The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, regarding recognition as one of the country’s main faith communities, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The VUSH reported, despite the State Committee on Religion’s written commitments to advocate for financial support from the government for evangelical Christian churches, the government did not allocate funds. Religious communities noted positively the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them and the work of the Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities. The government legalized 135 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 105 in 2018, and the status of 11 additional properties was under review. The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported that, through February, it rejected 150 claims for title. The law then required the ATP to send the remaining 410 pending cases to the court system. The Albanian Islamic Community (AIC) and the Bektashi community raised concerns about having to start over with their claims in the judicial system. VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi and the AIC reported problems defending title to certain properties. The AIC reported it had not received a permit, requested in early 2018, to build a new campus for Beder University, but Beder’s religious studies program received accreditation for another five years in November. The State Committee on Religion and the AIC reported the government did not recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The Council of Ministers still had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.
During antigovernment protests, religious leaders issued statements condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue. The Interreligious Council held several meetings domestically and internationally. The council signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Albanian Center for the Coordination against Violent Extremism in May to enhance cooperation on preventing violent extremism and monitoring school texts to highlight misleading statements about religion. On March 2, the AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term, a contest that attracted significant commentary from the media regarding the candidates, allegations of foreign influence, and concerns about the process. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, joined the AIC in 2006.
U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious groups buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. Embassy officers also urged the government to recognize diplomas granted by foreign universities. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi communities, stressing the value of religious dialogue and harmony. Embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth. In August a visiting Department of State official met with faith community leaders, the Commissioner of the State Committee on Religion, and officials from the Ministry of Education to explore the relationship between religious harmony and efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalization.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional census question about religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.
By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Religion, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.
The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.
The 2016 law that established the ATP imposed a three-year deadline for the agency to address claims by all claimants, including religious groups, for properties confiscated during the communist era. As of February, ATP’s jurisdiction in these cases ceased and the law requires the ATP to forward open cases to the court system for judicial review. Religious communities must take their cases to court for judicial review, as must all other claimants.
The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.
Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion, but not the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 114 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and VUSH communities operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AIC runs six madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built after the 1990s. The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that through September it legalized 135 religious buildings, including four Catholic churches, 71 mosques, 12 Orthodox churches, and 48 tekkes. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by ALUIZNI and those of the religious communities. The AIC reported it obtained legalization papers for 245 legalized mosques out of 850 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported that during this year ALUIZNI considered 13 of its requests for objects in Tirana and legalized two of them.
The AIC expressed concern that ALUIZNI only gave it title to the buildings and not to the land. ALUIZNI reported that it compensated the AIC with 231.6 square meters (2,500 square feet) and the Bektashi community with 1,320.7 square meters (14,200 square feet) of new land in exchange for land illegally occupied by unpermitted construction. In addition, ALUIZNI issued titles for religious buildings constructed on government or third-party land. ALUIZNI also issued titles, thereby legalizing ownership, for 1,569.7 square meters (16,900 square feet) of land to the AIC, 1,303 square meters (14,000 square feet) of land to the Bektashi, and 227.7 square meters (2,450 square feet) of land to the Orthodox Church.
The ATP reported that it rejected 150 claims for title to land and compensation through February. The ATP typically rejected claims because material documents were missing from the claimant’s file or due to competing claims for the same property, over which the courts rather than the ATP have jurisdiction. The ATP ceded jurisdiction on the remaining 401 cases to the court system, as required by law. Religious communities brought court actions on 71 of those 401 cases. The AIC, Bektashi, and the Orthodox Church expressed concerns about court proceedings, which required them to begin their claims again in a new forum.
The AIC reported it had applied in early 2018 for a permit to build a campus for Beder University to save funds spent on renting the university’s current facilities, but the government has not issued the permit or explained the delay.
Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, one in Permet, and one in Elbasan, and the government legalized four tekkes and other Bektashi facilities in Elbasan. The Bektashi community reported it continued to have problems with local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, stating the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption. The Bektashi community expressed concerns that ALUIZNI had legalized nonreligious buildings on Bektashi property. The Ministry of Finance, according to the Bektashi community, did not reimburse it for the value-added tax paid for the 2016 construction of a multipurpose center at the World Bektashi Headquarters in Tirana, even though they said the law required the reimbursement. The Orthodox Church also raised concern about paying approximately 25 million leks ($31,000) in value-added tax as well as paying other taxes and fees, and stated those payments violated the agreement with the government.
The Bektashi community stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title to properties in Berdanesh and Ksamil. The community received a favorable ruling on title for the property in Berdanesh, while the claim for the Ksamil property remained in the court system at year’s end.
The VUSH reported it had asked the government in March 2017 for land to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities but had not received an answer.
The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. The VUSH also stated the Tirana municipal government unlawfully issued a permit for construction of residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land.
Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a pilot project curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students, which started in 2016 but stalled. They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting and were never informed about the results of the piloting stage or the postpilot plans for the project.
The State Committee on Religion and the AIC expressed concern that the government continued not to recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The AIC reported the government in November accredited the religious studies program of the AIC’s Beder University, the only university in the country offering degrees in Islamic studies, for another five years.
VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes. The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position.
The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support was 109 million leks ($1.01 million), the same level since at least 2015. The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 29 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 23.6 percent. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.
The VUSH continued to state that, although the organization still was unable to obtain a formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, in 2018 the State Committee on Religion provided a written commitment to advocate for extending financial support to evangelical Christian churches. Although the committee submitted a request for financial support to the government in 2018, the VUSH reported it had not received any funds.
The five religious communities expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them. The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets showed indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities, stating the government sent officials to attend iftars during election years but did not attend non-Islamic holy day ceremonies.
The Council of Ministers again did not finish adopting regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.
A State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and 40 centers. The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three. The Catholic Church has 16 foundations and NGOs, while the VUSH has 160.
In June the Office of the President and the Embassy of the Netherlands held an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Tirana that addressed interreligious harmony as a factor in social stability and policies for managing religious diversity. In his opening remarks, President Ilir Meta said that he was proud that his country was “based on the coexistence and harmony of religious communities.”
On November 18 and 19, the Office of the President held a regional conference on advancing religious freedom, following through on a commitment to hold a follow-on, regional event after the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During antigovernment protests in the spring and summer, religious leaders from all five groups issued statements jointly and separately condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue.
On October 11, the Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, VUSH, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year, during which it established a section of the council focused on women and another on youth.
The AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term on March 2. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, earned a degree in theology from Al-Azhar University in Egypt and joined the AIC in 2006. He declared in his acceptance address his priority would be to preserve and strengthen interfaith harmony in the country. Observers and media deemed the election free and fair and Spahiu’s election as a victory for the continuation of the AIC’s moderate and cooperative approach to interfaith relations. The run-up to the election spurred speculation in the media that third countries sought to sway the outcome. Some members of the political opposition stated the government sought to manipulate the election. International representatives, including from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, observed the election.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
At the November regional conference on advancing religious freedom, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom addressed the audience on religion as a means of reconciliation, gave interviews on the importance of religious freedom in Albania, and visited religious sites in the northern part of the country together with leaders of the country’s faith communities.
Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to religious sites. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi community; the Charge stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance during the event.
The embassy continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the potential appeal of violent religious extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Other embassy-sponsored programs in Cerrik and Peqin helped establish “schools as community centers,” which promoted tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement. The success of the program led to its expansion into six additional municipalities by the end of the year.
Historical and modern constitutional documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination. The law bans public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups and classifies registered religious groups into one of three categories: religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. The 16 groups recognized as religious societies receive the most benefits. Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” In May parliament banned head coverings for children in elementary schools. Authorities arrested a Christian couple for murder after they refused, for religious reasons, medical treatment for their sick child, who subsequently died. Scientologists and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) said government-funded organizations continued to advise the public against associating with them. Muslim and Jewish groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concerns over what they said were the frequent and growing number of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts by members of the Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in the coalition government until May.
According to the interior ministry, there were 49 anti-Semitic and 22 anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 39 and 36 incidents, respectively, in 2017. Most incidents involved hate speech. The Islamic Faith Community (IGGIO) and the Jewish Community (IKG) have in the past reported a much higher number of incidents against their members than the interior ministry, but neither group had updated figures beyond the 540 anti-Muslim incidents the IGGIO cited in 2018 and the 503 anti-Semitic incidents the IKG reported in 2017. In October a man insulted and assaulted a Jewish family, breaking the father’s nose. In April a woman insulted and spit on a Muslim woman wearing a veil. A University of Salzburg poll found 70 percent of respondents felt Islam did not fit into Western societies, and 79 percent supported more surveillance of Muslims. A Eurobarometer poll of residents reported 47 percent considered anti-Semitism to be a problem in the country. Another poll of Austrians by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found two-thirds of respondents believed there was anti-Semitism in the country; 56 percent did not know six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
U.S. embassy representatives met with officials from the Federal Chancellery and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior on religious freedom, the protection of religious minorities, and measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment. The Ambassador met with leaders from the IGGIO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and various Orthodox churches to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue. The Ambassador also met regularly with youth branches of religious organizations, including the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria (MJO). Embassy officials served on the advisory board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency, an NGO that promotes Holocaust remembrance. Embassy representatives spoke on religious freedom at public ceremonies, and supported programs to combat anti-Semitism, promote religious dialogue, including hosting a speaker series in Vienna and sponsoring visits of Muslim civil society leaders to the United States on exchange programs focused on religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to religious groups and December 2018 figures from the government Austrian Integration Fund, Roman Catholics constitute 57 percent of the population and Muslims – predominantly Sunni – 8 percent, while approximately 25 percent is unaffiliated with any religion. Other religious groups include Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); Eastern Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, and Bulgarian); Jehovah’s Witnesses; other Christian churches; and Jews and other non-Christian religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from association with any religious community. It stipulates, “Duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”
Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more individuals. The prohibition also applies specifically in the case of incitement in print, electronic, or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups, if such action violates human dignity.
The law divides registered religious groups into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights and privileges): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”
There are 16 recognized religious societies: the Roman Catholic Church; Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); the IGGIO; Old Catholic Church; IKG; Eastern Orthodox Church (Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and, since January, Antiochian); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; New Apostolic Church; Syrian Orthodox Church; Coptic Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Methodist Church of Austria; the Buddhist Community; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Alevi Community in Austria; and Free Christian Churches.
The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs, to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members, to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers, and to provide pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which the government denies to confessional communities and associations. The government grants all recognized religious societies tax relief in two main ways: donations are not taxable, and the societies receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to the active practice of religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from the surveillance charge, payable when state security is required, and the administrative fee levied at the municipal level. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common good and – like all religious groups – to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards.
Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retained their status. The government grandfathered in 14 of the 16 recognized religious societies under this provision of the law. To gain recognition as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,400 persons) and have existed for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an association and five as a confessional community. The government recognizes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active as an association in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that they have a different theology.
The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. The government recognizes nine confessional communities: the Baha’i Faith; Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians; Pentecostal Community of God; Seventh-day Adventists; Hindu Community; Islamic-Shiite Community; Old-Alevi Community in Austria; Unification Church; and United Pentecostal Community of Austria.
A recognized confessional community has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but it is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to confessional communities’ charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them, but the communities are not exempt from property taxes. Confessional communities may provide pastoral care in prisons and hospitals.
To gain government recognition as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit to the Office for Religious Affairs its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members, as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals, and with the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the chancellery. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.
Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting for the government to recognize them as confessional communities.
The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, have association status.
According to the law, any group of more than two persons pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups may apply to the Ministry of Interior to gain such status. To become an association, a group must submit a written statement citing its common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing, the right to function in public, and many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services. Associations may not offer pastoral care in hospitals or prisons or receive tax-deductible contributions.
Pursuant to the law governing relations between the government and the Roman Catholic Church, the Church is the only religious group to receive government funding for pastoral care it provides in prisons. The law also makes various Catholic holidays official national holidays.
The law governing relations between the government and the IGGIO and Alevi Muslim groups stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law (the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery makes this determination), and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. According to the Office for Religious Affairs, there are similar restrictions on foreign funding for other religious groups, and religious groups generally are obliged to finance themselves from domestic sources. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims may raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are considered cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional community. This includes the IGGIO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shiite Community and the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, both of which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which the University of Vienna offers.
Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 14 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in some details, given they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years.
The law bans full-face coverings in public places as a “violation of Austrian values,” with exceptions made only for artistic, cultural, or traditional events, in sports, or for health or professional reasons. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150-euro ($170) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.
In May parliament enacted a ban on headscarves and other head coverings for children in elementary schools. The ban exempts kippas and Sikh patkas. According to annexes explaining the law, some federal states impose fines of up to 440 euros ($490) on the parents of those that violate the ban.
The government funds, on a proportional basis, religious instruction for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies by clergy or instructors provided by those groups for children in public schools and government-accredited private schools. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religion classes is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religion classes. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.
The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.
Holocaust education is part of history instruction and appears in other subjects such as civics.
The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the women’s ministry, oversees discrimination cases, including those based on religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and it assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In a case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to court. The commission may issue expert reports for plaintiffs to present before the court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.
The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification “of the National Socialist genocide” or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
In March an amendment expanding a ban on certain symbols the government considered extremist entered into force. Among the newly banned symbols are those pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood and the PKK.
Foreign religious workers of groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family based and is subject to a quota. The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies also require immigrant visas but are exempt from the quota system. Religious workers from Schengen or European Union member countries are exempt from all visa requirements.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Members of the then-ruling People’s Party (OeVP)-FPOe government coalition defended the ban on religious headscarves in elementary schools. OeVP Member of Parliament (MP) Rudolf Taschner stated the measure was needed to protect girls from subjugation. FPOe education spokesperson Wendelin Moelzer said the law “was a signal against political Islam.” NGOs criticized the ban, which exempts kippas and Sikh patkas, as singling out the Islamic community. The IGGIO, calling the law “shameless” and a “direct assault on the religious freedom of Austrian Muslims,” announced in May it would file a complaint with the Constitutional Court. By year’s end, it had not done so. In September during the campaign for parliamentary elections, the OeVP called for expanding the ban to middle school students and teachers. At year’s end, parliament had not taken up the proposal to expand the ban.
Scientologists and representatives of the Unification Church continued to state the Federal Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities. The office offered advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults,” including the Scientologists and members of the Unification Church. The office was nominally independent but government-funded, and the minister for women, family, and youth appointed and oversaw its head.
A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society Against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO that described itself as an organization working against harm caused by “destructive cults” such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public and provide counseling for former members of such groups. According to the website of the society’s founder, Friedrich Griess, the society received funding from the government of Lower Austria. The city of Vienna government ceased to provide funding to the society. All provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults,” which members of some minority religious groups, such as Scientologists or the Unification Church, stated were biased against them.
Prior to its collapse in May, the OeVP-FPOe government did not draft a law making “political Islam” an illegal activity as FPOe Deputy Leader Johan Gudenus announced in 2018 that it would do.
In September parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for review and, if necessary, dissolution of “Islamist” organizations that violated criminal law.
The interior ministry did not release statistics on violations of the face covering ban. In response to a parliamentary inquiry, the ministry stated there were 96 cases in 2018. Authorities only filed charges when persons failed to pay fines immediately, making the total number of cases more than the 96 reported. According to press reports, police issued fines for violations of the ban in 364 cases in the town of Zell am See between January and September 2019, almost all of which involved tourists. Vienna police said they considered violations of the ban a minor offense and had not kept statistics on the number of fines it issued since 2017.
According to the press, at year’s end, school boards had reported eight cases of girls violating the headscarf ban. In all eight cases, authorities waived the penalties after parents agreed to remove the headscarf while their child was in school. The Ministry of Education said the number of cases may have exceeded eight as it had received additional reports of cases reported to the ministry’s ombudsman for values and cultural conflict.
The government continued to allow headwear for religious purposes in official identification documents, provided the face remained sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.
In December a former intern of the Linz Regional Court filed a lawsuit with the Federal Administrative Court because the Linz court barred her from wearing a headscarf during official proceedings at the court during her internship there in 2018. The president of the Linz Regional Court issued an instruction prohibiting the intern from sitting at the judge’s bench while wearing a headscarf, stating the clothing did not meet the requirements of a representative of the state and the judicial system. The intern refused to remove her headscarf and the court mandated that she remain in the public gallery during proceedings. The Federal Administrative Court dismissed the lawsuit without ruling on whether the Linz court’s instruction was discriminatory, as the plaintiff had already completed her internship when she filed her suit.
In June parliament approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the government to close the Saudi-Arabian-funded King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue after frequent criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. According to the Austrian edition of the online English-language newspaper The Local, the foreign ministry said it would implement parliament’s decision to close the center, but at year’s end the center remained open.
In September the Vienna Administrative Court ruled the Iranian embassy could not operate a mosque in an area in Vienna’s 21st district which, according to zoning laws, is an industrial zone. The Iranian embassy did not appeal the ruling.
In October police arrested a German couple in Lower Austria on murder charges after their 13-year-old daughter died in September of a pancreatic inflammation. The parents, members of the Church of God, had rejected, for religious reasons, any medical treatment that would have kept their daughter alive. There was no further information on the case at year’s end.
According to media, the Federal Office for Foreigner Affairs and Asylum (BFA) continued to refuse to issue or renew residence permits for foreign imams financed by foreign sources. The BFA rejected the permits or the renewals on the grounds that since the law forbids foreign funding of religious groups, it considered that imams receiving foreign funding had no income and were therefore ineligible for a residence permit. According to the Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation (ATIB), an association of mosques under the authority of the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, as of late 2018, there were 38 cases of foreign imams whose immigration status was pending with the BFA.
In March the Constitutional Court dismissed a suit by two Turkish imams employed by ATIB, whom the government expelled in April 2018, under the 2015 Islam law that bars Muslim religious groups from receiving foreign funding. The Administrative Court had already dismissed the imams’ complaint against the initial deportation ruling in 2018. The Constitutional Court suit was filed with the assistance of ATIB and alleged the ban infringed on religious freedom and was discriminatory, stating the government only applied it to Islam. The court ruled that protecting the independence of religious groups from foreign states was a matter of public interest. The court also ruled, however, that the ban applied to funding from foreign states, not to foreign private donors. The Constitutional Court referred the case back to the Administrative Court to determine if any other rights of the imams were infringed and a decision remained pending. Then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he felt “vindicated” by the court’s decision and called the law a model for other European countries.
In February parliament voted to eliminate Good Friday as a public holiday. The change followed a ruling by the European Court of Justice that granting employees belonging to certain religious groups paid leave for religious holidays constituted religious discrimination and the country should amend the law. According to press reports, parliament’s revocation of the holiday generated protests among Protestant groups in the country. Then-bishop Michael Buenker of the Protestant Churches (Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions) reportedly called the change an “intervention in Protestants’ freedom of religious practice.”
The IGGIO protested against a January change in the title of courses on Islam in school report cards to “IGGIO” instead of “Islam.” In June the education ministry changed the title back to “Islam,” with an addition referring to the IGGIO, Shia, or Alevi orientation.
The international NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL) continued to conduct teacher-training seminars on Holocaust awareness with schools in the country, reaching approximately 100 teachers. In addition, provincial school councils and the education ministry invited Holocaust survivors to talk to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.
In October the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government failed to protect Holocaust survivor Aba Lewit against defamation. Lewit had appealed to the ECHR after national courts failed to convict the magazine Aula for publishing an article in 2015 stating that prisoners at the Nazi Mauthausen concentration camp had been a plague for the region around the camp after its liberation in 1945. In December 2018, according to the Mauthausen Committee, the NGO SOS Mitmensch filed a complaint of 300 pages against Martin Pfeiffer, FPOe Deputy District Chairman in Graz-St. Leonhard, for his role as editor-in-chief of Aula, which the complaint said “had been systematically used for National Socialist reactivation” for 10 years. The magazine had already ceased publication in June 2018, and FPOe Chair Norbert Hofer stated party members involved in the magazine risked expulsion from the party. Pfeiffer left the FPOe and relaunched the magazine under a new name, Neue Aula, in October, but discontinued publication after one issue because of what he said were financial reasons.
Following the collapse of the OeVP-FPOe government in May, Jewish community members advocated against participation of the FPOe in another coalition government. Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and former IKG Vienna President Ariel Muzicant continued to state – for example, during a television interview in May and in a newspaper opinion piece in September – the FPOe was involved in anti-Semitic incidents. IKG President Oskar Deutsch also criticized what he called the FPOe’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism in the party in a television interview in November.
Prior to the collapse of the OeVP-FPOe government, Jewish community leaders stated there had been 51 anti-Semitic incidents attributable to FPOe members or at FPOe-affiliated events since the FPOe had entered the government and said they would not have any contacts with FPOe ministers until those incidents ceased.
In August the Mauthausen Committee published another report citing what it classified as rightwing incidents involving FPOe politicians, many of which it said were religiously motivated, primarily anti-Semitic. According to the report, these activities had increased significantly; it cited 63 incidents in the 13 months ending in July, compared with 106 between the start of 2013 and May 2018. It said the incidents involved persons at all levels of the FPOe and that anti-Semitism by its members, which the party had denied, manifested itself regularly. It stated, “… The FPO[e] shows a close proximity to Nazi ideology” and the worst offenders were party officials in Upper Austria, who accounted for one-third of the 63 most recent incidents.
The committee reported that in February SOS Mitmensch stated FPOe Secretary General Harald Vilimsky had used taxpayers’ money to pay for five full-page advertisements in Info-Direkt, a magazine that it said published anti-Semitic content and that The Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance, a government-supported foundation that documents Nazi crimes, described as “extreme rightwing with a neo-Nazi background.”
The committee also cited a report in May by the news magazine Profil that FPOe ministers in the previous government and party politicians from Upper Austria, led by then-transport minister and later national FPOe Chair Norbert Hofer, had channeled 116,000 euros ($130,000) of taxpayer money for advertisements that included anti-Semitic content in extremist rightwing media such as Info-Direkt and Zur Zeit. Profil said the total payments could be higher, since the FPOe-led city government of Wels had refused to provide any information on the issue.
The committee reported that in April FPOe then-vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and FPOe MP Peter Gerstner had separately reposted on Facebook an anti-Muslim message (it did not describe the message) by neo-Nazi website “Zaronews.” According to the committee, “Zaronews” has called Hitler a “savior” and described the Holocaust as the “biggest lie in the world.”
In March the IGGIO filed incitement charges against then-FPOe vice chancellor Strache. At a book presentation in March, Strache had warned, “In Viennese kindergartens, children are raised to be martyrs with hate sermons.” The Vienna prosecutor’s office dismissed the charges.
Authorities were investigating links between the Identitarian movement, widely described by NGOs as far-right and white nationalist, and the FPOe. The Mauthausen Committee reported the connections between the two were significant, and the press published articles stating there were links between FPOe members and the movement. In August the OeVP said a ban of the movement was a condition for a future coalition, a condition the FPOe rejected. FPOe head Hofer denied any association with the Identitarians, and in August said that banning it would set a precedent of a “moral dictatorship.” Justice Minister Clemens Jabloner told the press in August, “One should not restrict fundamental rights even where it is about deeply unsympathetic groups as the Identitarians.”
The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums. Following an assault at a synagogue in Halle, Germany in October, IKG President Deutsch issued a statement in which he said that security forces protected synagogues in Austria, and he thanked the government for that protection. President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the Vienna synagogue in October after the Halle assault and said that a hard core of anti-Semites also existed in Austria. Deutsch, who received Van der Bellen in the synagogue, commented that rightwing, leftwing, and Islamist groups were causing anti-Semitism, not only in the country, but in Europe generally.
At year’s end, the government had not provided financial support for the restoration of the historic Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna. Then-chancellor Kurz had announced his government’s intention to provide the support during a visit to the cemetery in 2018.
In October FPOe Chairman Norbert Hofer announced the completion of a report prepared by a commission of historians the party commissioned in 2017 to examine the party’s past connection to National Socialism. In December the party released the final report, which included chapters on allegations of anti-Semitism, the party’s relationship with Israel and Islam, and efforts to overcome its Nazi past, among others. A chapter authored by a history professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concluded that, despite the party’s deep historical association with National Socialism, it had made efforts to distance itself from that past. The summary at the end of the report noted active supporters and sympathizers of national socialism “could be found in great numbers in the other parties,” and, “The history of the FPOe should be remembered as a democratic party and important contributor to the success” of the postwar republic. The report drew criticism from independent historians such as Oliver Rathkolb, who challenged its academic substance and denied that the party’s true aim had been a substantive self-critical analysis.
In May Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig and other political representatives, as well as the papal nuncio, attended an IGGIO-hosted iftar. Ludwig also hosted a separate iftar. Ludwig condemned racism and discrimination and said such acts against persons because of their religion worried him. He called on citizens and the Muslim community to make mutual efforts to live together peacefully. IGGIO President Umit Vural thanked the mayor for hosting the iftar and said Muslims were experiencing difficult times in the country and thus needed political support when the number of incidents against them was increasing. Speaking about the parliamentary debate then taking place on banning headscarves for primary school students, Vural said politics should not decide people’s apparel.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the interior ministry, there were 49 anti-Semitic and 22 anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 39 and 36 incidents, respectively, in 2017. Although the ministry did not provide details of the incidents, it stated the majority of cases involved hate speech on the internet by neo-Nazis, as well as instances of persons giving the “Hitler salute” or shouting Nazi slogans.
The IGGIO’s Documentation Center on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism had not yet issued statistics on anti-Muslim incidents occurring in 2019. The center reported receiving reports of 540 anti-Muslim incidents in 2018.
The IKG had no updated figures on the number of anti-Semitic incidents beyond the 503 it reported as occurring in 2017. As was the case with the IGGIO, in past years the IKG reported many more religiously motivated incidents than the interior ministry. For example, in 2017, the ministry said there 39 anti-Semitic incidents reported to police.
The IKG expressed concern over what it described as anti-Semitism on the part of Muslims in the country and entered into dialogue on the issue with the IGGIO.
In October following a dispute with a Jewish family of pedestrians on Yom Kippur, a car driver insulted and assaulted the family, breaking the father’s nose. The IKG said it raised the matter with the interior ministry, but there was no further information on the case by year’s end.
In April an elderly female assaulted a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf at a Vienna tram stop. The aggressor spit on the Muslim woman and called her a “dog” and a “pig.” Then-chancellor Kurz shared a video of the incident and condemned the “sickening attack” on Twitter, saying, “In Austria we stand for a respectful and peaceful coexistence of all religions.”
A report from the NGO Initiative for Discrimination-Free Education listed a total of 260 cases of discrimination in schools in 2018 and, as in previous years, attributed approximately 50 percent of these cases to religion, with 122 of 126 (97 percent) of those cases connected to what the NGO termed as Islamophobia. According to the report, many incidents involved disparaging comments or other unfair treatment from educators against female students for their use of a headscarf. For example, the report cited one case in which a teacher told a girl wearing a headscarf she had herself to blame if she could not find a job and was excluded from society. In another case, according to the report, an accounting teacher repeatedly called one of her students a “jihadist” and “ISIS terrorist” and pulled at the student’s headscarf. The school director promised the parents and student that the insults would stop, and the parents reported that the situation improved, according to the report.
In 2018, the government recorded 1,003 cases of incitement to hatred based on national origin, race, or religion, and 72 convictions, compared to 867 cases and 108 convictions in 2017. The government did not provide any information on how many of the cases involved religion.
In May Croats and Bosniaks gathered in Bleiburg for an annual commemoration of Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed in 1945. Some 10,000 participants attended the event. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of displays of Ustasha (a World War II-era fascist organization) symbols, which the government banned effective in March. As in 2018, authorities arrested a man for performing the “Hitler salute,” charging him with neo-Nazi activity. In August the Klagenfurt State Court sentenced him to an 18-month prison sentence. The Worker’s Front Party of Croatia and a former parliamentarian from the Austrian Green Party organized a small counterdemonstration against the Bleiburg commemoration.
In September the University of Salzburg issued the results of a survey of 1,200 residents it conducted in 2018. The survey found 70 percent of respondents felt Islam did not fit into Western societies; 45 percent said Muslims should not have the same rights as other citizens, and 48 percent believed the construction of mosques should be banned. Fifty-nine percent feared there were terrorists among Muslims, and 79 percent supported more surveillance of Muslim communities. In response, IGGIO President Vural warned politicians not to exploit fears and resentments, but rather pursue solutions and visions for the future.
In November the ADL 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: 49 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Austria; 33 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 44 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In January the European Commission (EC) issued 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, 47 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, while 46 percent did not; 33 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years, while 44 percent thought it had stayed the same. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 49 percent; on the internet, 51 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 44 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 43 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 46 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 46 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 44 percent.
In May the EC carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 47 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Austria, while 50 percent said it was rare; 75 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 87 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 76 percent said they would be with an atheist, 78 percent with a Jew, 76 percent with a Buddhist, and 69 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if a child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 83 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 72 percent if atheist, 70 percent if Jewish, 70 percent if Buddhist, and 52 percent if Muslim.
According to preliminary results of an anti-Semitism study commissioned by parliament, anti-Israeli positions were dominant among the Turkish and Arab communities in the country. Approximately 70 percent of the Arab community and 50 percent of the Turkish community surveyed agreed with the sentence, “If the state of Israel no longer exists, there will be peace in the Middle East,” compared with an average of 10 percent that agreed among other persons polled. The study also stated that 10 percent of the population had anti-Semitic views, a decrease from previous surveys. Parliamentary President Wolfgang Sobotka expressed concern over the results of the study and said they reflected a major challenge.
According to a survey of Austrians commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany conducted February 22-March 1, 56 percent of respondents did not know six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and 12 percent believed 100,000 or fewer Jews had been killed. Nine percent – and 13 percent of those born since the early 1980s – believed the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was exaggerated. Thirty-six percent agreed there were many neo-Nazis in the country, while 51 percent disagreed. Two-thirds believed there was anti-Semitism in the country.
In September the Linz State Court in Upper Austria handed down a 16-month sentence to a man after convicting him on charges of the glorification of Nazi ideology and disturbance of religious practices. He gave a Nazi salute at an ecumenical service during a Linz fair in October 2018.
In May in the space of fewer than three weeks, unknown perpetrators defaced larger-than-life portraits of Holocaust survivors that were part of an exhibition at a downtown boulevard in Vienna on three separate occasions. Perpetrators cut across the faces of the portraits or defaced them with swastikas and other graffiti. In reaction, several groups, including the Muslim Youth organization and a youth group of the Catholic charity Caritas, organized around-the-clock vigils to protect the portraits. President Van der Bellen and then-chancellor Kurz expressed concern over the vandalism.
In April unknown perpetrators defaced the construction site of a Buddhist stupa in Lower Austria with swastikas.
In February a Vorarlberg court handed down a 20-month prison sentence to a man and a 10-month suspended prison sentence to his wife for playing rightwing songs at parties between 2014 and 2016, and for encouraging their daughters to perform a Nazi salute in front of a swastika flag for a photo.
In January a Vorarlberg court convicted a man to a two-year prison sentence on charges of yelling Nazi phrases, including “Heil Hitler!” and “Work sets you free,” the slogan over the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp, – and physically assaulting a young man. He was ordered to pay 2,000 euros ($2,200) in compensation to the victim and was admitted to a drug treatment program.
Authorities investigated links between the terrorist attacker of a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March and the Austrian Identitarian movement. Identitarian leader Martin Sellner received a donation from the terrorist attacker in the spring of 2018. Sellner stressed he had had no knowledge of the terrorist’s plans and denied speculation the two men had met in Austria during the attacker’s trip to Europe later in 2018.
Fourteen Christian groups, among them the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and eight Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches, continued to meet within the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria. Baptists and the Salvation Army had observer status on the council. The council met twice a year. There were two permanent working groups on “Religion and Society” and “Media.” Activities included joint religious services, for example on the “Day of Jewry” in January, and joint charitable activities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, including from the Federal Chancellery’s Office of Religious Affairs, the Department for Integration and Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Interior, to discuss religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities. Topics discussed included the concerns of religious groups, integration of Muslim refugees, cooperation with religious groups in combating terrorism, and measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
The Ambassador met with religious group representatives, such as the leadership of the IGGIO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic Confessions) , and various Orthodox churches, to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officers also met with youth groups of religious organizations to discuss issues such as anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
The embassy continued to engage with and support the Jewish community to discuss ways of promoting religious tolerance and combating anti-Semitism. Embassy representatives continued to serve on the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and Holocaust education. The embassy advocated increased agency outreach to combat anti-Semitism among youth, such as by encouraging more school groups to visit the Mauthausen site.
The embassy provided a grant to the first ever Muslim-led initiative to counter anti-Semitism in the country. The MJO-led initiative was headed by three former participants of Department of State-sponsored exchange programs in the United States. It included a series of events, roundtables, and visits to Auschwitz for MJO members. The MJO worked closely with the Jewish community and the Jewish museum to foster dialogue and promote awareness among Muslim youth. The project received third place in the EU’s Charlemagne Youth Prize and won the Austrian Youth Prize. The Ambassador and other prominent officials attended an event in May concluding the project, at which the Ambassador gave remarks condemning anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and supporting religious freedom.
In August the embassy funded the travel of a Muslim educator to the United States to attend training and workshops on religious freedom.
In August the embassy sponsored the participation of three young Muslim women at the Women2Women leadership program in Boston, Massachusetts, where they engaged with young women leaders from around the world on issues including religious freedom.
In February a Muslim-American disabilities rights activist engaged with members of the Muslim Youth on the topic of religion in the United States and advocacy for religious freedom. The visit was an opportunity to share experiences on advocacy for religious freedom and provide a U.S. perspective to local activists. In December the embassy sponsored the visit of a former white supremacist who, in workshops with authorities and NGOs, highlighted the threat of extremism to religious freedom and the role of faith communities in creating resilient societies.
The Ambassador and the Charge of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Vienna attended the commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in May. In his remarks, the Ambassador stressed the importance of religious freedom, and the fact that the liberators of Mauthausen helped end the notion that one person is better than another because of his or her religion.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one of two houses of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – predominantly SOC-member Serbs, predominantly Roman Catholic Croats, and predominantly Muslim Bosniaks. The human rights ministry issued new regulations allowing reporting of religious freedom abuses directly to the ministry, which is then charged with working with relevant authorities to correct the abuses. Religious groups in areas where they were a local minority reported continued government discrimination regarding denial of permits for construction or repair of religious properties, and in education, employment, and provision of social services. The Presidency again failed to approve an agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. In a report covering 2018, the Islamic Community (IC) said a school threatened to punish Muslim students if they did not make up classes missed during a religious holiday. The same report said the military served Muslim soldiers pork over a two-month period. The Interreligious Council (IRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported authorities moved unacceptably slowly to investigate and prosecute religiously motivated crimes. In September Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly Dino Konakovic said in an interview he did not mind that a local elementary school continued to be named for a World War II-era Ustasha anti-Semite who glorified Hitler.
The IRC registered 10 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites and one case of verbal abuse against an Orthodox priest during the year and said the actual number of incidents was likely much higher. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported receiving reports in 2018 of 17 incidents of bias against Muslims, 10 against Christians, and two against Jews. The one incident of violence reported by the OSCE mission in the country involved an assault and verbal insults against a Serb man during an Orthodox Christian holiday. Anti-Islamic incidents included shots being fired at a mosque, theft, and vandalism against mosques involving pig entrails, broken windows, or graffiti. In the two anti-Semitic incidents, vandals painted graffiti, including swastikas, on Jewish housing. The IRC continued to promote interfaith dialogue through conferences and projects with local governments.
U.S. embassy representatives emphasized to government officials the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge these groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith activities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.
There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.
The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.
The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It guarantees equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.
A national law on religion guarantees freedom of conscience and grants legal status to churches and religious communities. To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community. Registration grants numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those who do not register, including the rights to conduct collaborative actions such as do charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.
According to state law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Other requirements for registration include the development of a statute defining the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application, and a group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. There are no reports the ministry had denied any registration applications by religious communities. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction. The law also stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.”
The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.
A concordat between the BiH government and the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including to establish educational and charitable institutions, carry out religious education in public or private schools, and officially recognize Catholic holidays. The commission for implementation of the concordat comprises five members from the government and five from the Holy See. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, but the parties have not established a commission for implementation of the concordat.
The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.
All three BiH administrative units have hate crimes regulated within their criminal codes. The provisions in these codes regulate hate crimes as every criminal act committed because of the race, skin color, religious belief, national or ethnic origin, language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. Criminal codes also stipulate that this motivation is to be taken as an aggravating circumstance of any criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments for qualified forms of criminal acts.
The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary, and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers. These individuals are employees of the schools where they teach, but they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.
The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions.
In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. In September the RS Ministry of Education introduced elective religious education in secondary schools.
The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion.
The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.
A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In April the MHRR issued new instructions on the implementation of the law on religious freedom and position of churches and religious communities. In addition to provisions dealing with cooperation with churches and religious communities and autonomy for churches and religious communities, the instructions contain a measure that allows churches, religious communities, and groups or individuals the right to report abuses of their right to religious freedom directly to the MHRR. The MHRR is then charged with requesting respective state, entity, cantonal, or municipal authorities to undertake legally prescribed measures to prevent such violations of the law.
Officials publicly acknowledged the need to address a 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of religious and other minorities, including Jews, to run for president and the parliament’s upper house but took no action during the year. According to the ECHR ruling, observers said, by apportioning government positions and seats in the parliament only among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the constitution discriminated against minority groups.
According to IC officials, the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency again blocked from its agenda for approval an agreement, reached in 2015, between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The IC officials stated the agreement remained blocked because the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency believed it would grant Muslims more rights than those granted to the Catholic and SOC communities.
In March the Commission for Freedom of Religion of the Riyasat – the highest religious and administrative body of the IC – issued its 2018 Reported Cases of Violations of the Right to Freedom of Religion of Muslims in the country. The commission said it received six complaints, involving government and nongovernment entities. One was from the IC in Janja in the RS, saying Mesa Selimovic School officials violated the rights of approximately 500 Bosniak school children by threatening to sanction the students unless they made up school days they missed during the Eid al-Fitr holiday. In another case, the IC complained that schools in the country did not have prayer rooms.
Local NGOs continued to state that government authorities have not annulled the 2015 decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) prohibiting employees of judicial institutions from wearing any form of “religious insignia” at work, including headscarves. However, there were no instances of the HJPC applying these instructions during the year.
According to officials of religious groups in a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. Drvar municipal authorities continued to refuse to allocate land for the construction of a new Catholic church, saying the construction was not foreseen by urban plans drawn up in 1980. In June the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. This overturned Drvar Municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request. At year’s end, however, Drvar Municipality had declined to implement this decision, even though the deadline for implementation was June 5, 2019.
On October 1, the ECHR ruled that the government of BiH must remove a Serbian Orthodox church illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The court ruled the church construction in 1998 was illegal and ordered authorities to ensure its removal within three months, return the land to Orlovic, and pay 5,000 euros ($5,600) to Orlovic and 2,000 euros ($2,200) to her relatives in damages. The SOC constructed the church after Orlovic and her family were expelled from their home during the 1992-95 conflict. The ECHR ruled that authorities had failed to comply with previous decisions by the Commission for Real Property Claims of Displaced Persons and Refugees in 1999 and the Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons of the RS in 2001 ordering that Orlovic be granted full restitution of her land, the seizure of which resulted in a violation of the right to property.
Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s ongoing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of restitution for property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. In November Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.
According to local NGOs such as Vasa Prava, the government again failed to implement legal provisions regarding the religious education of returnee children, particularly in segregated school systems, often at the behest of senior government officials seeking to obstruct the process. Parents of more than 500 Bosniak children, who returned to their prewar homes in several RS communities, continued to boycott public schools for a seventh year, choosing instead to send their children to alternative schools organized on the premises of the IC’s administrative buildings and supported by the Federation Ministry of Education.
Academic and NGO representatives reported continued social pressure on students from communities throughout the country to attend instruction in their respective religions. A mother in Banja Luka told media that her daughter did not want to stop attending religious education classes because she did not want to feel excluded or different from the other students.
According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.
Leaders of religious minority communities and local NGOs, particularly in Canton 10 in the western part of the Federation and several municipalities in eastern RS, continued to say authorities again failed to provide government services and protections to minorities, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. Local NGOs reported government authorities discriminated against minority Serb Orthodox communities in the Canton 10 municipalities of Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo, and Glamoc, particularly by denying children access to education in their mother tongue (including using the Cyrillic alphabet) or to classes covering the history and literature of their national group and employment in public companies.
Religious leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate when it came to providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated these cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. For example, following an incident on July 24 when a group of five persons threw stones at the Rijecanska Mosque in Zvornik, the IRC said the police report stated the material damage to the mosque was negligible and did not treat the case as a hate crime.
According to the IRC’s 2018 annual report published in May, police identified only 34 percent of perpetrators of religiously motivated crimes in 2018, compared with 45 percent in 2017. Because religion and ethnicity often are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many actions as solely based on religious identity.
In the report, the IRC said authorities moved unacceptably slowly in investigating and prosecuting crimes, taking an average of five to seven years to conclude cases reported as crimes. According to the IRC, of 219 incidents against religious sites or personnel it registered since 2010, police had identified suspects in 75 cases and prosecuted only 23. During the year, the IRC said authorities had identified only two suspects in the extant cases and initiated no new prosecutions. In addition, the IRC stated authorities continued their practice of not categorizing these attacks as hate crimes. The IRC said again that the failure of authorities to pursue many cases reflected ignorance about hate crimes and a desire to deflect criticism of religious intolerance.
The IC’s commission also said the armed forces failed to provide Muslim members with halal food and served them dried processed meals containing pork during a two-month period in 2018. The commission’s report said the Sarajevo Veterinary Institute confirmed the failure to provide halal food.
The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both school and street retained the Busuladzic name. On September 16, Dino Konakovic, Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, said in an interview that he did not mind that the Dobrosevici School continued to be named for Busuladzic.
According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See did not meet during the year and had not met since June 2016 due to a perceived lack of government interest and also because the government had still not formed a new Council of Ministers after the October 2018 general elections. According to the Catholic Church, the government had not implemented earlier agreements reached by the commission, including legislation on observing religious holidays.
The agreement between the government and the SOC also remained unimplemented; neither the SOC nor the government had nominated members to the implementing commission by year’s end.
International and local NGOs, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In the case of verbal abuse against a religious official recorded by the IRC, an Orthodox priest from the Church of Saint Basil of Ostrog in Blagaj, near Mostar, said in August a Muslim man threatened him via social media. According to the Srpska Times, the man also posted on social media that Orthodox Serbs could worship at the church “unless Muslims get harassed; after that, they may wonder whether to come there again. Muslims get harassed in Gacko [in the RS], and you want to come here without problems? It will not do.”
The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE reported receiving reports in 2018 of 17 cases of bias against Muslims (two involving threats, the rest incidents against property), 10 against Christians (one involving violence, the rest incidents against property), and two against Jews (both involving incidents against property). The one incident of violence reported by the OSCE mission in the country involved an assault and verbal insults against a Serb man during an Orthodox Christian holiday. The man sustained injuries. Anti-Islamic incidents included shots being fired at a mosque, theft, and vandalism against mosques involving pig entrails, broken windows, or graffiti. In the two anti-Semitic incidents, vandals painted graffiti, including swastikas, on Jewish housing.
In early April after several attacks were reported to the IRC in a relatively short period of time, it issued a public statement strongly condemning the incidents and expressing particular concern over the misuse of religious symbols. The IRC reported that it had raised awareness among local religious communities and IRC chapters on the importance of condemning religiously motivated attacks, and as a result, the local religious communities proactively took it upon themselves to condemn these types of attacks when they occurred.
In December 2018 unknown persons broke into the Catholic Church of Saint Mother Teresa in Vogosca near Sarajevo and damaged furniture. The local chapter of the IRC condemned the incident. At year’s end, authorities had not identified any suspects.
In one of the three cases against SOC sites reported to the IRC, in July individuals broke into an Orthodox church in the village of Donje Vukovsko in the Kupres Municipality, broke the windows, and destroyed furniture.
In June a man destroyed four tombstones at an Islamic cemetery in Kazanbasca in Zvornik. Two weeks later, Zvornik police identified a suspect and submitted a criminal report to the district prosecutor’s office in Bijeljina, with charges of desecration of graves or a criminal act against a deceased person; the investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
The Council of Muftis of the IC continued efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease what they described as “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. The IC reported 21 active para-jamaats during the year, the same number as in 2018 and down from 64 in 2016.
The IRC continued to sponsor projects aimed at increasing interfaith dialogue involving women and youth. In February the IRC organized a two-day conference in Sarajevo on strengthening interreligious dialogue at the local level in the country. During the conference, members and activists from the IRC’s 15 local chapters, among whom were religious officials from various cities, presented their activities and projects. Eight local chapters signed memoranda of cooperation with their respective municipalities, and some municipalities began providing financial support to local chapters for their activities, including some interfaith events designed to increase youth participation. One such activity involved organizing joint visits to Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox places of worship by mixed groups of youth from all four religions.
In November, according to a report in Reuters, Sarajevo’s Islamic and Jewish communities celebrated the bicentennial of an uprising by Sarajevo Muslims to rescue a dozen Jews from an Ottoman governor’s jail and impending execution. The event was marked by an exhibition and conference describing the episode and marking 500 years of what it described as peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the city, as well as among Jews, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. BiH’s Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic said, “Bosnian Muslims and Jews are one body,” adding, “…We are renewing our pledge that we will remain good neighbors who will watch over each other as we did in the past.” As part of the commemoration, the tombstone of a Jewish historian who recorded the uprising, Mose Rafael Attias, was renovated in the city’s Jewish cemetery.
Media reported that on May 4, the Aladza Mosque reopened as a working mosque in Foca in the eastern part of the country, following a five-year reconstruction effort led by international and local donors. Several thousand persons from throughout the country attended the event, which the IC described as its biggest event of the year. In 1992, Serb forces destroyed the mosque, originally built in 1549 and on the country’s cultural heritage list and the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, the Ministry of Security, and other ministries and underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law for religious minorities.
Embassy officials had numerous meetings with the Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox communities and community leaders. The Ambassador had individual meetings with the leaders of the traditional religious communities, and embassy officials attended events hosted by the religious communities to commemorate religious holidays. At these events, which included events hosted by the religious communities as well as meetings hosted by the embassy, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity and urged the religious communities to continue efforts to foster reconciliation and condemn intolerance and hate speech. The embassy reinforced its messages of support following these events and meetings on its various social media platforms; these postings on Twitter and Facebook included calls for tolerance and the importance of interreligious dialogue in BiH.
The embassy helped to create and has continued supporting the first-ever joint master’s degree program among the three theological faculties and between two entities of BiH. The Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding Master’s program is implemented jointly by the Catholic Theological Faculty, Faculty of Islamic Studies (University of Sarajevo), and Orthodox Theological Faculty (University of East Sarajevo) and is administered by a joint council. It was created in collaboration with the embassy and a visiting Fulbright specialist in 2018. Two cohorts of approximately 25 students had entered the course as of year’s end.
The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and supported its activities by providing funding. Cooperation included the IRC’s participation in activities such as visits to the locations of atrocities, round tables on reconciliation, IRC involvement in Open Doors events, where youth visit houses of worship other than their own, and participation in the PRO Future program, which is designed to promote interreligious dialogue in BIH.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with IRC leadership in November to discuss ways in which the embassy and government could help the IRC and individual religious communities resolve their differences. The IRC continued to participate in U.S. government-funded programs designed to help overcome ethnic and religious divisions through dialogue among the country’s religious groups. In February, under the auspices of a U.S. government-funded program, the IRC organized a roundtable in Bugojno that served as the initial meeting to form a network of women believers from Bugojno Municipality as part of the larger Network of Women Believers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an interfaith network of women that meets to discuss various issues. By having women of all religious backgrounds come together, the network is able to highlight similarities that the women share rather than differences.
The Ambassador spoke at the reopening ceremony of the historic Aladza Mosque in Foca on May 4. In his remarks, he noted that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina must work together to ensure that all peoples and all faiths have a rightful place not only in Foca but throughout the country. The embassy contributed approximately $128,000 to finance several phases of reconstruction and restoration of the mosque as a cultural landmark.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. All religious communities have the same religious protections under the law. The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide state financial support and favorable tax and other treatment; 54 other registered religious communities that have agreements with the state receive equivalent treatment that registered religious communities without such agreements and unregistered religious groups do not receive. During the year the state registered a newly established religious community called the Catholic Old Church. Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) representatives said lack of restitution of property seized by the Yugoslavia government remained an outstanding issue. Atheist groups continued to complain that Roman Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals. Representatives of the Jewish and Serbian communities expressed concerns about the rise of neo-Ustasha sentiment and historical revisionism about atrocities committed by the pro-Nazi government during the Second World War (WWII) against those communities. They said the government did not take a strong enough stand against historical revisionism and downplayed the public display of symbols of the Ustasha regime. They also said the current exhibition of the WWII-era Jasenovac concentration camp obscures the cruelty toward victims and fails to explain the affiliation of the victims persecuted by the Ustasha regime. In August the High Misdemeanor Court fined a singer who used the Nazi-era Ustasha salute while performing a popular nationalist song. In an article published in June, media characterized Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ruza Tomasic as sympathetic to the fascist Ustasha movement through her statements defending elements of the movement and leader Ante Pavelic. Jewish and Serb leaders, the latter largely Orthodox, and representatives of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters again boycotted the government’s annual commemoration at the Jasenovac concentration camp, citing the government’s lack of response to Holocaust revisionism and failure to address Holocaust-era property restitution issues.
SOC representatives reported an increased number of incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity compared with 2018, including physical and verbal attacks. According to SOC representatives, however, it was unclear if these incidents were religiously or ethnically motivated. In a European Commission study published in September, 40 percent of the respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 58 percent said it was rare. On January 25, the Holocaust Remembrance Project published a “Holocaust Revisionist Report,” giving the country a “red card for revisionism” (the worst possible rating). The report pointed to the continued use of the wartime fascist Ustasha salute at public events, the relative lack of Holocaust commemoration sites, outstanding restitution issues, and what it said were President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic’s contradictory statements on the Ustasha.
U.S. embassy officials discussed the status and treatment of religious minorities, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism with the government. U.S. officials encouraged the government to amend existing legislation covering Holocaust-era property restitution to allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives from a broad spectrum of religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.2 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 86.3 percent of the population is Catholic, 4.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 1.5 percent Muslim. Nearly 4 percent self-identify as nonreligious or atheist. Other religious groups include Jews, Protestants, and other Christians. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 1,700 Jews.
Religious affiliation correlates closely with ethnicity. Ethnic Serbs are predominantly members of the SOC and live primarily in cities and areas bordering Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most members of other minority religious groups reside in urban areas.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for equality of rights regardless of religion, as well as freedom of conscience and religious expression. It prohibits incitement of religious hatred. According to the constitution, religious communities shall be equal under the law and separate from the state; they are free to conduct religious services publicly as well as open and manage schools and charitable organizations under the protection and with the assistance of the state.
The Roman Catholic Church receives state financial support and other benefits established by four concordats between the government and the Holy See. These agreements provide for state financing for salaries and pensions of some religious officials associated with religious education through government-managed pension and health funds. These agreements also stipulate state funding for religious education in public schools.
The law defines the legal position of religious communities and determines eligibility for government funding and tax benefits. Registered religious communities are exempt from taxes on the purchase of real estate, the profit/capital gains tax, and taxes on donations. According to the law, a religious community previously active as a legal entity before enactment of the current law in 2002 (amended in 2013) need only submit its name, the location of its headquarters, information on the office of the person authorized to represent it, and the seal and stamp it uses to register. To register as a religious community, a religious group without prior legal status must have at least 500 members and have been registered as an association, with at least three members, for at least five years. To register as a religious community, a group submits a list of its members and documentation outlining the group’s activities and bylaws and describing its mission to the Ministry of Administration. Nonregistered religious groups may operate freely but do not receive tax benefits. They may conduct financial transactions as legal entities. A contractual agreement with the state, which grants a registered religious community eligibility for further funding and benefits, defines the community’s role and activities and provides for collaboration with the government in areas of joint interest, such as education, health, and culture.
There are 55 registered religious communities, including the Roman Catholic Church, SOC, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Christian Adventist Church, Church of Christ, Church of God, Croatian Old Catholic Church, Catholic Old Church, Evangelical Church, Macedonian Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Reformed Christian Church, Union of Baptist Churches, Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Union of Pentecostal Churches of Christ, Coordination Committee of Jewish Communities in Croatia (an umbrella group of nine distinct Jewish communities), Jewish Community of Virovitica, Bet Israel (a Jewish group), and the Islamic Community of Croatia. In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, 19 religious communities have formal agreements with the state that more clearly define activities and cooperation, such as in the areas of marriage and of religious education in public schools. These groups may access state funds for religious activities.
The state recognizes marriages conducted by registered religious communities that have concluded agreements with the state, eliminating the need for civil registration. Marriages conducted by registered communities that have not concluded agreements with the state, or by nonregistered religious groups, require civil registration.
Registered religious communities that have not concluded agreements with the state and nonregistered religious groups may not conduct religious education in public schools or access state funds in support of religious activities, including charitable work, counseling, building costs, and clergy salaries; however, they may engage in worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature. Only registered religious communities, with or without agreements with the state, may provide spiritual counsel in prisons, hospitals, and the military.
Public schools at both the primary and secondary levels must offer religious education, although students may opt out without providing specific grounds. The Catholic catechism is the predominant religious text used. Other religious communities that have agreements with the state may also offer religious education classes in schools if there are seven or more students of that faith. Eligible religious communities provide the instructors and the state pays their salaries. Private religious schools are eligible for state assistance and follow a national curriculum. Registered religious communities may have their own schools. Unregistered religious groups may not have their own schools.
Education about the Holocaust is mandatory in the seventh and eighth grades of elementary school and during four years of high school.
The law allows foreign citizens whose property was confiscated during and after the Holocaust era to seek compensation or restitution if the applicant’s country has a bilateral restitution treaty with the state; however, no such bilateral treaties currently exist. Two court cases have held that such treaties are not required; however, the law has not changed. The law does not allow new property claims, because the deadline expired in 2003.
The ombudsperson is a commissioner appointed by parliament responsible for promoting and protecting human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The ombudsperson examines citizens’ complaints pertaining to the work of state bodies; local and regional self-government; and legal persons vested with public authority. The ombudsperson may issue recommendations to government agencies regarding human rights and religious freedom practices but does not have authority to enforce compliance with his or her recommendations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Ministry of Administration registered a newly established religious community called the Catholic Old Church, located on the island of Rab.
According to the Office of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, the government budgeted 299.5 million kuna ($46.15 million) during the year for the Roman Catholic Church for salaries, pensions, and other purposes, compared with 288.2 million kuna ($44.41 million) in 2018. The government provided funding to other religious communities that had concluded agreements with the state, a portion of which was based on their size, in addition to funds provided to support religious education in public schools, and the operation of private religious schools. The government budgeted 22.0 million kuna ($3.39 million) to these groups, compared to 21.4 million kuna ($3.3 million) in 2018. Atheist groups criticized the government for allocating more to the Roman Catholic Church than to other groups.
Some minority religious and nonreligious groups, including atheist groups, continued to say the Roman Catholic Church continued to enjoy a special status (and greater financial support) in relation to other religious communities, in part because of its concordats with the government and in part because of its cultural and political influence as the majority religion.
SOC representatives said the community still had outstanding issues with the government regarding repossession of property, residential buildings, and land (including forests) that the government appropriated during the Yugoslav period.
Atheist, Jewish, and Serbian Orthodox organizations continued to report that although the law allows students to opt out of religious education, in practice most public primary schools did not offer any alternatives to Catholic catechism.
Atheist groups continued to complain that Roman Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals. They said they believed this practice was inconsistent with the constitution, which states religious communities shall be separate from the state.
On August 14, media reported the High Misdemeanor Court fined a singer who used the Ustasha salute “Za Dom Spremni” (“For the Homeland – Ready”) while performing a popular nationalist song. The court ruled the “salute conveyed hatred toward people of different races, religions, and ethnicities,” and fined the singer 965 kuna ($150).
In May MEP Tomasic told the media outlet Novosti weekly, “I do not denounce the regular Ustashas who fought for Croatia but did not commit crimes.” Speaking of Ante Pavelic, leader of the pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia (NDH) that committed genocide against Jews, Serbs, and Roma during WWII, she said, “He did not have to agree to racial laws, but fine. He did not have to have camps, but it must have been war then. He had to live in that time.” On June 5, the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned Tomasic’s statements. The center’s Director for Eastern European Affairs Dr. Efraim Zuroff called upon political leaders to officially reject Tomasic’s statements, “especially her attempt to whitewash the large-scale atrocities committed by the Ustasha and the NDH.” Members of opposition parties condemned her statements.
The ombudsperson’s 2018 report released in March said most complaints concerned religious discrimination regarding the organization of religious activities in public kindergartens and public primary schools, and complaints about discriminatory content in religious textbooks and Croatian language books for elementary school. Non-Catholic religious groups complained to the ombudsman about Catholic religious activities in schools and kindergartens. The Office of the Ombudsperson for Children said blessing students and common public prayers on the premises of an educational institution were inappropriate outside of catechism, and obliging all the pupils in schools or kindergartens to participate in religious activities could lead to discrimination against children who were nonbelievers or non-Catholics. Responding to complaints from non-Catholic groups about the religious content of Croatian language textbooks, at the end of 2018 parliament adopted amendments to the education legislation stipulating it is the duty of the public school system to be neutral and balanced.
The ombudsperson’s 2018 report stated members of minority religious communities encountered problems exercising their right to take time off for religious holidays and feasts that fell during the work week, and these issues continued during the year.
The ombudsperson’s 2018 report stated the office received complaints about displays of religious symbols in public spaces (e.g., a crucifix in the patient’s room at a gynecology clinic), where the complainants maintained that this was discrimination against persons who were not Catholic believers or were without religious beliefs. The ombudsperson’s office stated displays of religious symbols in public spaces continued to be an issue during the year.
In February parliament rejected a proposal to negotiate modifications to the four concordats between the Holy See and the government. During the year, secularist NGOs held seven rallies calling on the government to give less money to the Roman Catholic Church and terminate agreements with the Vatican guaranteeing the Church an important role in social affairs. Media reported in October the NGO Movement for Secular Croatia and the civil society organizations Protagora, LiberOs, and Atheists and Agnostics of Croatia, and two informal campaign groups, Voice of Reason – Movement for a Secular Croatia and Not a Believer, staged a protest rally in September attended by 500 people. The groups stated the Roman Catholic Church held a privileged position in relation to other religious communities, contrary to the constitution’s guarantee that all religious communities were equal before the law and separate from the state. Some protesters carried placards saying, “Constitution before Bible”, “Republic Strikes Back” and “Pope Francis: I Want a Poor Church.”
Media reported on April 12 that representatives from the Jewish, Serb, and Roma communities, as well as the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters and a delegation from the main opposition Social Democratic Party, held a commemoration ceremony at the Jasenovac Memorial Museum for victims killed by the WWII-era Ustasha regime at the Jasenovac concentration camp. On April 14, the government held its annual commemoration at the camp site. For the fourth year in a row, Jewish community representatives, along with the other groups, boycotted the government event. During the official commemoration Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic called for a united commemoration in 2020 and condemned the Ustasha regime. On April 13, President Grabar-Kitarovic visited the Jasenovac memorial site on a personal visit. Members of Jewish groups, along with the other groups, said the boycott of the government commemoration was necessary to condemn what they said was its lack of response to Holocaust revisionism and failure to address Holocaust-era property restitution issues. Local Jewish community representatives said the government made no significant progress on these issues during the year.
In January the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Director of Eastern European Affairs Zuroff issued a statement calling on authorities to ban a book entitled, “The Jasenovac Lie Revealed,” saying the book “denied that mass murders of Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists were frequently carried out in the Jasenovac concentration camp.” According to media, on January 17, a church in Zagreb hosted an event promoting the book.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) reported in September that IHRA Chair Ambassador Georges Santer called on the government to improve the exhibit at Jasenovic concentration camp to provide historical context so that visitors could understand the situation in the country and Europe during the first half of the 20th century as well as the role of perpetrators who committed the crimes. Santer offered IHRA’s expertise and support for the creation of a new exhibit. Minister of Culture Nina Obuljen Korzinek agreed a renewed and extended exhibit should be developed in cooperation with all victim groups and other stakeholders. Minister of Education Blazenka Divjak said the government was willing to increase funding to support at least 100 school visits to the memorial site in 2020.
On April 28, Vukovar Mayor Ivan Penava attended an Orthodox Easter Sunday Mass upon invitation from the local branch of the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS). Penava said he attended the Mass as a show of support to Vukovar’s Serbian Orthodox population. Local SDSS leader Srdan Kolar said he appreciated the mayor’s participation, adding, “As far as a return gesture is concerned, the moment we receive an invitation to come to events marking Catholic Christmas and Easter, we will be there.”
International Orthodox Christian News reported on March 18 that Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan of Zagreb and Ljubljana Porfirije met with Prime Minister Plenkovic and expressed his desire to continue dialogue and partnership between the government and religious communities in the country. The metropolitan advocated a joint action program to solve issues important to members of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian national minority. The website of the Orthodox Church published photos of the meeting and said Prime Minister Plenkovic emphasized the government had been working towards strengthening the protection of rights of all national minorities, including through greater financial support for economic development and solving issues that had been postponed for years.
In January Prime Minister Plenkovic attended an Orthodox Christmas reception organized by the Serbian National Council, an association of members of the Serb minority in Croatia, and said, “Christmas is an opportunity to strengthen faith in peace, solidarity, and tolerance, as well as unity in the resolution of issues that are important to all our fellow citizens.”
A leader of the SOC in Eastern Slavonia said high-ranking representatives of the Catholic Church met with counterparts from the SOC in January to discuss cooperation and shared concerns such as demographic challenges in the country and outreach to the younger generation.
The Office of the President retained the position of special advisor for Holocaust issues, although the incumbent passed away in November.
The country is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
SOC representatives anecdotally reported increased incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity compared with 2018, including physical and verbal attacks. According to SOC representatives, however, it was unclear to what extent religious motivations played a part.
In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 40 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Croatia, while 58 percent said it was rare; 84 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, 95 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 90 percent with an atheist, 86 percent with a Jew, 82 percent with a Buddhist, and 81 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a loving relationship with an individual belonging to various groups, 94 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 82 percent if atheist, 75 percent if Jewish, 68 percent if Buddhist, and 64 percent if Muslim.
In January the EC 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, 28 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Croatia, and 54 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 37 percent; on the internet, 34 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 30 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 28 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 30 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 27 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 27 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 30 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 29 percent.
On January 25, the Holocaust Remembrance Project published a “Holocaust Revisionist Report” sponsored by Yale University, Grinnell College, and the European Union of Progressive Judaism. The report gave the country a “red card for revisionism” (the worst possible rating, meaning under the report’s methodology “tough work lies ahead”). The report pointed to the continued use of the wartime fascist Ustasha salute at soccer games, rallies, and protests, the relative lack of Holocaust commemoration sites, outstanding restitution issues, and what it said were President Grabar-Kitarovic’s contradictory statements on the Ustasha. The report said, “Croats continue to have difficulty coming to terms with [the country’s] wartime past under a Nazi collaborationist government. Although new historical research shows that most Croats opposed the fascist puppet regime and many saved Jews, the country’s troubled past, including five decades of post-war communist rule, continues to cast a heavy cloud.”
In May media reported political advertisements for a Serb party were repeatedly marked with symbols of pro-Nazi Ustasha regime and anti-Serb slogans in the run-up to European Union parliamentary elections. In Zagreb, an individual wrote, “Slaughter Serb children, kill the Serb” on an SDSS campaign billboard.
On January 24, the Roman Catholic Church unveiled a large banner on the Zagreb Cathedral to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The World Jewish Congress praised the commemoration, in which Cardinal Josip Bozanic, Archbishop of Zagreb, “declared it unacceptable to permit the re-emergence of anti-Semitism.” Observers from minority religious groups said this was a conspicuous and positive gesture, given complaints by minority groups that the Church has at times minimized its role in Croatia during the Holocaust.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy staff regularly discussed religious freedom issues, including the status and treatment of religious minorities, property restitution, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism, with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Culture; the ombudsperson; representatives of parliament; youth representing different religious groups, and other officials. The embassy emphasized to Ministry of Interior officials the importance of the government ensuring the religious rights of migrants and asylum seekers were respected.
In April the Ambassador, embassy staff, and the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with the minister of justice, the minister of culture, minister of education and science, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, the head of the Clinical Hospital, which during WWII saved a number of Jews from persecution, and leaders of Jewish organizations. Similar meetings took place in November. A senior embassy official attended commemorations for victims of the Holocaust, including the April 14 commemoration at Jasenovac, and discussed religious freedom issues with the members of the government and minority groups. U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to adopt amendments to existing legislation to provide for restitution of private and communal or religious property seized during and after WWII, including provisions that would unequivocally allow for foreign claims and that would reopen the deadline for potential new claims. Embassy engagement also focused on the restitution of Jewish communal properties such as cultural centers, synagogues, and cemeteries, as well as private property, and the creation of a claims process for victims.
In October the Ambassador hosted a lunch with youth representatives from different religious communities, including one atheist, to discuss challenges each community faced. He highlighted the importance of interfaith dialogue and promoting religious freedom and tolerance.
Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with NGOs such as Human Rights House, Documenta, Protagora, and Zagreb Pride, as well as with representatives from Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups. In cooperation with the Ministry of Science and Education, the embassy again funded Holocaust education training in the United States for high school teachers, sending four teachers during the year. These teachers later applied the training in the classroom. The Department of State, Association of Holocaust Organizations in New York, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum organized the annual program. The program continued to focus on new teaching methods and techniques, facilitated an exchange of ideas and experiences, and provided resources and materials for classroom instruction.
The embassy posted on social media platforms about a range of religious freedom issues, including support for Holocaust commemorations and the younger generation’s view of faith and religion in the country.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplement to the constitution, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and states everyone has the right to change, abstain from, and freely practice religion. The Ministry of Culture (MOC) registered one religious group and rejected the registration applications of two groups. The registration application of one group remained pending at year’s end. The Constitutional Court rejected an appeal of a lower court conviction of Path of Guru Jara (PGJ) leader Jaroslav Dobes and another PGJ member whom the lower court sentenced to prison in absentia for rape; a lower court reopened proceedings against the two PGJ officials on seven other counts of rape. The Supreme Administrative Court and several regional courts ruled the Ministry of Interior (MOI) should review 18 asylum applications by Chinese Christians whose applications the MOI rejected in 2018. Appeals of an additional 52 asylum applications the MOI rejected in 2018 were pending with courts at year’s end. The government stated that in 2018 it returned 1,797 properties confiscated from religious groups during the communist period. In October the Constitutional Court struck down a law parliament had approved in May, which was scheduled to come into effect in 2020, taxing compensation the government paid to religious groups for unreturned confiscated properties. The Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) Party continued to speak out against Islam and Muslim migrants.
In IUSTITIA, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported 14 religiously motivated incidents – 12 against Muslims and two against Jews – compared with 17 in 2018. The government reported 15 anti-Semitic and three anti-Muslim incidents in 2018, compared with 27 and three, respectively, in the previous year. The Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) reported 347 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 – including two physical attacks – an increase of 175 percent over 2015. Most incidents involved internet hate speech. According to a European Commission (EC) survey, 28 percent of respondents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country. Another EC survey found that 48 percent of respondents said they would be comfortable working with a Muslim, and 31 percent said they would feel comfortable if their child were in a “love relationship” with a Muslim. In March the Czech Muslim Communities Center ousted the lay chairman who headed the Prague Muslim community for posting a video urging Muslims to arm themselves following mosque mass shootings in New Zealand. The MOI reported 11 “white power” concerts where participants expressed anti-Semitic views.
U.S. embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, including property restitution for religious groups and religious tolerance, with MOC officials and the envoy for Holocaust issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Embassy officials met with Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant religious leaders and members of the Muslim community to reaffirm U.S. government support for religious freedom and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, of the 56 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 62 percent held none, 18 percent were Roman Catholic, 12 percent listed no specific religion, and 7 percent identified with a variety of religious faiths, including the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, other Christian churches, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Academics estimate there are 10,000 Jews, while the FJC estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000. Leaders of the Muslim community estimate there are 10,000 Muslims, most of whom are immigrants.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary constitutional document, provides for freedom of religious conviction and the fundamental rights of all, regardless of their faith or religion. It states every individual has the right to change religion or faith; to abstain from religious belief; and to freely practice religion, alone or in community, in private or public, “through worship, teaching, practice, or observance.” The charter defines religious societies, recognizing their freedom to profess their faith publicly or privately and to govern their own affairs, independent of the state. It stipulates conscientious objectors may not be compelled to perform military service and that conditions for religious instruction at state schools shall be set by law. The charter states religious freedom may be limited by law in the event of threats to “public safety and order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law states the Department of Churches within the MOC is responsible for religious affairs. Religious groups are not required by law to register with the government and are free to perform religious activities without registering. The law establishes a two-tiered system for religious groups which choose to register with the ministry. The ministry reviews applications for first- and second-tier registration with input from other government bodies, such as the Office for Protection of Private Data, and outside experts on religious affairs. The law does not establish a deadline for the ministry to decide on a registration application. Applicants denied registration may appeal to the MOC to reconsider its decision and, if denied again, to the courts.
To qualify for the first (lower) tier, a religious group must present at least 300 signatures of adult members permanently residing in the country, a founding document listing the basic tenets of the faith, and a clearly defined structure of fiduciary responsibilities to the Department of Churches. First-tier registration confers limited tax benefits, including exemptions from taxes on interest earned on current account deposits, donations, and members’ contributions. It also establishes annual reporting requirements on activities, balance sheets, and the use of funds.
For second (higher) tier registration, a group must have been registered with the Department of Churches for 10 years, have published annual financial reports throughout the time of its registration, and have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population, or approximately 10,700 persons. The group must provide this number of signatures as proof. Second-tier registration entitles religious groups to government subsidies, as well as the tax benefits granted to first-tier groups. Additionally, only clergy of registered second-tier religious groups may perform legally recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and at prisons. Prisoners who belong to unregistered religious groups or groups with first-tier status may receive visits from their own clergy.
Religious groups registered prior to 2002 received automatic second-tier status without having to fulfill the requirements for second-tier registration. These groups, like other registered groups, must publish financial reports annually.
There are 41 state-registered religious groups, 18 first- and 23 second-tier.
Unregistered religious groups are free to assemble and worship but may not legally own property. Unregistered groups may form civic associations to own and manage their property.
The law authorizes the government to return land or other property that was confiscated during the communist era and is still in the government’s possession to 17 religious groups (the largest of which are the Roman Catholic Church, FJC, Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and Hussite Church). The government estimates the total value of property in its possession eligible to be returned at 75 billion crowns ($3.4 billion). The law also sets aside 59 billion crowns ($2.7 billion) in compensation for property – mostly in possession of private persons or entities or local or regional governments – that cannot be returned, payable over a 30-year period ending in 2043. Based on an agreement among the affected religious groups, the law allocates approximately 79 percent of these funds to the Catholic Church and 21 percent to the other 16 groups. The law prescribed a one-year deadline ending in 2013 for religious groups to file restitution claims for confiscated property. The government agency in possession of a property for which a group has filed a restitution claim adjudicates that claim. If the government agency rejects a property claim, the claimant may appeal the decision in court.
The law phases out direct state subsidies to second-tier religious groups over a 17-year period ending in 2029.
The law permits second-tier religious groups to apply through the MOC to teach religion in state schools if there is a demand for such classes. Eleven of the 23 second-tier groups, all of them Christian, received permission. The teachers are supplied by the religious groups and paid by the state. If a state school does not have enough funds to pay for its religious education teachers, religious groups pay for them. Student attendance at religious classes is optional. According to law, if seven or more students register for a particular religious class at the beginning of the school year, a school must offer that class to those who registered.
The government does not regulate religious instruction in private schools.
The law prohibits speech that incites hatred based on religion. It also limits the denial of communist-era crimes and the Holocaust. Violators may be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
Religious workers who are not from European Economic Area countries or Switzerland must obtain long-term residence and work permits to remain in the country for more than 90 days. There is no special visa category for religious workers. Foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the conditions for a standard work permit.
The law designates January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March the MOC registered the Community of Baptist Congregations, which applied in January 2018. In August the ministry rejected Ecclesia Risorum’s March 2018 registration application on the grounds the group failed to meet the legal definition of a first- or second-tier religious group. The group filed an administrative appeal with the MOC, which remained pending at year’s end. The Association of Buddhism in the Czech Republic applied for registration in April; in July the ministry suspended the registration process because it said the group did not respond to a request for completed registration documents. The MOC restarted the registration process in November, and the application was pending at year’s end.
In January the MOC denied the Cannabis Church’s registration. The group filed an administrative appeal with the MOC, which the ministry rejected in June. The Cannabis Church did not appeal the decision in court. The Cannabis Church had renewed its registration application in 2018 after the Prague Municipal Court overturned a 2016 decision by the MOC to halt the Church’s application and ordered the ministry to reopen the registration procedure. A 2017 appeal by the Lions of the Round Table – Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown regarding an MOC registration rejection remained pending with the Prague Municipal Court.
PGJ leader Jaroslav Dobes and member Barbora Plaskova reportedly remained in immigration detention in the Philippines, where they had been seeking asylum since 2015. International arrest warrants issued by Czech authorities for the pair remained outstanding. In April the Supreme Court rejected the pair’s appeal to overturn a 2018 guilty verdict on one count of rape by the Zlin Regional Court and upheld later that year by the Olomouc High Court. On September 11, the Constitutional Court rejected Dobes’ appeal of the verdict, and on October 16, it rejected Plaskova’s appeal. On September 16, the Zlin Regional Court renewed court proceedings against Dobes and Plaskova on seven other counts of rape. The Olomouc High Court had voided the Zlin court’s earlier convictions on those seven counts in 2018 and remanded the cases back to the lower court. After the high court’s decision, the Zlin court had dismissed the case at the end of 2018 but reversed that decision after an appeal by Dobes and Plaskova requesting a court verdict on the seven counts of rape. The trial continued at year’s end.
PGJ’s 2017 lawsuit against the government’s Office for Personal Data Protection alleging abusive investigation of the group’s registration application and against the MOC’s rejection of its registration application remained pending in the Prague Municipal Court at year’s end.
In letters to Czech authorities in May, PGJ called the criminal prosecutions against Dobes and Plaskova “violations of human rights” that contributed to discrimination and persecution of the group. In September a lawyer who worked with PGJ submitted a report to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Human Dimension Implementation Meetings criticizing the criminal proceedings against the group’s members and the Prague Municipal Court’s delay in issuing a ruling on PGJ’s appeal of the rejection of its registration application.
According to PGJ members, media coverage of the group was unfair and contributed to intolerance of it. A PGJ report stated media continued to misinform the public about the group and Plaskova’s case, citing 33 articles published during the year. Supporters of what PGJ members described as the anticult movement reportedly wrote three of these articles, issued in Dingir, an interreligious journal. According to PGJ, Jitka Schlichtsova, the author of a piece published in February, alleged the group was created as a “reaction” to the arrest of their two leaders in 2015. PGJ members also stated they “encountered several refusals” when attempting to hire architects, advisors, or consultants because the individuals feared “persecution for cooperating with the PGJ.” When seeking a venue for a nationwide spiritual meeting in the fall, PGJ members said they were rejected because of their faith; however, the group did not provide additional information.
In October the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) heard appeals by two Chinese Christians regarding the decision of the Hradec Kralove Regional Court and, previously, the MOI to reject their asylum applications filed in 2016 on the grounds of religious persecution in China. The SAC returned the cases to the MOI for review. In August the SAC had returned to the MOI for further review three other cases the ministry had previously rejected. During the year, regional courts in Ostrava, Hradec Kralove, and Pardubice issued similar verdicts returning 13 other cases to the MOI for review. All 18 applicants were part of a group of 70 Chinese Christians whose asylum applications the MOI had rejected in 2018. All of them appealed the MOI ruling; the other 52 cases were under review in the courts. At year’s end, the MOI had not ruled on any of the applications the courts had remanded to it for further review, and the government had not deported any of the 70 asylum applicants.
In April parliament approved a law, which President Milos Zeman signed in May and was scheduled to become effective on January 1, 2020, taxing the compensation the government paid religious groups for unreturned property confiscated prior to 1989. A group of 44 senators filed a legal challenge to the law, and on October 15, the Constitutional Court struck the law down as unconstitutional. The court ruled that although the state had the right to levy a tax to raise revenue, in this case the objective was to decrease compensation paid to religious groups.
The government was still processing restitution claims made between 2012 and 2013 for confiscated land and other real and personal property. It reported that in 2018 it returned 1,441 agricultural properties and 356 nonagricultural properties confiscated from religious groups during the communist period. The government had returned a total of 99,001 agricultural and nonagricultural properties between 2013, when the law on religious property restitution came into effect, and the end of 2018.
In August the Supreme Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the South Moravian Regional Court in Brno that the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and not the Brno Jewish Community (BJC) was the legal owner of a building in Brno. The BJC filed its claim in 2013, and the ministry rejected the claim in 2014. The BJC said it would appeal the Supreme Court decision to the Constitutional Court, which exercised final authority in such cases.
During the year, the government provided 17 second-tier religious groups with approximately 3.3 billion crowns ($148.9 million): 1.2 billion crowns ($54.1 million) in government subsidies and 2.1 billion crowns ($94.8 million) as compensation for communal property in private and state hands that would not be returned. Five of the 22 second-tier groups declined all state funding. While accepting the state subsidy, the Baptist Union opted not to accept compensation for unreturned property. In addition, the MOC provided three million crowns ($135,000) in grants for religiously oriented cultural activities in response to applications from various religious groups.
In September the government approved a 100 million crown ($4.5 million) contribution to the Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims for projects focused on Holocaust remembrance and education, welfare for Holocaust victims, and care for Jewish monuments.
In November the Kolel Damesek Eliezer Foundation, a U.S. charity, the FJC, and the Hanacky Jerusalem Association signed a memorandum with the municipal government of Prostejov on restoration of a former Jewish cemetery in that city. The cemetery, along with its remaining tombstones found in other locations, was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted into a park. The MOC designated it a cultural monument in 2016 and 2017. In November a stone replica of Rabbi Zvi Horowitz’ original tombstone, which vandals destroyed in 2017, was installed in the area of the former cemetery.
In June press reported the municipal council in Prague was withholding issuance of a building permit for the Association for the Renewal of the Marian Column, a group trying to re-erect a Baroque-era column with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the city’s Old Town Square. A crowd tore down the original statue in 1918 shortly after Czechoslovakia gained its independence. Critics of the project said the statue was a symbol of Habsburg Empire-enforced Catholicism on the country. The association had already built a replica of the statue and was awaiting a decision from the municipal council at year’s end.
The SPD and its leader, Tomio Okamura, continued to speak out against Islam and Muslim migrants. In one post on social media, Okamura stated the idea of having Islamic schools in the country was unacceptable, and he did not want Islam to be practiced in the country. His posts, as well as the SPD party platform, included the slogan, “No to Islam, No to Terrorists.” In April the SPD held a rally in Prague attended by Okamura, France’s National Rally Party leader Marine Le Pen, and founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom Geert Wilders. Mateo Salvini, head of Italy’s League party, sent a video message. All the political leaders spoke out against immigration and Islam. According to press reports, Wilders said, “Islam is a medieval cult that denies freedom to others,” and the crowd repeatedly chanted, “We don’t want Islam here!” The Against the Hate platform, a Facebook group, organized an event at the same time protesting the SPD rally in a nearby location attracting approximately 100 participants. Dozens of persons also protested at the SPD rally itself.
In September the Prague Municipal Court upheld the Prague 1 District Court’s decision in 2018 to issue a suspended one-year sentence and 70,000 crown ($3,200) fine levied on former SPD secretary Jaroslav Stanik for hate speech after he publicly stated in 2017 that Jews, Roma, and homosexuals should be shot right after birth.
In May the government approved the annual Strategy to Combat Extremism that outlined specific tasks for various ministries, such as the MOI, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Education, MOC, and Ministry of Finance in fighting extremism and hate crimes, including hate crimes against religious groups. Steps the document outlined to reduce incidents included raising public awareness about extremist activities, campaigns to reduce hate speech on the internet, education and prevention programs at schools, specialized training for law enforcement, and assistance to victims.
In January in a session commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Chamber of Deputies officially adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.
On January 25, the senate, in cooperation with the FJC, organized an official ceremony to honor victims of the Holocaust as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Speakers from both houses of parliament delivered remarks and called for religious tolerance.
In October the Chamber of Deputies enacted a nonbinding resolution denouncing all manifestations of anti-Semitism against individuals, institutions, organizations, and the State of Israel. The resolution condemned actions and statements calling for the boycott of Israel and its products, services, or citizens. It also called for increased protection for persons or institutions that could be the target of anti-Semitic attacks.
In April President of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera again sponsored and participated in an annual march and the Culture Against Anti-Semitism Festival. The march, from the city center to the senate gardens, opened the festival, consisting of speeches, video messages, documentaries, and live readings and musical performances against anti-Semitism. Approximately 700 persons attended the event.
The government funded religiously oriented cultural activities, including the Night of Churches held in several cities; the annual National Pilgrimage of St. Wenceslaus (consisting of a march through Prague and masses celebrated in that city and Brandys nad Labem); KRISTFEST (a festival of seminars, workshops, and musical performances on religious themes); the annual Concert in Memory of Holocaust Victims; the annual Hussite Festival (commemorating the religious teaching of reformation leader Jan Hus); Litomysl Days of Baroque Tradition (a festival consisting of liturgical music, masses, and readings); and the festival of Orthodox music, Archaion Kallos.
According to the FJC, the MOI continued to provide security to the Jewish community and Jewish sites based on a memorandum of cooperation signed in 2016.
The country is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In IUSTITIA reported 14 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year, 12 against Muslims and two against Jews, compared with 17 cases in 2018. In IUSTITIA did not provide details of the incidents.
In 2018, the most recent year data were available, the MOI reported 15 criminal offenses with anti-Semitic motives and eight with anti-Muslim motives, compared with 27 and three crimes, respectively, in 2017.
The FJC reported 347 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, compared with 126 in 2015 (the most recent previous year in which the FJC had collected incident reports), including 14 directed against specific persons or institutions – two physical attacks, three cases of property damage, and nine cases of harassment. The other 333 incidents included graffiti, videos, articles, and online comments. According to the FJC, the largest increase was in anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet, which accounted for 93 percent of the incidents in 2018. It stated 64 percent of incidents involved stereotypical statements about Jews, such as allegations Jews controlled the economy and government. In 29 percent of the cases, the writers blamed Jews collectively for Israeli actions.
In one of the two attacks the FJC reported in 2018, the new employer of a hotel in Prague assaulted an employee and shouted anti-Semitic insults at him. In the other attack, in Prague, a taxi driver assaulted a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, swearing at him and calling him “Jew.” In another incident the FJC cited, a person accosted a Jewish man at a bar in Liberec, calling for the destruction of Israel and yelling, “Heil Hitler!” In a fourth incident, a guard asked a Jewish woman to remove her Star of David before entering a club in Prague.
In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member. According to the survey, 65 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in the Czech Republic, and 57 percent believed anti-Semitism had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 38 percent; on the internet, 33 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 36 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 33 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 44 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 32 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 30 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 30 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 28 percent.
In May the EC carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 24 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the Czech Republic, while 69 percent said it was rare; 78 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 97 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 95 percent said they would be with an atheist, 90 percent with a Jew, 77 percent with a Buddhist, and 48 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 95 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 87 percent if atheist, 81 percent if Jewish, 67 percent if Buddhist, and 31 percent if Muslim.
According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Survey released in October, 64 percent of respondents in the country expressed unfavorable opinions of Muslims, while 17 percent expressed unfavorable opinions of Jews.
In March, following the mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand, press reported Leonid Kushnarenko, then-lay chairman of the Prague Muslim community, posted a video on Facebook urging community members to arm themselves to protect their health and property and offered to assist them in doing so. Kushnarenko reportedly told the newspaper Denik N that he made his appeal because of “Islamophobic sentiments” in the country. On March 24, the Czech Muslim Communities Center announced on Facebook it had revoked Kushnarenko’s membership in the organization because of his statement and acts, which it said harmed the interests of the Muslim community in the country.
The MOI reported there were 11 private “white power” concerts during the year, where participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views. The ministry estimated approximately 50 to 100 persons attended each concert.
Supreme State Prosecutor Pavel Zeman stated at a conference on Hate Crime on the Internet in October that internet hate speech against Muslims and Jews had increased. He added that online hate speech against these and other groups must be addressed before it grew into physical attacks.
In January the Prague Regional Court convicted 71-year-old Jaromir Balda of terrorism and sentenced him to four years in prison for causing two trains to derail near Mlada Boleslav in 2017. In April the Prague Higher Court rejected his appeal of the verdict. The man had felled trees to block the railway line and said he tried to make it appear Islamists were responsible in order to raise the public’s concerns about Muslim immigration.
In August the Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict of well-known anti-Semitic blogger Adam Bartos on charges of incitement to hatred and denying the Holocaust on the internet, in public speeches, and books. He was sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence in 2018.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, in June vandals damaged the Valediction Memorial to Jewish children. The memorial commemorates those who escaped the Holocaust at Prague’s mail railway station.
The Times of Israel reported a Jewish cemetery was vandalized in the northeast district of Osoblaha in July, where unidentified individuals smashed at least one headstone and etched “obscene” drawings on several others.
According to press reports in November, the mayor’s office in Prague and the Jewish community reached agreement on the return of Jewish gravestones the Communist government had taken from a 19th century Jewish cemetery in the 1980s and converted into cobblestones it laid down in various areas of the capital, notably in Wenceslas Square and Na Prikope Street. The Jewish community said it would place the gravestone fragments in the Old Jewish Cemetery in the city’s Zizkov District.
The government-funded Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims, established by the FJC, contributed four million crowns ($180,000) to 14 institutions providing health and social care to approximately 500 Holocaust survivors.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy representatives continued to engage government officials from the MOC’s Department of Churches on issues including property restitution to religious groups, religious tolerance, and the Prostejov Jewish cemetery. Embassy officials also met with the MFA’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, Antonin Hradilek, regarding property restitution.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet with representatives from the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities to reaffirm U.S. commitment to religious tolerance and to hear their views on interfaith relations.
The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion. It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. The law establishes registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities. Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits. Prime Minister Juri Ratas condemned the public harassment of the country’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Kot, stating discrimination based on religion, nationality, origin, or any other reason was unacceptable. The government continued to provide funds to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities. Media reported Jewish leaders expressed concern in April when the prime minister formed a coalition government that included the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). According to media, some EKRE members of parliament (MPs) had made anti-Semitic statements prior to joining government, including praising Nazi Germany. Media reported that on August 1, EKRE member of the European Parliament Jaak Madison stated on his Facebook page that it was “time for the Final Solution” regarding refugees in Europe. According to media, on March 16, a man shouted anti-Semitic remarks at the country’s chief rabbi in public, including “Jews to the oven” and “Heil Hitler.” The prime minister condemned the incident, and a court sentenced the man to eight days in prison. According to the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), on July 27, three MPs attended the annual commemoration of the World War II (WWII) battle of Tannenberg Line in the town of Sinimae, a battle in which the Estonian Waffen SS fought under the leadership of German Nazi forces against the Soviets. On January 28, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. In September government officials participated in an international conference and memorial service commemorating the 75th anniversary of the massacre of Jews at Klooga concentration camp.
The Police and Border Guard Board reported that on June 23, unidentified individuals knocked over five gravestones at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn and spray-painted a swastika nearby. Police opened a criminal investigation, which continued at year’s end. In 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases (as defined by law) involving religion, compared with no cases in 2017 and six cases in 2016. In September a European Commission study found that 17 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country. In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey indicating 86 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in the country.
The Charge d’Affaires and embassy staff continued to support dialogue on religious freedom, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues engaged the government on Holocaust history, education, and Jewish cultural property and provenance research (property restitution) related to the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Now (JUST) Act. The embassy used social media to promote religious freedom, including a Facebook post celebrating International Religious Freedom Day.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.2 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent data available), 29 percent of the population is religiously affiliated, 54 percent does not identify with any religion, and 17 percent does not state an affiliation. According to current data from the Council of Churches, 13.8 percent of the population belongs to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, while 13.1 percent belongs to the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP), and 2.3 percent belongs to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. The Union of Free Evangelical and Baptist Churches of Estonia and the Roman Catholic Church in Estonia together comprise 1 percent. Other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Russian Old Believers, collectively constitute 1.1 percent of the population. According to the 2011 census, there are small Jewish and Muslim communities of 2,500 members and 1,500 members, respectively. Most religious adherents among the Russian-speaking population belong to the EOCMP and reside mainly in the capital or the northeastern part of the country. According to 2011 census data, most of the country’s community of Russian Old Believers lives along the west bank of Lake Peipsi in the eastern part of the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.” The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. According to the penal code, an act inciting hatred is a crime if the act results in danger to the life, health, or property of a person. The law also states violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison. The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service for the same amount of time required for military service as provided by law.
The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers all religious associations and religious societies. To register, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit a notarized or digitally signed application, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes. The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits if they apply for them, such as a value-added tax exemption. There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.
The law does not prohibit activities by unregistered religious associations. Unregistered religious associations, however, may not act as legal persons. Unlike registered religious associations, unregistered associations are not eligible for tax benefits.
Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations. To register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, who may be physical or legal persons. The minimum number of founders is two. The society must submit its registration application either electronically or on paper to the Tartu County Court registry office.
The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion. Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs. The state funds police and border guard, military, and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination and must guarantee religious services for individuals of all faiths.
Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools and is funded by the state. All schools must provide religious studies at the primary and secondary levels if students request these studies. The courses offer a general introduction to different faiths. Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers. There are also private religious schools. All students, regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation, may attend religious schools. Attendance at religious services at religious schools is voluntary. According to the director of a major private religious school, the majority of students attending the school were not associated with the school’s religious affiliation.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the government’s NGO register, five religious associations were registered during the year, including three Lutheran and two Buddhist groups.
In January the government allocated 6.75 million euros ($7.58 million) to the Evangelical Lutheran Church and 1.15 million euros ($1.29 million) to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church as compensation for the damage to Church properties during WWII and the subsequent Soviet occupation.
In September the government pledged 844,000 euros ($948,000) to renovate Alexander’s Cathedral of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Narva, which is located in the eastern part of the country near the border with Russia.
As in 2018, the government allocated 596,000 euros ($670,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches. The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities. The government continued to fund ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs broadcast on the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing.
According to media, in March a man reportedly under the influence of drugs verbally abused the country’s chief rabbi. The man shouted anti-Semitic remarks, including, “Heil Hitler” and “Jews to the oven.” The prime minister condemned the incident, stating discrimination based on religion, nationality, origin, or any other reason was totally unacceptable. A court found the man guilty of harassment and sentenced him to eight days in prison.
In April Prime Minister Ratas formed a new coalition government that included EKRE. Some members of the party had made anti-Semitic statements prior to joining government, including praising Nazi Germany. Media quoted MP Ruuben Kaalep, former leader of EKRE’s youth wing Blue Awakening, as saying during the year that “Hitler was a rather good commander in the context of WWII.” According to media, in the lead-up to the coalition government being formed, leaders of the Jewish community expressed concern about including EKRE. Media reported that in August EKRE member of the European Parliament Madison stated on his Facebook page it was “time for the Final Solution” regarding refugees in Europe. Madison used the term in German, which was associated with the Nazi campaign to exterminate European Jews during WWII.
According to the NCSEJ, on July 27, three MPs attended the annual commemoration of the WWII battle of Tannenberg Line in the town of Sinimae, a battle in which the Estonian Waffen SS fought under the leadership of German Nazi forces against the Soviets.
On January 28, the government held its annual memorial event for Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn. Schools also participated in commemorative activities throughout the country. The Education and Research Ministry, in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Estonia, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), Estonian Memory Institute, and Museum of Occupation, organized an essay writing competition for children on topics related to the Holocaust.
On September 18, the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory held an international conference to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the September 19, 1944, massacre of approximately 2,000 Jews at Klooga concentration camp and to study and disseminate information about the Holocaust history and preservation of memory. Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu opened the conference and Cecilia Stockholm Banke, head of the Danish delegation to the IHRA, delivered the keynote address. On September 19, Minister of Population Riina Solman and other government officials attended a commemorative event at the camp site, at which the country’s chief rabbi read a memorial prayer. The minister stated, “It is our duty to commemorate the victims, stand up for historical truth, and pass on knowledge from the past to future generations so that ideologies against humanity can never prevail.”
The government is a member of IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases, as defined by law, the same as in 2017.
In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 86 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in the country, and 60 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who felt that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 9 percent; on the internet, 12 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 8 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 7 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 9 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 5 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 7 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 6 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 7 percent.
According to the Police and Border Guard Board, on June 23, unidentified individuals knocked over five gravestones at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn and spray-painted a swastika on the large stones nearby. Police opened a criminal investigation, which continued at year’s end.
According to many religious and other civil society leaders, there was societal support for religious freedom and tolerance in the country, including a biannual interreligious event, which last occurred in 2018.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
On June 6-7, embassy officials and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues discussed the state of religious freedom and tolerance in the country with officials from the internal, social, cultural, and foreign affairs ministries and engaged the government on the importance of promoting religious tolerance, including Holocaust history, education, and Jewish cultural property and provenance (property restitution) research related to the JUST Act.
Embassy officials met with members of the Jewish community, leaders of religious associations, representatives of the Council of Churches, and NGOs to discuss religious tolerance.
The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including a Facebook post celebrating International Religious Freedom Day.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. In March the Supreme Court allowed the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country, to appeal its countrywide ban. The group remained banned while it made its appeal. The Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) instructed the Finnish Association of Museums to prepare a formal study of the state of Holocaust-era art provenance research in its collections. Parliament repealed the military service exemption which had applied only to Jehovah’s Witnesses. A Finns Party politician publicly compared Muslim asylum seekers to invasive species. Jehovah’s Witnesses said the government continued to refuse most applications from Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum for religious persecution.
Police reported 155 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2018, compared with 235 such incidents in the previous year, but did not specify how many were motivated solely by religion. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 35 complaints of religious discrimination in 2018, compared with 55 in the previous year. The NRM continued to post anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements online and demonstrated with the anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin. There were several demonstrations by neo-Nazi or nativist groups. In November, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht (the 1938 pogrom against Jews in Germany), a group handed out flyers and waved flags bearing symbols resembling the Nazi swastika at a demonstration in Helsinki, and anti-Semitic stickers were posted around the city. Muslim groups reported a shortage of funds needed to establish houses of worship to match their growing population. A report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) said hate crimes and intolerant speech in public discourse, principally against Muslims and asylum seekers (many of whom belong to religious minorities), had increased in recent years. The report also cited frequent use of anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet and hate speech by extremist groups, especially neo-Nazis. Vandals targeted Jewish property, including the Israeli embassy and a Shia mosque in Helsinki.
U.S. embassy staff met with government ministries to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, the provenance of Holocaust-era art, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum. Embassy staff discussed with the Jewish and Muslim communities their concerns about the law restricting animal slaughter, government discouragement of male circumcision, and a rise in religiously motivated harassment. They also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minorities, and interfaith networks.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to Finnish government statistics from December 2018, which count only registered members of registered congregations, approximately 69.8 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent (approximately 16,000 individuals) officially belong to Islamic congregations, and 26.3 percent do not identify as belonging to any religious group. The census combines the other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and members of the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.7 percent of the population.
Multiple sources indicate the Muslim population has grown rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants. Muslim religious leaders estimate the number of Muslims rose to 100,000 in 2018, of which approximately 80 percent is Sunni and 20 percent Shia. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated 2.7 percent of the population, or approximately 150,000 persons, were Muslim. According to a survey by the MEC, the Muslim population numbered approximately 65,000 in 2016. According to the Islamic Society of Finland, discrepancies among these sources and between them and official government statistics may occur because only a minority of Muslims register with registered Islamic societies. Apart from Tatars, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia, North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.” It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community. It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion. The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes “blaspheming against God,” publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment of up to six months. Authorities have rarely applied the law, most recently in 2009. The constitution cites the ELC, the only religious group it mentions, stating that “provisions on the organization and administration [of the ELC] are laid down in the Church Act.”
The law prohibits religious discrimination and prescribes a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law and investigating individual cases of discrimination and having the power to issue fines in noncriminal cases. The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling and promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities. The ombudsman may also refer cases to the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal (NDET), which also enforces fines issued by the ombudsman, or assist plaintiffs seeking compensation in court. Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the NDET, which may issue binding decisions that may be appealed to the courts, or through the district court system. Litigants may appeal the decisions of the NDET and the district courts to the higher Administrative Court. Neither the ombudsman nor the NDET has the authority to investigate individual cases of religious discrimination involving employment. Such cases fall under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Authority.
Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government. To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community. To register as a religious community, a group must have at least 20 members, the public practice of religion as its purpose, and a set of rules to guide its activities. A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims. A religious group may also acquire legal status by registering as an association with a nonprofit purpose that is not contrary to law or proper behavior. Registered religious groups and nonprofit associations are generally exempt from taxes. According to the MEC, there are approximately 130 registered religious communities, most of which have multiple congregations. Persons may belong to more than one religious community.
All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Finnish Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments. Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, now set at between 1 to 2 percent of a member’s income. Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership. Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person. Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.
Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church are eligible to apply for state funds in lieu of the church tax. In addition to receiving the church tax, the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church may also apply for state funds. The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements, including ELC and Orthodox congregations, may apply to receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.
The law requires the ELC to maintain public cemeteries using its general allocation from state funds and church tax and to account for monies used for this purpose. Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries. All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy. The law authorizes the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Population Register Center. State registrars do this for other persons.
Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12 years of age. The parents of a child between the ages of 12 and 17 must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate religious affiliation.
All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion. All students must take courses either in ethics or in religious studies, with the choice left up to the student. Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community. Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics. Students aged 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or ethics. If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates. The national and municipal governments fund private, including religiously based, schools. These schools do not charge tuition and do not practice selective admission based on students’ religion.
Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and general instruction in ethics. Teachers of religion must have state-mandated training for religious instruction. The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community. The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.
The government allows conscientious objectors to choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service. In February parliament repealed the exemption from conscription for Jehovah’s Witnesses, meaning that members of the organization need to perform military or alternative civilian service or face imprisonment. Conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service. Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.
The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be stunned and killed simultaneously in cases of religious practice.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March the Supreme Court granted the NRM the right to appeal to the Supreme Court the 2018 Turku Court of Appeals ruling which upheld the 2017 nationwide ban of the organization for distributing anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim materials and engaging in hate speech. The NRM continued to demonstrate in public despite the Supreme Court’s order that it refrain from all activities while the appeal remained pending. In May the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) opened a criminal investigation into NRM members for allegedly violating the ban on activities by publishing anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim articles on their website.
In August the National Police Board, which supervises police operations across the country, stated it had received multiple questions from members of parliament (MPs) suggesting the redirection of resources from the investigation of hate speech and hate crimes would be beneficial. Among the critics was Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho, who said during the Finns Party’s summer summit in August that police personnel were needed for “real criminal investigations” and not to “stalk people on social media.”
At year’s end, parliament had not voted on an amendment to the Church Act, which governs the practices of the ELC. Parliament took up the bill in September 2018 after the General Synod of the ELC approved it but did not enact the bill during that year. The amended Church Act has the stated intent of clarifying and facilitating administration, enhancing church autonomy, and facilitating internal decision making in the ELC. The amended act would devolve back to the Church certain responsibilities that previously required parliamentary approval.
In June the MEC instructed the Finnish Association of Museums to prepare a formal study of the state of Holocaust-era art provenance research in their collections. According to the MEC, the move was intended to address the lack of Holocaust-era art provenance research in order to better meet the requirements for the implementation of the Terezin Declaration. At year’s end, the study was ongoing, and only the Finnish National Gallery had publicly listed works of art with significant provenance gaps acquired during 1939-1945. Holocaust-era art provenance research is also scheduled as a topic at the country’s National Art Museum Conference to be held in 2020.
In February an independent investigation by the National Archives concluded “it was very likely” Finnish volunteers in the Waffen SS participated in killing Jews, other civilians, and prisoners of war during World War II. State Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office Paula Lehtomaki said it was necessary “to investigate the questions that emerge and conduct complementary research on difficult historical events…. We share the responsibility for ensuring that such atrocities will never be repeated.” The prime minister’s office funded the investigation in 2018 in response to a request from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In September Mikko Karna, a Center Party MP, advocated legislation prohibiting nonmedical male circumcision during parliamentary talks on the criminalization of female circumcision. Karna cited guidelines published by the Finnish Medical Association, which discouraged the procedure. He argued that all cases of cosmetic or religious male circumcision should be criminalized, citing medical research showing the percentage of routine procedures that unintentionally inflict serious harm on patients.
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public health-care funding for such procedures. In its guidelines, which were recommendations rather than requirements per prior Supreme Court rulings, the ministry stated only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent. Members of the Muslim and Jewish communities continued to express disagreement with the guidelines. The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice did not renew her 2018 request to the MSAH asking it to establish legally binding regulations on nonmedical circumcision.
After the government of Prime Minister Juha Sipila resigned in March, parliament dismissed without a vote a proposed animal welfare law it had been debating since 2018. The bill would have required prior stunning of animals before slaughter in all cases, eliminating the existing exemption allowing simultaneous stunning and killing in cases of religious slaughter. By year’s end, the new parliament had not taken the bill up again. Jewish community leaders also criticized the restrictions in the existing law, which they said hindered their community’s ability to slaughter animals in a religiously approved manner and caused them to import kosher meat at higher prices.
NGOs working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre and Amnesty, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment by other migrants held within the same center.
While the government did not release detailed reports on asylum applicants categorized by religion, immigration officials and representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia applying for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution remained high. Jehovah’s Witness representatives said the government denied most of the asylum claims, stating that only Church officials and not regular members were under threat of persecution in Russia. Immigration officials said membership in the Church did not in and of itself guarantee asylum.
According to a senior military officer, the military maintained a zero-tolerance policy regarding hate speech and hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents. Unit commanders initiated investigations of reported incidents. If the commander judged the infraction to be minor, he or she administered a formal reprimand or other punishment. For more serious offenses, the commander reported the investigation up the chain of command, and military authorities might refer the case to civilian courts. The officer also said that the military accommodated, per regulation, religious dietary needs and fasting requirements, and afforded religious leave and prayer time to all personnel.
Police reported 63 cases of refusal to perform compulsory military or civilian service, but very few of these cases involved Jehovah’s Witnesses according to representatives of the Jehovah’s Witness organization. Police did not indicate how many refusals were religiously motivated.
In September Ombudsman for Nondiscrimination Kirsi Pimia recommended public swimming pools permit Muslim women to wear burkinis. Pimia said there were cases of burkini-wearing women being turned away from public swimming pools. She added that banning burkinis could amount to discrimination based on religion and gender.
In August Finns Party leader Halla-aho stated during a parliamentary group meeting the party did not intend to let authorities press charges against Finns Party MP Juha Maenpaa for ethnic agitation or disturbance of religious peace. During a June session of parliament, Maenpaa equated asylum seekers from Muslim majority countries with alien or invasive species. In August police started a preliminary investigation into Maenpaa’s remarks. In September Center Party Speaker of Parliament Matti Vanhanen stated it was inappropriate for an MP to comment on a legal case in advance if there were a possibility parliament would judge the case. According to the constitution, if the prosecutor sought to prosecute Maenpaa, a five-sixths majority of parliament would have to agree to revoke his parliamentary immunity.
In August media reported a recently elected MP, Hussein al-Taee of the Social Democratic Party, had in 2014 and possibly as late as 2016, made anti-Semitic comments online, including comparing Israel to ISIS. According to The Jerusalem Post newspaper, parliament reversed its decision to suspend al-Taee after he apologized for his remarks. The newspaper quoted an official with the Simon Wiesenthal Center as stating al-Taee was “obviously an anti-Semite” and wondering how he could be a member in good standing of any social democratic party. By year’s end, neither the Social Democratic Party nor parliament had taken any disciplinary action against al-Taee.
The government allocated 114 million euros ($128.09 million) to the ELC and 2.54 million euros ($2.85 million) to the Finnish Orthodox Church. The MEC allotted a total of 524,000 euros ($589,000) to all other registered religious organizations. All the allocations were unchanged from 2018. The MEC additionally made a one-time grant to the Jewish Community of Helsinki of 300,000 euros ($337,000) for security of the Helsinki Synagogue and community center.
The MEC awarded a total of 80,000 euros ($89,900) to promote interfaith dialogue, the same amount as in 2018. The same two organizations as in the previous year split the funding: the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions (CORE Forum), which is composed of representatives from the largest religious denominations, and Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
A CORE Forum survey published in March of hate crimes between 2014 and 2018 reported 18 percent of incidents were religiously motivated. The most common targets of these crimes were members of the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Despite the ban against it, the NRM continued to operate a website and make statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims and participated in demonstrations, according to press reports. The website contained articles denying the Holocaust, stating that Jewish leaders treat “white people as Muslim terrorists,” and labeling Muslim women and children of ISIS fighters as even more dangerous than their husbands and fathers. According to authorities, the NRM also established a closer relationship with the nativist Soldiers of Odin, and members of both groups often participated in each other’s demonstrations. Superintendent of the National Police Board Timo Kilpelainen told the media the increased cooperation could be due to the ongoing judicial process surrounding NRM’s ban. At the start of the judicial process, the Soldiers of Odin had offered their support to the NRM. According to media reports, the NRM also created two additional associations, Finnish Aid and Unity of the People, so its members could become integrated with those groups should the ban become permanent.
On November 9, a self-styled national socialist group called Towards Freedom! organized a demonstration in Helsinki. According to Tommi Kotonen, a Jyvaskyla University researcher, NRM activists were likely behind the group. The demonstration coincided with the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany in 1938. Protesters at the demonstration handed out fliers and waved flags bearing symbols resembling the Nazi swastika. According to a report on the website of national broadcaster Yle, police were investigating whether NRM had violated its ban by operating under the Towards Freedom! name. During the evening, according to the same report, unknown individuals placed yellow Star of David stickers with the word “Jude” (“Jew”) at sites around the city, including near a synagogue and the Israeli embassy.
According to media reports, in August the anti-immigrant Nationalist Alliance organized a memorial march in Turku, which included participation by the NRM, to commemorate the victims of a 2017 stabbing by a Moroccan asylum seeker. Approximately 250 persons joined the march. Finns Party MP Vilhelm Junnila spoke at the event, calling on the city to commemorate the victims by illuminating the Kirjastosilta Bridge in the colors of the national flag every August 18. Approximately 500 persons participated in a counterdemonstration titled “Turku Without Nazis.”
Muslim groups, such as the Islamic Congregation of Finland, continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population, but said they were hindered by insufficient funds to purchase property, given that most Muslims did not belong to congregations registered with the government. Except for a handful of purpose-built mosques, most mosques were in converted commercial spaces. In August Yle reported the Mikkeli Islamic Cultural Association, an unregistered group with approximately 30 members, was in the process of establishing a mosque in the town of Mikkeli, but authorities prohibited it from using the building it selected until the town issued a different building permit and the group had made required fire safety improvements. The building was under renovation at year’s end.
The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 35 complaints of religious discrimination in 2018 – 4 percent of total discrimination complaints – compared with 55 complaints in 2017. In one instance the report cited, a district court fined a shop owner, ruling the owner had discriminated against woman wearing a niqab by refusing her service.
In September ECRI published a report on racism and intolerance in the country that stated hate crimes had increased in recent years, especially against Muslims and refugees (many of whom are Muslim). It added that intolerant speech in public discourse was increasing and principally directed against the Muslim community and asylum seekers (many of whom belong to religious minorities). It stated some members of the Finns Party made anti-Muslim statements in public. According to the report, anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet was “commonplace” and certain extremist groups, especially neo-Nazis such as the national branch of the NRM, “engage[d] in the systematic use of hate speech.” It also stated Nazi swastikas had become more visible in public spaces. The report called on the government to set up a comprehensive data collection system for hate crimes and hate speech.
In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 29 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Finland, while 67 percent said it was rare; 75 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, 86 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 81 percent said they would be with an atheist, 82 percent with a Jew, 80 percent with a Buddhist, and 76 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 90 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 83 percent if atheist, 81 percent if Jewish, 77 percent if Buddhist, and 66 percent if Muslim.
In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 76 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in Finland, and 49 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 19 percent; on the internet, 25 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 12 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 15 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 13 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 12 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 9 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 12 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 14 percent.
The website Magneettimedia continued to post anti-Semitic content. In August it published an article stating that “not Islamic but Zionist terrorism” was behind the 2017 Turku “terrorist attack,” and that, “Israel and its associated Zionists have set their sights on the confrontation between the Christian world and the Islamic world.” Major companies and consumer brands in the country continued to boycott the chain of department stores owned by the former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, due to his anti-Semitic views; no new companies or brands announced they would join the boycott.
Yle and other media reported that in March unknown persons spray-painted anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim expletives on the outside wall of a Shia mosque, one of the largest in the country, in the eastern Helsinki district of Mellunmaki on two consecutive mornings. The chair of the Resalat Islamic Society said such vandalism occurred sporadically and that the websites of the society were sometimes hacked. He added that staff at the society had received death threats. Helsinki police were investigating the case at year’s end.
According to the Israeli embassy, in July security camera footage showed an individual kicking in the embassy’s reinforced glass front door and gesturing at the Israeli flag in a derogatory manner, including with Nazi salutes. The entrance of the building housing the embassy also was defaced with stickers glorifying Adolf Hitler. The Israeli Ambassador characterized the incident as part of an escalation of acts of vandalism targeting Jewish property over a period of more than one year. Prior incidents included anti-Semitic graffiti targeting both the embassy and the Jewish community center in Helsinki. The Israeli Ambassador expressed frustration over the lack of an effective police or government response to the attacks.
In May a man approached Petri Sarvamaa, a European Parliament MP campaigning for reelection, on the street, called him a derogatory slur for a Jewish person, and threatened him.
Representatives of religious groups attended ceremonies hosted in their counterparts’ houses of worship. Finn Church Aid (FCA), associated with the ELC, again hosted an interreligious iftar, bringing together representatives from the major religious denominations in the capital region, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and municipal governments.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy staff met with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Foreign Affairs to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in asylum adjudication, and regulations covering kosher slaughter of animals. The embassy encouraged government officials to take steps to ensure that, pursuant to the Terezin Declaration, Holocaust survivors and their heirs received just compensation for assets seized by Nazi Germany, including by improving art provenance research in museums in the country.
Embassy staff met with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and lay activists from these communities, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy staff and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities discussed these communities’ shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, religiously motivated crimes, proposed legislation that would prohibit forms of religious animal slaughter, and continued issues with establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with representatives from different Muslim congregations and met regularly with NGOs such as Core Forum and FCA. Embassy staff discussed with Jehovah’s Witness community representatives changes to the military service exemption and the high rate of denial of asylum applications for religious persecution by Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia.
The embassy observed the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Violence Based on Religion or Belief through a Twitter message, and retweeting the Secretary of State’s press statement, “International Commitment to Protect Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.” The embassy also recognized the work of interfaith organizations in promoting religious tolerance by hosting an iftar and hosting a CORE Forum board meeting at the embassy. A senior embassy official delivered remarks promoting interfaith cooperation at both events.
Embassy staff met with prominent activists in the country’s Uighur community to discuss, among other topics, China’s harassment of Uighur activists within Finland and elsewhere.
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. On April 15, an amendment to the law that had deprived hundreds of religious entities of their legal status entered into force, establishing a four-tier system of categorizing religious groups, all of which will be eligible to receive state funding and member donations from income tax beginning in 2020. Under the amendment, parliament retains its discretionary role in the registration of incorporated (i.e., established) churches (“church” applies to any religious group, not just Christian), the highest category, while the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rules on eligibility for registration under one of the other three categories. The Jewish group the government appointed in 2018 to work on the House of Fates Holocaust museum proposed a new outline for it in June and said the museum should open within 18 months. Domestic and international groups continued to raise concerns about the project, which the government had placed on hold since 2014 after the groups said it could obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. Other Jewish groups expressed concern about government officials’ praise for the country’s World War II (WWII)-era leaders and Hitler allies and about public messaging these groups said could incite anti-Semitism. Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban stated the government provided protection and major support to the country’s Jewish community. Senior government officials continued to make statements defending the country and Europe as Christian and describing the threat of a “Muslim immigration invasion.”
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including verbal insults, hate speech, vandalism, and graffiti. Muslim leaders said anti-Muslim incidents decreased compared with 2018, but discrimination continued. Significant percentages of society held anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim views, according to independent polls.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to discuss religious freedom, anti-Semitism, Holocaust commemoration, the amendment to the religion law, and heirless property restitution for victims of the Holocaust. The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism visited the country in May and discussed religious freedom issues with high-level government and religious leaders. The Deputy Administrator for USAID and the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council discussed the importance of religious freedom in formal remarks at a Thanksgiving dinner the embassy cohosted with the government, which religious leaders of many faiths attended. Embassy officials discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom with a range of religious leaders and civil society representatives.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the Church of Scientology (COS), Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, Muslims, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census. The World Jewish Congress estimates the Jewish population to be between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. Local Jewish organizations estimate approximately 100,000 citizens with Jewish heritage live in the country, primarily in Budapest. Other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination, as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.
The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious groups. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
On April 15, a 2018 parliamentary amendment to the 2011 religion law entered into force. The amended law replaces the previous two-tier system of “incorporated churches” and “religious organizations” with a four-tier system of, in descending order, “established (or incorporated) churches,” “registered churches” (also called “registered II”), “listed churches” (also called “registered I”), and “religious associations.” The term “church” in the law refers to any religious community, not just Christian ones, and religious groups in any category may use “church” in their official names. All previously incorporated religious groups retain their status in the first tier of the new system as established churches. Recognition as an established church continues to require a two-thirds approval by parliament; the Budapest-Capital Regional Court has jurisdiction to rule on applications for registration within the other three categories. Religious groups in all four tiers have “legal personality,” which grants them legal rights, such as the right to own property.
Religious entities that do not apply for legal status in one of the four categories are still able to function and conduct worship. The amended law states constitutional protection of freedom of religion also applies to these unregistered groups.
To qualify for established church status, a religious group must first have registered status and then conclude a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the state for the purpose of accomplishing community goals. The government submits the comprehensive agreement to parliament, which must approve it by a two-thirds majority vote. A registered church becomes an established church from the day parliament approves the comprehensive agreement. Established churches are eligible to benefit from significant state subsidies.
To qualify for registered status, a religious group must receive tax donations from an average of 4,000 persons per year in the five-year period prior to the application. This status also requires that the group either has operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally, or has operated as a listed church for at least 15 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for listed status, a religious group must receive tax donations from an average of 1,000 persons per year in the three-year period prior to the application for status and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for religious association status, a religious group must have at least 10 members.
The amended law allows the government to negotiate individual cooperation agreements with all four categories of religious communities for the performance of social service activities and support of faith-based activities, specified in these agreements. The agreements’ duration depends on the status of the religious community, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations up to 10 and 15 years for listed and registered churches, respectively, and unlimited duration for established churches. All religious groups other than religious associations must publish these agreements and publicly account for social service spending.
Churches that agree not to seek state or European Union (EU) funding (including personal income tax donations) for their religious activities may qualify as registered or listed churches without fulfilling the requirement regarding the number of personal income tax donations. The applicant religious community must perform primarily religious activities and may not be a criminal defendant or have been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or considered a national security threat. The court decides whether to grant status as a registered or listed church based on an examination of the criteria above. In reviewing these applications, the court may consult church law, church history, or ecclesiastical or academic experts, and may also consult the national security services.
Religious groups that agree not to seek government or EU funding but accept financial support at a later stage must report this to the court within 15 days of the disbursement of the aid. To avoid losing its status or a reclassification to the lower association tier, the religious group has eight days to declare to the court that it has returned the funds, requested cancellation of its religious registration status, or complied with the individual tax donation requirement to become a registered or listed organization. The religious group or prosecutor’s office may appeal the court’s decision on the status of the group to the Budapest-Capital Court of Appeal.
The law stipulates the relevant government minister, based on information received from the court, shall manage an electronic database of religious communities with legal status, accessible to the public free of charge. At year’s end, the database was not publicly accessible.
The amended law allows taxpayers to donate 1 percent of their income taxes to any religious community in any of the four categories starting with the 2020 tax year. Religious groups may use these funds as they wish. Only established and registered churches (the two highest tiers) are eligible to receive a state subsidy matching the 1 percent tax donations.
According to the amended law, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court may dissolve a religious community with legal status – with the exception of established churches – if its activities conflict with the constitution or law or if the court rules its registration should have been denied. Parliament may dissolve an incorporated church if the Constitutional Court finds it is operating in violation of the constitution. If a religious community is dissolved without a legal successor, its assets, after satisfying creditors, become the property of the state and shall be used for public interest activities.
Under the amended law, 32 churches maintained their incorporated (or, in the new terminology, “established”) status. These include the Roman Catholic Church, a range of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, three Jewish groups (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community), and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups. The amendment added the Sovereign Military Order of Malta to the list of established churches.
By law, the state may neither operate nor establish any body for controlling or monitoring religious communities. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Copyright law protects their names, symbols, and rites, while criminal law protects buildings and cemeteries.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsperson). The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.
According to the amended law, established, registered, and listed churches may perform pastoral services in military facilities, prisons, and hospitals. Other laws indicate religious associations may also have the right to provide services at these facilities.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, and Jewish congregations (which the government generally calls “historical churches”) may provide chaplain services to the military without seeking permission. Other religious communities must seek permission to offer such services.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. Historical churches may provide pastoral services in prisons without special permission, but other, smaller religious groups may do so only within official visiting hours as outlined in individual agreements and with permission from the penitentiary. Similarly, historical churches receive automatic access to patients in hospitals to provide pastoral services, while other groups may do so only under certain conditions, such as providing services only during visiting hours.
One hour per week of faith and ethics or general ethics education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Parents and students choose between the faith and ethics class offered by an established church of their choosing or a secular ethics course taught by public school teachers. Other religious communities are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools at the request of parents or students. Private schools are not required to offer faith and ethics or ethics classes.
All religious communities registered in one of the four categories have the right to open their own schools. The state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee salaries at all such schools. Only established churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. Other religious communities may apply for a supplementary operational subsidy, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) may sign an individualized contract with them to cover these costs.
The law also affords all religious communities with legal status the right to assume operation of public schools if more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school sign a petition to do so and the MHC approves the change. In these cases, the government may continue to fund the schools. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law prohibits “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion or abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation.
Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or presumed religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is also punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the symbol of the Arrow Cross – a fascist, anti-Semitic party that allied with Nazi Germany – in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by five to 90 days’ detention.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Some previously deregistered religious communities expressed support for the provision in the amended religion law that allowed citizens to donate 1 percent of their taxes to all four tiers of religious communities, although some criticized the fact that religious communities could only receive these donations beginning in 2020. They also welcomed the decision to have a court rule on the registration applications of registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations and the introduction of criteria to qualify for the three lower categories.
According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), the amended law did not fully comply with the decisions of the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The law did not restore the status of deregistered religious communities, which were still excluded from the category of established churches. The HCLU also stated the amended law did not guarantee equal treatment of churches by the state or eliminate distinctions between religious communities, and that granting established status still remained in the purview of parliament. It also said that since deregistered churches received compensation for pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages identified by the ECHR for the period between January 1, 2012 and September 15, 2016, these churches were entitled to further compensation for the period from September 16, 2016 until April 15, 2019. In October the HCLU challenged the amended law in the Constitutional Court.
The government published a decree in October that outlined the application process for the other three tiers (registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations) and provided further clarifications on the operation of all four tiers. By year’s end, some religious groups, for example Sim Shalom and MET, reported they had started the application to register as a religious association.
Prior to the entry into force of the amendment to the religion law, parliament did not vote on any of the 16 pending applications for incorporated church status by religious groups, and these application procedures expired. According to the PMO, in the case of these 16 groups, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court was conducting a simplified registration process for listed and registered church status in which it did not evaluate the number of 1 percent personal income tax donations they received in determining whether they qualified for listed or registered status, and allowing the groups to use previously submitted documents in their applications. According to the Budapest-Capital Regional Court’s website, these 16 groups had until January 6, 2020 to apply under the simplified procedures.
Gabor Ivanyi, pastor and head of MET, said in October that the current legal framework put the operation of its social and educational institutions (such as schools and homeless shelters) at risk because financial support to churches depended on the discretion of the government. This dependence also discouraged churches from speaking freely on issues on which they disagreed with the government. In July Ivanyi filed a formal objection in court on the grounds that his church was required to submit an application for registration after the amended law entered into force, despite the absence of an official government decree specifying application rules. The court agreed to review the case.
In March the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rejected an appeal of a lawsuit by the COS against the government Data Protection Authority (DPA), which had investigated the COS for alleged criminal abuse of personal data and fined the COS and its central organization a total of 40 million forints ($136,000) in 2017. The court upheld the DPA’s finding and stated religious organizations also had an obligation to respect domestic and EU regulations regarding the protection of personal data. In August the National Police told local media the investigation of the COS continued.
In February the Supreme Court overturned an eviction order issued by Budapest’s 13th District against the COS, thus allowing the COS to continue to use its headquarters building. District officials continued to deny the COS a certificate of occupancy for the building.
The government continued its public campaign of billboards and posters against a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen businessman. Some of the placards stated EU leaders were part of the businessman’s plan to settle migrants from the Middle East and Africa in the country.
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) said local and state authorities refused to sell or rent land or issue permits to Muslims for homes or mosques or to open or expand Muslim cemeteries. According to OMH, the lack of sufficient cemetery space for Muslims remained the most pressing problem for the Muslim community.
According to the PMO, during the 2018-19 school year, incorporated churches operated 16.7 percent of elementary and secondary schools (compared with 15 percent in 2017-18), and religious organizations operated 0.2 percent. Incorporated churches operated 9.7 percent of preschools (with students aged three to seven), compared with 7.5 percent in the previous year, and religious organizations operated 0.2 percent. There were 217,204 students – 49.8 percent of whom were in Catholic schools – studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by incorporated churches and religious organizations, compared with 214,243 in the previous year.
On September 2, Deputy PM Zsolt Semjen stated the number of church-run schools and students enrolled in them had doubled since 2010. He said 220,000 children studied in 1,067 church-run schools. On August 31, PMO Minister Gergely Gulyas stated in Pecs, at the joint school year opening ceremony of Reformed Church educational institutions of the Carpathian Basin, that churches operated 14 percent of schools, and that church schools offering an education “based on Christian values and knowledge” catered to all segments of society. Gulyas also said, “By resigning Christian culture and faith, it [Europe] could lose everything that has characterized the continent for generations and for centuries.” According to education experts cited in local media, an increasing number of students attended church-run schools due to greater government financial support for religious schools compared to state schools and more curriculum flexibility, such as using nonstate textbooks.
Jewish groups expressed concerns about praise by government officials for the country’s WWII-era leaders and Hitler allies, as well as about public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism. On September 4, Mazsihisz, the country’s largest Jewish organization, issued a statement condemning the erection of a statue, and government officials’ participation in its unveiling, of Gyula Kornis in the town of Vac. Kornis, a member of a Catholic religious order and leading education politician in the era of WWII leader Miklos Horthy, helped prepare and implement the country’s anti-Semitic education laws in the 1920s. According to media, during remarks at the statue-unveiling ceremony, State Secretary in the MHC Bence Retvari praised Kornis as a “hero,” and Maria Schmidt, a historian and Government Commissioner of the Memorial Year of the 1956 Revolution, who formulated the original proposal for the government-funded House of Fates Holocaust museum and education center, said Kornis “always kept the interest of the nation in view.”
On November 16, several hundred supporters of the Mi Hazank (Our Homeland) Party marched in Budapest to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Horthy’s entry into Budapest. Fidesz MP Janos Lazar laid flowers at Horthy’s grave, calling him “a heroic soldier, a true Hungarian patriot whom we should remember by bowing our head.” Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler expressed deep disappointment with Lazar, who he said in the past as PMO minister had worked to build good relations with Jewish organizations.
On June 4, the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) presented a new, preliminary outline for the House of Fates at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) meeting in Luxembourg. PM Orban named Chief Rabbi and head of EMIH Slomo Koves to direct and refashion the project in 2018. The museum and center, to be located in Budapest, had been on hold since 2014 due to opposition from domestic and international groups that criticized it as an attempt to obscure the involvement of the country and Miklos Horthy in the Holocaust. In Luxembourg, Koves said he expected the museum would open within 18 months. The IHRA said in Luxembourg it would appoint a group of experts to advise the international advisory boards of the House of Fates. The IHRA, stating it had not seen the new concept in any detail, welcomed Rabbi Koves’ assurances that “a highly controversial historian” who had been involved in drafting an earlier concept for the project would no longer be involved. Prominent national and international Jewish groups continued to express concern about the project.
In April the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) submitted to the government its assessment of the scope and estimated value of confiscated heirless Jewish property in the country. As of year’s end, the government had not agreed to WJRO’s requests for further discussions on a roadmap to conclude negotiations.
In February Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, met with PMO State Secretary for Civil Society Relations Vince Szalay-Bobrovniczky and reportedly described the meeting as an opportunity to raise concerns with the government over anti-Semitism, efforts to downplay actions by leaders in support of the Holocaust, and language used by PM Orban against a Jewish, Hungarian-born U.S. citizen businessman. In a letter, Szalay-Bobrovniczky rejected her allegations of anti-Semitism against his government and PM Orban.
Government officials continued to make statements in defense of what they called a “Christian Europe” and describe migration, particularly of Muslims, as a threat. In his annual state of the nation speech in February, PM Orban stated the future of Central Europeans lies in the “protection of our families and our Christian culture” against immigration, which he said led to the “virus of Islamic terrorism.” In an April 9 speech, he said, “Islamic culture has conquered new territories,” and in September he stated, “The Hungarian state rests on the foundations…of Christian democracy.” In a March 2 interview with German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, PM Orban said, “There used to be anti-Semitism on the Christian right wing in Hungary, but we curbed it,” and, “The true threat of anti-Semitism in Europe now comes through immigration.” In September PMO State Secretary in Charge of Church and Nationality Issues Miklos Soltesz stated at the inauguration of a renovated Catholic church in the village of Segesd in Somogy County that the country had again become “the bastion of Christianity in Europe.” He added that, as when it had fought against Mongol and Turkish invasions, the country was now “stopping the Muslim flood.” During the Fidesz party convention on September 29, PM Orban said, “We have established a Hungarian Christian Democrat state…we have the right to organize our life according to the laws of Christian freedom.”
Between July 29 and August 7, the country hosted the 15th European Maccabi Games, an international Jewish sporting event, which occurred without incident. In July, when meeting with the organizers of the games, PM Orban stated the government provided protection and major support to the country’s Jewish community for preserving its identity and for the renaissance of Hungarian Jewish life. The government provided approximately five billion forints ($17 million) for the games, and more than 2,000 athletes from 42 countries participated in the event. Mazsihisz President Heisler said that the games represented an event of special importance to the country’s Jewish community.
The government provided 64.8 billion forints ($220.2 million) to incorporated churches (compared with 118.1 billion forints, $401.3 million, during 2018), of which 94 percent – 61.6 billion ($209.3 million) – went to what the government and media called the country’s four historical churches. The Roman Catholic Church received 39.9 billion forints ($135.6 million), the Reformed Church 15.9 billion forints ($54 million), the Evangelical Church 3.4 billion forints ($11.6 million), Mazsihisz 1.9 billion forints ($6.5 million), EMIH 330 million forints ($1.1 million), and the Jewish Orthodox community 222.5 million forints ($756,000). According to the PMO, direct state funding fell by nearly half because the 2018 amount included special funding for the renovation of church buildings. The PMO stated it would continue to submit proposals for emerging investment needs to the government.
The religious communities that received the bulk of the government’s contribution used the funds for such activities as maintenance of buildings, public educational and social services, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, employee wages, and support for faith-based activities of citizens living abroad.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent personal income tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, 993,955 citizens donated their 1 percent personal income tax to one of the incorporated churches, according to statistics published in March that reflected 2018 data. As in previous years, the church bodies receiving the most donations were the Catholic Church, with 529,123 persons contributing 2.5 billion forints ($8.5 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, with 210,301 persons contributing 1 billion forints ($3.4 million); and Lutheran Church, with 60,358 persons contributing 310 million forints ($1.1 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 46,373 persons contributing 250 million forints ($850,000).
In December the government awarded EMIH 1.8 billion forints ($6.1 million) to create a cultural center.
In November the government hosted the second international conference on Christian persecution. PM Orban stated at the conference that Christianity was under threat from forces such as political correctness and the “Muslim immigration invasion.”
On September 6, PM Orban met with Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the foreign affairs office of the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate and discussed the persecution of Christians around the world, deepening cooperation between eastern and western Christian denominations, and the work of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country.
The country is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The NGO Action and Protection Foundation, which monitored anti-Semitism, reported 32 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, the most recent year for which data was available, including three cases of assault, 19 of hate speech, and 10 of vandalism. Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data and said many members did not report incidents because they did not trust authorities would take any effective action. Muslim leaders, however, said anti-Muslim incidents decreased compared with 2018, although they added there were new forms of discrimination, and the majority of the population regarded Muslims with suspicion.
In the city of Nyiregyhaza on August 18, according to press reports, five men spit on and yelled anti-Semitic insults at a Jewish man and his wife as they returned from praying at a synagogue. The couple told police the men shouted, “Filthy Jews belong in the gas chamber,” and “Sieg Heil!” Police launched an investigation.
According to OMH, an employer fired a Muslim who prayed during his colleagues’ smoking break because the employer “didn’t tolerate religious extremism.” The employee did not take legal action.
According to research by the Median Public Opinion Research Institute conducted on behalf of TEV in November 2018 and published in July, 33 percent of respondents held strongly or moderately anti-Semitic views (compared with 37 percent in 2017). The report stated 15 percent of respondents believed there were no gas chambers in concentration camps, 21 percent believed Jews made up the great majority of stories of Holocaust horrors, and 26 percent believed the number of Jewish Holocaust victims was “a lot lower” than generally stated – the highest percentages for all these statements in surveys dating to 2006.
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: 55 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Hungary; 71 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 59 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In January the EC 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, 45 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Hungary, and 26 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, 46 percent; on the internet, 46 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 44 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 46 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 47 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 44 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 40 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 51 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 47 percent.
In May the EC carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 31 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Hungary, while 62 percent said it was rare; 80 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 90 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 84 percent said they would be with an atheist, 84 percent with a Jew, 73 percent with a Buddhist, and 59 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 87 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 76 percent if atheist, 77 percent if Jewish, 60 percent if Buddhist, and 43 percent if Muslim.
A Pew Research Center survey released in October found 58 percent of residents in the country had an unfavorable opinion of Muslims – compared with 72 percent in 2016 – and 11 percent a favorable one. The same survey found that 60 percent of persons had a favorable view of Jews, and 18 percent an unfavorable one.
In November posters appeared in Budapest showing independent online news site Index.hu journalists Gabor Miklosi and Andras Dezso, both Hungarian, in front of an Israeli flag with the caption, “We have also come from beyond the border.” The poster featured the Index.hu logo next to the words, “constant complaining, latent anti-Hungarian feelings, betrayal of the homeland.” TEV reported the case to police as anti-Semitic. In a tweet, the Israeli embassy condemned the posters as containing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli symbols and insinuations.
During a local soccer match between the country’s Dorog and MTK clubs in August, approximately 100 Dorog fans yelled anti-Semitic chants such as “dirty Jews” and “only through the chimney.” Following an open letter of protest from Mazsihisz President Andras Heisler to President of the Hungarian Football Federation Sandor Csanyi asking him to act against hate speech and anti-Semitism, the federation fined Dorog 200,000 forints ($680). Heisler commented the federation did not publicly condemn the incident.
In August and September unknown assailants repeatedly damaged the Living Memorial to Holocaust victims on Budapest’s Liberty Square, which activists previously established to protest against a controversial memorial to victims of the German invasion of 1944. On August 20, the national holiday of Saint Stephen’s Day, the far-right website kuruc.info published an article entitled, “Liberty Square was waiting for National Day to be cleaned – our reader cleaned up the Jewish garbage,” which included a photograph of objects taken from the memorial lying in a garbage can.
In October approximately 50 members of a group widely described as neo-Nazi, calling itself the Legio Hungaria, vandalized Aurora, a community and cultural center in Budapest owned by a Jewish organization – tearing down and setting fire to the center’s rainbow flag and spraying graffiti on the wall of the building. Newly elected District Mayor Andras Piko condemned the attack and promised police would provide additional security. In November the Budapest Police brought in for questioning nine persons in connection with the attack; no arrests were reported.
In July, at a memorial in Budapest for Roma victims of the Holocaust, vandals left graffiti stating, “The place for … [a prominent Jewish American financier] is in a gas chamber.”
A 2018 Pew Research survey stated 17 percent of citizens reported they were strongly religious, and the same percentage said they attended religious services regularly.
The Christian-Jewish Society, an informal platform for discussion by the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist Churches and Jewish religious groups, held events such as joint prayers on the International Day of Holocaust remembrance, and also helped organize the March of the Living annual Holocaust remembrance event in April in Budapest.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with government officials, including the PMO, U.S. embassy representatives and visiting U.S. officials continued to advocate for increased religious freedom and discussed Holocaust commemoration, the amendment to the religion law, an inclusive approach for the House of Fates Holocaust museum, and restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust.
The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism visited the country in May and, accompanied by embassy officials, met with high-level representatives from the PMO, Jewish religious leaders, and civil society representatives to discuss religious freedom, anti-Semitism, and the House of Fates.
The Deputy Administrator for USAID, the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and the Charge d’Affaires discussed the importance of religious freedom in formal remarks at a Thanksgiving dinner the embassy cohosted with the government. A wide range of religious leaders and civil society representatives attended the dinner.
Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss anti-Semitism and the challenges of promoting tolerance education and historical truth, the community’s relationship with the government, the House of Fates, restitution issues, and commemoration of the Holocaust.
Embassy officials maintained regular contact with leaders of religious communities, including the four historical groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the COS, and religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The Ambassador met with a Holocaust survivor in April and emphasized U.S. commitment to Holocaust remembrance and religious freedom. The Ambassador and other embassy officials participated in events organized by various Jewish congregations, such as March of the Living, inauguration of new synagogues, Hanukkah candle lightings, and the opening of a Holocaust exhibition to highlight support for the Jewish community and promote religious tolerance. At all these events, embassy representatives reiterated U.S. support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others. The law does not provide a means for religious groups to acquire legal status. The Kosovo Assembly (parliament) did not consider draft legislation that would have allowed religious groups to acquire legal status and conduct business in their name. While religious groups stated they generally had collaborative relationships with local governments, the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church (KPEC) said municipal governments did not treat religious organizations equally on property issues, including in the granting of building permits and allocation of burial space in public cemeteries. KPEC and others also stated the Kosovo Islamic Community (BIK) held contracts to run many municipal cemeteries and discriminated against minority religious groups in the allocation of burial plots and provision of services. Representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) said the government violated some of the Church’s property rights stipulated by the Law on Special Protective Zones (SPZ), such as refusal to implement a three-year-old court decision to recognize SOC ownership of certain parcels of land around Visoki Decani Monastery and continuing road construction that threatened to extend into the SPZ. According to the SOC, no municipal officials were held accountable for this refusal. BIK reported two instances of employment related discrimination against practicing Muslims. Some BIK officials stated the level of anti-Muslim sentiment in media increased and said it could harm employment opportunities for devout Muslims.
National police reported 61 religiously motivated incidents, most targeting religious sites, including cemeteries, in the first nine months of the year. Many incidents were linked to ethnicity as well as religion. On January 6, Kosovo-Albanians threatened an SOC priest in front of his church in Novo Brdo/Novoberde. On July 13 and December 16, unknown persons vandalized the Orthodox cemetery in Lipjan/Lipljan. The national and municipal governments condemned the incidents immediately and called for law enforcement action to apprehend the perpetrators. In Gjakova/Djakovica, on January 6, Kosovo-Albanians protested in front of the local Serbian Orthodox church against what they called the visit of “criminals disguised as pilgrims,” forcing displaced Serbs to cancel their Orthodox Christmas annual pilgrimage to the church for security reasons.
U.S. embassy officials continued to encourage government enforcement of mechanisms to protect religious sites and implementation of judicial decisions pertaining to the SOC, as well as resolution of SOC property disputes. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives met with religious leaders to discuss their concerns and encouraged them to foster religious tolerance and improve interfaith dialogue. In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with representatives of all major faith communities and, in a gathering with youth from religious and secularist groups, called for greater religious freedom and pluralism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent official census in 2011, 95.6 percent of the population is Muslim, 2.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, with Protestants, Jews, and persons not answering or responding “other” or “none,” together constituting less than 1 percent. According to the SOC and international observers, a boycott of the 2011 census by ethnic Serbs and general population registration irregularities resulted in a significant undercounting of SOC members. Other religious communities, including Tarikat Muslims and Protestants, also contested the registration data, stating they distrusted the census methodology and believed it resulted in undercounts of their community members.
According to BIK, most Muslims belong to the Hanafi Sunni school, although some are part of the Sufi Tarikat community. There is also a small Sufi Bektashi religious community; no official estimate exists for the number of its adherents. Kosovo-Albanians, whose language is Albanian, represent the majority in 28 of the country’s 38 municipalities, and Kosovo-Serbs, whose language is Serbian, make up the majority in the remaining 10. Most SOC members reside in the 10 Serb-majority municipalities. The largest Catholic communities are in Gjakove/Djakovica, Janjeve/Janjevo, Kline/Klina, Pristina, and Prizren. Evangelical Protestant populations are located throughout the country, concentrated in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica. There are small Jewish communities in Prizren and Pristina.
The majority of Kosovo-Albanians are Muslim, although some are Christian (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant); almost all Kosovo-Serbs belong to the SOC. The majority of ethnic Ashkali, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Gorani, Roma, and Turks are also Muslim, while most ethnic Montenegrins and some Roma are Christian Orthodox, and nearly all ethnic Croats are Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion for all residents, including the right to change, express, or not express religious belief; practice or abstain from practicing religion; and join or refuse to join a religious community. These rights are subject to limitations for reasons of public safety and order or for the protection of the health or rights of others. The constitution provides for the separation of religious communities from public institutions, including the right of religious groups to regulate independently their own organizations, activities, and ceremonies, and the right to establish religious schools and charities. It provides for equal rights for all religious communities, stipulates the country is secular and neutral regarding religion, declares the state shall ensure the protection and preservation of the country’s religious heritage, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution states the law may limit freedom of expression to prevent violent and hostile provocations on racial, national, ethnic, or religious grounds. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.
The constitution provides for the Ombudsperson’s Institution, which is responsible for monitoring religious freedom, among other human rights, and recommending actions to correct violations. It stipulates the state shall take all necessary measures to protect individuals who may be subject to threats, hostility, discrimination, or violence because of their religious identity.
The law does not require registration of religious groups, but also does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means. Without legal status, religious groups may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, access the courts as an entity, although individual churches or individual members may, or perform other administrative tasks in their own name. Local communities often recognize religious groups’ possession of buildings; however, the law generally does not protect these buildings as property of a religious community, but rather as the private property of citizens. SOC property is an exception: the SPZ Law acknowledges and protects the integrity of SOC property ownership and stewardship over designated areas.
The law stipulates there is no official religion, but it lists the five “traditional” religious communities that receive extra protections and benefits, including reduced taxes. The law stipulates freedom of religious or nonreligious practices, the right to establish humanitarian/charity organizations, acceptance of voluntary financial contributions from individuals and institutions, and upholding national and international communication for religious purposes.
The law provides safeguards for sites of religious and cultural significance and prohibits or restricts nearby activities that could damage the surrounding historical, cultural, or natural environment. According to the law, the Implementation and Monitoring Council (IMC) arbitrates disputes between the government and the SOC concerning SPZs and other matters related to protecting the SOC’s religious and cultural heritage. The IMC is a special body originating from the 2007 Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement (also known as the Ahtisaari Plan) and established by law. The IMC members included the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning as co-chair (now consolidated under the Infrastructure Ministry’s purview); the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport (MCYS); the SOC; the Special Representative of the European Union (as co-chair); and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Municipalities are legally responsible for upkeep and maintenance of all public cemeteries, including those designated for specific religious communities.
According to the law, “Public educational institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.” This law is unenforceable in schools operated under Serbian government-run parallel structures, over which the government has no control.
A Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (MOE) administrative circular with the force of law on the code of conduct and disciplinary measures for students of secondary high schools bans students from wearing religious “uniforms” on elementary and secondary school premises.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, the parliament did not consider amendments to the Law on Religious Freedom permitting religious groups to acquire legal status, conduct business and acquire real and personal property in their name, open bank accounts, and gain import tax benefits. The amendments would also clarify the identity and status of some religious groups, such as the Bektashi community, which requested recognition as a distinct Islamic community. The amendments passed a first reading at the assembly in 2017, and the assembly reviewed them in 2018 but never voted on them. To restart consideration of the legislation, the government would need to restart the process by resubmitting it to the assembly. Absent enactment of the legislation, all religious communities said they continued to operate bank accounts registered to individuals instead of communities. In addition, communities such KPEC said they continued to be taxed as for-profit businesses.
According to BIK, there were no cases of Muslim students or teachers being denied access to schools as a result of the government decree prohibiting religious attire on school property. While the MOE’s administrative circular refers only to secondary school attendees, Muslim community leaders reported discrimination in hiring of Muslim applicants to the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF), including one against a Muslim woman, and discrimination against teachers/lecturers and school management applicants for those wearing religious attire.
MOE officials met with a BIK representative to discuss the prohibition of religious attire in July, but the ban remained in place at year’s end. Candidates from multiple parties running for office in the October parliamentary elections also criticized the ban. BIK provided an example of KSF denying a female applicant permission to wear the hijab in uniform.
Most municipalities had annual agreements with BIK to arrange burial ceremonies of citizens. Some religious or ethnic communities, including the Protestant community and Muslims from the Roma community, said this arrangement sometimes violated their religious rights, as they faced intimidation or were prevented from conducting burial ceremonies according to their own customs. Some municipalities, such as Gjilan/Gnjilane, attempted to divide municipal cemeteries into sections and allocate each section to a different religious community. In these cases, some non-BIK-affiliated religious groups, such as Protestants and Roma Muslims, said BIK discriminated against them, conditioning burial of their community members on payment of annual membership fees, as well as fees for participation of an imam and performance of Islamic religious rites. Pristina’s Catholic and Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities continued to use separate public cemeteries.
The SOC stated that although the law requires consultation on activities occurring within SPZs, the government did not observe or enforce this requirement in Novoberde/Novo Brdo; the SOC said it was not notified of government-led restoration works, a government-sponsored celebration of the “Artana (Novo Brdo) days” festival in SPZ Novo Brdo/Novoberde fortress, or a Catholic Mass held at a religious site claimed by the SOC.
With the government’s assent, the OSCE supervised the implementation of legislation on protection of SPZs around Serbian Orthodox religious and heritage sites.
BIK leadership reported a group of Mitrovica citizens lobbied for reconstruction of a mosque in Mitrovica /Mitrovice North that Federal Republic of Yugoslavia forces destroyed in 1999, but opposition from local Serbs continued to stymie reconstruction plans.
Plans for a Grand Mosque in Pristina remain stalled because the 2018 building permit expired and developers waited for permit renewal. Some local imams reported there was no demand for such a large mosque in the downtown area, while government officials raised concerns about disruption to buildings, traffic, and parking.
At year’s end, Pristina Municipality and the Jewish community continued to disagree on a suitable location for a synagogue, for which the municipality issued a construction permit in 2016. The Jewish community refused the plot of land on the outskirts of the city that the municipal government offered, while the government rejected the community’s request for a location near downtown Pristina.
MCYS earmarked 50,000 euros ($56,200) toward reconstruction of the Jewish Community center in Prizren; however, the project was on hold until the Jewish community raised the remainder of the needed funds.
Decan/Decani municipal officials continued to refuse to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court decision upholding the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling recognizing the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery’s ownership of approximately 24 hectares (59 acres) of land. Mayor of Decan/Decani Bashkim Ramosaj and the local assembly continued during the year to state the court’s ruling was “unacceptable.” Central government officials took no action to enforce the court decision. NATO Kosovo Force troops continued to provide security at the Decani monastery.
The Decan/Decani municipal government, with support from central authorities, continued its effort to construct a major transit road near Visoki Decani Monastery. After previously abandoning work on the road within the SPZ, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the municipality continued building it from both sides adjacent to the SPZ; the monastery said it interpreted this as a move to force SOC acceptance of road construction through the SPZ, despite both a legislative ban on such activities and an IMC opinion that the road would violate the law.
On February 26, an appellate court ruled in favor of Catholic Church ownership of more than 7,500 square meters (80,000 square feet) of land adjacent to Mother Theresa Cathedral, overturning the Pristina Municipality’s land claim.
According to BIK, the central government continued to provide some funding for Islamic education in the BIK madrassah in Pristina and its branches in Prizren and Gjilan/Gnjilane. KPEC and public university officials said they believed this funding was discriminatory because the government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group.
The Water Regulatory Agency continued to waive water utility fees for religious buildings belonging to the five “traditional” religious communities. Other religious groups paid the water fees.
According to KPEC, customs officials rescinded a fine it levied on KPEC in 2017 for misuse of duty-free imports for religious organizations, on the grounds that the legal status of that inquiry was not fully resolved. A 2017 OSCE legal opinion cited contradictions in the law surrounding the sale of goods for charitable purposes.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
National police reported 61 religiously motivated incidents in the first nine months of the year, most of which targeted Orthodox and Muslim religious sites and involved theft or property damage, such as cemetery desecration, compared with 86 cases of a similar nature in 2018. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
On January 6, according to the SOC, a group of Kosovo-Albanians verbally abused SOC priest Bojan Jevtic, by calling him a “Chetnik” and threatened to slaughter him in front of his church in Novoberde/Novo Brdo Municipality. According to Jevtic, after he filed a complaint, the police did not follow-up.
On January 6, a group of Kosovo-Albanians, including families of missing persons, protested against the announced annual Orthodox Christmas visit of Serb Orthodox pilgrims to the local SOC church in Gjakove/Djakovica. The pilgrims were informed about the announced protests and canceled their visit due to security concerns. The protest ended after protesters placed a list of alleged Serb war criminals at the church’s door, stating they were against “criminals disguised as pilgrims.”
The SOC said media reporting contributed to a climate of interethnic and interreligious intolerance during the year. The SOC also complained about the public statements of NGO “Decan/Decani Historians” against Hieromonk of Decani Monastery Father Sava Janjic and Bishop of Raska-Prizren Teodosije Sibalic.
BIK said the frequency of anti-Muslim media reports and statements on social networks increased, and secularists used media and social networks to portray practicing Muslims negatively. One newspaper columnist referred to pro-Erdogan Muslims as “troglodytes,” “trash,” and “the Taliban.”
BIK reported one case of a woman denied an employment contract in the private sector. BIK said “devoted” Muslim women rarely reported cases of religious-based discrimination.
In July vandals destroyed 20 tombstones at an SOC cemetery in Lipjan/Lipljan Municipality, and several tombstones were demolished at an SOC cemetery in Ferizaj/Urosevac Municipality in September. SOC representatives again said they believed incidents targeting SOC sites were driven more by ethnicity than religion.
In September unknown vandals broke a plaque in the cemetery section designated by Gjilan/Gnjilane Municipality for the evangelical Protestant community; the SOC claimed ownership of the assigned parcel and rejected the municipality’s designation.
In March ethnic Croats reported the destruction of religious symbols in the Catholic church in Janjevo Village. A police investigation of the incident was ongoing at year’s end.
Religious group leaders continued to meet occasionally for interfaith discussions on property rights, legislative priorities, and local community issues. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with central and local authorities, to discuss issues such as permits to construct religious buildings. The OSCE also included representatives of all major religious communities in municipal community safety councils, which met to discuss security issues.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials urged central and local government officials, including the prime minister, to respect the law and SPZs, particularly in the case of the planned road near Visoki Decani Monastery. Embassy officials advocated with all levels of government for implementation of the 2016 Constitutional Court decision ordering the return of land to Visoki Decani Monastery, urging the government and the judiciary to hold local officials accountable. The Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed property issues of other religious groups with government officials and urged them to respect religious freedom and pluralism and increase their communication with religious groups. Embassy officials urged the customs office on multiple occasions to delay issuing citations to KPEC on charges of misusing duty-free imports, pending clarification of the Customs Code and the law covering customs exemptions for religious organizations.
Embassy officials met frequently with religious leaders to promote religious freedom and tolerance and improve interfaith communication. They met with BIK imams and members of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Pristina to discuss efforts to promote tolerance and discussed proposed amendments to the Law on Religious Freedom. They also spoke in mosques as invited speakers before Friday prayers about the importance of religious pluralism. Embassy personnel often posted messages on social media in support of religious freedom, such as marking the International Day of Religious Freedom in October and promoting the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July.
In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with representatives of all major faith communities, urging them toward mutual respect and support for religious pluralism, as well as advocating creation of an interfaith council. In conjunction with the visit, embassy officials organized a youth event with emerging leaders nominated by different religious communities and secularist organizations.
The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and specifies the separation of church and state. By law, eight “traditional” religious groups (seven Christian groups and Jews) receive rights and privileges other groups do not. In addition, six new religious groups registered during the year. Draft legislation to provide restitution to Jewish Holocaust victims in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration was withdrawn after a procedural defeat in parliament in June. On March 16, approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 veterans of the Nazi Waffen-SS and four members of the National Alliance (NA) party, participated in the annual march for Latvian Legionnaires who fought as conscripts of the Waffen-SS against the Soviet Union in World War II (WWII). An estimated 1,100 people were in the total crowd of supporters, protesters, media, observers and passersby, according to police, one third less than recent years. In its Freedom of the World 2019 report, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Freedom House said support for the event continued to decline. Various groups, including the Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee, again condemned the march.
A European Commission (EC) survey published in September showed that 12 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 67 percent said it was rare. A Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism published in January showed that 14 percent of respondents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, and 7 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. Jewish and Muslim groups again cited instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet.
The U.S. embassy repeatedly engaged with government officials, including representatives from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Office of the Ombudsman, and parliamentarians on the importance of religious tolerance, restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community by passing a restitution bill satisfying Latvia’s commitments under the Terezin Declaration, and Holocaust education. Embassy officials also engaged with the NGOs MARTA and Safe House, as well as representatives of various religious groups, including the Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Latvian Orthodox Christian churches, the Jewish community, and the Islamic community, on the role they could play in promoting religious tolerance and acceptance in the country. The embassy funded a cultural project highlighting the experiences of a Latvian Jew during the Holocaust.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the Annual Report of Religious Organizations and their Activities published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), based on 2018 data (the most recent available), the largest religious groups are Lutheran (36 percent), Roman Catholic (17 percent), and Latvian Orthodox Christian (9 percent), the latter predominantly native Russian speakers. Thirty-five percent of the population is unaffiliated with any religious group. The Latvian Orthodox Church is a self-governing Eastern Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Central Statistical Bureau reports there are 4,567 persons who identify as Jewish, and the Council of Jewish Communities believes there are between 6,000 and 8,000 persons with Jewish heritage. The Muslim community reports approximately 1,000 Muslims, while the MOJ’s report of religious organizations lists 134 Muslim community members in 15 congregations. There is a small Ahmadi Muslim community. Other religious groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Old Believers, evangelical Christians, Methodists, Calvinists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and “the church shall be separate from the state.” It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights. The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews – some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the MOJ. These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the prime minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues. These recommendations do not carry the force of law.
Separate laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups. The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by a law on religious organizations.
Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal status to own property and conduct financial transactions, eligibility to apply for funds for religious building restoration, and tax deductions for donors. Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and to hold services in public places, such as parks or public squares, with the agreement of the local government. The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.
Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property in the name of the group, although individual members may hold property. Unregistered groups may not conduct financial transactions or receive tax-free donations. They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, or military units, and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission. The law stipulates fines ranging from 40 to 200 euros ($45-$220) if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.
By law, to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members age 18 or older. Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits. To apply, religious groups must submit charters explaining their objectives and activities; a list of all group members (full name, identification number, and signature); the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization; minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; and a list of members of the audit committee (full name, identification number, and title). The audit committee is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes. The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation. The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals. Groups denied registration may appeal the decision in court.
Ten or more congregations – totaling at least 200 members – of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church. Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools and monasteries. The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination, or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name. For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name. Other Orthodox groups, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.
According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals. They must also provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings and other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.
The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm for conviction. Penalties range from community service to up to 10 years of imprisonment. Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.
The government funds required religion and ethics classes in public schools in first through third grade. The school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes in any of the eight traditional groups; if such approval is not obtained or if they prefer not to enroll in religion classes, students take courses on general ethics. The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience. Starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes. If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion. Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.” Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools. Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors, usually at the lower grades, to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group, and approved by the Ministry of Education, usually at higher grades.
The law establishes an independent Ombudsman’s Office for Human Rights. Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities. While it does not have enforcement powers, it may issue recommendations to specific authorities. Parliament appoints the ombudsman.
The law stipulates foreign missionaries may be issued a residency permit, hold meetings, and proselytize only if a registered domestic religious group invites them to conduct such activities. Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology. Religious workers from European Union (EU) or Schengen countries do not require visas.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The MOJ approved the applications of six religious groups that applied to register for the first time: the Orthodox Congregation of St. Nicholas the Miracle-worker in Rezekne, the Hindu Bhakti Marga Latvian Congregation, the Latvian Orthodox Autonomous Church, the Orthodox Church of Riga Apostles St. Peter and Paul, the Orthodox Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Daugavpils, and the Riga International Baptist Church “Grace” of the Latvian Baptist Insurance Union.
In June the parliament debated a Holocaust-era property restitution bill that would have established an approximately 40 million euro fund ($44.9 million, funded over 10 years) for the Jewish community in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration. The bill also called for measures to provide assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution. The bill was withdrawn after a procedural defeat. According to news reports and the head of the Development/FOR parliamentary faction Daniels Pavluts, a combination of political infighting, a difficult fiscal environment, the historical complexity of the original thefts, and inertia from previous restitution attempts prevented the bill’s passage. Misunderstandings about details of the bill – which provided fiscal transparency and government control, had protections to prevent the funds benefiting only a few individuals, and supported projects and events linked to common Latvian-Jewish historical and cultural heritage – added to the difficulty. Conferees at the Terezin Declaration Conference in December said local Jewish community leaders, and the legislation’s sponsors in parliament, planned to reintroduce Holocaust property restitution legislation in 2020 following a public education and advocacy campaign.
According to a 2018 (the latest available) report on Latvia by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the government made progress in recognizing Jewish issues and commemorating the Holocaust, adding that problems remained with regard to property restitution and vandalism of Jewish sites.
Authorities continued to monitor Muslim community activities according to the annual report of the security police. Muslim community members, including community leader Zufars Zainullins, said in December they did not feel pressured or singled out due to their faith.
The new prayer center of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) remained closed since 2016 due to what the Riga City Construction Board said was a failure to meet city fire and safety requirements in the center’s old building. Muslim leader Zainullins said lack of ICCL leadership also slowed the project, rather than government pressure. Muslim students at universities continue to have access to campus religious facilities such as prayer rooms and Riga Stradins University’s Muslim student society (Ibn Sina).
Former president Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial. In July, at a commemoration of the 1941 burning of the Great Choral Synagogue with victims inside, Murniece stated, “The victims of the Holocaust should be kept in eternal commemoration by teaching about what happened to the young generation.” She added that “Latvia, as a democratic, legal, socially responsible, and national state, is based on human dignity and freedom, recognizes and protects fundamental human rights, and respects minorities.” In his speech at the same event, former president Vejonis stated, “Much has been done to heal the wartime wounds, but there also remain those (Holocaust survivors) whose healing will take time and mutual understanding.”
In September, as part of a speech commemorating a WWII battle against the Soviet army, Defense Minister Artis Pabriks praised the Latvian side, which at the time was under Nazi operational control. When the Simon Wiesenthal Center later protested those comments, the defense ministry edited the headline of the issued press release but kept the content unchanged. In November Pabriks spoke at the Rumbula Forest Holocaust memorial event, where he condemned the actions of Latvian citizens who participated in crimes committed by Nazi Germany against the Jewish people. He apologized to the Jews that Latvia had failed to protect them at the time, because Latvia had been occupied.
In June the government granted refugee status to a woman who said she had fled Russia after she and her family had been persecuted for being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On March 16, the annual march commemorating Latvian Legionnaires who fought in the grenadier divisions of the Waffen SS against the Soviet Red Army in WWII took place in Riga. As in recent years, an estimated 250 persons participated in the event, with police estimating the total crowd of supporters, protesters, media, observers and passersby numbering approximately 1,000, one third less than recent years. Ten to fifteen SS veterans and four members of parliament from the NA party participated. International media reported a large police presence and a small number of counterprotesters at the event. The organizers, the Daugava Hawks group, called the day a “commemoration of Latvian soldiers who were involved in World War II battles between superpowers and fought for their country” rather than as a glorification of Nazism. In a statement issued the same day, the MFA noted “March 16 is not an official remembrance day,” but an event organized by individuals “on their own private initiative to pay respects to fallen soldiers.” The statement added that “senior officials and members of the government do not participate” in this commemoration. Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins publicly discouraged cabinet officials from participating. As in previous years, the march drew strong condemnations from various groups, including the Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee. The Latvian Russian Union’s Miroslavs Mitrofanovs said the march was where “people gather together to glorify neo-fascist ideology”.
On November 30, approximately 500 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in memory of the approximately 30,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest by the Nazis in 1941. A separate Rumbula Forest memorial service was well attended, including by members of the NA party.
In November and December, media reported multiple instances of NA Secretary-General Raivis Zeltits supporting extremist organizations. While initial reports outlined texts and meetings with a supremacist website and 2015 meetings with the founder of a British neo-Nazi organization “National Action,” subsequent articles illustrated ongoing ties with and support to the Ukrainian ultranationalist Azov movement. Zeltits said he accepted that his views were ultranationalist but refuted claims of any racist or anti-Semitic beliefs. An NA representative stated Zeltits’ actions did not reflect NA’s ideology. Subsequent social media posts by prominent NA members, however, defended engagement with Azov.
In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 12 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Latvia, while 67 percent said it was rare; 70 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, 85 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 79 percent with an atheist, 78 percent with a Jew, 70 percent with a Buddhist, and 63 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their adult child were in a “love relationship” with a member of a different religious group, 85 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 73 percent if atheist, 66 percent if Jewish, 53 percent if Buddhist, and 42 percent if Muslim.
In January the EC 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, 14 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Latvia, and 7 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, 18 percent; on the internet, 19 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 13 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 11 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 20 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 10 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 11 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 11 percent; and anti-Semitism in media, 10 percent.
Neither survey categorized results by religious groups to assess if Jews and Muslims perceived these issues differently from the Christian majority.
Riga Jewish Community Executive Director Gita Umanovska said anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet was mostly in the form of posts on social media and comments in news articles, although none were reported to police. For example, one online commenter wrote, “We need to clean up our public administration from Jews,” Another wrote, “As if we would need to choose the poorest (the worst) people, we would need to choose Jews” (directed at newly elected President Egils Levits, of Jewish heritage). Another poster wrote: “The Jew is one of the greatest evils in any case.”
As in previous years, Muslim community leader Zainullins said Muslims generally did not feel suppressed or discriminated against; however, some anti-Muslim hate speech appeared on social media and the internet, mostly in individual posts and comments in news articles. For example, one site had the comment, “We must get them out of our politics and definitely keep them out of our country as much as possible. We TOTALLY need to shut down all mosques. The devil resides in them.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged in regular discussions with government officials, including at the MFA, MOJ, Office of the Ombudsman, and with members of parliament, on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education. Embassy officials also met with Foreign Minister Rinkevics, other MFA officials, and members of all the political parties represented in parliament specifically to encourage passage of the restitution bill, an important step to meet the country’s obligation under the Terezin Declaration.
Embassy staff met with leaders of the Lutheran Church, Roman Catholic Church, Latvian Orthodox Christian Church, Jewish community, and the Muslim community to discuss their concerns about religious tolerance and acceptance in the country. They also met with the NGO MARTA, which worked with immigrant women, including those who might be at risk of victimization as a result of their religious beliefs. Embassy staff also engaged representatives of the NGO Safe House, which assists with transition support and education for immigrants and refugees, many of whom are of minority faiths.
The embassy funded a project with the Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum to support an upcoming exhibit by a Latvian-born Jewish American artist, focusing on his experience surviving the Holocaust in Latvia and later his life in a Latvian enclave of New York City.
The constitution stipulates everyone is free to choose his or her faith. It makes the state responsible for “protecting the religious…interests of the People” and establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion. It stipulates other religions may practice their faith within the bounds of morality and public order. There are criminal penalties for public incitement to hatred towards a religious group, religious discrimination, or “debasement” of any religion. The state-subsidized, nonprofit Liechtenstein Institute said Muslims remained unable to obtain local authorities’ permission to establish their own cemetery or build a mosque, and the Islamic Community of Liechtenstein was unable to establish a prayer room. On January 27, government officials held public film screenings and discussions on the Holocaust, and Minister for Home Affairs, Education, and Environment Dominique Hasler spoke on the importance of remembering and raising awareness of the Holocaust.
There was one Muslim prayer room in the country belonging to the Turkish Association. Religious groups in every municipality continued to open their chapels to other denominations and faiths upon request.
The U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, which is responsible for diplomatic relations with the country, continued to encourage the promotion of religious freedom in discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), focusing primarily on access to religious education, particularly by Muslims, and the establishment of religious infrastructure, such as a mosque or Muslim burial sites. Embassy staff discussed religious freedom issues, such as the extent of societal discrimination and the difficulties Muslims encountered in establishing religious infrastructure, with the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem, Liechtenstein Institute, and the Liechtenstein Human Rights Association.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 39,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2015 census, religious group membership is as follows: 73.4 percent Roman Catholic, 6.3 percent Protestant Reformed, 5.9 percent Muslim, 1.2 percent Lutheran, 1.3 percent Christian Orthodox, 1.8 percent other religious groups, 7 percent no religious affiliation, and 3.3 percent unspecified.
According to the Liechtenstein Institute, the majority of Muslims are Sunni, predominantly immigrants and descendants of immigrants from Turkey, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. The Jewish community consists of approximately 30 individuals. Immigrants, who comprise approximately one-third of the country’s population, come mainly from Switzerland and Austria and belong predominantly to the same religious groups as native-born citizens.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that all persons shall have the freedom to choose their faith and the state shall be responsible for ‘‘protecting the religious…interests of the People.” The constitution specifies Roman Catholicism is the state religion, which “shall enjoy full protection from the state.” The constitution stipulates other religions may practice their beliefs and hold religious services “within the bounds of morality and public order.”
Municipalities provide the Catholic Church with certain unique benefits that vary by municipality, including financial support and state maintenance of buildings and grounds owned by the Church.
There is no law requiring the registration of religious groups. Religious groups other than the Catholic Church may organize themselves as private associations, which enables registration in the commercial registry, and must do so to receive government funding for such activities as providing religious education in schools or executing projects to promote social integration of religious minorities, such as offering language courses for foreigners. To register in the commercial registry, the association must submit an official letter of application to the Office for Justice, including the organization’s name, purpose, board members, and head office location, as well as a memorandum of association based on local law, a trademark certification, and a copy of the organization’s statutes.
All religious groups are exempt from certain taxes. The government has not indicated how it determines whether groups not registered in the commercial registry are religious groups entitled to the tax exemptions.
The law prohibits the slaughter of animals without anesthetization, making the kosher and halal slaughter illegal. Importation of such meat is legal.
The criminal code prohibits any form of public incitement to hatred or discrimination against, or disparagement of, any religion or its adherents by spoken, written, visual, or electronic means. The criminal code also prohibits the denial, trivialization, and justification of genocide and other crimes against humanity by spoken, written, visual, or electronic means. Penalties may include a prison sentence of up to two years. The criminal code prohibits refusing service to a person or group of persons based on religious affiliation as well as membership in any association that aims to promote discrimination against a person or persons based on religious affiliation.
The law requires the inclusion of religious education in the primary and secondary public school curriculum. Catholic or Protestant Reformed religious education is compulsory in all primary schools. Parents may request exemptions for their children, without providing a reason, from the Office of Education. Children exempted from religious education or who are neither Catholic nor Protestant must attend a class called “Ethics and Religions.” The law also grants the Office of Education the right to organize and finance Islamic education as an elective in public primary schools. Catholic, Protestant Reformed, and Muslim groups provide the teachers for religious instruction, and the Office of Education pays for some or all of their salaries. The Catholic Church determines the Catholic curriculum, with minimal supervision from municipalities. Other religious groups registered as associations may provide teachers for optional religious classes if there is a demand for them and may apply for partial funding of the teachers’ salaries from the government’s integration budget.
At the secondary school level, parents and students may choose between a Catholic religious education course, which the government finances and the Catholic religious community organizes, and a general course in religion and culture taught from a sociological perspective.
To receive residency permits, foreign religious workers must have completed theological studies, command a basic level of German, belong to a “nationally known” religious group (the law does not define “nationally known”), and be sponsored by a resident clergy member of the same religious group.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In August the Liechtenstein Institute said Muslims had still not been able to obtain permission from local authorities to establish an Islamic cemetery or build a mosque in the country. All religious groups, including Muslims, were allowed to bury their dead in cemeteries owned by municipalities. According to the institute, municipalities did not categorically oppose mosques, but there was little political will among citizens to address the issue.
The institute also stated the Islamic Community of Liechtenstein remained unable to establish a prayer room in the country. The institute reiterated that Muslims faced difficulties in finding suitable rental space for use as prayer room spaces due to societal skepticism and wariness towards Islam, a wariness which it said was also reflected in the reluctance of municipalities to issue a permit for an Islamic cemetery.
During the 2018-19 school year ending in July, public primary schools in six municipalities offered Islamic education twice each month to a total of 66 students between the ages of six and 12.
Public schools continued to include Holocaust education as part of their curriculum and held Holocaust discussion forums to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. In February senior high school students at the Liechtenstein Grammar School traveled to Dachau, Germany to learn about the history of the Holocaust.
In January three high schools, including the secondary school in Eschen, and the University of Liechtenstein hosted the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem’s exhibition “SHOAH. The Holocaust. How was it humanly possible?” Several schools also invited the honorary president of the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem, Evelyne Bermann, to speak with students about the Holocaust.
Funding for religious institutions continued to derive mainly from the municipalities. Municipalities provided Catholic and Protestant Reformed churches annual subsidies in proportion to membership. The MFA stated municipalities allocated funding for specific purposes, such as paying the rent for places of worship, and remained in regular contact with religious representatives regarding the funding.
According to the MFA, authorities in 2018 dropped criminal proceedings against persons suspected of violating the antidiscrimination law by spray-painting a swastika on an outdoor trash can. The MFA stated authorities concluded that, despite the implied support for Nazi ideology, painting the swastika did not amount to anti-Semitic activity.
The government immigration and passport office continued to issue residency permits to religious workers, valid for five years, instead of visas. Religious workers from Schengen member countries did not require permits or visas. The Turkish Association’s imam was not replaced after his 2018 departure – neither the government nor the Turkish Association indicated whether authorities denied a permit for a replacement or the association failed to apply for one.
On January 27, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Minister for Home Affairs, Education, and Environment Hasler hosted government officials and the public at the Takino cinema in Schaan for film screenings and discussions on moral guilt, radicalization, the maintenance of historical records, and ways of dealing with the truth about the Holocaust. Parliament President Albert Frick and Liechtenstein Police Chief Jules Hoch attended the opening, which screened the 1924 silent movie “The City Without Jews.” In her speech, Hasler stated the “darkest chapter of humanity’s history” cannot be forgotten and emphasized the need for the government to continue its efforts to raise awareness of the Holocaust.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were no mosques in the country; there was one Islamic prayer room, operated by the Turkish Association, in leased space in Triesen. The Islamic Community of Liechtenstein had a prayer room in the canton of St. Gallen in neighboring Switzerland.
According to the MFA, religious groups in every municipality continued to open their chapels to other denominations and faiths upon request, including to Orthodox and Islamic groups. For example, the Catholic Church of Schaan continued to make its church available to the Christian Orthodox community to hold an Orthodox Easter Sunday service.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy staff continued to discuss religious freedom issues, focusing primarily on access to religious education by different religious groups, particularly the Muslim community, and the establishment of religious infrastructure, such as a mosque or Muslim burial sites, with the MFA’s specialist for human rights and international law.
Embassy staff also continued to discuss the effects of laws on religious practices and the extent of societal discrimination with the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem, the Liechtenstein Institute, and the government-supported Liechtenstein Human Rights Association, a consortium of nongovernmental organizations.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom of religious practice, and state recognition of religious organizations, provided they do not contradict the constitution or the law. The government extends special benefits to nine traditional religious groups and more limited benefits to four recognized religious groups. Religious groups must register with the government to gain legal status. Parliament did not approve the recognition application by the indigenous religious group Romuva, despite a favorable recommendation by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), and again did not consider the recognition application from the United Methodist Church, pending since 2001. The MOJ did not provide a recommendation to parliament for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ recognition application, pending since 2017. In October a court dismissed an appeal by a Jehovah’s Witness who, as a conscientious objector, refused any form of service under military authority. In March a local court dismissed a case against the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of the Residents of Lithuania brought by a U.S. citizen who sued the center for concluding that Jonas Noreika, an anti-Soviet partisan leader, did not participate in the mass killing of Jews in the country during World War II (WWII). In December the center issued a report stating that Noreika was actually an anti-Nazi resistance fighter who worked to save Jews from the ghetto; academics, Jewish groups, and NGOs criticized this report as factually unsupported (it cited a single source from the 1980s) and misleading. In July the Vilnius mayor removed a plaque honoring Noreika, but it was reinstalled subsequently without permission by the nationalist NGO Pro Patria. The government continued with plans to begin the conversion of a Soviet-era sports arena, which was built on top of a Jewish cemetery, into a conference center. A Lithuanian Jew residing in Israel petitioned to stop construction on the grounds that it would disturb human remains. On December 2, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Ambassador-at-Large for Jewish Issues Dainius Junevicius and Member of Parliament and chairman of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania (International Commission) Emanuelis Zingeris attended a regional conference in Vilnius commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Terezin Declaration. On December 10, the MFA organized a session on the importance of religious freedom and belief during the country’s second annual human rights forum. Experts participating in the session included an MOJ official.
There were six recorded anti-Semitic acts of vandalism between September and November, including one on October 6 in Vilnius involving an unknown person spray-painting a swastika on the side of a building and leaving an apparent makeshift explosive near the entrance of that building. On November 13, three teenagers spray-painted the words “Heil Hitler” on a Kaunas synagogue’s information board. On November 17, three teenagers broke the windows of a mosque in Kaunas. In March some participants at a nationalist march in Vilnius of approximately 1,000 persons wore fascist symbols and carried banners of Lithuanian partisans who critics said were Nazi collaborators. Some participants at another nationalist march of 300 persons in February carried a banner with a picture of a WWII-era anti-Semite, Kazys Skirpa. Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim internet postings in response to articles about Jewish or Muslim issues were common, but observers said media portals generally removed them when these postings were brought to their attention.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers met with government officials, including Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, ministers and vice ministers at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, and the speaker and members of parliament (MPs). They also met with the International Commission and the head of the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) to discuss ways to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism and to resolve compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi and Soviet eras. In September the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues released a statement on social media encouraging Lithuanians to review objectively the actions of historical anti-Soviet resistance fighters whose actions directly led to the persecution and mass killing of persons during the Holocaust. On October 27, the Charge d’Affaires attended the opening of a Holocaust education seminar for teachers and delivered remarks emphasizing the responsibility of teachers in educating youth about the country’s role in the Holocaust. On October 29, the Charge attended the unveiling of a memorial stone commemorating the individuals killed during the Holocaust in the forest near Zarasai on August 26, 1941. On December 2, the Charge and other embassy officers attended a regional conference in Vilnius commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Terezin Declaration.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, of the 90 percent of the population that responded to the question about religious affiliation, 86 percent are Roman Catholic, and 7 percent do not identify with any religious group. Religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Russian Orthodox, Old Believers, Lutherans, Reformed Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics, Karaite Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Full Gospel Word of Faith Movement, Pentecostals/Charismatics, Old Baltic faith communities, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, and members of the New Apostolic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the 2011 census, approximately 5,100 persons identified as followers of Romuva, a religion practiced in the country since before the introduction of Christianity. According to the census, the Jewish population is predominately concentrated in larger cities and is estimated at 3,050. The population of Karaite Jews, who traditionally live in Trakai and in the greater Vilnius region, is estimated at 250. The Sunni Muslim population numbers approximately 2,800, the majority of whom are Tatars, a community living primarily in Vilnius and Kaunas. The Muslim community also includes recent converts, migrants, refugees, and temporary workers from the Middle East and Africa, most of whom are Sunni Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no state religion and provides for the right of individuals to choose freely any religion or belief, to profess their religion and perform religious practices, individually or with others, in private or in public, and to practice and teach their beliefs. It states no one may compel another person (or be compelled) to choose or profess any religion or belief. The constitution allows limits on the freedom to profess and spread religious beliefs when necessary to protect health, safety, public order, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. It restricts freedom of expression if it incites religious hatred, violence, or discrimination. It stipulates religious belief may not serve as justification for failing to comply with laws.
Under the constitution, the government may temporarily restrict freedom of expression of religious belief during a period of martial law or a state of emergency.
The constitution acknowledges the freedom of parents or guardians to oversee the religious and moral education of their children without interference and stipulates public education shall be secular, although schools may provide religious instruction at the request of parents. The constitution grants recognition to traditional religious groups and provides for recognition of other religious groups if their teachings and practices do not conflict with law or public morals. It states the status of religious groups shall be established by agreement or law and recognized religious groups shall be free to carry out their activities as long as they are not in conflict with the constitution or laws.
The law requires the police to take preemptive measures against illegal activities, giving special attention to maintaining order on specific historical dates and certain religious or cultural holidays.
The law defines religious groups as (1) religious communities, (2) religious associations, which comprise at least two religious communities under common leadership, and (3) religious centers, which are higher governing bodies of religious associations.
The law recognizes as “traditional” those religious groups able to trace back their presence in the country at least 300 years. The law lists nine “traditional” religious groups: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Old Believer, Jewish, Sunni Muslim, and Karaite Jewish. “Traditional” religious groups may perform marriages that are state recognized, establish joint private/public schools, provide religious instruction in public schools, and receive annual government subsidies. Their highest-ranking leaders are eligible to apply for diplomatic passports, and they may provide chaplains for the military, social care institutions, hospitals, and prisons. The state provides social security and healthcare insurance contributions for clergy, religious workers, and members of monastic orders of the traditional religious groups. Traditional religious groups are also not required to pay social and health insurance taxes for clergy and most other religious workers and members of monastic orders.
Other religious groups and associations may apply to the MOJ for state recognition if they have legal entity status, meaning they have been officially registered in the country for at least 25 years. Parliament votes whether to grant state recognition status upon recommendation from the MOJ. The Evangelical Baptist Union of Lithuania, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Pentecostal Evangelical Belief Christian Union, and New Apostolic Church of Lithuania are the only state-recognized “nontraditional” religious groups registered in this manner.
Recognition entitles “nontraditional” religious groups to perform marriages that will be recognized by the state, similar to marriages officiated by traditional religious groups, and to provide religious instruction in public schools. Recognition also grants “nontraditional” religious groups eligibility for annual subsidies from the state budget and for certain social security and healthcare contributions by the state.
The MOJ handles official registration of religious communities, associations, and centers. Groups wishing to register must submit an application and supporting documentation to the MOJ, including bylaws describing their religious teachings and governance, minutes of the founding meeting, and a list of the founders, at least 15 of whom must be citizens. Upon approval of its application, a religious community, association, or center may register as a legal entity with the State Enterprise Center of Registers. Registration is voluntary for religious communities, associations, and centers affiliated with traditional religious groups and mandatory for nontraditional communities wishing to receive legal status.
Registration of “traditional” religious communities, associations, and centers is free of charge, while “nontraditional” communities pay a fee of 32 euros ($36). Traditional communities also have a simpler registration procedure and need to submit only an application, decisions of their governing body on the appointment of their leader, and their headquarters address. The MOJ may refuse to register a religious group if full data are not included in the application, the activities of the group violate human rights or public order, or a group with the same name has already registered. According to the Center of Registers, there are 1,121 traditional and 197 nontraditional religious communities, associations, and centers that are officially registered legal entities.
For all religious groups, official registration is a prerequisite for opening a bank account, owning property, and acting in a legal or official capacity as a community. The law allows all registered religious groups to own property for use as prayer houses, homes, and other functions, and permits construction of facilities necessary for religious activities. All registered groups are eligible for public funds from municipalities for cultural and social projects.
The country has compulsory military service for males between the ages of 19 and 26 and up to the age of 38 for those with higher education. The country has approximately 3,500 conscripts each year. Military service is for nine months. Clergy from registered groups are exempt from compulsory military service. In the event of a military conflict, clergy would be called to serve as chaplains. The Constitutional Court recognizes the right to conscientious objection on any grounds. The law provides an alternative to military service in civilian institutions unless the military deems it necessary to perform an alternative service in a national defense institution.
Unregistered communities have no legal status, but the constitution allows them to conduct worship services and seek new members.
The Interministerial Commission to Coordinate Activities of Governmental Institutions that Deal with Issues of Religious, Esoteric, and Spiritual Groups coordinates investigations of religious groups if there is a concern a group’s actions may be inconsistent with what the commission perceives to be “principles that stress respect for human freedom of expression and freedom of religion.”
The Journalist Ethics Inspectorate, a government-sponsored organization whose head is appointed by parliament, investigates complaints involving the violation of regulatory laws governing the provision of information to the public, including print media and the internet. These laws include prohibition of the publication of material that fuels religious hatred. The inspectorate may levy administrative fines on newspapers or refer cases to the Office of the General Prosecutor.
The Soviet Union nationalized all religious buildings on June 19, 1948, some of which continued to serve religious communities. On March 21, 1995, the national government passed a law on the restitution of religious property permitting registered religious communities to apply to the appropriate ministry or municipality for restitution or for compensation of religious property they owned before June 19, 1948. The deadline to apply for restitution of religious property was in 1997. The government continues to review cases from registered religious groups filed by the 1997 deadline but is not accepting any new claims. Religious groups may appeal ministry or municipality decisions in court. Unregistered religious groups could not apply for restitution.
In 2011 the national government adopted a law permitting registered religious groups to register previously nationalized religious property that was not officially registered under their name but which they owned before 1948 and continued to use during the Soviet period. The deadline for registered religious groups to register this property was in 2014. The government continues to review cases from registered religious groups filed by the 2014 deadline but is not accepting any new claims. Religious groups may appeal the MOJ’s decisions in court.
For individuals, the country’s private property restitution laws provided a mechanism through which the country’s citizens who had received citizenship before the restitution deadline (December 31, 2001) and resided in the country had the right to submit a claim for private property restitution. The laws excluded those who either lacked citizenship or regained it after 2001.
For Jewish-owned communal property nationalized under totalitarian regimes, a compensation fund was established in 2011 to support Jewish educational, religious, scientific, cultural, and healthcare projects with public benefits. Pursuant to the law, the government is committed to disbursing a total of 36 million euros ($40.45 million) over the decade ending March 1, 2023. Funds go to the Good Will Foundation, a public institution governed by national and international Jewish leaders.
The country has no law for the restitution of heirless private property.
The government allocates funds to traditional religious communities for refurbishing houses of prayer, restoring old cemeteries, and preserving cultural heritage sites. Each traditional religious group receives 3,075 euros ($3,500) every year as a base fund plus an additional amount that is calibrated according to the number of adherents in each community.
The constitution and other laws permit and fund religious instruction in public schools for traditional and state-recognized religious groups. Most religious instructors are regular state-employed teachers, but some are priests, seminarians, or monks. Parents must choose either religious instruction or secular ethics classes for their children but may not opt out of both offerings. Schools decide which of the traditional or state-recognized nontraditional religious groups will be represented in their curricula based on requests from parents of children up to the age 14, after which students present the requests themselves.
There are 30 private schools established by religious communities, 26 Catholic and four Jewish. Students of different religious groups may attend these schools. All accredited private schools (religious and nonreligious) receive funding from municipalities and the Ministry of Education and Science through a voucher system based on the number of pupils. Each private school receives 1,099 euros ($1,200) per student. Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, national minority schools, which include schools established by the Jewish community, receive 20 percent more – 1,318.80 euros ($1,500) – per student than other private schools. The per-student stipend covers only the program costs of school operation. Private school operators generally bear responsibility for covering capital outlays; however, per an agreement the government signed with the Holy See, the Ministry of Education and Science funds both the capital and operating costs of private Catholic schools.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of hatred and discrimination based on religion and stipulates fines or up to two years in prison for violations. The code penalizes interference with religious ceremonies of recognized religious groups, with community service, fines, or detention for up to 90 days. The law does not address interference with or incitement of hatred against unrecognized religious groups.
The Office of the Equal Opportunities (OEO) ombudsperson investigates complaints of discrimination, including those based on religion, directed against state institutions, educational institutions, employers, and product and service sellers and producers. Parliament appoints the ombudsperson for a period of five years. The office conducts independent investigations, publishes surveys and independent reports on discrimination, and provides conclusions and recommendations on any discrimination-related issues. The office also makes proposals to state and municipal institutions and government agencies concerning the improvement of legal acts and priorities of the implementation of equal rights policy. The OEO ombudsperson does not levy monetary penalties.
The parliamentary ombudsperson often works with the OEO ombudsperson but is a separate entity. The parliamentary ombudsperson examines the conduct of state authorities in serving the population. The law governing the parliamentary ombudsperson specifically includes religious discrimination within its purview. The OEO and parliamentary ombudsperson may investigate complaints, recommend changes in the law or draft legislation to parliamentary committees and ministries, and recommend cases to the Prosecutor General’s Office for pretrial investigation.
The criminal code prohibits public display of Soviet and Nazi symbols or national anthems. Violators are subject to fines of 144-289 euros ($160-$320).
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March a local court dismissed a case against the state-funded Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of the Residents of Lithuania, brought by a U.S. citizen who lost relatives in Holocaust-era killings attributed to Jonas Noreika, a Soviet-era partisan and Nazi collaborator who signed documents establishing a Jewish ghetto and confiscating Jewish property in Siauliai during WWII. The U.S. citizen sued the center for concluding that Noreika did not participate in the mass killing of Jews in Lithuania during the war. In December the center issued a report stating Noreika was an anti-Nazi resistance fighter who actively worked to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, based solely on the 1986 testimony of a Jesuit priest in a U.S. district court. The LJC and a number of prominent academics rejected this claim because it was based on a single witness whom they stated was of dubious credibility.
On July 27, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius removed a plaque honoring Noreika based on historical evidence that concluded Noreika was a Nazi collaborator. On July 30, President Gitanas Nauseda called for a moratorium on the removal of WWII-era monuments and proposed an initiative to provide municipalities with criteria to evaluate historic property.
In July the Vilnius City Council voted to rename a street, Skirpa Alley, previously named in honor of Kazys Skirpa, the leader of the Lithuanian Activist Front, a WWII anti-Soviet resistance group that was also found to have cooperated with the Nazis in the roundup of Lithuanian Jews. According to media reports, because of Skirpa’s anti-Semitism, the street was renamed Trispalves Aleja. On August 7, media reported that approximately 300 individuals gathered in central Vilnius to protest the city’s decision to rename Skirpa Alley. Attendees also protested the removal of the Noreika plaque.
On September 5, the nationalist NGO Pro Patria reinstalled the Noreika plaque without permission from the Vilnius municipality. Mayor Simasius told media the municipality would not remove the plaque again. On September 6, Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told media that glorifying figures like Noreika would harm the country’s international image.
On June 27, parliament voted 46 (31 opposed and 15 abstentions) to 40 against granting Romuva state-recognized religious association status, despite their receiving a positive recommendation from the MOJ in 2018. According to the Romuva, a member of the Conference of Lithuanian Bishops sent a letter to MPs advising them against granting state recognition to Romuva. The letter, which was subsequently made public, asserted that state recognition of Romuva as a religion would “unduly mislead Lithuanian citizens and discriminate against all other religious communities.” Some MPs told media the Romuva did not present a counterargument to the claims raised in the letter, and other MPs said they viewed Romuva as a cultural organization rather than a religious institution. The law stipulates that Romuva must wait 10 years before reapplying for recognition. Sources stated that the rejection of Romuva led other religious organizations to hesitate before advocating for their applications.
The MOJ was still reviewing the Jehovah’s Witnesses 2017 application for state-recognized religious association status at year’s end. The MOJ says it was conducting research to verify the application dates before recommending the group to parliament.
An application for religious association status by the United Methodist Church of Lithuania, which the MOJ submitted to parliament with a favorable recommendation in 2001, remained pending. According to the MOJ, it was incumbent on the United Methodist Church to advocate for its application in parliament, but the group had not done so. United Methodist Church minister Remigijus Matulaitis said an application rejection would devastate the morale of the Methodist community, and thus the group decided to wait until after parliamentary elections in 2020 to consider advocating for the proposal in parliament.
In April Yousef Yizhak, a Lithuanian Jew residing in Israel, petitioned a Lithuanian court to prevent the renovation of the Vilnius Sports Palace, located on the site of the Snipiskes Jewish Cemetery, stating the renovation into a conference center “would…disturb the human remains surrounding the Sports Palace, and [the remains] that the Soviets mixed into the Sports Palace’s building materials.” The government said the claim would not affect renovation plans until the court made a final decision, expected in 2020 or 2021. The LJC concurred with the government’s decision to continue with the renovations in the meantime. In April the government approved plans to create a permanent exhibition in the conference center devoted to the history of the Snipiskes Jewish Cemetery. On September 23, members of the Vilnius Jewish Community, one of 33 regional branches of the LJC, and visiting rabbis from abroad gathered in front of the Sports Palace with signs urging the government, “to stop these disgraceful plans for construction and allow the dead to rest.”
The government again disbursed 3.62 million euros ($4.07 million) to the Good Will Foundation, in accordance with its agreement with that institution.
The government said it was open to discussions with the LJC, World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), and American Jewish Committee to find a mechanism to compensate the country’s Jewish citizens whose personal property was confiscated during the Nazi and Soviet eras.
The government provided 1.2 million euros ($1.35 million) to traditional religious groups to reconstruct religious buildings and to support other religious community activities. Of this total, it granted one million euros ($1.12 million) to the Roman Catholic Church (some of which was to assist with preparations for the visit of Pope Francis in September) and 61,100 euros ($68,700) to the Russian Orthodox community. The remaining 139,000 euros ($156,000) was divided among the Old Believer, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Sunni Muslim, Karaite and other Jewish, and Greek Catholic communities. These levels were all identical to the previous year’s funding.
The OEO ombudsperson received five complaints of discrimination based on religion. The OEO decided that three of these complaints fell outside its jurisdiction; the OEO considers only complaints based on protected categories such as ethnicity, religion, or gender. The fourth complaint was regarding the process to obtain a temporary residence permit. The fifth complaint was related to employment discrimination. The ombudsperson ruled that neither case constituted religious discrimination.
On September 19, the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman reported Muslim detainees at the Pabrade Foreigners’ Registration Center, a detention center for migrants and asylum seekers, complained about the lack of halal food options and poor sanitary conditions.
The government and civil society organizations continued to work together to promote Holocaust education and tolerance in schools. On January 27, the International Commission for the Evaluation of Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania (the International Commission) held an annual conference entitled “Stories of Jewish Kids” in honor of International Remembrance Day of Holocaust Victims. Students from schools across the country prepared theatrical performances and retold the stories of child victims of the Holocaust.
On July 24, the government approved the 2020 schedule of commemoration events in honor of Vilna Gaon, a prominent 18th century rabbi. In 2018 parliament unanimously dedicated 2020 to Gaon’s legacy and to the history of Lithuanian Jews. Vice Chancellor Deividas Matulionis told media these events would raise public awareness of the country’s “rich history, which is inseparable from the history of Lithuania’s Jews.” The government coordinated with the LJC and cultural institutions to schedule public lectures and design exhibitions to highlight the contributions of Lithuanian Jews and the country’s role in the Holocaust.
On September 23, the International Commission coordinated a student march to massacre sites around the country entitled “Memory Road.” The program included 165 schools traveling to more than 35 different Holocaust sites.
In October the International Commission cosponsored a Holocaust education teacher training with Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. The Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum coordinated a seminar for teachers entitled “Pages of Jewish History” and provided teachers with materials to use during classroom instruction. On October 27, the International Commission and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum in partnership with the Olga Lengyel Institute sponsored a week-long Holocaust education seminar for teachers. The program included presentations, discussions, group work, videos, visits to Holocaust sites, and survivors’ testimonies.
On June 16, Mayor of Birzai Vytas Jareckas, the LJC, and foreign dignitaries attended the unveiling of a memorial stone. Attendees walked the historic path from the train station through the forest to a mass killing site. In opening remarks, Jareckas said, “This event taking place in Birzai will be an opportunity to remember and honor former residents of our country.” Government officials continued to participate in ceremonies to commemorate the Holocaust.
In July government and nongovernmental bodies organized events to mark the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Kaunas and Siauliai ghettos. On July 14, Mayor of Kaunas Visvaldas Matijosaitis, MPs, the Catholic Archbishop of Kaunas, the LJC, and foreign dignitaries attended commemoration events in Kaunas. On July 15, Mayor of Siauliai Arturas Visockas, MPs, the LJC, and foreign dignitaries attended two commemoration events in Siauliai. In opening remarks, Visockas recounted the stories of Jews from Siauliai who died during the Holocaust and emphasized the importance of remembering Jewish contributions to the development of the city.
On July 19, the Jurbarkas municipality, with support from the Good Will Foundation and foreign donors, erected a Holocaust memorial to commemorate the lives of Jews who lived in Jurbarkas. According to a press statement by Mayor of Jurbarkas Skirmantas Mockevicius, the memorial “is a wonderful creation, commemorating the city’s history and people who lived here as well as Jurbarkas residents who saved Jews during the war.”
President Nauseda’s address on September 20 during a state ceremony to honor families that helped save Jewish lives during the Holocaust condemned intolerance and any attempts to intimidate Jewish citizens.
On September 23, the anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, Speaker of Parliament Viktoras Pranckietis, Minister of Culture Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, Vice Chancellor Matulionis, Mayor of Vilnius Simasius, MPs, foreign dignitaries, the LJC, and Lithuanian Jewish organizations from Israel and Poland attended a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at the Paneriai Memorial. Pranckietis in his remarks said, “Let this heavy, cruel, and inhumane burden of responsibility teach Lithuanians how to proceed today.” Also on September 23, in his remarks given near the site of the former Vilnius ghetto, Prime Minister Skvernelis stated, “Every effort must be taken to stamp out any manifestations of incitement to ethnic hatred or anti-Semitism in the modern, democratic state of Lithuania.”
On October 4, Mayor of Sakiai Edgaras Pilypaitis with the support of Rami Reznik, an Israeli with Lithuanian Jewish heritage, dedicated a memorial stone to mark the entrance of a previously unmarked Jewish cemetery in Pilviskiai. Mayor Pilypaitis and Reznik restored the old cemetery. Members from the municipality, the LJC, and Lithuanian Jews from Israel attended the commemoration event. In October Mayor of Zarasai Nikolajus Gusevas and the LJC unveiled a Holocaust memorial to commemorate the lives of Zarasai’s Jews lost during the Holocaust.
On December 2, MFA Ambassador-at-Large for Jewish Issues Dainius Junevicius and MP and chairman of the International Commission Emanuelis Zingeris attended a regional conference in Vilnius commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Terezin Declaration. The Good Will Foundation, in cooperation with WJRO and the International Commission, organized the conference. Experts from the United States, Israel, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Hungary, Moldova, and the Czech Republic shared best practices for restituting Holocaust-era assets.
On December 10, the MFA organized a session on the importance of religious freedom and belief during the country’s second annual human rights forum. Experts included MOJ official Donatas Glodenis; Vytautas Magnus University sociologist and Religious Studies Professor Milda Alisauskiene; a priestess from the Romuva religious community, Migle Valaitiene; and the director of Italy’s Center for Studies on New Religions, Massimo Introvigne. Forum participants discussed the Catholic Church’s intervention in parliament’s decision not to approve the application for recognition submitted by the Romuva community, despite a favorable recommendation by the MOJ. Professor Alisauskiene said parliament had only approved recognition applications from Christian organizations, and minority religions such as Romuva experienced discrimination as a result.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 15 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Lithuania, while 73 percent said it was rare; 60 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, 95 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 80 percent said they would be with an atheist, 79 percent with a Jew, 67 percent with a Buddhist, and 62 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, 68 percent if atheist, 65 percent if Jewish, 50 percent if Buddhist, and 35 percent if Muslim.
In January the European Commission 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, 75 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in Lithuania, and 63 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 19 percent; on the internet, 21 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 23 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 15 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 30 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 17 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 13 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 15 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 15 percent.
On November 13, three teenagers spray-painted the words “Heil Hitler” on the Kaunas synagogue’s information board. Police said they suspected the same teenagers broke the windows of a mosque in Kaunas on November 17. Police launched a pretrial investigation into both acts of vandalism on November 25 and detained an 18-year-old suspect on November 28. The Kaunas municipality removed the graffiti from the information board.
On October 6, media reported that a swastika and a homemade bomb were left outside of a building in Vilnius. Police removed the apparent bomb and launched an investigation.
On February 16, nationalists held a march in Vilnius to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of the country’s independence, similar to previous years. The march attracted approximately 1,000 participants, an increase from 300 in the previous year, which some NGOs attributed to better organization and publicity. Some of the participants held torches and carried national Lithuanian flags. The march included a banner with a picture of, and a quote by, WWII-era anti-Semite Kazys Skirpa. Nationalists also organized a march in Vilnius on March 11, the country’s official Restoration of Independence Day, involving approximately 1,000 persons, similar to the previous year. According to media, some of the participants displayed fascist or neo-Nazi symbols, such as a skull-and-crossbones flag, and carried a banner with the images of Lithuanian partisans who were Nazi collaborators, such as Kazys Skirpa and Jonas Noreika.
Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments on the internet were common, for example, on Lithuanian media portal Delfi. Examples of anti-Semitism in this forum included statements that Jews who collaborated with the KGB should be condemned by the LJC for “serving in the repressive Soviet structures and participating or otherwise contributing to the genocide of the Lithuanian nation.” Anti-Muslim examples included equating Muslim refugees entering the country with “a swarm of insects” and urging the government and citizens “to chase those [Muslim] refugees from Lithuania.” Media portals generally removed such comments promptly after becoming aware of them.
In the wake of the Noreika controversy, LJC Chairwoman Faina Kukliansky reported to media the LJC had received threatening calls and letters, and on August 6, she temporarily closed the local synagogue and the Jewish community’s headquarters. In response, Prime Minister Skvernelis condemned all examples of ethnic hatred and called on law enforcement to guarantee the security for every citizen and every community living in the country. Kukliansky reopened the synagogue and community center shortly thereafter.
On September 15, media reported an unidentified person created a large soil swastika near the LJC headquarters. The swastika appeared during the Festival of the Nations, an annual festival displaying the country’s national minority cultures. Prime Minister Skvernelis in a press release denounced it as an act of vandalism and warned that such activities tarnished the country’s image internationally. Foreign Minister Linkevicius condemned the act as “deplorable” and called for police to investigate. On September 16, police launched an investigation; no results were available at year’s end.
In October three more anti-Semitic acts of vandalism took place around the country. On October 5, media reported that an unknown person painted a swastika on a statue of Chaim Frenkel, a 19th century Jewish industrialist, in Siauliai. The Siauliai municipality removed the swastika. The following day, someone spray-painted a swastika on a street in Vilnius. On October 12, a group vandalized a mural representing Jewish cultural life in Vilnius with a swastika. The Vilnius municipality removed all of the swastikas.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The embassy continued to maintain regular dialogue with senior government officials on the importance of religious freedom. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives met with Prime Minister Skvernelis, Speaker of Parliament Pranckietis, presidential advisors, a vice chancellor, mayors, ministers and vice ministers of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Culture, and Education, and MPs and continued to engage them on ways to promote tolerance and integration of religious minorities, including Muslim refugees, into society and combat anti-Semitism. Embassy representatives urged the government to address the remaining issues regarding compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi and Soviet eras. Embassy officials also discussed Holocaust education, remembrance, and property restitution at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government offices and with MPs.
The Ambassador and embassy representatives met regularly with the Jewish community to discuss issues of concern, including property restitution, preservation and restoration of heritage sites, combating intolerance, and Holocaust remembrance.
On February 25, the Ambassador met with Minister of Culture Kvietkauskas to discuss embassy programs related to Holocaust education and preservation of Jewish cultural sites.
On March 7, the Ambassador spoke with Vice Chancellor Matulionis about the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act and the embassy’s outreach to government and nongovernmental agencies to discuss property restitution issues and Holocaust education. The Ambassador also spoke about the issues covered in the JUST report with Minister of Education, Science, and Sports Algirdas Monkevicius on March 18.
On May 9, the Ambassador accompanied an American Jewish Committee representative and LJC Chairwoman Kukliansky to meetings with Foreign Minister Linkevicius and Vice Chancellor Matulionis to discuss the removal of the Noreika plaque, the renovations of the Snipiskes Sports Palace, and private property restitution.
In June embassy officers attended the unveiling of the memorial stone in Birzai. On June 21, an embassy officer attended the unveiling of the YIVO plaque in Vilnius. On June 28, the Ambassador spoke with Foreign Minister Linkevicius about the importance of increasing societal tolerance for religious minorities, government visibility at annual Holocaust remembrance events, and support for Holocaust education and preserving Jewish cultural heritage sites.
On July 10, the Ambassador and Prime Minister Skvernelis discussed the necessity of government support for the Jewish community and continued cooperation and open discussions over the renovation of the Snipiskes Sports Palace. On July 14, a senior embassy official participated in a ceremony honoring the 75th Holocaust Memorial Day in Kaunas. The next day, embassy officials delivered remarks at the 75th Holocaust Memorial Day event in Siauliai, commenting on the importance of remembrance and Holocaust education. In July the embassy provided financial support for an expedition to discover a lost Jewish shtetl located beneath a lake. In his remarks at a July 16 reception announcing the results of the expedition, a senior embassy official highlighted the archaeological team’s contributions to the discovery and preservation of Jewish cultural heritage sites in the country.
In September the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues released a series of tweets in response to the Noreika controversy encouraging Lithuanians to objectively review the actions of historical figures. The envoy advocated against honoring those whose actions directly led to the persecution and killing of Jews during the Holocaust. On September 23, the Charge d’Affaires participated in a ceremony at the Paneriai memorial in honor of Holocaust Memorial Day.
On October 27, the Charge attended the opening of a week-long Holocaust education seminar for teachers and delivered remarks emphasizing the role of teachers in educating the youth about the country’s role in the Holocaust. On October 29, the Charge travelled to Zarasai to attend the unveiling of a memorial stone commemorating the individuals killed in the forest on August 26, 1941. In his remarks, the Charge acknowledged the government’s efforts to preserve Jewish history and cultural heritage and to raise awareness of the country’s role in the Holocaust. On December 2, the Charge and other embassy officers attended the regional conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Terezin Declaration.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. It states religion is a personal choice, and all churches and religious organizations have equal rights. A concordat with the Holy See defines relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Statutes and agreements determine relations between the government and 15 religious groups. The law prohibits public speech offensive to religious sentiment. The government decided 151 religious communal-property restitution cases out of 3,089 outstanding cases. The president, prime minister, and interior minister denounced anti-Semitism. Senior government officials participated in Holocaust remembrance events. During the year, the government and various political parties rejected calls for broad, expedited private property restitution. Jewish groups criticized as insensitive some statements by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other public figures about property restitution. Ruling party leaders also made statements during the year that were criticized as insensitive by Jewish groups and other observers. Some opposition parliamentarians made anti-Semitic comments during the year.
The government investigated 429 incidents in 2018 (the most recent data available) in which the motivation of the perpetrator was the religious affiliation of the victim, compared with 506 in the previous year. The 2018 data did not specify which religious groups were targeted in these incidents. Civil society groups said the figures were not comprehensive. News media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Jewish groups reported the level of anti-Semitic speech remained relatively high, especially in online messaging and internet media websites, after an increase in 2018. There were incidents of physical attacks against Roman Catholic clergy and vandalism at Jewish and Roman Catholic sites. Most Poles believed religious discrimination in Poland was rare, although a significant portion of the population believed anti-Semitism was a problem, according to opinion polls.
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy staff, and visiting U.S. officials discussed with government officials the status of property restitution and countering anti-Semitism. In February the Secretary of State publicly urged the government to move forward with comprehensive private property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust. In May and September, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism engaged with government officials and Jewish community leaders on efforts to combat anti-Semitism. The Ambassador and other embassy staff also met a wide variety of groups, including Jewish groups, to discuss restitution and other issues, such as anti-Semitism and Holocaust remembrance and education. The Ambassador co-led the first official U.S. government delegation to the March of the Living event at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The embassy and the consulate general in Krakow engaged with Jewish and Muslim leaders on countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and sponsored exchanges, roundtables, cultural events, and education grants promoting interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.4 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2019 Polish government statistical yearbook, which publishes the membership figures for religious groups that voluntarily submit the information for publication, reports 86 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. The next largest religious groups are the Polish Orthodox Church, with approximately half a million members (religious groups report that the number of Orthodox worshippers doubled since 2014, given an influx of migrant Ukrainian workers), and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with approximately 117,000 members. Other religious groups include Lutheran, Pentecostal, the Old Catholic Mariavite Church, the Polish National Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Church of Christ, Methodist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Buddhist. Some Jewish groups estimate there are 20,000 Jews, while other estimates put the number as high as 40,000. Muslim groups estimate there are 25,000 Muslims, mostly Sunni. Approximately 10 percent of Muslims are ethnic Tatars, a group present in the country for several hundred years.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion. It states freedom of religion includes the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest that religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing rites, or teaching. It states freedom to express religion may be limited only by law when necessary to defend state security, public order, health, morals, or the rights of others. The constitution states, “Churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.” It stipulates the relationship between the state and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for autonomy and mutual independence. The constitution specifies that relations with the Roman Catholic Church shall be determined by an international concordat concluded with the Holy See and by statute, and relations with other churches and religious organizations by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements between representatives of these groups and the Council of Ministers.
According to the constitution, freedom of religion also includes the right to own places of worship and to provide religious services. The constitution stipulates parents have the right to ensure their children receive a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions and their own religious and philosophical beliefs. It states religious organizations may teach their faith in schools if doing so does not infringe on the religious freedom of others. The constitution acknowledges the right of national and ethnic minorities to establish institutions designed to protect religious identity. The constitution prohibits parties and other organizations with programs based on Nazism or communism.
The criminal code outlaws public speech that offends religious sentiment. The law prescribes a fine, typically 5,000 zloty ($1,300), or up to two years in prison for violations.
By law, anyone who publicly assigns the “Polish state or nation” responsibility or joint responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich during World War II (WWII) may be sued by the Institute of National Remembrance and relevant NGOs, fined, and/or forced to retract the offending statement and pay compensation to the state or a charity.
Specific legislation governs the relationship of 15 religious groups with the state, outlining the structure of that relationship and procedures for communal property restitution. The 15 religious groups are the Roman Catholic Church, Polish Orthodox Church, Evangelical-Augsburg (Lutheran) Church, Evangelical Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Polish National Catholic Church, Pentecostal Church, the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, Mariavite Church, Old Catholic Mariavite Church, Old Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim Religious Union, and Karaim Religious Union. Marriages performed by officials from 11 of these groups do not require further registration at a civil registry office; however, the Mariavite Church, Muslim Religious Union, Karaim Religious Union, and Old Eastern Orthodox Church do not have that right. An additional 166 registered religious groups and five aggregate religious organizations (the Polish Ecumenical Council, Polish Buddhist Union, Biblical Society, Evangelical Alliance, and Council of Protestant Churches) do not have a statutorily defined relationship with the state.
The law on freedom of conscience and religion states that relations between the state and all churches and other religious unions are based on the respect of freedom of conscience and religion. This includes separation of churches and other religious unions from the state; freedom to perform religious functions; equality of all churches and religious unions, no matter how their legal situation is regulated; and legal protections for churches and other religious groups within the scope defined by the law. In accordance with the law, the government and the Roman Catholic Church participate in the Joint Government-Episcopate Committee, co-chaired by the Minister of Interior and Administration and a bishop, currently the Archbishop of Gdansk, which meets regularly to discuss Catholic Church-state relations. The government also participates in a joint government-Polish Ecumenical Council committee, co-chaired by a Ministry of Interior and Administration (MIA) undersecretary and the head of the Polish Ecumenical Council (an association composed of seven denominations and two religious associations, all of them non-Roman Catholic Christian), which meets to discuss issues related to minority Christian churches operating in the country.
Religious groups not the subject of specific legislation may register with the MIA, but registration is not obligatory. To register, the law requires a group to submit a notarized application with the personal information of at least 100 citizen members; details about the group’s activities in the country; background on its doctrine and practices; a charter and physical address; identifying information about its leaders; a description of the role of the clergy, if applicable; and information on funding sources and methods of new member recruitment. If the ministry rejects the registration application, religious groups may appeal to an administrative court. By law, the permissible grounds for refusal of an application are failure to meet formal requirements or inclusion in the application of provisions that may violate public safety and order, health, public morality, parental authority or freedom, and rights of other persons. Unregistered groups may worship, proselytize, publish or import religious literature freely, and bring in foreign missionaries, but they have no legal recognition and are unable to undertake certain functions such as owning property or holding bank accounts in their name. The 186 registered and statutorily recognized religious groups receive other privileges not available to unregistered groups, such as selective tax benefits – they are exempt from import tariffs, property taxes and income tax on their educational, scientific, cultural, and legal activities, and their official representatives are also exempt from income and property taxes – and the right to acquire property and teach religion in schools.
Four commissions oversee communal religious-property restitution claims submitted by their respective statutory filing deadlines: one each for the Jewish community, Lutheran Church, and Orthodox Church, and one for all other denominations. The commissions function in accordance with legislation providing for the restitution to religious communities of property they owned that was nationalized during or after WWII. A separate commission overseeing claims by the Roman Catholic Church completed its work in 2011. The MIA and the respective religious community each appoint representatives to the commissions. The law states decisions by the commission ruling on communal property claims may not be appealed, but the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2013 that parties could appeal commission decisions in administrative courts. There have been no reports of parties filing such appeals. The law does not address communal properties the government sold or turned over to new private owners after WWII.
There is no comprehensive national law governing private property restitution. Members of religious groups, like other private claimants, may pursue restitution through the courts.
The law authorizes Warsaw city authorities to resolve expeditiously longstanding restitution cases affecting Warsaw properties being used for public purposes. Warsaw city officials must post a notification of specific public properties for a six-month period during which original owners of the property must submit their claims. At the end of the six-month period, Warsaw city authorities may make a final determination on the disposition of the property, either declaring that the property shall remain public and not be subject to any future claims, or returning the property or monetary compensation to the original owner.
In accordance with the law, all public and private schools teach voluntary religion classes. Schools at all grade levels must provide instruction in any of the registered faiths if there are at least seven students requesting it. Each registered religious group determines the content of classes in its faith and provides the teachers, who receive salaries from the state. Students may also request to take an optional ethics class instead of a religion class; the ethics class is optional even if students decline to take a religion class.
Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom, and the law prohibits discrimination or persecution based on religion or belief.
The constitution recognizes the right to conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds but states such objectors may be required to perform alternative service as specified by law.
The human rights ombudsman is responsible for safeguarding human and civil freedoms and rights, including the freedom of religion and conscience, specified in the constitution and other legal acts. The ombudsman is independent from the government and appointed by parliament.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions resolved 151 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 3,089 pending claims by religious groups, compared with 87 claims resolved the previous year. At year’s end, the commissions had partially or entirely resolved a total of 2,852 of 5,504 claims by the Jewish community deemed valid by the commission (40 were previously dismissed by the commission as invalid), 981 of 1,182 claims by the Lutheran community, 365 of 472 claims by the Orthodox Church, and 89 of 170 claims by all other denominations.
Critics continued to point out the laws on religious communal property restitution do not address the issue of disputed communal properties now privately owned, and the government left several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. These included cases in which buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after WWII. The Jewish community continued to report the pace of Jewish communal property restitution was slow, involved considerable legal expense, and often ended without any recovery of property or other compensation for claimants. For example, the process of returning the old Jewish cemetery in the city of Kalisz started 19 years ago, and it remained unresolved at year’s end.
During the year, Warsaw city authorities continued implementing a 2015 law intended to end abusive practices in the trading of former property owners’ claims. Legal experts expressed concern the law limited the ability of claimants to reclaim property unjustly taken from their lawful owners during the WWII and communist eras, including from Jews and members of other religious minorities. On May 10, Warsaw city authorities stated that since the 2015 law entered into force, the city had resolved approximately 100 dormant claims filed before 1950, which included the refusal of 82 restitution claims against public properties. These included schools, preschools, a park, a police command unit site, a hospital, and city-owned apartment houses. There was no information available as to the identity of those claiming prior ownership or how many of them belonged to religious minorities.
A special government commission continued to investigate accusations of irregularities in the restitution of private property in Warsaw. On June 3, the commission reported it had reviewed 806 prior restitution cases and issued 97 decisions since 2016. The commission chair also estimated the commission issued decisions regarding the payment of compensation worth 4.2 million zloty ($1.11 million). Several NGOs and lawyers representing claimants, including lawyers representing Holocaust survivors or their heirs, stated the commission had a negative effect on private property restitution cases, as administrative and court decisions had slowed down in response to the commission’s decisions.
During the year, the government and various political parties rejected calls for broad, expedited private property restitution. At a party convention on May 17, Prime Minister (PM) Morawiecki stated Poland should not be saddled with financial obligations in providing restitution payments, saying that such a move would defy basic principles of international law and would be “Hitler’s posthumous victory.” Law and Justice Party (PiS) chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski stated on June 4 that as long as PiS was in power, the party was “a guarantee that Poland will not pay for German crimes of World War II. If Jews have any claims, let them turn to Germany. Poles owe them absolutely nothing.” Responding to a question about Holocaust-era property restitution, PM Morawiecki said on September 26, “Demanding any compensation from Poland is not only inappropriate but is also an insult to basic historical truth.” On May 15, Robert Winnicki, a member of the lower house of parliament (Sejm) and the far-right Confederation Party, said PiS, the majority party in the Sejm, “want[s] to sell Poland to the Jews” after the Sejm declined to review a bill that would ban heirless property restitution. Stanislaw Tyszka, then a deputy speaker of the Sejm with the Kukiz’15 Party, said on May 15 that PiS’s refusal to take up the legislation “shows that the Polish government is no longer on its knees, but is lying flat in front of [the United States] and Israel.”
In August PiS expelled Senator Waldemar Bonkowski, who was suspended from the party in 2018 for posting anti-Semitic material on his Facebook page, including a video edited from Nazi propaganda movies. Media reported that he was expelled partly because of his anti-Semitic comments.
In May, then European Parliament (EP) candidate and current parliamentarian for the Confederation Party Grzegorz Braun said in a press conference, “The American empire is here the political, and also military, tool of Jewish blackmail against Poland.” The same month, Braun said in a far-right magazine that Jews “have waged war for centuries” against Poles and “the whole Christian world.”
In August Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich addressed an open letter to Veterans Affairs Minister Jan Kasprzyk criticizing the government’s decision to honor WII ultra-nationalist fighters of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade, which killed Poles it suspected of being communist, including many Jews. Schudrich called his invitation to the event a “personal insult.” “There are so many other Polish heroes, we don’t need to choose the ones who actually killed other Poles, and in this case, many of them of the Jewish religion,” Schudrich said, dubbing the ceremony “dangerous” historical revisionism.
In February Sejm member Pawel Kukiz (then from the Kukiz’15 party, afterward from the Polish Coalition) posted tweets listing persons of Jewish origin whom he alleged worked for the communist regime after the war and were responsible for death sentences against Polish soldiers. His tweets were in response to comments from then acting Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who in the same month said many Poles had collaborated with the Nazis, and Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” In his tweets, Kukiz said, “Since Minister Katz talks about Poles involved in the murder of Jews (and unfortunately they were), I allow myself to remind [others] about the Jews who murdered Poles in the service of the Soviets.” After facing public criticism, Kukiz announced he would take legal action against anyone who called him an anti-Semite.
During a May 18 televised debate in Kielce, Confederation Party candidate for the EP Konrad Berkowicz placed a kippah over the head of Anna Krupka, a PiS candidate for the EP elections that month. Berkowicz said “[PiS] bow[s] down to Jews,” who would “sell this country for money.” The country’s then-ambassador to Israel condemned the incident, stating that all expressions of “racially motivated” hatred were unacceptable. Berkowicz was elected to the Sejm on October 13.
On January 17, Deputy Prosecutor General Krzysztof Sierak announced 105 prosecutors around the country had been selected to work exclusively on hate crime and hate speech cases. He made assurances that they would not be assigned any other cases and said that all hate speech and hate crime cases would be supervised by district and regional prosecutors’ offices and by the National Prosecutor’s Department of Investigations.
Crucifixes continued to be displayed in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in many other public buildings, including public school classrooms.
In March media reported that a newsstand in the Sejm offered a right-wing newspaper that advised readers on “How to identify a Jew” and “How to defeat them.” On March 13, the Sejm press office said the newsstand was run by an outside contractor who was responsible for the newspaper selection, and that parliament would request the periodical be withdrawn. The contractor said it was unable to comply with the request due to laws prohibiting restrictions on dissemination of press publications because of their content.
On March 18, police and the Internal Security Agency detained three men and accused them of promoting fascism and inciting hatred. The agency’s officers found neo-fascist literature, clothes and labels with neo-fascist symbols, axes, hatchets, and knives in the men’s apartments.
On June 26, the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that a law used to punish a print shop worker for refusing to produce LGBTI material was unconstitutional. The case was brought by the prosecutor general, who argued that there should be a right to refuse service based on “religion and conscience,” including “the right not to support homosexual content.” The case originated in a 2016 court ruling that fined the print shop employee for refusing to accept a printing order from an LGBTI group, telling the group that he did not want to “contribute to the promotion of the LGBTI movement.” A lower court had found the employee violated the law, which prohibits “refusing service without just cause.”
In January the Constitutional Tribunal struck down a provision of the 2018 Institute of National Remembrance law which criminalized denial that Ukrainian nationalists had committed crimes against Poles between 1925 and 1950 and had collaborated with Nazi Germany. The tribunal ruled that the creators of the provision used vague and imprecise wording when referring to “Ukrainian nationalists” and the location of their crimes, which created uncertainty regarding the applicability of the provision.
On May 6, police arrested a person suspected of creating posters of the icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag, which appeared in the city of Plock. The suspect was charged with offending religious sentiment but was released the same day. Then-minister of interior Joachim Brudzinski called the posters “cultural barbarism” and said, “No fairy tales about freedom or tolerance give anyone the right to offend the feelings of the faithful.”
In November the Czestochowa-North District Prosecutor’s Office reopened an investigation into the use of an icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa with her halo painted in the colors of the rainbow flag during the June 16 Equality March in Czestochowa. The same prosecutor’s office had previously discontinued proceedings in October after stating there was no evidence that the march participants had committed the crime of offending religious sentiment.
In November local media reported Tomasz Greniuch, historian and nationalist, was nominated to head the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) office in Opole. Greniuch was the chief of the National-Radical Camp (ONR) in Opole, a group the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers fascist and has called upon Poland to ban for promoting “national hatred.” In 2005, Greniuch was an organizer of a march commemorating a 1936 anti-Jewish pogrom in Myslenice.
In January PM Morawiecki and other political and religious leaders joined Holocaust survivors to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commemorate the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On May 15, following an attack in Israel against the Polish ambassador, President Andrzej Duda said, “Just as I fight all instances of anti-Semitism, which I regard as something vile and unworthy, I will never accept any anti-Polish act.”
In an October 25 letter to the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Prime Minister Morawiecki declared the country was committed to fighting all forms of anti-Semitism and condemned all acts of violence against members of Jewish communities or attacks on their places of worship. The letter was written in response to the Jewish Agency’s request that the country secure its synagogues and other Jewish institutions following an October 9 attack outside a synagogue in Halle, Germany.
On January 27, responding to a nationalist march in front of Auschwitz, then-Minister of Interior Joachim Brudzinski declared on social media he would never tolerate any kind of Nazi or anti-Semitic propaganda. “I said it many times, and I will repeat again, there will never be any approval from my side to any activities promoting Nazism and anti-Semitism,” he wrote on social media.
In March, at the Israeli government’s request, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz stated that Poland would deny entry to English author and Holocaust denier David Irving, who planned to lead a tour of Nazi death camps in Poland in September. The minister said, “Denial of the Holocaust is not allowed by Polish law; therefore, he will not be welcome here in Poland if he wants to come and present his opinions.”
In November, media reported that the Foundation of Cultural Heritage, which is partially supported by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, completed a mausoleum in the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery for Jews who fought for the nation’s independence. Construction originally started in 1939, but World War II intervened.
In November, a musical on divergent Polish-Jewish narratives of the Holocaust titled “Letter from Warsaw” premiered in Warsaw with financial support from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The musical tells the story of a family of American Jews that rediscovers its Polish-Jewish roots when informed they are the remaining heirs of unclaimed property in Warsaw.
On May 2, Agriculture Minister Krzysztof Ardanowski marched with Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, and U.S. representatives, among others, in the International March of the Living from Birkenau to Auschwitz. The March of the Living is an annual educational program that brings individuals from around the world to study the history of the Holocaust.
In January the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, after the Supreme Administrative Court in 2018 rejected its final appeal to register as a religious organization.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination; it published the results in September. According to the findings, 29 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 64 percent said it was rare; 82 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 89 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 84 percent said they would be with an atheist, 81 percent with a Jew, 77 percent with a Buddhist, and 70 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 88 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 76 percent if atheist, 72 percent if Jewish, 66 percent if Buddhist, and 55 percent if Muslim. The study did not break out respondents by religion.
In January the EC 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, 41 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, and 18 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who felt that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 43 percent; anti-Semitism on the internet, 40 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 45 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 41 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 41 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 38 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 31 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 37 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 36 percent. The study made no effort to break out respondents by religion.
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: 64 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Poland; 56 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 74 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
The national prosecutor’s office reported that during 2018, the most recent period for which data were available, prosecutors investigated 429 religiously motivated incidents, compared with 506 in the previous year. The 2018 data did not specify which religious groups were targeted in these incidents. The NGO Never Again Association and religious groups stated government tracking of religiously motivated incidents was not comprehensive or systematic.
During the year, there were several physical attacks against Roman Catholic clergy and lay people, as well as against a Muslim. There were also cases of desecration of Roman Catholic, Jewish, and other religious sites, such as churches, temples, and cemeteries.
On July 28, three men attacked a priest and a member of church staff in St. John’s Basilica in Szczecin. The priest was taken to the hospital. He said the attackers verbally abused him, bit him in the face, and demanded his liturgical vestments. On September 23, the Szczecin District prosecutor’s office indicted the three, whose pretrial detention, which began in July, was extended to at least five months. If convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison for, among other charges, using violence or criminal threats against someone on the grounds of their religious identity. On July 29, the chief of the Conference of Polish Bishops wrote an open letter to the priest expressing deep concern with what he characterized as the growing frequency of acts of hate against believers, including priests, and against religious buildings, sites, and objects of worship.
On June 10, a man stabbed a priest in front of a church in Wroclaw. The priest was walking to the church to lead morning Mass. In November the Wroclaw prosecutor’s office indicted the man with attempted murder. According to media reports, a spokesperson for the archdiocese said he believed the suspect’s intent was to attack any “man in a cassock.”
On July 26, four persons came to the parish office in Wloclawek to submit the required official documents in order to renounce their faith. When the priest explained that an act of apostasy could only be signed by a parish priest who was not present at that moment, the persons verbally abused the priest, and one man attacked him with a cross and threw him out of his chair.
On August 27, a man wearing a Star of David necklace entered a pub in Lodz city center. The man said the bartender refused to serve him and said the pub’s security guard used vulgar anti-Semitic comments and demanded he leave. The man called the police, who confirmed they received a notification about a possible crime of public offense of a person or group based on their national, ethnic, racial, or religious origin. The president of the pub’s board apologized for the incident and said the pub would take immediate steps to prevent similar incidents in the future.
In September media reported on the case of a judge – a member of the National Council of the Judiciary – who in 2015 allegedly used an anonymous online account to make anti-Semitic comments, including calling Jews “a vile, rotten people [who] do not deserve anything.” On September 16, the National Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it had launched an investigation into the case.
On May 4, the Oswiecim regional court sentenced far-right activist Piotr Rybak to one year of community service for incitement to hatred on national grounds after he led a January 27 protest of approximately 200 nationalists in front of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and extermination camp. During the demonstration, he said International Holocaust Remembrance Day glorified Jewish victims and discounted the deaths of Poles, adding, “It’s time to fight against Jewry and free Poland from them.” Rybak was jailed previously for burning an effigy of a Jew in 2015.
On November 11, former Roman Catholic priest and far-right activist Jacek Miedlar led a “March of Poles” in Wroclaw to celebrate the country’s independence day. City officials decided to terminate the march after some participants, including Miedlar, shouted anti-Semitic slogans. On December 13, the Internal Security Agency arrested Miedlar on charges of public incitement of hatred against Jews. The spokesman for the national security services said on Twitter that Miedlar had been arrested in connection with his manifesto, which accuses Jews of betraying the country when it regained independence in 1918. Miedlar was released the same day. He had previously made anti-Semitic comments and engaged in anti-Semitic activities, including organizing a nationalist march with Piotr Rybak in Wroclaw in 2018.
On April 19, residents of the town of Pruchnik enacted an annual ritual that involved hanging, burning, and beating an effigy of Judas Iscariot, who was dressed to look like an Orthodox Jew. On April 22, the Catholic Church condemned the ritual, and then-minister of interior Brudzinski called it “idiotic, pseudo-religious chutzpah.” On May 14, the Przemysl prosecutor’s office said it would not open an investigation into the incident based on incitement to hatred on national grounds, describing the event as a 100-year-old tradition in Pruchnik whose purpose was to condemn the specific behavior of a historical person (Judas) rather than to incite general hatred against Jews.
On November 11, a coalition of groups, including the ONR and All Polish Youth, both of whose ideologies are considered extremist and nationalist by human rights groups, led an annual Independence Day March. March organizer Robert Bakiewicz said in a speech preceding the march, “Jews want to plunder our homeland.” There were no reports of violence, but participants chanted slogans such as “Great Catholic Poland,” and a small number displayed a white supremacist version of the Celtic cross.
On May 11, a nationalist-organized protest against Holocaust-era property restitution and the U.S. Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act took place outside the prime minister’s chancellery and the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. Several thousand people participated. The protest was peaceful and lasted several hours, with marchers chanting “No to Restitution” and “Stop [the] JUST Act.” Leaders of far-right organizations, including ONR and All-Polish Youth, spoke to the crowd. They criticized the governing PiS Party for allegedly bowing to foreign interests at the expense of the nation and vowed that the government would not pay “a single penny” in restitution. They said the JUST Act was a problem created by Jewish organizations and called on President Trump to abolish it. Marchers also chanted “This is Poland, not Polin” (the Hebrew name for Poland) several times in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, with some participants wearing T-shirts with the same message.
On April 19, the U.S. Ambassador’s tweet of Passover holiday wishes generated over 1,500 comments, the vast majority of which were negative and anti-Semitic.
Groups such as National Rebirth of Poland and Blood and Honor continued to espouse anti-Semitic views, but according to the Never Again Association, they were not as active as in previous years.
On October 1, unknown perpetrators painted vulgar anti-Semitic slogans and a swastika on the walls of the former ghetto in Krakow. City authorities immediately removed the graffiti. Police were looking for perpetrators at year’s end.
On September 3, media reported the Lublin prosecutor’s office discontinued an investigation into graffiti discovered inside the demolished workshop of a stonemason who was renovating a Holocaust memorial in Wawolnica. The perpetrator had painted the inscription “Jews away” inside the building before running through it with a bulldozer. Because the graffiti was not in a public area, it was not considered “public hate speech,” which is illegal.
On July 21, unknown individuals defaced a recently renovated wall of the Jewish cemetery in Tarnow with an anti-Semitic inscription. Tarnow mayor Roman Ciepiela immediately condemned the incident and said city authorities would cover the expenses of removing the inscription. Police were looking for perpetrators at year’s end.
On June 11, unknown individuals threw stones at a Roman Catholic church in Konin. They broke stained glass windows and damaged a monument to a Polish saint in front of the church. On June 18, police detained a man and charged him with destruction of property; he pled guilty. If convicted, he could face three months to five years in prison.
On July 9, unknown individuals placed vulgar pictures and the club logo of a Warsaw soccer team in three chapels belonging to a monastery in the town of Krzeszow. On July 15, media reported police managed to identify two teenagers, a 13-year-old and 15-year-old, who admitted to placing the pictures. They claimed they did not realize “how serious the situation was.” Their case was referred to a family court.
On May 30, unknown individuals destroyed a figure of Jesus Christ in a Roman Catholic church in Plonsk. Police initiated an investigation into the incident.
On August 10, during an on-stage performance, a drag queen participating in an LGBTI “Mr. Gay Poland” gala event in Poznan simulated cutting the throat of an effigy of Krakow Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski, who had criticized what he called “LGBTI ideology” in a sermon. Minister of Interior Mariusz Kaminski said prosecutors would look into the incident and noted such behavior was unacceptable, no matter which religion was under attack.
On June 8, at a side event of Warsaw’s Equality Parade, three men, including an LGBTI activist who stated he was a bishop of the Free Reformed Church, dressed as priests and held what many observers considered a mock Roman Catholic Mass. The Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a statement protesting the event, and the man was charged with offending religious sentiment.
On May 25, during Gdansk’s equality march, a group of participants displayed a banner with an image of a vagina imitating a monstrance. The person who carried the banner was dressed as a priest. The Polish Bishops’ Conference issued a statement that said the incident showed a lack of respect for believers and violated the right to freedom of religion. Prosecutors opened an investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end.
On August 9, the Rzeszow local prosecutor’s office pressed charges against a man who allegedly attacked a Polish Muslim woman and her three-month-old baby in Rzeszow. The man was charged with making threats and offending the woman on the grounds of religious affiliation. The incident took place when the woman was walking with her baby in a stroller along the river. The man verbally abused her and tried to flip over the stroller. He also made death threats against the woman and shouted “Heil Hitler” and “white power.”
On April 17, the Przemysl local court sentenced 20 men to 30-40 hours of community service for disrupting a religious procession of Greek Catholic and Orthodox Church believers in 2016. The procession was en route from the local cathedral to the Ukrainian war cemetery in Przemysl at the time.
On December 24, four men broke into a Sikh temple in Warsaw. At year’s end, police were looking for the perpetrators, who were accused of desecrating the area used for performing religious services and stealing two chairs.
In April following the discovery that some bags sold in the Auchan supermarket chain in Krakow had swastikas on them, an Auchan spokesperson said the bags in question were provided by a third party supplier and that store staff did not immediately notice, since the swastikas were printed on only one out of 10 bags. The chain withdrew the bags from its stores. Separately, the Zabka supermarket chain said it would remove all anti-Semitic publications from its convenience stores after media reported it sold periodicals published by a well-known anti-Semite, which included stories such as “How Adolf Built Israel” and “How Jews Collaborated with Germans [During World War II].”
In February local media reported several Jewish leaders, including the Chief Rabbi of Poland and the executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said they felt safe in the country. Media pointed out that although there was practically no anti-Semitic violence in the country, anti-Semitic speech was prevalent, mainly on the internet. Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich observed that people with anti-Semitic views had become more confident and open about their views in the last few years.
According to the Never Again Association, during the year anti-Semitism returned as a topic to the public debate, mainly due to the far right Confederation Party’s vocal opposition to comprehensive private property restitution during EP elections in May and parliamentary elections in October. According to the NGO, anti-Semitic messages appeared in online messaging, as well as on nationalist and far-right YouTube channels and internet media websites. The NGO said that while Jews had not been physically attacked, there were cases of vandalism targeting Jewish monuments and cemeteries.
On January 26, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the 19th Annual Day of Islam with the stated purpose of promoting peace among religious groups. The Church hosted an event titled “Christians and Muslims – From Competition to Cooperation” in Bialystok, which included discussions, readings from the Bible and Quran, and prayers. The Joint Council of Catholics and Muslims also issued a statement appealing to Catholics to cooperate with “Muslim brothers.”
The Polish Council of Christians and Jews organized joint Catholic and Jewish prayers to encourage tolerance and understanding on the October 27 Simchat Torah Jewish holiday. On November 11, the council organized the first-ever bus pilgrimage to sites important to the Hasidic movement in Judaism called “Following the Routes of Tsaddiks” under the honorary patronage of Roman Catholic Bishop Rafal Markowski, the chairman of the Polish Bishops Committee for Dialogue with Judaism.
On October 26, the John Paul II Center of Thought organized an interreligious prayer for peace in Warsaw, which included Archbishop of Warsaw Kazimierz Nycz, Chief Rabbi Schudrich, and Mufti of the Muslim League Nedal Abu Tabaq, as well as representatives of the Orthodox Church, Polish Ecumenical Council, and Sant’Egidio Roman Catholic organization.
Human Library projects, funded by European Economic Area grants and coordinated by NGOs Diversja Association and Lambda Warsaw, continued in several cities and towns around the country, including Warsaw, Olesnica, Wroclaw, and Lodz. The projects involved a diverse group of volunteers, including representatives of Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups, who told their stories to individuals who could “borrow” them like books. The stated intent of the project was to foster greater tolerance in general, including religious tolerance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In February the Vice President joined PM Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a wreath-laying ceremony at a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, during which thousands of Polish Jews perished. The Vice President said in remarks to Prime Minister Netanyahu at the nearby POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, “…It is very humbling for me to be here with you in this very special place on this sacred ground, to hear a prayer sung, to remember the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. To be able to share this moment with you and with members of the Jewish community here in Poland is deeply meaningful.” The Vice President, with President Duda, also placed candles at a memorial to Holocaust victims at the Birkenau death camp.
In February, during a joint appearance with the foreign minister, the Secretary of State publicly urged the government to move forward with comprehensive private-property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust era.
In May the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government officials responsible for combating anti-Semitism and working with the Jewish community. He also gave broadcast and print media interviews in which he stressed the importance of combating anti-Semitic speech and explained the purpose of the 2017 JUST Act, which requires the Department of State to report to Congress on the steps taken by the signatories to the Terezin Declaration to compensate Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution. In September the Special Envoy again met with government officials to discuss relations with the Jewish community and measures to combat anti-Semitism.
The Ambassador, officers from the embassy and consulate general in Krakow, and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives met with government officials from the interior, foreign affairs, and justice ministries; the president’s office; the prime minister’s office; parliament; and Warsaw and other city offices to discuss private property restitution, communal property restitution to religious groups, anti-Semitism, and antidiscrimination.
The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general staff also met with members and leaders of the local Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities to discuss issues of concern, including private and communal property restitution and the communities’ concerns over rising intolerance, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim sentiment.
On March 25, the Ambassador met with Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation representatives to discuss the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 2020. In a tweet about the meeting, the Ambassador noted U.S. government support for the foundation’s mission to combat anti-Semitism and protect Holocaust memorial sites.
On April 19, the Ambassador attended a ceremony commemorating the 76th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
On May 2, the first-ever official U.S. delegation to the March of the Living took part in the annual commemorative walk between former Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Birkenau. Six U.S. ambassadors – to Poland, Israel, Germany, Spain, the Holy See, and Switzerland – participated, joined by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Their participation highlighted the continuing importance of combating anti-Semitism and support for the Jewish community. In her tweet about the event, the Ambassador to Poland noted participation in the March of the Living was a U.S. public statement against anti-Semitism, adding the United States would always combat hatred and work together with others for dialogue and tolerance.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador used social media to call for respect and tolerance for all religions, to underscore religious freedom as a fundamental pillar and value of strong democracy, to condemn violence based on religious beliefs, and to highlight U.S. government support for combating anti-Semitism and protecting places related to the Holocaust.
On June 28, staff from the consulate general in Krakow participated in the Ride for the Living, a 90-kilometer (56-mile) bicycle ride from the gates of the Birkenau death camp to Krakow’s Jewish Quarter to commemorate the Holocaust and celebrate the revival of Jewish life in Poland.
The embassy continued to employ exchange programs, student roundtables, and grants for education and cultural events to promote religious freedom and tolerance. Highlights included the “Letter from Warsaw” musical on divergent Polish-Jewish narratives of the Holocaust, the Isaac Bashevis Singer Festival in Warsaw, the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, an exhibit on Poles who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, and a concert commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The embassy also supported educational programs such as a hackathon, in which computer programmers and others collaborated intensively over two days to create apps to combat anti-Semitism, and a speaker program featuring a U.S. citizen who spoke to audiences in Krakow and Warsaw about his experiences engaging in dialogue with members of hate groups to encourage them to leave organizations such as the KKK. In addition, the embassy provided support for six teachers to attend a Department of State-funded Holocaust teacher training program in the United States, in cooperation with the POLIN Museum and the U.S.-based Association of Holocaust Organizations.
The consulate general in Krakow provided grant funding for an educational project led by Christian Culture Foundation ZNAK that included workshops for Polish elementary and high school students promoting human rights and constitutional rights, including religious freedom.
In July and August, the consulate general in Krakow funded a series of basic and advanced seminars for 50 teachers organized by Galicja Jewish Museum, whose goal was to educate high school teachers about contemporary Jewish life and culture in the country and to raise awareness of its multicultural and multireligious society. The consulate general also funded the Summer Academy for Anti-Discrimination Education, an intensive one-week course for a select group of 16 high school teachers and NGO activists that focused on teaching about anti-Semitism.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and states the country is not bound to any particular faith. Registration requirements for religious groups include the need to present a petition with signatures of at least 50,000 adherents. Members of some religious groups said stringent registration requirements hindered religious freedom. Some groups registered as civic associations in order to function. Members of parliament (MPs) from both the government coalition and opposition parties continued to make anti-Muslim statements. Authorities criminally prosecuted some members of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) for defaming minority religious beliefs and Holocaust denial. In November parliament adopted an amendment, effective in 2020, increasing the annual state subsidy to government-recognized religious communities by approximately 10 percent.
In August a court convicted a man of inflicting bodily harm and sentenced him to four years in prison for a December 2018 knife attack against Turkish and Albanian proprietors of a kebab bistro in Banska Bystrica, where he shouted anti-Muslim slurs and threats. The prosecutor appealed for a longer sentence to the Supreme Court. Unregistered religious groups said the public tended to distrust them because of their lack of official government recognition. The Muslim community continued to report anti-Muslim hate speech on social media, which it attributed mostly to inflammatory public statements by politicians portraying Muslim refugees as an existential threat to the country’s society. According to a survey by a local think tank, nearly 60 percent of citizens would oppose a Muslim family moving into their neighborhood; for a Jewish family, the corresponding figure was 17 percent. Organizations media described as far right continued to organize gatherings and commemorations of the World War II (WWII)-era, Nazi-allied Slovak state and to praise its leaders. In December unknown persons vandalized two Jewish cemeteries in the towns of Namestovo and Rajec, damaging more than 80 gravestones.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers repeatedly raised public awareness of the importance of religious freedom, using private and public events to highlight the need for tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officers also raised with government officials at the Ministries of Culture and Interior and parliamentarians the treatment of religious minorities and the difficulties those groups faced regarding registration, as well as measures to counter what religious groups and others described as the increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Embassy officials also met regularly with registered and unregistered religious organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to raise the issue of hate speech and highlight the role of churches and religious groups in countering extremism and promoting tolerance. The embassy provided additional funding for a local NGO that developed a curriculum for secondary schools to foster religious tolerance through interfaith discussions.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.4 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2011, Roman Catholics constitute 62 percent of the population, members of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession 5.9 percent, and Greek Catholics 3.8 percent; 13.4 percent did not state a religious affiliation. There are smaller numbers of members of the Reformed Christian Church, other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Orthodox Church, Jews, Bahai’s, and Muslims. In the 2011 census, approximately 1,200 persons self-identified as Muslim, while representatives of the Muslim community estimate their number at 5,000. According to the census, there are approximately 2,000 Jews. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,600 Jewish residents.
Greek Catholics are generally ethnic Slovaks and Ruthenians, although some Ruthenians belong to the Orthodox Church. Most Orthodox Christians live in the eastern part of the country. Members of the Reformed Christian Church live primarily in the south, near the border with Hungary, where many ethnic Hungarians live. Other religious groups tend to be spread evenly throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and affiliation, as well as the right to change religious faith or to refrain from religious affiliation. It prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. The constitution states the country is not bound to any particular faith, and religious groups shall manage their affairs independently from the state, including in providing religious education and establishing clerical institutions. The constitution guarantees the right to practice one’s faith privately or publicly, either alone or in association with others. It states the exercise of religious rights may be restricted only by measures “necessary in a democratic society for the protection of public order, health, and morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law prohibits establishing, supporting, and promoting groups dedicated to the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as “demonstrating sympathy” with such groups, which are commonly interpreted to include Nazis and neo-Nazis. Violators are subject to up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law requires religious groups to register with the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Church Affairs in order to employ spiritual leaders to perform officially recognized functions. Clergy from unregistered religious groups do not officially have the right to perform civil functions such as presiding at weddings or funeral ceremonies (although they may do so unofficially) or ministering to their members in prisons or government hospitals. Unregistered groups may apply to provide spiritual guidance to their adherents in prisons, but they have no legal recourse if their requests are denied. Unregistered groups may conduct religious services, which the government recognizes as private, rather than religious, activities. Unregistered groups lack legal status and may not establish religious schools or receive government funding.
According to the law, organizations seeking registration as religious groups must have a minimum of 50,000 adherents. The 50,000 persons must be adult citizens or permanent residents and must submit to the Ministry of Culture an “honest declaration” attesting to their membership, knowledge of the articles of faith and basic tenets of the religion, personal identity numbers and home addresses, and support for the group’s registration. All groups registered before these requirements came into effect in 2017 were grandfathered as officially recognized religions; no new religious groups have attained recognition under the revised requirements. According to the law, only groups that register using the title “church” in their official name may call themselves a church, but there is no other legal distinction between registered “churches” and other registered religious groups.
The 18 registered churches and religious groups are: the Apostolic Church, Baha’i Community, The Brotherhood Unity of Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Brotherhood Church, Czechoslovak Hussite Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Evangelical Methodist Church, Greek Catholic Church, Christian Congregations (Krestanske zbory), Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, Roman Catholic Church, Old Catholic Church, and Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities. Registered groups and churches receive annual state subsidies. All but the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Greek Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, and Roman Catholic Church have fewer than 50,000 members, but they registered before this requirement came into effect.
The Ministry of Culture’s Department of Church Affairs oversees relations between religious groups and the state and manages the distribution of state subsidies to religious groups and associations, which it allocates according to the number of clergy each group reports having. The ministry may not legally intervene in the internal affairs of religious groups or direct their activities.
In November parliament adopted a legislative amendment scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2020, increasing the total state subsidy to registered churches and religious communities by approximately 10 percent, to four million euros ($4.49 million) per year and basing the funding for each group on the number of adherents, rather than the number of clergy. Under the new law, religious groups have more leeway to determine the use of the government subsidies, since these are no longer predominantly earmarked towards covering clergy salaries, and future payments will be adjusted for inflation.
A group without the 50,000 adult adherents required to obtain status as an official religious group may register as a civic association, which provides the legal status necessary to carry out activities such as maintaining a bank account, entering into a contract, or acquiring or renting property. In doing so, however, the group may not identify itself officially as a religious group, since the law governing registration of civic associations specifically excludes religious groups from obtaining this status. To register as a civic association, three citizens are required to provide their names and addresses and the name, goals, organizational structure, executive bodies, and budgetary rules of the group.
A concordat with the Holy See provides the legal framework for relations among the government, the Roman Catholic Church in the country, and the Holy See. Two corollaries cover the operation of Catholic religious schools, the teaching of Catholic religious education as a subject in public schools, and the service of Catholic priests as military chaplains. A single agreement between the government and 11 of the 17 other registered religious groups provides similar status to those 11 groups. These 11 religious groups may also provide military chaplains. The unanimous approval of all existing parties to the agreement is required for other religious groups to obtain similar benefits.
The law does not allow burial earlier than 48 hours following death.
All public elementary school students must take a religion or ethics class, depending on personal or parental preferences. Schools have some leeway in drafting their own curricula for religion classes, but these must be consistent with the Ministry of Education’s National Educational Program. Representatives of registered religious communities are involved in the preparation of the National Education Program. Although most school religion classes teach Catholicism, if there is a sufficient number of students, parents may ask a school to open a separate class focusing on the teachings of one of the other registered religious groups. All schools offer ethics courses as an alternative to religion classes. Alternatively, parents may request that teachings of different faiths be included in the curriculum of the Catholic religion classes. There are no clear requirements as to content when teaching about other faiths in the Catholic classes. Private and religious schools define their own content for religion courses. In both public and private schools, religion class curricula do not mention unregistered groups or some of the smaller registered groups, and unregistered groups may not teach their faiths at schools. Teachers normally teach about the tenets of their own faith, although they may teach about other faiths as well. The Roman Catholic Church appoints teachers of Catholic classes. Depending on the registered religious group and the school, other religious groups may appoint the teachers of their classes. The government pays the salaries of religion teachers in public schools.
The law criminalizes issuance, possession, and dissemination of materials defending, supporting, or instigating hatred, violence, or unlawful discrimination against a group of persons on the basis of their religion. Such activity is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment.
The law requires public broadcasters to allocate program time for registered religious groups but not for unregistered groups.
The law prohibits the defamation of a person’s or group’s belief, treating a violation as a criminal offense punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law prohibits Holocaust denial, including questioning, endorsing, or excusing the Holocaust. Violators face sentences of up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits denial of crimes committed by the Nazi-allied WWII-era fascist and post-war communist regimes.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Ministry of Culture again failed to reconsider its 2007 rejection of the registration application of the Grace Christian Fellowship, despite Supreme Court rulings in 2009 and 2012 ordering it do so. The ministry said it based its rejection on an opinion by a religious affairs expert registered with the Ministry of Justice that the group promoted hatred toward other religious groups and shared characteristics associated with “sects” (a term not defined by law).
Some members of registered Christian churches again said stringent registration requirements continued to limit religious freedom by preventing dissent within churches. They said dissenting members stymied in attempts to reform official theological positions might normally split off to form their own church, but the difficulty in registering a new religious group prevented such an action.
Representatives of the Jewish community reported that authorities were generally willing to make exceptions on grounds of religious belief and allow burials to take place within 24 hours, rather than requiring community members wait the legally mandated 48 hours.
Members of the Muslim community again reported the lack of official registration meant they could not establish a mosque in the country. Although Muslims had registered as a civic association, they continued to state that the lack of recognition as a religious group made obtaining the necessary construction permits for other sites for religious worship such as prayer rooms more difficult. They said the officials would seek technical grounds, such as zoning regulations, to reject their applications or fail to act on them.
The government allocated approximately 47.5 million euros ($53.37 million) in annual state subsidies to the 18 registered religious groups, compared with 42.5 million euros ($47.75) in 2018. Up to 80 percent of each group’s subsidy was used to pay the group’s clergy and operating costs as stipulated by law.
Some members of religious groups continued to state their groups’ reliance on direct government funding limited their independence and religious freedom, and they said religious groups self-censored potential criticism of the government on sensitive topics to avoid jeopardizing their finances.
The Ministry of Culture’s cultural grant program continued to allocate funding for the upkeep of religious monuments and cultural heritage sites owned by religious groups. In 2018, the ministry allocated 5.1 million euros ($5.73 million) for these purposes, compared with 3.2 million euros ($3.6 million) in 2017.
Many political parties, including the largest party represented in parliament, Smer-SD, continued to express anti-Muslim views in their public statements. In a May media interview ahead of European Parliament elections, Richard Sulik, the leader of Freedom and Solidarity, a major opposition political party in parliament, again stated Islam was an “incompatible ideology” with national culture and that his party strictly opposed migration because Arab immigrants posed a risk to that culture. During a parliamentary debate on the UN Global Compact on Migration in December 2018, LSNS leader and MP Marian Kotleba said he would not allow any “mujahideens” to come to the country.
Representatives of the Central Association of Jewish Religious Communities in the Slovak Republic (UZZNO) stated the repeated statements during the year of former prime minister Robert Fico, who was also chairperson of Smer-SD, part of the three-party governing coalition, undermined efforts to combat anti-Semitic comments and hate speech on the internet and social media. Fico, without citing evidence, continued in public statements and via traditional and social media to accuse a well-known Jewish American financier of instigating a coup against his government by organizing public protests that forced him to resign as prime minister in 2018. Fico referred to civil groups that organized the protests as “the [Jewish American financier]’s children” and said they were a “reserve cadre” of opposition parties.
Parliamentary European Affairs Committee Chairman Lubos Blaha (Smer-SD) posted content on social media in which, according to security analysts – including former prosecutors and law enforcement officials – he implied that then presidential candidate Zuzana Caputova was secretly funded by Jews, condoned anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet, and contributed to the spread of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews secretly manipulate world affairs. In June Blaha released a video on his Facebook page attacking a U.S. diplomat serving in the country, using language that security analysts described as anti-Semitic. The video provoked hundreds of anti-Semitic comments and posts, calling the diplomat a “Zionist” and “agent of the Rothschilds” who should “go back to Israel,” with some of them openly calling for violence. At year’s end, the video and Blaha’s followers’ anti-Semitic responses to it, as well as other material critics described as inappropriate, remained on Blaha’s Facebook page.
Representatives of the LSNS party continued to make anti-Semitic statements and faced criminal prosecution for past statements. Party members and supporters frequently glorified the Nazi-allied WWII-era fascist government and its leaders and downplayed the role of that regime in wartime atrocities.
In July the Supreme Court upheld the July 2018 Specialized Criminal Court acquittal of LSNS MP Stanislav Mizik of extremism charges in a case concerning a January 2017 Facebook post in which he criticized then president Andrej Kiska for giving state awards to persons of Jewish origin and to defenders of “gypsies and Muslims.” The Supreme Court accepted the argument there was insufficient evidence to prove Mizik wrote the statement.
In April the Supreme Court dismissed a motion the prosecutor general submitted in 2017 to dissolve the LSNS. The prosecutor alleged party members’ programs, activities, and statements violated the constitution and other laws prohibiting support for groups and movements aimed at the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms and defamation of race, nation, or religious belief. The Supreme Court ruled the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence. The prosecutor general did not appeal the verdict to the Constitutional Court.
In May police arrested Mizik’s defense attorney, Frantisek Polak, and six other persons on extremism charges after uncovering a large collection of Nazi paraphernalia during a search of their homes. Authorities released the individuals, who were not indicted, pending the results of an investigation that was ongoing at year’s end. In October the Specialized Criminal Court convicted LSNS Trencin regional chairman Anton Grno for publicly demonstrating sympathy toward a movement aimed at suppressing fundamental rights and freedoms by shouting the greeting of the WWII-era Slovak fascist state’s paramilitary force during a Supreme Court hearing in 2018. The court issued a criminal order (an expedited court decision without trial) requiring Grno to pay a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,600) or serve a six-month prison sentence. Grno appealed the criminal order, and the case was scheduled to go to full trial in February 2020. Media reported Grno’s social media profiles contained several openly racist and anti-Semitic posts.
In November the Specialized Criminal Court opened proceedings and scheduled the first court hearing for January 29, 2020, in a case against LSNS leader Kotleba for his donation of 1,488 euros ($1,700) to three families at a 2017 event marking the founding of the Nazi-allied WWII-era Slovak state. The indictment cited official experts on extremism and modern history registered with the Ministry of Justice, who stated the amount of the donation was a symbolic representation of a 14-word white supremacist phrase and the numeric representation of a salute to Hitler.
In February the special prosecutor’s office withdrew an indictment for Holocaust denial and supporting groups aimed at suppressing fundamental rights and freedoms against Marian Magat, a 2016 LSNS parliamentary candidate, for comments he made on social media. The prosecutor did not provide a reason for withdrawing the indictment.
In March, on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Nazi-allied WWII-era Slovak state, which deported more than 70,000 of its citizens to Nazi extermination camps, the LSNS party issued a press release lauding the wartime Slovak state as an “island of sought-after calm and prosperity.” The statement said Slovaks could be “rightfully proud” of the founding, which it called a defining moment. The party also organized a celebration of the anniversary in the northern town of Ruzomberok, where LSNS Chair Kotleba and other party members praised the wartime Slovak state. Kotleba said he wanted to recognize the “true patriots that protected the Slovak people during the difficult times of WWII.” Ruzomberok Mayor Igor Combor stated LSNS representatives misled the local government and withheld information about the true aim of the event by claiming they were organizing a political rally ahead of presidential elections.
In April on the anniversary of the execution of Jozef Tiso, the president of the wartime Slovak state, one of the city boroughs of Bratislava played the unofficial national anthem of that regime through a public speaker system. Local councilor Radoslav Oleksak, whom media labeled as a far-right extremist, organized the broadcast. UZZNO strongly condemned the broadcast.
In January then president Kiska met with representatives of the Roman Catholic, Augsburg Lutheran, Greek Catholic, and Reformed Christian Churches and UZZNO to discuss the state of religious freedom and tolerance in society and to thank them for their service to the religious community and their charitable work.
In September Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and several cabinet ministers commemorated Slovak Holocaust and Ethnic Violence Remembrance Day by laying wreaths at the Holocaust memorial in Bratislava. In his speech on the occasion, Pellegrini said politicians had a responsibility to fight to educate youth against “those who contort the truth about the Holocaust and World War II …, humanize the fascist regime, and deny the existence of concentration camps.” The prime minister stated that a recent survey showing 4 percent of youth considered the Holocaust and extremism “a good thing” was a “shocking discovery and a great warning.” President Caputova and government representatives, including the prime minister, also participated in a wreath-laying ceremony organized by the Jewish community in Sered and a victim name-reading ceremony in Bratislava.
During a press conference in September, Prime Minister Pellegrini criticized Smer-SD Party Chair Fico for his statements in a social media video earlier that month defending LSNS politician Milan Mazurek, convicted of making remarks against the Roma. Pellegrini said it was unacceptable to defend anyone who denies the Holocaust or promotes terror against anyone because of religion, race, or belief.
In February the government organized an international conference on anti-Semitism as part of its 12-month chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The conference included a series of expert panels on the security of Jewish communities, Holocaust remembrance initiatives, anti-Semitism in traditional and social media, and cooperation with civil society.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In August the Specialized Criminal Court convicted and sentenced a citizen to four years in prison for a December 2018 knife attack on the Turkish and Albanian proprietors of a kebab bistro in Banska Bystrica, where he shouted anti-Muslim slurs and threatened to kill all Muslims. The prosecutor charged the man with attempted murder aggravated by a deliberate extremist motive, punishable by a prison sentence of up to 21 years; the court downgraded the incident to inflicting bodily harm. The prosecutor appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, and the case remained pending at year’s end.
Two NGOs, the Islamic Foundation in Slovakia and Forum of the World’s Religions – Slovakia, said they continued to encounter difficulties altering negative public attitudes toward smaller, unregistered religious organizations because of the social stigma associated with not having the same legal benefits accorded to registered religions. Representatives of unregistered religious groups said the public tended to view their activities with mistrust and perceive them as “fringe cults” because of their lack of official government recognition as religious communities.
The Islamic Foundation again reported continued online hate speech toward Muslims and refugees, which it attributed mostly to the social controversy ensuing from the 2015 European migration crisis and inflammatory public statements by local politicians portraying Muslim refugees as an existential threat to the country’s society and culture. Hate speech, mostly on social media, included frequent portrayal of Muslims as “barbarians,” “terrorists,” and a “threat to European culture and way of life.” This also included calls for violence against refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa, many of whom were believed to be Muslim, attempting to reach Europe. Muslim community leaders said they perceived increased anti-Muslim sentiment, and they continued to maintain a low profile regarding their activities and prayer rooms to avoid inflaming public opinion.
Police reported seven cases of defamation of race, nation, or religious belief and eight cases of incitement of national, racial, and ethnic hatred in the first 10 months of the year, compared with three cases of defamation and seven cases of incitement of hatred in all of 2018. Police provided no further details.
In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each member state of the European Union (EU) on perceptions of anti-discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 13 percent believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Slovakia, while 74 percent said it was rare; 84 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, 93 percent said they would be comfortable working with a Christian, and 88 percent said they would be with an atheist, 82 percent with a Jew, 75 percent with a Buddhist, and 64 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 94 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 82 percent if atheist, 70 percent if Jewish, 53 percent if Buddhist, and 40 percent if Muslim.
A survey conducted in February by the Public Affairs Institute, a local think tank, found nearly 60 percent of respondents would oppose a Muslim family moving into their neighborhood, and 17 percent would object to a Jewish family moving there.
In January the EC 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, 20 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in Slovakia, was as follows: Holocaust denial, 32 percent; on the internet, 26 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 24 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 21 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 29 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 19 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 18 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 22 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 21 percent.
Sociologists and Jewish community leaders said they perceived anti-Semitism was increasing, citing repeated references by public officials to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, the increased polling support for LSNS, and desecration of Jewish cemeteries in December.
Organizations the media characterized as far right – including the civic organizations Museum of the Slovak Armed Forces 1939-1945 and the Slovak Historical Society, as well as the state-funded but independent cultural heritage organization the Historical Institute of the Matica Slovenska – continued to issue statements praising the anti-Semitic, Nazi-allied Slovak state government and organize gatherings where participants displayed symbols of that government. Organizers often included photographs showing WWII symbols, such as the double-barred equal-armed cross or photographs of President Tiso in online posts promoting their events. On March 14, two civic organizations, Heritage of our Fathers and the Andrej Hlinka Society, organized a conference to commemorate the 1939 founding of the wartime Slovak state. Media reported the LSNS, including elected officials, was well represented at this event. According to media, speakers praised the wartime Slovak state for protecting the citizenry and improving living standards, without mentioning the mass deportation of Jews to Nazi extermination camps during that period. Commenting in major media outlets, historians of the 20th century and the wartime Slovak state accused some of the speakers at the conference of historical revisionism and denying the crimes of the Slovak state. One of the main speakers was Martin Lacko, a historian who was dismissed from the Nation’s Memory Institute and who, according to press reports, had expressed support for LSNS leader Kotleba and described the United States as the aggressor in WWII.
On December 16, the Specialized Criminal Court convicted Tibor Eliot Rostas, editor-in-chief of Zem a Vek (Earth and Age) magazine, for “defamation of a nation, race, or belief” for a 2017 article titled “The Jewish Wedge Among Slavs.” The court ordered Rostas to pay a 4,000-euro ($4,500) fine or spend three months in prison. Rostas’ court hearings were attended by former supreme court justice and 2020 parliamentary candidate Stefan Harabin, who was escorted from the courtroom after the court found him in contempt for disturbing the proceedings by shouting comments that observers described as anti-Semitic, including calling the judge a “pug of [a prominent Jewish financier].”
Media reported on December 17 that unknown persons knocked over 60 gravestones in the Jewish cemetery in the city of Namestovo. On December 23, media reported the vandalism of a second Jewish cemetery in the town of Rajec, approximately 70 miles from Namestovo, where unidentified persons damaged approximately 20 gravestones. Police opened a criminal investigation.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions, a local NGO, continued to organize a series of public debates and school lectures with a variety of religious leaders to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers repeatedly raised the treatment of religious minority groups and the continued presence of anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Semitism with government officials, including officials from the culture and interior ministries, the speaker of parliament, and lawmakers from across the political spectrum. Embassy officers continued to express to government officials their concerns that requiring religious groups to have 50,000 members in order to register impeded these groups from enjoying the rights and benefits accruing from official recognition.
The embassy provided additional funding for NGO Forum of the World’s Religions – Slovakia to design a special curriculum for secondary school teachers to build religious tolerance through interfaith discussions.
In December the embassy funded the travel of a group of prosecutors and police investigators to Budapest, Hungary for specialized training on countering bias-motivated crimes, including religious bias, at the U.S.-funded International Law Enforcement Academy.
The embassy used its social media channels to commemorate Slovak Holocaust Remembrance Day and International Religious Freedom Day. In December the embassy issued a statement on its social media accounts condemning acts of vandalism against Jewish cemeteries.
On February 5, the Ambassador spoke out against anti-Semitism at an international conference on combating anti-Semitism in the region hosted by the government in its capacity as chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Embassy officers met with registered and unregistered religious organizations, including the Islamic Foundation, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and civil society groups, including the Center for Research of Ethnicity and Culture, to raise the issue of hate speech directed against Muslims, anti-Semitism, and the negative impact on religious minorities of membership and other registration requirements. In January the Ambassador met Roman Catholic Archbishop Stanislav Zvolensky, addressing religious freedom and the quality of interfaith relations in the country.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs in public and private. It states all religious communities shall enjoy equal rights and prohibits incitement of religious hatred or intolerance. The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and Ministry of Justice continued a joint research project to establish the scope of Jewish heirless properties seized by the Nazis or their collaborators. Mufti Nedzad Grabus of the Islamic Community of Slovenia expressed concern about what he said were rising levels of anti-Islamic sentiment in the country and urged the government to dedicate more attention to combating hate speech. Muslims asked the government to provide pork-free meals in public institutions. Muslim groups reported difficulties in receiving services in hospitals, prisons, and the military.
Muslim groups reported obstacles in accessing halal food and spiritual care, and in circumcising their male children. They also reported anti-Muslim sentiment in news media and online. In March an advisor to former prime minister Bernard Brscic formed a new far-right anti-migrant party, the Homeland League. During a media interview, Brscic said Islam was a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion and that Muslims had the goal of destroying Western civilization. Construction of the country’s first mosque continued after delays due to funding shortages. Muslims held services elsewhere in the interim. The Serbian Orthodox community reported the construction of a church in Koper was delayed due to opposition from the local municipality that refused to approve the construction.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the Ministry of Culture (MOC) Office for Religious Communities, to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, and the status of circumcision of male children. In May the embassy cosponsored a roundtable on religious plurality, and an embassy representative delivered remarks on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy sponsored the participation of Secretary-General of the Islamic Community of Slovenia Nevzet Poric in an exchange program in the United States on advancing interfaith relations. In October the Ambassador hosted representatives of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox communities to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, hate speech, and relations with the government. In February the Charge d’Affaires hosted a lunch for representatives of the Roman Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including circumcision of boys, legal restrictions on the ritual slaughter of animals, and the Islamic Community’s project to open the country’s first mosque. The embassy amplified its engagement on religious freedom issues through social media.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). In 2003 the government ceased asking about religious affiliation in censuses, so accurate statistics about membership in religious groups are difficult to obtain. Estimates of the Catholic community’s size range from one million to 1.5 million persons. According to the secretary-general of the Islamic Community, the Muslim population remained at approximately 100,000. Estimates of the Serbian Orthodox Church community’s size range from 30,000 to 45,000 persons. The head of the Protestant community estimates its size at 10,000 persons. The Jewish community estimates its size at 300 persons. The Orthodox and Muslim communities include a large number of immigrants from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. A number of refugees and immigrants, including foreign workers, are part of the Muslim community. The Buddhist community, made up mostly of ethnic Slovenians, is estimated to number 2,000 persons.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall have equal rights and provides for the separation of religion and state. The constitution affords equal human rights and fundamental freedoms to all individuals irrespective of their religion; it also prohibits incitement of religious discrimination and inflammation of religious hatred and intolerance. The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons.
The law states individuals have the right to freely select a religion; freedom of religious expression (or rejection of expression); to express – alone or in a group, privately or publicly – their religious beliefs freely in “church or other religious communities,” through education, religious ceremonies, or in other ways; and not to be forced to become a member or to remain a member of a religious group, nor to attend (or not attend) worship services or religious ceremonies. The law stipulates the right to refuse to comply with legal duties and requirements that contradict an individual’s religious beliefs, provided such refusals do not limit the rights and freedoms of other persons.
Registered religious groups are also eligible for rebates on value-added taxes and government cofinancing of social security contributions for their religious workers.
To register with the government, a religious group must submit an application to the MOC providing proof it has at least 10 adult members who are citizens or permanent residents; the name of the group, which must be clearly distinguishable from the names of other religious groups; the group’s address in the country; and a copy of its official seal to be used in legal transactions. It must pay an administrative tax of 22.60 euros ($25). The group must also provide the names of the group’s representatives in the country, a description of the foundations of the group’s religious beliefs, and a copy of its organizational act. If a group wishes to apply for government cosponsorship of social security for clergy members, it must show it has at least 1,000 members for every clergy member.
The government may refuse the registration of a religious group only if the group does not provide the required application materials in full or if the MOC determines the group is a “hate group” – an organization engaging in hate crimes as defined by the penal code.
By law, MOC’s Office for Religious Communities monitors and maintains records on registered religious communities and provides legal expertise and assistance to religious organizations. The MOC establishes and manages the procedures for registration, issues documents related to the legal status of registered communities, distributes funds allocated in the government’s budget for religious activities, organizes discussions and gatherings of religious communities to address religious freedom concerns, and provides information to religious groups on the legal provisions and regulations related to their activities.
In accordance with the law, citizens may apply for the return of property nationalized between 1945 and 1963. The government may provide monetary compensation to former owners who cannot receive restitution in kind; for example, it may authorize monetary compensation if government institutions are using the property for an official purpose or public service such as education or healthcare.
According to the constitution, parents have the right to provide their children with a religious upbringing in accordance with the parents’ beliefs. The government requires all public schools to include education on world religions in their curricula, with instruction provided by a school’s regular teachers. The government allows churches and religious groups to provide religious instruction in their faiths in public schools and preschools on a voluntary basis outside of school hours. The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools as part of the curriculum or during school hours but does not prescribe penalties for violations. Private schools may offer religious classes during or after school hours.
The law mandates Holocaust education in schools. This instruction focuses on the history of the Holocaust inside and outside the country. Schools use a booklet published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the Holocaust education curriculum to create awareness of the history of Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe before World War II and of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The booklet emphasizes the responsibility of everyone to remember the victims of the Holocaust.
The constitution provides for an independent human rights ombudsman to investigate and report on alleged human rights violations by the government. The president nominates and the national assembly appoints the human rights ombudsman and allocates the office’s budget, but otherwise the ombudsman operates independently of the government. Individuals have the right to file complaints with the ombudsman to seek administrative relief regarding abuses of religious freedom committed by national or local authorities, but appellants must exhaust all regular and extraordinary legal remedies before turning to the ombudsman. The ombudsman’s office may forward these complaints to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which may then issue indictments, call for further investigation, or submit the claims directly to a court, whereupon the complaints become formal. The ombudsman also submits an annual human rights report to the national assembly and provides recommendations and expert advice to the government.
The Government Council for Dialogue on Religious Freedom under the auspices of the MOC Office for Religious Communities is responsible for promoting transparency and explaining national and European Union (EU) legislation pertinent to religious groups through workshops and other events and encouraging dialogue on issues of concern among the country’s religious communities. Its members include representatives of the minister of culture, director of the Office for Religious Communities, the Advocate of the Principle of Equality, and representatives of the Catholic Church, Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Slovenia, Islamic Community of Slovenia, Serbian Orthodox Church, and smaller religious communities.
The law allows for circumcision, but a nonbinding opinion by the human rights ombudsman states that, based on the constitution and the law, “circumcision for nonmedical reasons is not permissible and constitutes unlawful interference with the child’s body, thereby violating his rights.” Some hospitals do not offer circumcision because of this opinion.
The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter.
The penal code’s definition of hate crimes includes publicly provoking religious hatred and diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. Punishment for these offenses is imprisonment of up to two years, or, if the crime involves coercion or endangerment of security – defined as a serious threat to life and limb, desecration, or damage to property – imprisonment for up to five years. If officials abuse the power of their positions to commit these offenses, they may be subject to imprisonment of up to five years. Members of groups that engage in these activities in an organized and premeditated fashion – hate groups, according to the law – may also receive a punishment of up to five years in prison.
On hate speech, the law prohibits the incitement to hatred, violence, and intolerance based on nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, skin color, social status, political or other beliefs, sexual orientation, and disability in a way that could threaten or disrupt public order.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Samanadipa Forest Buddhist Hermitage applied to register as an official religious group. At year’s end, the registration process remained pending.
The WJRO and Ministry of Justice continued a joint research project to establish the scope of heirless properties in the country seized by the Nazis or their collaborators. The research teams planned to complete their study in 2020. Restitution efforts remained complicated by an earlier law on property nationalization claims, which generally excluded property seized from Jewish families prior to 1945.
According to a Muslim community leader, an earlier request to the government by the Muslim community to reserve special locations in cemeteries for graves for Muslim and allow gravestones to face Mecca had been delegated by the central government to local governments. This leader said he did not see this as a major problem and had not yet addressed it with the relevant local governments. The Muslim community requested the government make pork-free meals readily available in hospitals, schools, prisons, and other public institutions.
According to the Office for Religious Communities, an inability to provide spiritual care in the military, hospitals, and other public institutions remained a problem for some minority religious communities. While many hospitals had Catholic chapels, members of other faiths had fewer opportunities to attend collective religious services while hospitalized. The armed forces (SAF) employed full-time Catholic and Protestant clergy to provide religious services but no Muslim imams, Orthodox priests, or Jewish rabbis. While Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the SAF had access to their local religious communities while serving domestically, such opportunities were not always available during deployments or training abroad. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country, Reverend Aleksandar Obradovic, attributed the SAF’s lack of Orthodox clergy to low numbers of qualified Orthodox priests in the country, rather than to inadequate government support. The Orthodox community said it was preparing two candidates for service as chaplains in the SAF by 2023. Muslim community leaders said the Ministry of Defense had not employed an imam in the SAF, despite their requests to do so. The Jewish community did not have any rabbis in the country; a rabbi in Trieste, Italy, remained responsible for Slovenia and routinely visited the country during the year. Catholic officials said their request for the government to employ an ordained bishop in the SAF to oversee the organization of Catholic chaplains in the military remained pending.
The Islamic Community of Slovenia continued to provide certificates to companies producing meat from stunned animals, confirming the meat was halal. The Jewish community raised concerns about the law requiring slaughtering with stunning, stating this violated kosher laws, and imported kosher meat from neighboring countries. The government defended the law as necessary to comply with EU regulations to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals.
The Office for Religious Communities and leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities said continuing confusion regarding the legal status of circumcision resulted in many hospitals not offering the procedure. As a result, some Muslims and Jews continued to have the procedure performed in Austria. Muslim and Jewish leaders objected to the human rights ombudsman’s opinion that circumcision violated the rights of children, calling it religious discrimination.
In his annual Ramadan remarks in June, Mufti Grabus expressed concern with what he stated were rising levels of Islamophobia in the country. Grabus said that extremist and nationalist platforms in Europe were partly responsible, which was apparent in certain media outlets, on social media, and in some political platforms that often depicted Islam as a violent religion. Grabus also expressed concerns about hate speech targeting Muslims and urged the government to dedicate more attention to combating hate speech.
In a case involving Roma, in August the Supreme Court ruled that incidents involving threats, abusive language, or insult do not necessarily need to jeopardize public order and peace to be treated as crimes. Before this ruling, hate activity typically required violence to occur. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said the ruling set an important precedent for combating incitement to hatred, violence, and intolerance.
According to the Slovenian Press Agency, in April Office for Religious Communities Director Gregor Lesjak said there were practically no legal disputes regarding religious freedom, and that the European Court of Human Rights had never processed a case of violation of religious freedom in the country.
High-level government officials attended observances marking the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Government officials confirmed the country supported IHRA’s Working Definition of Antisemitism.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Muslim groups said Muslims faced obstacles in obtaining access to halal food and spiritual care, and in circumcising their male children. In contrast to previous years, these groups reported Muslim workers did not have difficulties obtaining time off for Islamic holidays.
There were manifestations of anti-Islamic sentiment in the conventional media and on social media platforms. In March adviser to former prime minister Bernard Brscic formed a new far-right antimigrant party, the Homeland League. During an interview in May, Brscic said Islam was a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion, and Muslims had the goal of destroying Western civilization. The general state prosecutor was conducting an internal investigation to ascertain why a local prosecutor declined to prosecute Brscic for alleged Holocaust denial in 2017. This investigation was pending at year’s end. Muslim community leaders, government representatives, and NGO groups stated that anti-Islamic sentiment had declined from 2018 levels and that it seemed to be aimed more at migrants than Muslims as a whole.
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 33 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Slovenia, while 62 percent said it was rare; 81 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, 93 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 88 percent said they would be with an atheist, 84 percent with a Jew, 82 percent with a Buddhist, and 82 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 91 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 81 percent if atheist, 72 percent if Jewish, 73 percent if Buddhist, and 68 percent if Muslim.
In January the Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in each EU-member state. According to the survey, 16 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism to be a problem in Slovenia, and 12 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, 19 percent; on the internet, 19 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 17 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 15 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 14 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 14 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 15 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 15 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 16 percent.
Trieste-based Rabbi Ariel Haddad characterized Slovenia as a safe place for Jews and said Jewish-related events in the country attracted high-level attendance, a view not shared by other leaders, such as Vice Chair of the Jewish Community of Slovenia Igor Vojtic.
Construction of the country’s first mosque continued in Ljubljana. The Islamic community expected the mosque to open in 2020. In the interim, it rented places for worship, including large sports halls for major events.
The Orthodox community’s only church was also located in Ljubljana, and Orthodox representatives continued efforts to build churches in Koper and Celje. The Orthodox community reported the construction of the church in Koper was delayed due to opposition from the mayor, who had not put the issue to the city council for a vote since it was first raised in 2018. Representatives of the Orthodox community purchased land in the center of Koper in 2018 for the church but reported the mayor offered land outside of town instead. The Orthodox community rejected the proposal, because the offered location was too far from the city center. In the interim, they were holding services at a local Catholic church. Catholic churches around the country routinely granted access for local Orthodox communities to host events and religious ceremonies.
Representatives of the Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and Protestant communities continued to report productive relations among members of different religious groups, including an active interfaith dialogue at workshops and conferences. They also reported good relations with the government in general but expressed a need for more dialogue with the government on issues related to religious freedom.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for religious freedom, including the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities. Issues discussed included the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, circumcision of male children, and interfaith dialogue.
In April the U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues, along with representatives from the WJRO, met with senior government officials and members of the local Jewish community to discuss the joint study on heirless properties. They also discussed possible government gestures toward the Jewish community, such as offering the community a government property that could serve as its headquarters and a venue for gatherings and ceremonies, as well as a provision of funds to support Holocaust survivors. In November the embassy supported another visit of WJRO representatives to meet with senior government officials to continue the dialogue on Holocaust restitution issues and the course of action to be taken following completion of the joint study.
In October the Ambassador hosted an event for representatives of the Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox communities to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including interfaith dialogue, hate speech, and relations with the government. In February the Charge d’Affaires hosted an event for representatives of the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss issues related to religious freedom, such as circumcision of boys, legal restrictions on the ritual slaughter of animals, and the Islamic Community’s project to open the country’s first mosque.
The embassy amplified its engagement through social media posts about the embassy’s meetings with representatives of religious communities and the Secretary of State’s remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington in July.
In May the embassy cosponsored a roundtable on religious plurality in Murska Sobota in the northeastern part of the country at which an embassy representative delivered remarks on the importance of religious freedom and tolerance.
The embassy sponsored the visit of Secretary-General of the Islamic Community of Slovenia Nevzet Poric to participate in an exchange program in the United States on advancing interfaith relations. On his return, Poric reported that the program would help his work to foster better relations among religious groups in the country.