the prisoners reported ongoing issues.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mixed religious and political ideology. Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat. Human rights defenders and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity similar to previous years. According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year ranged from 45 to 55, compared with 68 in 2018.

On January 30, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade on charges of drug possession. The Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Nuruzade to seven years in prison in March 2018, but activists stated the charges were fabricated to punish him for publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On June 12, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity members Ebulfez Bunyadov and Elkhan Isgandarov, convicted in 2018 on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism, and sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively. On July 10, the Nizami District Court ordered Bunyadov’s release on medical grounds.

On February 18, the Baku Court of Appeals ordered the release of Telman Shiraliyev with time served. The Khazar District Court had extended Shiraliyev’s prison term for an additional five months and 18 days for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell, a charge human rights defenders said was fabricated to prevent his imminent release at the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government had not implemented alternative military service for conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution. In April the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. In October Mehdiyev and Abilov filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

On October 17, the ECHR ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country who conscientiously objected to military service should not be criminally convicted. The ruling consolidated four applications to the Court lodged between 2008 and 2015. The applications involved five Witnesses: Mushfig Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Farid Mammadov, Fakhraddin Mirzayev, and Kamran Mirzayev. Each had been convicted and had served a prison term for their refusal to perform military service. The Court found since the Witnesses’ conscientious objection to military service was based on “sincere religious convictions,” the country’s actions against them violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered “nontraditional” by the government reported authorities at times subjected them to harassment and fines for conducting religious activities. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported their inability to obtain legal registration. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders reported that their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities discreet. The government said the inability to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members, and no administrative action was taken against unregistered religious communities.

According to a report from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in April a police officer went to the home of Jehovah’s Witness Gulnaz Nasirova in Lankaran and forcibly escorted her to the police station for interrogation. Police officers reportedly insulted her, threatened to send her to a mental hospital, questioned her about her beliefs and fellow believers, and demanded she provide her family members’ personal data. One officer made a vague threat that he would harm her children, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was detained for five hours before being released.

Religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration, particularly the to have a minimum of 50 members to apply for registration. For instance, Baptists communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration.

The government continued to allocate funds to religious groups. Experts said the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.

On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 government prohibition on the publication of theologian Elshad Miri’s book Things Not Existing in Islam. The SCWRA said it prohibited the book because its enumeration of ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage, could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country.

The SCWRA reported during the year, it prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239. By comparison, in 2018 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 1,704, and the publication of 26 books out of 192.

On May 6, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider his appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community. It was Shabanov’s second time appealing to the Constitutional Court; his first appeal was similarly dismissed in January 2018. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.

On April 4, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses Eldar Aliyev, Maryam Aliyeva, Elchin Bakirov, and Bahruz Kerimov in a civil case against the Mingechevir police department. The plaintiffs sought compensation of 500 manat each for the 2016 police raid on a prayer meeting in Mingachevir that they stated violated their religious freedom. On June 23, according to Forum 18, three police officers in Mingachevir tried to search the home of a Jehovah’s Witness where other Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered. They took the names of those present, but when they tried to search the home without a warrant the homeowner refused to allow it. The officers left, saying they would return with a warrant, but did not.

On June 4, the Shirvan Court of Appeals upheld the April 16 verdict of the Sabirabad District Court that fined husband and wife Safqan Mammadov and Gulnar Mammadova 1,500 ($880) manat for holding an illegal religious gathering for minors in their home. The Baptist couple stated they held a secular New Year’s celebration for community children in their home, and that police interrupted the event and characterized it as a Christian meeting by a non-registered group, which would make it illegal.

Following the December 2018 police dispersal of a prayer meeting of Christians Samir Ismayilov, Ismat Azizov, and Jalil Rahimli, the Sheki District Court fined them 1,500 ($880) manat each in separate hearings December 19, 2018 and January 3 for violating an administrative code that prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies”.

On March 3, the SCWRA registered the Baku community of the Fire Christian Church. On July 11, the SCWRA registered the Baku Christian communities of Star in the East and Evangelical Christian Baptist Church.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 34 religious communities, of which 31 were Muslim and three Christian, compared to 90 religious communities registered in 2018, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian. The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 941, of which 35 were non-Muslim: 24 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.

A March 16 presidential pardon that released a number of individuals considered political prisoners by human rights defenders included at least 16 religious activists, including 11 individuals arrested after a large police operation that targeted members of the Muslim Unity Movement in November 2015.

The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status were prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request, an authority the SCWRA said it could employ when necessary. Jehovah’s Witness and other communities have benefited from these letters.

According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. Aynur Veyselova, a senior advisor at the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, stated in May that while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment.

On May 24, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1,1800,00 ) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, compared with one million manat ($590,000 in 2018) and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews (250,000 manat – $147,000 in 2018). The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,000) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku (100,000 manat – $59,000 in 2018) and 100,000 manat ($59,000) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to “traditional” minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust. For example, one Baptist leader stated common citizens, as well as police and local government officials, did not understand or trust his community.

Sevda Kamilova, a linguist, stated she interviewed with several international companies, but each time was asked if she would be willing to remove her headscarf while working.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate the release of those they believed wrongly convicted of wrongdoing related to the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed for the implementation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution, and met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues with the registration process for religious groups and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. For example, the Ambassador called on the country to continue promoting religious tolerance in a November 20 meeting with the CMB Head Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with the leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including challenges in registration, raids and subsequent fines against nontraditional groups for holding “unauthorized” religious meetings, and the prohibition of publication of books deemed sensitive by the government.

On May 30, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for a community of internally displaced persons who benefited from U.S.-sponsored programs. Representatives of SCWRA, the CMB, the State Committee for Affairs of Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons and others also attended the event. The Ambassador’s remarks highlighted the importance of religious tolerance as a key element of religious freedom.

Gambia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religious choice, as long as doing so does not impinge on the rights of others or the national interest. It prohibits religious discrimination, establishment of a state religion, and formation of political parties based on religious affiliation. In separate meetings with Muslim and Christian leaders during religious holidays, President Adama Barrow stressed the need for continued religious freedom and tolerance. In October Minister of Information and Communications Ebrima Sillah spoke at the 2nd Annual Ahmadiyya Peace Conference in Banjul and recognized the efforts of the Ahmadiyya in “standing by the people and government of The Gambia.”

There continued to be tension between the majority Sunni Muslim community and the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The Supreme Islamic Council (SIC), a religious body tasked with providing Islamic religious guidance, continued to state the Ahmadiyya community did not belong to Islam, and it did not include members of the community in its events and activities.

In April two U.S. Army chaplains met with military chaplains from different faiths to discuss religious support for members of the military and the integration of religious support personnel into operations. Embassy officers held several meetings and events with religious leaders of different faith groups to emphasize the importance of continued religious tolerance. The embassy held two iftars attended by religious, civil society, and senior government representatives, and a December reception to honor celebrants of Christmas and Hanukah.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Approximately 95.7 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom are Sunni. The Christian community makes up 4.2 percent of the population, the majority Roman Catholics. Religious groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, Hindus, and Eckankar members. Some individuals mix indigenous beliefs with Islam and Christianity.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states, “Every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice” subject to laws that may impose such “reasonable restrictions” as necessary for national security, public order, decency, or morality. The constitution also states that such freedom “not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others or on the national interest, especially unity.” The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, the establishment of a state religion, and religiously based political parties. It provides for the establishment of qadi courts, with judges trained in the Islamic legal tradition. The courts are located in each of the country’s seven regions, and their jurisdiction applies only to marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance where the involved parties are Muslims. Citizens may choose to use either the civil or qadi courts.

There are no formal guidelines for registration of religious groups. Religious groups that do not provide social services are not legally required to register. Faith-based groups that provide social services as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must meet the same eligibility criteria as other NGOs. By law, all NGOs are required to register with the NGO Affairs Agency and register as charities at the attorney general’s chambers under the Companies Act. They are required to have governing boards of directors of at least seven members responsible for policy and major administrative decisions, including internal control. The NGO decree requires that all NGOs submit to the NGO Affairs Agency a detailed annual work program and budget, a detailed annual report highlighting progress on activities undertaken during the year, work plans for the following year, and financial statements audited by NGO Affairs Agency-approved auditors. The government has stated the submissions help the NGO Affairs Agency monitor NGO activities.

The law does not require public or private schools to include religious instruction in their curricula. The government, through the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education, provides religious education teachers to public schools to teach an academic course on major world religions. The majority of public schools offer this course and most students take the class. Some private schools also offer classes in religious education and tolerance and provide an overview of major world religions.

The constitution bans political parties organized on the basis of religion.

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

Government Practices

President Barrow met separately throughout the year with leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities and stressed his administration’s commitment to promoting religious tolerance, according to media reports. The president called for the “preservation of the admirable mutual respect, trust, and unity among different religious groups” during a January meeting with the Christian Council. The president attended religious celebrations with Muslim and Christian leaders, including prayers at the country’s central mosque to mark the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The president gave a televised statement at Christmas.

On October 19, Minister of Information and Communications Sillah represented the government at the 2nd Annual Ahmadiyya Peace Conference Africa 2019. He congratulated the Ahmadiyya for “standing for and by the people and the Government of the Gambia.”

The Ministry of Lands and Regional Affairs continued to oversee the portfolio of religious affairs.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

SIC leaders stated that all religious organizations in the country were entitled to freedom of expression and assembly, although they continued to state that Ahmadi Muslims did not belong to Islam and therefore did not include Ahmadi members in SIC events. Ahmadi Muslims said they believed themselves free to practice their religion without interference but expressed frustration with the SIC’s refusal to integrate them into the broader Muslim community.

Intermarriage between Muslims and Christians continued to be common. It was not uncommon for persons of different faiths to live in the same dwelling, and observers said religious differences were widely accepted among family members and neighbors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with government officials and Muslim (both Sunni and Ahmadi) and Christian religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. In April two U.S. Army chaplains conducted a military-to-military program with Muslim and Christian chaplains during which they discussed the integration of religious support personnel into military operations and shared best practices on the challenges of providing religious support to military members.

During Ramadan, the embassy held two iftars attended by religious, civil society, and senior government representatives. The embassy also held a reception in December in honor of those celebrating Christmas and Hanukah that was attended by representatives of various faiths, civil society organizations, and government ministries. The ambassador and other embassy officials used the events to encourage religious and government representatives to continue to communicate in an open and respectful manner.

North Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government which constituted crimes against humanity. Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the report was published. On September 20, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly, “There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.” The government reportedly continued to deal harshly with those engaged in almost any religious practice through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO), citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2018 and other sources, reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances. For the 18th consecutive year, the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA ranked the country number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of guilt by association in cases of detentions of Christians. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. Media reported in March that in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities publicly executed two women for fortune telling and sentenced a third to life in prison following a sham trial. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners. Sources said in April police issued a proclamation ordering citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners. Following the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for being Falun Gong practitioners. In September The Christian Post reported an NGO obtained a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies.” According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. Many foreign visitors said activities at the state-sanctioned churches in Pyongyang appeared to be staged, and an NGO stated the churches served “mere propaganda purposes.”

There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify. Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vice President said, “[T]he United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.” Additionally, the United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights[.]”

Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The North Korean government last reported religious demographics in 2002, and estimates of the number of total adherents and of different religious groups varies. In 2002 the DPRK reported to the UN Human Rights Committee there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 800 Catholics, and 15,000 practitioners of Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners is considerably higher than reported by authorities. UN estimates place the Christian population between 200,000 and 400,000. Open Doors USA estimates the country has 300,000 Christians. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 100,000 Christians. In its 2020 World Christian Database, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported 58 percent of the country is agnostic; 15 percent atheist; 13 percent “new religionists” (believers in syncretic religions); 12 percent “ethnoreligionists” (believers in folk religions); 1.5 percent Buddhists; and Christians, Muslims, and Chinese folk religionists represent less than 0.5 percent collectively. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002. Consulting shamans and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The South Korea-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) reported five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states, “Citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.” It further states, however, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling. The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

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

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to deal severely with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. The 2014 COI final report concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded in many instances the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable. On September 20, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, reported to the UN General Assembly that the human rights situation in the country “remains extremely serious. The political prison camps, in which a large number of political prisoners are detained in the worst conditions, remain in operation under complete secrecy. There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.”

The NKDB, using reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,341 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to December 2018. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,341 cases, authorities reportedly killed 120 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 90 (6.7 percent), physically injured 48 (3.6 percent), deported or forcibly moved 51 (3.8 percent), detained 794 (59.2 percent), restricted movement of 133 (9.9 percent), and persecuted 105 (7.9 percent) using other methods of punishment.

A South Korean NGO estimated in 2013 that 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious activities, were held in prison camps in remote areas under harsh conditions. In February Open Doors UK estimated 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were imprisoned for being Christian. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian.

In September CSW reported there was no religious freedom in the country. CSW also reported that according to witness testimonies, “many Christians are detained in prison camps, where they endure dire living conditions and brutal torture.” CSW stated there were instances where citizens caught in possession of a Bible were executed.

While shamanism has always been practiced to some degree in the country, NGOs noted an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. One source told RFA it was common for persons to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, or considering other important decisions. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. RFA reported a source said that in March in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities found three women guilty of fortune telling in a public trial. Two of the women were publicly executed by shooting, and the third was sentenced to life in prison. According to the source, the women had created a group called Chilsungyo (Seven Star Group) and said two children in the group were possessed by an oracle spirit. The women received money for telling fortunes. The source said thousands of persons from factories, colleges, and housing units were forced to attend the trial and executions, which were aimed at forcing officials to stop patronizing fortune tellers and engaging in other “superstitious” behavior.

In its annual report, Open Doors USA for the 18th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians. Open Doors USA stated arrests and abductions of foreign missionaries and punishments for Christians increased. According to the NGO, “If North Korean Christians are discovered…not only are they deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot, their families will share their fate as well. Christians do not have the slightest space in society; meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.” The government strengthened border controls, with harsher punishments for citizens being repatriated from China and increased efforts “to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith.”

Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. According to Open Doors USA, one refugee said her family, upon being repatriated from China, was imprisoned for what authorities said were “problematic political beliefs,” and guards beat her parents for refusing to stop praying. Another woman who had been imprisoned after being repatriated from China told the NGO that prison authorities repeatedly asked her whether she went to church while in China, whether she owned a Bible, and if she was a Christian. The woman said she believed she would have been killed if she admitted being Christian.

According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps. According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2018 report, authorities punished both superstitious activities and religious activities, but the latter more severely. In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors were involved with the Bible or Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitious activity with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners during the year. Sources said the practice of Falun Gong entered the country through trade workers and spread rapidly, even among high-ranking government officials and their families. In April police issued a proclamation that ordered citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners, the government’s first ever such action. According to RFA, the proclamation threatened harsh punishments for those refusing to turn themselves in. Following issuance of the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for Falun Gong practices. According to sources, the crackdowns and negative publicity only increased Falun Gong’s popularity.

The government reportedly detained foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders. There was no further information on three South Korean missionaries detained in the country. In December 2018 The Korea Times reported the South Korean government tried to negotiate their release. One had been held since 2013 and two others since 2014.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment. Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country. In KINU’s 2016 white paper, one defector said, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The COI 2014 report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a charitable organization that helps North Korean refugees, said on its website that organized religion was seen by the government as a potential threat to the regime. Defectors continued to report the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.

According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. As it had in years past, KINU stated in its annual white paper on human rights, “[I]t is practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” The white paper quoted one defector as saying, “[A]uthorities call religion, as a whole, superstition. And all superstitious behaviors are prohibited.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country. In its 2018 report, the NKDB stated less than 1 percent of 12,880 defectors said they had visited religious facilities.

The HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes. There were neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

The Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian nonprofit organization, reportedly obtained a government video in September that depicted Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” who attempt to undermine the government. The video was allegedly used to instruct state security agents on how to identify and silence Christians in the country.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2018 there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church. The 2015 KINU annual white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and reported most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities and did not regard Buddhist monks as religious figures. The temples were regarded as cultural heritage sites and tourist destinations. KINU’s 2019 annual white paper concluded no religious facilities existed outside of Pyongyang.

According to KINU’s 2018 report, the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations said they believed some members were genuinely religious, but others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Chilgol Church, a state-controlled Protestant church, was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. One defector said when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches.

According to KINU, foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged. LiNK stated on its website “nothing apart from token churches built as a facade of religious freedom for foreign visitors are allowed.” In its 2018 report on religious persecution in North Korea, Open Doors USA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2018 KINU report, however, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.” According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report noted the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established Korean Catholic Council continued to provide basic services at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church. There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were citizens or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

The COI report concluded authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

In April United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday service at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral. According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended. The report quoted the clergyman making anti-U.S. and other political statements during the service.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items as well as other items the government deemed objectionable. Open Doors USA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

The government reportedly closely regulated certain forms of religious education, including programs at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il Sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries affiliated with Christian or Buddhist groups.

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies individuals on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime. The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. KINU continued to report that religious persons and their families were perceived to be “anti-revolutionary elements.”

According to KINU, the government continued to view Christianity as a means of foreign encroachment. KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s “Dictionary on Philosophy” as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.” KINU again reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year emphasizing ways to detect individuals who engage in spreading Christianity.

According to a 2018 Associated Press article, dozens of missionaries in areas of China near the border, most of whom were South Koreans or ethnic Koreans, provide assistance and religious education to North Koreans. According to the Rev. Kim Kyou-ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, in recent years, 10 such frontline missionaries and pastors died mysteriously, and he suspected the North Korean government was involved.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly continued tightening border controls in an effort to crack down on any such activities.

The government continued to allow some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations reported they were not allowed to proselytize; their contact with local citizens was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times. In October the Asia Times reported South Korean-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons, and in some cases the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

In November media reported South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office invited Pope Francis to meet Chairman Kim at the demilitarized zone. At year’s end, however, there were no reports that the pope planned to do so.

In December the UN General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution, cosponsored by the United States, condemning “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The UN General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.” The UN General Assembly also “strongly urge[d] the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms[.]” The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion.

Defector accounts indicated practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities. In February the South China Morning Post reported one defector described her family’s quietly singing Christian hymns on Sundays while one person watched for informers. Another described hiding under a blanket or in the bathroom while praying. Open Doors USA reported many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II. These were kept hidden and passed among believers. One man said individuals remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported. According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

In August the KCF Central Committee and the National Council of Churches in Korea (South Korea) composed their annual joint prayer for peaceful reunification of the peninsula, stating in part, “Lord, hear the prayers of the beloved Christians throughout the world for peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula….Let the fervent prayers of Christians all over the world bloom in our hearts, and in every corner of the Korean Peninsula as a flower of hope.”

In 2017, KINU reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available, and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks. The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.

KINU reported religious ceremonies accompanying weddings and funerals were almost unknown, but other sources indicated there were still shamanistic elements in weddings and funerals.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence in the country. In February the President and Chairman Kim held a second summit in Vietnam, and they held another meeting in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in June. In engagements with DPRK officials, the U.S. government consistently made clear full normalization of relations will require addressing human rights, including religious freedom.

In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vice President said, “[T]he United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.”

The United States cosponsored the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”

The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. This included an October meeting in Brussels of like-minded countries to coordinate actions and discuss the DPRK’s human rights record. The United States made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would significantly improve prospects for closer ties between the two countries. Senior U.S. government officials, including the President, met with defectors and NGOs that focused on the country, including some Christian humanitarian organizations.

Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Saint Lucia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and individuals’ right to change, manifest, and propagate the religion of their choosing; it grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain schools and provide religious instruction. The law requires religious groups with more than 250 members to register. According to an imam associated with the Islamic Association, the association experienced delays in registering, preventing the group from officially registering marriages, births, and other official acts. A Jewish community representative said it had requested the government to lower the community registration threshold to 200 members. According to Rastafarian representatives, because marijuana use was illegal and subject to punitive fines, Rastafarians hesitated to use it for religious purposes. In July the government established a commission to review and make recommendations on the regulatory framework for cannabis; it met for the first time in October. The Ministry of Education increased enforcement of required vaccinations for all children attending school but granted some waivers on religious grounds. National insurance plans did not cover traditional doctors used by the Rastafarian community, according to community members. Rastafarians again reported officials from the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government engaged in constructive dialogue and outreach with the Rastafarian community.

According to a local imam with the Islamic Association, some male and female members of the Muslim community experienced verbal harassment when they wore head coverings and clothing that identified them as Muslim. The Christian Council, comprised of the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Methodist Churches, the Salvation Army, and the Evangelical Association of the Caribbean, continued to hold interdenominational meetings to promote respect for religious diversity and tolerance.

U.S embassy officials discussed the status of public consultations on marijuana decriminalization, the Religious Advisory Committee, and general issues related to respect for religious minorities with officials of the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government, which is responsible for issues regarding religious groups. Embassy officials also discussed on several occasions in October, November, and December issues related to religious freedom with leaders of the Rastafarian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 166,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, Roman Catholics are 61.4 percent of the population; Seventh-day Adventists, 10.4 percent; Pentecostals, 8.8 percent; evangelical Christians, 2.2 percent; Baptists, 2.1 percent; and Rastafarians, 2 percent. Other groups, together constituting less than 2 percent of the population, include Anglicans, members of the Church of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Methodists, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha’is. Nearly 6 percent of the population claims no religious affiliation. Unofficial estimates of the Muslim population, which is mainly Sunni, ranges from 150 to 400 individuals. According to the Jewish community, there are approximately 200 Jewish residents, most of whom are not citizens.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states “a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of” freedom of conscience, including of thought and religion, and in the manifestation and propagation of religion or belief through practice, worship, teaching, and observance. It protects individuals’ rights to change their religion and prohibits religious instruction without consent in schools, prisons, and military service. A blasphemy law is not enforced.

The Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government is responsible for religious affairs, implements the government’s policy on faith-based organizations, and meets regularly with religious groups to address their concerns. The government requires religious groups to register with the ministry if their membership exceeds 250 individuals. To register, groups must provide contact information, their establishment date and history, declaration of belief, number of members, location of meeting place, and income sources. The government “incorporates” registered groups, which are eligible to receive associated benefits, while it treats unregistered groups as for-profit organizations for taxation purposes. After the religious group registers with the ministry, it may apply for concessions, including duty-free import privileges, tax benefits, and exemption from some labor requirements. Formal government registration also allows registered religious groups to legally register marriages officiated by religious leaders.

Ministry of Education regulations require the vaccination of all schoolchildren, regardless of religious beliefs, before they enter public or private school. The public school curriculum includes religious studies; the Ministry of Education does not require students to participate in these classes. The classes familiarize students with the core beliefs of world religions rather than promoting the adoption of any particular faith. The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain schools and provide religious instruction at their own expense. The Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and Anglican Churches each sponsor private schools, where they teach their respective religious beliefs to students. The government provides approximately 50 percent of the funding for these schools but does not cover expenses for classes on religion. All students may attend private religious schools regardless of belief or nonbelief.

The government’s registration policy defines the process of obtaining work and labor permits for missionaries. Immigration authorities grant work permits for individuals entering the country to conduct missionary work. As long as an individual is law abiding, there are no restrictions on any category of foreign missionaries.

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

Government Practices

An imam with the Islamic Association said the association continued to experience delays in obtaining government approval for its registration application. Formal government registration would extend to the association equivalent legal authorities extended to other faiths, such as the right to register marriages performed in a mosque. He said that, because the group remained unregistered, newlywed community members had to pay a lawyer to legally register marriages with the government. The imam said the Islamic Association began the registration process in 2018 but stated “bureaucratic lethargy” was the key reason registration had not yet been granted. A government official said that for most applications, the most time consuming part of the process was verifying anti-money laundering compliance through the Financial Action Task Force, a process that could take up to two years.

A representative of the Jewish community said it had requested the government lower the community registration threshold to 200 members. He said the government had previously revised the threshold downward from 500 to 250.

The Rastafarian community again stated officials from the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government engaged in constructive dialogue with their community leaders and outreach with the broader Rastafarian community. They said the primary issue discussed was encouraging the government to legalize marijuana for religious purposes. In July the government established a commission to develop recommendations regarding possible steps towards legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana. The commission’s mandate focused on the commercial benefits of cannabis production. According to a government official, the commission was required as part of the public consultations needed to amend the constitution, but the Rastafarian community said the government was using the commission to delay making a decision on decriminalization or legalization until after the next parliamentary election in 2021. Composed primarily of government officials but also including a representative from the Rastafarian community, the commission’s inaugural meeting was in October.

Rastafarian community representatives reported their reluctance to use marijuana for religious purposes because marijuana use was illegal and subject to punitive fines. Rastafarians said during the year targeted searches by police and immigration officers had shifted from towns and villages to the hills where marijuana plantations were often located.

While members of the Rastafarian community stated the Ministry of Education had increased enforcement of regulations requiring the vaccination of schoolchildren to enter school, they said the government sometimes provided waivers to Rastafarian families that cited their religious belief in not vaccinating their children. Some Rastafarians said they decided to vaccinate their children so they could attend school when a waiver was not granted; others chose to homeschool. According to Rastafarian representatives, the government granted waivers when parents clearly cited religion as the basis for the request; if this information was not provided, the government did not approve the waiver. Rastafarians stated the lack of insurance coverage for traditional doctors some Rastafarians used continued to be a problem due to high costs.

The government continued to consult with the Pentecostal Assemblies of the West Indies, as well as the Christian Council, comprising representatives of the Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations, on issues relevant to their communities. It also continued its informal meetings with members of the Rastafarian community on pending legislation and policies, including certification of priests to sign marriage certificates, issues surrounding required vaccinations for school attendance, and cannabis legalization.

The government also continued to consult with the Religious Advisory Committee, comprised of leaders from different religious communities, to develop regulatory and legal reforms and program recommendations for approval by the cabinet of ministers.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

An imam associated with the Islamic Association said members of society generally accepted the Muslim community. He said neighbors accepted the daily calls to prayer; however, members of the community continued to report verbal harassment in public spaces when they wore Islamic religious attire. They said harassment included insulting name-calling and inappropriate questioning by members of the public. Rastafarians also reported being “accepted by society,” but occasionally individuals voiced opposition to the Rastafarian faith.

The Christian Council and the Evangelical Association of the Caribbean continued to hold interdenominational meetings to promote respect for religious diversity and tolerance. Various religious groups said they were collaborating to further social dialogue and conduct outreach programs in the community that addressed freedom of religious expression, tolerance, and discrimination.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the status of public consultations on marijuana decrimininalization, the Religious Advisory Committee, and general issues related to respect for religious minorities with officials of the Ministry of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment, Youth Development, Sports, and Local Government. Embassy officials also engaged with Rastafarian, Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic leaders on the importance of promoting freedom of religious expression and combating societal discrimination based on religion.

International Religious Freedom Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select A Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future