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Papua New Guinea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion and the right to practice religion freely.  In February soldiers on Manus Island allegedly attacked three asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan, which required the victims to seek medical attention.  There was no public information on an investigation into the incident or any arrests.  Since religion, national origin, and refugee status are often closely linked, it was difficult to characterize the incident as being based solely on religious identity.  The Constitutional Review Commission and the minister for community development, youth, and religion continued considering the possibility of defining the country as Christian.  The minister of education stated that Christian-based religious education in public schools would be compulsory starting in 2019.  The government continued to fund churches to deliver health and education services through the Church-State Partnership Program.  The speaker of parliament began to implement a 2016 national court order to reinstall indigenous cultural artifacts to the parliament house.  The previous speaker had planned to replace the artifacts with Christian symbols.

According to media reports, local residents on Manus Island attacked at least four refugees and/or asylum seekers, three of whom were from Muslim-majority countries, although observers stated that xenophobia as well as religious identity played a role in these attacks.  There continued to be reports that established churches criticized the role of new Christian and missionary groups.  The Papua New Guinea Churches Council (PNGCC) organized dialogues among its members and fostered cooperation on social welfare projects.

Embassy officials discussed religious freedom and government funding of religious groups with the government, including at a church-state partnership forum in June, where they encouraged the government to be more inclusive of which churches received government funding as development agents and ensuring the freedom of religion as guaranteed in the constitution.  The Ambassador and other officials met with local religious leaders and provided support to religiously affiliated clinics working in health care management.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides the individual the right to “freedom of conscience, thought and religion and the practice of his religion and beliefs, including freedom to manifest and propagate his religion and beliefs” except where that practice infringes on another person’s rights or where it violates a public interest in “defence, public safety, public order, public welfare, public health, the protection of children and persons under disability, or the development of under-privileged or less advanced groups or areas.”  The predominance of Christianity is recognized in the preamble of the constitution, which refers to “our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours.”  There is no state religion.

Religious groups are required to register with the government in order to hold a bank account, own properties in the religious group’s name, have limited individual liability, and apply to the Internal Revenue Commission for exemption on income tax and to the Department of Treasury for exemption of import duty.  In order to register, groups must provide documentation including a list of board or executive committee members and a constitution.

According to the law, religious instruction in public schools is noncompulsory.

Foreign missionary groups are permitted to proselytize and engage in other missionary activities.  Religious workers receive a three-year special exemption visa from the government.  Applications for the visa require a sponsor letter from a religious group in the country, an approved work permit from the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, and a 100 kina ($30) fee, which is lower than other visa categories.

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

Government Practices

In February Defense Force soldiers attacked Iranian, Iraqi, and Pakistani asylum seekers on Manus Island; the three victims required medical attention.  No arrests were made in relation to the attack, and there were no public statements or explanations from police.  Since religion, national origin, and refugee status are often closely linked, it was difficult to characterize many incidents as being based solely on religious identity.

In April the police acted on a complaint from the minister for lands and arrested a prominent pastor of a Christian church.  The minister alleged the pastor had fraudulently acquired land in a suburb of Port Moresby to build his church.  The pastor told the court the police did not follow proper procedures during his arrest, and the court ruled in his favor.  The pastor told media that his release was a victory for the people, who would now be able to assemble and worship freely.

In June the Department of Community Development, Youth, and Religion organized a two-day church-state partnership forum, with the theme of “Promoting an Inclusive Papua New Guinea Church-State Partnership.”  According to the secretary of the department, the forum’s objectives were to identify the role of churches in addressing gender-based violence and sorcery-related violence and accusations, to gather the views of churches on proposals to declare the country Christian, to include compulsory religious education in the mainstream curriculum, and to establish a provincial church-state partnership program.  Participants endorsed recommendations to declare the country as Christian, to include Christian religious education in all schools, and to consider using biblical principles and Christian prayer in the courts.

The Constitutional Review Commission continued work and consultation on a proposed constitutional amendment to declare the country Christian.  According to media reports, the commission was working with the Department of Community Development, Youth, and Religion on the amendment.

In April a member of parliament asked the minister for community development, youth, and religion if the government would eradicate “cult movements” in his electorate (Finschhafen District).  The minister stated there was a “mushrooming of religion or cult groups” in the country and was quoted as saying, “How do we define religion in the PNG [Papua New Guinea] context?  Do we limit its growth because a Christian faith dictate[s] us to do it?  Our traditional beliefs – where do those fit in?  It is a big question.”  In July the minister told parliament that he would submit a proposal to declare the country Christian.  As of November the details of that proposal had not been made public, although work was proceeding.

Parliament sessions and most government meetings began and ended with Christian prayers.  In Southern Highlands Province, authorities told public servants they had to attend morning devotions for 10-20 minutes every Wednesday morning.  Pastors from different Christian denominations led the sessions.

The Department of Education continued to set aside one hour per week for religious instruction in public schools.  Such instruction remained legally noncompulsory, although almost all students attended.  Representatives of Christian churches taught the lessons, and there was no standard curriculum.  Children whose parents did not wish them to attend the classes were excused.

In June the secretary of education told the media the government was finalizing plans to formalize compulsory religious education in schools.  He stated that a religious education program, called Citizenship and Christian Values Education (CCVE), would “combine human ethics and Christian principles and be taught to students in prep [elementary] school right through to grade 12.”  He stated the curriculum would be ready for a pilot program in 2019.  In July the minister for education launched the CCVE teachers’ guide and syllabus and said that starting in 2019, CCVE must be taught in all schools, including government, private, and church-run institutions.  In August the minister for higher education, research, science, and technology told the media that “Christian education is the fundamental pillar for early childhood education as students grow up with God-fearing and Biblical foundations in life.”

The education and health sectors continued to rely heavily on church-run institutions.  Churches continued to operate approximately 60 percent of schools and health services in the country, and the government provided financial support for these institutions.  The government subsidized their operation using a formula based on the schools and health centers each church runs.  In addition, the government continued to pay the salary and provide benefits for the majority of teachers and health staff (generally members of the civil service) who worked at these church-administered institutions, as it did for teachers and health staff of national institutions.  The facilities provided services to the general population irrespective of religious beliefs, and operations were not religious in nature.

Individual members of parliament continued to provide grants of government money to religious institutions in their constituency to carry out development projects or religious activities.  Nearly all of these institutions were Christian.

In June the government announced 10 million kina ($3.05 million) funding for the Church-State Partnership Program, which was half of what was allocated in 2017.  In announcing the funding, the minister for police stated the “unfavorable economic climate has impeded the progress of [the] partnership.”  He noted that churches were one of the only “reputable systems working to serve our people” and that the funding was for the designated churches to provide health and education services.  The formula used for the distribution of funds was based on the number of schools and health centers each church operated.  In past years, some churches complained that the government did not deliver all of the money allocated.  The seven churches included in the partnership were the Catholic Church, Salvation Army, Anglican Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptist Church, United Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church.  The assistant secretary for the Office of Religion noted there was a need to include other churches in the partnership, and that his office was working to expand the list of churches that would be eligible for funding.

In October the Department of Community Development, Youth, and Religion launched a Church Partnership database.  The secretary of the department said the database would provide the government with information on the number of individual churches in the country, what services they provided, and where they operated.  This information would be used for planning, budget allocation, capacity support, and partnership arrangements.  The minister stated the database would help the government to know what other churches were doing so the government could also provide support to those churches.  He added that his ministry would develop a new, more inclusive policy so that government grants reached all churches in the country.

The PNGCC was using a December 2017 grant of 50,000 kina ($15,200) from the minister for community development, youth, and religion under the Church-State Partnership Program to work with provincial governments to ensure that each provincial government established a provincial church council.  These councils would “bring churches closer to the government.”  The PNGCC included the Anglican, Seventh Day Adventist, Baptist Union, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, United Churches, and Salvation Army, as well as other churches and organizations as associate members.

The court-ordered reinstallation of indigenous cultural artifacts at the parliament house began in the middle of the year but was not complete as of the end of the year.  In 2017 the speaker of parliament said he would comply with a 2016 national court order to reinstall the artifacts that his predecessor, an evangelical Christian, had ordered removed from the parliament house in 2013, saying they were demonic and “ungodly images and idols.”  Many Christian groups said they supported the national court decision to reinstall the artifacts when it was handed down in 2016.

In October church leaders laid the foundation for a new “pillar of unity” to be installed in front of the parliament house and thanked the government for recognizing the role churches play in national development.  The deputy speaker of parliament witnessed the laying of the foundation.


Executive Summary

The constitution accords individuals the right to choose, change, and freely practices their religion and prohibits religious discrimination.  It specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religion freely.  The constitution states the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on independence, cooperation, and autonomy.  The constitution does not address relations between the state and other religious groups.  Representatives of the Catholic Christian Apostolic National Church of Paraguay (ICCAN) said that in October the Vice Ministry of Worship (VMW) rejected its second request during the year to register as a religious entity.  ICCAN representatives said they believed the Roman Catholic Church had “blocked” ICCAN’s request because the Catholic Church claimed exclusive use of the word “catholic” in a church title.  Roman Catholic Church representatives responded that they believed ICCAN leaders’ claims of apostolic succession from the historical National Catholic Church were dubious and they perceived any registration issues to be a result of issues inherent in ICCAN.  Religious groups not affiliated with the Catholic Church said the government disproportionately supported and subsidized teacher salaries at Catholic schools.

Catholic, Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Jewish representatives initiated an interreligious dialogue, including participation at a VMW-organized symposium on family in August to advocate for the creation of a new Ministry of Family.

U.S. embassy representatives met with the vice minister of culture at the VMW and discussed challenges ICCAN and some other religious groups faced with registration, the processing of claims of religious discrimination, and the unequal provision of state funding for salaries at schools run by religious groups.  Embassy officials met with representatives of the Catholic, Mennonite, Catholic Christian Apostolic, and Jewish communities to discuss interfaith respect for religious diversity and hear their views on the status of religious freedom in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides individuals, including members of indigenous communities, the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion.  The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religion freely.

According to the constitution, the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church is based on “independence, cooperation, and autonomy.”  The Catholic Church, however, must comply with all regulations the state imposes on other churches and non-Christian religious groups.  The law allows political parties based on a specific faith, but the constitution prohibits active members of the clergy from any religious group from running for public office.  The constitution does not address relations between the state and other religious groups.

A 2017 presidential decree requires all religious and philosophical groups to register with the VMW and submit annual reports stating the organization’s key leadership and functions.  Prior to the 2017 decree, registration was mandatory only for religious organizations requesting exemption from value-added taxes and other government fees.  Organizations must submit 12 documents to the VMW to register.  The VMW may apply nonmonetary administrative sanctions against organizations that fail to register, including ordering the suspension of religious services.  The National Anti-Money Laundering Secretariat requires that all religious organizations register as nonfinancial agents.  Among other requirements, religious groups must demonstrate legal status as a nonprofit organization and agree to annual recertification.  Religious leaders must submit to financial and criminal background checks.  According to the VMW, 536 religious groups have active registrations with the government, including 24 new groups registered during the year.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools.  The constitution provides private schools the right to offer religious education, with the only requirements for staff being merit and ethical integrity.  Registration for private religious schools is not mandatory, but the Ministry of Education and Culture recognizes only degrees granted by registered institutions.  Additionally, only registered schools with nonprofit status may receive subsidies for teachers’ salaries.  Students of religions other than the one associated with a private religious school may enroll; however, all students are expected to participate in the religious activities that are a mandatory part of the schedule.

The constitution and laws provide for conscientious objection to military service based on religious beliefs.

Foreign missionaries who are members of registered religious groups are eligible for no-cost residency visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  They must also register annually with the VMW to receive official documentation identifying their status as missionaries.  Missionaries choosing not to register may enter the country on tourist visas.

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

Government Practices

The VMW instituted a grace period through the end of 2018 for all religious and philosophical groups to complete the mandatory registration process and did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on groups that had not registered.  The ministry stated, however, that it would require full compliance by 2019.  The VMW stated that it was implementing the registration law consistently across religious groups and once it received all 12 documents from a religious group, it would complete the process in 15 days.

In October the VMW rejected ICCAN’s second request for registration as an official religious entity, citing a presidential decree stating religious entities with denominations that could be confused with already registered denominations could not register.  ICCAN representatives stated they had attempted to register starting in 2011 but had documentation of registration requests only from the current year.  ICCAN sources restated their belief that the Catholic Church had pressured the government not to register the ICCAN because the Roman Catholic Church claimed exclusive use of the word “catholic” in a church title.  Roman Catholic Church representatives responded that ICCAN’s difficulties obtaining registration were due to questions regarding ICCAN’s legitimacy as a religious organization.  Catholic Church representatives said other religious groups had the same position on ICCAN.  ICCAN representatives also said the government continued not to recognize their claim to land and property they said the Catholic Church had taken from them in 1840.

The Ministry of Education and Culture continued to subsidize the salaries of hundreds of teachers in registered, nonprofit schools operated by predominantly Catholic religious groups.  Some non-Catholic religious groups, including the Jewish and Mennonite communities, continued to state the government disproportionately supported Catholic schools and did not pay a commensurate number of teachers in registered, non-Catholic religious schools.  According to a ministry representative, they maintained an agreement with the Catholic Church governing the allocation of subsidies to schools in areas not served by public schools.  The representative also stated that a separate agreement set very similar regulations for subsidy allocation to other religious schools located in underserved areas, serving vulnerable student populations, and providing educational or scholarship services to vulnerable students.  Mennonite schools in Boqueron Department have also established an ad hoc consultation process with departmental authorities.

The VMW reported that 550 foreign missionaries registered or reregistered during the year, most of them members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The government continued to support chaplaincy programs open to all religious groups in the armed forces.  The programs included the training of clergy to provide services to members of the armed forces deployed either in combat zones or on peacekeeping missions.  The government also continued to allow religious groups to operate and provide services of different religions within prisons for adults, women, and youth; however, during the year only Christian groups made use of this option.


Executive Summary

The constitution bars discrimination based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of conscience and religion, either individually or in association with others.  It provides for the separation of religion and state but also recognizes the historic importance of the Roman Catholic Church.  In July the government removed the requirement that religious entities seeking to register must have at least 500 adult members, allowing any group to register voluntarily regardless of its size or categorization.  According to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and interfaith groups in the country, the changes in the registration regulations encouraged more minority religious groups to register with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom.  Small non-Catholic groups said they were pleased with the removal of the registration prerequisite to receive certain tax and visa benefits and other government services.  Some Catholic Church members and members of religious minorities continued to criticize aspects of the 2011 religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions.

Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage occasionally in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel.  They said the government and both private and government-run media did not engage in this activity.  Both Jewish and Muslim leaders said some public and private schools and employers occasionally did not give their members leave for religious holidays.  The Interreligious Council of Peru continued to engage the MOJ for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including taxation exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains.  The council continued to discuss the government’s revisions of its religious freedom regulations with religious communities.  Religious groups and interfaith organizations coordinated with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 600,000 displaced Venezuelans in the country during the year, regardless of religious affiliation, with no reported efforts to proselytize, and to promote religious tolerance.

U.S. embassy officials discussed the 2011 religious freedom law and its 2016 implementing regulations with government representatives, emphasized the importance of equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, and discussed how religious groups were assisting the humanitarian response to the influx of Venezuelans regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation.  Embassy officials also engaged leaders from the Catholic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities to promote tolerance and respect for religious diversity.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution bars discrimination and persecution based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of religion, either individually or in association with others.  It states every person has the right to privacy of religious conviction.  It establishes the separation of religion and state but recognizes the Catholic Church’s role as “an important element in the historical, cultural, and moral development” of the country.

A 1980 concordat between the government and the Holy See accords the Catholic Church certain institutional privileges in education, taxation, and immigration of religious workers.  The subsequent 2011 religious freedom law exempts Catholic Church buildings, houses, and other real estate holdings from property taxes.  Other religious groups often must pay property taxes on their schools and clerical residences, depending on the municipal jurisdiction and whether the group seeks and/or receives tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization.  The law exempts Catholic religious workers from taxes on international travel.  The government also exempts all work-related earnings of Catholic priests and bishops from income taxes.  By law, the military may employ only Catholic clergy as chaplains.

The MOJ is responsible for engaging with religious groups.

The 2016 revised implementing regulations to the religious freedom law make registration with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom optional and voluntary.  The stated purpose of the registry is to promote integrity and facilitate a relationship with the government.  The revised regulations do not require government registration for a religious group to obtain institutional benefits, but doing so allows religious groups to engage with the government.  They allow all religious groups, registered or not, to apply for tax exemptions and worker or resident visas directly with the pertinent government institutions.  Registration is free, the process usually takes one week, and the MOJ provides assistance in completing the application forms.

According to the law, all prisoners, regardless of their religious affiliation, may practice their religion and seek the ministry of someone of their same faith.

The law mandates that all schools, public and private, provide religious education through the primary and secondary levels, “without violating the freedom of conscience of the student, parents, or teachers.”  The law permits only the teaching of Catholicism in public schools, and the Ministry of Education requires the presiding Catholic bishop of an area to approve the public schools’ religious education teachers.  Parents may request the school principal to exempt their children from mandatory religion classes.  The government may grant exemptions from the religious education requirement to secular private schools and non-Catholic religious schools.  Non-Catholic children attending Catholic schools are also exempt from classes on Catholicism.  The law states schools may not academically disadvantage students seeking exemptions from Catholic education classes.

The law requires all employers to accommodate the religious days and holidays of all employees; this accommodation includes allowing an employee to use annual vacation leave for this purpose.

Foreign religious workers must apply for a visa through the Office of Immigration of the Ministry of Interior.  If the religious group registers with the MOJ, the immigration office accepts this as proof the applicant group is a religious organization.  If the group does not register with the MOJ, the immigration office makes its decision on a case-by-case basis.

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

Government Practices

In July the government removed a 2016 requirement that religious entities seeking to register must have at least 500 adult members, changing it to allow any group to register voluntarily regardless of its size or categorization.  At year’s end, the government had registered 133 non-Catholic groups that had voluntarily requested registration, an increase from 115 in 2017, including the Church of Jesus Christ and a number of small evangelical Protestant groups.  According to the MOJ and local interfaith groups, the government accepted and approved the applications from all interested religious groups, and there were no reported denials.

Some Catholic Church members and members of religious minorities continued to criticize aspects of the 2011 religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions.  In its regular meetings with the MOJ, the Interreligious Council continued to press for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including tax exemptions on income, import duties, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and opportunities to serve as military chaplains.  Members of the council said they were pleased with the new regulations and the government’s response to requests for tax benefits from non-Catholic religious groups.

The executive branch, through the MOJ, continued to engage religious communities on matters affecting the communities, including the registration process, taxation exemptions, religious worker visas, budgetary support for religious groups, and prisoners’ rights to religious practice.  The MOJ continued to interact regularly with the public through its Office of Catholic Affairs and Office of Interfaith Affairs for non-Catholic Religious Groups.  Government engagement with religious groups included regular conferences, workshops, and other interfaith meetings to discuss the registration process, joint charity campaigns, public outreach, and cultural events.  The government and religious groups, including the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, and various Protestant churches, hosted these engagements for the entire community.

According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government continued to pay stipends to the Catholic cardinal, six archbishops, and approximately 1,000 other Catholic Church officials, totaling approximately 2.6 million soles ($770,000) annually.  Some Catholic clergy and laypersons employed by the Church received remuneration from the government in addition to Church stipends, including 44 active bishops, four auxiliary bishops, and some priests.  These individuals represented approximately one-eighth of the Catholic clergy and pastoral agents.  In addition, the government provided each Catholic diocese with a monthly institutional subsidy, based on the 1980 concordat with the Holy See.  According to Catholic Church representatives, the Church used these and other Church funds to provide humanitarian services to the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation.  Similar stipends were not available to other religious groups.

Protestant pastors said some non-Catholic soldiers continued to have difficulty finding and attending non-Catholic religious services because by law only Catholic chaplains may serve in the military.

MOJ representatives organized an interfaith meeting in March to coordinate religious community humanitarian support for approximately 600,000 Venezuelans in the country during the year and to ensure all religious groups provided services to them regardless of their religious affiliation.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of religion by law.  On July 26, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which the government said would address the aspirations of Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao.  The signing took place after years of negotiations between the government and separatist groups in Mindanao, aimed at creating lasting peace in the region.  The Catholic Church expressed concern over the killings of three priests that the press reported were politically motivated.  Church leadership criticized the president’s policies, and the president made several statements critical of the Catholic Church and its doctrines.  In December he stated people should kill bishops, but his spokesperson said this was hyperbole.  He also made statements aimed at improving his relationship with the Catholic Church and the government’s relationship with persons of all faiths.  The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at the national and local level, and the Department of Education continued to promote the standardization of Arabic language and Islamic values curricula for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public schools with 10 percent or more Muslims.  In November the NCMF began to issue standardized identification cards to Muslims to enable better access to services in government and private institutions.

During the year, ISIS-affiliated and other militant groups carried out killings, bombings, and kidnappings for ransom.  ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including a July vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack in Basilan that killed 10 persons and wounded several others.  In April a bomb explosion outside St. Anthony’s Cathedral in the capital of South Cotabato Province injured two persons; police blamed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) for the attack.

In July police officers shot and killed a gunman who entered an archbishop’s residence, with media suggesting several possible motives of the gunman.  There were instances of clan violence and societal discrimination against Muslims pursuing housing and employment opportunities, including on the basis of names and religious attire.  Public statements on the internet and social media denigrated the beliefs or practices of religious groups, particularly Muslims.

In meetings with government officials, U.S. embassy representatives discussed the implementation of the BOL and its implications for religious minorities and emphasized the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas.  In meetings with religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), embassy representatives highlighted the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and cooperation.  In September the embassy organized an orientation seminar for interfaith-based organizations.  The two-day seminar encouraged the integration of community-based interventions and facilitated the formulation of community-level cooperation between religious groups and authorities.  The Ambassador gave remarks at public events on the importance of the value of religious freedom and tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion by law.  No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights.  The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state.  The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law.  The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship, as well as any person “notoriously” offending religious feelings during such services or in a place of worship.

The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status.  Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and bylaws for SEC registration as religious corporations.  The SEC requires religious corporations to submit annual financial statements.  The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC.  To register as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR.  The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors.  The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years.  Established religious corporations may be fined for the late filing of registrations with the BIR or for failing to submit registration datasheets and financial statements.

The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government.  Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours.  Attendance is not mandatory, parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space.  Students who do not attend religious instruction, because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire, receive normal supervised class time.  The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools.  The law mandates that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslim beliefs, as well as the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples, when formulating the national history curriculum.

By law, public schools must protect the religious rights of students.  Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.

The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree.  Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts, all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court.  Sharia courts handle only cases relating to personal laws on family relations and property.  Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims.  The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.

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

Government Practices

On July 26, President Duterte signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), previously known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law.  Pending the results of a January 2019 plebiscite, the BOL will grant additional political autonomy in majority Muslim areas and establish the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).  If ratified, the BOL will both reinforce existing legislation governing the application of sharia within the BARMM and provide an alternative dispute mechanism for non-Muslims to seek redress in the court system.

The Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) director, Aldrin Penamora, welcomed the passage of the BOL, saying that “the dream for peace, justice, and progress is at last becoming reality.”  Catholic Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz said the peace agreement would be “inclusive and not discriminate against others” by ensuring that religious freedom would be respected.  Mujiv Hataman, Governor of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, called the agreement a milestone and said the “struggle continues” as the inhabitants of Mindanao “seek to change a culture of discrimination against our people.”

Some priests in the Catholic Church vocally criticized alleged extrajudicial killings attributed to the war on drugs under President Duterte.  In an official statement in July the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) called attention to reported abuses under the Duterte administration, particularly the drug war killings, exchange of insults and hurtful words on social media, arrested “loiterers,” congested jails, blasphemy, and political motives.  The Catholic Church expressed concern over the killings of three priests and other serious forms of harassment reported by the press to be politically motivated.  Father Mark Anthony Venura and Father Richmond Nilo were shot in April and June 2018, respectively, and Father Marcelito Paez in December 2017.  The CBCP denounced Nilo’s killing, and church leaders called on the president to stop the “verbal prosecution” of the Church, stating that this could lead to more crimes against priests.  There were reports the motive of Nilo’s killing was his attempt to revive a rape case against an ex-seminarian.  Senate President Vicente Sotto III rejected a resolution to open a senate inquiry into the killings filed by an opposition senator, Risa Hontiveros, calling the killings a “coincidence.”  One Roman Catholic priest said there was a link between assassination attempts against him and his previous comments critical of the president regarding the war on drugs.

In November the NCMF began to issue standardized identification cards to Muslims to allow better access to services in government and private institutions.  Issuance began in the central office in Quezon City, and in 2019, all regional offices were to issue the cards.  The daily newspaper Manila Bulletin reported the cards contained a barcode with the identification number of the holder; and, according to the Facebook posting of an official, are to include other security features such as biometric data.

In April the Bureau of Immigration (BI) terminated the visa of 71-year-old Australian nun, Sister Patricia Fox, for political activism.  Church officials and human rights advocates expressed disapproval of the decision.  In July the BI ordered her deportation, which Fox appealed to the Department of Justice.  In August Fox applied to renew her missionary visa, but the BI denied her request in September.  Fox had lived in the Philippines for 28 years on a missionary visa prior to receiving a 59-day temporary visitor’s visa in September.  Fox left the Philippines on November 3 after BI refused to extend her visa.  The presidential spokesperson stated it was “a classic case of an unappreciative tourist.”

In August the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Court of Appeals, which found Carlos Celdran guilty of “offending religious feelings” for his 2010 disruption of a Manila Cathedral service to express his views in support of “reproductive health” legislation, including access to contraception, which the Catholic Church opposed.  Celderon had asked the court to find the law under which he was charged unconstitutional.  He faced a jail sentence of two months and 21 days to one year, one month, and 11 days.

On several occasions, President Duterte expressed disapproval of the Catholic Church, describing it as a “hypocritical institution,” and discussed what he said were corruption, molestation of minors (including himself) by priests, and unaccounted donations in the Church.  The president met with the CBCP president in July and agreed to stop comments against the Church.  The CBCP issued an official letter the same day saying the persecution of church leaders was nothing compared to the suffering of the poor and of “drug addicts who are labeled as ‘non-humans.’”  In August and subsequently the president again made remarks against the Church similar to those he made in the past.  In December the president said the bishops were useless fools and told a crowd to “kill them.”  His spokesperson later said the remark was hyperbole and the president was speaking for dramatic effect.

Muslim officials reported that while Muslim prison detainees were allowed to engage in religious observances, Roman Catholic Mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to both Catholic and non-Catholic prison populations.

In February the senate approved a bill declaring the last Monday of January as National Bible Day to celebrate the Christian faith and reflect on the scriptures.

The PCEC, along with other church groups, said the Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Expression bill, which emphasizes the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex communities and passed the third reading in the lower house in 2017, could infringe on the rights of religious communities.

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) stated in February that three missionaries from the United Methodist Church were forced to leave or their visas were not renewed following their participation in an international fact-finding mission to investigate alleged human rights violations.  One missionary was held by authorities for weeks, while the other two had not been allowed to leave the country.  By July 13, all three had their passports returned and left the country.  The NCCP reported that BI barred one of the three from future travel to the Philippines.

The Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns, in partnership with the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), continued to monitor issues relating to religious freedom.  From January to August the CHR noted six reported cases of human rights violations involving eight church workers.  The CHR resolved three of the cases.  The other three remained ongoing investigations as of September.

In January the Department of Tourism announced plans to make the country a significant “religious pilgrimage destination,” by restoring and developing historical churches and shrines throughout the country.

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment continued to administer logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi Embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims.  The NCMF reported that 5,813 individuals made the pilgrimage during the year, lower than the 8,000-limit set by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for pilgrims from the Philippines.  The NCMF said that the armed conflict in Marawi, where a large proportion of Hajj pilgrims originate, resulted in lower participation from the area.  The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects.

The Department of Education continued to support the Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or greater.  For the 2017-18 school year, 1,622 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 158,093 students.

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF and Department of Education, both, or neither.  Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curricula that were subject to government oversight.  There were 86 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education, and 27 more applied for registration, but had not met all the requirements to receive funding.  Many private madrassahs chose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives.  Some unregistered madrassahs preached radical ideologies, according to religious officials.  Only registered schools could receive financial assistance from the government.  The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system.  The madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum.  The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 10 percent from the previous year.  During 2018, the Department of Education provided a total of 67,510,000 pesos ($1.29 million) to 13,502 private madrassah students.

NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination occurred in government offices but cited no specific examples.  Some Muslim leaders, including an NCMF official, expressed concern with the low representation of Muslims in senior government and military positions.  There were 11 Muslims in the 292-member House of Representatives.  In March President Duterte spoke at the Philippine National Police Academy and urged more Muslims to join security forces and said “not all” Muslims in Mindanao were enemies.

The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings for ransom in the south of the country to the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), both designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State; the BIFF; and other ISIS-related terrorist groups.  ISIS claimed responsibility for a July vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack in Basilan that killed 10 persons and wounded several others and that the government blamed on the ASG.  ISIS also claimed responsibility for two improvised explosive device attacks at civilian locations in Sultan Kudarat, attacks that security officials linked to a faction of the BIFF.  On April 29, a bomb went off outside St. Anthony’s Cathedral in the capital of South Cotabato Province, injuring two persons.  Police said the bomb “bore the signature of an Islamic extremist group” and blamed the BIFF.

The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups.  Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.


Executive Summary

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 registered one new religious group and decided 87 religious communal property restitution cases out of 3,240 outstanding cases.  After amending the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) law to criminalize ascribing Nazi crimes to the Polish state, the government removed the criminalization provisions, while retaining civil penalties for violators.  Governing party parliamentarians, other politicians, and commentators on state television made anti-Semitic statements during the year.  The prime minister and the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) leader denounced anti-Semitism.  The president participated in several Holocaust remembrance events.  PiS parliamentarians voted down a motion to ask the prime minister to review an appeal to protect Muslims in the country.

The government investigated 328 anti-Muslim and 112 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, compared with 360 and 160 incidents, respectively, in 2016.  Civil society groups said the figures were not comprehensive.  Several Jewish groups expressed concern over what they called increasing anti-Semitism and threats and said they felt unsafe in the country.  News media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Jewish groups reported an increase in anti-Semitic speech.  There were incidents of vandalism at Jewish and Roman Catholic sites.

On January 27, the U.S. Secretary of State delivered remarks and laid a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Monument to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  The U.S. Ambassador, embassy staff, and visiting U.S. government delegations raised concerns with government officials about the IPN law and its potential impact on freedom of speech and academic research related to the Holocaust.  In February the Ambassador released a video on social media expressing concerns about the amended IPN law.  The Ambassador, other embassy staff, and visiting U.S. officials also discussed with government officials and Jewish groups the status of property restitution and anti-Semitism.  On September 14, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed religious freedom and antidiscrimination issues with government officials and religious leaders.  The embassy and 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 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 whose programs are 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.

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 provides equal protection to all registered religious groups.  In accordance with the law, the government and the Roman Catholic Church participate in the Joint Government-Episcopate Committee, cochaired 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, cochaired 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 and that was nationalized during or after World War II (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 expeditiously resolve long-standing restitution cases affecting Warsaw properties now 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 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 on the basis of 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.

Government Practices

On July 31, the MIA approved the registration of the Church of the Living God, originally applied for in 2016.  According to the MIA, the average length of time to process a registration application is approximately two years.

On February 6, the president signed into law amendments to the IPN law, which stated anyone who publicly assigned the “Polish state or nation” responsibility or joint responsibility for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich during WWII could be fined or imprisoned for up to three years.  After signing the law, the president referred it to the Constitutional Court over concerns it violated free speech protections.  On June 26, following significant international criticism of the law, parliament voted to remove the provisions criminalizing attribution of Nazi crimes to the Polish state or nation, and the president signed the legislation the same day.  The civil penalties in the law remained unchanged, as did the provisions criminalizing denial of purported Ukrainian WWII-era collaboration and war crimes.  Under the civil provisions, the Institute of National Remembrance and NGOs established to defend the country’s historical record may file suit to defend the country’s reputation and demand a retraction and payment of compensation to the state or a charity.

On February 17, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated in response to a journalist’s question that the IPN law would not affect the ability to say, “…there were Polish perpetrators [during WWII], as there were Jewish perpetrators, as there were Russian perpetrators, as well as Ukrainian perpetrators – not only German perpetrators.”

On June 27, Prime Minister Morawiecki and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a joint declaration supporting free and open historical expression and research on the Holocaust and condemning all forms of anti-Semitism, and called for a return to civil and respectful public dialogue.  On July 5, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Yad Vashem Institute criticized the IPN law and the prime ministers’ joint declaration, stating the penalties remaining in the amended law could harm researchers, impede research, and interfere with the historical memory of the Holocaust.

In July parliamentarians from the PiS Party voted down a motion in the Sejm (parliament) National and Ethnic Minority Committee to request the prime minister to review a June 2017 written appeal by several Muslim organizations to the speaker of the lower house of parliament to protect the Muslim minority in the country.  The authors of the appeal stated political debates reinforced anti-Muslim messages in media and could lead to an escalation of xenophobic behavior against Muslims.

According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions resolved 87 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 3,240 pending claims by religious groups.  At year’s end, the commissions had partially or entirely resolved a total of 2,810 of 5,554 claims by the Jewish community, 989 of 1,200 claims by the Lutheran community, 268 of 472 claims by the Orthodox Church, and 87 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 a number of 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.

Warsaw city authorities continued implementing the 2015 law critics stated might extinguish potential claims by private individuals, including Jews and members of other religious minorities, on public properties seized in WWII or the communist era.  On September 17, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz stated that since the law entered into force in September 2016, the city had discontinued 48 dormant claims filed before 1950 and refused 58 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 whether any belonged to religious minorities.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization sent a formal request to the Mayor of Warsaw asking the city to give claimants sufficient time to complete succession proceedings (proving legal inheritance or succession in Polish courts) to avoid the discontinuance of their property claims.  The mayor responded the city was obligated to administer the public property restitution law as it was passed by the national parliament and upheld by the Constitutional Court.

A special government commission led by Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki continued to investigate accusations of irregularities in restitution of private property in Warsaw.  On June 30, the commission reported it had reviewed 593 prior restitution cases and issued 74 decisions during its first 12 months of operations in 2016-17.  The commission chair estimated the commission’s actions returned 700 million zloty ($186.52 million) in property value to the city of Warsaw.  Several NGOs and lawyers representing claimants, including lawyers representing Holocaust survivors or their heirs, stated the commission had had a negative effect on private property restitution cases, as administrative and court decisions had slowed down in response to the commission’s decisions.

On February 12, the head of the committee of the Council of Ministers responsible for coordinating legislation announced the justice ministry’s October 2017 comprehensive private property restitution draft legislation needed further revisions and analysis, and that there were questions about its potential costs and compliance with national and international law.  The proposed law would block any physical return of former properties, whether the properties were currently privately or publicly owned, provide compensation of 20-25 percent of the property’s value at the time of taking in cash or government bonds, and set a one-year claims filing period.  The draft legislation continued to draw intense media coverage and public scrutiny.  NGOs and advocacy groups expressed concern the legislation would exclude foreign potential claimants, many of whom were Holocaust survivors or their heirs.  For example, according to media reports in February, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the World Jewish Congress sent government officials letters criticizing the bill, stating it would end return of properties in kind, provide unjustly low compensations for lost properties, and place unjust restrictions on the persons eligible for compensation.  The government had not announced any updates on the status of the draft law by year’s end.

On November 11, the government led a march through Warsaw in celebration of 100 years of the country’s regained independence.  The march occurred together with the annual Independence Day March organized by a coalition of groups, such as National Radical Camp (ONR) and All Polish Youth, widely deemed extremist and nationalist in their ideologies.  While there were no reports of anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim posters or chants and no reports of violence, a small number of participants displayed Celtic crosses, a far-right nationalist symbol, and messages such as “Poland, White and Catholic.”

On July 27, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected the final appeal of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, to which the MIA denied registration in 2013.

On January 29, the director of state-run television station TVP-2, Marcin Wolski, stated on air that Nazi concentration camps were “not German or Polish camps, but Jewish camps,” arguing that Jews operated the crematoria at Auschwitz.  During the same program, political commentator and author Rafal Ziemkiewicz stated, “Jews were part of their own destruction” during the Holocaust.  On February 7, Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro asked the Warsaw prosecutor’s office to conduct a preliminary review to determine whether Wolski and Ziemkiewicz’s comments violated the law preventing public offense on the grounds of national, ethnic, racial, or religious identity.  At year’s end, the government had not disclosed any information about the status of the review.

On February 8, PiS Party Parliamentary Caucus Deputy Chair Jacek Zalek said during a televised interview that Germans, not Poles, killed Jews in the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom in which at least 300 Jews perished when a barn in which they were locked was set afire.  Historians have found that Jews in Jedwabne were killed by their Polish neighbors while under Nazi occupation.

On February 22, PiS Party Senator Waldemar Bonkowski posted anti-Semitic material on his Facebook page, including a video edited from Nazi propaganda movies.  The party suspended Bonkowski’s party membership that same day.  Bonkowski’s membership remained suspended at year’s end.

In March opposition parliamentarian Kornel Morawiecki from the Freedom and Solidarity Party said in an interview that Jews moved into WWII-era ghettos voluntarily because “they were told it would be an enclave for them where they would not have to deal with those nasty Poles.”

In June the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council rejected complaints by news portal Okopress and the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland regarding February 24 comments made on state-run television station TVP Info by Roman Catholic priest Henryk Zielinski.  Zielinski stated, “For us, the truth means the consistency of what we say with the facts.  For the Jew…if [he] is a religious Jew, the truth means what God wants.  If he is not religious, the truth is subjective or the truth will be what serves the interests of Israel.”  The council said Zielinski’s comments could not be considered as offensive or inciting hatred, and that the discussion on the program covered important philosophical and theological topics necessary to facilitating dialogue and agreement on disputed issues.

In July the Ministry of Culture awarded Ryszard Makowski the Gloria Arts Medal for Merit to Culture, one of the country’s highest distinctions for artistic contribution to the nation’s culture and heritage.  In March Makowski, who previously made anti-Semitic jokes on a public television show in 2016, wrote an opinion article in which he criticized the Polish government for inadvertently funding anti-Polish narratives through its support for museums such as the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum, and accused Jews of creating their own anti-Semitism.

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.

There were no publicly available updates on the status of the investigation the government ordered in 2017 about a 1999 video showing naked persons laughing and playing tag in a concentration camp gas chamber at the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp.

In January Prime Minister Morawiecki and other political and religious leaders joined Holocaust survivors to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The prime minister stated that “crushing… force [had] exterminated the Jewish people and a part of the Polish nation,” and that there was no justification for “criminal ideologies,” including anti-Semitism.

On February 10, in comments on the revised IPN law, PiS Party Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski condemned anti-Semitism as a “disease of the mind and soul.”

On January 13, MIA Minister Joachim Brudzinski condemned xenophobic and aggressive behavior against people because of their skin color, religion, or beliefs following an incident that day in which two men insulted two Syrian citizens in Wroclaw.  Police detained two suspects, who were charged with public insult on the basis of national origin.  There was no further information available on the case.

On April 21, law enforcement officials in the town of Dzierzoniow disrupted plans by groups whom media and law enforcement described as neofascists to organize a concert celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday.  Approximately 300 police officers and Internal Security Agency officers conducted a series of raids in the area, resulting in the questioning of approximately a dozen persons and the detention of the two men suspected of organizing the concert.

On January 15, President Andrzej Duda and his wife hosted an interfaith holiday gathering with representatives of various religious groups and national minorities.  The president said, “Many generations of Poles, irrespective of their language and religion, have jointly fought for a free and independent Poland,” and added that the country provided “security, peace, and the possibility for all Poles to live a normal life.”

On February 27, President Duda and his wife visited the Krakow Jewish community preschool and nursery, and met with Krakow Jewish Community Chair Tadeusz Jakubowicz and Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich.  During the meeting, the president said Poles and Jews had 1,000 years of shared history and praised the contribution of many Jews to the country’s independence.

On March 6, the lower house of parliament adopted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism to mark the 50th anniversary of the March 1968 purges in which the communist government exiled thousands of Jews from the country.  The resolution condemned all manifestations of anti-Semitism and the 1968 communist government.

In March parliament passed, and the president signed, legislation designating March 24 as a national holiday commemorating Poles who saved Jews during WWII.

On April 12, President Duda marched together with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the International March of the Living, an annual educational program that brought individuals from around the world to Poland to study the history of the Holocaust.

On June 14, Deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo attended the 78th anniversary of the first deportation of Poles to Auschwitz at a ceremony at the site of the Nazi death camp.

On October 14, the government organized an official commemoration on the 75th anniversary of the uprising at the Sobibor Nazi extermination camp, with the participation of the Presidential Chancellery (Minister Wojciech Kolarski, who read the letter from the president), Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski, former prisoners, and representatives from the prisoners’ countries of origin, including Russia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, France, Ukraine, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria.

The government continued to fund exchanges with national participants and Israeli Jews as part of a long-term cultural exchange agreement with the government of Israel to foster dialogue on restitution, the Holocaust, and interfaith issues.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  The government, via the High Commission for Migration (ACM), sponsored activities to promote religious tolerance and acceptance, published religious texts, and organized education for teachers and workers interacting with persons of diverse religious backgrounds.  The government granted citizenship during the year to 3,525 descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled during the Inquisition.  President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and other senior officials advocated religious tolerance and harmony at public events throughout the year, including during regular visits to churches, mosques, and other places of worship.

In February the European Jewish Congress reported in a newsletter that government officials, whom it did not name, characterized the country as having an almost nonexistent level of public anti-Semitism.  According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey cited in September, 52 percent of residents of the country believed Muslim women should be free to wear any religious clothing without restriction; 44 percent favored at least some restrictions.  A series of 2015-17 Pew surveys cited in October found 70 percent of non-Muslims would be willing to accept Muslims as members of their family, and 73 percent of non-Jews would be willing to accept Jews as members of their family.

U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet regularly with the independent Commission for Religious Freedom (CLR) and ACM officials and discussed the importance of mutual respect and understanding among religious communities and the integration of immigrants, many of whom belonged to religious minority groups.  The ambassador and other embassy officials met with Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Orthodox religious leaders, including from the Ismaili Imamat, Jewish Community of Lisbon, and Islamic Center of Bangladesh in Lisbon, to discuss religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration.  The embassy hosted a multimedia theatrical presentation on ways to combat religious intolerance and funded the visit of a Muslim youth leader to the United States to participate in a program on religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship, which may not be violated even if the government declares a state of emergency.  It states no one shall be privileged, prejudiced, persecuted, or deprived of rights or exempted from civic obligations or duties because of religious beliefs or practices.  The constitution states authorities may not question individuals about their religious convictions or observance, except to gather statistical information that does not identify individuals, and in such cases individuals may not be prejudiced by refusal to reply.  Churches and religious communities are independent from the state and have the freedom to determine their own organization and perform their own activities and worship.  The constitution affords each religious community the freedom to teach its religion and use its own media to disseminate public information about its activities.  It bars political parties from using names directly associated with, or symbols that may be confused with those of, religious groups.  The constitution and the law recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds; they require conscientious objectors to perform equivalent alternative civilian service.

Religious groups may be organized in a variety of forms that have national, regional, or local character.  A denomination may choose to organize as one national church or religious community or as several regional or local churches or religious communities.  An international church or religious community may set up a representative organization of its adherents separate from the branch of the church or religious community existing in the country.  A registered church or religious community may create subsidiary or affiliated organizations, such as associations, foundations, or federations.

All religious groups with an organized presence in the country may apply for registration with the registrar of religious corporate bodies in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).  The requirements include:  providing the organization’s official name, which must be distinguishable from all other religious corporate bodies in the country; the organizing documents of the church or religious community associated with the group applying for registration; the address of the organization’s registered main office in the country; a statement of the group’s religious purposes; documentation of the organization’s assets; information on the organization’s formation, composition, rules, and activities; provisions for dissolution of the organization; and the appointment method and powers of the organization’s representatives.  Subsidiary or affiliated organizations included in the parent group’s application are also registered; if not included, they must register separately.  The MOJ may reject a registration application if it fails to meet legal requirements, includes false documentation, or violates constitutional rights of religious freedom.  In the case where the MOJ rejects an application, religious groups may appeal to the CLR within 30 days of receiving the MOJ’s decision.

The CLR is an independent, consultative body to parliament and the government, established by law.  Its members include representatives of various religious groups in the country, such as the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, Evangelical Alliance, Jewish Community of Lisbon, Islamic Community of Lisbon, Hindu Community of Lisbon, and Aga Khan Foundation, as well as laypersons appointed by the MOJ.  The Council of Ministers appoints its president.  The CLR reviews and takes a position on all matters relating to the application of the law on religious freedom, including proposed amendments.  The CLR alerts the competent authorities, including the president, parliament, and others in the government, to cases involving religious freedom and discrimination, such as restrictions or prohibitions on the right to assembly and the holding of religious services; the destruction or desecration of religious property; assaults against members and clergy of religious groups; incitement of religious discord; hate speech; and violations of the rights of foreign missionaries.

The CLR may file formal complaints at the national level with the ombudsman, an official position created by the constitution and supplemental legislation to defend the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, and at the international level with the European Court of Human Rights.  The ombudsman has no legal enforcement power, but he or she is obligated to address complaints and provides an alternative remedy for dispute resolution.

The ACM, an independent government body operating under the guidelines of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, has a statutory obligation to advocate religious tolerance, including the “promotion of dialogue, innovation, and intercultural and inter-religious education” and “combating all forms of discrimination based on color, nationality, ethnic origin or religion.”

Religious groups may register as religious corporations and receive tax-exempt status.  They also receive the right to minister in prisons, hospitals, and military facilities; provide religious teaching in public schools; participate in broadcasting time on public television and radio; and receive national recognition of religious holidays.  The government certifies religious ministers, who receive all the benefits of the social security system.  According to the law, chaplaincies for military services, prisons, and hospitals are state-funded positions open to all registered religious groups.  A taxpayer may allocate 5 percent of his or her tax payment to any registered religious group.

Religious groups may also register as unincorporated associations or private corporations, and in that form they may receive the same benefits granted to religious corporations.  The process for registering as unincorporated associations or private corporations involves the same procedures as for religious corporations.  There are no practical differences between associations and private corporations; the different categories distinguish the groups’ internal administration.  Unregistered religious groups are not subject to penalties and may practice their religion but do not receive the benefits associated with registration.

By law, religious groups registered in the country for at least 30 years or internationally recognized for 60 years may obtain a higher registration status of “religion settled in the country.”  To show they are established, religions must demonstrate an “organized social presence” for the required length of time.  These groups receive government subsidies based on the number of members they have; may conclude “mutual interest” agreements with the state on issues such as education, culture, or other forms of cooperation; and may celebrate religious marriages that have effect in the state legal system.  The government has mutual interest agreements with Jewish and Islamic religious bodies and a concordat with the Holy See that serves the same function for the Catholic Church.

Public secondary schools offer an optional survey course on world religions taught by lay teachers.  Optional religious instruction is available at government expense if at least 10 students attend the class.  Religious groups are responsible for designing the curriculum of the religious classes and providing and training the teachers, who are lay.  Private schools are required to offer the same curriculum as public schools but may provide instruction in any religion at their expense.  All schools, public and private, are required to accommodate the religious practices of students, including rescheduling tests if necessary.

The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of religion and requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious practices.  According to the labor code, employees are allowed to take leave on their Sabbath and religious holidays, even if these are not nationally observed.

The law provides for the naturalization of Jewish descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in the 15th and 16th centuries.

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

Government Practices

The government reported that, of 13,607 applications received during the year, it had approved the naturalization of 3,525 Sephardic descendants of Jews expelled from the country during the Inquisition.  The government rejected three applications, and 9,460 others remained pending.  Beneficiaries of the program included individuals from Israel (9,517), Brazil (939), and Turkey (876).

There were complaints by some religious minorities, such as evangelical Christians, that the Catholic Church had an advantage over minority religious groups, since most prisons, hospitals, and military services had designated Catholic priests, while minority religions did not have designated representation.  Jose Vera Jardim, chairman of the CLR, said, “There is discrimination” in that, since the country is more than 80 percent Catholic, “the Catholic Church has a more articulated and stronger presence in chaplaincies.”  According to the CRF, the vast majority of those who sought chaplain assistance requested a Catholic priest.  Vera Jardim stated he did not believe there were serious grievances from religious denominations and “The right to assistance … is safeguarded.”  There were no official statistics on the percentage of chaplaincies each religious group held.

In February four left-leaning parties introduced separate draft bills in parliament that would have legalized assisted suicide in cases of terminal illness and “unbearable suffering.”  On May 24, the president received 16 representatives from eight religious communities, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Seventh-day Adventist, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Orthodox Christian, and Buddhist, to discuss the four bills to decriminalize and regulate medically assisted death.  All 16 representatives expressed opposition to medically assisted killing.  Catholic Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon and President of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference Manuel Clemente said the country should follow the example of “other democratic and evolved societies,” which opted to improve palliative care.  Pastor Jorge Humberto of the Portuguese Evangelical Alliance called euthanasia “a civilizational retrocession.”  Sheikh David Munir, Imam of the Central Islamic Mosque in Lisbon, said, “We … have the same voice … I hope we will care for those who need our help rather than abandon them.”  Rabbi Natan Peres of the Jewish Community of Lisbon welcomed that the subject of euthanasia had shown that religious groups in the country could unite and work together.  On May 29, parliament rejected all four bills.  The bill that came closest to passage, introduced by the governing Socialist Party, was defeated 115-110.  All of the versions would have allowed health-care providers to refuse to participate in euthanasia because of moral or other personal beliefs.

The ACM hosted events, activities, and debates, published books on religion to promote religious tolerance and acceptance, and provided education for teachers and workers interacting with individuals of diverse religious backgrounds.  On October 3, the ACM hosted the Second Interreligious Dialogue Congress, “Caring for Others,” in partnership with the CLR.  The Minister of the Presidency and Administrative Modernization, Maria Manuel Leitao Marques; the State Secretary for Citizenship and Equality, Rosa Monteiro; the High Commissioner for Migration, Pedro Calado; and CLR Chairman Vera Jardim participated in the congress, held at the Catholic University in Lisbon.  Religious groups participating included Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, evangelical Christians, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Hindus, and Baha’is.  Among topics discussed by congress participants were the role of religious groups in providing services in hospitals and prisons, civil society, and formal and informal education.  Representatives of religious groups pledged to work together to organize social and community activities to promote religious acceptance.  The ACM and the CRF proposed designating February 1 as the National Day of Religious Freedom and Interreligious Dialogue.  Parliament had not taken up the proposal by year’s end.

The ACM also organized a course on November 1-4, coordinated by the British Council and funded by the European Commission, to train 29 persons to become community leaders in identifying and combating discrimination, including religious discrimination, and to promote inclusion.  The trainees agreed to organize periodic visits to religious communities, museums, libraries, cultural centers, and temples to experience the religious and cultural diversity in the country.

The state-run television channel RTP continued to broadcast a half-hour religious program five days a week and a weekly half-hour program, with segments for both written by different religious groups.  Participant religious groups, which had to be registered, included the Evangelical Alliance, Orthodox Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Islamic Community of Lisbon, Baha’i Community, Old Catholic Church, Orthodox Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church, Hindu Community, and Jewish Community.

During a visit to the Central Lisbon Seventh-day Adventist Church on March 3, President Rebelo de Sousa thanked the Seventh-day Adventist community for its contribution to the “construction of justice, of social solidarity, for a more humane, fraternal, and more united Portugal.”  He added that one of the principles of his mandate was “proximity … also to religious communities as well as to those who do not practice a belief or faith,” and that the country was open to religious pluralism, with “instruments that guarantee a fair treatment of the various churches and creeds.”  The president also said the state had the duty to collaborate with churches and religious communities in the country.

On March 16, the president awarded the Order of Freedom to the Islamic Community of Lisbon, which celebrated its 50th anniversary.  At a ceremony in Lisbon’s Central Mosque, Rebelo de Sousa said he presented the award to the Islamic Community of Lisbon for the defense of “religious freedom and freedom in general.”  He stated, “Humanistic values are by nature the values of Islam.”  In addition, present at the ceremony were UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the three living former presidents of the country, Speaker of Parliament Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues, Lisbon Mayor Fernando Medina, and Cardinal Clemente.

On February 26, the CLR awarded its first annual religious freedom prize to Rita Mendonca Leite for her work The Role of the Religious Society in the Development of Religious Freedom in Portugal during the Constitutional Monarchy and the First Republic.  It attributed two honorable mentions:  Use of Religious Symbols in the Workplace:  The Limits to Freedom of Expression of Religious Convictions by Susana Machado and The European Court of Human Rights and Religious Symbols:  The Use of the Islamic Veil in 21st Century Europe by Ines Granja Costa.

On June 5, at the Central Mosque of Lisbon, President Rebelo de Sousa joined the President of the Islamic Community of Lisbon, Abool Vakil, Sheikh Munir, and members of the Muslim community, as well as members of other religious faiths, at an iftar at the Central Mosque of Lisbon.  In his remarks, Rebelo de Sousa said, “It is an honor for me … to be here … sharing understanding, fraternity and affection,” adding that the country followed the constitutional principles of religious freedom and interreligious living.


Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.”  Religious groups must register with the government to acquire property, raise funds, or hold bank accounts.  Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the only registered religious groups in the country.  Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) continued to allow more than 100 house churches to operate in the country.  In the wake of the severing of relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and continuing security concerns for Qatari citizens in Saudi Arabia, the government again discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in the Hajj or Umrah.  The government reviewed, censored, or banned print and social media religious material it considered objectionable.  The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported several instances in which the government promoted strident anti-Semitic preachers and stated the government-owned al-Jazeera media network continued “to be a major exporter of hateful content against the Jewish people.”  On May 21, the government submitted documents to the United Nations, following cabinet approval on March 14, to accede to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The government formally stated in its accession documents that it would interpret the ICCPR’s Article 18, paragraph 2 (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that the article does not contravene” sharia, and that it reserved the right to implement the article in accordance with its understanding of sharia.  The government also declared it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”), which could impinge upon freedom of religion.  New leadership within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) worked to engage with Christian leaders and reported direct contact and dialogue with the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC) concerning the Christian community’s desire to develop a positive relationship with the MFA and develop channels of communication for addressing concerns such as the impact of security measures.  The Ministry of Culture and Sports approved the staging of a two-day Christian musical concert in Doha that was attended by 18,000 persons.  In April the Maronite Patriarch laid the cornerstone for the first Maronite church in the Gulf region on government-owned land at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex.

Media based in the country periodically published anti-Semitic material.  Following the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in May, national newspapers published a number of anti-Semitic editorial cartoons.  One appeared in al-Watan on May 15, showing a pig marked with the Star of David resting on a pillow with the pattern of the U.S. flag, with its stars replaced by Stars of David.  In December the ADL criticized the Doha International Book Fair for including anti-Semitic books.  Members of the CCSC stated pamphlets containing anti-Christian and anti-Semitic content that had previously been removed from some public places such as schools and hospitals had sporadically reappeared.

In November embassy officials met with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) to discuss means to spread tolerance and raise awareness of the rights of religious minorities.  After outreach from the U.S. embassy to the Ministry of Culture, which organized the book fair, the government reported removing the offensive content and pledging to take a more proactive approach to prohibiting anti-Semitic content in the next book fair.  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to meet with relevant government bodies, as well as quasi-governmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations in the country, interest in international exchange programs for imams and MEIA officials, and government efforts to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies within mosques.  In November the embassy participated in the eighth roundtable discussion by the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), which was an opportunity for Christian church leaders to meet with Muslim scholars.  In December the embassy hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with an interfaith theme.  Participants represented a wide spectrum of faiths, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation.  The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.”  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  According to the constitution, the emir must be Muslim.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.  The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions.  The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment if convicted of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the MFA.  The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations.  Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may be registered with the government with the support of the CCSC – an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations.  The eight registered Christian denominations are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Inter-Denominational Christian Churches.  In practice, nearly all of the remaining denominations are registered under the aegis of the Anglican Church.

Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA.  Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures such as private villas recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution, whereas unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths.  It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public.  The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison.  Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam can result in a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment.  The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity.  The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials.  The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content.  Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities.  To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity.  All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the MEIA.  The law designates the MEIA minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers.  The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the emir.

While a non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim, the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim.  A non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools.  Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services.  All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools.  These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims.  The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody.  For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters utilizing Shia interpretations of religious law.  In other religious matters, the country’s family law applies across all branches of Islam.  Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia.  The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence.  There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging.  Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases.  The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia.  Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned.  Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies.  The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The government submitted documents to the United Nations on May 21, following cabinet approval on March 14, to accede to the ICCPR, with a formal statement in its treaty accession document that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic Sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia.  The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”).  The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.  The government continued to permit adherents of unregistered religious groups, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Baha’i Faith, and unregistered small Christian congregations, to worship privately in rented villas, their homes, workplaces, and with others, although they lacked authorized facilities in which to practice their faiths.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA was responsible for handling church affairs, replacing the Department of Consular Affairs within the MFA.  It worked in coordination with the director of the Human Rights Department within the MFA.  This new leadership worked to engage with Christian leaders and reported direct contact and dialogue with the CCSC to develop channels of communication for addressing concerns such as the impact of security restrictions.  In August the assistant office director for services affairs of the Office of the Secretary General met with church leaders at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, to discuss challenges faced by the Christian community.  In October the head of the MFA’s Human Rights Department led a delegation of the National Committee for Human Rights in an official visit to the complex.  Church leaders stated both visits were positive, being the first of their kind by high-ranking officials.

The MEIA reported it continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques.  The ministry continued to provide on an ad hoc basis thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions from using the pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths.  The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons.  The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties.  The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.  There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of this stipulation of the code.  All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The government discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in the Umrah or Hajj due to the ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia that started in mid-2017.  Officials at the MEIA stated the decision was made because of concerns for pilgrims’ security, due to the lack of diplomatic representation or coordination with Saudi religious and security authorities.

In its report on the government’s accession to the ICCPR, Human Rights Watch stated that the government rejected the ICCPR’s gender equality provisions in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance on grounds that they contravened sharia.  The government also declared it would interpret several provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including those defining cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment; bans on capital and corporal punishment; minimum marriage ages; and freedom of religion.

Although the law prohibited Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites; however, they were not permitted to publish such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  More commonly, journalists and publishers reportedly practiced self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

In April the ADL reported that in the past year the “government has actually continued to use its prominent platforms to promote strident anti-Semitic preachers…”  The ADL cited imams, including Abdullah al-Naama and Mohammed Hassan al-Muraikhi, who had delivered anti-Semitic sermons at the state-controlled Grand Mosque in Doha.  The minister of the MEIA stated that the ministry did not condone anti-Semitic language and would investigate the matter.  Earlier in the year, the Education City Mosque in Doha, which serves learning institutions on the Education City campus, including branches of several U.S. universities, hosted four Friday sermons by Shaqer al-Shahwani, whose sermons were promoted at government-controlled mosques.  Al-Shahwani had previously stated on Twitter that “the Jews” are “behind every immorality and vice” in the world.  In July the ADL reprinted an article that a member of its staff had written for the online blog, The Long War Journal, stating that al-Naama and al-Muraikhi continued to deliver regular Friday sermons at the Grand Mosque that demonized the Jewish people and told fellow Muslims that Jews and Christians were their natural enemies, according to sermon transcripts on the Grand Mosque’s website.  The report said state television awarded each imam with a series of Ramadan specials during the year.

According to the ADL, the government also demonstrated support during Ramadan for at least five other preachers with hateful messages through the MEIA, using its Twitter account to promote their lectures during the month at prominent locations, including the Grand Mosque, the mosque in Katara cultural village, and the Education City Mosque.  These preachers included Thabit al-Qahtani, who through his Twitter account called upon God to “destroy the Jews”; Mowafi Azab, who declared (on a government website for fatwas called IslamWeb) that “the Jews” used pornographic movies to “destroy the world and control it”; and Ahmed al-Farjabi, who issued rulings on that same website calling the Jewish people “our enemy.”

According to an August 10 article in The Hill newspaper, written by the CEO of the ADL and reprinted on the organization’s website, the government-owned al-Jazeera media network continued “to be a major exporter of hateful content against the Jewish people…”  The report cited a May 23 news story carried by the network that cast doubt on the Nazi genocide of Jews, referring to “the alleged Holocaust.”  In July al-Jazeera broadcast a speech by a Hamas official calling for “the cleansing of Palestine of the filth of the Jews” and called for the establishment of a caliphate “after the [Muslim] nation has been healed of its cancer, the Jews.”  A blog post published on the network’s website accused the Jewish people of “killing the Prophets” and asserted that the historical existence of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem was a fabrication.  A separate article on its Arabic news webpage decried the “control of the Jews over the pornography industry.”

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues, were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings.  The government allowed unregistered churches to worship there as well, but only under the patronage of one of the eight recognized denominations.  The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.  In addition to the primary buildings, the churches were allowed to erect additional tent structures during Easter and Christmas outside of the primary complex to house surge volumes of congregants.

In April the Maronite Patriarch laid the foundation stone at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex for the Saint Charbel Maronite Church, which would be the first Maronite church in the Gulf region.  During the year, the Maronites continued to worship at the Roman Catholic Church building but intended to move to the new church once completed.  Land was designated and fund raising began for a new Ethiopian church.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and have monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities – a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions.  In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches.  Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

Leaders of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) stated that the government, represented by the MOI, retained the possession of a plot of land after it had been allocated to the alliance, saying the plot of land would be used as a police station.  The government promised to provide ECAQ leaders with an alternative plot of land, but as of the end of the year, had not done so.  The ECAQ leaders stated the government’s decision caused the alliance to sustain financial damage because it had already laid a foundation for the building and paid contractors for the work.

The MOI allowed more than 100 house churches to operate throughout the country, including 90 that were allocated to members of the ECAQ.

In December the ADL criticized the government-sponsored Doha International Book Fair for including anti-Semitic books.  The book titles included Lies Spread by the Jews; Talmud of Secrets: Facts Exposing the Jewish Schemes to Control the World; The History of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the History of the Corruption of the Jews, and the Demise of their Entity; Awakening to Jewish Influence in the United States of America by David Duke; The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Purported Temple; and The Myth of the Nazi Gas Chambers.

On November 29, the government-funded al-Jazeera News Channel broadcast a conference held in Gaza marking the UN-declared International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, during which a Palestinian youth recited a poem entitled “Rifle” that included references to Jewish people as “apes” and “pigs.”

The Ministry of Culture and Sports approved the staging of a major two-day Christian musical conference in Doha in November that was attended by 18,000 persons.

The government-funded DICID, which operated independently, hosted discussions on the freedom to worship within one’s home, and on how seminars and roundtable discussions on religious tolerance could be used to resolve intercommunal strife.  The center also hosted discussions on difficulties faced by non-Muslim groups.  In November the DICIC held its eighth interfaith roundtable, inviting Christian church leaders and Muslim scholars to the event.

In December the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch consecrated a church in Lebanon that was funded by a donation from the emir.  The country’s ambassador to Lebanon, attending the ceremony, stated the emir was a “fervent supporter” of Islamic-Christian dialogue.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits restrictions on freedom of conscience and belief, as well as forcing an individual to espouse a religious belief contrary to the individual’s convictions.  It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.”  According to law, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country.  The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations; civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law.  The government approved applications for two Christian associations – The “Philadelphia” Roma’s Union of Pentecostal Assemblies and God’s Union of Pentecostal Churches.  There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community.  During the year, the government rejected 609 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 52; it approved no claims for the Greek Catholic Church.  Minority religious groups continued to state that national and local governments gave preference to the ROC, and they reported incidents of discrimination against them.  In July President Klaus Iohannis promulgated a law on countering anti-Semitism that criminalizes the promotion of anti-Semitic ideas and the establishment of anti-Semitic organizations.

Minority religious groups continued to report harassment of their congregations by ROC priests and adherents, along with the blocking of their access to cemeteries.  A study on values shared by middle school and high school teachers reported that approximately one-third of teachers did not want persons belonging to a different religion as neighbors.  There was a case of anti-Semitic vandalism of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s childhood home in Sighetu Marmatiei.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), local media outlets depicted largely Muslim refugees as a threat because of their religion.

In meetings with the general secretary of the government, U.S. embassy officials continued to raise concerns about the slow pace of the restitution process and the low number of properties restored to minority religious groups.  Embassy officials facilitated meetings between the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and government officials to help speed the processes of property restitution and pensions for Holocaust survivors.  In meetings with President Iohannis, Prime Minister Danila, Bucharest Mayor Firea, and other officials, the embassy continued its support for the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Institute) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in its efforts to establish a museum of Jewish history.  The Ambassador participated in commemorations of the Holocaust and spoke out against religious intolerance in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution prohibits restricting freedom of thought, opinion, conscience, or religious beliefs, as well as forcing individuals to espouse a religious belief contrary to their convictions.  It stipulates all religions are independent from the state and have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes” under terms defined by the law.  The law specifies the state’s recognition of the “important role of the Romanian Orthodox Church” as well as the role of “other churches and denominations as recognized by the national history” of the country.

The constitution states religious denominations shall be autonomous and enjoy state support, including the facilitation of religious assistance in the army, hospitals, penitentiaries, retirement homes, and orphanages.  The law forbids public authorities or private legal entities from asking individuals to specify their religion, with the exception of the census.

The provisions of the law devoted to religion stipulate a three-tier system of religious classification with “religious denominations” at the highest level, followed by “religious associations,” and “religious groups” at the most basic level.  Organizations in the top two tiers are legal entities, while religious groups are not.  Civil associations established under separate provisions of the law governing associations and foundations may also engage in religious activities and have the status of legal entities.

By law, there are 18 religious organizations recognized as “religious denominations,” all of which were in existence at the time the specific law on religion was enacted in 2006.  They include the ROC, Orthodox Serb Bishopric of Timisoara, Roman Catholic Church, Greek Catholic Church, Old Rite Russian Christian (Orthodox) Church, Reformed (Protestant) Church, Christian Evangelical Church, Romanian Evangelical Church, Evangelical Augustan Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Unitarian Church, Baptist Church, Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Federation of Jewish Communities, Muslim Denomination (Islam), and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

For additional organizations to obtain recognition as religious denominations, the law specifies they must demonstrate 12 years of continuous activity since the law’s passage, which could not occur before 2018.  A religious association is then eligible to apply for the status of religious denomination if it has a membership of at least 0.1 percent of the population (approximately 21,500 persons).

The law defines a religious association as an organization of at least 300 citizens who share and practice the same faith and that has attained legal status through registration with the Registry of Religious Associations in the office of the clerk of the court where the main branch of the association is located.  To register, religious associations must submit to the government their members’ personal data (e.g., names, addresses, personal identification numbers, and signatures), which the law says the government may not share with other public institutions or use in any other way.  To operate as religious associations, organizations also require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations, which is under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister.

The law defines a religious group as a group of individuals sharing the same beliefs.  Religious groups do not have to register to practice their religion and do not need approval from the national secretariat to operate.

Civil associations engaged in religious activities function like secular associations and foundations; however, they do not receive the same benefits as religious denominations or religious associations.  Civil associations may not qualify under the numerical/administrative criteria (300 members) for recognition as religious associations or may choose not to apply for such recognition.  These associations do not require approval from the National Secretariat for Religious Denominations to operate.  Their registration falls under the provisions of law governing the establishment of foundations, associations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which require a minimum membership of three individuals.  Such civil associations are not required to submit their members’ personal data.

Religious denominations are eligible for state financial and other support.  They have the right to teach religion classes in public schools, receive government funds to build places of worship, partially pay clergy salaries with state funds, broadcast religious programming on radio and television, and apply for broadcasting licenses for their own stations.  Under the law, the amount of state funding a denomination receives is determined by the number of adherents reported in the most recent census, as well as by “the religious denomination’s actual needs.”

Religious associations do not receive government funding, but both they and religious denominations receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes.  Religious groups do not receive either government funding or tax exemptions.

Both religious denominations and religious associations may own or rent property, publish or import religious literature, proselytize, establish and operate schools or hospitals, own cemeteries, and receive tax exemptions on income and buildings used for religious, educational, or other social purposes.  Religious groups have no legal status to engage in such activities; however, they may practice their religious beliefs, including in public.

Civil associations engaged in religious activities may engage in religious worship.  While they do not receive the same tax exemptions or other benefits granted to religious denominations and religious associations, they may receive the tax advantages and other benefits accruing to civil associations and foundations.

Legal provisions allow local authorities to fund places of worship and theological schools belonging to religious denominations, including providing funding for staff salaries and building maintenance, renovation, and conservation or construction of places of worship.  No similar provisions exist for religious associations or other associations engaged in religious activities; however, these associations may receive funding through legal provisions for civil associations and foundations.

The law entitles all types of religious organizations to bury their deceased members in cemeteries belonging to other religious organizations – with the exception of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries – in localities where they do not have cemeteries of their own and where there is no public cemetery.  Public cemeteries must have separate sections for each religious denomination if requested by the denominations operating in the locality.

The law allows clergy from recognized religious denominations to minister to military personnel.  This includes the possibility of clergy functioning within the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, Intelligence Service, Foreign Intelligence Service, Protection and Guard Service, Special Telecommunications Service, and General Directorate for Penitentiaries.  Under various other arrangements, clergy of recognized religious denominations, and in some cases religious associations, may enter hospitals, orphanages, and retirement homes to undertake religious activities.  Religious denominations and religious associations may undertake activities in penitentiaries, subject to approval by the director of the detention facility.

The law provides for the restitution of religious properties confiscated between 1940 and 1989, during World War II (WWII) and the ensuing communist regime, as long as the properties are in the possession of the state.

Under the law, if a confiscated property is used “in the public interest,” such as for a school, hospital, or museum, and is returned to its previous owner, the current occupants are allowed to stay in it for 10 years after the restitution decision and pay a capped rent.  The law does not address the general return of properties currently used as places of worship by another religious group.  Although the provisions of the law on restitution state a separate law would be adopted to address such cases, as of year’s end there was no such law.

A separate statute on the reinstatement of the Greek Catholic Church regulates the restitution of properties to the Greek Catholic Church from the ROC.  Restitution decisions are made by a joint commission representing the two Churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.”  The Greek Catholic Church may pursue court action if attempts to obtain restitution of its properties through dialogue are unsuccessful.

The law establishes a points system of compensation in cases where in-kind restitution is not possible.  Religious groups may use the points only to bid on other properties in auctions organized by the National Commission for Real Estate Compensation (NCREC).  The NCREC also validates compensation decisions of other local or central authorities, including those of the Special Restitution Commission (SRC), which decides on restitution claims filed by religious denominations and national minorities.  The law establishes a 240-day deadline by which claimants must submit additional evidence in their cases at the specific request of the entity in charge of resolving their restitution claim.  If a claimant does not meet the deadline, the administrative authority may reject the case.  The authority may extend the deadline by an additional 120 days if the claimants prove they made a concerted effort to obtain the evidence, usually in the possession of other state authorities, but were unable to do so.

The law nullifies acts of forced “donations” of Jewish property during WWII and the communist era and lowers the burden of proof for the previous owners or their heirs to obtain restitution.  The law designates the present-day Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania as the legitimate inheritor of forfeited communal Jewish property and accords priority to private claims by Holocaust survivors.  The law does not address heirless or unclaimed property left by Holocaust victims.

By law, religious education in schools is optional.  Each of the 18 legally recognized religious denominations is entitled to offer religion classes, based on its own religious teachings, in schools.  A denomination may offer classes regardless of the number of students adhering to the denomination in a school.  The law allows for exceptions where the right of students to attend religion classes cannot be implemented “for objective reasons,” without specifying what these reasons may be.

Under the law, parents of students under 18 years of age are required to request their children’s participation in religion classes, while students 18 and older may themselves ask to attend religion classes.  Although a student normally takes a school course based on the religious teachings of the denomination to which the student belongs, it is also possible for a student to take a religion course offered by his or her denomination outside the school system and bring a certificate from the denomination to receive academic credit.

Religion teachers are government employees, but each religious denomination approves the appointment and retention of the teachers of its religion classes.

The law forbids religious proselytizing in schools.  If teachers proselytize, the school management decides the punishment based on the conclusions of an internal committee.

The law states the religion of a child who has turned 14 may not be changed without the child’s consent, and from age 16 an individual has the right to choose her/his religion.

The law bans discrimination on religious grounds in all areas of public life.  It also bans religious defamation and stirring conflict on religious grounds, as well as public offenses against religious symbols.  Penalties may include fines varying from 1,000 to 100,000 lei ($250 to $24,600), depending on whether the victim is an individual or a community.

A law that went into effect in July counters anti-Semitism and criminalizes the promotion of anti-Semitic ideas and the establishment of anti-Semitic organizations.  Under this law, anti-Semitism is defined as a perception about Jews expressed in the form of anti-Jewish hatred, as well as speech and physical acts motivated by hatred against Jews that target Jews, non-Jews or their belongings, Jewish community institutions, or Jewish places of worship.  Penalties for publicly promoting anti-Semitic ideas and doctrines or manufacturing and disseminating anti-Semitic symbols range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights.  Penalties for establishing anti-Semitic organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights.

A law passed in 2015 prohibits the establishment of fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic organizations, which it defines in part as groups that promote violence, religiously motivated hatred, or extremist nationalism, the latter term undefined.  Reference to anti-Semitism in the 2015 law was removed following the implementation of an anti-Semitism law in July.  Penalties for establishing such organizations range from three to 10 years’ imprisonment and the loss of certain rights.  Criminal liability is waived if the person involved in establishing such an organization informs authorities before the organization begins its activity; penalties are halved if the individual helps authorities with the criminal investigation.  Legislation also makes manufacturing, selling, distributing, owning with intent to distribute, and using racist, fascist, xenophobic, and Legionnaire symbols illegal.  Penalties range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment.

Publicly denying the Holocaust, or contesting, approving, justifying, or minimizing it in an “obvious manner” as determined by a judge, is punishable by six months’ to three years’ imprisonment or by a fine, depending on circumstances, of up to 200,000 lei ($49,200).  Publicly promoting the cult of persons convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes may incur fines and prison terms ranging from three months to three years and from six months to five years if done online.  The same penalties apply to publicly promoting anti-Semitic, fascist, Legionnaire, racist, or xenophobic ideas, worldviews, or doctrines.

The law allows religious workers from legally recognized religious organizations to enter and remain in the country under an extended-stay visa.  Visa applicants must receive approval by the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs and submit evidence they represent religious organizations legally established in the country.  The secretariat may extend such visas for up to five years.

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

Government Practices

By year’s end, the government had approved two applications for religious association status during the year, both of which were Christian – the “Philadelphia” Roma’s Union of Pentecostal Assemblies and God’s Union of Pentecostal Churches.  As of October, 35 entities with diverse religious affiliations were registered as religious associations, up from 33 in 2017.

Baha’i leaders continued to seek options for the burial of deceased persons in accordance with their religious burial practices, including requesting the State Secretariat for Religious Denominations to help them establish a cemetery.  Baha’is continued to be registered as a religious association and not as a denomination.

Religious groups continued to state they viewed the 300-person membership requirement and the need to submit their members’ personal data for registration as a religious association as discriminatory because other types of associations required only three members and did not have to submit the personal data of their members. They also continued to criticize the three-tier classification system for religious organizations.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in several areas of the country, some members continued to encounter opposition to their activities and threats from public authorities and ROC priests.  They said the mayor of Mogosesti village in Iasi County threatened representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in August with violence.  Following a complaint filed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the county prefect and the State Secretariat for Religious Denominations instructed the mayor to respect the law on religious freedom.  ROC priests from the village of Valea Calugareasca in Prahova County and Calugareni in Giurgiu County threatened to use physical violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives in March and October, respectively.  Following complaints submitted by the religious denomination, police fined the priests.

On November 23, the Bucharest Court of Appeal ruled as no longer valid a request filed in 2016 by Catalin Berenghi, a former candidate for mayor of Bucharest, to annul a 2015 decision to transfer land in Bucharest to the Muslim community for a mosque.  According to the court, the decision to transfer the land was no longer relevant because the Grand Mufti’s Office had notified the government it had renounced its right to use the land.

The National Authority for Property Restitution (NAPR), the government agency responsible for overseeing the restitution process, reported the SRC had approved 17 requests for the restitution of “immovable properties” (land or buildings) to religious denominations, approved compensation in 35 cases, and rejected 609 other claims during the year.  All of the claims were submissions before the 2006 deadline.  In 94 cases, the filers withdrew their claims.  According to data provided by NAPR and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of cases NAPR reviewed decreased from 1,227 in 2017 to 1,212.

According to NAPR, religious denominations appealed 53 decisions the SRC submitted to the courts during the year.  The Roman Catholic Church made 12 appeals; the ROC made nine; the Greek Catholics made 13; the Evangelical Augustinian Church made two; and the Jewish community made 12.  Information concerning court decisions on these cases was unavailable.  In April 2015 NAPR rejected a claim submitted by Caritatea Foundation, the NGO the Federation of Jewish Communities and the WJRO established to oversee Jewish communal property claims.  The claim concerned a building and a land plot in the city of Piatra Neamt owned by the Jewish community that the city government forced the community to donate in 1953.  NAPR stated that Caritatea was not able to submit a copy of the donation agreement within the 120-day deadline.  Caritatea representatives said the foundation encountered significant delays in obtaining the document from the National Archives.  NAPR, however, did not take into consideration the delay caused by the National Archives’ response, stating the 120-day deadline to submit new documents had already passed.  Caritatea Foundation appealed NAPR’s decision in court.  In December 2015, the Bacau Court of Appeal invalidated NAPR’s original decision and ruled the SRC should issue a new favorable decision.  NAPR challenged the court ruling, arguing that the Caritatea Foundation had not filed the requested document within the 120-day deadline.

During the year, NAPR reviewed 490 claims submitted by the Greek Catholic Church but did not restore any property to the Church or grant it compensation in any cases.  Church officials reported that NAPR rejected most of their claims because the properties now belonged to the ROC and were subject to a different law, making restitution possible through a joint commission representing the two Churches and based on “the will of the believers from the communities that possess these properties.”  During the communist regime, all places of worship and parish houses were transferred to the ROC and most other properties (land and buildings) to the state.

The Greek Catholic Church continued to report court delays on restitution lawsuits.  Representatives of the Church stated there were no court decisions on Greek Catholic restitution cases during the year.

Restitution of a property in Bixad, previously restored to the Greek Catholic Church by the government and confirmed by earlier court decisions, continued to be delayed while courts considered the case anew, following a 2016 decision by the Alba Tribunal, a county-level court, allowing the Satu Mare County Council to revive its claim for ownership of the property.  At year’s end, the case was still pending.

Two cases filed in 2016 by the Greek Catholic Church with the European Court of Human Rights for restitution of churches in Bistrita and Breb remained pending.  In each case, the Church’s complaint concerned court decisions awarding Greek Catholic property to the ROC based on census data showing Greek Catholics as a minority.

Although the government did not issue regulations for implementing new property restitution legislation passed in 2016 that prioritizes cases involving Holocaust survivors, NAPR approved priority status for 160 such applications it had received.  Since the legislation passed, NAPR awarded compensation to Holocaust survivors in 28 cases, rejected the claims in two cases, and requested additional documents for 90 cases.

The SRC had approved 10 pending claims from previous years by the Jewish community as of October – nine through compensation and one through restitution in kind – and rejected 16 others.  In 54 other cases, claimants withdrew their requests.  Religious groups said it was difficult to obtain required documentation from the National Archives demonstrating proof of ownership in time to meet the 120-day deadline to submit the appeal.  Caritatea Foundation stated the SRC continued to avoid assuming responsibility for restitution, preferring to pass decisions on to the courts.  The foundation also continued to state the claims procedure was overly bureaucratic and unreasonable, in particular because the SRC often requested the submission of numerous additional documents, which sometimes were found only in government-managed archives, giving Jewish claimants little time to meet the final extended 120-day deadline for document submission.  Caritatea stated that access to government-managed archives holding the required documents for the restitution process was difficult.

According to Caritatea Foundation, the NCREC issued final approval on two decisions during the year, and 64 decisions issued before 2013 were pending final approval.  According to NAPR, a high workload and insufficient staff and resources were the reasons for the delays

The Reformed, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Evangelical Lutheran Churches said the government continued to reject their restitution claims on the grounds the entities registered as the former property owners were not the contemporary churches.  Church leaders said the communist regime had dismantled the former church entities while confiscating their property, meaning the former property owners no longer existed as such but the contemporary churches, as the successors to the dismantled churches, were in effect the same entities whose property the communist regime had seized.  Twelve claims submitted by the Roman Catholic Church were resolved as of year’s end.  The government granted compensation or restitution in kind in five cases and denied seven claims.  The government reviewed five claims submitted by the Reformed Church and denied two others.  During the year, the government reviewed three pending claims of the Unitarian Church.  In one case, the Unitarian Church received compensation; in another case, it received restitution in kind.  The government rejected the third claim.

On July 4, the court rejected the Roman Catholic Church’s appeal of the SRC’s 2015 rejection of its claim for restitution of the Batthyaneum Library and an astronomical institute in Alba Iulia in a preliminary ruling.

The percentage of schoolchildren opting to take religion classes remained at almost 90 percent and, according to media, NGOs, and parents’ associations, continued to be the result of manipulation and pressure by the ROC as well as the failure of school directors to offer parents alternatives to religion classes.  A ministerial order issued in February established that initial requests to take religion classes were valid for the entire study cycle or until students or their legal representatives submitted an alternate request.  A previous ministerial order mandated annual submission of requests to take religion classes.

Minority religious groups, including the Christian Evangelical Church, continued to report authorities allowed only the ROC to play an active role in the annual opening ceremonies at schools and other community events throughout the country and usually did not invite other religious groups to attend such ceremonies.  According to the Christian Evangelical Church, this happened also in cities where their followers had a significant presence such as Sibiu, Suceava, Iasi, and Piatra-Neamt.

Greek Catholic officials and believers stated that during the celebration events dedicated to the country’s centennial celebrations, some local governments had marginalized the Greek Catholic Church and attempted to minimize its role in the country’s history.  In several online petitions, Greek Catholic believers stated that the ROC and government authorities tried to revise the history of the Greek Catholic Church.  In September a group of Greek Catholic believers protested against the dedication of Iuliu Hossu’s bust by a ROC official during an event organized by the local government of Milas Village and the Bistrita Nasaud County Council, and Greek Catholics requested that the inscription on the bust mention Iuliu Hossu’s affiliation with the Greek Catholic Church.  Iuliu Hossu was a Greek-Catholic bishop who had a major role in the unification of Romania and Transylvania in 1918.  Protesters also criticized the decision by the mayor of Cosbuc Village and the Bistrita Nasaud County Council to commemorate Greek Catholic writer George Cosbuc without inviting Greek Catholic priests to attend the event and to have ROC priests dedicate the writer’s bust.

Religious groups reported military chaplains continued to be ROC priests with the exception of one Roman Catholic priest and one pastor from the Evangelical Alliance.

The government-established Wiesel Institute reported prosecution of anti-Semitic speech and Holocaust denial continued to be infrequent.  According to statistics released by the government for the entire year, the national-level Prosecutor General’s Office compiled a list of 42 unresolved cases.  Many of the cases included anti-Semitic elements.  Of those cases, the office sent one case to trial.  Following a complaint by the Wiesel Institute, in 2014 the Bucharest Sector 2 Prosecutor’s Office started the prosecution of the self-declared leader of the Legionary Movement for the public use of fascist, racist, and xenophobic symbols.  He had previously gone to the Wiesel Institute dressed in a uniform of the Legionary Movement, a Romanian fascist interwar organization, and performed the fascist salute while standing in the institute’s courtyard.  According to the Wiesel Institute, the file was still pending before the Prosecutor’s Office at year’s end.

According to the Wiesel Institute, the delay in the prosecution of cases continued due to lengthy investigations.  In February NGO Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism (MCA) received a notification from the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Targu Jiu Court stating the 2014 case based on a complaint from the MCA concerning a lampshade posted for sale online and advertised as being made of “Jewish skin” had been closed in May 2017.  According to forensic investigators, the lampshade was not made of human skin.  The MCA stated in November that it was unacceptable that there were no consequences for the person who posted the advertisement even if the lamp was not made of human skin.

The Wiesel Institute reported local authorities continued to name streets, organizations, schools, and libraries after persons convicted of Nazi-era war crimes or crimes against humanity and to allow the erection of statues and busts depicting persons convicted of war crimes.  By year’s end, the local government in Cluj-Napoca had not changed the name of a street named in 2017 for Radu Gyr, a commander of the Legionnaire movement and apologist for anti-Semitism, who was convicted of war crimes for “contributing to the political aims of Hitlerism and Fascism.”  The Wiesel Institute had asked city authorities to rename the street.  In April 2017, the Wiesel Institute notified the Ministry of Interior about streets, schools, and busts depicting or named after persons convicted for war crimes and requested the ministry to have county prefects take the necessary measures to stop the public worship of war criminals.  At the time, the Ministry of Interior stated they had requested each prefect to analyze each case and take the necessary measures in accordance with the law banning the public worship of war criminals.

In March Romfilatelia, a public company under the national post office, issued a commemorative stamp depicting Patriarch Miron Cristea, who led the ROC between 1925 and 1939 and was prime minister from 1938 to 1939.  As prime minister, Cristea was responsible for revising the citizenship law and stripping approximately 225,000 Jews of their citizenship.  Many of these persons subsequently died during the Holocaust.  The Wiesel Institute publicly asked Romfilatelia to withdraw the stamp, but the company did not respond to the request.

Several government officials made comments that were widely viewed by Jewish organizations as “trivializing” the Holocaust.  Agriculture Minister Petre Daea stated in July on Antena 3 news channel that the incineration of pigs in response to a swine flu outbreak was similar to what happened at Auschwitz.  In a press statement, the Wiesel Institute said Daea’s statement “was a trivializing comparison between the slaughter of pigs and the extermination of Jews during WW2.”  The minister did not retract his comment, stating in a press release, “I respect all the members of the Jewish community and I want to point out that I just wanted to present the very difficult situation that swine breeders are facing because of the African swine fever.”

On September 2, an advisor to Prime Minister Darius Valcov posted a video clip on his Facebook page depicting the German Democrat Forum, an organization of ethnic Germans in the country, as a National Socialist organization and compared the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, to Adolf Hitler.  The ethnic German and Jewish communities, the Wiesel Institute, several NGOs, and opposition political figures condemned Valcov’s behavior, and some called for his resignation.  The president of the Jewish community issued a press statement that stated, “We cannot accept a comparison between Mr. President Klaus Werner Iohannis and one of the greatest criminals in history.  Mister Iohannis is the opposite of a person with Nazi, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic beliefs.”

The government continued to implement the recommendations of the 2004 International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Commission) Report and to cooperate with the USHMM in promoting Holocaust education.  The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training sessions for history teachers, carry out educational activities for students, and inform the public about the Holocaust.

The government continued to state its commitment to cooperate with the USHMM to promote Holocaust education; however, observers said the general history curricula continued not to provide a mandatory class on the country’s Holocaust history.  The high school course “History of the Jews – The Holocaust” remained optional.

The government also facilitated USHMM access to the country’s national archives.  Archival institutions such as the Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives continued implementing cooperation agreements with the USHMM and provided the museum copies of historical records.

On December 6, the Bucharest Tribunal rescinded the Bucharest City Council’s decision to transfer a building to the Wiesel Institute for the future Museum of Jewish History and the Holocaust.  An individual challenged the council’s decision, stating that the council had not met procedural criteria and the intended museum lacked merit.  In September the Wiesel Institute had launched a public tender for the design of the new Jewish history museum’s permanent exhibition.  In 2017 the Wiesel Institute took possession of a building in central Bucharest transferred to it by the Bucharest General Council to build the museum.

Pursuant to its pledge to implement the recommendations of the Wiesel Commission report, the government again commemorated the annual National Holocaust Remembrance Day on October 9, marking the day when Romanian authorities began deporting the country’s Jews to Transnistria, with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial in Bucharest.  In his remarks, the president referred to anti-Semitism and Holocaust-era legislation, stating, “Such policies are today unconceivable for a society strongly attached to democratic principles and rule of law.  Discrimination against a minority who does not hold the same beliefs, values, religion, or origin as the majority is an approach that reminds us of the dark years of dictatorships….Many European democracies are facing extremism, populism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia and for this reason, our country will act against these toxic scourges.”

The Wiesel Institute continued to organize training courses on the history of the Holocaust for teachers, police officers, and other professionals.  In September the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a project called “The Romanian National Expert Network on Genocide Prevention and Multidisciplinary Research on Mass Graves,” aimed at bringing together prosecutors, criminal investigators, police officers, forensic experts, historians, and other professionals to promote research of mass graves and genocide prevention.  In July the president promulgated the law on countering anti-Semitism, criminalizing the promotion of anti-Semitic ideas and the establishment of anti-Semitic organizations.  ActiveWatch NGO asked the president not to promulgate the law, arguing that it does not focus on prevention, duplicates current legislation that prosecutors have never adequately enforced, and does not respect the proportionality between the restriction on free speech and the need to counter anti-Semitism.  Jewish organizations said they favored the new law.  Self-defined far-right groups criticized the law and argued there was no antisemitism in the country.

The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion.  The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law lists Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).  Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” and reportedly detained at least 47 Witnesses and put 72 under investigation.  Authorities banned Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, raided homes, seized personal property and religious literature, and subjected individuals to lengthy interrogations.  Authorities continued to detain, fine, and imprison members of other minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism, including followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi.  At least 11 of his followers were tried or jailed during the year, with four convicted of allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, and seven more detained on the suspicion that they were members of the organization.  In one case, according to the nongovernmental human rights organization (NGO) Memorial, authorities beat and verbally abused an individual allegedly from Hizb ut-Tahrir in a pretrial detention facility.  Memorial stated the government held 177 political prisoners who were jailed because of their religious beliefs, the majority of whom were Muslim.  Authorities convicted and fined several individuals for “public speech offensive to religious believers.”  In some cases, it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration.  The government prosecuted members of many Christian denominations and others for alleged unlawful missionary activity under the amendments to antiterrorism laws passed in 2016, known as the Yarovaya Package.  Police conducted raids on the private homes and places of worship of religious minorities.  Religious minorities said local authorities used anti-extremism laws to add to the government’s list of banned religious texts.  Local officials continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land and denied them construction permits for houses of worship.  The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.  The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals engaging in religious activity, including a rabbi and two African Pentecostals.

Media, NGOs, and religious groups reported a number of attacks on individuals based on their religious identity.  For example, since the 2017 Supreme Court ruling classifying the religion as “extremist,” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported beatings, arson attacks on their homes, and employment discrimination.  Reports also indicated that hundreds fled the country in fear of persecution.  According to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), a local NGO, there were several reported cases of vandalism during the year targeting religious properties.  These included unknown assailants knocking down crosses and desecrating Jewish cemeteries.  In separate instances, arsonists attacked two Orthodox churches and set fire to a Jewish leader’s vehicle.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities, and the revocation of the registration of some minority religious organizations.  Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country, including with leaders of the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC), the National Coalition of Supporting Eurasian Jewry, the Church of Scientology (COS), and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).  In addition, consular officers participated in many administrative hearings involving U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administrative requirements.  Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases said the government targeted them because they were members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities.  Other representatives from the embassy and Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss developments related to religious legislation, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.  The embassy sponsored visits of members of different faiths from several regions of the country to the United States to engage in the topics of religious freedom and countering violent extremism.  The embassy also used its social media platforms during the year to highlight religious freedom concerns.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.”  It provides the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and provides equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion.  The constitution also bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife.  The constitution states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state.  The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage.  The law recognizes the “special contribution” of Russian Orthodox Christianity to the country’s history as well as to the establishment and development of its spirituality and culture.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country.  It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion, or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate religious freedom will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.”  The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($2,900) or 500,000 rubles ($7,200), depending upon which code governs the offense.

Incitement of “religious discord” is punishable by up to four years in prison.  Under the criminal code, maximum fines and prison sentences for “actions directed to incite hatred or enmity” on the basis of religion may be punished by fines of 300,000 to 500,000 rubles ($4,300 to $7,200), compulsory labor for up to four years, or imprisonment for up to five years.  If these actions are committed with violence by a person with official status (a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities, as well as people in management roles at commercial or nongovernment entities), or by a group of individuals, the punishment is 300,000 to 600,000 rubles ($4,300 to $8,600), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

The law criminalizes offending the religious feelings of believers; actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the religious feelings of believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,300), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year.  If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($7,200), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremism, including incitement to “religious discord” and “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremism.

Being a member of a banned religious association designated as extremist is punishable by up to six years in prison for individuals and up to 12 years for persons with official status.  First time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several regions, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” in the territories of these republics but do not define the term.  Administrative penalties are applied for violating these laws.

A Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” and banned their activities.  The court’s ruling says that the constitution guarantees freedom of religious beliefs, but this right is limited by other rights, including the “existing civil peace and agreement.”

The law creates three categories of religious associations with different levels of legal status and privileges:  groups, local organizations, and centralized organizations.  Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state; however, when a group first starts its activities, it must notify authorities in the “location of the religious group activity,” typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ) office.  A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals (but the law does not specify where or how) and teach religion to its members.  It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces.  Individual members of a group may invite foreigners as personal guests to engage in religious instruction, and may import religious material.  According to the law, a religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, or residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members, to hold services.

A “local religious organization” (LRO) may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents.  LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces.  “Centralized religious organizations” (CROs) may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.  In addition to having the same legal rights as LROs, CROs also may open new LROs without a waiting period.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following:  a list of the organization’s founders and governing body, with addresses and passport information; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes towards family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and a charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad.  Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations.  Denial of registration may be appealed in court.  The law imposes reporting requirements on CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad.  They are required to report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use any funds or property obtained through foreign funding.  Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.  Foreign religious organizations able to obtain the required number of local adherents may register as local religious organizations.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation.  The government may send representatives (with advance notice) to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist.  The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation.  The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval.  LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings, lands, and facilities owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters.  Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption.  In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed.  Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned, but are classified as assistants to the commander.  Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid out of the defense budget.  The program allows for chaplains from the four traditional religions only, and calls for at least 250 chaplains.

Federal law, as amended by the so-called Yarovaya Package passed in 2016, defines missionary activity as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association.  According to the law, in order to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document authorizing the individual to share beliefs from a religious group or registered organization.  This letter must be provided to the authorities and the individual must carry a copy of it.  The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization.  Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Engaging in missionary activity prohibited by law carries a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($72 to $720) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,400 to $14,400) for legal entities (which includes both LROs and CROs).  Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($430 to $720) and are subject to administrative deportation.

Several regional governments have their own restrictions on missionary activity.

Republics in the North Caucasus have varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools.  Hijabs are banned in public schools in Stavropol and Mordovia, rulings that have been upheld by the Supreme Court.  The law in Chechnya permits schoolgirls to wear hijabs.

The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.”  Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism.  Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations.  If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation.  In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional experts also may review religious materials for extremism.  In 2009 the MOJ established the Expert Religious Studies Council and gave it wide powers to investigate religious organizations.  Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.”  The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of giving religious organization status to a religious group.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist sua sponte (i.e., of the court’s own accord).  By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials.  Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials.  There is no legal procedure for removal from the list even if a court declares an item no longer classified as extremist, but lists are reviewed and re-issued on a regular basis and publications may be dropped from lists.  The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions – the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($14 to $43), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($29 to $72) for public officials, as well as the confiscation of these materials.  Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,400 to $14,400).  Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property.  The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such state property indefinitely.  The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

In July the State Duma adopted, and on August 3 the president signed, a new law allowing religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes to be used as such if they were part of a property which served a religious purpose.  The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church.  If a structure (i.e. the warehouse) does not meet legal requirements and is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it would be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools.  Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course.  Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses, and according to the religious makeup of the given location.  There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in Sunday schools and home schooling.  Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom.  The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.  The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible.  The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

There is compulsory military service for men, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief.  The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency.  Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from an 80,000 ruble ($1,100) fine to six months in prison.

By law, religious associations may not participate in political campaigns or the activity of political parties or movements, or provide material or other aid to political groups.  This restriction applies to religious associations and not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Public Chamber (a state institution established in 2005 and made up of representatives of public associations) are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma on a case-by-case basis.  No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Public Chamber, but individuals from both traditional religions and others may be selected to serve on the Chamber, first by the president, then subsequently the selectees themselves select additional members to serve in the group.  The Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization who had been accused of extremism from serving on the Public Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country is deemed “undesirable” are forbidden to become founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations.  The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism.  The Duma passed a bill in September restricting any foreign citizen or person without citizenship from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism[.]”

Religious work is not permitted on humanitarian visas, nor are there missionary visas.  Those engaging in religious work require both a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Reports indicated authorities continued to physically abuse individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation.  For instance, authorities detained Eduard Nizamov, the purported head of the Russian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, in Kazan on October 11, and, according to Memorial, beat and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention.  He was charged with organizing a terrorist organization.  Hizb ut Tahrir remained banned by the government as a terrorist organization, but according to Memorial, it was a “non-violent international Islamic organization.”  On October 12, the Vakhitovsky District Court of Kazan ordered Nizamov detained until November 21.  Nizamov refused to testify, and remained in detention at year’s end.  At the same time, authorities arrested Ildar Akhmetzyanov and Raisa Gimadeev as alleged leaders of the Hizb ut-Tahrir regional group in Tatarstan, and also charged them with organizing a terrorist organization, according to Memorial.

According to Memorial, in December the North Caucasian Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Crimean Tatar Remzi Memetov to 17 years in a penal colony.  The court also sentenced Crimean Tatar Enver Mamutov, Rustem Abiltarov, and Zevri Abseitov to nine years each in a penal colony.  The four were arrested in Crimea, Ukraine in 2016, accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir and “preparing for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order,” and transported to Russia.  Human Rights advocates noted that the case appeared to be retaliation against these men for their opposition to Russia’s occupation of Crimea.

Memorial reported that in December Babushkinsky district court in Moscow found eight Muslims guilty of “organization and participation in an extremist organization” for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, an organization designated by the Supreme Court as “extremist” which Memorial characterized as an international Islamic missionary movement.  The district court sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from four to six and a half years.

In its annual October report, Memorial published a list of political prisoners in the country, which included 177 persons persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation (meaning they were in custody or under arrest and being criminally prosecuted) – more than double the previous year’s figure of 70.  The report stated that none of the persons on the list used violence, called for violence, or planned violent acts.  The majority of persons included in Memorial’s list were Muslims.  Memorial also published a separate list of approximately 240 people in detention as of the end of the year for alleged involvement with the banned organization Hizb ut-Tahrir.

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, the government continued to restrict the exercise of freedom of religion during the year.  Forum 18 found that authorities continued to pursue multiple cases against Muslims on extremism charges for reading the works of the Turkish theologian Said Nursi, many of which were banned as extremist.  On August 21, the NGO reported that three Muslims were on trial or under investigation, and another three were sentenced to prison terms for being members of “Nurdzhular,” an organization reportedly based on Nursi’s teachings banned as extremist by the authorities.  Experts from the SOVA Center continued to maintain that “Nurdzhular” did not actually exist in the country.

Forum 18 reported that on August 14, a Krasnoyarsk court handed Sabirzhon Kabirzoda a two-year suspended sentence for “extremism” after participating in a meeting to study Nursi’s works.  FSB (Federal Security Service) “experts” said he had incited religious hatred by comparing Muslims to non-Muslims.  According to the NGO, a suspended sentence could include a travel ban and voting restrictions.  District court staff, however, told Forum 18 they were not “authorized” to specify the conditions of the court’s decision.  In the town of Sharypovo, criminal cases against Andrei Rekst in Krasnoyarsk and Yevgeny Sukharev in connection with reading Nursi’s teachings were ongoing at year’s end.  Andrei Dedkov of Krasnoyarsk, also an alleged member of Nurdzhular, was released in July after paying a 250,000 ruble ($3,600) fine for organizing the activity of a banned religious organization in connection with extremism.  Prosecutors lodged an appeal in June and argued for a longer jail sentence.

The ECHR found in August that court decisions to prohibit Nursi’s books violated the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.  It ruled that the country’s courts did not provide sufficient and relevant grounds for interfering with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression and that their intervention could not be considered necessary in a democratic society.  The court further ruled that the government should pay one of the plaintiffs 7,500 euros ($8,600) in compensation for non-pecuniary damages.  As of year’s end, the government had not acted on the ECHR ruling.

The SOVA Center, Memorial, and the media reported that during the year at least six Muslims were serving prison terms on charges connected to reading Nursi’s work:  Ziyavdin Dapayev was serving a four-year term; brothers Sukhrab and Artur Kaltuyev three year terms; Yevgeny Lvovich Kim, a three year, nine-months term; Ilgar Aliyev an eight-year term after losing his appeal in July.  On June 29, a court sentenced Komil Odilov to two years in prison.

The media reported official harassment against Muslims.  In October police officers wearing masks and fatigues surrounded approximately 100 Muslims exiting a mosque in Mytishi, Moscow Oblast.  The police told the crowd they were not arresting anyone, but detained them on a bus for five hours.  The worshipers were subsequently released without explanation.

In December the NGO Free Russia Forum said that during the year “the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses reached mass levels.”  A report by Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police, Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON) forces, and Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel raided the homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.  During these raids authorities reportedly entered homes, sometimes by forcing the door open; conducted unauthorized and illegal searches; failed to declare their purpose or show a court order; ordered people (including children and the elderly) around at gunpoint and pushed them to the floor or against the wall; seized personal belongings, including mobile phones, tablets, Bibles and Bible-related literature, documents, and money; brought adults and children to police stations for interrogation; and charged some with extremist activity and held them in pretrial custody.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, at 7:00 A.M. on July 4 in Omsk, police forces raided the homes of at least four Witnesses and searched their houses, land plots, outbuildings, and vehicles until the late afternoon.  In one instance, a couple was asleep when the police invaded their home.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that although the husband offered no resistance, the police beat him severely.

From January through April authorities raided the homes of more than 45 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Shuya, Vladivostok, Polyarny, Zaton, Oryol, Belogorod and Kemerovo, according to the official Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website  This was twice the number reported during the corresponding period in 2017.  In May Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that a Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman said that 150 law enforcement personnel raided more than 20 Witnesses home in Birobidzhan in the Jewish Autonomous Region on May 16.

The Investigative Committee, the FSB, and officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in 22 regions between January and August.  As of year’s end, 79 Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to criminal investigations, according to Forum 18.  Of these, 22 were in pretrial detention, 17 were under house arrest, and 30 were under travel restrictions.  According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities detained 72 individuals during the year, including minors.

According to the SOVA Center, in October alone, authorities arrested two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Smolensk and another five in Kirov, ordered two who had been arrested in April in Murmansk to remain in detention, and told seven not to leave Orenburg.  In the same month, authorities began auctioning Jehovah’s Witnesses’ properties in Krasnodar, Tatarstan, and Buryatia, and voided initiatives by Jehovah’s Witnesses to transfer properties to foreign affiliates.

International media reported that Denis Christensen, a Danish citizen and elder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Oryol Congregation who was detained in May 2017, remained in detention and on trial in Oryol’s Railway District Court at year’s end for “extremist activity.”  According to Forum 18, between October 2017 and September 2018 Christensen appeared in court 38 times.

On February 14, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Ruslan Sokolovsky, a blogger from Yekaterinburg, who was arrested in 2016 for “inciting enmity and hatred” and “offending the feelings of believers” by playing the game Pokemon Go in an Orthodox church and posting antireligious videos online.  In 2017, the Sverdlovsk District Court on appeal upheld his conviction of incitement to hatred and offense of religious feelings but overturned his convictions on other charges and reduced his suspended prison sentence to two years and three months.

According to COS representatives and media, in October authorities extended through February 2019 the detention of Ivan Matsitsky and Sahib Aliyev, director and accountant, respectively, of the St. Petersburg branch of the COS.  Matsitsky and Aliyev were arrested in June 2017 along with three other COS St. Petersburg leaders as part of a probe into what police said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship” (i.e., selling religious books), incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy.  As of the year’s end, two other defendants in the case remain under house arrest, and one was released from house arrest in June but remained under investigation.  Authorities continued to refuse to register the St. Petersburg and Moscow COS branches as religious organizations despite a 2014 ECHR ruling that the government’s refusal was a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

According to the Russian Legal Information Agency, the government opened a criminal case in April against one of the COS leaders in St. Petersburg, who was alleged to have laundered 17 million rubles ($244,000), but the agency did not name the individual.

Imam Makhmud Velitov of Moscow’s Yardam Mosque filed a case with the ECHR in October 2017 related to his conviction in 2017 on terrorism charges for advocating the “doctrine of political Islam” of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization.  The ECHR communicated the complaint to the government in January and in October the government asked the ECHR to reject the case.  The ECHR’s decision remained pending at year’s end.

In January the Kurgan Regional Court dismissed a prosecutor’s appeal of the acquittal of Imam Ali Yakupov of the Kurgan Mosque, who was charged in 2015 with inciting hatred for comments he allegedly made saying God would punish Chinese Communists for prohibiting hijabs.  According to the SOVA Center, the court found that the case had already been thoroughly investigated by lower courts.

In January the Magistrate Court of Sochi dismissed a case against Viktor Nochevnova, who was found guilty in 2017 of insulting the feelings of believers and fined 50,000 rubles ($720) for reposting seven cartoon depictions of Jesus on his social media VKontakte page.

Maria Motuznaya, from Barnaul, was put on trial on August 6 for publishing two side-by-side images on her VKontakte page, one depicting Jesus Christ expelling cigarette smoke through a hole in his palm, and another depicting a religious procession along a broken road, accompanied by the comment, “Two main evils of Russia.”  The government charged her with “demeaning the dignity of race and insulting the feelings of believers.”  On October 9, a court returned the case to the prosecutor for further development.  The case remained pending at year’s end.  According to the SOVA Center, Motuznaya said in October she had left the country for Ukraine, and intended to seek political asylum abroad.

According to the Ministry of Justice, at the end of the year there were 31,054 registered religious organizations in Russia, most of which were ROC-affiliated.

In some cases it was difficult for minority religious organizations to obtain state registration.  In September the SOVA Center reported that the parish of St. Maria Gatchinskaya in the Leningrad Region convinced the city court to invalidate the MOJ’s opinion blocking its registration as a religious organization.  While the court directed the MOJ to reconsider the registration, it refused to require the MOJ to register the parish.  The parish belonged to the Suzdal Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church, which is not affiliated with the ROC.

Media, NGOs, and religious minorities reported continued efforts by authorities to dissolve minority religious associations, often on the grounds they were conducting “extremist” activity.

The SOVA Center, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers International, and religious groups said the Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ about which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”  In June the Expert Religious Studies Council recommended the MOJ deny religious organization status to the “Community of Slavic Faith on Vyatka (Kirovskaya).”

The government continued to restrict missionary activity, with officials often citing concerns about missionaries being sources of foreign influence.  For example, according to the SOVA Center, in July in Bryansk Region, Vitaly Boksha, a Baptist layperson, was fined for “illegal” missionary work occurring on May 15, when the court said he gave neighbors literature describing evangelical Baptist beliefs.  Neighbors stated that they received the literature, but did not attend a service at the church.  On July 3, the Mglinsky District Court convicted Boksha and fined him 5,000 rubles ($72).  Boksha filed an appeal with the regional court, and in August the higher court vacated the conviction and fine.

Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state that the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, was employed by authorities to limit religious freedom.  They said the broad definition of “missionary activity” in the legislation meant it included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences, without prior authorization.  In April Forum 18 said the legal framework for an individual exercising his or her beliefs outside a designated place of worship was unclear and that the authorities applied the law inconsistently.  Forum 18 stated, “This imposes a large burden on individuals and organizations in fines, legal costs, and bureaucratic hurdles – particularly for smaller religious communities.”  In April ISKCON attorney Mikhail Frolov told Forum 18, “The fines are large, and where the boundaries of lawful behavior lie is incomprehensible….  [E]veryone has become much more cautious in their public actions.  The public activity of religious associations has decreased noticeably.”  In April Pentecostal Union attorney Vladimir Ozolin told Forum 18 that “religious associations are also worried because they do not know how to profess their religion now and share it with others without violating the law.  Churches face extra problems here, because no one knows what the permission to carry out missionary activity should look like – its form has not been established by law.  In addition, state bodies do not conduct explanatory work and do not use warnings, but immediately issue fines.”

Forum 18 said authorities were pursuing more cases under the missionary provisions of the Yarovaya Package and fewer cases using laws regarding procedures for “gathering, meeting, demonstration, procession or picket” during the year, thus yielding potentially larger fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($720).  According to the SOVA Center, the government prosecuted 42 legal entities and 105 individuals during the first six months of the year for missionary activity.  In its December report, Free Russia Forum said that in 2017 (the most recent data available) the courts received approximately 488 cases of illegal missionary activity, sentenced 274 people, and imposed fines totaling 3,594,700 rubles ($51,600).  According to Forum 18, in 2017 (the most recent data available) religious communities and individuals prosecuted for missionary activity included Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baptist Union, the Council of Churches, ISKCON, Muslims, individuals associated with the Bible distribution organization the Gideons, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, a Kabbalah teacher, the New Apostolic Church, and the ROC Abroad.  Authorities reportedly charged individuals with unauthorized missionary activity for activities such as holding prayer meetings at home, posting worship times on a religious community’s website, and giving a lecture on yoga.  Forum 18 reported courts often imposed the minimum fines for first time offenses and larger fines for repeat offenses.

Free Russia Forum said that in 2018 authorities began using new means to restrict so-called missionary activity, including confiscating and demolishing Protestant houses of worship and restricting leaders of certain religious communities from entering the country.  According to the SOVA Center, in one instance the Russian Border Service denied entry to Evgeny Peresvotov, a Ukrainian national and pastor of the Russian Christian Center “Vosstanovleniye.”

According to Forum 18, in March the Constitutional Court issued a partial clarification of the Yarovaya Package amendment on missionary activity.  The court ruled that providing information about religious events would constitute an “offense” only if it were aimed at attracting people who were not already members of the religious organization.

Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law – the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Kanjur.

According to the SOVA Center, during the first half of the year, authorities added several Islamic and Jehovah’s Witnesses texts to the MOJ’s list of extremist materials.  The list grew to 4,514 entries by October, reflecting a slightly smaller increase than in 2017.  During the first six months of the year, authorities imposed 1,133 sanctions for distribution of extremist materials, compared to 1,846 imposed in all of 2017.  The SOVA Center also noted 24 cases through November 1 of prosecutors sanctioning library staff of schools, training centers, and prisons for being noncompliant with the Federal List of Extremist Materials.  According to Forum 18, in some cases, those in charge of places of worship and other public or semipublic spaces were often held responsible for distribution of banned religious publications, which could have been left at the site by anyone at any time, even before the ban.

In February the SOVA Center reported that the local prosecutor’s office in Kabardino-Balkaria Republic sent four cases to the court in order to restrict access to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ websites.  The office noted that the sites included “various sections, publications, magazines, books, videos, [and] news about the religious organization.”  Seventh-day Adventist lawyer Vasily Nichik told Forum 18 a month later that Nizhny Novgorod was “among the foremost in terms of persecution in the field of religious freedoms,” and added, “In these matters, very often everything depends on the personalities within the system.”

According to Forum 18, since 2017 authorities levied several fines or imposed other rulings against Jesus Embassy, a Pentecostal church in Nizhny Novgorod, and its members.  During the year a court fined the church for not specifying its full name in videos of worship services, the posting of which was also alleged to constitute “missionary activity,” resulting in more fines.  Authorities also fined and ordered deported two Pentecostal African students for unauthorized “missionary activity.”  Kudzai Nyamarebvu, a medical student from Zimbabwe, faced prosecution three times in six months, first for posting a video inviting fellow African students to a “welcome party” at the church, which her attorney maintained was a secular event; second, for reposting a video of another African student talking about how God had helped her recover from an illness; and third, for an interview she gave discussing her first two prosecutions, which was published on the Pentecostal Union’s website.  Forum 18 said that in June a Prioksky District Court judge found her guilty of “hidden missionary activity, not expressed in either words or gestures.”

According to Forum 18, an unknown person removed a church sign showing a Seventh-day Adventist church’s full official name in Nizhny Novgorod and replaced it with one bearing an incomplete name.  In the morning, a group of police officers arrived, and the community, primarily composed of retirees, was fined 30,000 rubles ($430) for incorrect signage.

Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including their homes, “not for its intended purpose” (i.e., for religious services), continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship.  In a March report, Forum 18 stated that, within a contradictory and unclear legal framework, officials increased the numbers of fines for meeting for worship on land designated for residential or commercial use only.  Forum 18 reported one defense lawyer said inspections and punishments were like “a lottery.”

In April a senior member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Development of Civil Society said there was a new tendency among regional authorities to restrict the construction or restoration of houses of prayer and churches on residential lands.  In two separate cases in March, authorities demolished residences on private land that were being used as churches, one in Novorosijsk and one in Abinsk.

Forum 18 reported that after two rounds of appeals, on January 25, a court upheld a 10,000-ruble ($140) fine imposed on Oleg Leshchenko, owner of a house in the Rostov Region town of Volgodonsk in which the Rebirth of the Don Missionary Society of Evangelical Christians held services three times per week.  The court fined Leshchenko for conducting religious services on premises that were not designated for religious services (his own house).

According to the SOVA Center, in September the ECHR informed the government that it had accepted the complaint of the Trinity Parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) in the Moscow Region concerning a federal court decision to demolish its church in Noginsk.  Authorities ordered the church, which was erected in 2015, be demolished after an ROC priest reportedly convinced local officials to bring suit against the church in a local court in 2016.  The complaint was pending in the ECHR at year’s end.

The SOVA Center said in January that monks in a Buddhist monastery on Kachkanar Mountain (approximately 125 miles north of Yekaterinburg) challenged the findings of a study commissioned by the regional governor that found it was not a legitimate religious community.  These developments were part of a long-running case in which a metallurgical company sought the demolition of the monastery, which had been tentatively scheduled to occur during the winter of 2017-18 but had not begun by year’s end.

According to a November article in World Religion News, the government continued to criticize the Enlightenment Stupa in Moscow.  In September local authorities tried to remove the stupa but backed down due to protests.  Authorities denied Buddhists access to the stupa in 2017, resulting in it falling into disrepair.  The article stated that the International Center of the Roerichs, an art museum, tried to fix the stupa, but authorities prevented its repair.  The article said the shrine continued to await possible repair or relocation.

As in years past, according to NGOs, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations.  Although neither the constitution nor the law explicitly accorded privileges or advantages to the ROC, they said the ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries, giving it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military.  The government also continued to provide the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization.

In October the Ecumenical Patriarchate released a statement agreeing to grant autocephalous (independent) status to a new unified Ukrainian Church.  According to a September 30 article in The Wall Street Journal, the Russian government had pressed Patriarch Bartholomew not to take this step.  Prior to Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision, a group of government-connected hackers, indicted in the United States in July, reportedly stole thousands of email messages from his aides.  According to article, the government also “resorted to traditionally bullying, issuing unspecified threats and denouncing Patriarch Bartholomew as an agent of the U.S. and the Vatican.”

Members of the Jewish community reported President Vladimir Putin stated during an interview in March that interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections came from “Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews.”

On December 11, at a Kremlin meeting with the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, political scientist Yekaterina Shulman told President Putin,  “Of the 489 entries on the list of extremist organizations, 404 of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses chapters even though they do not incite violence or carry it out.”  President Putin responded, “Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, too.  I don’t quite understand why they are persecuted.  So this should be looked into.”  According to the state-run news agency TASS, on December 18, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “Here we need to analyze each particular case.”  TASS quoted Peskov as saying, “It is impossible here to solve this problem conceptually because there are various pros and cons, but an additional study on this issue will be carried out at least.”

In January the ECHR informed the government that it had accepted Pentecostal pastor Victor-Immanuel Mani’s challenge of a fine levied against him under the Yarovaya Package for missionary activity.  According to Forum 18, Mani, an Indian national with a Russian-citizen wife and child, had held religious meetings in rented premises in Naberezhnye Chelny and advertised them on the church’s social network VKontakte page without necessary authorization documents from the local religious organization.  In November 2017, the Supreme Court overturned a deportation order of the lower court but left a 30,000-ruble ($430) fine in place.

Novaya Gazeta and international media reported that in October the Supreme Court upheld the deportation of Chief Rabbi of Omsk Asher Krichevsky, an Israeli-born U.S citizen.  In January officials revoked his residency permit, along with those of his wife and six children, after the FSB accused him of planning or supporting “terrorist activity.”  In May a lower court ordered him deported for “threatening national security and the constitutional order.”  Krichevsky was the ninth foreign-born rabbi deported in the past 10 years, according to The Jewish Chronicle.

According to the SOVA Center, in August the Borisoglebsk City Court of the Voronezh Region discontinued proceedings in the case of the pastor of the local religious organization, the Restoration Christian Center.  In 2017, authorities filed a criminal case against organizers of the center, alleging they illegally held six drug addicts and kidnapped two others, despite other drug addicts at the center testifying they were there voluntarily.  Authorities detained five of the center’s Russian employees, three of whom were later released and placed under house arrest.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 3, the St. Petersburg Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the district court ordering the confiscation of the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Jehovah’s Witnesses said that on August 3, the property was officially registered in the name of the government.

In January the ECHR accepted complaints from Jehovah’s Witnesses related to, among other things, the seizure of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($90.8 million).  On September 17, Deputy Minister of Justice Mikhail Halperin requested an additional three months to respond to ECHR questions.  At end of year, the case was still pending.

Although it lacked legal status as a religious organization, COS of Moscow was able to provide various services such as assistance to drug addicts throughout the country.


Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religion and worship.  In September the government enacted a new law requiring faith-based organizations (FBOs) to obtain legal status before beginning operations.  It also calls for legal representatives of FBOs and preachers with supervisory responsibilities eventually to hold academic degrees.  In February the government closed more than 6,000 churches, mosques, and other places of worship it deemed in violation of health and safety standards and/or noise pollution ordinances.  In March police arrested six pastors for organizing to defy the government’s order to close church buildings.  All six were released later that month.  Later in the year, the government permitted some of the places of worship to reopen after they made required infrastructure improvements.  Muslim community leaders reported effective collaboration with police and local authorities, including collaboration on programs to combat extremism.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Roman Catholic schools, including government-subsidized schools, required all students to attend Mass regardless of personal faith.  Religious leaders reported numerous faith-based groups and associations contributed to greater understanding and tolerance by participating in interfaith meetings, organizing activities under the auspices of an interfaith religious leaders’ forum, and collaborating on community development projects.

Embassy representatives engaged the government and religious leaders on religious freedom and hosted interfaith events, including an iftar, where religious freedom and tolerance were among the key messages.  The Ambassador hosted an interfaith lunch and emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, worship, and public manifestation thereof even when the government declares a state of emergency.  Exercising these rights may be subject to limitations to ensure respect of others’ rights and good morals, public order, and social welfare.  The constitution bars political parties based on religious affiliation.  In September the government enacted a new penal code that stipulates religious discrimination is punishable by five to seven years in prison and fines of 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandan francs ($560 to $1,100).

On September 10, the government enacted a new law determining the organization and functioning of FBOs, which include religious groups and nongovernmental organizations associated with religious groups.  Under the new law, which replaced a 2012 law governing religious groups, any organization, umbrella organization, or ministry that intends to begin operations must obtain legal status from the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB).  According to the law, an FBO must submit the following to obtain legal status:  an application letter addressed to the RGB; notarized statutes governing its organization; the address of its head office and the names of its legal representative and his/her deputy, their duties, full address, and criminal records; a document certifying the legal representative and his/her deputy were appointed in accordance with its statutes; a brief notarized statement explaining its doctrine; a notarized declaration of the legal representatives of the organization of consent to the responsibilities assigned to them; notarized minutes of the group’s general assembly that established the organization, approved its statutes, and appointed members of its organs; a notarized document describing the organization’s annual action plan and source of funding; a document indicating the building that meets the requirements of the building code of the area of operation; a letter issued by district authorities agreeing to collaborate with the organization; a partnership document issued by an umbrella organization of the organization’s choosing; and proof of payment of a nonrefundable application fee.  The law states the RGB must either issue a certificate of legal personality within 60 days of the date of receipt of the application or, in case of denial, send a written notice explaining the reasons for the denial within 30 days of the date of receipt of the application.

Under the law, if the RGB denies the FBO’s application for legal status, the FBO may reapply when the reason for denial no longer exists.

The law further stipulates preachers with supervisory responsibilities must possess a degree in religious studies from an institution of higher learning or any other degree with a valid certificate in religious studies issued by a recognized institution.  The law also requires that an FBO’s legal representative hold a degree from an institution of higher learning.  Government officials stated these requirements were necessary to prevent unqualified ministers from putting adherents at risk or exploiting adherents for personal gain.  The law states that persons required to hold an academic degree shall have five years from the date of the law’s enactment to comply the requirement.

The government grants legal recognition only to civil marriages.

By law, new public servants must take an oath of loyalty, which includes the phrase “so help me God.”  Those who do not fulfill the requirement forfeit their position.  The law does not make accommodations for religious minorities whose faith does not permit them to comply with this requirement.

The law establishes fines of one to two million Rwandan francs ($1,100 to $2,200) and imprisonment from one to two years for any individual who obstructs the practice of religious rituals.  The law also prohibits public defamation of rituals, symbols, and cult objects.  The penalty for doing so is imprisonment for a term of not less than 15 days but less than three months and a fine of 100,000 to 200,000 Rwandan francs ($110 to $220), or only one of these penalties.

The law regulates public meetings and states that any person who demonstrates in a public place without prior authorization is subject to eight days’ to six months’ imprisonment, a fine of 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandan francs ($560 to $1,100), or both.  Penalties increase if the illegal meeting or demonstration is found to have threatened security, public order, or health.  The law states that religious sermons must be delivered in designated facilities that meet the requirements of the law and that if an FBO intends to organize a special public gathering, it must seek authorization from the competent authority.

Under the law, FBOs are prohibited from causing noise pollution.  Offenders are subject to a fine of 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandan francs ($560 to $1,100), and repeat offenders are subject to increased fines and up to one month’s imprisonment.  By law, FBOs may not use their faith, religious practices, and preaching to jeopardize national unity, peace and security, public order and health, good morals, good conduct, freedom, or the fundamental rights of others.

All students in public primary school and the first three years of secondary education must take a religion class on various religions.  The Ministry of Education establishes the curriculum.  The law does not specify either opt-out provisions or penalties for not taking part in the class.  The law allows parents to enroll their children in private religious schools.

The government subsidizes some schools affiliated with different religious groups.  A presidential order guarantees students attending any government-subsidized school the right to worship according to their beliefs during the school day, as long as their religious groups are registered in the country and the students’ worship practices do not interfere with learning and teaching activities.  The order does not stipulate any procedure for arranging special accommodations.

The law states FBOs may give their opinions on social or faith-related matters but may not engage in political activities to gain political power, organize debates to support political organizations or political candidates, register, or use any other means to support candidates for any public office.

Every foreign missionary must have a temporary resident permit and a foreign identity card.  Specific requirements to obtain the permit (valid for two years and renewable) include a signed curriculum vitae, an original police clearance from the country of prior residence, an authorization letter from the parent organization, and a fee of 100,000 Rwandan francs ($110).

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

Government Practices

Following a February meeting between government officials, including the RGB and Ministry of Local Government, and religious leaders, the government closed more than 6,000 places of worship across the country that it deemed in violation of health and safety standards and/or noise pollution ordinances.  The head of the RGB publicly stated authorities targeted churches that were conducting services in shoddy and unclean structures, which was detrimental to the health of worshippers.  Kigali local authorities reported cases of noise pollution, a lack of required permits, and a proliferation of churches operating inside tents and unsanitary facilities.  Leaders of major religious groups made statements supporting the closures, describing them as needed and timely.  Some observers, however, expressed skepticism regarding the government’s motivation for closing the churches.  A large number of the closed places of worship were evangelical Christian churches, although mosques, Catholic churches, and other Christian churches were also affected.  Some were later allowed to reopen after making the required infrastructure improvements.  The head of the RGB told the press that 14 percent of the buildings had reopened as of July.  In many cases, those congregations whose buildings remained closed opted to hold worship services in hotels, private residences, or buildings belonging to other congregations; the RGB clarified that while some places of worship had been closed, religious organizations had not been closed.  Following the church closures, police arrested six clergymen in March for organizing to defy implementation of the order.  All six were released later that month.

On February 21, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) ordered Amazing Grace, a Christian radio station, to suspend operations for one month following a live broadcast on January 29 of a sermon by local pastor Nicolas Niyibikora in which he said women were “dangerous creatures of evil, going against God’s plans.”  Women’s groups and journalists filed complaints with the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), stating the language of the broadcast constituted discrimination and incitement to hate.  Following the station owner’s refusal to comply with RURA’s sanctions, in April RURA revoked the station’s broadcasting license.  The station’s owner filed suit against RURA and RMC for violating his right to opinion and conscience.  The case was pending at year’s end.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in some cases they could negotiate alternatives to participating in compulsory community night patrols.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report local officials’ retaliation against members who refused to sing the national anthem in school or take an oath while holding the national flag.

Jehovah’s Witnesses students were reportedly punished and dismissed from school for not attending religious services at school or not participating in military and patriotic activities at school.

Unregistered religious groups received a significant degree of government scrutiny of their leadership, activities, and registration application until they obtained FBO registration under the law.  Small religious congregations sometimes temporarily affiliated with larger registered organizations in order to operate.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to pursue judicial remedies for civil servants and teachers dismissed for refusing to swear an oath on the flag.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that authorities included the names of those dismissed over the issue of oath-taking on an online list of persons considered unsuitable for public service, making it difficult for these individuals to obtain employment in the private sector as well.  Jehovah’s Witnesses leadership also reported difficulties in securing appointments with authorities to discuss a range of legal requirements imposing certain limitations on their religious practices and beliefs.

Both Christian and Islamic places of worship were affected by noise ordinance restrictions and were required to decrease the volume on their sound equipment.

Some places of worship were also required to install soundproofing materials.  In March local authorities in Kigali issued a directive prohibiting mosques from using loudspeakers to call worshippers to prayer.  Authorities reversed the ban after Muslim leaders engaged them and reached a compromise allowing for the continued use of loudspeakers at an acceptable volume.

Government officials presiding over wedding ceremonies generally required couples to take a pledge while touching the national flag, a legal requirement that Jehovah’s Witnesses rejected on religious grounds.  Jehovah’s Witnesses said the requirement made it difficult for them to marry legally because few officials were willing to perform the ceremony without the flag oath.  For some Jehovah’s Witnesses, placing their hands on a Bible on top of the flag was an acceptable alternative.  Jehovah’s Witnesses were not able to obtain a waiver and reported difficulties in getting an appointment with relevant authorities.

Muslim community leaders reported working collaboratively with the Rwanda National Police (RNP) in combating extremism and radicalization in the Muslim community.  For example, on December 2, the RNP launched a campaign to educate young Muslims about the dangers of extremism in five of the country’s 30 districts with the collaboration of Muslim leaders.  In public remarks, the RNP commissioner for counterterrorism commended the role of Muslim leaders in educating the Islamic community on “the true meaning” of their faith.  The Imam of Kigali, in turn, reiterated the community’s commitment to working with security organs to fight radicalization and promote security.