Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in 2017. In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prisons terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in a suburb south of Cairo. On February 9, authorities arrested Muslim students at Al-Azhar for posting video footage mocking Christian religious practices. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 814 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings, bringing the cumulative total to 1412 of 5,415 applications for licensure. In April the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the Anba Karas Church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. Local authorities continued to periodically rely on customary reconciliation sessions instead of the official judicial system to resolve sectarian disputes. In April security officials closed a church in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib in response to threats of an attack by Muslim villagers. In November Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of Hgara were directed to rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village following a customary reconciliation session related to a dispute with the local Muslim population. According to an international NGO, there were no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) or houses of worship in the country. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi.

On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat to the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian based on his religious affiliation at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in Northern Sinai on January 17. His fate was unknown at year’s end. In January a religious sheikh at a mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City, Cairo, to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police later discovered an improvised explosive device (IED). One police officer died and two others were injured as they attempted to defuse the bomb. Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019. According to human rights groups and religious communities, discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports. Of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian. Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.

U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador, and former Charge d’Affaires, as well as visiting senior-level delegations from Washington and embassy representatives and officials of the former consulate general in Alexandria met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation. The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and, “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. It describes freedom of belief as absolute. The constitution limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The grand imam is elected by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term. The president does not have the authority to dismiss him. While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion Egyptian pounds ($1 billion).

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the grand mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out. The mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the death sentence.

The constitution also stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their respective personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), depending upon their official religious designation. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) issues national identity cards that include official religious designations. Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens. Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash. The minister of interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize. The law states individuals may change their religion; however, the government recognizes conversion to Islam but not from Islam to any other religion. In a 2008 ruling on a lawsuit against the government for not recognizing a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the government, stating its duty to “protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam.” The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order. Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints. After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims. When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. A woman in this situation can continue to live with her husband until she has a legal need to prove her marriage, at which time the marriage may be considered void. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating the rules of the Christians and Jewish communities govern in personal status matters.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar Al Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar Al Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to MOI’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar. The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams, who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,100). The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines. Any imam who does not follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including losing his preaching license. The ministry also issues prewritten sermons as an obligatory guide for imams to draw from, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques. Imams are subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal, for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

The prime minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates rather than the president. The governor is required to respond within four months of receipt of the application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor does not respond within the required timeframe. The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches. It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. Construction of new churches must meet stringent land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1900 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Determinations of religious identity are based on official designations, not personal or parental decisions. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other. A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including Christian-owned schools. Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves approximately two million students from elementary through secondary school, using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,300)

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit Al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations convene opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Sources say in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo, it has become inactive.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric. Since the state does not recognize Baha’i marriage, married Baha’is are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence. Baha’is, in practice, file individual demands for recognition of marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program entitled “Alternative Family,” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain requirements are met.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “No political activity may be exercised or political parties formed on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location, nor may any activity be practiced that is hostile to democracy, secretive, or which possesses a military or quasi-military nature.”

The constitution mandates the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, by year’s end, parliament still had not yet established such a commission.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail, who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in December 2017.

In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for the bombings of Coptic churches between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 persons. The court commuted the sentences of 19 other defendants to life imprisonment, eight to 15 years, and another to 10 years. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and said the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prison terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017 in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.

On July 1, the Court of Cassation upheld a death sentence issued against a suspect convicted of killing two Copts, terrorizing the Christian community of Shamiya village in Assiut, and imposing taxes on the village in 2013-14.

On March 30, a Cairo court sentenced 30 men to prison terms of 10 years to life for planning a suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria as well as other charges, including the bombing of a liquor store in Damietta. Eighteen defendants received life terms, eight received 15 years in prison, and four received 10 years. Ten of those convicted remained at large, and the court sentenced them in absentia. Authorities said the defendants had embraced ISIS ideology.

On December 11, a group of UN special rapporteurs publicly called on the government to end the detention and ill treatment of Ramy Kamel Saied Salid, who worked to defend the rights of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. According to a December press release issued by the UN Human Rights Council, as well as NGO and media sources, authorities arrested, questioned, and tortured Kamel on November 4 and November 23. They charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. His arrest coincided with his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a Geneva UN forum on November 28 and 29, where, in the past, he discussed issues relating to the Coptic community. According to the statement, police broke into Kamel’s home on November 23 and confiscated personal documents, a laptop, camera, and mobile phone before taking him to an unknown location.

On February 7, Christian activists circulated a video depicting a group of Al-Azhar students mocking Christian religious practices. Al-Azhar University referred the students to a disciplinary board at the university and in a statement said Al-Azhar strongly condemned such actions. On February 9, authorities arrested the students for “inciting sectarian strife” and subsequently released them on bail on February 27. At year’s end the case was still pending.

In January atheist blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to purchase another nationality so he could leave the country. Authorities banned Gaber from travel abroad in 2018 and accused him of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube. On September 16, Gaber posted on his Facebook page that he was sentenced to three years in prison for contempt of religions and disturbing the public peace.

Efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support, including from multiple members of parliament, although in late 2018 President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing.” On March 22, Al-Azhar announced the formation of a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa that would focus on “counter(ing) atheism” and preventing youth from “falling into disbelief.”

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of crimes targeting Christians and instances of sectarian violence. Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities charged four individuals with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. In June, after the court in Beni Suef referred the case to the Minya Criminal Court, the Minya court postponed hearing the case, which was still pending at year’s end. On February 17, the Ain Shams Misdemeanors Court sentenced a man who had stormed a church and attacked security officers in November 2018 to three years’ imprisonment.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities interrogated several of their members due to their status as a “banned group” during the year. In February security officials twice “violently interrogated” a Jehovah’s Witness in Upper Egypt, threatening, blindfolding, and beating him and confiscating his cell phone and personal identification. In April, October, and November, police officials in Cairo summoned individual Jehovah’s Witnesses to their office for questioning. In April officials summoned a Jehovah’s Witness in Minya for interrogation. In September security officials allowed more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a religious meeting in a private home.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests and sometimes failing to extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, particularly in Upper Egypt. On January 7, following a Mass celebrating Coptic Christmas, a crowd of Muslims protested the presence of the unlicensed Mar Girgis Church in the village of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya in Upper Egypt. On January 11, a crowd reportedly gathered again and chanted anti-Christian slogans until police and security forces intervened to disperse the crowd and closed the church. The Coptic Diocese of Minya subsequently released a video and statement that indicated security forces aided Muslim residents seeking to close the church. The Wall Street Journal quoted the Coptic Diocese of Minya, “Every time, the extremists are able to impose their demands.”

In February press reported local Christians had conducted three funerals of church congregants in the streets of Kom el-Raheb due to their continued denial of access to the church, which authorities closed in 2018. In July press reported Copts from Kom el-Raheb stormed into the closed church and staged a sit-in protesting the church’s continued closure. According to press reports, unknown persons burned down three Christian-owned properties following the sit-in. According to press reports, the church and individual church members blamed local government authorities and security forces for siding with anti-Christian “hard-liners.”

On April 12, a mob protesting the unlicensed expansion of the Anba Karas Church in the village of Nagaa el-Ghafir in Sohag Governorate attacked the church with rocks and wounded two Christians. Security forces intervened to stop the attack and ordered the church closed. In April EIPR condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. EIPR reported there had been 32 sectarian incidents between 2016 and April 2019 and stated security forces were responsible for the closure of 22 unlicensed churches, with up to four closed during the year.

According to official statistics, the government approved 814 applications to license churches and related buildings during the year, and, since September 2017, approved 1,412 of the 5,415 pending applications to license of churches and related buildings. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) quoted Coptic Orthodox Bishop Makarios of Minya as saying his diocese had approximately 150 villages and neighborhoods in need of a church or other religious buildings.

As it did in previous years, the government in September closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura. Although in previous years the government explained the closure was due to construction, reports in media stated the Ministry of Al-Awqaf circulated internal correspondence affirming the ministry would not allow any “sectarian practices,” and any attempts of sectarian “parades,” especially around the mosques of the Prophet’s family, would be confronted.

According to Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no husseiniyahs in the country and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. MRGI reported in January, “The state has failed to respect the right of the Shia to practice their religious rituals” and that security services often subjected Shia citizens traveling on religious pilgrimages to interrogations, sometimes including torture. According to MRGI, Shia risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services and security and intelligence services.

In July the Ministry of Awqaf announced a 12-day closure of the Imam Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo for maintenance. Community members said the actual reason for the closure was a call from Sufi groups to gather in the mosque square in response to an Al-Dostour newspaper article critical of Imam Hussein, entitled “Hussein Unjust,” that Sufi adherents deemed insulting to religion.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. In an October 7 press conference, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki announced the government was dismissing 1,070 public school teachers because of “extremist ideas.” A former senior official in the Ministry of Education (MOE) told the press the Muslim Brotherhood was targeting primary school students to continue to propagate its ideology.

According to June press reports, a mob attacked the homes of a Christian and his two relatives in the village of Ashnin in Upper Egypt. The mob forced its way into the homes and destroyed furniture and appliances before being dispersed by local police. Following an investigation, police arrested three Christians but none of the attackers. After a customary reconciliation session, the Christians were released and charges were dropped. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, on April 30, a customary reconciliation meeting was held in the Upper Egypt village of Nagib after threats of a potential mob attack by Muslim villagers led security officials to close the village’s church. The NGO also stated that a November customary reconciliation session in Hgara village, located in Upper Egypt, resulted in local Christians being told that they must rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. While at least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt refused to participate in reconciliation sessions due to criticism that they frequently were substitutes for criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches, Orthodox Church leaders took part in two customary reconciliation sessions in other dioceses, according to EIPR. Although other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions, human rights groups and many Christian community representatives said the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship and pressured Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On January 25, MRGI released a report, Justice Denied, Promises Broken: The Situation of Egypt’s Minorities Since 2014, which stated, “A key factor in the prevalence of sectarian attacks against Christian communities is the continued practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’ between communities, often with the active encouragement of police and officials. This reliance on informal justice approaches that are usually weighted heavily in favor of the Muslim majority is further entrenched by the failure of security forces and the formal judiciary to discharge their responsibilities to prevent and punish targeted attacks on Christians…The dominance of this partial system of informal justice is accompanied by the failure of the formal justice system to protect Christian and other minority victims.”

As it has in previous years prior to Ramadan, the Ministry of Awqaf in April announced restrictions on the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents to spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan. As in previous years, authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

In May the Ministry of Awqaf ordered imams limit the length of Ramadan night prayers (tarawih) to 10 minutes, and banned mention of political topics, the government, or political figures in prayers. At the start of Ramadan in May, Minister of Awqaf Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa announced the ministry had decided to close zawiyas (small prayer rooms used as mosques) during Ramadan and to restrict the use of loudspeakers.

In April the Ministry of Awqaf announced its intention to permanently close unauthorized mosques. There was no coordinated implementation of a policy of closures during the year.

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims from worshiping privately in small numbers, according to community representatives. The government, however, continued to refuse their requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 23, the High Administrative Court rejected an appeal by the Witnesses to overturn a 1985 law that prevents their members from registering property ownership and marriages. The court ruled the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses contradict the public order and morals in the country.

In August the Ministry of Awqaf gave Yasser Borhami, the deputy head of the Salafist Call, the umbrella organization of the country’s Salafi movements, approval to deliver sermons during Friday prayers at an Alexandria mosque. Borhami had previously stated Muslims should not send holiday greetings to Christians or watch soccer games and had described Christianity as polytheism, said churches should not be allowed in the country, and Muslim taxi and bus drivers should not transport Christian clergy. Critics said Borhami’s past comments reflected hostility towards Christians and non-Salafi Muslims; they condemned the ministry’s decision allowing him to return to preaching.

On August 29, the Anti-Defamation League published a report, Anti-Semitic Show Does Not Belong on Egyptian State Television, detailing how a program, Blue Line, which aired on the government-run Channel Two, propagated a broad range of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The claims included Holocaust denial, Jewish control of U.S. banking, media, and government, and blood libel.

The UN Human Rights Council began its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s commitments under the ICCPR in November. Previous UPRs took place in 2010 and 2014. In submissions for the UPR, NGOs stated discrimination and sectarian violence against Copts persisted at the local level, often with inadequate intervention from security services to prevent it; many religious minorities lived in fear of societal persecution; Christians still faced discrimination in education and workplaces, and the law on the Construction and Reparation of Churches placed many restrictions on Christians attempting to restore or build new churches, while defining them as a “sect,” contrary to their right to equal citizenship. In its submission, the government stated, “certain practical steps have been taken to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, and incitement to violence on the basis of religion or belief.” The government cited several initiatives that it had undertaken in this regard, including the circulation of pamphlets and brochures, changes to the educational system, new classes, and employing the authority and expertise of Al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions to promote tolerance, moderation, and a culture of dialogue.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. In 2018, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011, when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests. The new governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services. Christians admitted at the entry level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks, according to sources.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers to enter the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The MOE continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, second grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum after it was introduced in first grade and kindergarten in 2018.

The president established a Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents in 2018, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent such incidents, addressing them as they occur, and applying the rule of law. The committee, headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs, is composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the National Security Sector (NSS), and the Administrative Oversight Agency. TIMEP said the committee did not include representatives of the judiciary, legislature, human rights groups, or of any minority communities. According to press, however, the committee is entitled to invite ministers, officials, and religious leaders to its meetings when considering topics relevant to them. The committee held its inaugural meeting on January 16 to look into a January 11 attack by a crowd of approximately 1,000 Muslim villagers on Coptic villagers of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya. Coptic parliamentarian Emad Gad observed the committee did not issue any statement on the incident, even though it was formed to combat sectarian violence. Since the inaugural meeting, EIPR reported the committee had not announced any subsequent meetings.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance. On March 10, the Al-Azhar Center for Interfaith Dialogue and the Episcopal Church co-organized a conference on equal citizenship to promote interreligious tolerance and a shared sense of belonging, according to media reports. In May the Center for Interfaith Dialogue launched a new campaign entitled “God Hears Your Dialogue” to increase awareness among youth of the importance and necessity of dialogue to promote peaceful coexistence. In September Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf participated in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

In a January 7 statement, the Al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced its introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance in the 11,000 schools under its purview. The statement read that the new texts would focus on unity between Muslims and Christians and would stress the concept of citizenship without distinction on the basis of religious belief.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff grew to approximately 100 employees, who monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the Al-Azhar International Academy, also began offering courses on a wide range of subjects related to Islam to imams and preachers in 20 countries. Prominent members of parliament strongly criticized Al-Azhar for failing to rapidly institute the president’s directive to launch a renewal of religious discourse as a means to combat extremism, and for exercising excessive independence from the government. An EIPR analyst reported that President al-Sisi insisted Al-Azhar exert greater efforts to combat extremist ideas. Another EIPR analyst said Al-Azhar’s overseas programs were part of “Al-Azhar’s vision of itself as the guardian of Islam around the world and as a partner – rather than an affiliated institution – to the Egyptian state.”

On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi. The document condemned practices “detrimental to human life and freedom,” and pledged cooperation to combat extremism and promote peace.

In June President al-Sisi delivered a speech during a ceremony in Cairo for Laylat al-Qadr (the 27th day of Ramadan that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran) in which he said, “When we wish our Christian brothers a happy feast and (congratulate them) on building new churches, we represent our religion.” President al-Sisi added that the country’s main goal was to preserve the essence of religion, to raise religious awareness, and combat extremist threats among youth.

Dar al-Iftaa and Al-Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays. At the January 7 inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the largest church in the region, and the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque in the New Administrative Capital, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar said Islam obliged Muslims to safeguard houses of worship for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. President al-Sisi also attended the opening of the newly built mosque and the cathedral, where for the fifth consecutive year he celebrated Christmas services with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros.

In February the Jerusalem Post reported President al-Sisi met with a visiting delegation of private U.S. citizens and told them the government would welcome a resurgence of the Jewish community in the country and that it would support such a resurgence with the construction of synagogues and help with related services. According to the report, the president also promised to address concerns about the ancient Jewish Bassatine Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair. Following the meeting, the government facilitated a brief trash cleanup effort of the cemetery involving work crews from multiple municipalities; however, NGO representatives said the government did not contribute to the rehabilitation of the cemetery.

The Ministry of Antiquities (MOA) engaged in a multimillion dollar effort to restore the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue, one of two remaining in the greater Alexandria area. Authorities stated progress at the synagogue underscored the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage and very small remaining community, and that this was a reflection of a broader policy of stressing the government’s commitment to safeguarding religious diversity and freedom.

On February 7, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country. The ministry said it would conduct a design competition to decide on details and that only mosques designed in accordance with the new guidance would be granted construction permits in the future.

In July the state-run University of Alexandria and state-run University of Damanhour announced the establishment of centers of Coptic studies, in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes will include courses in the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat on the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in northern Sinai on January 17 based on his religious affiliation. The men had been checking the identification of motorists and abducted the man after learning he was Christian. On January 25, ISIS released a statement that read, “the soldiers of the Islamic State in Sinai set up an ambush to target the apostates.” According to media reports, the man had still not been located at the end of the year and his fate was unknown.

On January 5, a sheikh at a neighboring mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police discovered an IED. One police officer died and two others were injured when the IED exploded while it was being defused. While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, in December the NSS arrested three students of Al Azhar University and accused them of planting the explosives. The investigation continued through year’s end.

Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities. According to a Coptic Christian advocacy group, of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian.

In May EIPR called on authorities to provide followers of unrecognized religions the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. In January Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim posted a video in which he criticized Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb for participating in the opening ceremony of the cathedral in the New Administrative Capital. Ghoneim said Islam considers Copts infidels, and that those who accept the Christian religion or assist them in practicing it are nonbelievers.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued. Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned television endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy. In May Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud received heavy criticism in the press and on various social media platforms for his interview with a prominent Israeli online news site. In August commentators and local anti-Zionist organizations strongly criticized a theatre performance on the Holocaust performed by university students and accused members of the cast of glorifying Zionism and insulting Muslims.

On January 28, attorney and activist Samir Sabri brought suit on behalf of a group of Muslim scholars seeking to ban the movie, The Guest, for misrepresenting Islam. The Cairo Court of Urgent Cases scheduled a hearing for February 23, and then postponed it until April 6. The case remained open through year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and the then-Charge d’Affaires, raised religious freedom concerns with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Awqaf, as well as with members of parliament, governors, and representatives of Islamic institutions, church communities, religious minority groups, and civil society groups. In their meetings with government officials, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Throughout the year, embassy officers met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant churches. Issues raised included cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations, including on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues, such as issuance of permits for, and new construction of, churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the restoration of Jewish religious sites. The then-Charge visited Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue in October and met with MOA officials to discuss the ministry’s ongoing efforts to restore the synagogue, part of a public effort by the government to preserve the legacy of the Jewish community and to support religious diversity.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in government engagements. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts on the 2018 International Religious Freedom Report that reached 20,000 persons and five posts on the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that reached 65,000 readers.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief. Proselytizing in public is illegal. According to social media reports, in August police detained and brought in for questioning at least five individuals who had gathered to perform Eid al-Adha prayers a day before the official date announced by the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA). MERA monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration. Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship. Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material. In September Catholic and Muslim leaders, including a senior MERA official, attended the inauguration of a new Catholic church in Salalah. In February the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair.

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. At least one Arabic-language Omani newspaper featured anti-Semitic imagery in cartoons critical of the Israeli government. The Protestant-run interfaith group Al-Amana Center and the MERA continued to host programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam.

At various times throughout the year, U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to encourage the government to continue to support religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with minority religious groups to assess and support the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation. It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion. According to the Basic Law, the sultan must be a Muslim.

There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.

The penal code sets the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran,” “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion,” or “promoting religious and sectarian tensions” at 10 years. The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment. Holding a meeting outside government-approved locations to promote another religion is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. Under the penal code, Abrahamic religions are protected from blasphemy, but the code does not mention non-Abrahamic faiths in this context. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.” Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is a crime, with a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 Omani rials ($2,600).

All religious organizations must register with the government. The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA. New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they can register. Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor. For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, Al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar Al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors. The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders. MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with MERA. The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must deliver sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters. Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.

The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the sultan for the purpose of collective worship.

The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”

The law states the government must approve construction and/or leasing of buildings by religious groups. In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.

Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction. The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking, and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another. Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.

The Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation. Principles of sharia inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes, but passage of the Judicial Authority Law in 1999 replaced sharia courts with civil courts. Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code. The law states Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence in these matters differs from that of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts, and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition. The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.

Citizens may sue the government for abuses of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.

Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion. Other official identity documents do not do so.

Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship. Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member’s entry.

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

Government Practices

According to social media reports, in August police detained and brought in for questioning at least five individuals after they gathered to perform Eid al-Adha prayers a day before the official date announced by MERA.

According to at least one online media outlet, in July the government-appointed grand mufti criticized Muslims who sent their daughters to study abroad for not protecting their “morals and values.”

According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters. These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics, along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams. Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring. The government-appointed grand mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters.

Religious groups reported opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration, but none reported they were actively seeking to register with the government. While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration. MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim. Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group. According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register.

The Church of Jesus Christ remained without a registration sponsor or a permanent place of worship, but Church leaders said the government was working with the group to reach a solution. Other religious minority groups reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups, even though they represented a significant population in the country, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations. Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship. According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.

In September Catholic and Muslim leaders, including a senior MERA official who spoke at the gathering, attended the inauguration of a new Catholic church in Salalah, built on land donated by the sultan.

MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis. For example, several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country, which they coordinated with MERA by submitting an annual calendar of events.

Religious groups said that, consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership. Religious groups stated they did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship. The government also continued to require religious groups to notify MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to MERA. Religious minority leaders said the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all approved religious groups to build and maintain religious facilities in the country.

According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings, although there is no law stating that custody is tied to religious affiliation.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

In February the ADL called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair. According to the ADL, the listings included more than a dozen versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a dozen copies of Mein Kampf, as well as Henry Ford’s The International Jew. The ADL stated that the book fair also included books deeply intolerant of other religious faiths, including Shia Islam and the Yezidi and Baha’i faiths.

The government, through MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum (Understanding), a quarterly periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although not prohibited by law, according to some minority religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.

At least one Arabic-language Omani newspaper featured anti-Semitic imagery in cartoons critical of the Israeli government. For example, some imagery portrayed characters wearing the Star of David as violent or manipulative.

The interfaith Al-Amana Center, which was founded and supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims. It hosted immersion courses in conjunction with the MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations. The center also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its outreach efforts promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Embassy officers also raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religion places of worship and encouraged MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with minority religious groups to assess and support the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective religions.

Sweden

Executive Summary

The constitution protects “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others” and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government continued funding for a program aimed at combating racism and reducing hate crimes, including those motivated by religion, and provided additional funding for the upcoming two years for educational efforts aimed at combating prejudiced views, including anti-religious views, in schools. Christian organizations stated the Migration Agency denied asylum to refugees who converted to Christianity while in the country and feared religious persecution in their home countries. The Migration Agency announced in March it would grant refugee status to Uighur Muslims from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region as well as any other Muslim minority group members in response to “far-reaching state repression.” The government gave funding to 46 religious groups in 2018, compared with 44 in 2017, and facilitated revenue collection for 17 of them. The prime minister and other politicians condemned anti-Semitism and other religious intolerance. In May Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said, “Wherever anti-Semitism exists, and whatever form it takes, it must be exposed and combated.” Several political parties proposed prohibiting students and teachers from wearing a hijab in school and the nonmedical circumcision of boys. All of the political parties represented in parliament except the Christian Democrats proposed bans on establishing new independent religious schools. There were some reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks by members of the Sweden Democrats and other political parties. In July the Equality Ombudsman (DO) initiated an inquiry after Bromolla municipality banned prayer during working hours. In August the Moderate Party called for a government study to consider introducing a ban on headscarves in schools for students under 12. On August 27, during a speech at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs annual memorial lecture in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust in Hungary, Prime Minister Lofven said “[When] Jews, Muslims, and Christians are attacked for their beliefs, when politicians in Europe and Sweden try to score points by creating fear and separation between people – then, we regular people – must search for that inner compass that was so strong with Raoul Wallenberg.” Prime Minister Lofven announced in May Sweden will host a high-level international forum in October 2020 on remembrance of the Holocaust and addressing contemporary anti-Semitism. The announced goal of the forum, which comes 20 years after the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust and the establishment of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), is to promote the IHRA and reaffirm the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust.

A Jewish doctor reported ongoing anti-Semitic harassment at the New Karolinska Hospital (NKS). The DO opened three inquiries into the hospital’s actions concerning the doctor’s claims; all were ongoing at year’s end. In November a popular investigative news television program aired an episode on the NKS case that was largely dismissive of the doctor’s allegations. In August an imam was convicted of hate speech made in Arabic during a 2017 demonstration in central Helsingborg in which he called Jews “the progeny of the monkeys and pigs.” A web survey from the Inizio polling institute published in June with 1,001 respondents showed that over half of the respondents, who were not limited to Jewish individuals, felt anti-Semitism had increased over the past five years. Mosques were regularly vandalized, according to Muslim leaders. According to the findings of a European Commission on perceptions of discrimination in each European Union (EU) member state, 56 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 42 percent said it was rare; 80 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country.

The Ambassador, the Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet with the Ministries of Justice and Culture, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities (SST), parliament, police, and local government on religious freedom issues, supporting government efforts to improve security for religious groups, and highlighting threats to members of some religious minorities, including immigrants. The Ambassador hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for religious freedom advocates and SST. Embassy officials spoke about religious tolerance with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, including Uighur Muslims, in Malmo, Gothenburg, and Stockholm. Social media highlighted visits by the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives to a museum exhibit in Stockholm and Visby featuring portraits of Holocaust survivors. The embassy sponsored a priest from the Stockholm Cathedral for a September exchange program in the United States on advancing interfaith relations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others.” The law mandates there be no limitation of rights or freedoms on the grounds of religious opinion.

The constitution instructs public institutions to combat discrimination based on religious affiliation. According to law, complaints about discrimination for religious reasons in the private sector, in the government, or by a government agency or authority must be filed with the DO. The ombudsman investigates each case and issues a decision that is not legally binding. The decision includes recommendations to prevent future discrimination. The ombudsman takes some cases to court each year, in part to create legal precedent. The DO may represent the individual making a complaint in the event of legal proceedings if he or she requests it.

The constitution states, “The opportunities of religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own shall be promoted.” No one is obliged to belong to a religious community or “divulge religious beliefs in relations with public institutions.”

There is no requirement in the law for religious groups to register or otherwise seek recognition. Only those faith communities registering with the SST, however, are eligible to receive tax exemptions similar to those of nonprofit organizations and government funding. To register with the SST, a religious group must submit an application to the Ministry of Culture demonstrating the group fulfills certain requirements, including that it has operated in the country for at least five years, has a clear and stable structure, is able to function independently, serves at least 3,000 persons, and that it has several locations in the country.

According to the law, animal slaughter must be preceded by stunning and/or the administration of anesthetics to minimize the animal’s suffering.

The law stipulates that male circumcision may be performed only by a licensed doctor or, for boys under the age of two months, by a person certified by the National Board of Health and Welfare. The board certifies circumcisers including mohels (individuals who conduct ritual Jewish circumcisions) to perform the operations on boys younger than two months but requires the presence of a medical doctor who must administer anesthesia to the infant.

The government facilitates fundraising by religious groups by offering them the option of collecting contributions through the Tax Agency in exchange for a one-time fee of 75,000 Swedish kronor ($8,100) and an annual fee of 21 kronor ($2) per member per year. The Church of Sweden is exempted from the annual fee because it, unlike the other religious groups participating in the scheme, does not receive financial support from the SST. Only religious groups registered with the SST may participate in the scheme. Religious groups choose what percentage of members’ annual taxable income to collect, with a median collection rate of 1 percent. The Tax Agency subtracts a percentage of the member’s gross income and distributes it to the religious organization. The member’s contribution is not deductible from income tax. Seventeen religious organizations participate in the scheme, including the Church of Sweden, the Roman Catholic Church, four Muslim congregations, and two Syriac Orthodox churches.

The government provides publicly funded grants to registered religious groups through the SST. The grants are proportional to the size of a group’s membership. Registered religious groups may also apply for separate grants for specific purposes, such as security expenses.

The military offers food options compliant with religious dietary restrictions. Each military district has a chaplain. According to the law, chaplains may be of any religious affiliation, but all chaplains seconded to the armed forces belong to the Church of Sweden. Regardless of religious denomination, chaplains are required to perform religious duties for other faiths or refer service members to spiritual leaders of other faiths if requested. The law specifically exempts Jehovah’s Witnesses from national military service. Other conscientious objectors may apply for unarmed military service but are in practice not inducted into the military. Armed forces guidelines allow religious headwear. Individuals serving in the military may observe their particular religious holidays in exchange for not taking leave on public holidays.

Religious education is compulsory in public and private schools. Teachers use a curriculum that encompasses lessons about the major world religions without preference for any particular religious group. Parents may send their children to independent religious schools, which the government supports through a voucher system and which must adhere to government guidelines on core academic curricula, including religious education. Such schools may host voluntary religious activities outside the classroom, but these activities may not interfere with government guidelines on core academic curricula.

Hate speech laws prohibit threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on several factors, including religious belief. Penalties for hate speech range from fines to a sentence of up to four years in prison, depending on the severity of the incident.

Law enforcement authorities maintain statistics on hate crimes, including religiously motivated hate crimes, issuing them every two years. Law enforcement authorities may add a hate crime classification to an initial crime report or to existing charges during an investigation. Prosecutors determine whether to bring hate crime charges as part of the prosecution, and the defense has an opportunity to rebut the classification. In cases where the criminal act involves a hate crime, the penalties increase.

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

Government Practices

The Center Party decided at its national convention in September to advocate a ban on nonmedical circumcision, including for religious reasons. The party leadership opposed the ban, stating that it would be perceived as religious discrimination against Jewish and Islamic practice, but a majority of party members supported it and overruled the leadership. Center Party Leader Annie Loof said afterward the party would not propose legislation to ban nonmedical circumcision. Aftonbladet reported on September 30 that Loof presented a bill in 2007 where she promoted a ban. “It is true that I presented a bill about this 12 years ago as a new member of parliament, but I changed my mind just a year later,” she said. According to Chairman of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities Aron Verstandig, this was seen by the Jewish community as an attack on Swedish Jews. “Circumcision is a central part of the Jewish religion,” he said. Mohamed Temsamani, president of the United Islamic Associations in Sweden, stated such a ban would be a restriction on religious freedom.

The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare had no statistics on how many children are circumcised annually. In 2009, the board recommended the regional healthcare authorities provide circumcisions for religious reasons by certified doctors in state health clinics. All six healthcare regions offered this service during the year. In four regions, the service cost up to 14,000 Swedish kronor ($1,500). There were certified private clinics where the cost was lower but the waiting times were long. On October 7, newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported that uncertified individuals were performing illegal circumcisions on boys in the home beyond the control of state authorities. Svenska Dagbladet reported that an uncertified circumciser charged approximately 1,500 Swedish kronor ($160) and waiting times were shorter than at private clinics.

In August the Moderate Party called for a government study to consider introducing a ban on headscarves in schools for students under 12. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders expressed concern about the proposal, stating such a measure would constitute an infringement on religious freedom.

In July the DO initiated an inquiry after Bromolla municipality banned prayer during working hours. Representatives from the DO were investigating whether the decision disadvantaged certain workers and violated the law. The ban, which applied to all municipal employees, was passed by the local council at the end of May. Defending the ban, council Chairman Eric Berntsson stated its purpose was to ensure staff did not take time off to pray during working hours. “There is no general right to leave to pray during working hours…. This is a clarification of a regulation, just like a smoking ban,” Berntsson told Swedish Radio. Christian and Muslim representatives criticized the prayer ban.

The Sweden Democratic Party continued to advocate local and national bans on the Islamic call to prayer. After police in Vaxjo in 2018 granted a mosque permission to conduct a call to prayer on Fridays, the Sweden Democrats Vaxjo branch launched a petition for a referendum to ban the call to prayer in the municipality. Neighbors of the mosque appealed the police decision, stating they were disturbed by the noise; they also said their right under the European Convention on Human Rights not to be exposed to a religious message was violated. In April the Administrative Court of Appeal decided the call to prayer could continue. The Vaxjo local authority determined the call to prayer may be broadcast once a week for three minutes and 45 seconds, with limits on the volume.

Some Muslim groups and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities continued to state they considered the law requiring stunning of and/or administration of anesthetics to animals prior to slaughter to conflict with their respective religious rituals. The Muslim community remained divided over whether the requirement conformed to halal procedures. The Jewish community reported the law effectively prevented the production of kosher meat. Most halal and all kosher meat continued to be imported.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers, in partnership with five Christian organizations, issued a report in March criticizing the Migration Agency for rejecting asylum applications from Christians – primarily those who converted to Christianity while in the country – who said they risked religious persecution in their home countries. The report researched 619 Afghan converts who applied for asylum in 2015-2018. According to the report, the Migration Agency denied 68 percent of the claims on the basis of their faith not being genuine. The authors of the report concluded the Migration Agency had a poor understanding of religion, and its decisions on converts were arbitrary. The Migration Agency responded in a press release that it was investigating why there were different outcomes in similar cases but stated each decision was based on a complex overall assessment in which an individual’s religious knowledge was not considered but, rather, the intellectual reflections of belief. Following the critique, the government issued an addition to the Migration Agency’s regulatory letter requesting the agency report how it worked with converts’ cases and how it met the legal standards in matters where religion was stated as a factor in consideration for asylum. The report was not completed at year’s end.

Deputy Secretary General of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance Jacob Rudenstrand again said Christian refugees, including but not limited to converts, faced persecution, particularly from Muslim refugees, they were not safe in the country, and the government needed to take measures to ensure their safety.

The Migration Agency announced in March it would grant refugee status to Uighur Muslims from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region as well as any other Muslim minority group members in response to “far-reaching state repression.” Uighurs in the country were already shielded from deportation after the Migration Agency stopped all deportations of Uighurs in September 2018.

A government inquiry was tasked to present proposals on how to introduce a ban on new independent primary and secondary schools with a religious orientation. The results of the inquiry were still pending at year’s end, but will be nonbinding on the government. Minister of Education Anna Ekstrom said in June, “In recent years, we have seen examples of schools that, in the name of religion, separate girls and boys, hardly teach about sexuality and coexistence, and equate evolution with religious creation myths. This is totally unacceptable. Now, the government is taking the first steps towards stopping new religious schools.” The government suggested existing schools with a religious focus would be allowed to remain, but the regulations would be clarified to allow for greater oversight by the School Inspectorate and the municipalities. During the year, seven of eight political parties represented in parliament, except for the Christian Democrats, supported banning the establishment of new religious independent schools.

There were reports that representatives of the Sweden Democrats – the country’s second largest political party, which received 17.6 percent of the vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections – made denigrating comments about religious minorities. In January Karlskrona District Court acquitted the group leader of the Sweden Democrats in Karlskrona of charges of hate speech after a post on the party’s local Facebook page described Muslims as terrorists and oppressors of women. The court ruled the post was made on a “current and ongoing political issue,” the inauguration of a new minaret in Karlskrona, and it was therefore not reasonable to limit the politician’s freedom of expression.

On September 25, the press reported that a local Sweden Democrat politician in Vallentuna posted white supremacist propaganda and Holocaust denial material on Facebook. Dagens Nyheter reported that among other items, she posted photos of human skeletons with captions stating 500,000 Germans were “exterminated” during one night of the Dresden bombings in 1945. The politician stepped down shortly after. The local Sweden Democrat leader said, “These are opinions that go directly against what the party stands for and is something we take very seriously.… This person leaves all political assignments and no longer represents the Sweden Democrats.”

Christian Democrats party leader Ebba Busch Thor stated in an op-ed in the Expressen newspaper on April 20, “The suburbs would benefit from Christian values,” arguing that Christian values were the basis for the country’s democracy and liberal society and implying Christian values were lacking in the suburbs, where many Muslim immigrants live. She said, “It is clear what happens when the traditional values disappear.…there is no cultural Islamization, like the right-wing extremists cautioned about….I think it looks more like a lack of culture.” Prominent media outlets, including Dagens Nyheter criticized Busch Thor, not only for arguing there was a lack of values and culture in immigrant dense areas, but also for her claim that Christian values were what create a liberal society.

The Media Council, a government agency whose primary task is to promote the empowerment of minors as conscious media users and to protect them from harmful media influences, continued its “No Hate Speech Movement,” which included efforts to stop anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The council offered classroom and online material for students and suggestions on how to address these issues with children.

The government allocated five million kronor ($538,000) annually for 2018-2020 to the Swedish Committee against Anti-Semitism and the Living History Forum to increase opportunities for student and teacher study visits to Holocaust memorial sites.

In February the Supreme Court overruled the appellate court’s decision not to expel a Palestinian man with “special refugee status” sentenced to two years in prison for attempting to firebomb the synagogue in Gothenburg in December 2017. The court ruled that the man would serve his sentence and then be expelled. He may not return to Sweden before 2028.

As part of its continuing “National Plan to Combat Racism, Similar Forms of Hostility, and Hate Crimes,” the government provided 22 million kronor ($2.37 million) to religious organizations and civil society to improve their security, and is scheduled to provide 15 million kronor ($1.61 million) annually thereafter. A wide range of civil society organizations, including religiously oriented NGOs, remained eligible for funding from the Legal, Financial, and Administrative Services Agency to improve their security; for example, by purchasing security cameras and hiring security guards. In September Chairman of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities Aron Verstandig stated he welcomed the government’s increased allocation of funds in support of religious organizations’ security measures.

In October the government announced it would provide an additional 14 million kronor ($1.51 million) in 2020 for educational efforts to combat racism and support tolerance, including religious tolerance, in schools and increased support to civil society, and another 10 million kronor ($1.08 million) annually for 2021 and 2022.

The government allocated an additional 10 million kronor ($1.08 million) to the Police Authority to prevent and investigate hate crimes, including those related to religion. Part of the funding was earmarked for the Police National Operations Department that assisted the country’s regional authorities with investigations of hate crimes.

The SST continued to collaborate with other government agencies and civil society to promote dialogue between the government and faith communities as well as to contribute to knowledge about religion. During the year, SST cooperated with several municipalities and regions to set up interreligious dialogues with a focus on democracy promotion, countering violent extremism, and educating municipal employees on issues of religion and religious freedom. SST remained a partner to many government entities such as the law enforcement authorities, the Civil Contingencies Agency, the Defense Research Agency, the National Agency for Education, the Government Offices, the Crime Prevention Agency, the Migration Agency, and others, both in supporting ongoing government inquiries and facilitating meetings with different faith communities, including groups not registered with the SST. New course topics included NGO management and accountability, scriptural reasoning for female leaders, and leadership, religion and democracy. The SST also conducted courses in family law and movements within Islam. The agency continued to fund, publish, and promote publications aimed at educating the public about religious minorities. New publications included studies such as The Religious Landscape of Sweden, Religious Freedom and Religious Communities in Sweden, and Religious Minorities from the Middle East in Sweden.

The SST distributed 83 million kronor ($8.92 million) in grants to 46 religious groups during 2018, up from 44 the previous year, for operating expenses, theological training, spiritual care in hospitals, building renovations, and refugee assistance. In addition, the SST distributed funds for specific projects in response to grant requests, which different religious groups often carried out jointly.

The Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society provided grants to civil society organizations working to combat religious intolerance. Grants included approximately two million kronor ($215,000) to the NGO Expo to combat intolerance and racism, including religious intolerance.

The government continued to fund the Living History Forum (LHF), a public authority “commissioned to work with issues related to tolerance, democracy, and human rights, using the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity as its starting point.” The government allocated 46.5 million kronor ($5 million) to LHF, which provided lesson plans, books, and other resources for teachers. Topics covered included anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance, ethnic and religious conflicts in the Balkans, and critical reading of history. On August 29, the government announced a 1 million kronor ($108,000) increase to LHF’s budget to increase knowledge-based activities, including efforts to combat racism and anti-Semitism.

Schools continued to sponsor educational visits to Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Students participated in these trips regardless of religious background. According to a study released by LHF in June, 44,000 Swedes visited Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2017, the most on record. The study concluded most of these visitors were likely students and other young people. LHF provided educational materials and guidance for teachers to facilitate these visits.

Prime Minister Lofven commemorated the Holocaust in a speech at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm on January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Lofven condemned the Holocaust and present-day anti-Semitism and spoke about his “profound anger” over “the raw and despicable anti-Semitism that we still see around the world, in Europe, and in Sweden.”

On August 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted its annual memorial lecture in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust in Hungary. In his speech at the event, Prime Minister Lofven said, “[When] Jews, Muslims and Christians are attacked for their beliefs, when politicians in Europe and Sweden try to score points by creating fear and separation between people – then, we regular people – must search for that inner compass that was so strong with Raoul Wallenberg.” He also commended an exhibit in the Photography Museum displaying portraits of 23 Holocaust survivors and recounted memories of the Holocaust.

In May Prime Minister Lofven announced he was planning to host a high-level international forum in October 2020 on remembrance of the Holocaust and addressing contemporary anti-Semitism. This would take place 20 years after the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust and the establishment of the IHRA. The announced goal of the forum was to reaffirm the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust and to promote the IHRA, of which the country is a member.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2018, 7,090 hate crimes were reported, according to a report released in October by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. Of those, 8 percent were anti-Muslim. Anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and other antireligious hate crimes accounted for 4 percent each. Authorities said most victims of hate crimes did not report them to police.

During the year, a Jewish neurosurgeon at New Karolinska Hospital (NKS) reported continuing anti-Semitic harassment stemming from his 2017 report that the hospital’s chief of neurosurgery subjected him and two other Jewish colleagues to anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination. An internal investigation reportedly concluded in March 2018 no harassment had taken place. Following widespread media condemnation, the NKS demoted the accused chief of neurosurgery in June for “violating the hospital’s core values” but without acknowledging anti-Semitism. The DO undertook three inquiries into the hospital’s actions concerning the Jewish doctor’s claims, all of which were pending at year’s end. On October 7, the daily Svenska Dagbladet reported the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) criticized the Karolinska Institute (KI), a medical university that awards the Nobel Prize for Medicine but is not legally part of NKS, for failing to introduce zero tolerance against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. Mikael Odenberg, chairman of the KI board of directors, called the criticism “expected, but unfounded.”In November a popular investigative news television program aired an episode on the NKS case that was largely dismissive of the doctor’s allegations.

The head of the Swedish Swimming Federation Ulla Gustavsson stepped down on February 14 following negative reactions to her comments criticizing an advertisement of the Swedish Sports Confederation that showed a boy and a Muslim girl wearing a veil participating in a shooting competition. Gustavsson said, “If they want to show girls with an immigrant background, it can be done without them wearing a veil… Now it looks like they like and encourage, [and] honor repression…. That upsets me…. The veil is a religious, political, and sexist garment…. The Swedish Sports Confederation values gender equality as important, and the veil stands for something else.” The Swedish Swimming Federation said Gustavsson’s comments contradicted the federation’s basic view that all children should be welcome in sporting activities on equal terms,” and that Gustavsson no longer could lead the association successfully. Gustavsson subsequently resigned.

At a May 1 demonstration in Malmo arranged by the Social Democratic Youth Association, demonstrators sang “Long live Palestine – destroy Zionism.” The demonstrators were reported for hate speech to the police, and the police initiated an investigation. An association representative said it understood the criticism and that members would stop singing the song.

In August Helsingborg District Court convicted an imam of hate speech following a demonstration in central Helsingborg in July 2017. The imam received a suspended sentence and fines. During a speech given in Arabic he called Jews “the progeny of the monkeys and pigs.”

In December 2018, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a report on the experience of Jews with hate crime, discrimination, and anti-Semitism which showed that over 80 percent of Jewish Swedes subjected to anti-Semitic harassment chose not to report the incidents to the police. The main reason cited was the belief that nothing would be done about it. Approximately one third of the 1,000 respondents said they avoided wearing Jewish symbols and were considering leaving the country for security reasons. Minister of Justice Morgan Johansson said, “It is completely unacceptable.… Everyone should feel safe.… Anti-Semitism is the basis of racist evils. We will not idly stand by, no matter what environment anti-Semitism comes from: Nazism, Islamism, or left-wing extremism.”

In May the European Commission carried out a study in each European Union (EU) member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 56 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Sweden, while 42 percent said it was rare; 80 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 97 percent said they would comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 96 said they would be with an atheist, 95 percent with a Jew, 95 percent with a Buddhist, and 92 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 93 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 93 percent if atheist, 90 percent if Jewish, 91 percent if Buddhist, and 78 percent if Muslim.

In January the European Council published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 81 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Sweden, and 73 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 79 percent; on the internet, 78 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 78 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 75 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 73 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 73 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 57 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 63 percent; and anti-Semitism in media, 52 percent.

A web survey from the Inizio polling institute published in June with 1,001 respondents showed that over half of the respondents, who were not limited to Jews, felt anti-Semitism had increased over the past five years. More than one-third had experienced/witnessed anti-Semitism in their everyday lives once or several times. More than two-thirds of respondents were worried about anti-Semitism. The survey also showed that over half of the respondents stated they knew a great deal about the Holocaust, and 40 percent said they know about it rather well. Only a small minority felt it is not important to remember the Holocaust.

In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 25 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Sweden; 10 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 15 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

Chair of the Stockholm Mosque Jalal Darir told Swedish Television on August 12 that the Stockholm Mosque was vandalized regularly. Although the mosque installed camera surveillance after several incidents of vandalism, incidents continued, occurring at least two to three times a week. “We feel that Islamophobia is growing,” Darir said.

The Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR), widely described as a small but vocal neo-Nazi group, split after NMR’s failure to garner support in the 2018 election (receiving 0.03 percent of the vote). Eight members of NMR’s top leadership formed a new group in August called Nordisk Styrka (Nordic Strength). The new group opposed NMR’s “liberalization” and stated it wanted to focus more on “the struggle.” The NGO Expo expressed concern Nordisk Styrka would try to distinguish itself from the NMR through more radical forms of violent activism.

On July 2, the NMR held a meeting with a small number of participants in Visby during an annual conference of political leaders. Later that day the NMR shouted denials of the Holocaust and briefly blocked the entrance to an exhibition featuring photographs of seven Holocaust survivors. Police dispersed the NMR demonstrators and initiated an investigation into hate speech.

On September 24, 16 supporters of the NMR faced trial for violence at the Gothenburg Book Fair in 2017. The indictment included acts of violence against journalists and police, as well as incitement of hatred by wearing matching attire and symbols, chanting Nazi slogans, and carrying placards with photos of prominent Swedes, many of Jewish descent, labeled as “criminals.” The suspects denied committing crimes.

In November, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass,” when Nazi Germany destroyed Jewish synagogues, schools, and businesses), neo-Nazis plastered stickers with Stars of David on the Great Synagogue and Bajit Jewish Center.

In the context of an interfaith project in Malmo, Imam Salahuddin Barakat and Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen continued to speak to students during the year about religious tolerance and conducted interfaith workshops to discuss religious texts and spiritual queries. The Malmo municipality and the SST provided some funding for the project.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, the Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Culture, the SST, parliament, police, and local government officials on issues related to religious freedom.

The Ambassador hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for religious freedom advocates, human rights activists, civil society representatives, and the SST.

Embassy officials spoke to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Malmo, Gothenburg, and Stockholm about their security concerns and about threats to religious freedom more broadly.

The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism sent a letter to Chairwoman of the Stockholm County Executive Committee Irene Svenonius in June offering U.S. assistance to the region’s council to help address charges of anti-Semitism at NKS. Embassy officials met with the individual who said he was subjected to anti-Semitism at NKS.

On July 3, the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives visited the photography museum exhibit on Holocaust survivors in Visby to express support for Holocaust remembrance efforts the day following the NMR action at the exhibit. The embassy representatives’ visit was highlighted in social media.

On May 6, the Jewish Culture in Sweden presented Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the 2019 Gilel Storch Award for outstanding contributions to human rights and the equal value of all human beings. The embassy hosted Justice Ginsburg at a reception with guests from the government, civil society, religious groups, and media. The event was highlighted in the traditional press and on social media.

The embassy sponsored a priest from the Stockholm cathedral for a September exchange program in the U.S. on advancing interfaith relations. The program included studying the impact of religion and religious organizations on communities throughout the U.S. and the evolving roles of women and youth within faith communities.

Vietnam

Executive Summary

The constitution states that all individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion. The law provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. The Law on Belief and Religion, which came into effect in January 2018, maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups. Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without official recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment – including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and property seizure or destruction – and denials or no response to requests for registration and/or other permissions. In August Rah Lan Hip was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of “undermining the unity policy” when he encouraged ethnic minority Degar Protestants to resist government pressure to renounce their faith. Reports of harassment of religious adherents by authorities continued in the Central Highlands, specifically members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, and in the Northwest Highlands of H’mong Christians and Roman Catholics, as well as for Catholic and Protestant groups in Nghe An and Tuyen Quang Provinces. Religious group adherents reported local or provincial authorities committed most harassment incidents. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were generally able to practice their beliefs with less government interference, although some recognized groups, including the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) (ECVN), reported more difficulty gathering in certain provinces, including Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Ha Giang, and Hoa Binh Provinces. Others seeking to officially register their groups, including the United Presbyterian Church and the Vietnam Baptist Convention, also reported difficulty gathering in some provinces. Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. During the year, the government registered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). Although the Church of Jesus Christ coordinating committee was registered in 2016, the new registration of religious activities brought the Church into compliance with the new law and was the second step in the process towards official recognition.

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha organized the 16th United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations, which attracted more than 1,650 international delegates and approximately 20,000 local Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns, and followers. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc attended the festival.

The Ambassador and other senior U.S. embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely. They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. The Ambassador, Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and other senior embassy officers advocated religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Northern Highlands and the North Central and Central Coasts. The Ambassador and other officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The Law on Belief and Religion and implementing Decree 162, which came into effect in January 2018, serve as the primary documents governing religious groups and their activities. At year’s end, the government still had not promulgated a decree prescribing penalties for noncompliance with the new law. The GCRA has stated, however, that the draft decree prescribing penalties is not vital as other laws mandate civil compliance with national law. The Law on Belief and Religion reiterates citizens’ rights to freedom of belief and religion and that individuals may not use the right of belief and religious freedom to undermine peace, national independence, and unification; incite violence or propagate wars; proselytize in contravention of the state’s laws and policies; divide people, nationalities, or religions; cause public disorder; infringe upon the life, health, dignity, honor and/or property of others; impede the exercise of civic rights and performance of civic obligations; or conduct “superstitious activities” or otherwise violate the law.

A Cybersecurity Law that came into effect on January 1 allows authorities to monitor online user data and social media activity to “protect national security and social order.” The law prohibits users from online acts of organizing for “antistate” purposes, “distorting history,” destroying national solidarity, and conducting offenses against religion, gender, and race. The law also defines propaganda against the state as “causing hatred among ethnic groups, religions, and people of all countries.”

The government recognizes 38 religious organizations and one Dharma practice (a set of spiritual practices) that affiliate with 15 distinct religious traditions, as defined by the government. The 15 religious traditions are: Buddhism, Islam, Baha’i, Catholicism, Protestantism, Church of Jesus Christ, Hoa Hao Buddhism, Cao Dai, Buu Son Ky Huong, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Phat Duong Nam Tong Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao Tam Tong Mieu, Khmer Brahmanism, and Hieu Nghia Ta Lon Buddhism. Distinct denominations within these religious traditions must seek their own registration and/or recognition. Four additional groups – the Assemblies of God, Ta Lon Dutiful and Loyal Buddhism, Vietnam Full Gospel Church, and Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church – have “registration for religious operation,” but they are not recognized as official organizations.

The law provides for government control over religious practices and permits restrictions on religious freedom in the interest of “national security” and “social unity” not otherwise defined.

The law specifies that recognized religious organizations and their affiliates are noncommercial legal entities. The law also stipulates that religious organizations be allowed to conduct educational, health, social protection, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws.

The GCRA, one of 18 “ministerial units” under the Ministry of Home Affairs, is responsible for implementing religious laws and decrees, and it maintains offices at the central, provincial, and, in some areas, district levels. The law lays out specific responsibilities for central-, provincial-, and local-level GCRA offices and delegates certain religion-related management tasks to provincial- and local-level people’s committees (i.e., local leaders). The central-level GCRA is charged with disseminating information to authorities and assuring uniform compliance with the legal framework on religion at the provincial, district, commune, and village levels.

By law, forcing others to follow or renounce a religion or belief is prohibited.

The law requires believers to register “religious activities” with communal authorities where the “lawful premises for the religious practice is based” and prescribes two stages of institutionalization for religious organizations seeking to gather at a specified location to “practice worship rituals, pray, or express their religious faith.” The first stage is “registration for religious operation” with the provincial- or national-level GCRA, depending on the geographic extent of the group’s activities. A registration for religious operation allows the group to organize religious ceremonies and religious practice; preach and conduct religious classes at approved locations; elect, appoint, or designate officials; repair or renovate the headquarters; engage in charitable or humanitarian activities; and organize congresses to approve its charter. To obtain this registration, the group must submit a detailed application package with information about its doctrine, history, bylaws, leaders, and members and proof it has a legal meeting location. The relevant provincial GCRA office or the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), depending on whether the group in question is operating in one or more provinces, is responsible for approving a valid application for registration within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial GCRA office or the MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing.

The second stage of institutionalization is recognition. A religious group may apply for recognition after it has operated continuously for at least five years since the date of receiving the “registration for religious operation.” The religious group is required to have a legal charter and bylaws, leaders in good standing without criminal records, and to have managed assets and conducted transactions autonomously. To obtain such recognition, the group must submit a detailed application package to the provincial or national level GCRA, depending on the geographic extent of the organization. The application dossier must include a written request specifying the group’s structure, membership, geographical scope of operation and headquarters location; summary of history, dogmas, canon laws and rites; list and resumes, judicial records, and summary of religious activities of the organization’s representative and tentative leaders; charter; declaration of the organization’s lawful assets; and proof of lawful premises to serve as a headquarters. The relevant provincial people’s committee or the MHA is responsible for approving a valid application for recognition within 60 days of receipt. The relevant provincial people’s committee or MHA is required to provide any rejection in writing. Recognition allows the religious group to conduct religious activities in accordance with the religious organization’s charter; organize religious practice; publish religious texts, books, and other publications; produce, export, and import religious cultural products and religious articles; renovate, upgrade, or construct new religious establishments; and receive lawful donations from domestic and foreign sources, among other rights.

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

Under the law, a religious organization is defined as “a religious group that has received legal recognition” by authorities. The law provides a separate process for unregistered, unrecognized religious groups to receive permission for specific religious activities by submitting an application package to the commune-level people’s committee. Regulations require the people’s committee to respond in writing to such an application within 20 working days of receipt. The law specifies that a wide variety of religious activities requires advance approval or registration from authorities at the central and/or local levels. These activities include “belief activities” (defined as traditional communal practices of ancestor, hero, or folk worship); “belief festivals” held for the first time; the establishment, division, or merger of religious affiliates; the ordination, appointment, or assignment of religious administrators (or clergy with administrative authority); establishment of a religious training facility; conducting religious training classes; holding major religious congresses; organizing religious events, preaching or evangelizing outside of approved locations; traveling abroad to conduct religious activities or training; and joining a foreign religious organization.

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

The law provides prisoners access to religious materials, with conditions, while in detention. It reserves authority for the government to restrict the “assurance” of that right. Decree 162 states detainees may use religious documents that are legally published and circulated, in line with legal provisions on custody, detention, prison, or other types of confinement. This use and/or practice must not affect rights to belief/religion or nonbelief/religion of others or contravene relevant laws. The decree states the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Defense, and Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs shall be responsible for providing guidelines on the management of religious documents and the time and venue for the use of these documents.

The law specifies that religious organizations must follow numerous other laws for certain activities. Religious organizations are allowed to conduct educational, health, charitable, and humanitarian activities in accordance with the relevant laws, but the law does not provide clarification as to which activities are permitted. In addition, construction or renovation of religious facilities must occur in accordance with relevant laws and regulations on construction, and foreigners participating in religious activities must abide by immigration law.

The law states that publishing, producing, exporting, or importing religious texts must occur in accordance with laws and regulations related to publishing. Legislation requires all publishers be licensed public entities or state-owned enterprises. Publishers must receive prior government approval to publish all documents, including religious texts. By decree, only the Religious Publishing House may publish religious books. Any bookstore may sell legally published religious texts and other religious materials.

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

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

In practice, if a religious organization has not obtained recognition, members of the congregation may acquire a land-use title individually, but not corporately, as a religious establishment.

The renovation or upgrade of facilities owned by religious groups requires notification to authorities, although it does not necessarily require a permit, depending on the extent of the renovation.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public and private schools. Private schools are required to follow a government-approved curriculum that does not allow for religious instruction. There are private schools run by religious organizations, but they are prohibited from providing faith-based education.

There are separate provisions of the law for foreigners legally residing in the country to request permission to conduct religious activities, teach, attend local religious training, or preach in local religious institutions. The law requires religious organizations or citizens to receive government permission in advance of hosting or conducting any religious activities involving foreign organizations, foreign individuals, or travel abroad. Regulations also contain requirements for foreigners conducting religious activities within the country, including those involved in religious training, ordination, and leadership, to seek permission for their activities.

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

Government Practices

In September members of various ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands stated that government officials continued to assault, monitor, interrogate, arbitrarily arrest, and discriminate against them, in part because of their religious practices. Local government officials stated that Degar Christians, a religious group which follows a form of evangelical Christianity not recognized by the government, incited violent separatism by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands from 2001 through 2008. State-run media published articles cautioning individuals that Degar Protestantism aimed to undertake antigovernment activities.

In some cases, ethnic minority individuals from the Central Highlands stated social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia and Thailand, where approximately 250-300 individuals have sought asylum since 2017 according to a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on minority rights. Several of the asylum seekers in Thailand reported local-level (communal) Vietnamese authorities continued to harass them through social media, and in some cases threatened and physically assaulted family members back home.

On August 9, the People’s Court of Gia Lai Province tried Degar Protestant Rah Lan Hip on charges of “undermining the unity policy” and sentenced him to seven years in prison, followed by three years of probation. According to the indictment, Rah Lan Hip used his Facebook account “Kieu Rah Lan” to share multiple posts about Degar Protestantism. According to articles appearing in state media, the government considers Degar Christianity not a religious group but rather a separatist political movement controlled by “hostile forces” aiming to undermine the country’s policy of national unity. According to human rights activists, between June 2018 and March 2019, Rah Lan Hip and two other individuals used Facebook to contact 1,304 Degar Protestants, including two recently released from prison, to encourage them to resist authorities’ efforts to persuade them to renounce their Degar Protestant faith.

Independent media sources continued to report tension and disputes – at times violent – between Catholics and authorities in the Vinh and Ha Tinh Dioceses in the central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh. Media coverage of these incidents in many cases was inconsistent. For example, on May 9, media reported that Father Paul Nguyen Xuan Tinh, pastor of Khe San parish, Ha Tinh Diocese, was attacked by two men who beat him while he was on his way from the church to a parishioner’s home in Son Lam Commune, Huong Son District, Ha Tinh Province. Some observers reported the attackers were plainclothes police who called him by name before assaulting him. Others, however, said an unidentified individual intentionally blocked the road with his motorbike, which led to an argument that turned violent when the priest reportedly threw the first punch.

On May 7, Nghe An police arrested Catholic activist and public school music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh on charges of “making, storing, and spreading information, materials, and items for the purpose of opposing the State.” On November 15, Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

On April 19, social media users reported that individuals wearing masks and armed with farming implements and tear gas raided a house where seven Protestants attending a “registered” activity were staying in Tan Dinh Commune, Lang Giang District, Bac Giang Province. The individuals reportedly broke down the doors of the home and used tear gas before beating the occupants and destroying their personal property. Before departing, the intruders reportedly collected all religious materials, including Bibles and personal papers, and forced the worshipers to burn the items. Although eyewitnesses stated there was heavy uniformed police presence outside the home, no police intervened.

On February 5, hundreds of riot police armed with electric batons and automatic rifles reportedly surrounded Na Heng Hamlet, Nam Quang Commune, Bao Lam District, Cao Bang Province, where Duong Van Minh followers were celebrating the Lunar New Year festival. According to witnesses, police beat participants who refused to disperse. Duong Van Minh, patriarch and founder of the Duong Van Minh sect, stated that authorities set up checkpoints around the festival to prevent followers from attending and that they beat those who did not comply. The group, which international academics describe as a “H’mong millenarian (striving to transform society) movement,” continued to resist general government pressure to seek formal recognition.

Throughout the year, authorities reportedly cited the Cybersecurity Law when arresting and questioning ethnic and religious minorities. The Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation (KKF) reported several instances in which Khmer Krom Buddhists were arrested, interrogated, and detained for visiting the KKF website and Facebook page. According to KKF members, the government stated the organization was an “antistate” separatist group, but KKF members said it was an ethnic heritage, religious freedom, and human rights organization. According to an international human rights NGO, in December authorities issued death threats, seized cell phones, and arrested and questioned Degar Christians in Mdrak District, Dak Lak Province for creating a Facebook page for the International Degar Church (IDC) and for posting on Facebook about the church and religious activities. IDC members said authorities forced them to pledge in writing to stop posting information about the IDC and warned them that using cell phones for religious activities and human rights advocacy was prohibited under the Cybersecurity Law. Also in December in Cu Mgar District, Dak Lak Province, an NGO reported authorities arrested a member of the Evangelical Church of Christ for “violating the Cybersecurity Law” by disseminating information about church leaders. The member said authorities forced him to renounce his faith, sign a confession, and pledge in writing not to contact the international community, continue church activities, or celebrate Christmas.

The Vietnam Baptist Convention, an unregistered religious group, reported that local authorities in Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and Hai Duong continued to prevent and/or disrupt gatherings at unregistered house churches during the year.

According to multiple Catholic bishops and priests, authorities also continued to harass outspoken Catholic priests and prevented or disrupted Catholic services in remote areas by blocking parishioners’ access to unregistered home churches or threatening the hosts of such gatherings.

According to local Catholics, in April authorities of Tan Uyen District, Lai Chau Province denied the Catholic community in Ho Mit Commune permission to celebrate Easter Mass. Local authorities stated that the Catholics in the commune were recent converts who had not yet properly registered as adherents of the Catholic faith in their community and therefore had not met their obligations under the law.

Reports continued of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment Red Flag Association, although the group reportedly dissolved itself in March 2018. Catholic leaders also reported internet-based harassment by Force 47, a group tasked with rebutting government critics on social media that takes its name from a Vietnam People’s Army cyber security unit; Catholic leaders were uncertain if the harassment was state-sponsored.

The Vietnam Baptist Convention (VBC) reported that Quang Ninh and Ha Long provincial police made repeated requests to meet with local VBC pastors. VBC sources stated police demanded that the VBC not publicize incidents of harassment against VBC congregations and that the VBC share with the provincial authorities the identities of other unregistered Protestant congregations.

From July to September, commune members and district police officials in Krong Pac District and Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province, publicly denounced Evangelical Church of Christ members Ksor Sun, Pastor Y Nuen Ayun, Y Jon Ayun, Y Nguyet Bkrong, and Y Kuo Bya, according to an international human rights NGO. Police accused the individuals of acting against the government and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Police reportedly said these persons should be imprisoned and that they must leave the Church of Christ and stop meeting with foreign diplomats if they wanted to remain in the community.

Chang A Do, a local leader and member of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam from Doan Ket Village, Dak Ngo Commune, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province, reported that local authorities continued to harass him.

Some religious leaders faced travel restrictions, and leaders and followers of certain religious groups faced other restrictions on their movements by government authorities. The Catholic Redemptorist Order stated authorities still held passports confiscated in 2018 of at least two priests of the order. Some pastors who were outspoken and critical of authorities expressed concerns about traveling abroad for fear of being stopped at the border or being detained upon return to the country.

Several independent and religious leaders from unrecognized religious organizations who participated in the 2018 Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference (SEAFORB) in Thailand reported they faced harassment upon their return to Vietnam. Cao Dai adherent Nguyen Van Thiet reported that provincial authorities in Tay Ninh Province prevented his travel outside of the country, thereby denying him the opportunity to participate in the 2019 SEAFORB conference.

In December more than one dozen government officials of My Phuoc Tay Commune, Tien Giang Province entered the home of an unrecognized Cao Dai church adherent and cited her for participating in a ritual to install a Cao Dai “Divine Eye” banner on her home altar without preregistration. The adherent said she had notified authorities the day before. The woman said authorities also established a traffic checkpoint where they stopped and recorded the identities of co-adherents on the way to her home for the ritual.

On September 12, local officials and policed prevented Phan Van Dung, a resident of Hung Quoi Village, Hung Thạnh Commune, Tan Phuoc District, Tien Giang Province, from hosting a traditional ceremony for a friend whose mother had passed away. The officials told Dung the ceremony violated the Law on Belief and Religion, as the sect of Cao Dai to which he belonged was not recognized under the law.

According to local observers, authorities in northern mountainous areas continued destroying “Nha Don” (a sacred structure to store human remains and funeral items for Duong Van Minh followers). Duong Van Minh adherents described the continuing slow destruction of these sites by authorities as a means of “inflicting psychological pain.” During the year, in Ha Quang District, Cao Bang Province alone, local authorities demolished 13 such structures. Members of this group reported that authorities destroyed more than 130 structures during the last several years. State media and progovernment websites at times reported that the structures were built illegally on agricultural land.

Provincial and local authorities continued many social and economic development projects that required the revocation of land rights and demolition of properties of religious organizations or individuals across the country. Authorities also reportedly did not intervene effectively in many land disputes that involved religious organizations or believers; in most of these cases the religious organizations or believers were unsuccessful in retaining land use rights.

State media and progovernment websites stated that Catholic priests in many parishes occupied – or urged their parishioners to use or illegally occupy – land legally used by other nonbelievers or authorities. There were also cases in which Catholics were alleged to have “misused” their land, for example, by turning an agricultural plot into a soccer field without the approval of the proper authorities. However, Catholic priests pointed to examples of land confiscated from the Catholic Church by the government being subdivided and sold for commercial purposes.

On December 31, the Ho Chi Minh City government awarded city-level “Artistic Architectural Heritage” status to the Thu Thiem Church and Holy Cross Lovers Convent. The designation ended a multiyear standoff between the church and local authorities over plans to demolish the church complex. Thu Thiem is the first church to be awarded historic preservation status in the southern part of the country.

Religious leaders continued to say existing laws and regulations on education, health, publishing, and construction were restrictive toward religious groups and needed to be revised to allow religious groups greater freedom to conduct such activities.

On October 23, the GCRA granted a “certificate of recognizing religious organization” to the Vietnam Assemblies of Gods in Ho Chi Minh City under the Law on Religion and Belief. During the year, the government registered the Church of Jesus Christ. Although the Church of Jesus Christ coordinating committee was registered in 2016, the new registration of religious activities brought the Church into compliance with the new law and was the second step in the three-step process towards recognition.

Registered and unregistered religious groups continued to state that government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, if at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals as required by law. Some local authorities reportedly requested documents or information beyond what was stipulated by law. Several religious leaders said authorities sometimes asked for bribes to facilitate approvals. Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the applicants’ failure to complete forms correctly or provide complete information. Religious groups said the process of registering groups or notifying authorities of activities in new or remote locations was particularly difficult.

The ECVN reported continued difficulties in registering their local congregations and meeting points with local authorities in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, and Hoa Binh Provinces. According to ECVN, authorities recognized 23 local congregations and granted registration to approximately 500 meeting points out of approximately 1,200 local congregations and houses of worship – referred to locally as “meeting points.”

The VBC stated that local authorities in Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and Hai Duong denied registration requests for their meeting points. The most common justification for denial was that the application package was incomplete. Local authorities often required information and documents not required by law, while not providing clear instructions of how to correct an incomplete application, according to the VBC. In many cases, authorities continued to refuse subsequent submissions, citing different justifications for doing so. In some cases, local authorities required a list of congregation members, which many churches said they refused to provide out of fear of harassment of their members.

According to several Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas or with majority ethnic minority populations continued to face difficulty registering with provincial authorities due to an inconsistent application of national laws. Catholic leaders reported that the most problematic regions were in the Central Highlands (Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Kon Tum, and Lam Dong Provinces), and the Northwest Highlands, including Hoa Binh, Son La, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, and Yen Bai Provinces.

Hoa Binh authorities continued to deny Luong Son Parish’s application to become a parish affiliate of Hoa Binh Diocese and did not respond to a similar request from Vu Ban Parish, Catholic representatives reported. Authorities reportedly deemed the Lang Son application incomplete and stated that Vu Ban was a new parish, which the Church continued to dispute.

Some Buddhist, Protestant, and Cao Dai groups stated they chose not to affiliate with any government-recognized or government-registered religious organizations, nor did they seek their own registration or recognition, because they believed that recognized and registered groups were manipulated by or at least cooperated closely with authorities. They said they could not tolerate such manipulation and cooperation.

State-run media and progovernment blogs continued to accuse priests and parishioners who were vocal in their opposition to the government of exploiting religion for personal gain or “colluding with hostile forces with the purpose of inciting public disorder and acting against the Communist Party and State.” Progovernment blogs and, at times, state-run media, continued publishing stories about Catholic clergy allegedly involved in inappropriate sexual situations and parishioners misappropriating donations for personal use, allegations that two Catholic bishops stated were totally false and designed to discredit the Church. Catholic leaders in the central part of the country said digitally manipulated social media posts falsely portrayed Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop of the Ha Tinh Diocese in compromising sexual situations. Progovernment blogs also made repeated references to sex scandals involving priests outside of the country.

State-run media and progovernment websites sometimes equated particular Christian denominations and other religious groups, notably Falun Gong, with separatist movements, blaming them for political, economic, and social problems, particularly in remote areas in the Northwest and Central Highlands where there was a high concentration of ethnic minorities. According to Degar Christians, authorities repeatedly accused Degar Christian groups of belonging to the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), a defunct group the government considers an insurgency militia; Degar Christian members and leaders said they were not associated with FULRO.

State media reported local and provincial authorities in the northern mountainous provinces, including Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, Bac Can, and Thai Nguyen, continued to call the Duong Van Minh religious group a threat to national security, political stability, and social order. State media and progovernment websites continued referring to the group as “an evil-way religion” or “an illegal religious group.” The provincial and local authorities reportedly considered breaking up this group to be a priority.

Some progovernment websites associated Falun Gong with acts against the party and state or other hostile political agendas. Following the discovery in Binh Duong of two bodies of Falun Gong practitioners, reportedly killed by fellow Falun Gong adherents, state media and progovernment websites reiterated previous statements reminding the public that the practice of Falun Gong and dissemination of related material is illegal. State media reported that authorities dispersed Falun Gong gatherings and confiscated Falun Gong literature.

During the year, the Catholic Church reassigned a number of priests who were vocal in their opposition to the government or engaged in human rights activities to less restive areas. According to social media and activists, authorities intervened with the relevant Catholic dioceses to have perceived “problematic” priests removed, although both the priests and Catholic Church leaders denied these reports. Among those transferred were Fathers Dinh Huu Thoai, Tran Dinh Long, and Le Ngoc Thanh, who ran the Justice and Peace Committee of the Saigon Redemptorist Order, which provided assistance to former army officials of the former Republic of Vietnam and victims of injustice; Father Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong of Thai Ha Church in Hanoi; and Father Nguyen Duy Tan of Tho Hoa parish, Dong Nai Province.

In May authorities in Thua Thien Hue Province reportedly requested that the leadership of the International Benedictine Order and Vietnamese Benedictine Order assign Nguyen Huyen Duc to a parish in Thua Thien Hue rather than the Thien An monastery; a senior Catholic official stated this request was likely due to the priest’s efforts to highlight issues of land reform and land rights.

Many ordained pastors conducted pastoral work despite not having completed paperwork mandated by law to be recognized as clergy by the government. For example, ECVN reported that only approximately one fifth of its pastors were officially recognized by the government.

Some pastors of unregistered groups stated that authorities did not interfere with their clerical training, despite their lack of legal authorization.

Some Catholic leaders stated authorities did not approve their requests to establish new parishes and more than 20 such requests were pending at year’s end.

According to pastors from the unregistered VBC, government officials urged unregistered groups to affiliate with registered or recognized organizations. Some stated authorities did so knowing unregistered groups would never accept affiliation, while others said authorities sought increased control over the groups through affiliation with other organizations.

From June to October, independent Hoa Hao followers in An Giang reported that local authorities and state-recognized Hoa Hao Buddhists groups in Phu Tan District, An Giang Province, advocated tearing down the 100-year-old An Hoa Pagoda, one of the first independent Hoa Hao pagodas founded by Prophet Huynh Phu So, citing a purported need to build a new pagoda. Independent Hoa Hao followers opposed the pagoda’s demolition due to its religious importance and proposed it be renovated instead. Plainclothes police reportedly assaulted independent Hoa Hao Buddhists who tried to prevent the pagoda’s demolition. The government temporarily halted demolition of the pagoda, and it remained intact at year’s end.

There were multiple reports of discrimination against believers and religious groups across the country. Members of some religious groups that did not enjoy the support of the government and whose members were poor or ethnic minorities reported that authorities denied some of the legal benefits to which the members were entitled. In August local and provincial police reportedly disrupted a Buddhist ritual at Dat Quang temple, where monks from Phuroc Buu Temple and approximately30 worshippers were celebrating Vu Lan Day. Authorities said Thich Khong Tanh, who was leading the ceremony, did not have permission to conduct religious activities at Dat Quang Temple because he was not a local monk. According to a U.S.-based human rights organization, authorities continued to harass UBCV communities in an effort to seize their temples and facilities and force the UBCV to join the government-sanctioned Vietnam Buddhist Church.

On July 24, public security officials in Kmleo Village, Hoa Thang Commune, Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province, temporarily detained and interrogated Pastor Y Nguyet Bkrong of the unregistered Vietnam Evangelical Church of Christ for holding a worship ceremony in his home church to which he invited a U.S. pastor. A human rights NGO said officials ordered Y Nguyet to list the attendees of the meeting. After six hours of interrogation, the public security officials escorted him home, which they searched and confiscated religious documents.

Also on July 24, four public security officers in Jung Village, Ea Yong Commune, Krong Pac District, Dak Lak Province, reportedly detained Pastor Ksor Sun of the unregistered Vietnam Evangelical Church of Christ without an arrest warrant, interrogated him for three days regarding his relationship with a U.S.-based pastor, and ordered him to recant his faith.

In June and July public security officials in Hoa Dong Commune, Krong Pac District, and in Buon Ho Town, Ea Drong Commune, Cu Mgar District, Dak Lak Province, reportedly monitored suspected followers and pastors of the Vietnam Evangelical Church of Christ, interrogated them about their religious activities, and told them to recant their faith.

On January 11, authorities in Plei Kan Town, Ngoc Hoi District, Kon Tum Province, demolished the UBCV Linh Tu Pagoda after Abbot Thich Dong Quang left for medical treatment. Officials reportedly demolished the pagoda because the abbot did not align himself with the local state-sponsored Buddhist pagoda and local authorities. No state media outlets reported the demolition.

On March 26, local authorities in Xuyen Moc District, Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province issued a declaration that the Six-Harmony Tower and the Pavilion of Overlooking Water of the Thien Quang Pagoda were constructed without authorization and therefore must be demolished. At year’s end, there were no indications authorities had demolished the structure.

Catholic leaders said some local authorities in Quang Binh Province provided families with four kilograms (nine pounds) of rice if they agreed to replace images of Jesus Christ in their homes with pictures of Ho Chi Minh.

According to religious leaders of multiple faiths, the government did not permit members of the military to practice religious rites at any time while on active duty; military members were required to take personal leave to do so. There were no clear regulations for religious expression in the military, leaving individual unit commanders to exercise significant discretion.

While religious believers could serve in the enlisted ranks (including during temporary mandatory military service), commissioned officers were not permitted to be religious believers. Religious adherents continued to be customarily excluded through the process to recruit permanent military staff.

Khmer Krom Buddhists, whose males traditionally enter the monastery for a period of training when they come of age, reported faced forced conscription into the military with no alternative service, despite no active conflict in the country, preventing males in the community from receiving their religious rite of passage.

According to family members of some imprisoned religious believers, authorities continued to deny some prisoners and detainees the right to religious practice. Detention officers continued to deny visits by priests to Catholic prisoners, including Ho Duc Hoa and Le Dinh Luong. Prison authorities stated this was due to the lack of appropriate facilities inside the prison for Catholic services. Other prisoners reported they were allowed to read the Bible or other religious materials and practice their beliefs while incarcerated. According to an international NGO, independent Hoa Hao adherent Bui Van Trung was able to have a censored version of the Hoa Hao scripture in prison.

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

In several instances, local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services and to gather for training. For example, in Hanoi and surrounding areas, city officials continued to allow Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers.

Most representatives of religious groups continued to report that adherence to a registered religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental civil, economic, and secular life, but that adherence to an unregistered group was more disadvantageous. Practitioners of various registered religious groups served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly. Many nationally recognized religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government-affiliated organizations under the guidance of the CPV. High-ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha. The official resumes of the top three CPV leaders stated they followed no religion; however, while many senior CPV leaders were reported to hold strong religious beliefs, particularly Buddhism, they generally did not publicly discuss their religious affiliation.

On December 18, 2018, Joseph Vu Van Thien was installed as the new Archbishop of Hanoi at a ceremony attended by Catholic leaders from the country, the Vatican, and members of the diplomatic corps. The prime minister received the high-level Vatican delegation later the same day.

Since January 2018, the GCRA has conducted more than 2,000 training sessions nationwide to assist with the continued implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion, according to the Director General of the GCRA. The GCRA created a website with an interactive portal to provide access to forms required for registration of religious activities. By the end of the year, 13 religious organizations had established accounts on the website. The portal also allowed religious organizations to track the status of their document submissions. During the year, the GCRA conducted inspections in 12 cities to monitor implementation of the law and trained provincial government officials to conduct their own local inspections.

Although the law prohibits publishing of all materials, including religious materials, without government approval, some private, unlicensed publishing houses continued to unofficially print and distribute religious texts without active government interference. Other licensed publishers printed books on religion. Publishers had permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English. Other published texts included works pertaining to ancestor worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai.

The Church of Jesus Christ reported it was able to import sufficient copies of The Book of Mormon, although the Church was still working with the GCRA to import additional faith based periodicals. The president of the Church of Jesus Christ traveled to the country for the first time in November, where he met with senior CPV and religious affairs officials and held a devotional session for believers.

Authorities permitted Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Baha’i, and Buddhist groups to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities, and religious leaders noted increased enrollment in recent years. Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

On October 22, in Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam Seventh-day Adventist Church celebrated the 90th Anniversary of its foundation. The event drew 300 guests, including representatives of local and central governments.

On October 27, in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Baha’i community celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bab, the organization’s founder. The event planners hosted approximately 100 guests, including representatives of other faith organizations and senior officials of the Fatherland Front.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Authorities in Binh Duong reported that four women stating they were Falun Gong adherents admitted to killing a practitioner of Falun Gong. The women said a second Falun Gong follower committed suicide. The women encased both bodies in a concrete barrel. Following the discovery of the bodies, state media and progovernment websites reiterated previous statements reminding the public that the practice of Falun Gong and dissemination of related material is illegal.

The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha organized the 16th United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations, an international observation of Buddha’s birthday. The festival attracted more than 1,650 delegates from 112 countries and territories, along with approximately 20,000 Vietnamese Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns, and followers. Among the dignitaries in attendance was Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Representatives of the Embassy in Hanoi and the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City regularly raised concerns about religious freedom with a wide range of government officials and CPV leaders, including the president, prime minister, and senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Public Security, the CRA, and other offices in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and in various provinces and cities. They stressed to government officials that progress on religious freedom and human rights was critical to an improved bilateral relationship.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent Cao Dai and Hoa Hao groups; sought greater freedom for recognized and registered religious groups; advocated access to religious materials and clergy for those incarcerated; and urged an end to restrictions on unregistered groups. Embassy and consulate general officials raised specific cases of abuse, as well as government harassment against Catholics, Protestant groups, the UBCV, independent Hoa Hao groups, and ethnic minority house churches, with the CRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and provincial- and local-level authorities. U.S. government officials called for the increased registration of church congregations around the country and for improvement in registration policies by making them more uniform and transparent. U.S. government officials also urged the government to resolve peacefully outstanding land-rights disputes with religious organizations.

A senior official of the Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor raised issues of religious freedom during the annual U.S. Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Hanoi in May and raised specific concerns about implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion, the status of religious believers detained or imprisoned, and the situation of ethnic religious minority groups.

In September embassy officials met with government officials of the Ministry of Public Security, MFA, and the GCRA, as well as with registered and unregistered religious groups, to discuss implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion and advocate for increased religious freedom, including allowing both registered and unregistered groups to exercise their rights freely, seeking accountability for reports of government harassment, and resolving lands-rights issues.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious leaders of both registered and unregistered religious groups and attended religious ceremonies to demonstrate support for religious freedom. On April 18, the Ambassador visited Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in Tu Hieu Pagoda in Thua Thien, Hue. On September 13, a senior official of the Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City addressed an estimated 100,000 attendees at the registered Cao Dai Holy Mother Goddess Festival in Tay Ninh Province and underscored the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

Embassy and consulate officials at every level traveled throughout the country, including to the Northwest and Central Highlands, to monitor religious liberty and meet with religious leaders. Representatives of the embassy and consulate general maintained frequent contact with many leaders of religious communities, including recognized, registered, and unregistered organizations.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future