The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief. The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.” The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity among religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction by the government. Churches that applied for registration continued to await approval from the government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO). As a result, there were only two registered non-Buddhist religious groups in the country, while registered Buddhist groups increased from 110 to 125. Hindu leaders cited continued support for the construction of Hindu temples, including a major project in the capital. NGOs reported that unregistered religious groups continued to be able to worship in private, but were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. A representative of the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said the legal framework providing government patronage and protection of Buddhism worked against other faiths, including Christianity and Hinduism. International Christian NGO Open Doors continued to list the country on its World Watch List, stating the government was intent on maintaining a strong national identity and unity by suppressing outside influences, including Christianity. Pastors cited their most significant challenge to be acquiring permanent Christian burial plots. According to Open Doors, the government has not officially recognized any churches, which led the organization to conclude that Christians in the country “are technically worshipping illegally.” Open Doors in its 2020 World Watch List reported, “No Christian congregation has ever been allowed to build a church structure,” and, “All Christian fellowship remains underground.” The India-based Hindu religious organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the Hindu advocacy group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that the minority Hindu community faced discrimination. The RSS itself said that it was not aware of any problems facing Hindus in the country, and commented that relations between Hindus and Buddhists were good. Leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai, one of eight religious organizations on the board of the Commission for Religious Organizations, said Hindus and Buddhists enjoyed close ties. The organization cited strong official support for Hindu religious practice, including royal support for the construction of Hindu temples and participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.
NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and rated persecution of Christians to be “very high.” Open Doors also reported in its World Watch List 2020 report, “For [Christian] converts, family members are by far the strongest sources of persecution.” According to Open Doors, Christian students were forced to participate in Buddhist rituals and Christian farmers were excluded from communal planting and harvesting.
The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country or a diplomatic presence there. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of both government and nongovernment figures on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 774,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Buddhism. Hindus make up approximately 22 percent of the total population and reside mostly in southern areas.
According to the Pew Research Center and the Open Doors World Watch List, estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 8,000 to 30,000. Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south. Although traditional Bon practices are often combined with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition, according to scholars. The Sharchop ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to scholars.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that as of October, there were approximately 60,000 Indian nationals living in the country, who work in the construction sector, as well as between 8,000 and 10,000 temporary workers in the country on a daily basis. While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and bans discrimination based on faith. The constitution says the king must be Buddhist and requires the king to be the “protector of all religions.”
The constitution states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” The penal code criminalizes “coercion or inducement to convert” as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Neither “coercion” nor “inducement to convert” are defined in law or regulation.
The law prohibits oral or written communication “promoting enmity among religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.
The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” among religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment.
The law requires religious groups to register with the CRO. To register, a religious group must submit an application demonstrating its leaders are citizens and disclosing their educational background and financial assets. The law also specifies the organizational structure, bylaws, and procedural rules registered religious organizations must follow. It prohibits religious organizations from “violating the spiritual heritage” of the country and requires them to protect and promote it. The law also states no religious organization shall do anything to impair the sovereignty, security, unity, or territorial integrity of the country. It mandates that the CRO certify that religious groups applying for registration meet the specified requirements.
Registered religious groups may raise funds for religious activities and are exempt from taxes. Registered groups require permission from local government authorities to hold public meetings outside of their registered facilities and must seek permission from the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs to invite foreign speakers or receive foreign funds.
Unregistered religious groups may not organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. Penalties for unregistered organizations performing these activities range from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense. Unregistered religious groups may hold private worship services in homes. The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally. The CRO has the authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading, and whether it has raised funds illegally. Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.
The law states the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities. The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the prime minister, currently the Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs. A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the king’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board. The Director of Culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves as an ex-officio secretary. Heads of Buddhist religious bodies and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya occupy the remaining seats. The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”
The constitution states the king shall appoint the chief abbot of the central monastic body on the advice of the five masters of the monastic body. Those individuals and a civil servant administrative secretary make up the Commission for Monastic Affairs, which manages issues related to Buddhist doctrine. The constitution says the state will provide funds and “facilities” to the central monastic body.
The law permits the government to “avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses for public assembly, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and imposing curfews. The government may apply these measures to groups and organizations of all kinds, including religious groups.
Government approval is required to construct religious buildings. By law, all buildings, including religious structures, must adhere to traditional architectural standards. The CRO determines conformity with these standards.
The constitution states religious institutions have the responsibility to ensure religion remains separate from the state. It states, “Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.” The law prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity. Ordained members of the clergy of any religion may not engage in political activities, including running for office and voting.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
An ADF representative said the legal framework providing government patronage and protection to Buddhism worked against other faiths, including Christianity and Hinduism. Open Doors continued to list the country on its World Watch List, stating the government was intent on maintaining a strong national identity and unity by suppressing outside influences, including Christianity.
According to Open Doors, the government has not officially recognized any churches, which, according to the NGO, means that Christians “are technically worshipping illegally.” Open Doors in its 2020 World Watch List reported, “No Christian congregation has ever been allowed to build a church structure…All Christian fellowship remains underground.” The government has not offered any explanation, public or private, to these groups for its refusal to register them.
There are two Hindu groups among 125 registered religious organizations.
According to Open Doors, one house church was forced to close and cease meetings after receiving warnings and threats from authorities. Authorities held two pastors for questioning.
Open Doors cited reports by Bhutanese Christians that they often faced difficulties in obtaining “non-objection certificates” from local authorities that were required for loan and employment applications, property registration, and the renewal of identification cards.
The India-based Hindu organization VHP, an affiliate of the RSS, said that thousands of Hindu women who had immigrated to the country after marriage to residents were not granted citizenship, and that Hindu citizens are denied job opportunities in the civil services. VHP said that the government prohibited the publication of Hindu religious calendars and establishment of religious congregations. A spokesman for the RSS said that the organization was not aware of any problems facing Hindus, and that relations between Hindus and Buddhists were good. Leaders from the Bhutan-based Hindu Dharmic Samudai said Hindus and Buddhists enjoyed close ties, and they cited the king’s personal support for the construction of Hindu temples and his participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals. Hindu leaders said Hinduism enjoyed strong official support in the country, where Hindus and Buddhists were viewed “like two branches of one tree.”
Christian pastors cited their most significant challenge as acquiring permanent Christian burial plots. Pastors noted that Christians had less access to radio and television broadcasts and fewer officially endorsed public celebrations than the Hindu community. They also said the Christian community believed that ambiguities in religious affairs laws could be used to penalize the celebration of Christian religious services.
The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines, as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries.
NGOs reported that compulsory Buddhist daily prayer sessions in schools continued, and that children of Christian families faced discrimination from teachers and sometimes were denied access to schools.
Courts and some other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries. Some religious groups stated government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals. According to an NGO, there was continued pressure on non-Buddhists in civil service positions to participate in Buddhist rites and contribute to festivals.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and described persecution of Christians as “very high.” According to the Open Doors World Watch List 2020, “For [Christian] converts, family members are by far the strongest sources of persecution.” According to Open Doors, Christian students were forced to participate in morning and evening Buddhist rituals and in one instance, cleaning Buddhist shrines. The NGO also reported that Christian farmers were usually excluded from communal planting and harvesting, a rural tradition by which several farmers share the workload and offer mutual assistance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The United States does not have a diplomatic presence in the country and does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with the government. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of government and nongovernment figures on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The revocation sparked protests, criticism from Muslim leaders, and challenges filed in the Supreme Court from opposition politicians, human rights activists, and others. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region, shut down many internet and phone lines, and had not restored full service by year’s end. The government also closed most mosques in the area until mid-December. Seventeen civilians and three security personnel were killed during the protests. In December parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which accelerates citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014, but not for similarly-situated migrants who are Muslims, Jews, atheists, or members of other faiths. The law generated widespread media and religious minority criticism, including legal challenges in the Supreme Court. Protests and violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Uttar Pradesh and Assam following the passage of the law resulted in 25 civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries. Issues of religiously inspired mob violence, lynching, and communal violence were sometimes denied or ignored by lawmakers, according to a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to act to prevent or stop mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some officials of Hindu-majority parties, including from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent Hindu groups against minority communities, including Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of such “cow vigilantism,” which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution and filed charges against victims. In July Madhya Pradesh became the first state to set fines and prison sentences for cow vigilantism. Attacks on religious minorities in some cases included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six people, including the female pastor, who was beaten by the officers. In November the Supreme Court awarded the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya to Hindu organizations to build a temple there, while providing five acres of land elsewhere in the city for Muslims to build a new mosque. Leading national Muslim organizations and some Muslim litigants petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque, which was destroyed by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992, to be rebuilt on its original site. In December the Supreme Court dismissed these petitions and maintained its ruling. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In November the Supreme Court took up challenges to its 2018 reversal of a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data, 7,484 incidents of communal violence took place between 2008 and 2017 in which more than 1,100 people were killed. MHA data for 2018-2019 was not available, but incidents of communal violence continued through the year. On June 18, a mob in Jharkhand killed Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to declare allegiance to Hindu deities. NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that through 2019, Hindu groups characterized as extremist, some of which, according to HRW, had links with BJP supporters, continued to perpetuate mob violence against minorities, especially Muslims, amid rumors they traded or killed cows for beef. According to NGO Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related mob violence, in which Muslims comprised 50 percent of the victims, took place between 2010 and the first half of 2019. Lower-caste Hindus were also victims of cow vigilantism. Hate Crime Watch reported 10 cow vigilante attacks, with one person killed between January and June. On April 10, Prakash Lakda of Jurmu village in Jharkhand was killed by a mob, and three others seriously injured, reportedly for butchering a dead ox. All four victims were Christians who were Scheduled Tribe members. On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in the Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Media reported that local police arrested several individuals following the attack. Amnesty International (AI) in October recorded 72 incidents of mob violence in the first half of the year, of which 37 were directed at Muslims. AI recorded 181 alleged hate crime incidents overall in the first half of the year, compared with 100 during the same period in 2018. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s annual report, 527 incidents of persecution of Christians took place through the year. In August Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives reportedly because she was a Dalit (lower caste) and the couple had converted to Christianity. In February Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded.
U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance and mutual respect throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In their engagement with government officials, media, interfaith harmony organizations and NGOs, U.S. officials emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, condemn communal rhetoric, and ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. In March the embassy organized a speaking tour by a U.S. religious harmony expert to the northern cities of Lucknow, Allahabad, and Varanasi. In late May the Ambassador hosted a Ramadan iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and demonstrating empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths. In July the Department of State senior bureau official for South and Central Asian Affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and representatives from civil society groups advocating for the rights of religious minorities. In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts to hear their perspectives on conditions in the country. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in meetings with senior government officials raised concerns over violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including communal violence. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In meetings with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups, he raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anticonversion laws, and communal violence. Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador to India routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to hear their perspectives and concerns.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially classifies more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice animism and indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated one-third of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members have converted to Christianity.
According to government estimates, there are large minority Muslim populations in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state in which Muslims constituted a majority. Most of the Muslim population is concentrated in the Kashmir Valley, while Jammu and Ladakh have a Hindu and Buddhist majority, respectively. On August 5, the government divided the state into two union territories. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni; most of the rest are Shia. Christian populations are found across the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast, as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three small northeastern states have large Christian majorities: Nagaland (90 percent of the population), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of Punjab’s population. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. Media report that approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as any religion-based restrictions on individuals’ access to public or private facilities or establishments that are open to the general public. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits compelling anyone to pay taxes to promote or maintain any specific religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. Such legislation in Rajasthan, passed in 2008, was rejected by the central government in 2017 and remains unimplemented. In August the Himachal Pradesh state legislature added “coercion” to the list of conversion crimes, which also includes conversion by “fraud,” “force,” and “inducement.” The definition of “inducement” was broadened to include “the offer of any temptation.”
Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means,” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government. Violators, including missionaries and other religious figures who encourage conversion, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if the converts are minors, women, or members of government-designated, historically disadvantaged groups (Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes). Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($700). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment and/or fines of 25,000 rupees ($350). Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may consist of prison sentences rather than fines.
According to the Supreme Court, converting from Hinduism to another religion may deny those converting from lower castes the government benefits available to them if they had remained Hindu, such as placement in educational institutions or job training.
Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near another religion’s place of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($70).
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no direct requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funds, and federal law requires religiously-affiliated organizations to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
A federal law regulates foreign contributions to NGOs, including faith-based organizations. Organizations with “definite cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” must receive a federal government certificate of registration to receive foreign funds. The federal government may also require that certified organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject an application for a certificate of registration or a request for prior permission to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
The constitution states that any reference to Hindus in law is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a blanket category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, and Jains, but clarifies that these are separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.
Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region and designate them as minorities under state law. Minority status makes these groups eligible for several government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government will protect the existence of religious minorities and will encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.
Personal status laws determine rights for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national- and state-level legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If the law board or community leaders cannot offer satisfactory solutions, the case is referred to the civil courts.
Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions, however, face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages, but there are no divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas (in most cases, 50 percent) for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For instance, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.
Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. The law in Gujarat mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts for manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.
As of July, one state (Madhya Pradesh) penalizes cow vigilantism by setting fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($350-$700) and prison sentences of six months to three years for committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These bodies have no enforcement powers, but launch investigations based on written complaints by plaintiffs charging criminal or civil violations and submit their findings to law enforcement agencies for action. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution allows for a form of affirmative action for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, and the “Other Backward Class,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. Since the constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists shall be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste, the only means through which Christian and Muslim individuals may qualify for affirmative action benefits is if they are considered members of the “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
A video that circulated widely on the internet showed a mob near Kharsawan in Jharkhand violently attacking 24-year-old Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” (allegiance to Hindu deities). Members of the mob accused Ansari of stealing a motorcycle. Ansari died in a hospital several days later. On September 10, the Jharkhand police dropped murder charges against all 11 individuals accused of the attack, citing the initial autopsy report that stated that Ansari had died of cardiac arrest. On September 18, the police reintroduced murder charges against all the accused after a detailed postmortem exam revealed grievous injury to Ansari’s skull. The Jharkhand government set up a special investigation team and suspended two policemen for not reporting the seriousness of the issue to a higher authority and for failure to report a case of lynching.
On December 12, parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which amends the 1955 Citizenship Act to provide an expedited path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly-situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. The legislation – the first-ever to use religion as a criterion for citizenship – was criticized heavily by domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties. Opponents stated it was unconstitutional because it violated the tenets of a secular state. Passage of the legislation was followed by widespread protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Assam, but they soon spread to university campuses and cities nationwide. The government deployed police, severely limited public gatherings, imposed a curfew, and cut internet service, primarily in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir. As of the end of December, domestic and international media had reported 25 deaths, hundreds of injuries and thousands of detentions, with 5,500 detained in Uttar Pradesh alone. There were multiple reports of excessive force by police against protesters, particularly against Muslim university students. For example, in December police moved onto the campus of Jamia Millia University in New Delhi to end a protest, deploying tear gas and beating protesters with batons, according to witnesses who spoke to the media.
Government critics, civil liberty activists, NGOs, and political organizations, including the Congress party, filed more than 100 legal challenges to the CAA in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. Some opposition leaders said the CAA was part of an ongoing BJP effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. The government defended the CAA by saying that it was legislation aimed at facilitating citizenship for illegal refugees from six religious minorities who had fled three neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could still apply for citizenship through the normal, non-expedited route. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the CAA was an act to provide citizenship and not to take it away from legal Indian citizens. In November he stated that the constitution should be revered as a “holy book and a guiding light.” Some officials linked the CAA with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process used to identify illegal immigrants in the state of Assam. On December 22, Modi disavowed any discussion of implementing the NRC nationwide, including earlier comments from Home Minister Amit Shah that a nationwide NRC should be in place so “we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” Some opposition leaders and protestors stated they feared that a national NRC could disenfranchise Muslims in the country.
According to a number of NGOs and media outlets, lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence, which often had a religious component. On September 18, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in an interview that there had been no incidents of mob lynching in Uttar Pradesh during his tenure, which began in 2017. According to the Uttar Pradesh Law Commission in July, however, 50 incidents of mob violence had taken place in the state between 2012 and 2019, resulting in 11 deaths. Adityanath also used the term “love jihad,” a derogatory term suggesting a deliberate effort by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into a relationship and coerce them to convert to Islam, which analysts stated proved to be a crucial election issue for the ruling BJP.
In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, splitting it into two union territories, one for Jammu and Kashmir and the other for Ladakh. Opposition political parties and other critics condemned this decision; the central government pledged to hold assembly elections in the new territories. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region and shut down internet and phone lines just before announcing the decision. Many of these restrictions were gradually reduced by December. The government also closed most mosques in the area, including the Jamia Masjid, the main mosque in Srinagar, from August 5 until mid-December. Muslim leaders criticized the move. The government’s actions sparked protests. Several politicians belonging to opposition parties, human right activists, journalists, and retired army personnel filed petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s actions. Government and media reported there were incidents of violence and intimidation carried out by militants. In November the government told parliament that 20 persons, including 17 civilians and three security personnel, were killed in terror-related incidents in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5. On November 21, Home Minister Shah told the media, “Not a single person has died by police firing” in Jammu and Kashmir.
On July 20, Maharashtra police arrested one person the day after a group accosted and allegedly tried to lynch Muslim youth Imran Patel, forcing him to say “Jai Shri Ram” (allegiance to a Hindu deity). Patel said a Hindu family residing nearby rushed to his rescue and saved his life.
By year’s end, parliament had not acted on a July 2018 Supreme Court order that it enact a federal law to outlaw mob violence. The court also ordered all state governments to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent mob violence and ensure that the police act promptly in such cases. Only Rajasthan and West Bengal had partially followed the Supreme Court order.
In July Rajasthan passed an anti-lynching law, but its implementation remained pending at the end of the year. The law defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence or aiding, abetting, or attempting an act of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, by a mob on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, [or] ethnicity.” Penalties include up to life in prison. The law followed attacks on Muslims and was a state-level response to the Supreme Court order directing state legislatures to pass laws to address lynching and mob violence. In August the West Bengal state legislature passed a bill that made lynching punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. The bill defined lynching as any mob violence on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other ground. The West Bengal bill had not been implemented by year’s end.
HRW said that since May 2015, 50 people have been killed and over 250 injured in mob violence. HRW reported that Muslims were also beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans and that the police failed to properly investigate these incidents, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses in order to intimidate them. The NGO Alliance for Defending Freedom India (ADF India) reported that less than 40 of more than 300 cases of “cow vigilantism” that it had documented were prosecuted by the police. At the same time, according to HRW, the government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives designed to prevent and investigate mob attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, which, according to HRW, were sometimes linked to BJP supporters.
On April 14, according to the website AsiaNews, 200 men attacked a church in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh as police officers looked on without intervening. The report stated that the church’s clergy fled while the men attacked members of the congregation with sticks.
A police investigation continued into a May 2018 communal clash in Aurangabad in Maharashtra in which a Muslim youth was shot and killed by police and a Hindu man died in his burning shop. The clash followed allegations that authorities were cracking down on illegal water connections in a discriminatory manner. Police briefly arrested two city councilors, but they were released on bail.
On August 22, authorities arrested a fourth individual for the 2018 cow vigilante killing of Rakbar Khan in Rajasthan, who was assaulted by villagers who suspected him of cattle smuggling. Khan died when police took at least three hours to transport him to a local hospital that was 2.5 miles away. According to media reports, the police stopped for tea along the way. The case of the fourth individual was pending trial at year’s end.
On July 24, the Uttar Pradesh government dropped charges in 22 cases tied to riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 that claimed at least 65 lives and displaced thousands. By year’s end, the state government had dropped charges in at least 70 cases related to the riots. Since 2017, Muzaffarnagar courts have acquitted the accused in 40 of 41 cases involving attacks against Muslims. A BJP state legislator from the region said there were 93 other (pending) cases involving false allegations of Hindu attack against Muslims, which he said were brought for political reasons. By year’s end, there was one conviction related to the riots that followed the killings of two Hindu youths.
On April 23, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay a Muslim woman five million rupees ($70,400) in compensation for being gang-raped during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim communal riots in that state. Fourteen members of her family, including her two-year-old daughter and mother, were killed during the riots.
On July 27, Gujarat police arrested four persons on charges that they beat a 17-year-old Muslim youth to death because they objected to his relationship with a tribal girl in Ankleshwar District.
A Special Investigation Team formed in 2018 to assess 186 cases related to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and Punjab in 1984 submitted its report to the government in April; the government presented it to the Supreme Court in November. Supreme Court action, which could include an order to reopen some of the cases, was pending at year’s end.
On September 8, Jharkhand police arrested Catholic priest Binoy John and lay leader Munna Handsda for allegedly trying to convert villagers in Jharkhand’s Godda District. The accused had also reportedly asked villagers to donate their land to the church. They were arrested under a 2017 Jharkhand law that criminalizes religious conversion by inducement or coercion, following a complaint lodged by a villager. Both men were released on bail later in the same month.
Media reported that many of the 271 Christians charged by police in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh in September 2018 with “spreading lies about Hinduism” remained in prison at year’s end. Authorities said the Christians violated national laws against spreading enmity among different religious groups and causing social disharmony.
NGOs International Christian Concern (ICC) and ADF India stated authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, especially Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, such as Section 259A of the national penal code. In September ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed down in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A, then released a few days later on bail.
According to ICC, Christian pastors, their families, and their congregations were threatened by police and Hindu residents in Jharkhand, with some fleeing their villages out of concern for their safety. ICC reported pastors receiving death threats, mobs attacking Christian worship services, and Christians being detained by police for not giving money for Hindu ceremonies. ICC said that “an atmosphere of impunity” (for attacking Christians) had “been allowed to gather” in the state.
According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six persons, including the female pastor, Sindhu Bharti. According to the NGO and media accounts, the pastor was beaten by police officers and had boiling tea poured down her throat to ensure she was not feigning unconsciousness.
In September activists from the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), disrupted a Christian prayer meeting held by the New Life Fellowship Association in a public school in the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai, accusing it of being a cover for religious conversion. Mumbai police issued a notice to the association, warning that it had not sought the required advance permission to gather in a public place and would face prosecution if it did so again without permission. The police also warned the Bajrang Dal not to disrupt the fellowship’s meetings. The church pastor stated that he objected to the police action and said it violated the right to worship.
According to the website AsiaNews, in June police detained four Christians in Uttar Pradesh for organizing prayer meetings following reports that they were conducting “forced conversions.” The police released the men the same day without charges.
In May the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that police in Uttar Pradesh arrested Reverend Gyan Singh and another Pentecostal Christian in the village of Bugauliya Block, Basti District, for forced conversions. Police told GCIC that they would release the two without charges. In June authorities arrested Uttar Pradesh pastor Dependra Prakash Maleywar of the Church of North India after he was accused of the forced conversion of 16 persons. Police originally arrested Maleywar after a local Hindu activist accused him of an assault against Bajrang Dal activists. A judge ordered Maleywar held in custody for 14 days pending an investigation; after a week, authorities released him on bail. Police in Jharkhand arrested Dalu Soren, a Christian veterinarian, on October 16, after a 13-year-old girl’s father filed a complaint alleging forced conversion of his daughter by Soren.
On April 11, in Jamadha Village in Uttar Pradesh, according to the NewsClick website, members of a Christian group were detained under a section of the criminal procedure code that gives local magistrates the authority to prohibit the gathering of four or more persons or the holding of public meetings. The action came after a Hindu nationalist group interrupted the Christians’ prayer meeting and called the police.
In August a judge of the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu said that coeducational study in Christian institutions was “unsafe for girls.” The judge made his remarks in the context of a case involving allegations of sexual assault against a professor in a Christian college that was not linked to conversion. After strong protests from the Tamil Nadu Catholic Bishops’ Council, other Christian organizations, and civil society groups, the judge removed his comments from the court order.
On September 2, Uttar Pradesh police launched a smartphone-based intelligence-gathering system that they said was designed to alert them to flare-ups of communal tensions, so-called “anti-social elements,” and land disputes. According to reports, 10 individuals in every village across the state agreed to provide information on communal tensions. Cross-referencing among the informants was meant to help combat rumors.
On November 9, the Supreme Court awarded the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh – which was destroyed in a riot by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992 – to Hindu organizations to build a temple. Hindus stated the site of the mosque was the birthplace of the god Ram, and that the mosque had been built in the 16th century by destroying a Hindu temple there. Muslims stated they rejected this account and claimed ownership of the mosque. The court decision provided five acres of land elsewhere in Ayodhya for Muslims to build a new mosque. In December Muslim litigants, the prominent Muslim organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and the AIMPLB petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque to be rebuilt on its original site. The Hindu Mahasabha organization filed a petition against the decision to provide five acres for the mosque. Prominent Muslim community members signed a petition to accept the court ruling, but also stated that the judgment gave precedence to the Hindu faith. Others criticized the court for not addressing Muslim grievances concerning the violent destruction of the mosque. On December 12, the Supreme Court dismissed all review petitions and upheld its original decision.
On August 10 in New Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority demolished the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple and its idols on the grounds that it had been built illegally on government-owned property. The demolition, which had been delayed by court challenges from Dalit groups since 1986, was followed by protests in Punjab and other parts of North India. On August 21, large groups of mostly Hindu Dalit protesters came to New Delhi from Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and other states to demand that the government hand over the concerned plot of land to the community and rebuild the temple. Police armed with batons dispersed the crowd, and some were detained. Representatives of several Muslim organizations supported the demand for reconstructing the temple. In September the management of the temple petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene again in the matter. In October the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple at the same site.
In April, according to AsiaNews, the High Court in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) ordered Uttar Pradesh to reopen a church in Siddharth Nagar District, protect the church members, and allow them to conduct religious observances in peace. Authorities shut down the church in 2018 when a Hindu group filed a complaint against it.
In March the Kerala Law Reforms Commission circulated a draft of a proposed “Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill” for public review. The draft bill proposed the state set up a tribunal to intervene in any property disputes in which a church was involved (such disputes were not further specified). The proposed bill elicited a strong reaction from Christian churches in Kerala, as it would have eroded the authority of a church’s leadership in managing the affairs of the church. Officials in the Kerala state government later stated the government had no intention to move forward with the bill following strong opposition from leading churches in the state.
On August 31, Assam authorities published the final state-level NRC, which listed the citizens residing there. The NRC list excluded 1,906,657 residents, compared to four million in the earlier draft NRC of July 2018. Excluded residents were able to appeal to foreigners’ tribunals, and subsequently to the high court and the Supreme Court. Although the religious profile of those excluded was not contained in the NRC list, the BJP’s Assam unit stated it was concerned that more Bengali Hindus were excluded than Muslims, and that the results “favor the illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”
A report released in August by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found evidence of anti-Muslim bias among police in the country. In Uttarakhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, two-thirds of police surveyed felt that Muslims were more prone to commit crimes than other religious communities. In Uttarakhand, 80 percent of police personnel expressed this opinion. One-third of those surveyed felt that it was natural for a mob to resort to violence in cases of cow slaughter. Almost one-third of respondents said they felt that religious minorities were not given equal treatment with police forces. Sikh individuals were most likely to hold this opinion.
In September the newly-elected Andhra Pradesh state government began implementing a Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party election pledge to provide a salary supplement of 10,000 to 35,000 rupees ($140-$490) a year to Hindu priests who conducted regular rituals in rural temples and a 25 percent increase in the salaries of priests working in temples with “meager revenues.” The new government also pledged an additional 15,000 rupees ($210) to imams and muezzins, and 5,000 rupees ($70) to Christian clergy each year.
The BJP criticized the Andhra Pradesh government’s initiative to conduct a survey of Christian clergy using state resources, stating that under its chief minister, a Christian, the government was acting in a biased manner. A journal affiliated with a Catholic church near Delhi criticized the state government, stating that it was the responsibility of religious boards and communities, and not secular state governments, to support religious activities.
On August 25, Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary L.V. Subrahmanyam declared that non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions in Andhra Pradesh’s Hindu religious temples board, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), would be removed from their positions. He said their presence in the TTD, which manages several Hindu temples in Tirupati city in southern Andhra Pradesh, “hurts the sentiments” of Hindu pilgrims. The chief secretary stated that non-Hindu employees must not conceal their religious beliefs, and that inspections of employees’ residences would be conducted if needed to discern their religious affiliations. According to media reports, the state government decided to remove the non-Hindu employees because of public criticism that tickets given to Hindu pilgrims visiting the Tirumala temple on state-run buses had details of a Jerusalem tour on the back. The TTD stated it was not involved with producing the tickets. According to media reports, however, the TTD may have acted against the non-Hindus because of alleged Christian proselytization on temple premises in the past. The TTD had tried to remove 42 non-Hindu employees in 2018, but the Hyderabad High Court stayed the order. In the wake of the state’s August announcement, the court asked the state government to provide an explanation for the removal of non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions. Ultimately, no non-Hindus were removed from the TTD during the year.
In May, July, and November, the Supreme Court granted bail to all seven Christians convicted by a trial court in 2013 in the 2007 killing of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda. The Odisha High Court had deferred bail hearings for more than two years. Christian legal aid organizations and an independent journalist lobbied for their release on bail, stating the seven individuals were innocent and that the trial court had convicted them on “flimsy evidence.”
According to NGO sources, authorities reportedly denied three U.S. citizens entry under non-missionary visas due to concerns that they intended to engage in missionary activity, although the U.S. citizens denied that this was their intention.
An 86-year-old Spanish missionary nurse from the Daughters of Charity left the country on August 20 after the Ministry of External Affairs refused to renew her visa and informed her that she would have to depart within 10 days. She had worked among the poor in the Gajapati District of Odisha for 50 years. The ministry did not disclose the reason for the denial, but a member of parliament said the decision may have been motivated by the ministry’s “unstated policy of denying visas to foreign nationals who indulge in religious activities.”
In April Hindu Mahasabha Party (HMP) Vice President Deva Thakur called for the forced sterilization of Muslims and Christians. Media also reported that the HMP continued to operate unsanctioned “courts” based on the principles of Hindutva (Hindu cultural, national, and religious identity) after it unsuccessfully petitioned the prime minister in 2018 to close sharia courts around the country. The Hindu “courts” dealt with a range of issues, including interreligious relationships. A self-styled Hindu judge told the media in October that her court sought to “cleanse a girl’s mind and even get the police involved” in cases where a Hindu woman is involved with a Muslim man.
According to data compiled by news channel NDTV, there were 25 instances of public officials engaging in hate speech in December after the president signed the CAA into law, the highest number recorded in a single month since the Modi government came to power in 2014. NDTV said of the 25 instances, 23 were comments were made by BJP leaders. Formal requests to open investigations had been filed for three of those instances by year’s end. On December 15, referring to anti-CAA protesters, the prime minister said that people could make out who was spreading violence by the clothes they wore. Media outlets and editorial commentary criticized the statement for implying that individuals in Muslim attire were responsible for the violence.
On September 18, Telangana state lawmaker T. Raja Singh of the BJP released two videos announcing the creation of a vigilante army to “deal with traitors inside the country” and to create a Hindu Rashtra (nation). He stated, “Whichever traitor is hidden inside India will be dragged out and worn down, and sent outside India – or even directly to Jahannum (Urdu for hellfire).”
In August a bill criminalizing “triple talaq,” the practice by which a Muslim man may divorce his wife instantly by saying the Arabic word for divorce (talaq) three times, became law. This followed a 2018 government executive order that set a fine and prison sentence for the practice, and a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional and inconsistent with Islamic law. Some Muslim organizations, including the AIMPLB, and Muslim politicians, including MP Asaduddin Owaisi, criticized the new law. In October the AIMPLB filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the new law.
Using Aligarh Muslim University as an example, the government continued its 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions and their resulting independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In February the chief justice referred the challenge to a seven-judge panel for action.
Unlike in 2018, no state or local jurisdiction with an Islamic-origin name was renamed during the year.
In July 49 celebrities and activists wrote Prime Minister Modi a letter asking him to intervene to stop rising incidents of attacks on minorities, misuse of religion by Hindu hardliners, and intolerance against dissent in the country. News accounts suggested the letter was timed to imply that Hindu nationalist supporters of Modi’s BJP might feel emboldened by their electoral victory in May to increase actions against religious minorities. According to HRW, Bihar state authorities filed a sedition case against the writers of the letter in October. Following a public outcry, including by 180 celebrities and activists in addition to those who endorsed the July letter, the case was closed. By year’s end, there was no reaction from the government to the letter.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Hate Crime Watch, an initiative of media data project IndiaSpend, recorded a significant increase in overall religious identity-motivated hate crimes between 2014 and 2018. These included acts of communal violence, attacks on interfaith couples, and violence related to cow protection and religious conversions. According to Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related violence took place between 2010 and 2019 in which 50 percent of the victims were Muslim. AI’s “Halt the Hate” report recorded 181 hate crime incidents in the first half of 2019, 121 against Dalits, 40 against Muslims, and the remainder against Christians, indigenous peoples, and other groups. The AI report showed 100 hate crime incidents over the same period in 2018. The report included 37 cases of mob attacks against Muslims in the first half of the year, including five lynchings.
Uttar Pradesh accounted for 869 of 2,008 incidents of harassment against religious minorities and Dalits between 2016 and mid-2019, according to an analysis of National Human Rights Commission data conducted by the publication India Today. Most of them took place in Hindu-majority areas. According to the analysis, Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state with more than 200 million inhabitants, had more incidents than any other state, but such incidents had decreased in the last two years, from 42 cases in 2016-17 to 19 in 2018-19. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand comprised 75 percent of incidents recorded by the commission.
On February 6, the MHA presented data in the lower house of parliament showing a 9 percent increase in incidents of religious violence nationwide from 2015 to 2017 (the most recent government yearend statistics available). In 2017 there were 822 incidents, resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries.
According to news articles, on July 30, a 17-year-old male Muslim in the Chandauli District of Uttar Pradesh died from burn injuries after he was set on fire for not chanting “Jai Shri Ram.” Police denied that he was forced to chant the religious slogan, and the Chandauli superintendent of police said the victim gave inconsistent statements, that CCTV footage was inconsistent with his statements, and that a witness had seen the victim set himself on fire.
On April 10, according to media reports and the survivors, a group of Hindu individuals from a neighboring village attacked and killed tribal Christian Prakash Lakda of Jurmu Village in Jharkhand. Three other tribal Christians sustained severe injuries. The four men were reportedly attacked for butchering an ox.
On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital following the attack, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Villagers told the media that the attackers were affiliated with the Bajrang Dal. The police arrested five persons.
According to an Asia News report, on August 27, Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives in Jharkhand because she was a Dalit and the couple had converted to Christianity.
In February, according to a report from NGO Persecution.org, Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded. The report stated that his family believed local Hindus attacked him because of his conversion. Police stated they believed he was killed by Maoist rebels.
Persecution.org reported that on July 14, persons affiliated with what it described as Hindu radical groups seriously injured individuals from eight Christian families in an attack in Belchori Village in Jharkhand. The incident took place after the families reportedly refused to recant their faith.
On June 22 in New Delhi, Muslim cleric Maulana Momin reportedly was told to chant “Jai Shri Ram” by three Hindus in a car. When Momin refused and started to walk off, he was hit by the vehicle. Momin suffered injuries on his head, face, and hands. The police registered a criminal complaint and searched for the alleged assailants, but the investigation was pending at year’s end.
On April 7, according to an India Today report, attackers in Biswanath Chariali, Assam, beat 68-year-old Shaukat Ali, accusing him of selling beef. The crowd also reportedly forced Ali to eat pork. The police arrested one person.
On July 9, local media widely reported an incident involving a Muslim man from a Tamil Nadu village who posted a video of himself eating beef soup. After four young Hindu men living in the same village saw the video, they found the man and stabbed him. The assailants and the man who filmed the video were later arrested for “disturbing communal harmony.”
According to an Asia News report, in September a crowd of 500 persons armed with knives and clubs attacked a Jesuit-run school in Jharkhand, beating several students and injuring at least two severely. They also damaged the school to such an extent that the principal said he believed he would be unable to reopen it. The attackers were reportedly motivated by rumors of forced conversions. By year’s end, there were no reports of arrests or convictions in the case.
According to a Hindustan Times report, on June 6, a group of Muslims attacked Hindu worshipers in a temple in Rohanya, Uttar Pradesh. The report stated that the attackers arrived at the temple and asked worshipers to stop using the loudspeaker. They reportedly said that as the next day was Eid al-Fitr, the temple should stop broadcasting devotional songs. The report further said that after the worshipers refused, the Muslim group cut the loudspeaker wire, removed religious idols, and fought with the Hindu worshipers. Five of the attackers were arrested and faced criminal charges. Police returned the idols to the temple.
On July 17, according to police, 60 to 70 individuals attacked a madrassah and pulled down its boundary wall at Behta Village in Uttar Pradesh after beef was allegedly found in the vicinity. Police filed two criminal complaints, one against a person for cow slaughter and another against the persons who attacked the madrassah.
On August 14, a court in Rajasthan acquitted six individuals accused in the 2017 mob killing of Muslim cattle trader and dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Alwar, citing contradictions in the police investigation. On June 29, the police had charged Khan (posthumously) and his sons under the state’s cow protection laws. In September the government established a special unit to carry out a fresh investigation into the case and identify lapses made by the police. In October the Rajasthan state government challenged the verdict in the state high court, which dropped the charges against Khan and his sons.
During the year, police arrested and began the prosecution of 33 individuals for killing a police officer and setting fire to the Chingrawati police station in Uttar Pradesh during a cow vigilante incident in December 2018. Those arrested were part of a crowd protesting an incident of cow slaughter. The police charge sheet said the slain police officer had tried unsuccessfully to pacify the mob, which pelted the police with stones when the latter tried to use force against them. In the clash, one villager died of a bullet wound. As of August, seven of the 33 had been released on bail, and five suspects were still at large.
According to ADF India, the helpline of the United Christian Forum recorded more than 300 cases of mob violence against Christians of all denominations in the country during the year.
The NGO Persecution Relief reported 527 incidents of persecution against Christians in its 2019 annual report, compared with 477 in 2018. Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number – 109 – followed by 75 in Tamil Nadu and 32 in Karnataka. The NGO reported that the most common forms of persecution were “threats, harassment, and intimidation,” which accounted for 199 of 527 incidents. It also stated that the number of incidents during year was 60 percent higher than the number reported in 2016.
On August 18, members of Hindu Munnani, a Hindu nationalist organization, attacked 40 Christians near Vellore in Tamil Nadu, according to the GCIC. The Christian group was on a pilgrimage from Karnataka to the Marian shrine in Velankanni. The GCIC report stated that the attackers physically assaulted the pilgrims and destroyed their posters of Jesus and Mary. On August 19, the police identified six of the Hindu Munnani members, who were charged with rioting, attempted murder, and “disturbing religious peace,” although according to a law enforcement official, the police never placed the accused in custody to bring formal charges.
On February 2, according to media reports, police arrested three BJP party workers for assaulting a Christian pastor and two other persons in Ariyalur District of Tamil Nadu. The reports stated that the BJP members forced the three Christians to lie prostrate in a Hindu temple and smeared sacred ash and vermillion on their foreheads in accordance with Hindu temple practice before releasing them. The BJP party workers circulated a video of the incident on social media.
According to a report in the Indian Express, in Kanpur District in Uttar Pradesh on July 28, members of the VHP youth wing allegedly beat a pastor, accused him of attempting conversion and handed him over to the police. The pastor said he had neither been beaten nor had tried to convert anyone, and that he had been called to pray for a sick individual.
According to media reports, in the Ramamurthy Nagar neighborhood near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, approximately 30 Christian families were still being ostracized for their conversion from Hinduism decades ago. The reports stated that community members were denying the Christians access to public water sources, refusing to serve them in village shops, and were boycotting Christian-owned shops and stalls. Sixty lower caste Hindu families from the area converted to Christianity in the 1980s, with approximately one-half converting back in 2018, reportedly under pressure from Hindu Munnani.
On May 5, according to media reports, Hindus and Muslims threw stones at each other in Amberpet, Hyderabad after municipal authorities demolished a mosque to widen a road, which prompted a group of Muslims to attempt to erect a temporary structure at the same location. The police used batons on protestors and prevented BJP state lawmaker T. Raja Singh from visiting the location.
The 2019 Jehovah’s Witnesses annual report listed 41 incidents of harassment around the country from January through May, including 11 instances of mobs confronting Jehovah’s Witnesses and accusing them of forced conversion. The report included three cases of physical assault, with minor injuries. The report stated that in 18 of the 29 incidents reported to police, the members involved were initially detained and then released without incident. According to the report, a Jehovah’s Witness house of worship was broken into in February in Rourkela, Odisha. The members filed a report with the local police, but there was no follow-up by year’s end.
On August 18, a court in Pune court denied bail to two suspects arrested for the 2013 killing of Narendra Dabholkar, leader of the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (MANS), an anti-superstition movement.
On August 21, Mumbai police arrested three teenage boys after a Muslim motorist complained that they used religious slurs and had assaulted him in the Vikhroli neighborhood.
On August 24, police in Vadodara, Gujarat arrested three men after they assaulted a uniformed Muslim police official during his off-duty hours and reportedly insulted him regarding his faith following an interpersonal dispute.
In July four men were arrested for uploading a clip onto YouTube following complaints that it was a “hate song” targeting non-Hindus. The songwriter, Santosh Yadav, was among those arrested. Yadav denied that the song targeted anyone and said it was only meant to express his love for Hinduism. He blamed “anti-Ram” elements in the media for his arrest. The organizers of the YouTube channel removed the clip and apologized.
In August seven persons accused of involvement in an incident of communal violence that resulted in the 2018 killing of a police inspector in Bulandshahr District in Uttar Pradesh were welcomed by their supporters with patriotic slogans and flower garlands after being released on bail. All those accused of rioting were released, but none of the individuals arrested for murder were granted bail. The violence took place on December 3, 2018, after a cow carcass was found in a field in Bulandshahr, where thousands of Muslims had gathered for a religious event.
In a May 1 editorial, the official newspaper of the Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist party urged Prime Minister Modi to ban the burqa following Sri Lanka’s decision to do so in the wake of Easter bomb attacks in Colombo. According to media reports, following public protests from Muslim leaders, the Shiv Sena spokesperson later clarified that the editorial was not the party’s official line, and the BJP spokesperson added that under PM Modi’s leadership, “India is safe,” and that a ban on face coverings therefore was not required.
Several acts of vandalism and arson targeting Christian sites and symbols occurred during the year. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, 17 church buildings were attacked around the country, including in Belgaum District, Karnataka, where a group of men set fire to a church under construction on December 17. The NGO said the pastor filed a complaint with police, but a group returned on December 22 to finish burning the building. The police provided protection to the pastor and church members after the incident. According to NGO Open Doors, on January 9, Hindus tore down a church building in Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh, because it was built in a location “which violated Hindu principles of placement and positioning.”
On July 10, in New Delhi’s historic Old Delhi area, Muslims and Hindus joined for a public feast and to install a new idol in a Hindu temple that had been vandalized the prior week during a brief period of communal tensions. According to media, a significant police presence in the area helped calm tensions. A Muslim member of the community told the media, “We don’t support such things (communal violence) and want peace in the area.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year, representatives from the embassy and consulates met with government officials to discuss challenges faced by religious minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, incidents of cow vigilantism, the status of religious freedom in the country, and religiously motivated violence. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with members of parliament and politicians from the ruling and opposition parties to understand their positions on the CAA. They emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, to condemn communal rhetoric, and to ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. Representatives from the embassy and consulates also met with Muslim politicians, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith harmony leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities.
In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom raised concerns with senior government officials about violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In December the Ambassador at Large used social media to express concern about the implications of the CAA and the hope that the government would “abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religious freedom.”
In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts.
In October the Ambassador at Large met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups in New Delhi and raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anti-conversion laws, and communal violence. The Ambassador at Large also met with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, where he delivered remarks at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.
In July the Department of State senior bureau official for south and central Asian affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society interlocutors engaged in pursuing cases of religious persecution.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to discuss their concerns. In late May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties, at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and the need to demonstrate empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths.
In March the embassy hosted the dean of religious life of a U.S. university for a five-day outreach program on religious freedom. The dean traveled to New Delhi, Varanasi, and Lucknow and highlighted the importance of religious inclusion with representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, as well as youth leaders, intellectuals, students, and civil society groups. Discussions centered on challenges to religious reconciliation in the country’s northern areas, and also provided opportunities for members of different faiths to discuss their interests and concerns.
Embassy and consulate officers continued to meet with religious organizations, missionary communities, and NGOs of all religious backgrounds to discuss religious freedom; understand concerns related to an increase in attacks against religious minorities and the perceptions of diminishing space for religious freedom; and monitor cases involving reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy representatives specifically reached out to civil rights NGOs, media representatives reporting on minority affairs, interfaith harmony groups, Muslim religious leaders and Muslim politicians to understand their fears concerning the CAA and its likely impact on the Muslim population in the context of potential government plans to draft the National Register of Citizens. The embassy also organized roundtable discussions involving civil society representatives and visiting U.S. government officials on these subjects.
Embassy and consulate representatives continued to meet with the imam of the Jama Masjid, leaders of several other mosques, Hindu priests, and Christian and Catholic leaders, as well as with representatives of the India Islamic Cultural Center, the All India Imams’ Organization, the Parsi community, and Sikh leaders.
The embassy and consulates hosted celebrations marking major religious holidays, including Ramadan, Holi, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter, to bring together leaders from different religious groups and to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. In April the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted a Passover seder and discussed with representatives of principal faiths the need for promoting religious freedom and interfaith understanding.
The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.” The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith. Decree 315, issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice, defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. Religious leaders said while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religions, particularly Christians. Media reported that in March police arrested a member of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) in Phin District, Savannakhet Province, for allegedly cutting down a tree in a protected forest. The man said he was arrested because he was Christian and that while he was in detention, police beat him on the head and administered electric shocks. In April authorities detained three U.S. citizens for 10 days in Luang Namtha Province for distributing religious pamphlets and other materials without government permission. There were reports of local authorities warning citizens not to convert to Christianity and forbidding Christians to gather for religious services. District officials in Houaphan Province instructed village leaders to deny any applications for identification or other government documents to anyone registered with local authorities as a Christian. Previously, the government encouraged various Christian denominations to register under the auspices of the LEC, but in August the Seventh-day Adventist Church registered independently with the government. Religious leaders continued to say Decree 315 established onerous requirements sometimes used to restrict travel for religious purposes. Christian groups continued to report problems constructing churches in some areas. Reportedly, there were incidents in rural areas where local authorities harassed Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes. Members of minority religions said they had to hide their religious affiliation in order to join the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the government, and the military, and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. The National Assembly held a three-day workshop on religious freedom in October; representatives from many religious organizations attended, along with central and provincial level government officials. Central authorities said they continued to travel to provincial areas to train officials to implement Decree 315 and other laws governing religion properly.
According to government and religious group sources, tensions continued in rural areas between animists, Buddhists, and growing Christian communities. Religious leaders said in some rural areas there were reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from the village if they did not renounce their faith. Burial ceremonies remained a point of contention, with some reports of animists preventing the burial of Christians in public cemeteries.
U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases and issues regarding cumbersome government regulations, including registration procedures, with the government, and continued to encourage open dialogue and conflict resolution. The embassy maintained regular contact with officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) and other government agencies and discussed the challenges faced by religious groups and government efforts to improve religious freedom. Embassy officials maintained regular contact with leaders from a wide variety of religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to understand better the problems faced by minority religious groups. In September the embassy organized a series of concerts by an American gospel music group for local audiences, which culminated in the country’s first “interfaith musical exchange.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2015 national census, 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent is Christian, 31.4 percent report having no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent belong to other religions. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population. According to the Lao Front for National Development (LFND, formerly the Lao Front for National Construction), an organization associated with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that, along with the MOHA, is responsible for the administration of religious organizations, the remainder of the population comprises 50 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship. Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha’is, Mahayana Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and followers of Confucianism together constitute less than 3 percent of the population. According to the international Christian rights advocacy NGO Aid to the Church in Need’s 2018 Religious Freedom Report, Christians comprise 3.2 percent of the population. The Catholic Church estimates its membership at 55,000, and the LEC estimates its membership at 200,000. Muslim community leaders estimate the community has approximately 1,000 members.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion” and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group. The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.” It prohibits all acts that create division between religious groups and classes of persons. The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.
Decree 315 upholds “respect for the religious rights and freedom” of both believers and nonbelievers. The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.” The decree clarifies rules for religious practice and defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The decree reiterates the constitutional priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens.
The decree requires any religious group operating in the country to register with the MOHA. The decree extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously had a de facto exemption. Groups may, but are not required to, affiliate with an officially recognized religious group.
Under the decree, religious groups must present information on elected or appointed officeholders to national, provincial, district, and village-level MOHA offices for review and certification. Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts are required to obtain provincial level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district level approval. If a group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, it must obtain approval at the corresponding level. A religious activity occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village authority approval. Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province. Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities, including routine events, in advance for local authorities to review and approve.
The decree states nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, travel for religious officials, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a provincial, district-level, and/or central MOHA office. The MOHA may order the cessation of any religious activities or expression of beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction. It may stop any religious activity it deems threatening to national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity between tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, properties, health, or reputations of others. The decree requires the MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.
The decree states the government may continue to sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.
The decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.
The building permit process for constructing houses of worship begins with an application to local authorities, and then requires district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFND and MOHA permission. All houses of worship must register under the law and conform to applicable regulations. Religious organizations must own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land to construct a place of worship. The MOHA at all levels must approve any maintenance, restoration, and construction activities at religious facilities. Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask the MOHA to review and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.
According to the Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES), although there is no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in any public schools, the government promotes the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture. Cultural sessions include lessons taught in Buddhist temples. Students are required to attend prayers during these lessons. The MOES states parents may remove their children from the classes if they are dissatisfied with the program. A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups exist throughout the country and accept students from any religious denomination.
Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable. For a period of less than three months, the village authority, as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve. The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.
The MOES and MOHA must approve the travel abroad of clergy and religious teachers for specialized studies. Generally, students going abroad for any kind of study (including religious studies) require approval from the MOES. Religious organizations conducting religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level.
According to the Law for Lao Front for National Development, as amended in 2018, the LFND may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.” LFND officials work with religious communities, police, and other authorities.
The government controls written materials for religious audiences. The decree regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions. The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism and the MOHA must approve religious texts or other materials before they are imported. The MOHA may require religious groups to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religions, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country. The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.
In June the government issued Decree 184 that defines principles and rules for civil servant ethics. The decree states government officials must provide services “in an equal, prompt, and fair manner without discrimination against gender, age, ethnic groups, social status, education levels, and faith.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.
Religious leaders said while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, including Decree 315, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), seven Christian church members were released on January 2 after paying a fine of 700,000 kip ($79). Police in Nakanong Village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, had arrested the seven – three church leaders and four other Christians – on December 29, 2018, for conducting an “illegal” church service. The Human Rights Watcher for Lao Religious Freedom, a U.S.-based NGO, reported village authorities also demolished the church stage, cut the power line, destroyed the sound system, and seized three mobile phones.
According to Asia News, RFA, and local sources, in March police arrested a member of the LEC in Phin District, Savannakhet Province, for cutting down a tree in a protected forest. Local sources said this was a pretext, since none of the other members of the group, who were all non-Christians, were arrested. The man said that while he was detained, police beat him on the head, causing temporary loss of hearing, and administered electric shocks. The police told him they would release him if he renounced his faith. He was released after being held for several days.
Media reported that in April authorities detained three U.S. citizens for 10 days in Luang Namtha Province for distributing religious pamphlets and other materials without government permission. The individuals were affiliated with Vision Beyond Borders, a U.S.-based Christian NGO. Provincial officials held their passports and told them they could not leave the province. After the Ministry of Public Security reviewed the case, officials returned the passports and deported the U.S. citizens to Thailand. International media reported the individuals were “treated well” when they were questioned by police.
According to government authorities, Decree 184, which defines principles and rules for civil servant ethics, was intended in part to ensure that local officials would issue government identification to Christians in rural areas. According to religious leaders, however, some local officials continued to withhold documentation. In Houaphan Province, district authorities issued a notice instructing village leaders to deny any applications for identification or other government documents of anyone registered as a Christian. An official with the Seventh-day Adventists said church members in Houaphan Province were told they would need to register as animists if they wanted to receive their identification documents. An official with a Christian organization said that in February village officials in Khammouane Province collected identification documents from Christian families and did not return them.
According to some minority religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, Decree 315 (or its predecessor, Decree 92), and social harmony as reasons for continuing to restrict and monitor religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic group members.
During the year some registered minority religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Baha’i Faith, successfully met the annual administrative requirements outlined in Decree 315 to maintain their registration, such as providing information on the number of members, religious texts, and plans for services during the year. The LEC’s application for annual registration renewal was under review as of November. In August the Seventh-day Adventist Church successfully registered with the government for the first time.
A MOHA official said it was easier compared with previous years for new religious groups to register; however, he said, the MOHA requested religious groups explain the different practices and beliefs between various Christian denominations before approving applications. The official stated that while in the past the government encouraged other Christian denominations wishing to be recognized to register as part of the LEC, that policy was changing as new religious groups successfully registered. He said during the registration review process, the MOHA consulted with other religious groups to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups, which sometimes delayed registration and other approval processes.
Several unregistered religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, the Methodist Church, and the Mennonite Church, stated they continued their efforts to register independently from the LEC due to differences in doctrinal beliefs. According to a MOHA official, during the year the ministry met with nonregistered religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, to discuss the registration process.
Leaders with the Seventh-day Adventists reported continued difficulties registering their churches at the provincial, district, and village levels, but said they hoped the process would become easier following the Church’s registration with the central government.
An international observer of religious issues in the country said that since Decree 315 was issued, Buddhist groups, who were previously exempted from registration requirements, engaged with the government more on religious issues and made an effort to meet administrative requirements they had previously ignored due to the belief that they did not need to follow the same rules as minority religions. These requirements included submitting an annual report detailing activities.
Although the law prohibited members of religious groups not registered with the MOHA or the LFND from practicing their faith, members of several groups said they continued to do so quietly and without interference, often in house churches. One Baha’i follower said his community was reluctant to gather in public, in part due to announcements made by the Ministry of Public Security at the village level that Buddhism was the only religion welcome in that village. One local LEC official confirmed the ministry made such announcements.
While religious groups said Decree 315 helped enshrine religious freedom and further clarified processes for administrative tasks, the groups also stated that some administrative requirements mandated by the decree (that were not fully implemented during the year) would be burdensome and restrictive if the government were to fully implement them. Among these were requirements to submit detailed travel plans and advance requests to hold basic religious services.
MOHA and LFND officials continued to acknowledge some local officials incorrectly applied regulations, created their own regulations contrary to national law, or were unaware of all the provisions in Decree 315. Several religious groups recommended the government devote more resources to implementing the decree and promoting religious freedom at the district and provincial level. Central government officials said they continued to train provincial and district officials on concepts of religious freedom and implementation of Decree 315 in an attempt to protect minority religious groups, but stated this was a challenge in isolated areas. An official with the Seventh-day Adventists said the government was trying to promote religious freedom, but added the government’s policies and statements sometimes “fall on deaf ears” at the provincial and district level.
Authorities stated that during the year the central government, in coordination with relevant local- and provincial-level officials, conducted assessments of how Decree 315 was being implemented in the city of Vientiane, and in Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Bolikhamxai Provinces. Officials said they invited representatives of some, but not all, religious groups in the respective areas to provide input.
In May Radio Free Asia reported an official with the Christian aid organization Vision Beyond Borders said government authorities were “harassing Christians and breaking up meetings and making it difficult for them to gather.” The official said, “Some Lao authorities remained deeply suspicious of Christians, sometimes resulting in social exclusion, harassment, and arbitrary detention by law enforcement officials.”
According to local Christian officials, there were fewer incidents of authorities prohibiting services or detaining travelers attending services during the Christmas season compared with 2018. A representative of the Methodist Church said that a village authority interrupted a religious service shortly before Christmas and told the congregation it needed permission from the district Ministry of Public Security office to hold services on any day other than December 25.
Some religious groups did not comply with the requirement to obtain advance permission to travel to other jurisdictions. An official with a prominent Christian organization said submitting a comprehensive annual travel plan was not practical because church members sometimes fell sick or died unexpectedly, requiring church officials to travel immediately. An official with a Christian organization said it was “impossible” to fully comply with the requirements for in-country travel and he chose to ignore them. According to some religious groups, the government also did not fully enforce the decree’s travel notice requirement. Representatives from the Catholic Church said they joined other religious organizations asking the government to amend the decree so that religious officials would not require permission to travel within the country.
Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to obtaining travel permission. Some religious leaders stated authorities sometimes detained Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside their normal locales. Members of the LEC said they submitted travel plans for the Christmas season to all appropriate levels of government but did not receive all the required approvals. Some local authorities detained religious officials even with proper travel authorization; sources said most cases were resolved within hours of occurrence.
According to Muslim community leaders, the approximately 1,000-member Muslim community continued to worship at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country. According to the leader of the Muslim Association, Muslims maintained a strong working relationship with both the LFND and the MOHA and did not encounter challenges from the government regarding freedom of worship. He said the community avoided actions that could be deemed incompatible with Lao culture.
The government continued to enforce rules requiring programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship to receive prior approval from local or higher authorities.
Christian religious leaders said the government continued to strictly enforce a prohibition on proselytizing in public, including by foreigners. Both the Church of Jesus Christ and the Seventh-day Adventists reported they had missionaries in the country, but the government restricted their activities to teaching English and promoting good health practices, such as hygiene and sanitation. Missionaries could not engage in religious discussions. Several religious groups said they welcomed foreign members visiting the country but needed to be cautious about the kinds of activities foreigners engaged in. The Church of Jesus Christ said it relied on word-of-mouth to attract new members.
Authorities continued to control imports of religious materials, but several religious groups said they could access most religious texts and documents online. MOHA officials said they coordinated with religious groups to review imported materials to help ensure these were in accordance with the organization’s beliefs.
Several minority religious groups reported problems building places of worship, although the LFND Religious Affairs Department stated it continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible. An MOHA official said the government encouraged religious groups to hold services in churches or temples, rather than in homes. The LEC reported operating approximately 600 churches throughout the country and conducting worship services in many more “unofficial” house churches. They attributed the large number of house churches to the difficulties of obtaining building permits from local authorities. According to religious leaders, local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal and told villagers they needed permits to worship at home.
Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction and generally received no response to requests. An official with the Catholic Church said the Church routinely waited years for approval to build a new church, only to be ultimately denied. The official said in June one Catholic congregation in Vientiane Province asked for permission to rebuild its church, which was old and in need of repairs. Provincial authorities denied permission and told congregants that because a nearby highway was recently paved, they could easily travel to a different church in another village. The Catholic Church official also said guidelines for the construction of religious buildings laid out in Decree 315 were unclear.
Some sources said the legal requirement that a religious organization own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land in order to build a church or temple limited the ability of some smaller congregations, which lacked sufficient resources, to obtain a space of that size. An official with the Seventh-day Adventist Church said the land requirement was not an issue in rural areas; however, purchasing land was expensive in cities, where most Seventh-day Adventists live. He also said the government, usually at the local level, sometimes provided land, or facilitated land use, for Buddhist temples, but Christian churches had to buy the land. The Church official expressed concern that the government frequently retained the titles of land owned by churches, which could lead to potential problems if the churches needed to show ownership. According to a spokesperson for the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization, some Buddhist temples built on land donated by private citizens did not have the required documentation to clarify land ownership, which could lead to potential problems if a temple needed to show ownership.
According to Buddhist organizations, prominent Buddhists worked with the government to draft legislation to ensure laws reflected the role of Buddhism in Lao culture.
Christian students said they were uncomfortable with the requirement that they attend prayers in Buddhist temples during cultural classes taught there as part of the public school curriculum. In some rural areas lessons in Buddhism remained mandatory to pass to the next grade level, despite this not being an MOES requirement. This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.
With advance permission and a requirement there be no open proselytizing, government authorities permitted Lao and expatriate Christians to organize a public, open-air religious music event for the third year in a row. The Vientiane International Gospel Music Festival took place November 3 at the ITECC Center shopping mall, with performances by local and foreign artists and bands. The LEC leaders said that, as in 2018, they chose to omit the word “gospel” in Lao language materials so as not to risk government censure. The word “gospel” only appeared in English-language materials.
In October the Baha’i community in Vientiane organized an event to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab, an important figure in the founding of the Baha’i Faith. Representatives from the MOHA, LFND, and National Assembly attended. Bounthavy Phonethasine, deputy director of the Religious Department at the LFND, spoke at the event and commended the Baha’i community for working towards “the betterment of the Lao community.”
An official with the Catholic Church said Catholic government officials needed to hide their religion in order to join the LPRP, government, or military, and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. He said a member of his church who is in the army was told he would be expelled from the army if he participated in Catholic services. Some members of religious minorities said they believed they were promoted more slowly than their peers due to their beliefs. A Seventh-day Adventist said there was a “hidden law” mandating a citizen could not be both a Christian and a member of the LPRP. Other religious groups said it was hard for their members to join the government or advance to higher-level positions, or to become village chiefs. Religious groups stated they were aware of no openly non-Buddhist or non-animist government officials at the provincial or national levels. A MOHA official working on religious affairs said it was difficult for non-Buddhists to join the government, but the government was actively trying to promote the idea that members of all religions had the right to join.
In October the National Assembly organized a three-day conference on religious freedom. At the conference, government officials and religious leaders addressed sensitive topics, including the government’s practice of encouraging non-Buddhists to attend government-sponsored Buddhist ceremonies, which the government deemed cultural events, and misperceptions such as a prevailing but mistaken belief that Christians did not serve in the military or police. The conference participants discussed ways to address those misperceptions. Government authorities reiterated that there was no state religion in the country.
An official with Institute of Global Engagement (IGE), a U.S.-based religious freedom NGO, said conditions for religious freedom had improved steadily in the 17 years since he first came to the country. He said the MOHA had taken on a more assertive role in promoting religious freedom during the year, but there were still many people in the government who believed Buddhism should be the only religion in the country, and the concept of religious freedom, while accepted by the central government, was virtually unknown to the average citizen.
According to government sources, due to staff turnover at the provincial and local levels, three years after Decree 315 became law there were still some officials unfamiliar with its provisions and proper application. The LFND and the MOHA stated they continued to visit areas where religious freedom abuses had reportedly taken place to instruct local authorities on government policy and law, and frequently traveled beyond the capital to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain their obligations under the constitution and the right of all citizens to believe or not to believe in religion. During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFND and MOHA officials on Decree 315 and other laws governing religion and held workshops with local authorities and religious leaders that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Baha’i Faith, and Islam. The MOHA, with support from IGE, held religious freedom workshops in 12 of 18 provinces during the year. The government fully funded one workshop, and religious groups contributed some funding for the remaining workshops.
In March the MOHA organized a seminar on religion and the rule of law with financial support from the IGE. Representatives from all 18 provinces attended the two-day seminar. Speakers discussed concepts of international religious freedom, as well as aspects of Decree 315 and how it should be implemented.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to religious leaders, most disputes among religious communities occurred in villages and rural areas, where the central government’s ability to enforce national laws was limited.
One official with the LEC stated that strong growth in church membership in recent years exacerbated tensions within some communities and brought increased scrutiny by villagers who remained wary of any religion other than Buddhism. The official said in Savannakhet Province church membership grew from approximately 16,000 at the beginning of 2017 to more than 23,000 in 2018. He said this rapid growth led to local conflicts between new adherents of Christianity and their majority non-Christian neighbors. Similarly, LEC leaders said rapid growth in the number of Christians in Vientiane Province, which totaled approximately 18,000 members, was evidence of increased religious freedom but also led to increased tensions with local communities.
Religious leaders said in some rural areas there were reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from the village if they did not renounce their faith. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA, “Abandoning Buddhism or animist beliefs is seen as a betrayal of family members and the community, which fuels the perception that Christians essentially excommunicate themselves from the Buddhist-animist community. Consequently, believers are persecuted by their immediate and/or extended family (usually one Laotian household is composed of three generations under one roof) and by local authorities who often stir up the community.”
According to provincial authorities and a U.S. citizen who monitors religious activities in the country, in May three families in Houaphan Province who were members of the LEC were expelled from their village by siblings who were animists. Authorities said while some of the siblings were animist and some Christian, the dispute was not connected to religion.
In many villages, disputes of all kinds (including religious disputes) were referred to government-sanctioned village mediation units. According to Christian group leaders, these units often encouraged Christians to compromise their beliefs by accommodating local Buddhist or animist community practices. In dealing with local disputes regarding religious issues, officials at MOHA said they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved. One MOHA official said the ministry did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.
Christians said burial practices remained a contentious issue. A leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church said in rural areas many animists believe the Christian practice of burying the dead, rather than the Buddhist tradition of cremating, would bring disharmony to the village and conflict with the village spirits. In some rural areas, Christians said that they were not allowed to use public cemeteries and were not given land for separate cemeteries, and that they had to resort to burying their dead on farms or in backyards. The official said in some areas the church was trying to buy land for cemeteries so members would not have to use public cemeteries.
Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which continued to play a traditional schooling role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable. Two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, conducted religious education for children and youths. Baha’i groups conducted religious training for children and adult members. The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Khammouane Province. The Muslim community offered limited educational training. Several private preschools and English-language schools received support from foreign religious groups of various denominations.
A spokesperson for the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization said the relationship between the country and Buddhism was akin to that of a person and his or her shadow. He said the long history of Buddhism in the country created a common understanding among the country’s ethnic groups and a strong level of trust with both the government and the LPRP.
Several religious groups said they provided donations without regard to the religious affiliation of the recipients after floods displaced hundreds in the southern region of the country in August.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials regularly advocated for religious freedom with a range of government officials, including those associated with implementing Decree 315, to ensure government activities were consistent with the country’s obligations under the ICCPR and other international instruments to which it was a signatory. In exchanges with the MOHA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and the LFND Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of harassment. Embassy officers raised concerns with appropriate officials about cumbersome procedures, including registration, obtaining advance permission to hold religious services and travel for religious purposes, as well as the government’s efforts to implement Decree 315 at the provincial and local levels.
Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from different religious and advocacy groups, including the LEC, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic Association of Laos, the Baha’i community, and the IGE to address religious equality concerns such as registration, Decree 315 administrative requirements, land acquisition, and tensions with local Buddhist and animist communities.
In September the embassy organized a five-day visit by an American gospel music group. The group performed at several venues, including a concert at the National Cultural Hall, attended by more than 1,250 people. The embassy partnered with the Metta Dhamma Project, an organization that promotes cultural aspects of the Buddhist faith, to host the country’s first-ever “interfaith musical exchange” at an auditorium next to a prominent Buddhist temple in Vientiane. The Metta Dhamma Project brought in Lao performers who sang, danced, and conducted religious rituals, while the American group performed traditional gospel songs. Government representatives and leaders from various religious organizations attended. The Ambassador spoke at the event about the importance of religious freedom, and these remarks were echoed by Bounthavy Phonethasine, Deputy Director of the Religious Department at the LFND. Maha Ves Masenay, vice president of the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization, formally welcomed the gospel group and praised the interfaith music exchange. The embassy highlighted the event on its Facebook page.