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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam are free to exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” According to the Supreme Court, the Bahai Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy, which is also a capital offense under Hanafi jurisprudence. The law prohibits the production and publishing of works contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions. The criminal code punishes verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion with a prison sentence of not less than three months. As in the past two years, there were no reported prosecutions for apostasy or blasphemy, but individuals who converted from Islam to other religions stated they continued to fear punishment from the government and reprisals from family and society. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities reported they continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and preferred to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religions continued to report the courts denied non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims, although holding some major government positions, said the number of positions did not reflect their demographics and complained the government neglected security in majority-Shia areas.

The Taliban and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S. designated terrorist organization, continued to attack and kill members of minority religious communities because of their beliefs or their links to the government. The ISKP publicly claimed responsibility for attacks killing over 100 members of the Shia community. In July a suicide bombing targeted a protest attended primarily by members of the Shia-majority Hazara community, killing at least 97 and injuring more than 260. In October gunmen entered the Karte-Sakhi mosque and opened fire on worshippers gathering to mark the Shia holiday of Ashura, killing 17 worshippers and wounding 58, including women and children. The ISKP claimed responsibility for both attacks. The Taliban were responsible for a number of kidnappings of Shia Hazaras and continued to threaten clerics with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. They warned mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. The Taliban also continued to impose punishments on residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities stated they continued to face harassment and occasional violence. Hindus and Sikhs said they were still able to practice their religions publicly, although Sikhs reported instances in which they were told they did not belong in the country. Christians continued to report hostile public opinion towards Christian proselytizing and said they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different religions reported local Muslim religious leaders initiated confrontations with them over their attire. As a result, they said, almost all women wore some form of head covering. Minority religious leaders stated only a few places of worship remained available for the decreasing numbers of Sikhs and Hindus, who were emigrating because of discrimination and the lack of employment opportunities. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead from individuals who lived near cremation sites, including an incident in which unknown individuals threw stones at a cremation site following a Sikh’s cremation. Observers stated discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline, although there continued to be reports of discrimination in some localities.

U.S. embassy officers met with senior government officials to promote religious tolerance, to discuss the protection of religious minorities, and to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent extremism. In particular, the embassy met with the Office of the National Security Advisor (ONSC) to assist in the creation of a national strategy to combat violent extremism. The embassy continued to meet with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss ways to introduce the public to a broader range of religious perspectives and enhance religious tolerance. Embassy outreach programs facilitated religious dialogue and the government’s effort to identify and counter the sources of violent extremism.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 33.3 million (July 2016 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Shia and Sunni Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not collect data disaggregated in this way. Shia leaders claim Shia make up approximately 20-25 percent of the population, while Sunni leaders claim the Shia comprise only 10 percent.

The Shia population includes Ismailis and a majority of ethnic Hazaras. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and Christians, comprise less than 0.3 percent of the population. The number of Sikhs and Hindus is declining due to emigration. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 180 Sikh and Hindu families totaling 900 individuals, which is a decline from 343 families totaling 2,000 individuals in 2015. Reliable estimates of the Bahai and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.

The Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces, while the Ismailis live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Bahai Faith are based predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

There is no definition of apostasy in the criminal code. Apostasy falls under the seven offenses making up the hudud as defined by sharia. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless they repent. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of majority for citizens is 18, except it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts and subject to the same punishment.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. Similar to apostates, blasphemers have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad that serve as a source of religious law or guidance) address the issue, suggesting discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Bahai Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Bahai practitioners are labeled infidels.

The law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan (RTA), a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country. The law also obligates RTA to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a shura or council) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a charter consistent with domestic laws as well as a central office. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras or councils may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole. Both groups and associations may register with the MOJ. According to the MOJ database, 2,215 Sunni and Shia organizations are registered, while the Sikh and Hindu National Shura is registered with the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs.

The criminal code punishes “crimes against religions,” which include verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion. It specifies a person who attacks a follower of any religion shall receive a prison sentence of not less than three months but no more than a year, and a fine of between 3,000 and 12,000 afghanis ($44 to $177).

The criminal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, those who destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or those who destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to a medium-term punishment. The criminal code defines medium-term as confinement in jail for a minimum of one year and a maximum of five years and/or a fine of between 12,000 and 60,000 afghanis ($177 to $884).

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam” and develop courses on religion on the basis of the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks which emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam, but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassas by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education (MOE).

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil code address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the president and vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

In September parliament passed electoral reform legislation mandating an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu/Sikh community.

According to the MOJ’s database, the country has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but the parliament has not yet ratified the country’s signature.

Government Practices

The supreme court upheld the appellate court’s reversal of a death sentence handed down to four individuals convicted of the 2015 mob killing of a woman who allegedly had burned a Quran. The court ordered a review of one-year prison sentences given to seven police officers in the case, which resulted in the appellate court increasing their punishments. As in the past two years, there were no reported prosecutions for apostasy or blasphemy, but individuals who converted from Islam continued to state they feared government punishment as well as reprisals from family and society. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities reported they continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation. They preferred to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religions continued to report the courts denied non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Although some Shia held senior positions in the government, Shia leaders said the number of official positions held by Shia did not reflect the country’s demographics.

In March the supreme court upheld an appellate court’s 2015 decision to reduce four death sentences handed down in the case of a woman killed by a mob in March 2015 for allegedly burning a Quran to 20 years imprisonment. The supreme court upheld the 16-year prison sentences given to eight other civilian suspects in the case, but rejected the sentences of seven police officers who had received suspended one-year prison terms. The court ruled the suspended sentences were too lenient. The court also called on the attorney general’s office to investigate the acquittals of 11 more officers who had been indicted in the case. The supreme court did not release the reasoning for its ruling or provide guidance to the appellate court. On August 7, the appellate court changed the one-year suspended sentences for the seven police officers to two-year suspended sentences, stipulating the police officers would not serve any prison time as long as they maintained clean records and committed no further crimes. The appellate court also sentenced a civilian who had not been sentenced in the initial decision to 16 years in prison.

Individuals who converted from Islam continued to report they risked annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty.

As in the previous two years, there were no reports of prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy during the year, including of Bahais who, although labeled infidels, were not considered to be converts and as such not charged with either crime. One individual convicted of blasphemy in 2013 remained in prison serving a 20-year sentence.

The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) continued to be responsible for managing pilgrimages (Hajj and Umrah), revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. The government continued to permit both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages, with no quota on either group. MOHRA also facilitated pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims.

MOHRA estimated between 4,800 and 5,000 mullahs were registered with and worked directly for MOHRA out of a total of approximately 300,000 mullahs in the country as of the end of 2015, the last year for which data was available. The mullahs continued to receive an average monthly salary of 4,700 afghanis ($69) from the government. MOHRA continued to require mullahs who applied to be prayer leaders in MOHRA-registered mosques to hold at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent, verified by the Ministry of Higher Education According to MOHRA, approximately 50,000 of the approximately 150,000 to 160,000 mosques in the country were registered, including the registration of an additional 700 mosques during the year. MOHRA said the ministry continued to lack the financial resources to create a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country.

MOHRA continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques. Local groups continued to pay the largest portion of the costs for new mosques and continued not to be required to inform the ministry about the new construction unless they wished to request financial or other assistance.

According to Hindus and Sikhs, the government continued not to restrict them from training other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law punishing conversion, they could not proselytize. The government continued not to hinder their communities from building places of worship.

According to Sikh and Hindu community members, they continued not to pursue land disputes through the courts for fear of retaliation, particularly when powerful local leaders occupied their property.

MOHRA reported there were 5,000 registered madrassas and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. While the government did register some madrassas during the year, it did not report how many. More than 340,000 students were enrolled in the madrassas, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat provinces, according to the latest available estimate from 2015.

The registration process continued to require a school to demonstrate it had suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dorms if students lived on campus. MOHRA registered madrassas collocated with mosques, while MOE registered madrassas not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassas, students received individual instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Registration did not mean the government controlled a madrassa, but qualified the madrassa’s diplomas and certificates for government recognition. Only certificates issued by registered madrassas allowed students to pursue higher education at government universities.

MOHRA did not offer data on the number of unregistered madrassas, but estimated registered madrassas “far outnumbered” unregistered madrassas following the registration effort. The MOE had the authority to close unregistered madrassas, but ministry officials said in practice it was almost impossible to close any due to local sensitivities. The ministry officials reported the government did not close any madrassas during the year due to the potential for negative societal repercussions. They said the government was attempting to raise awareness within the madrassa community of the benefits of registering madrassas, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery.

MOHRA did not operate primary level madrassas; mosques provided primary-level religious studies instead. While MOHRA operated no madrassas offering standard two-year degree programs, there were 80 madrassas registered with the MOE offering two-year degree programs. There were 1,200 public and 200 private madrassas registered with the MOE.

According to government authorities, the legal requirement for registered madrassas to route private or international donations through the MOE allowed the government to monitor financial assistance to institutes of learning, but the MOE seldom imposed a ban for failing to comply with this requirement. The tendency to make cash donations directly to the madrassas made it difficult, they said, for the government to track funds coming from private sources or abroad. Despite this, the government continued its efforts to solicit donations from other Muslim countries and from private individuals to support the madrassas. The MOE also continued to require independent madrassas to be accredited and disclose their funding sources.

Registered madrassas continued to follow the standardized curriculum provided by the MOE’s Department of Islamic Education. This curriculum specified 60 percent of the subjects taught in madrassas had to be religious in nature, while the other 40 percent consisted of mathematics, history, geography, and Dari literature.

There remained one government-sponsored school for Sikh children, located in Kabul. The government continued to provide the same proportionate funding to cover staff salaries, books, and maintenance as it did for other schools. The MOE also continued to provide the curriculum for the Sikh school, except for religious studies. The community appointed a teacher for religious studies, and the MOE paid the teacher’s salary.

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, a Swedish NGO, continued to support a privately-funded Sikh school in Jalalabad. A few Sikh children continued to attend private international schools. Hindus did not have separate schools but sometimes sent their children to Sikh schools. There continued to be no Christian schools.

According to observers, the courts relied primarily on statutory law in both civil and criminal cases. In some instances, however, members of minority religious groups reported the courts used Hanafi jurisprudence, even where such law conflicted with the country’s international commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons.

The Ulema Council, a group of senior Sunni and Shia scholars, imams, and Muslim jurists, continued to advise the president on Islamic legal issues. It met with the president every two months, discussing topics such as support for the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and peace negotiations with insurgent groups. The Ulema Council also continued to advise the parliament and ministries on the formulation of new legislation and the implementation of existing law. In November the council voiced its support for the peace agreement between the government and the insurgent group Hizb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Although the Ulema Council remained officially independent from the government, its members continued to receive financial support from the state. The council also continued to advise some provincial governments, although in villages and rural areas scholars, NGO representatives and government officials said decisions continued to be based mostly on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition.

Representatives of minority religions continued to report the courts did not apply protections provided to them by the law and denied non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights. Members of minority religious communities said the state, including the courts, continued to treat all citizens as if they were Muslims, and some basic citizenship rights of non-Muslims were not codified. As a result, they said, non-Muslims continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence.

Sikhs and Hindus stated their community members continued not to take civil cases to court because they continued to feel unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to prefer to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities stated they continued to face discrimination, including long delays to resolve cases in the judicial system. The most common judicial issues concerned illegal appropriation of Sikh properties. In one case reported by a Sikh community leader, a high-ranking Ministry of Interior official reportedly occupied a piece of land owned by a member of the Sikh community who was still a resident of the country. In another instance, according to the Sikh community leader, a National Directorate of Security (NDS) official reportedly stole the land of a Sikh who had emigrated to Germany and threatened the owner’s proxy at gunpoint when the proxy went to claim the land. Court proceedings continued in both cases, albeit very slowly according to the plaintiffs.

A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament. Although Shia Muslims held senior positions in government, they said appointments to government administrative bodies continued not to reflect the country’s demographics based on their estimate of the percentage of Shia in the country’s population. Sunni members of the Ulema Council stated Shia were overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population.

Shia leaders stated the law placed no restrictions on their participation in public life, but the government continued to neglect security in majority-Shia areas.

Although four Ismailis continued to serve as members of parliament, members of the Ismaili community continued to raise concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

Judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) and supported by the government continued to meet to work towards Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued to work together toward the stated goal of allowing women to attend mosques. The government funded Moderation Center of Afghanistan continued to promote what the government viewed as a moderate interpretation of Islam. The center continued educational exchanges to send Shia and Sunni clerics to Kuwait for training, and then appointed them as teachers in various provinces to train other clerics. Other organizations continued to work on intrafaith reconciliation as well, including the Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and the MOHRA.

The ONSC continued to work on addressing religiously-motivated violent extremism as part of its effort to develop an overall strategy to counter violent extremism (CVE). Beginning in September, the ONSC sponsored a series of provincial-level conferences on religiously-motivated violent extremism to collect data to use in this effort. Concurrently, the ONSC established an inter-ministerial working group to coordinate the efforts of relevant government institutions and NGOs to implement the strategy.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The media continued to report attacks by the Taliban, the ISKP, and other insurgent groups targeted at specific religious and ethno-religious groups, such as the Hazara Shias, as well as at individual religious leaders because of their reported links to the government or their interpretations of Islam.

In July suicide bombers attacked a protest demonstration in Kabul organized by the Enlightenment Movement, an NGO composed primarily of Hazara Shias. At least 97 people were killed and more than 260 injured. Shortly after the attack, the ISKP claimed responsibility for the bombing in a statement on the group’s Amaq News Agency, calling it a “martyrdom attack” against the Shia community.

In November a suicide bomber struck a gathering of Shiite Muslims commemorating Arbaeen, a Shiite observance of loss and grief, in the Baqir ul-Uloom mosque in western Kabul, killing at least 30. ISIS subsequently claimed responsibility.

In October a group of gunmen entered the Karte-Sakhi mosque in Kabul and opened fire on worshippers gathered to mark Ashura. According to an organization monitoring extremist websites, the attackers killed 17 worshippers and wounded 58, including women and children. The Amaq News Agency published an article stating the ISKP was involved in planning the attack and an ISKP fighter was among the gunmen. ISKP later claimed full responsibility for the assault. A day later, a suicide bomber killed 14 civilians and wounded 17 in a bomb blast outside a Shia mosque in Balkh province. There were no official claims of responsibility for the second day’s attack. Shia community leaders condemned the attacks, and said many Shia believed the attacks were attempts by radical elements to foment sectarian tensions in the country. Shia leaders urged the Shia community to avoid any violent reaction that might escalate tensions between Sunnis and Shias, and asked the government to investigate the incident and take necessary steps to protect Shias.

In June unknown militants kidnapped 17 Shia Hazaras from a bus in the northern province of Sar-i-Pul. A provincial council member said the Taliban likely had abducted the passengers to exchange them for a local commander who had been detained by Afghan forces during clashes the day before. The incident came two days after the Taliban killed 13 people and took several others hostage after ambushing a bus convoy in Kunduz province. Local tribal elders were reportedly able to mediate the release of the kidnap victims.

In September eight Hazaras traveling from Bamiyan to Kabul were reportedly kidnapped in Wardak province, just 150 meters away from a police checkpoint. In another incident, a group of militants stopped two passenger vans in Ghor province. The militants singled out five passengers they identified as Hazaras, and took them away at gunpoint. According to government contacts, the Hazaras were kidnapped by the Taliban, who were hoping to exchange them for one of their commanders. One student was killed when government forces attempted to secure their release, while the rest were later freed when tribal elders intervened to mediate. In Ghazni, a student was killed during a clash between the Taliban and government security forces following a Taliban attempt to abduct six Hazara students. In October the Taliban abducted 25 Hazaras traveling on the Kabul-Bamiyan Highway. They were reportedly released through the mediation of local tribal elders.

In December media reported a Kunduz Sikh community leader, Lala Del Souza, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in Kunduz city. Police reported three suspects were arrested in connection with his death. There was media speculation the Taliban were behind the killing, although there was no claim of responsibility from the Taliban.

The Taliban and other insurgents continued to threaten religious leaders with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. The Taliban also continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. Between June and September in the Rodat and Momand Dara districts of Nangarhar, the Taliban reportedly killed a number of clerics, including two imams. As a result, according to the director of madrassas at the MOHRA, imams stated they feared performing funeral rites for Afghan National Security Forces and other government employees. The Taliban also continued to monitor the social habits of local populations in areas under their control and imposed punishments on residents according to their interpretation of Islamic law. Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISKP continued to engage in similar activities. The provincial director of MOHRA reported the ISKP seized control of 10 madrassas and removed the government curriculum, replacing it with their own, which included paramilitary training.

Government officials reported in August the Taliban replaced cultural, tourism, and sports curricula in parts of Baghlan and Logar provinces under their control with Islamic teachings administered by imams handpicked by the group. In October Kunduz provincial council members reported the Taliban had taken over more than half the schools in the province. One official estimated the Taliban controlled as many as 80 percent of schools. While the government continued to pay the salaries of the teachers, he said, the Taliban established the school curriculum and selected the teachers as well as school administrators. The government continued to pay salaries to staff selected by the group.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities stated they continued to face harassment and, in some cases, violence, although Hindus and Sikhs continued to be able to practice their religions publicly. Members of the Hindu community said they continued to face fewer incidents of harassment than Sikhs, ascribing the difference to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Despite the differences between the groups, many Afghans reportedly continued to use the terms Sikh and Hindu interchangeably. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to the leader of the Sikh community, in September a man with a sword reportedly pounded on the gate of a Sikh temple in Kabul, shouting “convert to Islam.” A week after the incident, the leader of the Hindu/Sikh community reported he found a cow’s head in front of its temple compound in Kabul. Some Sikhs reported instances in which residents and high-ranking government officials told them they were “not from Afghanistan,” that they were “Indians,” and “did not belong here.”

Christians continued to report hostile public opinion toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytizing. Members of the Christian community, who often had converted to Christianity while in other countries, said they continued to worship alone or in small congregations in private homes out of fear of societal discrimination and persecution.

Women of several different religions reported local Muslim religious leaders continued to confront them over their attire. As a result, they said, many women continued to wear burqas in public in rural areas and in some urban areas. In urban areas, where most women no longer wore the burqa, almost all women said they continued to wear some form of head covering, either by personal choice or due to societal pressure. Many said they chose to cover to increase their security in public. The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs and the National Ulema Council both stated there was no official pressure on women regarding their attire.

Minority religious leaders stated few places of worship remained for the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus and other religious minorities. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, there had been 64 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and mandus (Hindu temples) across the country, but residents of Kandahar, Ghazni, Paktya, and other provinces had seized approximately 30 sites in previous years. Fourteen of those remaining continued to be active, including two sites belonging to the Hindu community. The Hindu community reported it presented the list of its places of worship to the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs in an effort to stop further illegal seizures and to reclaim the land and buildings previously lost. Kabul’s lone synagogue remained inactive, and there were no public Christian churches. Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths were located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul. Buddhist foreigners were free to worship in Hindu temples.

Hindus and Sikhs continued to report interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead in accordance with their customs from individuals who lived near cremation sites. A leader of the Hindu/Sikh community reported an incident in which unknown individuals threw stones and bricks at the community’s cremation site on the day following a fellow Sikh’s cremation. Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region rendered the land unusable, according to Sikh leaders. The government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals.

Members of the Sikh and Hindu communities reported they continued not to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students. In the past, Hindus and Sikhs said they had sent their children to private Hindu and Sikh schools, but many of those schools had closed due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities as well as their members’ declining economic circumstances. Per the Sikh and Hindu Council, there was one school in Nangarhar and two schools in Kabul which remained operational.

According to Sikh leaders, a lack of employment opportunities remained the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration. They reported emigration continued to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased for the two communities. Hindus and Sikhs remained largely illiterate, they said, which continued to limit their employment opportunities.

Observers stated societal discrimination against the Shia minority by the Sunni majority continued to decline. They cited as an example the response to the suicide attack on the Enlightenment Movement when hundreds of Sunnis went to hospitals to donate blood for injured Shias. The observers said there continued to be reports of discrimination in different localities, however.

According to observers, suspicion of development assistance projects continued to exist among Muslim residents, some of whom reportedly suspected such assistance projects were surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytizing.

Observers reported local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as female participation in sports.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officers continued to meet with government officials to promote religious tolerance and enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent extremism. Senior embassy officers and other embassy staff continued to discuss the protection of religious minorities with government officials.

Embassy representatives met with high-level government and religious officials to discuss ways to better ensure the curriculum offered by madrassas did not encourage religiously-motivated violent extremism. The embassy coordinated with the ONSC as well as other governmental and non-governmental stakeholders to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism.

Embassy officials met with leaders of major religious groups, scholars, and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and introduce the public to a broader range of religious perspectives.

During Ramadan, embassy staff hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders to promote religious dialogue and tolerance.

The embassy sponsored visits by several prominent religious leaders to the United States and third countries to broaden religious dialogue. Embassy officials facilitated several meetings of different research bodies to coordinate research efforts on violent extremism. The embassy also hosted roundtables with leading researchers and religious scholars from organizations such as the Moderation Center and MOHRA to discuss the primary sources of violent extremism and the mechanisms to counter it.

Albania

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion, says the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, pertaining to recognition, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the faith communities will receive financial support from the government, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The government legalized 137 mosques during the year compared to six the previous year. Religious groups reported some progress on the hundreds of outstanding claims for government restitution or return of property seized during the communist era, and that the Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) met with them to begin reconciling lists of property claims. VUSH leaders stated their churches continued to have difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and continued to face problems over tax payments. The prime minister announced a pilot project involving 10 schools aimed at promoting religious tolerance in secondary schools as a means of countering violent extremism.

The Interreligious Council, which is meant to function as a forum for the leaders of the country’s religious communities to discuss common concerns, did not meet as it had in previous years. Pope Francis held an audience in Rome with the head of the global Bektashi community headquartered in Tirana, the first such audience for any religious leader from the country with the pope.

U.S. embassy officials continued to urge government officials to accelerate its handling of long-standing religious property claims and to return to religious groups the buildings, land, and other property confiscated from them during the communist era. The embassy expanded its civic education program, in which students of several religious educational institutions carried out projects celebrating religious diversity. The embassy also worked with the religious communities and nongovernmental actors to discourage violent extremism related to religion among youth and to promote religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2011 census, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Bahais, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional question about religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, all religions are equal, and the state has the duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state is neutral in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It states everyone is free to choose or change their religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution also states individuals may not be compelled to participate or excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties or other groups from inciting religious hatred.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Cults, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance, and support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.

The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and obtaining some degree of tax-exempt status, a religious group must register with the district court as a nonprofit association. The registration process entails submission of information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, the identities of its founders and legal representatives, the nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g. government ministries and civil society organizations) in a particular field, the address of the organization, and payment of a 1,000 lek ($8) fee to the district court. A judge is randomly assigned within 3 to 4 days of the submission of an application, and the process usually concludes within one session.

The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. The bilateral agreements serve to codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A provision of law enacted in 2009 specifies the government will provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it has agreements dating from the same time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law stipulating the VUSH should receive financial support from the government.

The law requires the ATP – previously the Agency for the Restitution and Compensation of Property – to address claims by religious groups for properties confiscated during the communist era.

The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits religious instruction in them. Private schools may offer religious instruction. According to official figures, religious groups, organizations, and foundations have 125 affiliated associations and foundations managing 116 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox groups operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes, but offer them as an elective. The Muslim community runs seven madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.

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

Government Practices

According to representatives of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities, the total government financial support for these four groups remained at 109 million lek ($850,000), the same as in 2015, with the Muslim community receiving a 28 percent share and the remaining three each receiving a 24 percent share. This support covered partial salaries for administrative and educational staff. For the Bektashi community, which had fewer staff, part of the support it received was used for new places of worship as well as for global outreach activities of its Tirana-based Bektashi World Headquarters.

Despite requests from the VUSH, the government continued not to provide it financial support. It did not amend the agreement with the VUSH to add the provision of financial support nor did it amend the law to include such financial support.

The government accelerated the process of legalizing unofficial mosques and issued 137 property certificates, compared to six in the previous year. The majority of these unregistered mosques had been built without permission during the 1990s. The government required endorsement from the Albanian Islamic Community (AIC) to legalize unofficial mosques.

Religious groups stated the government had made some progress addressing their claims for restitution or the return of property seized during the communist era. The government did not return any properties but approved partial compensation for 31 properties that had belonged to the Catholic Church, the AIC, and the Bektashi community. The government also stated some communities had not yet gone through the required step of requesting the funds.

Out of the many hundreds of claims submitted by the religious communities to the ATP since the fall of the communist regime in 1990, the vast majority remained unresolved. Religious groups continued to blame the slow progress with regard to the claims on government corruption, legal complexities stemming from the country’s communist past, and competing claims for the same property from individuals or private organizations. The ATP acknowledged there was a problem with the restitution process, saying the competing property claims and the constant restructuring and proliferation of government agencies involved in property disputes since the 1990s had left no agreement between the government and the religious communities on the number of valid property claims submitted over the past 25 years. The ATP met with the communities in March to begin reconciling lists of property claims and established a task force specifically to follow up on these claims.

The ATP reported it continued to budget funds for previous government decisions recognizing the rights of religious communities to numerous properties.

Although the government had promised to clear debris from a site in Dhermi where the local Inspectorate for the Protection of Territory had demolished an Orthodox church in August 2015, as of the end of the year the site remained untouched. A promise to find an alternate location for a new church had also gone unfulfilled. Authorities continued to state the Orthodox church had been built illegally on the site where a culturally significant 17th century church had stood. The Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania continued to protest the demolition.

VUSH members said they continued to rent existing buildings to use as places of worship, and reported continued difficulties in acquiring land on which to construct their own buildings due to local government tax assessments and regulations. They stated these difficulties impeded their ability to hold religious services and to run youth and social activities.

Construction continued on Bektashi places of worship in Korca, Permet, Gjirokaster, and Elbasan. Although the central government provided financial support to help build the properties in Permet and Gjirokaster, Bektashi representatives reported property disputes with some local government offices in these cities delayed progress.

In April Prime Minister Edi Rama announced a pilot project in 10 of the country’s secondary schools to introduce a new curriculum aimed at promoting religious tolerance. The prime minister and minister of education stated the initiative would not affect the country’s secular education system, and would serve as a way to counter violent extremism. Some religious communities expressed disappointment over what they saw as the limited consultation with them prior to the announcement. Religious leaders also expressed concern regarding the capacity of teachers to teach the new religious curriculum, as well as their own capacity to contribute to this initiative. While the government did not present a full version of the new curriculum by year’s end, it introduced elements of the new curriculum into the normal civics courses of several secondary schools.

VUSH leaders stated their churches continued to face problems early in the year concerning local tax requirements, particularly with regard to property taxes. In May VUSH reached an agreement with the Tirana municipality confirming VUSH’s exemption from these taxes. Some local governments continued to assess fines for nonpayment of other taxes, such as sales taxes, however, and VUSH administrators frequently had to appeal these fines, with varying degrees of success.

Representatives from the Catholic, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities all continued to state their numbers were underrepresented in the 2011 official census, leading to an inaccurate picture of the religious demographics of the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although an Interreligious Council existed for leaders of the country’s religious communities to discuss common concerns, religious communities reported it had organized no meetings through the end of the year and did not function as a forum for discussion or for the issuance of joint statements, in contrast to previous years.

Some politicians continued to criticize the Archbishop of Tirana, Durres, and all Albania of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania over ties they perceived him to have with the Greek government.

Pope Francis held an audience on May 11 in Rome with Haji Dede Edmond Brahimaj, head of the global Bektashi community headquartered in Tirana. The audience was a first for any religious leader from the country with the pope.

On November 12, Grand Mufti Skender Brucaj, the leader of the Muslim community, welcomed the Israeli soccer team to the country for a World Cup qualifying game, citing the country’s religious tolerance and harmony.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers continued to meet with the state commissioner on cults and with the ATP to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to return to religious groups the buildings, land, and other property confiscated during the communist era.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage religious leaders and members of the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and to visit churches, mosques, and religious sites to promote religious tolerance. The Ambassador hosted an iftar for members of these different communities where he stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance.

The embassy continued to work with religious communities, along with nongovernmental actors, to decrease the potential appeal of violent extremism connected with religion to the country’s youth. The embassy continued its civic education program in which embassy officers spoke to students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools, public high schools, and other educational institutions to promote tolerance. As part of the program, students of several religious educational institutions planned and carried out projects celebrating religious diversity. Additionally, seminars with key religious figures and discussions with leaders in government, law enforcement, and academia stressed the compatibility between democracy and religious faith.

Algeria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and, after an amendment enacted in February, for freedom of worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. Police arrested Ahmadi Muslims for conducting unauthorized religious activities, such as holding prayers and printing religious books. A court sentenced a Christian convert accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad to three years in prison. In April an appeals court ordered the release of a journalist sentenced in 2015 to three years in prison for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The government continued to regulate the importation of religious materials. Two Christian organizations said the government delayed four months in authorizing their requests to import Bibles, but viewed the waiting period as an improvement in the delays experienced in past years. Senior government officials issued statements opposing calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam. They also criticized the spread of “extremist” Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, Ahmadi Islam, and the Bahai Faith. Christians reported continuing delays in obtaining visas for foreign religious workers.

Jund al-Khilafa, a terrorist group affiliated with ISIS, took credit for the October 28 killing of a police officer in Constantine. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, another terrorist group, took credit for a March 18 attack on a gas plant in Krechba.

There were reports of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Practitioners of religions other than Sunni Islam, including Christians and Jews, reported they had experienced threats and intolerance and often kept a low profile as a result. In January youth in Biskra distributed leaflets describing Shia Islam as “invading” the country. A private television channel aired interviews with a professor, an imam, and a scholar of Islam about what they described as the dangers of the Ahmadi faith. There were reports of employment discrimination against non-Muslims and one incident of attempted vandalism against a church.

The U.S. Ambassador encouraged the government to promote religious tolerance. Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both majority and minority religious groups, as well as with members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation. The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with several officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to stress the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of worship. The embassy sponsored the visit of a Muslim writer and scholar from the United States to engage youth in discussions of religious freedom and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 40 million (July 2016 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims residing principally in the province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the Protestant Church of Algeria, Lutherans, members of the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the total number of Christians in the country range from 20,000 to 200,000. Although numbers cannot be confirmed, some church leaders say foreign residents make up the majority of the Christian population. One Christian leader estimates his church has between 20,000 and 40,000 foreign members, compared to fewer than 100 citizen members. The proportion of students and immigrants without legal status from sub-Saharan Africa among the Christian population is also increasing. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups. Christians reside mostly in the cities of Algiers, Annaba, and Oran. The Protestant community has an evangelical wing, most of whose members live in the Kabylie region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. On February 7, parliament enacted amendments to the constitution, which included adding specific language providing for freedom of worship in accordance with the law. The new constitutional language reflected preexisting provisions in the law pertaining to freedom of worship. Prior to the amendments, the constitution only stated that freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion were inviolable. That language remains in the revised text.

While the law does not prohibit conversions from Islam, proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($9,174) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction tending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using to this end establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.

The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides a punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($458 to $916) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults to any other religion, with the same penalties.

The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states it shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The president appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the president on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals of the religion and a correct understanding of it. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the president.

The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. MOI’s registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; furnish police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; show they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters. The law requires the ministry to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all the required documentation and to give a response to the application within 60 days of submission of the completed application. The law states applicants are de facto approved if the ministry fails to make a decision within the 60-day limit. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions, but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal.

Registration applications of religious associations must be approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA). The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process. Religious groups may appeal an MRA denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to a specific wilaya.

The National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, a government entity, is responsible by law for facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the commission, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs, the presidency, the national police, the national gendarmerie, and the governmental National Consultative Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (CNCPPDH).

The CNCPPDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the agency to issue opinions and recommendations, to conduct awareness campaigns, and to work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The agency may address concerns of individuals and groups who believe they are not being treated fairly by the MRA. The CNCPPDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions. It submits an annual report to the president, who appoints the agency’s members.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Muslim or otherwise, may take place. The law states religious demonstrations are subject to regulation and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. With the exception of daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques. Non-Muslim religious services must only take place in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Muslim religious events must be submitted to the relevant wali (governor) at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would be a danger to public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or symbols of the revolution. If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, participants are subject to dispersal by the police. Failure to disperse at the behest of the police may result in arrest and a prison term of two to twelve months under the penal code.

The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayer in mosques and penalizes anyone other than a government-authorized imam who preaches in a mosque with fines of up to 100,000 dinars ($916) and prison sentences of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,834) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion.” The law states such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming people or groups.

By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and religious personnel, as well as health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque personnel’s pay, and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of non-Islamic religious writings, except those intended for personal use.

The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Muslim collective worship.

Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion.

The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam and the use of Arabic as the primary language of instruction, or risk being closed.

The law states that discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.

The constitution prohibits non-Muslims from running for the presidency. Non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying Christian or Jewish women.

By law, individuals who have converted from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.

The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion.

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

Government Practices

Police arrested at least 83 Ahmadi Muslims in connection with the practice of their religion. A court sentenced a Christian convert arrested for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook to a three-year prison sentence. An appeals court ordered the release of a journalist previously sentenced to prison for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Some Christian groups continued to report facing a range of administrative difficulties in the absence of a written government response to their requests for recognition as associations. In October the MRA issued two permits to import Bibles and other Christian religious materials. The government issued the import authorization in four months, compared with an 18-month wait for the previous request made in 2014. MRA officials, including the minister, continued to state publicly the government’s willingness to accommodate minority faiths who wished to practice in the country by opening places of worship. Christian leaders stated the lack of government responsiveness to visa applications continued to pose complications for religious workers.

On June 13, police arrested nine Ahmadi Muslims in Blida and charged them with operating an unauthorized religious organization, illegally collecting contributions, and printing books. On October 2, police arrested 18 members of the Ahmadi Muslim community in the wilaya of Skikda for conducting Friday prayers outside of an authorized place of worship. In November the media reported that 17 Ahmadi Muslims in Skikda were given suspended sentences of between one and six months in prison, while three others were acquitted. The media reported the arrest and subsequent release on provisional liberty of six Ahmadis in the wilaya of Ain Temouchent in November. The press also reported the arrest of six Ahmadis in the wilaya of M’sila on November 26 on charges of “harming national security” and holding unauthorized prayer services. At year’s end, it was unknown whether they were released. Press reports stated four Ahmadi Muslims were arrested for the unauthorized practice of religion and proselytization on December 19 in the wilaya of Relizane. Authorities continued to detain them at year’s end. On December 12, press outlets reported the arrest and subsequent release on provisional liberty of 40 Ahmadis in the wilaya of Setif. The status of charges against them was unknown at year’s end. In December Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa stated the Ahmadi Islamic “sect” no longer existed in the country and that an effort must be made to bring youth who had been influenced by Ahmadi doctrine back to “our national religious beliefs.” Ministry officials said the Ahmadi community, along with other religious groups they described as “sects” such as the Bahai Faith, were not considered legitimate religious groups and would likely not receive permission to operate legally.

On July 31, police in Setif arrested Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, for posting statements deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook page. A court sentenced him on August 7 to five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($916). On September 6 his sentence was reduced to three years in prison. Bouhafs had reportedly posted altered verses from the Quran that satirized the Prophet Muhammad’s life. In July a court sentenced Christian convert Samir Chamek, to five years in prison for Facebook posts he made in 2015that the court found were offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. Christian media reported the Facebook post compared the Prophet Muhammad to Hitler and accused him of terrorism.

On June 14, the national gendarmerie published a press release saying it had “dismantled an international criminal network of blasphemers and anti-Muslim proselytizers on the internet.” News reports referenced the press release when they reported the arrests of Rachid Fodil and Daif Hichem in M’Sila Province for content on their Facebook page that the government said attacked the precepts of Islam and denigrated the Prophet Muhammad. Media reported in December Fodil was sentenced to five years in prison and a 20,000 dinar ($183) fine and Hichem to three years in prison and a 20,000 dinar ($183) fine.

Christian leaders reported two Protestants were arrested in Bejaia for transporting unauthorized religious literature. Additional details were unavailable.

In April an appeals court overturned the conviction of journalist Mohamed Chergui, who had been sentenced in 2015 to three years imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,834) for insulting the Prophet Muhammad following charges filed by the newspaper which had employed him. Authorities promptly released Chergui, who had authored an article in mid-2014 about European research on “Quranic expressions,” which had prompted the newspaper to fire him and pursue a legal complaint.

Some appeals of criminal convictions remained unresolved for several years after the defendant’s conviction. An appeal hearing continued to be delayed for Abdelkrim Siaghi, a Christian convert sentenced to five years in prison in 2011 for offending the Prophet Muhammad.

While the government continued to maintain the right to prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers, MRA officials said they rarely did so. The MRA said it sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events, such as after a highly publicized child kidnapping, or when trying to raise awareness, such as on World AIDS Day.

According to information provided by MRA officials, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s correctness. The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. Several Christian representatives stated continued government observance of the ordinance against proselytizing by non-Muslims prompted churches to restrict some activities not related to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in the local community that Muslims might attend.

Christian leaders said authorities in March threatened two house churches in the Kabylie region with closure. The churches remained open as of the end of the year. There were no reported cases of government prosecution of Christian citizens belonging to unregistered religious groups, who continued to meet in unofficial “house churches,” which were often homes or businesses of church members. Christian leaders said the authorities generally did not prosecute practitioners as long as house churches respected public order. Some of these groups met openly, while others held worship services more discreetly. These groups were most frequently reported in the Kabylie region. MRA officials said they privately urged such groups to come forward and operate in the open, saying the country tolerated religious minorities.

Christian leaders reported being able to visit Christians, most of whom were migrants, in prison.

Several religious groups that had been registered under the previous associations law prior to 2012 continued to try to reregister with the government. In November the MOI told the Protestant Church of Algeria, which had submitted a registration application in 2013, it considered that application incomplete. The Church submitted supplemental documentation in December. It was awaiting an MOI response at year’s end.

The Seventh-day Adventist and Reformed Churches were uncertain as to the status of registration applications they had pending with the government at year’s end.

According to the MOI, although religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their application within 60 days of its submission, the 60-day clock did not begin until the ministry considered the application complete and had issued a receipt to that effect. NGOs and religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt proving they had submitted a completed registration application.

Some religious groups viewed themselves as de facto registered after 60 days. Religious groups stated that even if they considered themselves de facto registered under the 60-day rule, service providers, such as utilities and banks, insisted on proof of registration. As a result, without official papers affirming their status, these groups still faced the same administrative constraints as unregistered associations.

MRA officials stated the delay in approvals had arisen because the government had hoped to issue a refinement of the law, specifically to address religious associations. The MRA stated it had never rejected a registration application for a religious group.

Members of Christian religious groups waiting for a ministry response to their applications reported there continued to be no government interference with their holding religious services, but said they continued to face administrative and bureaucratic difficulties because of their lack of documented registered status. They reported problems including a lack of standing to pursue legal complaints, an inability to open bank accounts or establish related charitable activities, and difficulty managing church billing accounts without documented standing as an association. Most Christian leaders stated they had had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006. Christian leaders stated some Protestant groups continued to avoid applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process.

MRA officials said Muslim associations remained equally burdened under the registration process because the opening of every new mosque required the formation of an association under the law. Government officials stated the law was designed to apply the same constraints on non-Muslims as on Muslims, including ensuring the compliance of religious rites with the law and respect for public order, morality, and the rights and basic freedoms of others.

According to some Christian leaders, individuals and groups who believed the MRA was not treating them fairly rarely addressed their concerns to the CNCPPDH, which was viewed as having limited authority. The MRA said it instructed employees of the agencies making up the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups to fairly enforce the ordinance which prohibited religious discrimination, and it prohibited its employees from manipulating application of the law based on the employees’ own beliefs.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious clothing including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security forces, not to wear head and face coverings that could complicate the performance of their official duties.

In October the government granted two permits, after a four month delay, for the importation of Christian religious texts to one authorized organization, which had sole standing to import Bibles on behalf of all Christian entities in the country. Christian leaders said they viewed the waiting period as an improvement over the 18-month delay in approving the previous request made in 2014. Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. The government enforced its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

The government, along with private contributions from local Muslims, continued to fund mosque construction. The government and public and private companies also funded the preservation of some churches, particularly those of historical importance. The province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre-Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

MRA officials restated the government’s willingness to respond to a request to open a synagogue, while saying Jewish religious authorities did not believe there was a large enough Jewish community to require a synagogue. A ministry official said the ministry would be equally willing to open any other religious place of worship at the request of a minority population, but had received no such requests.

Christian leaders said when Christian converts died family members sometimes buried them according to Muslim rites, and the church had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued not to permit Christians to be buried alongside Muslims. The government stated people whose lifestyle gave the impression they were non-Muslims were buried in Muslim cemeteries on the basis of their family’s testimonies. A ministry official stated that, where burial grounds were private, the cases were outside of the government’s domain.

Christians reported they continued to encounter refusals or delays when seeking government authorization to give Biblical names to their children, but said a second request following a refusal typically led to approval. The MRA stated similar delays sometimes occurred with other names which were uncommon locally, and attributed delays in approving Biblical names to overzealous local officials, who were unfamiliar with the proposed names and required additional time to seek higher-level approval.

The government did not always enforce the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

Government owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight.

In May a member of parliament affiliated with the Green Alliance, a coalition of three Islamist political parties that represented a segment of the parliamentary opposition, criticized the government for granting a visa to an Israeli journalist accompanying the French prime minister on an April visit to Algeria. An Arabic language newspaper stated that, in the member of parliament’s view, the government was normalizing relations with “Zionists who make France a door to infiltrate” the country.

Government officials continued to invite leading Christian citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as the November 1 commemoration of the revolution, according them the same status as Muslim, cultural, and national figures.

MRA representatives, in particular the minister, continued to make public statements warning against the spread of “extremist” Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, Ahmadi Islam, and the Bahai Faith. For example, in a radio interview in October, Minister Aissa stated, “We are living through a [religious] sectarian invasion.” In June he said “Neither Ahmadism, Shiism, Wahhabism, nor other sects are the products of Algerians.”

Senior government officials publicly condemned acts of violence committed in the name of Islam by nonstate actors, and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior. At an April 19 seminar, Minister Aissa called on imams to “indefatigably fight” extremist doctrines, which he characterized as “contrary to the values and principles of Algeria.” In response to terrorist attacks in other countries during the year, including in the United States, Mali, France, Libya, and Turkey, the government issued statements calling the attacks “criminal acts” for taking innocent human lives in contradiction to the tenets of Islam.

Government officials regularly made statements about the need for tolerance of non-Islamic religious groups. In remarks at an international conference on Sufism on May 18, the Inspector General of the Ministry of Religious Affairs praised Sufism for providing “a radiant image of the Muslim religion based on tolerance, open-mindedness, and the illumination and acceptance of the other.” On December 28, Minister of Religious Affairs Aissa said, “We do not criticize Christians who celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, may God’s peace be upon him. It is their culture.” In November, a member of the Council of the Nation, the upper house of parliament, spoke at a conference on tolerance in Beirut on behalf of the Council, saying, “Integrated into the society and solidified at the legal, political, cultural, and religious levels, [Algeria’s Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation] seeks to eliminate all forms of conflict, fanaticism, and discrimination and to establish peace, security, stability, and coexistence.” During Ramadan, the government continued to dedicate numerous media programs to promoting interfaith tolerance, a message the government instructed imams to amplify in their sermons.

Church groups continued to report government delays in responding to the visa applications of religious workers; they said the government often provided no response rather than a documented refusal. Both Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as a significant hindrance to religious practice. One religious leader identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. The government typically continued to grant short-stay tourist visas and some cultural work visas, rather than the requested long-term work visas; religious leaders reported recipients of these visas were concerned about their legal status when working with churches while on tourist visas. Higher-level intervention with the officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups often resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to religious groups.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a U.S. government-designated terrorist organization, continued to operate in the country, stating the government was an “apostate regime.” The group claimed credit for a March 18 attack on a gas plant in Krechba. The Jund al-Khilafa group, which has sworn allegiance to ISIS and also is a U.S. government-designated terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for killing a police officer in the city of Constantine in October and continued to call for violence against those who disagreed with its interpretation of Islam.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Several Christian leaders reported instances where citizens who converted, or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity, were assaulted by family members, or otherwise pressured to recant their conversion.

Some Muslim citizens who converted to Christianity reported they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to their concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other Muslim citizens who converted to Christianity continued to practice their new religion openly, however, according to members of the Christian community.

Christian leaders continued to report cases in which Muslim parents successfully pressured their Muslim children to divorce their Christian spouses.

Some Christian parents reported their children were reprimanded in school for openness about their religion.

The media criticized religious communities it portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadis, Shia, Ismailis, and Bahais. In October a privately owned TV channel with national coverage aired a program asserting the Ahmadiyya “sect” was more dangerous than criminal gangs. Among those who openly practiced any religion other than Sunni Islam, many reported that family, neighbors, or members of the general population criticized their choice to practice such a religion, harassed them to convert, and occasionally, insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

There were reports that some non-Muslims concealed their religious affiliation in the workplace for fear of losing their jobs.

In January following media reports that foreign embassies were under investigation for spreading Shia Islam, youth in Biskra organized a public awareness campaign warning against the spread of the Shia faith. They reportedly distributed leaflets which described Shia Islam as “invading” the country.

Both private and state run media produced reports throughout the year examining the supposed foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia, Ahmadis, and Salafists. For example, following the arrests of Ahmadi Muslims in Skikda in October, the private Ennahar television channel aired a program that featured interviews with a professor, an imam, and a scholar of Islam about what they described as the dangers of the Ahmadi faith. The program did not feature opposing viewpoints defending the Ahmadis.

Jewish citizens said they continued to try to keep their religious identity private, while otherwise engaging with society. After an Israeli journalist was granted a visa to visit Algeria in May, an Arabic-language newspaper wrote that the journalist had a “strong, Jewish-sounding name,” and an online news outlet referred to the journalist as an “Israeli Jew,” adding that the government-issued visa allowed him to “strut in the streets of Algiers to meet whoever he wants.”

Some Muslims continued to show an interest in Catholic places of worship, including visiting them for prayer; Catholics reported the interest was because Catholic religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary, were mentioned in the Quran. In some areas of major cities, observers reported shops sold Christmas trees and decorations.

One church reported local youths attempted to trespass onto its grounds to commit vandalism; the church said local security forces were supportive and subsequently boosted security around the site. Other Christian leaders said they had good relations with Muslims in the country, but reported that residents in the churches’ neighborhoods, including children, sometimes threw objects or shouted insults at church staff on days when services were held.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Christian and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, in importing religious materials, and in obtaining visas. Embassy officers also addressed the government’s stance toward minority Muslim communities.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met throughout the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders, and representatives of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance, and in the case of religious minorities, their rights and status.

The embassy sponsored the visit of a U.S. citizen Muslim writer and scholar to Algiers and Oran to engage youth in discussions of religious freedom and tolerance.

The embassy discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, and the religious and political roles of women with Islamist political parties and Islamic political figures, as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association. The embassy sponsored visits of several Muslim scholars, a representative of a Sufi order, and members of Islamist political parties to the United States and to U.S. government-funded international conferences on countering violent extremism and promoting religious moderation and tolerance. During a September visit, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with several officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to stress the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of worship.

During Ramadan, the Ambassador and embassy staff filmed messages in support of religious pluralism in the country and shared examples of pluralism and religious tolerance on social media. The Ambassador and other embassy staff hosted several iftars, which featured discussions emphasizing the theme of religious tolerance. Embassy staff and embassy-sponsored U.S. speakers also addressed these themes in discussions with youth.

Andorra

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination. In accordance with the constitution, the government continued to offer the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups. Following enactment in August of a regulation to protect animals at the time of slaughter, halal butchery continued to be permitted as long as it was carried out under veterinary supervision at the country’s slaughterhouse. Some Muslims expressed concerns individuals wearing head coverings for religious reasons had to remove them in photographs for official documents. In September the government held initial meetings with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss the possible construction of a cemetery where they could conduct burials in accordance with their religious beliefs and customs. Non-Catholic foreigners performing religious functions could not obtain permits for their religious work and had to enter the country under a different status, but could perform religious work unhindered.

The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella lent its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking community.

During periodic visits, the U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona discussed with senior government representatives and civil society leaders issues such as the lack of official status for faiths other than Catholicism and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 86,000 (July 2016 estimate). There are no statistics on the size of religious groups or census data on religious group membership. The majority of the population is Roman Catholic. Smaller religious groups include Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Bahais, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the New Apostolic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Muslim community, of which the large majority is immigrant, has grown in recent years. Muslim leaders estimate the community has 800-2,000 members. The Jewish community reports it has approximately 100 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution “guarantees freedom of ideas, religion, and cult.” It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religion or beliefs. The constitution states such freedoms may be limited only to protect public safety, order, health, or morals as prescribed by law or to protect the rights of others. The constitution acknowledges a special relationship with the Catholic Church “in accordance with Andorran tradition” and recognizes the “full legal capacity” of the bodies of the Catholic Church, granting them legal status “in accordance with their own rules.” One of two constitutionally designated princes of the country (who serves equally as joint head of state with the other prince, the President of France) is the Catholic Bishop of Urgell, Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia, whose diocese in Spain includes Andorra.

Faiths other than Catholicism do not have legal status as religious groups. The government registers religious communities as cultural organizations under the law of associations, which does not specifically mention religious groups. To build a place of worship or seek government financial support for community activities, a religious group must register as a nonprofit cultural organization and acquire legal status. To register, a group must provide its statutes and foundational agreement, a statement certifying the names of persons appointed to the board or other official positions in the organization, and a patrimony declaration that identifies the inheritance or endowment of the organization. A consolidated register of associations records all types of associations, including religious groups. The law governing the issuance of official documents such as residence permits, passports, and driver’s licenses, requires individuals to appear and be photographed with their heads uncovered.

According to the law, municipalities are responsible for the construction, preservation, and administration of cemeteries and funerary services.

In August the government approved a regulation on the protection of animals at the time of slaughter or killing. Halal slaughter is permitted so long as it takes place under the supervision of the veterinary services of the country’s slaughterhouse.

Instruction in the Catholic faith is optional in public schools. The Catholic Church provides teachers for religion classes, and the government pays their salaries. The Ministry of Education also provides space in the public schools where the religion classes are taught.

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

Government Practices

The Catholic Church continued to receive special privileges not available to other religious groups. The government paid the salaries of the eight Catholic priests serving in local churches and granted all foreign Catholic priests citizenship for as long as they exercised their functions in the country.

In September the government held initial meetings with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss the possible construction of a cemetery where they could conduct burials in accordance with their religious beliefs and customs. Although these communities could bury their dead in existing cemeteries, municipalities did not allocate separate burial areas in those cemeteries, or land for separate cemeteries, for use by the Jewish and Muslim communities. As a result, these communities generally buried their dead outside the country. The Jewish community, for example, used cemeteries in Toulouse, France, and Barcelona, Spain. The Muslim community tended to use cemeteries in Toulouse, France, or repatriate its dead and bury them in their countries of origin.

According to the prosecutor’s office, a 2014 assault by two individuals of a Jew outside of a discotheque in the city of La Massana remained under investigation.

The government continued to fund three Catholic schools at the primary and secondary level.

Foreigners performing religious functions for religious groups other than the Catholic Church could not obtain religious working permits because the law did not define what constituted a “religious worker.” These workers had to enter the country under a different status. Foreign religious workers could enter the country with permits for other positions such as schoolteachers or business workers and were able to carry out religious work without hindrance.

Members of the Muslim community again raised concerns that individuals wearing head coverings for religious reasons could not remain covered in photographs for official documents.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be no mosque in the country, but there were two Muslim prayer rooms. The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella lent its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking community.

The Muslim community processed halal products locally throughout the year. The Jewish community continued to import kosher products, as it was too small to produce them locally.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

During periodic visits, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, who is accredited to the country, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona discussed concerns about the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior and Justice officials. The officials stated they were exploring the possibility of building cemeteries for those communities.

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss issues such as the lack of legal status as religious groups for faiths other than Catholicism, the implications of regulations requiring individuals to remove head coverings for official identity documents, and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Angola

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religion. The law requires religious groups to seek government recognition by meeting rigorous criteria. In April the Huambo provincial court convicted Jose Kalupeteka, leader of the Light of the World Church, and nine of his followers for killing nine police officers in a clash between police and members of the religious group in April 2015. The government stated publicly it was concerned about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which the government said exploited vulnerable populations and threatened domestic stability. The government has not recognized any new religious groups since passage of a law on religion in 2004. While many unregistered religious groups continued to operate with tacit acceptance, the government continued not to take formal action to recognize many of these religious groups, including Muslim groups. During the year, the government attempted to bring unrecognized Christian groups together in associations that could receive government recognition en masse, requesting those groups actively support government requests and not engage in illegal practices. Some religious leaders, civil society members, and media outlets accused the government of trying to coerce religious groups to align themselves with the ruling party in exchange for authorization to operate freely. The government was also accused of destroying some places of worship in locations where it exercised eminent domain authorities to accommodate private development.

Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations continued to criticize publicly the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups. Newer and more established religious groups traded accusations of corruption and profiting from their members’ personal assets. Governmental organizations as well as some religious associations called for all new religious groups to rejoin their “mother churches” or cease operations.

U.S. embassy representatives promoted religious freedom and tolerance with the government, encouraging government officials to allow all people to worship freely and to ease restrictions on the registration of new religious groups. The embassy also continued to monitor cases involving government tensions with religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.7 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2014 national census, approximately 41 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 38 percent Protestant. Individuals not associated with any religion constitute 12 percent of the population. The remaining 10 percent is composed of animists, Muslims, Jews, and other religious groups. According to the government, most Muslims are immigrants from North, West, and East Africa. There are approximately 350 Jews, primarily foreign residents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the state as secular and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution requires the state to protect churches and religious groups as long as they comply with the law. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship and recognizes the right of religious groups to organize and carry out their activities as long as they adhere to the law. The constitution permits conscientious objections, prohibits questioning individuals about their religious beliefs for reasons other than anonymous statistical purposes, and specifies that religious rights may not be suspended even if the state declares a state of war, siege, or emergency. It recognizes the right of prisoners to receive visits from, and correspond with, religious counselors.

The religious freedom law requires religious groups to register for legal recognition from the state. Legal recognition gives religious groups the ability to purchase property collectively, use their property to hold religious events, exempt them from paying certain property taxes, and authorize the group to be treated as an incorporated entity in the court system. To apply for government recognition, a religious group must collect 100,000 member signatures from 12 of the 18 provinces and submit them to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. The law also requires religious groups to submit documents defining their doctrine, organizational structure, methods of worship, and leadership, and the amount of time the group has operated in the country. While the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is responsible for registration and recognition of religious groups, oversight of religious organizations is the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture through its National Institute for Religious Affairs.

Religious instruction is not a component of the public educational system. Private schools are allowed to teach religion.

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

Government Practices

On April 5, the Huambo provincial court convicted Jose Kalupeteka, the leader of the Light of the World Church, and nine of his followers for killing nine police officers in a clash between police and members of the sect in April 2015. Kalupeteka was sentenced to 28 years in prison. According to official figures, 13 civilians were also killed in the clash. Opposition parties reported the clash resulted in a much higher casualty rate, but figures vary widely and remain unconfirmed.

On August 9, new clashes between police and Light of the World followers in Kwanza Sul Province reportedly resulted in the deaths of five sect members and three police officers. The media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported security forces confronted followers in the same area on August 13, resulting in an unknown number of casualties. The government stated the attorney general’s office was investigating the case, but could not confirm if there were any casualties from the August 13 incident.

In August the government reported several other incidents involving the Light of the World Church and continued to state that some of the group’s practices were destabilizing to social order, such as prohibiting schooling and vaccination of its children.

In July in Mbanza Congo in Zaire Province, religious leader Manuel Nvika was sentenced to three months in jail for disobedience and contempt of court after failing to remove a head covering during a judicial hearing after his group had split from the Christian Union of the Holy Spirit Church. Fifteen other followers were arrested during the trial for contempt of court after the judge ordered Nvika to uncover his head during the proceedings, an act the group stated it considered blasphemous.

In April the press reported that Jorge Mpata, a religious leader from the Evangelic Community for the Prosperity of the Souls, was arrested and charged with harboring illegal immigrants in the northern province of Cabinda. Mpata said his arrest was a result of his refusal to support the ruling party. Authorities subsequently banned his church. Civil society organizations reported the government has been pressuring churches to support the government in the lead-up to planned elections in August 2017.

The government stated publicly it was concerned about the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which it said used methods that exploited vulnerable populations, especially the poor, and threatened domestic stability.

The government did not make progress on the issue of recognizing new religious groups. The government has officially recognized 81 religious groups, all Christian, but has not recognized a new religious group since 2004, when the current application system was created. A large number of groups continue to await recognition despite having submitted several applications for registration. In 2015, the government estimated that approximately 1300 religious groups were operating without government recognition, often providing education and medical care to their members despite no legal authority to do so.

In some instances, the government disbanded religious organizations and organizations operating without government recognition, and some religious leaders stated they had been the victims of politically motivated prosecution for various criminal charges both tied to, and sometimes unrelated to, the practice of their religion. The government, however, said it routinely worked with religious groups to bring them into compliance with local laws.

During the year the government led an effort to bring unrecognized Christian groups together in associations that could receive government recognition en masse, requesting those groups actively support government requests, such as calls to register for elections, and not to engage in illegal practices. The government approved the operation of three coalitions of Christian churches – counting numerous smaller churches among their members – as a way to allow those churches to operate legally. Members of the religious community in partnership with the government created two organizations – the evangelical Union of Churches of the Holy Spirit in Angola and the Protestant Christian Church Coalition of Angola –to legitimize smaller, unrecognized churches as affiliates of the umbrella group. Some religious leaders, civil society members, and media outlets accused the government of trying to coerce religious groups to align themselves with the ruling party in exchange for authorization to operate freely. Many groups also stated they remained unrecognized and the rigorous requirements imposed by the 2004 law discouraged them from applying for legal authority to operate.

The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups officially, although the government did not force mosques to close, particularly in Luanda. Some members of the Muslim community stated the high threshold for obtaining legal status, combined with the fact the majority of recognized religious organizations were Christian, indicated the government opposed recognizing non-Christian religious groups. The Bahai Faith and the Global Messianic Church remained the only two non-Christian organizations legally registered. In the past, government officials had stated that some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution.

The government was accused of demolishing religious places of worship in the Zango municipality of Luanda. NGO sources stated that, during a planned demolition of an illegally established housing cluster in Zango in August, government soldiers demolished three Catholic churches and threatened a priest who attempted to stop them. In addition, in Curoca municipality in Cunene Province, Church leaders and media stated the government destroyed places of worship as well as cemeteries. Local human rights organizations also stated the government destroyed some places of worship under eminent domain authorities while clearing large swathes of residential communities to make way for private development. According to media sources, much of the land forcibly taken by the government belonged to indigenous pastoralists in the southern part of the country. Church leaders publicly denounced the forced evictions by developers and businesspersons.

On July 20, Vice President Manuel Vicente reportedly called for closer collaboration and cooperation between the Catholic Church and the government to promote moral values, human rights, mutual respect, democracy, and good governance. The vice president stated this during his remarks at the opening ceremony of the 17th Plenary Assembly of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar in Luanda.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some leaders of legally recognized religious organizations continued to criticize publicly the proliferation of smaller, unrecognized religious groups. Governmental organizations as well as some religious associations called for all new religious groups to rejoin their “mother churches” or cease operations.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives engaged with government officials on religious freedom issues and encouraged them to develop regulations to expand the rights of citizens to exercise their religion freely. The embassy maintained regular contact with many religious groups, including some not legally recognized by the government, as well as faith-based NGOs.

Antigua and Barbuda

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of worship as well as the right to practice and change religion. Rastafarians continued to express concern that government practices, including the prohibition of marijuana use, required vaccination for entry to public schools, and headdress restrictions, negatively impacted their religious activities and convictions. They also reported being subjected to undue scrutiny at security checkpoints.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

The U.S. embassy engaged representatives of the government and civil society on religious freedom issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 94,000 (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 17.6 percent of the population is Anglican, 12.4 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 12.2 percent Pentecostal, 8.3 percent Moravian, 8.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 5.6 percent Methodist. Those having unspecified or no religious beliefs account for 5.5 percent and 5.9 percent of the population, respectively. Members of the Baptist Church, the Church of God, and the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium each account for less than 5 percent. The census categorizes an additional 12.2 percent of the population as belonging to other religious groups, including Rastafarians, Muslims, Hindus, and Bahais.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of worship as well as the right to change and practice the religion of one’s choosing. The constitution protects individuals from taking oaths contradictory to their beliefs or participating in events and activities of religions not their own, including participating in or receiving unwanted religious education. These freedoms may be limited in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality or health, or to protect the rights of others, unless actions under such limitations can be shown “not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The constitution prohibits members of the clergy from running for elected office. No law may be adopted that contradicts these constitutional provisions. The law that outlaws blasphemous language is not enforced.

In order to receive tax and duty-free concessions and to own, build, or renovate property, religious groups must register with the government. To register, religious groups must fill out an online tax form which determines the group’s activities and the corresponding taxes. The completed form is submitted to the Inland Revenue Department for review and approval. Registration and tax statuses are routinely granted.

Public schools do not allow religious instruction. Private religious schools may provide religious instruction.

The law prohibits the use of marijuana, including for religious purposes.

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

Government Practices

The Caribbean Rastafari Organization (CRO) said the government’s prohibition of marijuana restricted the practice of their religious rights because marijuana was integral to their religious rituals. The CRO said Rastafarians disagreed with the public school requirement that children be vaccinated, which it stated was against the religious beliefs of Rastafarians. The organizations also said the requirement to remove head coverings for passport photos and at security checkpoints was an infringement of Rastafarians’ religious rights. Members of religious groups were permitted to wear their head coverings for passport photos if they provided a letter from their religious organization verifying membership.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officers engaged various government officials on religious freedom. Embassy officers also met with members of nongovernmental organizations, religious leaders, including leaders of minority religious groups, and the head of the Christian Council to discuss religious freedom issues.

Argentina

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s faith freely. The constitution provides that the government will support the Roman Catholic Church. By law, public schools are secular, but private schools run by registered religious institutions are eligible for government subsidies. The government continued its investigation into the 1994 bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center. In March President Mauricio Macri told leaders attending the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress that his government was “fully committed to … mak[ing] headway” in the investigations of the AMIA attack, the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, and the unsolved death of AMIA Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman. The government continued to provide protection for Baptist Pastor Marcelo Nieva and his church following multiple incidents of harassment and intimidation targeting the pastor for his work against human trafficking and gender-based violence. A government official from a small city in Buenos Aires Province resigned from his position after he made a post on social media disparaging Muslims; the posting engendered widespread criticism on traditional and social media. The government initiated an education campaign in public and private schools to counter a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, which observers attributed to public reaction to terrorist attacks in Europe and in response to the government’s announcement of its decision to accept 3,000 Syrian refugees.

In August students from the Lanus Oeste German School in Buenos Aires who were wearing swastika armbands and false Hitler mustaches instigated a fight with a group of Jewish students at a nightclub. In July a plastic bottle filled with cement was thrown through the window of the Maccabi Jewish community center in Santa Fe province. Attached to the bottle was a note threatening further violence and bearing the logo of ISIS. The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) documented 478 reported complaints of anti-Semitism in 2015, the most recent available data, an increase of 55 percent over the previous year. More than half of the incidents occurred on the internet or through social media. The group attributed the increase to more awareness and a change in reporting format.

Embassy representatives met with government representatives to discuss ways to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with the secretary of worship and the minister for human rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss religious tolerance and anti-Semitism. Outreach efforts included regular meetings with religious and community leaders. The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials actively engaged with the government, civil society groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to facilitate interfaith dialogue and promote religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.9 million (July 2016 estimate). National census data does not track religious affiliation. Religious demographic and statistical data from NGOs, research centers, and religious leaders vary. According to the Pew Research Center, Roman Catholics constitute 71 percent of the population. Protestants are 15 percent, and atheists, agnostics, and those with no religious affiliation constitute 11 percent. Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) together total 3 percent of the population. The Jewish population is approximately 250,000-300,000 and the Muslim population is estimated to be between 450,000 and one million. Evangelical Protestant communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing in size.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice one’s faith freely. It attests the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.

Non-Catholic groups may register with the Secretariat of Worship in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship. Registration is not compulsory but provides for tax-exempt status for religious groups, visas for religious officials, the ability to hold public activities, as well as other benefits. Non-Catholic religious groups may register and receive the same status and fiscal benefits as Catholic groups. To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements. Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those in homes, but is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. For example, city authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for public activities, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the secretariat to receive the permit. Once an organization is registered, it must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, address of headquarters, or other relevant information. The government has recognized more than 5,300 non-Catholic religious groups.

The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law. Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in some public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution. Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.

The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies.

Foreign religious officials of registered religious groups may apply for a separate category of visa to enter the country. The length of the visa can vary depending on the purpose of the travel. Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of the appropriate documents.

The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups. INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion. INADI does not have the authority to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court. The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination. INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.

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

Government Practices

The investigation into the death of Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman continued through the year. In January 2015 Nisman, the lead federal prosecutor responsible for the investigation of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA community center in Buenos Aires, was discovered dead in his apartment from a gunshot to the head. In March President Macri told leaders attending the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress that his government was “fully committed to… mak[ing] headway” with the investigation of the unsolved death of Special Prosecutor Nisman. The government also continued its investigation into the 1994 bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center. In March President Macri told leaders attending the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress that his government was “fully committed to… mak[ing] headway” in the investigations of the AMIA attack, the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, and the unsolved death of AMIA Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman.

The government continued to protect Pastor Marcelo Nieva and his Baptist Evangelical church in Rio Tercero, Cordoba Province, following violence directed towards his church in October 2014. Nieva stated that on April 24, an assailant in an automobile threatened him and his spouse, and that criminal groups continued to harass him and his church because of his social work, particularly with victims of sex trafficking and gender-based violence.

In August the institutional relations director for the city of Chacabuco, Buenos Aires Province provoked widespread criticism on traditional and social media after he published an anti-Islamic statement on his Facebook account. The official resigned his position with the local legislature as a result of the controversy.

In September the government announced that INADI would conduct an education campaign at public and private schools to facilitate a better understanding of Islamic culture, religion, and tradition among young people. The educational campaign was designed to counter a rise in reported complaints of discrimination against Muslims that media reports attributed to public reaction to news of terrorist attacks in Europe credited to ISIS, and to the government’s decision to accept 3,000 Syrian refugees.

Jewish groups reported that relations with the government had improved since the change of administration in December 2015. The groups said the environment between the government and the Jewish community transformed from one of hostility to one of close collaboration.

The secretary of worship, the Buenos Aires director general for religious affairs, and other government representatives hosted and attended religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, and Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches throughout the year.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 25, students from the Lanus Oeste German School of Buenos Aires engaged in a fistfight at a nightclub in Bariloche with Jewish students from the Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor (ORT) School of Buenos Aires. Some of the students from the German school wore swastika armbands and false Hitler mustaches, and deliberately provoked a brawl with the Jewish students; no one was seriously injured in the fight. The German school students were disciplined and compelled by the school headmaster to visit the Buenos Aires Holocaust Museum in the company of the Jewish students.

On July 5, an unknown assailant threw a plastic bottle filled with cement through the window of the Maccabi Jewish community center in Santa Fe Province. A note was attached to the bottle, which read “This is a warning, the next one will explode.” The note contained the ISIS logo and the Arabic expression “Allahu Akbar (God is great).”

DAIA documented 478 reported complaints of anti-Semitism in 2015, an increase of 55 percent over the previous year. Less than 10 percent of incidents involved violence and more than half occurred on the internet, including through social media. DAIA attributed the increase in complaints to modified procedures for accounting for incidents of anti-Semitism on social media, and to expansive media attention of the investigation into the death of Special Prosecutor Nisman in 2015.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In regular meetings with the Secretariat of Worship, religious leaders, and civil society organizations, U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, refugees, the status of the AMIA case, and ways to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. On July 18 the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with the secretary of worship and the minister for human rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss religious tolerance and anti-Semitism. The parties discussed challenges associated with the country’s pledge to accept 3,000 Syrian refugees, and how religious institutions of all faiths could partner with the government to assist in the reception and integration of refugees.

In meetings with senior Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders from the national government and the city government of Buenos Aires, the Ambassador discussed religious tolerance, diversity, the interfaith movement, refugees and the poor, and measures to counteract religious discrimination.

The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism was a panelist at the first Latin American Global Forum Against Anti-Semitism in Buenos Aires on July 16. The forum sought to advance a regional approach to combatting religious discrimination and anti-Semitism, and to promote greater interfaith dialogue. The Special Envoy and the Ambassador met with national religious and civic leaders and civil society organizations such as DAIA, AMIA, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress, and the Islamic Center of Argentina.

Embassy officials regularly attended conferences, observances, and commemorations organized by religious groups and NGOs including DAIA, AMIA, the Islamic Center of Argentina, the Islamic Center for Peace, the Evangelical Church of Argentina, and the United Religious Initiative. The events advocated interfaith cooperation and universal tolerance in respecting the freedom of religion. The embassy also participated in the Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue World Congress.

Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution grants everyone the rights of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In establishing freedom of worship, the constitution stipulates the separation of religious organizations and the state. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity. Christian minority religious groups had the freedom to worship, but some Christians said they needed to practice their religion discreetly. A Vanadzor city council member from the Renaissance Party and a group of his supporters physically attacked the pastor of an evangelical church, reportedly for refusing to promote their political party. Evangelical Christian groups reported they had given up requesting permission for their pastors to visit prisoners due to repeated denials by the authorities. According to a number of religious groups, representatives from local governments continued to obstruct their attempts to construct new houses of worship. Human rights activists continued to express concern over the government’s concurrence with the AAC’s dissemination in schools of its doctrine equating AAC affiliation with the national identity. According to minority religious groups and NGOs, government rhetoric equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC continued to fuel discrimination against religious organizations other than the AAC.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they registered 17 cases of physical/verbal harassment during the year, compared with 33 such cases in 2015; they attributed the decrease to prompt police action to stop such incidents. According to Christian minority religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media in general were less critical of minority religious groups than in previous years, although some media outlets continued to broadcast what the groups said was unverified and biased information about religious minorities. In September a private television channel broadcast a story linking The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) to the alleged sexual assault of a minor.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officers met with AAC leaders to engage the AAC in supporting the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. Embassy officers met with minority religious groups to discuss the problems they continued to face in obtaining permits to construct houses of worship, as well as their continuing concerns about discrimination in public sector employment, about the religion courses taught in the country’s schools, and about unequal treatment and discrimination in society.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies with the AAC. Other religious groups, none supported by more than 1 percent of the population, include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, pagans, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims.

Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats, and Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Jews, Mormons, and Orthodox Christians reside in Yerevan, along with a small community of Muslims, most of whom are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right only in order to protect state security, public order, health and morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes “the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church as a national church in the spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms for the purpose of inciting religious hatred. It allows conscientious objectors to military service to perform alternative civilian service.

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion.

According to the law, a registered religious group may exercise the following rights: to minister to the religious and spiritual needs of their faithful; to perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; to establish groups for religious instruction; to engage in theological, religious, and historical and cultural studies; to train members for clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; to obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; to use communications media; to establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and to engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but in order for a religious group to conduct business in its own name (e.g., own property, rent property, establish bank accounts), it must register. The law does not stipulate the rights accorded to unregistered groups.

In order to register as a legal entity, a religious community has to present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture;” be “free from materialism and is of a spiritual nature;” have at least 200 adult members; and its doctrine be espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are considered to be part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities. A decision by the Office of the State Registrar may be appealed through the courts.

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($420) or detention of up to two months.

The Human Rights Defender’s office (Ombudsman’s office) has a mandate to address violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of the state and local governments.

The law prohibits an employee of the police, the National Security Service, the service for mandatory enforcement of court rulings, the penitentiary service, the rescue service, or the military from being a member of a religious organization. The law does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization. The law prohibits the members of the police, the military, and the national security service, as well as prosecutors and other state and civil servants from using their official position for the benefit of “religious associations” or from preaching in support of them. The law also prohibits the police, prosecutors, and other state and civil servants from carrying out other religious activities while performing official duties. The law also prohibits members of the military from organizing “religious associations.” While the law defines a “religious organization” as an association of citizens established for professing a common faith as well as for fulfilling other religious needs, there is no definition for “religious associations.”

The law allows the AAC free access to, and the right to station representatives in, hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only upon receipt of permission from the head of the institution.

The law mandates public education be secular, and states “religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited, with the exception of cases provided by law.” Courses on the history of the AAC are a mandatory part of the national curriculum in public and private schools in grades five through 11.

The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabus and textbooks for these courses and to define the qualifications of their teachers. The Church may nominate candidates to teach the courses, although the teachers are state employees. All students are required to enroll in these classes; there is no opt-out provision. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities, but not within the premises of state educational institutions.

The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on religious views of employees.

The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for a duration of 30 months or alternative labor service for a duration of 36 months. Evasion of alternative service remains a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment depending on the circumstances of the case.

The law does not recognize groups organized on the basis of religion as political parties.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred through violence, public statements, or the mass media and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($420 to $1,000) or prison terms between two and six years.

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

Government Practices

On October 4, media reported a member of the Vanadzor City Council, Arkadi Peleshyan, entered the Vanadzor Evangelical Church with a group of his supporters on October 2 and severely beat the church’s pastor and President of the Union of Churches of Evangelical Faith of Armenia, Rafael Grigoryan. The Investigative Committee, an independent body responsible for conducting pretrial investigations, launched an investigation into whether Peleshyan should be formally charged with battery. According to public statements by Grigoryan, the assault was related to his refusal to allow the distribution of promotional materials for Pelehsyan’s political party during Sunday services. The website Protestant.am, a media initiative of Evangelical Christians, issued a statement on October 5 condemning the attack and stating it was caused by “the air of impunity, hate speech and intolerance spread by media toward Christians of evangelical faith.” On November 8, the Investigative Committee suspended the case following a reconciliation between Grigoryan and Peleshyan after the latter made a public apology for the attack.

Some minority Christian groups reported they had the freedom to worship provided they did so discreetly and limited their activities to their own premises and community. They said attempting to expand beyond those premises or attempting to expand their existing membership through proselytizing could potentially create problems. For this reason, the groups said, they kept their activities low profile and exercised self-censorship.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses said they continued to pursue legal avenues for the protection of their rights and tried to maintain a dialogue with the government. They reported they received more police protection while engaging in their public ministry and discerned an improved attitude on the part of government authorities toward their members. Most religious groups, however, said they preferred to solve their issues off the record to avoid the possibility of further problems.

Evangelical Christian groups reported they had given up requesting permission for their pastors to visit prisoners, despite requests by prison inmates, because prison administrators had repeatedly denied them permission for such visits in the last several years.

According to several religious groups, representatives from local governments continued to obstruct their attempts to obtain approval of the required architectural planning studies and building and occupancy permits for houses of worship on land religious groups owned. Representatives of several minority faiths continued to report local authorities granted building permits for places of worship only after receiving informal approval from the leadership of the AAC. Some religious groups said they were more successful in obtaining building permits if they did so using the name of a private individual, or if the stated purpose in applying for the permit was to use the building for a purpose other than as a place of worship. Other groups reported rather than try to build new places of worship, they obtained existing buildings and renovated them for this purpose.

A Yezidi group reported local authorities in the village of Jrashen refused its request to build a monument to a Yezidi leader in the town square. According to the Yezidi group, while no written rejection was provided, the reason for the refusal was the possibility of constructing an AAC church in the same square at some time in the future and the AAC’s desire not to have a Yezidi monument with religious symbolism near an AAC church.

Human rights activists continued to express concern over the government’s integration of the AAC into the public education system and its granting of permission to the AAC to disseminate materials in schools with rhetoric equating AAC affiliation with the national identity.

According to a report on religious freedom in the country issued in March by the Collaboration for Democracy, a local NGO, the public educational system curriculum promoted the identification of the Armenian ethnic identity with the AAC, for example in the 10th grade textbook for the course on the History of the Armenian Church, which stated the AAC turned faith into one of the most important features of the national identity. According to the NGO, other classes, such as those on the Armenian language, history and literature, also contained elements equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC. According to the report, there were other problems with the course on the History of the Armenian Church, including hate speech towards religious organizations other than the AAC, the performance of AAC religious rituals during classes, and the lack of opportunities to take an alternative course.

Yezidi community representatives continued to report their dissatisfaction with the mandatory AAC history course, which they said was religious indoctrination. NGOs, religious organizations, atheists, and non-practicing members of the AAC publicly voiced similar concerns. There were reports of some AAC clergy teaching this course, and making visits to AAC churches part of the course, without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites. According to media reports, AAC clergy also visited state-funded kindergartens, including during celebrations of AAC holidays, and organized visits of kindergarten classes to AAC churches.

Following public criticism and international attention focused on the AAC’s role in education, observers reported the AAC had instructed the teachers of the ACC history course to be more respectful of the religious views of students. Observers stated teachers appeared to follow this guidance and made fewer negative comments about other religions, although conducting prayers during the AAC history course remained common. Most minority religious groups did not report complaints from their members about discriminatory treatment of students by teachers of the AAC history course. Some groups reported a few cases in which teachers made negative comments about the religious views of students. When this did occur, the groups reported the parents usually were able to resolve the issue by speaking with the teacher or the principal of the school. Such cases were more likely to occur in rural areas than in Yerevan, the groups said.

According to a February 1 article posted on Medialab.am, an academic expert on religious matters stated the required course on the History of the Armenian Church contravened the freedom of religion and forced students and their parents to hide their religious affiliations to avoid ridicule. In response, the site reported, then Minister of Education and Science Armen Ashotyan stated the basis for the required course was the provision of the constitution recognizing the AAC as the national church and the preserver of national identity. In a February 19 interview with the Irates newspaper about the required course, Deputy Minister of Education Manouk Mkrtchyan stated patriotism involved “preserving and especially protecting the characteristics specific to the homeland,” which he said included the Armenian Apostolic faith as a part of the motherland – “the essence of our nation.”

Based on a pilot program launched in 2012 by the Ministry of Education, school administrations had the option to include a different course, entitled History of the AAC/Christian Education, in their curriculum for grades two through four. Once a school chose this option, the course became mandatory for the students in those grades. During the year 83 schools throughout the country followed this option.

According to media reports, on August 26, the new Minister of Education and Science, Levon Mkrtchyan, visited the Lori region to hold consultations with the teachers and principals of public schools. At the suggestion of the Primate of the Diocese of Gougark, Archbishop Sepouh Chuljian, the meeting began with a prayer from the AAC liturgy.

According to various religious groups and NGOs that advocated for religious tolerance, government rhetoric equating national identity to affiliation with the AAC continued to fuel discrimination against religious organizations other than the AAC.

Religious groups affiliated with ethnic minorities, such as Apostolic Assyrians, continued to report better relations with government institutions than did other minority religious groups whose members included ethnic Armenians.

In its March 9 report, the Collaboration for Democracy stated it had found discrimination and dismissals in government, public educational institutions and the military due to religious affiliation. According to the NGO, the government used provisions of the law prohibiting membership of law-enforcement employees and other public service employees in religious organizations, to limit the rights of those employees. The NGO reported the government interpreted the provisions prohibiting membership in religious organizations to mean affiliation with any religious group other than the AAC was prohibited. According to several minority religious groups, public employees and members of law enforcement agencies either chose not to attend religious services or kept their attendance hidden, fearing they might lose their jobs. Another group, however, reported it had government employee members who did not hide their religious membership and had suffered no repercussions. According to a Yezidi group, Yezidis faced discrimination during military service such as being prohibited from serving in the intelligence forces due to their religious and ethnic identity. According to the group, AAC chaplains forced Yezidi servicemen to pray during AAC religious services.

Several minority religious groups reported their members preferred not to publicize their religious affiliation while in military service, although conscripts continued to be required to declare their religion when beginning their service. The government continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the army’s chaplaincy program.

The Word of Life evangelical church reported the appeal by a member of the church to rejoin the army was denied by the military in September. The church member had been forced to resign from the army due to her religious beliefs in November 2015. In denying her appeal, the Chief of the Department of the Administrative Apparatus of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, General Major Aris Brutyan, stated in a letter “according to the requirements of the Law on Starting Military Service…a military serviceperson is prohibited from becoming a member of any political party, religious or trade union.” The letter further stated “according to the position of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Word of Life is a charismatic movement, which has typical totalitarian and destructive attributes, and as a destructive religious movement, it represents a public and national threat.” As of year’s end, the Word of Life church was working with the Office of the Human Rights Defender to try to help the individual regain her military position.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 17 of their members completed alternative civilian service for conscientious objection by the end of the year. As of November, the most recent date for which data was available, 207 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had participated in the alternative civilian service program since the legal reform of the program in 2013, according to leaders of the community. They said the state committee responsible for coordinating and reviewing the applications for alternative service continued to be cooperative, and the program worked well. The group also stated society as a whole responded positively to their members carrying out alterative civilian service.

The Collaboration for Democracy also reported the government tolerated the spreading of hate speech, and the dissemination of defamatory and inaccurate information about minority religious groups, through public and private TV broadcasts without taking any steps to curb or punish it. The NGO additionally reported the government hindered the charitable activities of minority religious groups, although without providing specifics.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On September 23, the private ATV television channel broadcast a story about the alleged sexual assault of a minor whose family belonged to the Mormon Church. During the program, a purported guest expert, known for his rhetoric against religious minorities, presented additional material that he claimed substantiated a link between the Mormon Church and the assault.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year there were 17 incidents of physical and verbal harassment of their members while they were engaging in their public ministry, a decline from 33 such incidents in the previous year. In one case, literature carts used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses were overturned with minor damage. Following a prompt response from police officers on duty in the area, the group reported, the offenders did not interfere with the group’s activity again.

According to minority Christian groups and NGOs, the media in general were less critical of minority religious groups than in previous years, although some media outlets continued to label minority religious groups as “sects” and broadcast what the groups said was unverified and biased information about religious minorities. At the same time, the groups said it was possible to find articles, especially in online media, covering religious issues in an unbiased manner and presenting different perspectives. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, stated they welcomed what they perceived to be an increased atmosphere of religious tolerance on the part of officials and the public.

According to one minority Christian group, some journalists, especially on television media outlets, avoided positive coverage of minorities due to fear of reprimand from the station ownership.

On November 9, the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), a local NGO, held its second Annual Media Award Ceremony for the best coverage of issues related to the freedom of religion or belief. The ceremony was a part of EPF’s program to promote religious tolerance and non-discrimination and was implemented with the support of the Dutch government. Fourteen printed articles, 12 caricatures and 3 videos were nominated for the award. According to human rights NGOs, the EPF initiative had a positive impact on media coverage of religious issues.

During his June visit to the country, Pope Francis met with the supreme head of the AAC, Catholicos Garegin II, and other AAC leaders and praised the AAC for the maintenance of Christian identity within the country.

Construction continued on what the media called the world’s largest Yezidi temple on a site in the small village of Aknalich, with the intention of establishing it as the “spiritual center” for the country’s Yezidis.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officers met with a representative of the Ministry of Defense to discuss religious tolerance in the army and the legal restrictions against members of religious groups joining the military. The Ambassador regularly brought together representatives of the government, the office of the Human Rights Defender, and religious minorities to discuss problems of discrimination faced by religious minorities, to foster a dialogue between the government and the religious groups, and to explore cooperative solutions to those problems.

The Ambassador met with leaders of the AAC to engage them in supporting the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. On April 1, the Ambassador and embassy officers attended the New Year’s celebrations of Apostolic Assyrians in the village of Verin Dvin in the Ararat region to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

Embassy officers continued to meet with representatives of religious and ethnic/religious minorities, including Catholics, evangelicals and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Yezidis, Apostolic Assyrians, and Jews, to discuss restrictions on their ability to practice their respective faiths and difficulties they faced obtaining permits to construct houses of worship. On October 20, embassy officers met with pastor Grigoryan and issued a statement condemning the violence against him. Embassy officers also continued to meet with civil society groups to discuss their concerns over the AAC history courses taught in the country’s schools and discrimination against religious minorities in society. Embassy officers participated in the EPF Annual Media Award jury and the ceremony to support religious tolerance in the media.

Australia

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office. In August the Australian Capital Territory parliament passed legislation making it a crime to vilify someone based on his or her religion. In January the Victoria state government removed religious instruction from the public school curriculum and allowed students wishing to attend religious classes to do so during lunchtime or before or after school for 30 minutes. The Queensland state government suspended a Bible-based school program while reviewing its use in public schools. The campaign platform of the One Nation Party, which had four senators elected during the July federal elections, included cessation of Muslim immigration and limits on some Islamic practices. The prime minister stated his commitment to an “inclusive multicultural society which is based on mutual respect.” The government continued to run extensive programs to support religious pluralism.

In March approximately 10 youths assaulted three Muslim schoolgirls at a local park in Geelong, Victoria. The attack included both verbal and physical abuse and forcibly pulling off the hijabs of two of the schoolgirls. There were reports of vandalism of places of worship and verbal abuse of Jews and Muslims. A Presbyterian church in Western Geelong was destroyed by fire on April 15, and on May 18 a fire damaged the main mosque in Geelong, which is housed in a former church building. Authorities made no arrests in what they reported may be a series of suspicious fires. Three churches in Geelong had been burned the previous year.

The U.S. embassy and the U.S. consulates general in Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney regularly engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. Embassy and consulate general officers at all levels, including the Ambassador, engaged with religious communities and promoted religious tolerance in person and through social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.9 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 61 percent of residents are Christian, including 25 percent Roman Catholic and 17 percent Anglican. Buddhists constitute 2.5 percent of the population; Muslims 2.2 percent; Hindus 1.3 percent, and Jews 0.5 percent. Eight percent either did not state a religious affiliation or stated other religious affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 22.3 percent report having no religious affiliation.

The census indicated indigenous persons constitute 2.5 percent of the population, and that 1 percent of indigenous respondents practice traditional indigenous religions. Among this group, affiliation with a traditional indigenous religion is higher in very remote areas (6 percent) than in all other areas (less than 1 percent). Approximately 60 percent of indigenous respondents identify themselves as Christian and an estimated 20 percent report having no religious affiliation. The remainder either did not state a religious affiliation or stated other religious affiliations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office.

There are certain legal limitations on the right to religious freedom, including the necessity of protecting public safety, order, and health, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination have recourse under federal discrimination laws or through the court system and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion; however, seven of the eight states and territories have laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of a person’s religion or ethnoreligious background. South Australia is the only state or territory that does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. All other states and territories have independent agencies to mediate allegations of religious discrimination. In August the parliament of the Australian Capital Territory passed legislation making it a crime to vilify someone based on his or her religion.

Religious groups are not required to register. To receive tax-exempt status for income or other benefits and an exemption from the goods and services tax (sales tax), however, nonprofit religious groups must apply to the Australia Tax Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO checks. To receive tax-exempt status, an organization must be a nonprofit entity. An organization’s activities, size, and permanence are some of the factors taken into account when determining its tax-exempt status.

The government permits religious education in public schools, generally taught by volunteers using approved curricula; parents may decide whether their children will attend or not. There is no national standard for approving religious curricula, which happens at state and local levels. Public schools in New South Wales provide secular ethics classes as an alternative for students who do not attend optional scripture classes.

In January the Victoria state government removed religious instruction from the public school curriculum. Students in Victoria can attend religious classes on school grounds for a maximum of 30 minutes per week, but only during lunchtime or in the hours before or after school.

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

Government Practices

Four senators from the One Nation Party were elected during the July federal elections on a platform which included ceasing Muslim immigration, holding a royal commission on Islam, halting construction of mosques, installing surveillance cameras in mosques, banning wearing of the burqa and niqab in public places, and prohibiting members of parliament from being sworn in under the Quran. In her first senate speech, One Nation Party Leader Pauline Hanson said the country was “in danger of being swamped by Muslims.” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull disagreed with her views and said “my commitment is to an inclusive multicultural society which is based on mutual respect. The more we respect each other the more secure we become.”

In August an anti-Muslim rally was held in the Melbourne suburb of Melton. Approximately 150 members of nationalist groups attended the rally to oppose the construction of a 75-lot housing development that protestors said was a “Muslim housing estate.” Fifty police officers were present to maintain order and warn against illegal hate speech. The rally was criticized by Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten who stated such actions were taking the country “down the wrong path and the wrong direction.”

The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer and then the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional. The Green Party and other groups called for the practice to end.

In June the federal High Court rejected a request to hear an appeal against the construction of a mosque in Bendigo. The Australian Muslims of Bendigo issued the statement: “we believe the decision is in line with every Australian’s constitutional right to practice their faith.” Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews welcomed the High Court’s decision. In 2015, local residents opposed decisions providing for the construction of the mosque, reportedly for zoning reasons. Others reportedly opposed the construction of mosques in general.

In April the local council blocked approval for the building of a mosque in southeast Melbourne amid opposition from nationalist groups and local residents. The local government said the mosque should not be built due to its size and because it would not fit in with the local landscape, but critics said the decision represented community and nationalist backlash against Muslims.

In November Orthodox Jews in the northern Sydney suburb of St. Ives won approval to retain an eruv, “a wire cable attached to power poles which extends the private dwelling [in terms of religious practice] to an area encompassing a few blocks or more, giving Orthodox Jews freedom to participate in community activities on the Sabbath.” Several Christians spoke up in defense of the eruv, stating “there is no place for exclusion, discrimination, or anti-Semitism.”

In June the state government of Queensland conducted a review of religious education in state public schools after suspending the long standing Connect curriculum at Windsor State School. The three-year religious education program was said to “solicit” students to become Christians. State Education Minister Kate Jones said the lesson materials “go beyond imparting knowledge of Biblical references, and extend to soliciting children to develop a personal faith in God and Jesus to become a Christian.”

Public and private schools in New South Wales worked to implement the state government’s A$47 million ($34 million) School Communities Working Together program, released in 2015, to help at-risk schools counter “antisocial and extremist behavior.” It included training to assist school staff identify vulnerable young people; specialist support teams; and a telephone hotline for teachers to report such incidents.

The government continued to provide funding for security installations – such as lighting, fencing, and closed-circuit television cameras – and for the cost of employing security guards, in order to protect schools and preschools facing a risk of attack, harassment, or violence stemming from racial or religious intolerance. This funding was available at both government and nongovernment schools, including religious schools.

In Victoria, the parliament was considering an amendment to equal opportunity legislation that would bar faith-based schools and organizations from discriminating against someone because of religious beliefs or activities, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, or gender identity. Some religious organizations stated they feared the amendment would prevent them from considering adherence to the organization’s religious beliefs when selecting employees.

In May the University of Sydney student union withdrew its threat to deregister a religious organization after Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim groups joined together to advocate for amending the union’s regulations to allow declarations based on faith as a condition of membership and leadership of faith-based groups on campus.

In June Prime Minister Turnbull became the first sitting prime minister to host an iftar and stated “the Australian Muslim community is valued and respected – and it is not confined to a narrow security prism – you are an integral part of an Australian family that rests on the essential foundation of mutual respect and understanding.”

The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, The People of Australia, was based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion and included religious tolerance as a component. The government provided a range of youth-focused early intervention, outreach, and education programs to promote religious tolerance as well as “deradicalization” programs for prison inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In March approximately 10 youths assaulted three Muslim schoolgirls at a local city park in Geelong, Victoria. The attack included both verbal and physical abuse and forcibly pulling off the hijabs of two of the schoolgirls. By the end of the year, no arrests were made.

Religious tolerance advocates and those who opposed the spread of Islam held competing demonstrations in Melbourne during the year. Police made arrests following violence between the groups during protests in May and July.

Arsonists destroyed two places of worship in the state of Victoria, a Presbyterian church in western Geelong on April 15 and the main mosque in Geelong on May 18. The mosque was a refurbished Christian church and police believe the mosque may have been mistakenly targeted as a church. Police said the arson attacks may have been linked to three other church burnings in Geelong since October 2015. Some observers said the royal commission into child sexual abuse may have inspired the attacks against churches (or what were thought to be churches).

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported 210 anti-Semitic incidents of threats or abuse during the year, up from 190 the previous year. In September leaflets containing Holocaust-denial material were distributed in several Australian university campuses in Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra. The leaflets asserted the Holocaust never happened and it was “the greatest swindle of all time.”

Over 300 incidents were reported in the first 12 months of the Islamophobia Register Australia, which was founded in September 2014 as an online resource for victims and witnesses of anti-Muslim attacks. The register was designed to provide a means to report and record incidents of anti-Muslim sentiment to inform the media and public. The figures represented an average of 5.4 incidents per week. A spokesman for the Melbourne Islamic Community stated the register showed an increase in the frequency of anti-Muslim attacks.

An increase in online harassment of Muslims was reported in South Australia, with families and individuals facing a greater frequency of anti-Muslim abuse, particularly following terrorist attacks abroad.

In June vandals burned a car and painted anti-Muslim graffiti outside a Perth mosque during prayer. In the same month, vandals defaced another Perth mosque with graffiti and left a pig’s head outside its main entrance. In July an Adelaide mosque was vandalized with anti-Muslim and Nazi symbols. In April swastikas were painted on a synagogue and on bus stops in a Sydney suburb. Authorities made no arrests in connection with these incidents.

Several nongovernmental organizations continued to promote tolerance and better understanding among religious groups. These included the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations, the National Council of Churches in Australia, the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, and the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia.

On October 29, the Lebanese Muslim Association in Australia, supported by the Australian Department of Social Services, sponsored the third annual National Mosque Open Day. The goal was to facilitate a greater understanding of Islam and Muslims in the country by opening mosques to the wider public. Thousands of individuals from different faiths visited mosques around the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. embassy and consulates in Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney met with government officials from the federal and state-level departments of social services and multicultural affairs to promote religious freedom and tolerance programs.

They also engaged a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups including the Islamic Council of Victoria and the Australia Arab Association of Perth. The embassy and consulates general used social media platforms to increase awareness of U.S. policy and activities supportive of religious freedom through posting and sharing of articles and events.

In June the Consul General in Melbourne hosted a youth iftar. Interfaith attendees included youth and community leaders from throughout the state of Victoria. The event focused on building tolerance through the inclusion of people from other religious groups.

The Consul General in Perth gave an address at the Australia Arab Association’s Multicultural Eid al-Adha events to celebrate diversity.

Austria

Executive Summary

A combination of historical and modern constitutional and legal documents provides for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibits religious discrimination. The law bans public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups if the incitement is perceivable by a larger number of persons. The law divides recognized religious groups into three categories with varying rights and privileges. The 16 religious groups officially recognized as religious societies have the most benefits. Members of unrecognized groups may practice their religion at home, provided the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” Some members of religious minorities said several government-supported organizations counseled or worked against groups they considered to be “sects” or “cults.” Courts in different parts of the country convicted a number of individuals of anti-Semitic activity, generally handing down fines or sentences, the major part of which were suspended. According to media reports, there were anti-Muslim remarks made in the context of migration from the Middle East and terrorist incidents in Europe, including by the Freedom Party’s candidate and other Freedom Party members, during the presidential campaign.

The head of the Jewish Faith Community reported an increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, including the proportion committed by Muslims. The Muslim community reported mounting anti-Islamic sentiment and increased incidents against Muslims. The government’s Equal Treatment Agency reported 131 cases of religious discrimination came before the equal rights commissioner in 2015, the most recent year for which figures were available, compared to 81 cases in 2014.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials to discuss religious freedom and the integration of religious minorities, including with officials from the Departments of Integration and Dialogue of Cultures within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious group representatives, such as the leadership of the Islamic Faith Community, the Jewish Faith Community, and the Roman Catholic Church, to emphasize the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and dialogue. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the foreign ministry and Muslim leaders to discuss religious freedom issues and the integration of minorities into society, and the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with the leadership of the Jewish community to discuss anti-Semitism in the country. The embassy funded the staging of a play exploring themes pertaining to religious discrimination and anti-Islamic sentiment.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.7 million (July 2016 estimate). Religious groups and the University of Vienna estimate Roman Catholics constitute 61 percent of the population and Muslims 7 percent, while between 14 and 23 percent are unaffiliated with any religion. Religious groups constituting less than 5 percent each include the Lutheran Church; the Swiss Reformed Church (Evangelical Church-Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); Eastern Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian); Jehovah’s Witnesses; other Christian churches; and Jews and other non-Christian religious groups.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for the freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from any religious community. It stipulates that “duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”

Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.

The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more people, and also specifically in case of incitement in print or electronic or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups if such action violates human dignity.

By law, registered religious groups are divided into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights and privileges): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”

There are 16 officially recognized religious societies: the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches (specifically Lutheran and Presbyterian, called “Augsburg” and “Helvetic” confessions), the Islamic Faith Community, the Old Catholic Church, the Jewish Faith Community, the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the New Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Methodist Church of Austria, the Buddhist Community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Islamic-Alevi Community, and the Free Christian Churches.

The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs, to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members, and to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which are denied to confessional communities and associations. Recognized religious societies are granted tax relief in two main ways: donations are not taxable and they receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to active practice of the religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from the surveillance charge, payable for instances where state security is required, and the administrative fee levied on local communities. These benefits do not extend to confessional communities. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common well-being and to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards.

Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retain their status. Fourteen of the 16 recognized religious societies have been grandfathered under this provision of the law. To be recognized as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,400 people) and have been in existence for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an organized group and five as a confessional community. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims were recognized as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active in an organized form in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that their group has a different theology.

The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. The government recognizes eight groups as confessional communities: the Bahai Faith, the Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, the Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, the Hindu Community, the Islamic-Shia Community, the Old-Faith Alevis, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).

A confessional community recognized by the government has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to their charitable activities are deductible for those who make them.

In order to be recognized as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members, as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals, and the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the ministry. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.

Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting to be recognized as confessional communities.

The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, are organized as associations.

Religious groups registered as associations have the right to function in public, but may not provide religious instruction in schools or pastoral care in hospitals or prisons.

According to the law, any group of more than two people pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups apply to the Ministry of Interior. In order to become an association, groups have to submit a written statement citing their common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing and many of the same rights as confessional communities, such as the right to own real estate and contract for goods and services. Unlike confessional communities, associations may not apply to become a religious society after 10 years.

The law governing relations between the government and Islamic institutions stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law, and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims can raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology that is not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are organized as cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional communities. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, beginning at the University of Vienna in the fall of 2017.

Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 15 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in specifics, given that they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years.

The government funds religious instruction for children on a proportional basis in public schools, government-accredited private schools, and places of worship for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religious classes is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religious classes. Instructors are provided by religious groups and funded by the government. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.

The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.

Holocaust education is part of history instruction and appears in other subjects such as civics.

The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the women’s ministry, oversees discrimination cases on various grounds, including religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case is brought to court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.

The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification of the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.

Foreign religious workers for groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment- or family-based, and is subject to a quota. The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa-waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies do not require visas for either shorter visits or stays beyond 90 days.

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

Government Practices

Many religious minority groups complained the three-tier system of categorizing legally recognized religious groups impeded their legitimate claims for recognition and demoted them to second- or third-class status, according to a report by Freedom House, an international NGO.

The government continued to apply a policy of banning headwear in official identification documents with an exception for religious purposes as long as the face was sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.

The federal Office of Sect Issues continued to offer advice to persons with questions about groups it considered to be “sects” and “cults.” While the office was independent, it was government funded, and its head was appointed and supervised by the Minister for Family and Youth. Some Scientologists continued to state on social media the Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered societal discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities.

A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO working actively against groups it deemed to be “sects and cults,” such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public, and provided counseling for former members of such groups. The center received some funding from the provincial governments of Vienna and Lower Austria. Several other provinces funded counseling offices providing information on “sects and cults.”

The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums. Law enforcement authorities stated the protection was provided due to general concerns over the potential for anti-Semitic acts against Jewish institutions, given the country’s history of anti-Semitism.

In February an Austrian prosecutor in Linz ruled that 29-year-old Ibrahim B.’s (the court withheld his last name) anti-Semitic Facebook posts were a legitimate way to criticize Israel. The postings showed Adolf Hitler with a statement: “I could have annihilated all the Jews in the world, but I left some of them alive so you will know why I was killing them…” Ibrahim B. posted this “as a criticism of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge war against Hamas,” and “called on Allah to annihilate the Jewish state.” The prosecutor described his statements as merely expressing “displeasure toward Israel,” and not glorifying Hitler. The Austrian-Israel Society protested the prosecutor’s decision, saying it “legitimizes anti-Semitic agitation through Austria’s judiciary.”

In a July ruling in a case involving the dismissal of a Muslim assistant to a notary for wearing a full-face veil instead of a headscarf, the court found the dismissal was justified, since leaving the face uncovered was one of the “undisputed basic rules of communication” in the country. The court did, however, find it discriminatory that when the woman previously wore a headscarf rather than a full-face veil, she was only used as witness for wills of persons with an “immigrant background.” In addition, the court agreed that the language her supervisor used (he called her manner of dress an “experiment of ethnic clothing” and a “disguise”) was discriminatory, even if he were justified under the constitution in refusing to allow her to wear the veil at work, and awarded her compensation of 1,200 euros ($1,264). A spokesperson for the Islamic Faith Community stated in a July 4 press release the ruling was “understandable, pointing to the fact that facial expressions were important for communication, particularly in professions where employees had frequent personal contact with the public.”

During the presidential election, held in December rescheduled from October after the May election was annulled, Freedom Party (FPO) candidate Norbert Hofer campaigned against immigration and vowed to “stop the invasion of Muslims.” FPO party chairman Strache said April 2 at the campaign launch of Hofer’s presidential run “the only immigration cap that should be tolerated is that of zero immigration.” During a televised debate on November 20, Hofer said referring to the situation in 2015, “hundreds of thousands of people crossed our country without being checked; and there were perpetrators among them who carried out the horrible murders in Paris – that I would not allow.”

On November 8 in Vienna, Hofer said, “Let’s not make the mistake and direct the hatred which previously targeted Jews, now against single Muslims…Islam does not form a part of Austria. But this does not mean there is no room for Islam here.” Hofer stated in an interview in March “we have to ensure that any anti-Semitic tendencies created by immigration in Europe are nipped in the bud,” and that, in view of the country’s history, “there is no tolerance for anti-Semitism of any kind.”

The president of the Jewish Faith Community in Vienna stated June 8 “the Jewish community did not have any contacts with the Freedom Party and has no plans to initiate such contacts in the future.” FPO party leader Heinz-Christian Strache visited the Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem in May.

The Ministry for Education and Women conducted teacher-training projects with the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Seminars were available on Holocaust education, and Holocaust survivors talked to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust. In the course of the year, ADL conducted two one-day seminars promoting diversity for teachers in technical schools, and 20 three-day workshops in police schools. There were also three-day refresher courses for trainers.

The Division of Dialogue of Cultures and Religions within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a conference in September on Austrian constitutional and legal frameworks used to promote interreligious harmony, with a focus on Islam, examining whether the country could serve as a model in Europe. Several European countries participated and announced they would continue this exchange.

In July Chancellor Christian Kern and State Secretary in the Chancellery Muna Duzdar met with leading Muslim community representatives to discuss cooperation with regard to Muslim immigrants.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May the interior ministry released a report that stated in 2015 there was a steep rise in right-wing extremism, xenophobic sentiment, and aggression and linked it to the migrant crisis. According to the ministry’s statistics, there were 1,156 right-wing extremist, xenophobic/racist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic, and/or otherwise extremist incidents that year, an increase of 54 percent over the 750 reported in 2014. The ministry classified 31 incidents as anti-Islamic, an 82 percent increase over the 17 recorded in 2014. Incidents the ministry characterized as anti-Semitic decreased by 29 percent, from 58 in 2014 to 41 in 2015. The types of incidents ranged from bodily harm and property damage to fanning hatred against foreigners, with violent crime accounting for 3 percent of the total.

In September the head of the Jewish Faith Community said that anti-Semitic incidents, especially by Muslims, had increased. He did not cite statistics on the number of incidents. He cited rising anti-Semitic sentiment resulting from the 88,912 asylum seekers who arrived in 2015, the majority of whom came from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Ministry of Interior published figures showing a decrease in asylum seekers in 2016, with 36,030 asylum applications accepted as of year’s end. In July the Documentation Center for the Islamic Faith Community reported mounting anti-Muslim sentiments.

In February four Chechen men told four women in a nightclub in Vienna to go home because it was not appropriate for them as Muslim women to be there. The four men engaged in a fistfight with the father and the husband of two of the women, and suffered light injuries.

The Documentation Center for the Islamic Faith Community reported the number of anti-Muslim incidents had been increasing since it began collecting such statistics in mid-2014. In 2015, the center received 156 reports of anti-Islamic incidents, most of them directed against women. Forty percent were verbal attacks, 12 percent physical assaults, and 5 percent incidents of discrimination, while 3 percent concerned graffiti. Nineteen percent of incidents were directed against Islamic institutions rather than individuals, and 7 percent consisted of hate speech on the internet. The center also registered 20 reports of incidents in June and July 2016, following terrorist attacks in Europe, compared to almost no reports in April and May. The center reported a positive relationship with government authorities on investigations and prosecutions.

The office against discrimination of the provincial government in Styria reported rising anti-Islamic incidents in July, following terrorist attacks in Belgium, France, and Germany. The office did not have a tally on the number of incidents, which it said included spitting, ripping off headscarves, and the posting of hate speech on the internet. The office stated Muslims increasingly did not report incidents because they felt ashamed about the terrorist attacks.

In April members of the anti-immigrant youth group the Austrian Identitarian Movement stormed a stage at the University of Vienna, where mostly Muslim asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan were performing a play against xenophobia. They threw fake blood into the audience and fliers stating “multiculturalism kills.” Theater organizers said some of the migrants were beaten and injured.

According to the government’s Equal Treatment Agency, 131 cases of religious discrimination came before the equal rights commissioner in 2015, compared to 81 cases in 2014. The agency did not provide additional information on the nature of the cases or of the groups targeted.

In March the Vienna prosecutor’s office investigated an individual who had posted approximately 25 anti-Semitic messages at Jewish institutions and Jewish-owned businesses in Vienna, among them the Jewish Museum and a real estate agency owned by a prominent Jewish community figure. At year’s end there was no further information on the case.

In October a Lower Austrian court convicted a man who had called for the burning of copies of the Quran in 2015, while using a false female name. The court sentence the man to a four-month suspended prison sentence on charges of denouncement of religious teachings.

In May a court in Feldkirch, Vorarlberg convicted a 17-year-old to a two-year prison term, of which 16 months were suspended, on charges of neo-Nazi activity for writing anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in Vorarlberg.

In March the University of Vienna student council condemned calls for a boycott of Israel by the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanctions movement against Israel as a “new form of anti-Semitism.”

In July a court in Linz, Upper Austria, convicted a 45-year-old man of neo-Nazi activity and incitement after the man posted anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim messages on the internet. He received an 18-month suspended sentence.

The Islamic Faith Community, the Jewish Faith Community, and Catholic leaders again raised concerns about the perceived rise of extremist parties throughout Europe, religious radicalization, and the recruitment of foreign fighters. In public statements, they stated the need for religious groups to promote moderation and dialogue. In November the heads of the Muslim and Jewish Communities met and discussed ways to collaborate on a religious education project. The Archdiocese of Vienna published a brochure aimed at explaining Christian symbols and culture to Muslim migrants. The Catholic Church said it hoped to become involved in the integration of new migrants in the country. The Catholic charity Caritas counseled predominantly Muslim asylum seekers and provided housing to them in Catholic Church facilities.

Fourteen Christian churches, among them the Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and eight Orthodox and Old Oriental churches, continued to meet within the Ecumenical Council of Austrian Churches. Baptists and the Salvation Army had observer status on the council.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials to discuss religious freedom, the integration of Muslim refugees, and efforts to combat foreign terrorist fighters, including with the Department for Integration and the Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In May the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials to discuss efforts to ease the challenges of integrating diverse communities into Austrian society. He also met with the Muslim community to discuss the update to the law on Islam. During his visit, he underscored the importance of combating religious intolerance and discrimination, while at the same time ensuring that governments protect the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, and belief. He advocated for sharing leadership on greater interfaith cooperation and collaborative action to solve common problems and promote religious freedom.

In June the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with Jewish community leaders to discuss the situation of Jewish communities in Austria and Europe.

Embassy representatives continued to meet frequently with religious leaders, throughout the country, including with the leadership of the Islamic Faith Community, Jewish Faith Community, Catholic Church, and other Christian organizations, to discuss the relationship between these groups and the government, discriminatory or inflammatory incidents, and religious education.

The embassy continued to engage with and support the Jewish community to promote religious tolerance and combat continued anti-Semitic sentiment among some sectors of society.

In May a senior embassy official attended the commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp and delivered remarks at the victims’ memorial.

The embassy provided funding for the staging of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced,” which condemned anti-Muslim sentiment and religious discrimination. The sold-out production, which included a performance for high school students, promoted a dialogue of religious tolerance and freedom in the country.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and carry out religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but also states the government – and citizens – have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way which “degrades human dignity;” hinder secular education; and for a number of other reasons. The government detained or arrested religious activists after raids on gatherings of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. Local observers estimated the number of religious activists they considered to be political prisoners totaled 86, compared to 46 in 2015. “Nontraditional” religious organizations continued to experience difficulties registering with the government and, as unregistered communities, they were unable to meet openly. Some groups that had been registered under a 2009 law were able to operate while their reregistration applications remained pending, but others reported difficulties in trying to practice their faith. Authorities continued to close religious buildings and interrupt religious services. The government also continued to impose limits on the import, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The government sponsored 14 regional conferences during the year on promoting religious tolerance and combating religious radicalism. It also hosted the 7th Global Forum of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which addressed the problems posed by religious hatred.

During an October visit, Pope Francis made positive public statements on interreligious dialogue and the tradition of religious tolerance in the country. According to media reports, he avoided public mention of religious problems.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers met with the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) and other government officials to advocate for better treatment of minority religious groups, to urge the government to address registration difficulties faced by minority religious groups, and to lift obstacles to the importation of religious literature. The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish groups, as well as with representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss community concerns. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives issued public statements encouraging the government, civil society, and religious groups to uphold the country’s history of religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (July 2016 estimate). According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include members of the Russian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Molokans, Roman Catholics, other Christians, Jews, Bahais, and those professing no religion. Since independence in 1991, a number of religious groups have established a presence, including Pentecostal and other evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON).

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

According to the law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but it does not specify any consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradict the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter and other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups are permitted to appeal registration denials to the courts.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist, or other illegal, activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism,” referring to other criminal, administrative, and civil provisions of the law in prescribing punishments. The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs) or religious fanaticism (described as excluding any criticism of one’s religious beliefs). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals, but also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature, or setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions, and engaging in terrorist activities. Per an amendment to the criminal code passed by the parliament on October 28, the law penalizes actions aimed at changing the constitutional order or violating the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms from 15 years to life.

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

According to the law, religious rituals and ceremonies may only be led by citizens who are educated within the country or whose religious education abroad is approved by the government. The law stipulates punishments for individuals who lead Islamic religious ceremonies in violation of the restrictions against citizens receiving unauthorized religious education abroad. The penalties include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat (AZN) ($540) up to 5,000 AZN ($2,700). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

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

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 AZN ($2,700 to $3,800) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 to 9,000 AZN ($3,800 to $4,900) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses.

There is no separate religious component in the curriculum at public or private elementary or high schools. Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education. If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities. Individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government are not allowed to hold official religious positions, preach, or lead sermons after returning to the country.

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

New amendments introduced in December to the provisions of the law relating to citizenship specify new grounds for losing citizenship, including participation in terrorist actions, participation in religious extremist actions or military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education, propagating religious doctrines in a hostile manner (the law does not further define what a hostile manner is), or participation in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

The government continued to detain religious activists who local human rights groups deemed to be political prisoners. There were no reliable figures on the number of religious activists detained or released during the year, although the estimated total detained as of the end of the year was 86, compared to 46 in 2015, according to data collected by the Working Group for the Unified List of Political Prisoners and other NGOs. The registration process restricted the activities of religious groups the government considered nontraditional, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and some Islamic religious organizations. Authorities continued to close mosques and interrupt religious services of unregistered communities. The government also imposed limits on the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The government took some steps to promote religious tolerance.

According to the international NGO Forum 18, Inqilab Ehadli, a Shia Muslim, was arrested in January and transferred to the secret police Investigation Prison for allegedly supporting the Muslim Unity Movement. A human rights activist reportedly told Forum 18 Ehadli had been in poor health when arrested and as of April was in critical condition in a prison hospital. No further information on his case was available.

According to press and government reports, the government continued to detain representatives of minority religious groups, including Salafis and Baptists, in various parts of the country.

Throughout the year, but particularly after the attempted coup in Turkey in July, police conducted raids on, and confiscated religious materials from, purported followers of Turkish Islamic cleric and theologian Fethullah Gulen on charges of religious hatred and discrimination.

On March 23, police raided a gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Gakh, briefly detained 56 people, and confiscated religious materials that had not been authorized by the government. The court later imposed 1,500 AZN ($820) fines on 34 individuals on charges of participating in an illegal religious gathering.

According to the World Watch Monitor, a Christian NGO, two home church leaders in the southern village of Aliabad were fined 1,500 AZN ($820), after police raided a prayer meeting at their home and initially arrested all 30 participants before releasing them. At a December 12 court hearing, the two leaders were reportedly warned not to hold any further meetings unless they first sought official registration and permission, or there would be “more serious consequences.” National television reports described their arrest as based on “illegal religious activities” and “spreading illegal religious doctrines.”

During the year, the government continued the trials of 17 imprisoned Nardaran settlement residents, as well as theologian and chairman of the Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Baghirov (also known as Taleh Baghirzade), all of whom had been arrested in 2015 on charges of religious extremism. The trial was ongoing at year’s end. Police officers reportedly stood outside every mosque in Nardaran in an effort to intimidate villagers at the end of Ramadan. A human rights activist reported an “undeclared state of emergency” had been in effect in Nardaran since the November 2015 police action.

The Baku City Court of Grave Crimes in July began hearing the case of religious scholar Elshan Mustafayev (also known as Mustafaoghlu), a former department head at the CMB originally arrested in 2014 for treason. During the court hearings, Mustafayev stated he was subjected to physical abuse by the police in efforts to coerce his testimony against Muslim community leader Sheykhulislam Allahshukur Pashazade. Mustafayev also stated authorities did not permit visits from his family and appealed to the Prosecutor General and Ombudswoman to investigate his mistreatment. Authorities did not respond to his allegations. On December 30, Mustafayev was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

On April 19, the Baku Court of Appeals released Nurju followers Ravan Sabzaliyev, Zakariyya Mammadov, and Shahin Hasanov, who had been arrested in 2013 on charges of producing and distributing illegal religious materials and committing civil rights violations under the guise of performing religious rituals. The court also reduced the sentences of Eldaniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov, arrested for the same reasons, from five to three years in prison.

On September 30, authorities released theologian Jeyhun Jafarov from prison, reducing his sentence to house arrest. Security services had arrested Jafarov in March 2015 on charges of treason, after searching the offices of his translation center and confiscating computers and mobile phones.

On January 28, the Pirallahi District Court in Baku released two imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses, Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko, after 11 months in prison for illegal distribution of religious literature.

Members of unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups, which the government considered to be nontraditional, continued to report they had difficulty functioning, and the government continued to levy fines against them for gathering as unregistered religious groups. A number of Protestant leaders continued to report that registration problems prevented them from openly worshiping, conducting sacraments, or advertising their locations to bring in new members. Home church leaders reported they continued to keep their activities discreet after past registration attempts had brought them what they said was unwanted attention from the authorities.

According to many religious communities, the government continued to delay the registration application process and returned some applications because of what the government said were technical or administrative problems with the information provided. Seventh-day Adventists, however, reported some progress with their application to register their Baku church, although it was still not registered as of the end of the year. Religious groups whose registration applications remained pending included minority Muslim groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of Baku, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists in Ganja, and the Baku International Fellowship, a nondenominational Protestant church. Many communities that had been registered prior to the 2009 law requiring all registered religious communities to reregister continued to report the SCWRA either rejected or did not adjudicate reregistration applications. Almost all religious groups awaiting registration, whether registered prior to the 2009 law or not, had submitted their original registration applications by the original January 2010 deadline and reported they had been involved in the process of making minor corrections to their applications since then as required by the government.

According to the SCWRA, previously registered communities whose new registration applications were pending were able to operate under their previous registration, and the SCWRA continued to provide the communities with letters authorizing them to operate. Some religious communities that were unable to reregister continued to report confusion within the Ministry of Justice about the validity of their preexisting registration. According to these communities, police continued to reject SCWRA letters authorizing them to continue operations with their pre-2009 documents; they said police had told them only communities listed on the SCWRA website as currently registered were allowed to operate.

The SCWRA reported it had approved the registration of 75 religious communities during the year, while 22 communities had dissolved themselves for unspecified reasons. The SCWRA continued to report it had not denied any new registration applications from religious communities during the year; however, the SCWRA reportedly returned registration applications to communities as incomplete or failed to take action on some applications. In addition, the SCWRA continued to consider pre-2009 registration status for such communities to apply only to the physical structures mentioned in their pre-2009 registration form. The SCWRA stated any religious activities of these communities in additional facilities or new locations acquired since 2009 were not covered under their pre-2009 registration status.

According to government officials, the 75 new registrations brought the total number of registered religious groups to 707, of which 25 were non-Muslim – 16 Christian, six Jewish, two Bahai, and one ISKON group. The SCWRA also reported there were 2,054 registered mosques.

In September according to the news service of Forum 18, authorities closed a Sunni mosque in Gobustan for operating without registration. Subsequently, the court found community leader Ahmad Simirov guilty of violating religious registration requirements and ordered him to pay a 1,500 AZN ($820) fine.

Local religious experts continued to report local authorities closed mosques, stating they were in need of renovation or had safety issues. Some mosques closed as long ago as 2010 remained closed. According to these experts, the closures were attempts by the government to counter extremism, especially in the Baku area. Government officials stated, in particular, the threat posed by ISIS remained a serious concern.

In July authorities closed the Ashurbey Mosque in the Old City of Baku for renovation. Some civil society activists stated the closure was related to the use of the mosque by Salafi Muslims. According to press and government reports, authorities confiscated religious materials and replaced community leaders and imams in other mosques suspected of being Salafi gathering places. Although Salafis were allowed to attend these mosques, they were prohibited from holding positions of leadership, leading prayers, or delivering sermons.

In January according to Forum 18, police closed a Sunni home mosque in Shirvan that had functioned for 20 years for operating without registration. No further information about the case was available as of the end of the year.

In May authorities and the police demolished a Shia seminary in Nardaran reportedly in order to widen a street that residents said could not be widened. Community members filed a complaint with the judicial authorities. No further information was available about this case as of the end of the year.

On February 22, according to an independent news agency, police stopped a religious ceremony devoted to the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed at a mosque in Nardaran, because they had not received prior notification of the ceremony.

According to Forum 18, some Muslim groups not part of the CMB, particularly Sunni groups, objected to the imposition of a calendar by the state stipulating when they were allowed to pray and celebrate Islamic festivals. They reportedly said they feared arrest if they prayed according to the calendar they believed to be correct.

The government continued to allow head coverings in most public places but not in photographs for official identity documents. According to local observers, the government and the majority of school administrators throughout the country also continued to allow girls to wear the hijab in primary and secondary schools, despite a prior directive not to do so.

The government continued its controls on activities by Muslim groups, including on the content of religious television broadcasts and the sale of religious literature. According to local religious experts, the authorities continued to confiscate banned books.

Several Muslim and Christian groups continued to complain of censorship and of a lengthy and burdensome process to obtain permission to import religious literature. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although the SCWRA allowed the importation of Jehovah’s Witness publications, the government allegedly ran out of the stamps necessary to mark the publications as approved so the group was unable to use or distribute the publications.

Domestic human rights monitors continued to criticize the government for not offering any form of alternative service to conscientious objectors in place of military service. Government officials stated the reason for this situation was the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The supreme court continued to deny Jehovah’s Witnesses’ appeals on the lack of alternative services despite the government’s July 14 statement to the UN Human Rights Council saying alternative service was an option provided by the law. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the State Service for Mobilization and Conscription (SSMC) threatened Jehovah’s Witness Daniel Khutsishivili with criminal prosecution for requesting conscientious objector status to military service. When Khutsishivili requested alternative service, the SSMC reportedly informed him no provision of law existed to implement conscientious objector status, even though the constitution allowed it.

The government allocated 1 million AZN ($543,000) to the Caucasus Muslim Board for the needs of Muslim communities, and 800,000 AZN($435,000) to non-Muslim communities, both traditional and nontraditional, to use at their discretion. According to SCWRA officials, 2.5 million AZN ($1.4 million) was allocated to their budget for religious education programs.

In February President Ilham Aliyev participated in the opening ceremony of the Shia Imamzade religious center in Ganja after its extensive renovation. Authorities also renovated 12 mosques, two churches, and one synagogue during the year.

The SCWRA held 14 regional conferences during the year on multiculturalism, tolerance, and combating religious radicalism as part of its annual work aimed at increasing religious tolerance and coexistence. The conferences, as well as training sessions and seminars, cosponsored by the Eurasian Regional Center of Islamic Conference Youth Forum, brought together representatives of different faiths to discuss religion and state affairs.

The government hosted the 7th Global Forum of the UN Alliance of Civilizations in April. The meeting focused on developing inclusive societies and issued a declaration rejecting the advocacy of religious hatred as a means of inciting discrimination, hostility, or violence.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, and NGOs, including Forum 18, continued to report the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh restricted religious activities in general, but information on specific abuses was unavailable.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In October Pope Francis visited the country, meeting with Muslim, Jewish and Russian Orthodox Church leaders, as well as leading a Mass for the country’s small Catholic community. Media coverage reported the pope made positive reference to the tradition of religious tolerance in the country and avoided public discussion of religious problems or other human rights issues.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers continued to urge government representatives, including senior SCWRA officials, to address longstanding religious registration issues as well as obstacles to the importation and publication of religious literature. Embassy officers continued to hold meetings with the SCWRA, the Caucasus Muslim Board, and the MFA to address the government’s treatment of the religious communities having difficulties fulfilling the reregistration requirements, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities. Embassy representatives also observed the trial of Jehovah’s Witnesses Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko and met with community representatives to discuss their health and welfare after the court released them in January.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish groups and NGO representatives to discuss obstacles to registration and the importation of religious materials.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to issue public statements on the need to perpetuate the country’s history of religious tolerance for future generations. In June the Ambassador hosted an iftar for government officials, Muslim and non-Muslim religious leaders, and NGO representatives to emphasize mutual tolerance and respect among the country’s religious communities.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” In May parliament passed new legislation prohibiting clerics from being members of political societies or participating in political activities while serving at a religious institution. While some commentators stated the legislation was designed to ensure the separation of religion from state affairs, some Shia activists stated it was meant to target their political organizations. There were scores of attacks on police during the year, some of which were accompanied by social media messages using Shia religious terminology to justify attacks on the authorities, including one attack in which a policeman was killed. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. It convicted a Shia cleric on charges of giving an unauthorized sermon, and revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, whom the media characterized as the country’s leading Shia cleric, on the grounds he had allegedly sought to form an organization supporting foreign religious leaders. After Qassim’s supporters staged a sit-in demonstration around his home, police sealed off access to the neighborhood where Qassim lived, detained over 70 individuals in connection with the sit-in, and judges sentenced two Shia clerics to prison terms for participating in the sit-in. The police continued to restrict entry and exit into the predominately Shia neighborhood though the end of the year. In December an appeals court agreed with an earlier appeals court and resentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Shia opposition political society Wifaq, to nine years after he continued to appeal his 2014 conviction and four-year sentence on charges of inciting hatred and promoting disobedience to the law. As of year’s end, Salman had not refiled a final appeal to the Court of Cassation, but planned to do so in 2017. In June the authorities obtained a court order to shut down the Shia Wifaq, accusing it of creating “an environment for terrorism, extremism, and violence.” International human rights organizations published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives complained about what they said was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Public officials continued to allege some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen. Registered non-Muslim communities reported the government seldom interfered with their religious observances.

Although there were reports of conversion by some Muslims to other religions, those who did remained unwilling to speak publicly about their conversion. Representatives of the Shia community reported the continued higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were exacerbated by continued discrimination against Shia in the private as well as the public sectors and added to tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities. Both anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including allegations that prominent Shia leaders supported terrorism or engaged in what was termed “treasonous behavior.” Representatives of non-Muslim religious groups reported there continued to be general acceptance of their presence and activities, although there were reports some employers denied migrant workers the opportunity to observe their religious beliefs.

The Secretary of State, the U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to urge them to implement fully the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) recommendations on the reconstruction of places of worship; to end discrimination against Shia in government employment and education; to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and to allow prisoners to practice their religions. In this connection, U.S. officials urged the government to observe the religious freedom provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). U.S. officials also continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Embassy officers met regularly with religious leaders of all faiths and representatives of NGOs to discuss freedom of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 1.4 million (July 2016 estimate). Of the total population, citizens number 585,000, according to 2015 estimates, the latest available. According to U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 70 percent of the total population; Christians 14.5 percent, Hindus 9.8 percent, Buddhists 2.5 percent and Jews 0.6 percent. Local sources estimate 99 percent of citizens are Muslim, while Christians, Hindus, Bahais, and Jews constitute the remaining 1 percent.

The government does not publish statistics regarding the sectarian breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslims; most estimates state Shia constitute a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the country’s citizen population. According to Jewish community members, there are approximately 36-40 Jewish citizens, from six families, in the country.

Most of the foreign residents, who make up approximately half of the total population, are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and other Arab countries. Over half of the foreigners are non-Muslim, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma from South India), Bahais, and Sikhs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, the freedom to perform religious rites, and the freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.” The constitution guarantees the freedom to form associations as long as these do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed. There is no legal statute implementing the latter provision.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine,” do not prejudice the unity of the people, or arouse discord or sectarianism.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment for no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”

Religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs (MOJIA) to operate. Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf, while Shia religious groups register through the Shia Waqf (the Waqfs are endowment boards, which supervise and fund the work of mosques and prayer halls). Non-Muslim groups also register with the MOJIA. In order to register, a group must submit an official letter requesting registration; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses; and other information such as the group’s bylaws and bank account information. Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or the Ministry of Interior (MOI), depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine. The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups, but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars (BD) ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

Nineteen non-Muslim religious groups are registered with the MOJIA, including the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Our Lady of Visitation Catholic Church, St. Christopher’s Anglican Church, the National Evangelical Church, the Awali International Church, Good Shepherd Four Square Church, the Church of South India, The Mar Thoma Church, the New Apostolic Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Brethern Assembly, the Malayalee Christian Congregation, St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, the Malnakara Orthodox Church, and St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral. Non-Christian registered groups include a Hindu temple and Bahai, Buddhist, and Jewish communities.

The penal code calls for punishment of not more than one year imprisonment or a fine of no more than BD100 ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices, or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, attending conferences abroad without authorization, encouraging others to show contempt for a different group of people, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The Office of the Ombudsman addresses the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The MOJIA operates both the Sunni Waqf and the Jafaari (Shia) Waqf. Its Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs oversees the work of both boards, which are partially funded by the state and partially funded by tithes, income from property rentals, and other private sources. The Sunni Waqf and the Shia Waqf issue licenses to clerics and preachers allowing them to preach, as well as to religious sites allowing them to operate. They also review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview and pay for salaries, supplies, and building expenses for the religious sites. They also collect rental payments and sign leases on real estate owned by the groups they supervise.

The king has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials, including the prime minister. By law, construction of places of worship requires approvals from the appropriate national and municipal authorities. Government entities involved in allocating building permits include the MOJIA for non-Muslim religious sites, either the Sunni Waqf or the Shia Waqf under the MOJIA for Muslim sites, the Survey and Restoration Directorate, and the Survey Department.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the educational system. The government funds public schools from grades 1-12; Islamic studies are mandatory for all Muslim students, and are optional for non-Muslims. Many students attend private schools, which must be registered with the government and, with a few exceptions (e.g., a foreign-funded and operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims, in addition to the required Islamic religious education for Muslim students, must receive permission from the Ministry of Education to do so. Outside of school hours, both Muslim and non-Muslim students may learn about religions as their parents decide.

The Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence forms the basis of the Islamic studies portion of public school curriculum, which does not include the Jaafari traditions of Shia Islam. One public school, the Jaafari Institute, provides religious instruction in Shia Islam; the remainder of its curriculum is consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools. An estimated 1,200 students attend the Jaafari Institute from elementary level through high school.

For adult religious education, the University of Bahrain offers separate degree programs in religious studies for Shia and Sunni. There are five registered institutes, publicly funded and overseen by the Sunni Waqf, offering religious education for Sunnis. There are several dozen hawzas (Shia seminaries), some registered and some not registered. Some of the registered hawzas are publicly funded; others by choice are privately funded. Non-Muslim groups are also permitted to offer religious instruction to their adherents.

According to the constitution, sharia forms a principal basis for legislation although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code. With regard to family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia. It also guarantees the duties and status of women according to sharia. The law codifies the Sunni interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce, but it is only applicable to Sunnis. There is no codified Jaafari (Shia) personal status law. The Shia population uses a court system in which personal status matters are decided by judges who use their own discretion to interpret Islamic tradition. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status require a Sunni woman’s consent for marriage and permit Sunni women to include conditions in the marriage contract. There is no comparable provision affecting Shia women. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies, and civil courts make decisions for them on matters such as divorce and child custody.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates. Applications for birth certificates, however, record a child’s religion, but not denomination. Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries. It specifies the succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son. The royal family is Sunni.

On May 22, parliament passed a new provision of law prohibiting individuals from being members of political societies or becoming involved in political activities while they serve in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by organizations, including religious ones. The law provides for fines of BD500 to 1,000 ($1300 to $2700) or imprisonment of at least 6 months for organizations which collect money without permission. On January 3, MOJIA published an update to the law stating organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA to do so.

The country is party to the ICCPR with reservations stating it interpreted the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way ” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

There were scores of attacks on police during the year, some of which were accompanied by social media messages using Shia religious terminology to justify attacks on the authorities. In one such attack on April 16 in Karbabad, one policeman died. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest clerics, community members, and opposition politicians associated with the country’s Shia community. It convicted a Shia cleric on charges of giving an unauthorized sermon and revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, identified by the media as the leading Shia cleric in the country, on the grounds he had sought to form an organization supporting foreign religious leaders. In June the police closed off access to Qassim’s home village following a sit-in around his house by his supporters who protested the revocation of his citizenship. The police detained over 70 individuals in connection with the sit-in, which continued at year’s end, and sentenced two Shia clerics to prison terms for alleged involvement in the demonstration. The authorities also brought money laundering charges against Qassim, but he chose not to attend the hearings and the trial continued in absentia at year’s end. In December an appeals court agreed with an earlier appeals court and resentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Shia opposition society Wifaq, to nine years after he continued to appeal his original four-year sentence, handed down in 2014, on charges of inciting hatred and promoting disobedience to the law. As of year’s end he had not refiled a final appeal to the Court of Cassation, but planned to do so in 2017. In June the authorities obtained a court order to shut down Wifaq, accusing it of creating “an environment for terrorism, extremism, and violence.” International human rights organizations published reports stating Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and mistreatment by prison guards because of their religious affiliation. Shia community representatives complained about what they said was ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Government officials continued to allege some Shia opposition members were supporters of terrorism and engaged in treasonous behavior. The government permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen. Registered non-Muslim communities reported the government seldom interfered with their religious observances. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

There were numerous attacks on security personnel during the year. Some of these were accompanied by social media messages using Shia religious terminology to justify attacks on the authorities. In one such attack on April 16 on police in Karbabad, a police officer was killed and two others were critically injured. The authorities arrested 11 individuals in connection with the attack and referred the case for trial, but as of year’s end the trial had not begun. Similar attacks on the police, although not involving any reported fatalities, took place in Karzakan, Sitra, Mayamaar, Marraq, Belad Al Qadeem, Sharkan, Aker, and Nuwaidrat. The perpetrators of these attacks often filmed themselves attacking police using improvised weapons, including in close proximity to bystanders. They sometimes wore religious garb such as burial shrouds. They posted many of these videos on social media. In October one such social media campaign likened the authorities to an old enemy of the religion, Yezid, the one responsible for the killing of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain.

The government monitored sermons and brought charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. On April 15, the authorities arrested Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Al-Mansi for giving an unauthorized sermon. The authorities had previously censured him in 2014 for speaking out against the government’s demolition of 30 Shia mosques in 2011. On May 24, Al-Mansi was sentenced to a year in prison for inciting hatred against the regime and insulting the Ministry of Interior.

The government charged some individuals with crimes related to defamation of religion and inciting hatred against another denomination. On October 9, the authorities arrested journalist Faisal Hayyat and charged him with making “defamatory statements against one of the country’s main Muslim sects” in conjunction with tweets Hayyat had posted calling for God to curse religious figures revered by Sunni. The lower criminal court found him guilty on November 29 and gave him a three-month prison sentence.

On June 20, the government announced it had revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the leading Shia cleric according to the media, and had frozen his bank accounts. The Minister of Interior stated Qassim’s citizenship had been revoked because he had sought to form an organization supporting foreign religious and political leaders, and had promoted a sectarian environment in the country. On the evening his citizenship was revoked, Qassim’s supporters began a sit-in demonstration around his house in the village of Diraz, which continued at year’s end. Following the start of the sit-in, the authorities set up checkpoints to control access to and egress from the village and surrounding neighborhoods, which they continued to restrict through the end of the year. Although the MOI allowed most local residents to enter the village, it prevented nonresidents, including Shia clerics, from entering to attend or lead prayers at village mosques. A few outside clerics were able to obtain letters of permission from the police to give sermons at small events held during Islamic holiday periods.

In July the authorities indicted Qassim and two of his staff, Mirza Al-Dirazi and Sheikh Hussain Al-Mahrous, on money laundering charges involving large transfers of funds overseas. All three defendants denied the charges. The trial continued at year’s end. Qassim’s supporters reported his office had collected the money and spent the funds in accordance with Shia customs and obligations, and said the government had targeted Qassim due to his status in the Shia community.

On July 17, the government shut down the Islamic Enlightenment Society, which had been originally registered in 1973 and had operated in its present form since 2001. The society was registered as a charity with the MOLSD, but it was reportedly headed by Qassim, and its members were largely Shia clerics and religious workers such as teachers and chanters.

In October residents of Diraz reported the MOI prohibited guest speakers from entering the village to teach at prayer halls during Ashura celebrations. International NGOs reported the police had summoned over 73 individuals, including 44 clerics, for questioning in relation to the sit-in at Qasim’s house. The police held many overnight; some individuals were arrested and remained in custody as of year’s end, while Qassim remained at his home.

Several Shia clerics were sentenced to prison terms for participating in the demonstrations in support of Qassim. On August 31, a court sentenced Sayed Majeed al-Mashaal, former leader of the Ulama Islamic Council, to two years in prison based on accusations he had calling on the population to rally outside Qassim’s house. On August 18, a court convicted Sheikh Ali Humaidan of “illegal gathering” and sentenced him to one year in prison for his involvement in the sit-in.

On August 14, police summoned Sheikh Maytham al-Salman for questioning and held him overnight, on suspicions he had participated in the sit-in in Diraz. Police reportedly refused four requests by him to have a lawyer present, saying they had no orders to allow a lawyer to be present. They reportedly kept him awake in an interview room for more than a day without allowing him to change his clothes or take a shower and required him to remove his clerical robe and turban, which he said was a measure intended to “insult and intimidate a Shia cleric.” He was released on August 15, and as of year’s end a date had not been set for his trial.

In December an appeals court concurred with an earlier appeals court and resentenced Sheikh Ali Salman, Secretary General of the Shia opposition political society, Wifaq, to nine years on charges of inciting hatred and promoting disobedience to the law. Salman had originally been convicted in 2015 and sentenced to four years in prison, which he had appealed. The prosecution also appealed, however, seeking to overturn Salman’s acquittal on the charge of inciting to change the government by force. In May the appeals court overturned the acquittal and increased Salman’s sentence to nine years in prison. In October the Court of Cassation dismissed the Court of Appeal’s verdict on the basis it did not take into consideration new video evidence presented in court at the trial. The court of Cassation returned the case to the Court of Appeal. In December a Court of Appeal with a different panel of judges than the first Court of Appeal also sentenced Salman to nine years. At year’s end Salman had not refiled a final appeal to the Court of Cassation, and he remained in custody at Jaw Prison. He reportedly planned to file an appeal in 2017

On September 15, police questioned Salman in connection with a letter submitted with his name on it to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, but as of year’s end, the authorities had not filed any new charges against him.

Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end. They had been associated with the political opposition and given sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred.

Former Wifaq MP Hasan Isa remained in prison while his trial on charges of helping to finance a terrorist bomb attack continued. Authorities had arrested Isa in August 2015 following a July 2015 bombing in Sitra, which killed two policemen. Isa denied involvement in the bombing, saying he had not given money to terrorists, but had distributed funds to poor families in his role as a religious leader of his neighborhood.

The government continued to not provide regular statistics on detainees, but according to a report on Jaw Prison published in January by the government-funded Prisoner and Detainee Rights Commission, the courts had sentenced 1021 of the 2468 inmates in the facility for riot-related crimes. Local human rights organizations and activists stated individuals imprisoned for riot-related crimes, including assaulting police officers and possession or use of explosives, were overwhelmingly Shia. International NGOs reported Shia prisoners were vulnerable to intimidation, harassment, and ill-treatment by prison guards because of their religion, which at times led to coerced confessions. Some Shia prisoners at Jaw Prison and at the pretrial Dry Dock facility reported they were not allowed to practice their faith freely. Government officials stated the MOI, which supervised detention facilities, only prohibited practices when they violated prison safety rules, such as waving religious banners, or organizing large-scale gatherings for religious ceremonies.

During the year, the authorities issued at least three individuals limited validity passports and immediately deported them to nearby countries with significant Shia populations, including Sheikh Mohammed Khojasta on February 22, Hussein Khairallah Mahood on February 24, and Masaud Jahromi on March 7. The government had publicly announced it had stripped the citizenship of all three, along with 69 others, in 2015 on the grounds they supported terrorist organizations.

Religious groups trying to register their activities with the appropriate ministry reported at times it was not clear which ministry had jurisdiction over a particular activity and said they had experienced bureaucratic delays trying to complete registration and reregistration processes required by government authorities.

The government reported the same number of 440 licensed Sunni mosques and 80 Sunni community centers as in 2015, while the number of licensed Shia places of worship remained at 609 mosques and 618 ma’atams (Shia prayer houses). In new housing developments, observers reported there continued to be a disproportionate number of Sunni mosques, which they said showed continued government favoritism towards Sunni Muslims.

The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it had created for those individuals engaged in religious discourse. Preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by the authorities. The MOJIA also continued to announce how much money an adult should give on a voluntary basis to the poor on religious feast days. According to one report, during the month of Ashura, police summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and had them sign pledges to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

According to media reports, in June some Shia clerics issued a public statement saying they were ceasing holding congregational prayers because of the government’s restrictions on the freedom of religious worship for Shia. The statement, titled “Those Barred from Praying,” described the situation in the country as “deplorable.” After four weeks, however, they resumed holding regular prayers

The government again permitted Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen. As in previous years, the MOI provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property, according to Shia leaders. The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained a political message.

The government continued to permit registered non-Muslim communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. The MOI continued to provide security for large events held by religious communities, including non-Muslim ones. Security forces stated they continued to monitor religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government only permitted publications, which did not criticize Islam.

Construction on a cathedral to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia continued to make little progress during the year. Christian community leaders stated there was also little progress in the government’s continuing effort to develop options for expanding Christian cemeteries.

Architects engaged on a project to renovate Manama’s souk on behalf of the government met with non-Muslim religious leaders for the purpose of ensuring non-Islamic religious sites would not be adversely affected. Work on the project remained in a preliminary stage as of the end of the year.

On October 14 the king announced he would permit a Coptic Orthodox church to be built in Manama.

The government again reported no significant reconstruction work had been done on the three remaining Shia mosques from the 30 it had damaged or destroyed in 2011. Some in the Shia community remained dissatisfied with three of the 27 reconstructed mosques because they had been rebuilt in different locations from where the old ones had been. Shia leaders stated the mosque grounds should have been preserved as they were. There were social media postings critical of the Shia Waqf for not pressing the government harder on these cases, as well as complaints about a mosque in Zinj, which had been destroyed by the government in 2011, but was not listed in the BICI report, and had not been reconstructed. Other social media postings complained about management of the Shia Waqf, such as a report on a Shia wedding hall near the village of Jidhafs, under the control of the Shia Waqf since 2011, which was being rented out to a commercial company for use as a warehouse.

NGOs reported the government showed disparate treatment to Shia versus Sunni and stated this different treatment fueled perceptions among the Shia community of a justice system stacked against them. For example, several times during the year the government reported it had investigated a number of officials from the mostly-Sunni police and military services for breaking the law or violating official procedures, but the government did not name any of individuals, including those who had been convicted of crimes, were in jail, or had been removed from their positions. On the other hand, the Public Prosecution Office, the MOI, and the Bahrain News Agency regularly published names and pictures of Shia who were accused of crimes, and at times published their names before the persons were indicted.

The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from large Sunni mosques, but not sermons from Shia mosques.

Shia politicians and community activists continued to make complaints about the government’s naturalization and citizenship process, which they said favored Sunni applicants over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.

According to Shia leaders, Sunni citizens continued to receive preference for government scholarships, employment as teachers, and employment in government positions, especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and the military. They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to the Shia leaders, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates. They said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government repeated its statements affirming a policy of nondiscrimination in employment, promotions, and the provision of social and educational services.

Human rights activists reported discrimination against Shia in education continued. They stated the government hired foreign teachers over qualified Bahraini Shia teachers, although other observers, including education specialists and parents, said foreign contract teachers were willing to work longer hours, for less pay, and often had skills not available within the country’s pool of teachers. Activists also continued to report the interview panel for university scholarships asked about students’ political views and family background if their name or address suggested they might be Shia, and believed the panels used such information to select out Shia. The activists said many top scoring Shia applicants continued to receive scholarship offers in less lucrative or less prestigious fields. There were continued reports of the MOE refusing to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, although the reason the MOE failed to do so could not always be attributed to discrimination as some students may not have consulted with the MOE’s list of accredited foreign schools published on the government’s internet portal before they enrolled.

Political commentaries about the new provision of the law prohibiting clerics from involvement in political activities, such as an assessment from the Citizens For Bahrain organization, stated the provision was designed to ensure the separation of religion from state affairs, and spoke in broad terms of how this would have a positive effect on both politics and religion in the country. Some Shia commentators stated the new provision of the law was meant to target the better-organized Shia political societies.

The 40-member Shura Council, the appointed house of parliament, continued to include 15 Shia members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while 23 of its members were Sunni. Shia continued to hold five of the 23 cabinet positions, including one of the five deputy prime minister positions.

On June 14, the MOJIA filed a motion against the Shia opposition political society, Wifaq, with the administrative court requesting an emergency order to shut down the group and accusing the society of creating “an environment for terrorism, extremism, and violence.” The judge agreed to the immediate suspension of Wifaq’s activities. Police on the same day sealed Wifaq’s buildings, removed its signs, froze its bank accounts, and blocked its website. Days later the MOJIA announced it was bringing an additional motion to dissolve Wifaq on an expedited basis. On June 28, judges denied Wifaq’s legal team access to records at its headquarters, and additional time to prepare its defense. Wifaq’s lawyers resigned in protest, but the case continued before the court. On July 17, the judges formally ordered Wifaq closed and its assets seized. On September 22, the administrative appeals court denied Wifaq’s appeal and upheld the lower court’s order to shutter the organization. Wifaq appealed to the Court of Cassation, and as of year’s end no date had been set for the trial.

Throughout the year government officials made statements directed at Shia, accusing individuals or segments of the Shia community of specific crimes, alleging they were supporters of terrorism, or threatening future legal action. In a February 21 speech, the minister of the interior stated some Bahraini Shia had been “seduced” by Iran to act against their country based on statements made by Shia religious leaders in Iran about Bahrain, and warned against using religious rituals to “spread chaos.” The minister further called for the government to regulate the days, times, and locations of religious ceremonies, and to monitor their organizers.

Government officials spoke out against the Iranian Shia political concept of Wilayat al-Faqih (which advocates a guardianship of the political system by Shia jurists), while acknowledging not all Shia sought this type of political structure.

NGOs reported the government closely monitored the collection of funds by religious organizations, including charity donations. The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to government legal action.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslim religious community leaders reported there continued to be some Muslims who changed their religious affiliation, despite ongoing societal pressure not to do so, but those who did remained unwilling to speak publicly about their conversion.

NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported regional Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to affect intra-Muslim relations. Shia representatives stated the continued higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia, exacerbated by continued discrimination in the private sector against Shia, added to the tensions between the two communities. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Representatives of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report they generally were able to operate without threats or intimidation. They were able to hold religious festivals and ceremonies and perform religious rites, such as burials, without interference. They stated there continued to be general acceptance of their presence and activities in the country. NGOs reported, however, some employers denied the right of migrant workers, especially female domestic workers, to practice their religion, display religious symbols, or take leave on religious holidays.

Some social media accounts repeated allegations that prominent Shia leaders supported terrorism or had engaged in what was termed “treasonous behavior.” Comments continued to refer to the Shia political opposition as “Iranian subordinates,” “coup plotters,” and “Safavids” (referring to a 1500 Persian dynasty which forcibly converted Sunnis to Shi’ism). Other social media posts accused prominent Sunnis of being “terrorists,” “baby killers,” and “takfiri” (Muslims who kill other Muslims who don’t follow the same belief structure).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, the Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials to urge them to implement fully the BICI’s recommendations on the reconstruction of places of worship; to respect freedom of expression for clerics; to ensure Shia had equal access to employment and services; to pursue reconciliation between the government and Shia communities; and to further empower the human rights ombudsman to engage with the government in support of the right of prisoners to practice their religions. In this connection, U.S. officials urged the government to observe the religious freedom provisions contained in the ICCPR. U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms, which would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with religious leaders of all faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss their freedom to worship, the welfare of detainees, and the status of the mosque reconstruction projects.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. Parliament enacted a new law further regulating groups receiving foreign funding, including religious organizations. The government provided guidance to imams throughout the country on some aspects of the content of their sermons in an effort to prevent support of militancy and said it would monitor mosques for provocative messaging. The government made some progress in arresting and indicting attackers of bloggers from previous years, although top officials continued to blame writers for offending religious sentiments. According to religious minority groups, the government continued to discriminate against them in property disputes and did not adequately protect them from attacks. The government did not adjudicate any of the more than one million pending restitution cases involving land seized from Hindus declared to be enemies of the state before the country’s independence.

Terrorist organizations claimed responsibility for a significant number of attacks, many of them fatal, against multiple religious minorities. There were at least 24 individuals killed in these attacks including members of the country’s Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, and other minority communities. Terrorist groups also targeted religious converts, Shia, and individuals who engaged in activities deemed atheistic. On July 1, five militants attacked a restaurant in Dhaka, targeting mostly non-Muslims; 24 were killed, including two police officers. Individuals and groups continued to threaten bloggers and other individuals for offending Islam; attackers claiming affiliation with al-Qaida killed one blogger on April 6.

There were a significant number of attacks against religious minorities, particularly Hindus. In October hundreds of villagers in the eastern part of the country vandalized more than 50 Hindu family homes and 15 Hindu temples, following a Facebook post believed by some to be offensive to Islam. High levels of election-related violence in June resulted in the death of 126 individuals and injuries to 9,000 others. In one attack in a suburb of Dhaka, the media reported hundreds of attackers used sticks and bamboo poles to beat a group of Catholics and vandalize their homes and shops, injuring an estimated 60 people.

In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and to foster a climate of diversity and tolerance. The embassy publicly condemned the attacks against members of religious minorities and called on the government to bring those responsible to justice. During his visit to the country in December, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom also raised these concerns with government interlocutors. The Ambassador and embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and to explore the link between religion and violent extremism. The embassy coordinated with other foreign missions to promote religious tolerance, identifying support mechanisms for threatened secular bloggers, and providing humanitarian assistance to Rohingya Muslim fleeing Burma.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 156.2 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the latest available, Sunni Muslims constitute 90 percent of the total population, and Hindus 9.5 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. There are also small numbers of Shia Muslims, Bahais, animists, Ahmadi Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Many of these communities estimate their numbers at between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents. Many ethnic minorities practice minority religions and are concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts. For example, the Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian as are the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barisal City, Gournadi in Barisal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj, Monipuripara, and Christianpara in Dhaka city, Nagori in Gazipur and Khulna city.

The largest noncitizen population consists of Rohingya Muslims. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 32, 967 Rohingya refugees from Burma registered in the country residing in one of two official refugee camps within Cox’s Bazar district. The International Organization for Migration estimates another 200,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingya from Burma are in the southeast in Cox’s Bazar district. As many as 90,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following violence in Rakhine State in October.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “the state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state shall uphold secularism by not granting political status in favor of any religion and by prohibiting the abuse of religion for political purposes and discrimination or persecution of persons practicing any religion. It also provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality,” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution stipulates no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.

Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines of up to two years in prison. Although the code does not define “intent to insult religious sentiments,” the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications.

The constitution limits freedom of association in instances where an association is formed for the purpose of destroying religious harmony or creating discrimination on religious grounds among citizens.

There is no registration requirement for individual houses of worship, but religious groups that wish to form associations with multiple houses of worship are required to register with either the NGO Affairs Bureau if they receive foreign assistance for development projects, or the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. Parliament enacted a new law in October further regulating institutions that receive foreign funding. The law places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs, including religious organizations. The act requires the NGO Affairs Bureau to approve and monitor all projects. The director general has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e. the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence Agency, the Special Branch of the police, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence.

The registration requirement and procedures are the same as for secular associations. The requirements to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare include submission of certification that the name being registered is not taken; provision of the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the country’s intelligence agency; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; a work plan; a copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative. Requirements to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau are still in flux, but they are expected to be similar.

Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption has separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. There is a separate civil family law for mixed faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman. Under Hindu law, men may have multiple wives, but there are officially no options for divorce. Women may not inherit property under Hindu law. Buddhists are covered under Hindu law and divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups is allowed and occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage, but many are not. Registration for Hindus is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.

Under the Muslim family ordinance, a widow receives one eighth of her husband’s estate, and the remainder is divided among the children with each female child receiving half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Courts must approve divorces and the law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. In addition, authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.

Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.

Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may not be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.

Religious studies are compulsory and part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs from teachers provided by the government although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.

The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations for prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a religion of their choice before execution.

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

Government Practices

The government arrested suspects in the killings of several secular bloggers who reportedly “offended Islam.” On July 20, five men were charged in Oyasiqur Rahman’s March 2015 killing and their trial began on August 4. Three of the suspects remained in custody, including Akram Hossain Hasib (also known as Boro Bhai), while the other two were released on bail. Police also arrested Patwary, a suspect in the killing of Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, and Moinul Islam Shamim, a suspect in the killing of Bangladeshi American writer Faisal Arefin Deepan, on June 15 and August 24, respectively. Shariful Islam Shihab, a suspect in the killing of Avijit Roy, was killed during a “gunfight” with police on June 19, although human rights organizations stated that this and other gunfights with police were in fact extrajudicial killings. Police offered monetary rewards for leads in the secular blogger killings, which led to the May 19 arrest of two members of the militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team who were suspected to have links to the attacks.

Religious minority communities such as Hindus and Christians, who are often also ethnic minorities, reported the government continued to displace them, by force if necessary, because of land ownership disputes that disproportionately affected them. According to religious associations, such disputes continued to occur in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders sometimes enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups attributed the lack of resolution of these disputes to the ineffectiveness of the judicial and land registry systems and to the lack of political and financial clout of the targeted religious communities rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.

On November 6, police in Gaibandha fired on Santal tribal people, most of whom were Christian, who were trying to occupy land the government had acquired in 1962 to grow sugarcane for a sugar mill. The Santal people used bows and arrows to fight the police and former mill employees. Three Santal people were killed and 25 were injured in the altercation. In May the media reported that the district administration of Moulvibazar in the northeast issued a notice to 700 mostly Catholic indigenous Khasia people to move from their ancestral lands and accused them of illegally occupying 60 hectares (150 acres) of government property and running betel leaf plantations. Tribal activists stated the district administration was acting in support of the Nahar Tea Estate, a company which had been trying to expand into the property since 2007. Tribal activists continued to fight the order at the year’s end.

In August the media reported Aktar Hossain, a local council member in Rangpur, directed a local woman and man be punished for an “extramarital affair” that occurred when the man broke into the woman’s house while her husband was gone. Without hearing testimony from the woman, council members determined her husband should cane her 101 times before 400 assembled villagers while the council member should cane the man 20 times. In the same month, the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development, and Cooperatives stated it ordered district commissioners to mandate local councils prevent village leaders from using fatwas to punish villagers extrajudicially.

The government continued to provide law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered targets for violence. The government also provided additional security at the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, Christmas, Easter, the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima, and the Bengali New Year or Pohela Boishakh.

Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on some aspects of the content of their sermons. Following well publicized terrorist attacks on the Holey Artisan Bakery and the Sholakia Eid prayer grounds in July, the government-funded Islamic Foundation issued a sermon denouncing militancy, and suggested imams use it during Friday afternoon prayers. After a backlash from imams against government interference, the Islamic Foundation issued key passages from the Quran, which it suggested imams highlight. A prominent government-aligned cleric issued a religious edict denouncing militancy, which more than 100,000 imams reportedly signed but which many nongovernment-aligned imams rejected.

As part of its antimilitancy drive, the government pledged in July to monitor the sermons of the country’s more than 250,000 mosques for provocative messaging using the Islamic Foundation’s 1,400 regular staff, civil servants, law enforcement authorities, and the general public. The government could appoint and remove imams and had a strong influence over sermon content at the state-run National Mosque in Dhaka. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually avoided sermons that contradicted government policy.

The government prohibited transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, which it stated spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools” affiliated with his teachings. According to civil society organizations, the government overreached in its efforts to ban Peace TV Bangla and could have allowed the locally produced programs featured on the channel to air, even if they wanted to censor Zakir Naik’s show.

On May 4, Minister of Information Hasanul Haque Inu announced the implementation of a media monitoring cell, which he stated would follow media and blogs that write negatively about Hindu, Muslim, and other religious beliefs, which he said contributed to theist-atheist divisions in the country. Activists stated the government Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission took steps in May to block the popular online blog platform somewhereinblog, a site used in the past by secular bloggers.

Following attacks against bloggers whom militants accused of offending Islam, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan stated bloggers “should control their writing…people should be careful not to hurt anyone by writing anything” that might hurt “any religion, any people’s beliefs, and religious leaders.” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed stated “It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”

The government again did not adjudicate any of the more than one million pending restitution cases involving land seized from Hindus who left Bangladesh before the nation’s independence and were characterized as enemies of the state at that time. The cases have remained pending since a 2011 law allowed the prior owners of the land to appeal the seizures.

Religious minorities said minority students sometimes were not able to enroll in religion classes of their faith because of a lack of minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed for arrangements with local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside of school hours and sometimes exempted the students from the religious education requirement.

Civil society groups, including Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, and Banchte Shekha criticized the government for maintaining restrictive laws with regard to Hindu marriage and divorce. A survey conducted during the year by Research Initiatives in Bangladesh and MJF showed that 26.7 percent of Hindu men and 29.2 percent of Hindu women would like to obtain a divorce but did not do so because of existing laws.

The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, with 3.5 billion taka ($44.3 million) in 2015, the latest figures available, from a line item in the government budget for activities relating to promoting the values and ideals of Islam, including religious education and provision of training for imams. The government also provided grants in aid to 2,134 Muslim institutions amounting to 185.49 million taka ($2.3 million). In 2016, the government worked with representatives from three trusts intended to benefit minority religious groups: the Hindu Welfare Trust (with assets of 205 million taka, $2.6 million), the Christian Religious Welfare Trust (assets of 50 million taka, $633,000), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust (assets of 70 million taka, $886,000). The three trusts were managed by trustees who were members of their respective religious communities and used interest from their assets to fund temple, church, and monastery development and repairs.

During the year, the Hindu and Buddhist trusts received support from the government for religious education. In addition, the Hindu Welfare Trust received from the government payment for staff salaries. Also, 1,173 Hindu institutions received 41.95 million taka ($531,000) from parliament from the revenue budget for temple development and a 15 million taka ($190,000) donation from the prime minister to celebrate Durja Puja. One hundred and forty six Buddhist institutions received 4.13 million taka ($52,300) for temple development and repairs and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 5 million taka ($63,300) from the prime minister to celebrate religious festivals.

Fifteen Christian institutions received 3.15 million taka ($39,900) from the government for church upkeep and repair. The Christian Religious Welfare Trust did not apply for additional special grants from the government. Minority religious leaders continued to state the government did not fund the trusts on an equal basis with the Islamic Foundation. They reported the foundation received yearly allocations of funds from the state budget while the trusts had to rely on income generated from government contributions to their capital funds.

The president continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Extremist groups, many claiming to be affiliated with ISIS or al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), attacked religious minorities. Assailants used machetes in most of the attacks. The majority of attacks targeted members of the Hindu community. Ten Hindus, including priests, temple workers, teachers, and businesspeople, were killed in 10 separate attacks between February and July, compared to three attacks resulting in one death in 2015. ISIS claimed responsibility for seven of the attacks.

On July 1, five militants killed 24 people, most of them non-Muslims, at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. Assailants reportedly targeted non-Muslims and asked some hostages to recite verses from the Quran. The media reported the attackers tortured some of the hostages and killed them with machetes. Military forces killed the five attackers during a rescue operation. In August police killed Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, one of the suspected organizers of the attack and captured or killed other suspected collaborators during a series of raids in the second half of 2016. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, but the government stated the perpetrators belonged to an offshoot of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, to which it referred as the Neo JMB.

There were also attacks directed against Muslims. On July 7, ISIS claimed responsibility for a bomb blast and gun battle near the site of a mass Eid al-Fitr prayer in Sholakia in which four people were killed and seven wounded.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of two people who converted from Islam to Christianity. In the first incident on January 7, Chhamir Uddin Mandal, an 85-year-old homeopathic doctor, was found in his office in Jhenaidah with stab wounds to the chest. In the second incident on March 22, Hussein Ali Sarkar, also a Christian convert, was hacked to death in Kuringram.

ISIS also claimed the June 30 killing using machetes of Buddhist farmer and local Awami League leader, Mong Shwe Lung Marma, in the Bandarban area.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of Christian grocer, Sunil Gomez, in Baraigram on June 5.

ISIS claimed responsibility for a May 20 attack in which homeopathic doctor and Baul enthusiast (a disappearing style of folk song often performed by followers of Sufism) Sanaur Rahman and friend Saif uz Zaman were riding on a motorcycle when they were attacked by at least three men, also riding motorcycles. Rahman was killed while Zaman, a university professor, was seriously wounded. The attack took place in Kushtia in Khulna District.

ISIS claimed responsibility for killing an elderly Buddhist monk, Mong Shu You Chak, on May 14 in his monastery in Bandarban district.

On April 23, Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique was killed on his way to work in Rajshahi. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and stated Siddique was killed for “calling others to atheism.” Siddique was reportedly Muslim and had founded a music school and was editor of a literary magazine – activities ISIS conflated with “atheism.”

On April 6, attackers claiming affiliation with AQIS used machetes to kill Nazimuddin Samad, a graduate law student at Jagannath University, whom they accused of “abusing God, the Prophet Muhammad, and Islam.” In February an unknown group released a list of bloggers to target. On April 13, AQIS released a video online claiming responsibility for past blogger killings and calling for “killing all those who slander and insult Prophet Muhammad.”

ISIS also claimed responsibility for the killing of a Shia preacher, Hadith Abdur Razzak, who was stabbed to death in Jhenaidah on March 14.

ISIS news agency Amaq claimed responsibility for an August 23 machete attack on a Hindu grocer, Chittaranjan Arjya, in Narsingdi District. Arjya survived the attack. He was a patron of Kali Temple, located next to his store.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Communal violence involving minority religious groups continued to result in deaths, injuries, and damage to property. Land disputes at times disproportionately affected religious minorities, particularly the Hindu community. Members of religious minorities also stated they experienced continued discrimination in employment and housing. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to the human rights NGO ASK, attacks targeting Hindus or their property during the year killed seven persons and injured 67, compared to none killed and 60 injured in 2015. Attackers destroyed 197 statues, monasteries, or temples compared to 213 in 2015; and destroyed 192 homes and 2 businesses compared to 104 homes and six businesses in 2015. The motivation for these incidents was often unclear.

On February 21, attackers in Panchagarh slit the throat of Jogeshwar Das Adhikari, a Hindu priest, and he was reported dead. The attackers reportedly threw homemade bombs as they escaped on motorcycles. Two witnesses also were injured.

The media reported that no one claimed responsibility for the May 6 killing of a Sufi Pir Mohammed Shahidullah, found hacked to death in the village of Tanore near Rajshahi. Police stated the attack resembled those of previous militant attacks, in which Sufis were targeted for their beliefs.

On January 9 in Naogaon District, authorities found the disfigured, partially burned body of a tribal Catholic killed by unknown attackers, according to media reports.

On July 2, three machete-wielding masked men assaulted Hindu priest Palash Chakrabarty in the Kishoreganj district northwest of Dhaka, but he fended off his attackers by striking them with an iron rod, according to Bangladeshi press. In a separate incident on July 2, Bhabashindhu Bar, a Hindu priest in Satkira was hospitalized in critical condition after assailants tried to hack him to death. On July 1, a masked individual with knives reportedly tried to enter the room of Hindu priest Babul Chakraborty in Bandarban. The individual fled when spotted by the priest’s daughter in law. Media reported the incident as an “attempted murder.”

In May media reported attackers threw six to seven crude bombs into the home of a family living in Western Chuadanga who had converted from Islam to Christianity, critically injuring one man.

Buddhist monk Tain Dima Bikkhu survived an attack at Dabonkhali Marma Para Buddhist Temple in Bandarban District on the evening of August 4. Four to five men wielding knives allegedly broke down the door to the temple, but Dima was able to ward them off by activating a loudspeaker and calling for help.

There were attacks against followers of the mystic/religious Baul practice. Several Baul followers, who reportedly lived together, survived another attack in Chuadanga on July 17. On July 30, media reported 22 to 25 men assaulted three members of the Baul faith again in Chuadanga. The attackers restrained the Baul followers for approximately 90 minutes, burned their akhra (religious structure) and literature, cut off their hair, and threatened to return to kill them and blow up their house if they continued their religious practice in the area.

There was communal violence against Hindus. On January 11, a crowd besieged a Hindu ashram and temple after a local imam and madrassah head claimed the adherents had burned copies of the Quran. Although the crowd did not damage the ashram and temple, unknown attackers set fire to the house of the Hindu man who was accused of burning the Quran.

Individuals continued to kill and threaten bloggers whom they accused of offending Islam. In May messaging on the website Salauddiner Ghora urged followers to behead five Bangladeshi bloggers living overseas for blasphemy against Islam. Many bloggers and activists reportedly continued to limit their publications because of the ongoing threats. Some sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Nepal and Sri Lanka.

During local elections in June, violence reached unprecedented levels and members of religious minorities were attacked. In a suburb of Dhaka, media reported hundreds of attackers used sticks and bamboo poles to beat a group of Catholics and vandalize their homes and shops to stop them from voting for three Catholic candidates. An estimated 60 people, including 10 women, were injured in the attacks. Police later charged 25 people in the case and arrested four people in connection with the attacks. The suspects had reportedly been released on bail at year’s end.

On October 30, 100 to150 villagers in Nasirnagar in the eastern part of the country reacted violently to a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. They vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples, injured more than 100 people, and set fire to eight shops during the Diwali holiday. The violence followed public rallies in the same area protesting the Facebook post by Muslim groups and local ruling party politicians. Law enforcement officials arrested 104 people in connection with the attack, and the National Human Rights Commission conducted a fact-finding mission which stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area to obtain their land. According to media accounts, the attacks on Hindu homes and temples resulted from acrimony between two factions of the local chapters of the ruling Awami League Party. The reports also stated some Hindu protesters blamed local current cabinet member Sayedul Haque for inciting violence and insulting Hindus. In January, October, and November, individuals destroyed idols and vandalized and looted Hindu temples in Gopalganj, Chittagong, Netrokona, and Barisal. Authorities arrested suspects, who were undergoing trial at the year’s end. In a video conference on November 12, Prime Minister Hasina instructed field-level officials to ensure the security of members of minority groups.

NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. The government worked to resolve land ownership disputes with an amendment to the existing law that provides for a more inclusive decision making and harmonization of the law with the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. In Bandarban, an NGO stated that Muslim residents attempted to convert indigenous Christian and Hindu children to Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy staff met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the interface between religion and violent extremism and the positive impact of respecting human rights and religious freedom in counterterrorism efforts. The embassy officials noted the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints and protecting such minorities in the wake of violent extremist attacks on these groups.

During his visit to the country in December, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom stressed with government interlocutors the importance of upholding the country’s tradition of religious tolerance and bringing perpetrators of attacks on religious minorities to justice. In meetings with government and civil society interlocutors, the Ambassador at Large highlighted the interdependence of the rights to freedoms of religion and expression and noted that restricting offensive speech for the purposes of maintaining public order was counterproductive.

Embassy officials also met with government officials to discuss protection and humanitarian assistance for the increasing numbers of Rohingya Muslims crossing into the country from Burma. The Ambassador, embassy officials, and the Ambassador at Large visited refugee camps and makeshift settlements in the southeastern part of the country to speak directly with Rohingya about their ability to pursue their religious practices. Embassy officials met with Buddhist groups in Cox’s Bazar to learn about the status of their case for a 2012 attack on their temples. As part of community policing training, the embassy encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.

Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for religious minorities in public and private forums. During a March visit to the Hindu Dhakeshwari national temple, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights expressed U.S. support for enforcement of laws ensuring protection of all religions. In January, February, March, October, and December, the Embassy hosted roundtable discussions with members of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian minority groups, both individually and with multiple faiths represented, to discuss challenges faced by their respective communities. Embassy officials also met with Muslim leaders and groups to discuss the balance between countering violent extremism and religious freedom and the intersection of politics and religion. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, some of the most prominent including the Saadi Foundation (a nonpolitical Islamic organization), the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, the Bangladesh Christian Association, Hindu Mohajote, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – Bangladesh, the Christian Religious Welfare Trust, the apostolic nuncio, the Asian Conference of Religion and Peace Central Committee, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat (Bangladesh), the Bangladesh Purja Celebration Committee, Hotline Human Rights Bangladesh , and the Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities.

Embassy officials met regularly with a working group of 11 foreign missions to discuss assistance to secular bloggers under threat, including several bloggers stating their desire to take refuge in the United States. Many bloggers were able to identify means for increasing their personal protection using programs and resources identified by the embassy. During the Ambassador at Large’s visit, the embassy convened heads of mission from countries participating in the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief to discuss coordination of efforts to address issues of concern, including impunity for perpetrators of violence against religious minorities.

Barbados

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change religion, and prohibit discrimination based on religious belief. Rastafarians were concerned about access to public education. Muslims objected to a government policy that required women to remove the hijab for identification and passport photographs.

Rastafarians said they faced discrimination, specifically for their dreadlocks, but that attitudes regarding Rastafarianism were becoming more positive.

The U.S. embassy discussed religious freedom with the government and engaged religious group leaders and civil society, including the leadership of the Muslim, Rastafarian, Anglican, and Catholic communities, on freedom of religious expression and discrimination.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 291,000 (July 2016). According to the 2010 census, the most recently available, approximately 76 percent of the population is Christian. The two largest groups are Anglicans (23.9 percent) and Pentecostals (19.5 percent), followed by Seventh-day Adventists (5.9 percent), Methodists (4.2 percent), Roman Catholics (3.8 percent), Wesleyans (3.4 percent), Nazarenes (3.2 percent), and the Church of God (2.4 percent). Religious groups with 2 percent or less of the population each include Baptists, Moravians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other Christian groups. Approximately 20.6 percent of respondents did not identify a religious affiliation. Other religious groups, which together constitute less than 3 percent of the population, include Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Bahais. The Barbados Muslim Association states there are 3,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion, and prohibition of discrimination based on creed. A law criminalizing “blasphemous libel” is unenforced.

Religious groups are not required to register. If they wish to obtain duty free import privileges and tax benefits, however, they are required to register with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office. To do so, a religious group must file the applicable form, with a resolution passed by the majority of its board of trustees expressly authorizing the application, and a related statutory declaration.

The public school curriculum includes religious “values education.” The focus is on Christianity, but representatives from other religious groups are also invited to speak to students. The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. The government provides subsidies or financial assistance to some of these schools. As laid out in the constitution, no person attending any place of education is required to take part in religious instruction, ceremony, or observance without personal consent or (if under the age of 21) consent of the guardian.

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

Government Practices

Rastafarians continued to state their objection to the government’s enforcement of the prohibition on marijuana use, which they said was integral to their religious rituals. A Rastafarian activist said that police and immigration officials required Rastafarians to remove head coverings and gave extra scrutiny to Rastafarian women at checkpoints, which they said was a pretext for searching for marijuana.

A Rastafarian activist stated the requirements for vaccinations to enroll in public schools violated Rastafarian religious beliefs.

Representatives from the Barbados Muslim Association said they objected to a government policy requiring women to remove all head coverings for identification and passport photographs. The association continued to ask the government to change its practices to permit head coverings in identification photographs, including passports.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Rastafarians stated they faced discrimination, but that they had not faced hostile actions or were refused services. They said discrimination took on the form of being equated with troublemakers. An activist said he felt public attitudes regarding Rastafarianism were becoming more positive, but not fast enough.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. embassy raised general religious freedom issues with the government.

Embassy officials engaged religious group leaders and civil society, including the leadership of the Muslim and Rastafarian communities, on freedom of religious expression and discrimination. The Ambassador held meetings with representatives from the Barbados Muslim Association and met with the Catholic and Anglican bishops.

Belarus

Executive Summary

The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” The law recognizes the “determining role” of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC), and a concordat grants the BOC rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional” faiths of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law all registered religious groups are required to seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups. The government continued to detain or fine individuals for organizing or hosting unauthorized religious meetings in private homes, for proselytizing, and for refusing to serve in the military despite the enactment of a law permitting alternative service. The government also continued to deny registration to some minority religious groups and stated it might revoke the registration of some Jehovah’s Witnesses communities. Some minority religious groups remained reluctant to apply for registration because members were unwilling to provide their names as part of the registration process out of fear of harassment and punishment by the authorities. The government continued its surveillance of unregistered religious communities. According to independent religious experts, many communities remained reluctant to report abuses and restrictions out of fear of punishment. Prison authorities denied Muslim and Protestant clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths, access to prisoners of their faiths, while they granted such access to BOC and Roman Catholic clergy. Protestant and other minority religious groups reported the authorities continued to limit their ability to obtain or convert property for religious use.

Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over the BOC’s annual commemoration of a young child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690 as one of its saints and martyrs. There were reports of vandalism at several Jewish memorials.

U.S. embassy officers met with the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (PRRNA) to discuss the religious situation in the country, including requirements for registration and operation of religious groups, visa regulations for foreign clergy, and distribution of religious literature. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officers also met with Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON), and other groups, as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups, to discuss government restrictions on registration and the activities of minority religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.6 million (July 2016 estimate). According to a January 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration, approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and 6 percent to the Roman Catholic Church. Eight percent of the adult population said they were atheist, and 22 percent said they were not sure. Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics (“Uniates”), Old Believers (both those who practice their faith with priests, usually termed “priestist,” and those who practice their faith without priests, usually termed “priestless”) and other Orthodox groups besides the BOC, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians, other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, ISKON, Bahais, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, tend to be Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious beliefs and to participate in the performance of acts of worship not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony, involve a violation of civil rights and liberties, “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens, or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.

The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters.

The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC in the development of the traditions of the people as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider newer religious groups or groups such as the priestless Old Believers and Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century, as “traditional” faiths.

A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the BOC with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states the agreement does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives subsidies from the state. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s patron saint.

The concordat also serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen such agreements, including an agreement with the Ministry of Education (MOE) covering cooperation on education through 2020 and providing for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.

The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons over the age of 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, one of which must have been active in the country for at least 20 years, and may be constituted only by a national-level religious association. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.

According to the government data collected in 2015, the most recent available, there are 26 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,315 religious communities and 173 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,643 religious communities, 15 dioceses, seven schools, 35 monasteries, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, five schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 491 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 14 denominations have 1,057 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 33 religious communities of Old Believers registered. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 52 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 25 Muslim religious communities, 24 Sunni and one Shia, are registered.

National religious associations include the BOC, the Roman Catholic Church, the Old Believers Church, the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, the Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, the Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, the Association of New Apostolic Churches, the Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, the Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, the Jewish Religious Union, the Association of Jewish Religious Communities, the Union of Reform Judaism Communities, the Muslim Religious Association, the Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Bahais.

To register, a religious community must submit an official application with the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from the regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. In the latter case, the law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion; its rituals, practices, history, forms and methods of activities; its welfare and charitable services; its proselytizing and missionary activities; its approaches towards marriage and family; its educational activities; its attitudes toward healthcare; and its compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion; information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents; a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced; a list of countries officially recognizing the religion; information about countries which have refused to recognize the religion; and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.

Regional government authorities as well as the Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk) review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration are broad and include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community; an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document; violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations; or a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.

In order to register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.

The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law contains no provision for appeal of the warning or suspension.

The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from unspecified fines to two years in prison.

The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if the local authorities grant permission. The local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. Such permission, however, is not granted automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.

By law all religious groups are required to seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.

The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.

Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for the restitution of property to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property used for cultural or sports purposes.

The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy, but does not permit religious communities to do so.

The law only permits registered religious groups which are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the MOE. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’ sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”

The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in schools without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.

The law does not allow homeschooling for religious reasons, or private religious schools.

The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in jail for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. On July 1, the government enacted a new provision of law allowing for alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. An individual seeking to perform alternative civilian service in place of military service must provide a written justification, including his biographic details, religious beliefs, and any other documents to prove his affiliation with a religious group. The length of alternative service for individuals without a bachelor’s degree is 36 months and for those with bachelor’s degree 24 months. If approved, individuals will serve at healthcare institutions, nursing homes, housing and public utility services, forestry and agricultural institutions, or road maintenance and construction agencies, and have the right to ask to change the place of alternative civilian service. Within three months after completion of their service, individuals have the right to obtain permanent employment where they performed their alternative service. By law individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in jail.

Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign religious workers may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. Such permission is generally granted for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas), and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.

By law the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law foreigners may not lead religious groups. The authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to detain or fine individuals for organizing or hosting unauthorized religious meetings in private homes, for proselytizing, and for refusing to serve in the military despite the enactment of a law permitting alternative service. Minority religious groups continued to have difficulty registering and in some cases remained reluctant to apply for registration, reportedly out of fear of harassment and punishment. The government stated it might revoke the registration of several Jehovah’s Witnesses communities. The government also continued its surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups, especially those it labeled as “foreign” or “cults.” According to human rights groups, prison authorities denied Muslim and Protestant clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths, access to prisoners of their faiths, while they granted such access to BOC and Roman Catholic clergy. Protestant and other minority religious groups continued to have difficulties obtaining buildings to use as houses of worship. The government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign missionaries, but also rescinded denials previously given to other clergy.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were three incidents in which authorities detained Jehovah’s Witnesses for sharing their beliefs with others. In Stalbtsy, on June 2, police detained two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were expressing their beliefs to their neighbors. On July 4, the case went to court but was dismissed. The authorities also briefly detained Jehovah’s Witnesses in Krychau and Minsk but subsequently released them without charge.

On February 8, a court in Horki fined Liliya Shulhan, a member of the local Baptist community, 210 rubles ($110) for hosting a religious meeting in her private home in December 2015. Shulhan disputed the charge saying “it was not a worship service but a friendly meeting of people who shared the same beliefs.”

On July 18, a district court in Homyel fined Siarhei Bondarau, a local ISKON community member, 42 rubles ($21) for holding an unsanctioned demonstration and singing religious songs in public in Pinsk on May 24.

On May 18, a Brest district court fined local Jehovah’s Witnesses member Viktar Kalina 2,100 rubles ($1,100) for refusing to serve in the army. The court rejected Kalina’s request for alternative civilian service. A higher court dismissed his appeal on June 24, leaving Kalina on the verge of entry into the military, while he filed another request for the alternative service. As of the end of the year, Kalina had not been drafted into the military and there were no further developments.

Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to continue to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from groups they considered unacceptable. Authorities in Mariyna Horka refused registration to a Jehovah’s Witnesses community on February 19. Local authorities in Barysau and Lida continued to deny registration applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities also continued to deny registration to several Protestant religious communities, including a Baptist community in Slutsk.

The PRRNA on February 2 stated the government might revoke the registration of “some Jehovah’s Witnesses communities across the country” for allegedly violating laws, including the purported illegal distribution of religious literature. The Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses communities disputed the allegations and stated their communities had not received any warnings of possible violations of the law and would work with local authorities to ensure compliance with the law.

Independent religious experts continued to report minority religious groups remained reluctant to apply for registration because members continued to be unwilling to provide their names as part of the application process out of fear of harassment and punishment by the authorities.

The government continued to monitor minority religious groups, especially those it labeled “foreign” or “cults.” According to various observers, government ideology officers continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Mahilyou, local authorities sent letters to schools and state-run institutions in the region in May, notifying administrators about members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, their places of worship, and reportedly describing them in offensive terms.

Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of what they believed to be government hostility and out of fear of criminal prosecution. According to independent religious experts, many registered religious communities also remained reluctant to report abuses and restrictions out of fear of punishment.

Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. On May 17, authorities revoked permission granted in 2014 for a registered Jehovah’s Witness community in Homyel to hold religious services at a private home.

In March authorities in Mahilyou warned the local Jehovah’s Witnesses community it could be held liable for holding religious events in public venues and residential areas and for distributing religious materials without permits.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported local officials in Vitsebsk denied a request for a convention to be held in the city without providing any explanation.

Human rights groups reported prison administrators continued to deny Muslim and Protestant clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths (any faiths not among the four recognized “traditional”), permission to visit inmates in prison. At the same time, they said, authorities continued to grant BOC or Roman Catholic clergy permission to visit believers in jail on a regular basis, and many prisons had designated Orthodox religious facilities.

On February 2, the PRRNA made a public statement criticizing the Roman Catholic Church for failing to train local clergy, resulting in a “shortage of human resources” which the Church tried to rectify by subsequently inviting a large number of clergy from abroad to practice in the country. He said complaints about the lack of fluency of foreign priests in either Russian or Belarusian were “justified.” On February 5, the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops in the country issued a statement objecting to the PRRNA statement, saying the Church trained clergy at its “discretion” and the issue was an internal matter for the Church. The statement by the Conference of Bishops included information about 19 Belarusian students enrolled in 2015 in seminaries in the country and abroad for training.

Religious groups, especially Protestants, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to what they said was the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear of punishment. Orthodox literature, they said, remained available countrywide. They also said the BOC remained able to proselytize freely and, unlike other religious groups, continued to be allowed to participate in government-sponsored public events, such as rallies, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities.

In April the OPRRNA denied a request by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to import the April issue of the magazine The Watchtower on the basis the magazine contained materials aimed at the “infringement of rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of the citizens, which impede performance of their duties in the society and their family.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the government’s denial did not specify what the “materials” in question were and did not outline the reasoning used to reach the decision.

Religious groups continued to report problems purchasing properties as places of worship. Converting residential property to religious use also remained difficult, they said. Renting a public facility to hold religious services remained difficult as well, especially for unregistered groups. For example, some Protestant communities continued to report they were only able to conclude short-term lease agreements with the owners of the facilities the communities rented, which continued to allow authorities to pressure owners to terminate or not renew lease agreements as a means of preventing religious activities. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups in this regard due to the fact they were less likely to own religious facilities and their private homes were too small to accommodate their numbers.

There continued to be no progress on the freeze placed on the assets of the New Life Church (NLC), although the Minsk authorities did not renew their attempts to evict the Church from its premises, which had begun in 2007 and continued through 2012 after the authorities had refused to register the Church at its location. The NLC continued to use the space for religious purposes but remained unable to obtain proof of ownership from the authorities and had no access to electricity. The NLC leadership continued to meet with Minsk city authorities to negotiate the status and operations of the Church, but without result as of the end of the year.

Following articles in independent media outlets and reported complaints from local residents, authorities in Minsk reburied remains unearthed during work in April to expand a road at the site of a former Lutheran cemetery, which had stopped operating in 1968. Authorities installed a plaque to commemorate the remains buried at a cemetery on August 4.

The government continued the requirement for students to use textbooks which representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance towards them, citing chapters in the books which labeled such groups as “sects” as discriminatory. The government continued to make no changes to these textbooks despite requests from religious groups.

School administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.

Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations in ways restricting the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. According to Forum18, an international NGO, in April the OPRRNA denied a Catholic priest from India permission to enter the country for spiritual exercises he was due to lead in the Roman Catholic parish in the village of Ross in the Hrodna region on July 22-24. The authorities had approved Manjackal’s two previous visits, including in 2015. In May the authorities did not extend the permission previously granted to a Polish priest to conduct religious activities in the Hrodna diocese and denied him a residence permit although he had served in the diocese since 1991.

In July OPPRNA revoked a previous decision not to renew religious work permits for three Polish priests, allowing them continue their service in parishes in Mahilyou, Ivyanets, and Kalodzishchy, respectively.

On November 10, authorities in the Mahilyou region warned a local Baptist community in the town of Babruisk they would remove the community’s registration if the community again invited foreign citizens to speak at the community’s prayers without official permission from the local authorities. This warning was in response to a visit by a group of U.S. citizens who reportedly attended and spoke at the Baptist services on September 9 and 10.

The authorities continued to give permission to the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law did not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, the groups said they continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties based on the harassment they had received from the authorities if they tried to raise donations at other locations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The BOC, in particular the Minsk-based parish of the Feast of the Presentation of Blessed Virgin, continued its annual commemoration honoring Hauryil Belastoksky, a child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690, as one of its saints and martyrs. Jewish community leaders again expressed concern over the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, the text of which included a passage stating the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty.”

In Valozhyn in May unknown individuals vandalized a memorial honoring 800 local Jews killed in 1942 near the town of Ivianets. Part of the plaque was broken and a swastika was painted on the fence of the memorial. On May 25, authorities in Valozhyn opened a criminal case, but the investigation yielded no developments as of the end of the year.

On July 9, Minsk Jewish community members reported they saw yellow paint on sculptures at the Holocaust memorial called “Yama” (the Pit) dedicated to the Minsk ghetto victims. Authorities opened an investigation after appeals from the National Union of Jewish Communities and Organizations but as of the end of the year, they had no developments to report.

On November 19, local Jewish activists reported unidentified vandals had sprayed black paint on a monument commemorating thousands of Jews killed by Nazis in the local ghetto during the Holocaust in Mahilyou. Police opened a criminal case and on November 22 detained four individuals, who reportedly expressed Nazi ideas and belonged to a local skinhead group. Police identified and charged four suspects. The case remained under investigation as of the end of the year.

In November unidentified individuals painted a swastika on the plaque of a memorial, located on the site of the former Jewish ghetto in central Pinsk, honoring Jewish victims of the Holocaust as well as commemorating the killing of the Roma, partisans, and underground fighters by the Nazis during World War II. On November 30, the Pinsk police opened an investigation into the vandalism of the memorial. There was no information available on the status of the investigation as of the end of the year.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May U.S. embassy officials and a visiting professor of religion from the U.S. sponsored by the U.S. embassy met with the PRRNA to discuss the religious situation in the country, including requirements for registration and operation of religious groups, visa regulations for foreign clergy, and distribution of religious literature.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to meet regularly with representatives of minority religious groups. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups, and government restrictions on registration and operations with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ISKON, and Protestant groups. Embassy officers also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance.

As part of the embassy-sponsored visit of the U.S. professor of religion, the Charge d’Affaires organized a meeting with representatives of the country’s minority religious communities, which provided another opportunity to discuss their situation and the best means of protecting their right to practice their faiths.

Belgium

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. Following the March 22 terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport and a metro station in downtown Brussels in which 32 civilians died and another 300 were injured, the government reemphasized its concern over mosques spreading “radical” messages. It intensified its efforts, begun in reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, to encourage more mosques to fulfill the requirements for official recognition, which observers said was a means of increasing government oversight. While the regional and federal governments stated tens of unregistered mosques had applied for recognition, media reports suggested only a few had completed the process. The government allocated funds to pay the salaries of 80 new imams, double the number previously receiving government subsidies. In February the Council of State issued a decision allowing teachers of Islam to wear headscarves at school, even for activities other than teaching, although Flemish community schools refused to implement the ruling. Individual public schools continued to have the right to impose a ban on students wearing religious attire, and most public schools continued policies restricting the wearing of headscarves. Concluding a judicial process lasting 18 years, in March the Brussels Court acquitted the Church of Scientology of the illegal practice of medicine, fraud, organized criminal activity, and the violation of privacy laws.

After ISIS claimed responsibility for the March 22 suicide bombings in Brussels, Muslim community leaders publicly condemned the attacks, but anti-Muslim incidents and protests increased. The media also reported an increase in anti-Muslim statements on social media and online forums. Incidents of discrimination against Muslims continued to occur in the workplace, especially against Muslim women wearing headscarves, which private employers had the right to ban. Reports of anti-Semitic acts and threats declined from 2014 to 2015, the last years for which data was available.

U.S. embassy officers met with government officials in the prime minister’s office and at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. Embassy officers continued to meet regularly with nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and religious community leaders to discuss the discrimination faced by Muslims and Jews and to promote religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.4 million (July 2016 estimate).

The government does not collect or publish statistics on religious affiliation, and privacy laws generally restrict their collection or publication. A 2011 report (based on 2009 data) by the King Baudouin Foundation estimates the religious affiliation of the population to be 50 percent Roman Catholic, 33 percent without affiliation, 9 percent atheist, 5 percent Muslim, 2.5 percent non-Catholic Christian, and 0.4 percent Jewish. The Muslim population is highest in Antwerp and Brussels, where some studies estimate it at more than 25 percent of the respective metropolitan areas. According to the report, other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and Scientologists. A 2015 study by the Catholic University of Louvain updates the estimate of the Muslim portion of the population to approximately 7 percent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of worship (including its public practice) and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be barred from religious ceremonies or from observing religious days of rest and bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of religious clergy who are certified by the official organizations of recognized religions and are officially employed in recognized houses of worship. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation.

Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison.

The government officially recognizes Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.

The requirements to obtain official recognition are not legally defined. The legal basis for official recognition is comprised of the constitution and other laws and interpretations, some of which predate the constitution itself. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend parliament grant recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.

The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, an office comprised of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of religious curriculum, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.

The federal government provides financial support for officially recognized religious groups. The subsidies for recognized groups include payment of clergy salaries, maintenance, and equipment for facilities and places of worship, and tax exemptions. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Unrecognized groups outside of these recognized religions do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly.

There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to obtain recognition and state subsidies. To do so a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body, and a security check. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from certain tax advantages (but not government subsidies). Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.

There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Women who wear the full-face veil in public face a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($150).

The Wallonia and Flanders regional governments, which have jurisdiction over animal welfare, ban animal slaughter without prior stunning in temporary slaughtering facilities in use during Muslim holidays. Certified permanent slaughterhouses in those regions may slaughter animals without prior stunning in accordance with kosher and halal practices. The Brussels regional government this year authorized a new slaughterhouse specifically for slaughter without prior stunning during Muslim holidays.

All public schools offer mandatory religious instruction or, alternatively, “moral” instruction (which is oriented towards citizenship and moral values), although parents in Flemish schools may have their children opt out of such courses. A constitutional court ruling in 2015 allows French community parents to opt out of primary school religion and ethics classes for their children, pursuant to the court’s finding those classes not to be “objective, critical, and pluralistic.”

Schools provide teachers for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. Teachers of religion are permitted to express their religious beliefs and wear religious attire, even if school policy otherwise forbids such attire. Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools following the same curriculum as public schools are known as “free” schools. They receive government subsidies for operating expenses, including building maintenance and utilities. Teachers in these schools, like other civil servants, are paid by their respective linguistic community governments.

Unia (the new name for the former Interfederal Center for Equal Opportunity) is an independent but publicly funded agency responsible for litigating discrimination cases, including those of a religious nature.

The justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and facilitate prosecution of discrimination as a criminal act.

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

Government Practices

Following the March 22 terrorist attacks at the Brussels airport and a metro station in downtown Brussels in which 32 civilians died and another 300 were injured, the government reemphasized its concern over “hate preachers “ in mosques. It intensified efforts, begun in reaction to the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, to counter violent extremism and urged the regional governments to encourage more mosques in their territories to obtain official recognition. Regional government ministers and other observers said fulfillment of the requirements for recognition would strengthen governmental oversight of the mosques taking this step. The federal and regional governments announced plans to encourage a wave of recognitions and allocated funding sufficient to nearly double the number of recognized mosques beyond the currently recognized 81 mosques: 28 in Flanders, 14 in Brussels and 39 in Wallonia. According to the federal and regional governments, tens of mosques were at some stage in the recognition procedure, although media reports suggested only a few had completed the process.

According to press reports, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs (“Diyanet”) was regulating the content of religious sermons in its network of mosques in the country and had lobbied the federal and regional governments to allow it to determine the administrative and educational requirements for the appointment of imams and other officials. In addition, the press reported the Diyanet monitored and reported information to the Turkish government on persons it suspected of belonging to dissident or terrorist groups. There were also reports the Government of Morocco had lobbied the country’s Muslim institutions to adopt specific religious points of view and pressured those who publicly expressed dissenting points of view.

On March 11, concluding a judicial process lasting 18 years, the Brussels Court acquitted the Church of Scientology of the illegal practice of medicine, fraud, organized criminal activity, and the violation of privacy laws. The Court said the prosecution had failed to prove its case, which the court said was based more on allegations than on facts.

In September the representative of the leading Buddhist organization in the country stated he was hopeful of obtaining recognition of his religious community soon. In September, however, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Justice stated no draft bill providing such recognition was ready to put before the parliament. Despite the lack of recognition of Buddhism, the government continued to provide subsidies to the Buddhist community reportedly in preparation for its recognition as a “nonconfessional philosophical community.”

The Hindu community’s request for recognition remained pending with the Ministry of Justice at the end of the year.

On February 1, the Council of State issued a ruling allowing teachers of Islam to wear headscarves, including for activities in the school other than teaching. The Flemish Community Education Network refused to alter its general ban on the headscarf, arguing the ruling referred to a specific case in a specific school (a school in Flanders where an Islamic teacher was denied the right to wear a headscarf outside her classroom).

Individual public schools continued to have the right to decide whether to impose a ban on religious attire or symbols such as headscarves on schoolteachers, students, and staff. Most public schools continued policies restricting headscarves. Bans on headscarves remained in place in at least 90 percent of public schools sponsored by the francophone community and in virtually all Flemish public schools. Three (out of 98) Brussels public schools allowed headscarves.

In August a school for adult learners in Uccle (Brussels) first forbade two veiled students from taking their exams, and then allowed them to take the exam later the same day. On September 1, the school changed its internal regulations to ban headscarves. The minister for continuing education of the French-speaking community stated the school’s actions were contrary to the objectives of education in general and of social promotion schools in particular. She urged the school to demonstrate a solid rationale for the ban.

The government continued its ban on Muslim women and girls wearing headscarves in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public.

The largest party in the Flemish government, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) proposed a ban on the “burqini” on the country’s beaches in August. Many municipalities had already banned full-body swimsuits in municipal swimming pools. Other politicians publicly criticized the wearing of burqinis while opposing a legal ban, according to public press statements.

The Ministry of Justice allocated just above 100 million euros ($105.37 million) for clergy salaries and other financial support for recognized religious groups, a small increase from the previous year. Catholic groups continued to receive approximately 85 percent of the total available funding for religious groups, followed by secular humanists (8 percent) and Protestant groups (2.5 percent). Muslims continued to receive approximately 2 percent of the funding. Muslim observers stated the distribution of government subsidies continued not to account for the actual number of practicing believers and the actual level of services required for imams and mosques.

Separately, the government allocated an additional 3.3 million euros ($3.48 million) to pay the salaries of 80 new imams and double the number of Muslim clergy previously receiving funding. The governments of the francophone community and the region of Wallonia founded a new institute for the education of Muslim clergy and scholars.

Municipalities reportedly continued to allocate more money for the maintenance of local Catholic Church buildings than for the construction or maintenance of other places of worship.

Muslim groups and the federal government reported the Flemish regional government was slow to approve recognition of mosques already approved at the federal level. The Flemish Government cited security concerns.

Muslim groups reported city and town administrations often withheld approval, or were slow to approve construction of new mosques and Islamic cultural centers. For example, in Court-Saint-Etienne city authorities denied an application for the construction of a new mosque three times over the past four years, citing incompatibility with zoning and architectural regulations.

The city of Mechelen allocated a part of the town cemetery for gravesites oriented to the southeast. The city’s Muslim residents had long requested the option for Mecca-facing burial.

Some Muslim parents reportedly withdrew their children from Gulenist schools in Flanders following verbal and physical attacks and vandalism of buildings across the country after the July coup attempt in Turkey. Flemish Minister President Geert Bourgeois expressed concern over parents being pressured to remove their children from the Lucerna Schools, saying it should not happen.

The municipality of Molenbeek announced it had closed a small Quranic school for young children. The municipality cited violations of building safety codes and a lack of training of the instructors.

Primary school religion teachers in French-speaking schools reportedly expressed concern registration for their classes would decline following the 2015 constitutional court ruling allowing parents to opt out of religion and ethics classes for their children.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of the Muslim community, such as the League of Imams and the Muslim Executive, publicly condemned the March 22 attacks, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. Local and international media accounts contained quotes from numerous Muslim organizations and individual Muslims deploring the attacks. There were also some media reports of isolated groups of Muslims celebrating the attacks. NGOs and other civil society representatives said these reports, including comments by Minister of the Interior Jan Jambon, overstated the number of sympathizers for the attacks.

Both Unia and NGO Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie (CCIB) reported a significant increase in anti-Muslim incidents in the wake of the Brussels attacks. In March individuals characterized in the media as soccer hooligans carried an anti-Islamic State banner and shouted Nazi slogans in a clash with riot police. A bystander was quoted as saying the men were also making “the Nazi salute, shouting ‘death to Arabs’.” Anti-Muslim protestors also demonstrated in Brussels and Antwerp in April and May.

The media also reported counter-demonstrations against hatred of Muslims. In April police reportedly arrested 24 individuals for going ahead with a banned demonstration against hatred of Muslims.

Incidents of discrimination against Muslims continued to occur in the workplace. Muslim women wearing headscarves said they continued to be targets of discrimination. In January the director of a Brussels school rejected the application of a French language teacher with a common Muslim name for a full time position. When she reapplied the next day, changing her name to a common French name, the school director promptly offered her an appointment. Confronted with the facts, the school director stated the position had been closed but then re-opened.

Private employers continued to have the right to ban religious attire such as headscarves if they believed such attire would interfere with the performance of an employee’s duties. Employers said the law justified such restrictions based on a written company policy of “religious neutrality.”

Preliminary figures from Unia on workplace discrimination during the year showed 88 complaints based on religious discrimination, compared to 46 in 2015.

In terms of overall religious discrimination and harassment, Unia reported it had received 330 complaints in 2015, the most recent year for which comprehensive data was available, although this did not include anti-Semitic incidents. This total compared with 297 such complaints reported by Unia in 2014. Ninety-one percent of the religious discrimination or harassment complaints in 2015 concerned Muslims. The vast majority of the complaints involved hate speech on the internet, but many cases concerned labor or education issues. Fifty-five percent of incidents were media-related, 14 percent labor-related and 11 percent school-related.

In the wake of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, media reported increases in anti-Muslim statements on social media and online forums, and in public opinion surveys. As part of a survey measuring public trust in government institutions, involving interviews conducted with a sample of citizens during 2015 and again during the current year, questions concerning the influx of immigrants revealed 63 percent of ethnic Belgians (Flemings and Walloons) stated they were “afraid” of the influx of refugees into Europe because the refugees were Muslim. The survey, which was commissioned by the French-language daily newspaper Le Soir and the French-language public broadcaster RTBF, also included interviews with a sample of Muslim citizens, who were questioned about whether they “liked” Western culture, the Western way of life, and other issues. Although 91 percent of the Muslim citizens surveyed condemned the terrorist attacks, media coverage highlighted the 33 percent who allegedly preferred another type of political system. Some survey researchers criticized the wording of the questions measuring this sentiment as unclear and potentially slanting the results.

Anti-Semitic acts and threats recorded by Unia decreased from 130 in 2014 to 57 in 2015, the last year for which data was available. According to academic and other observers and press reporting, segments of the Muslim community continued to be responsible for most anti-Semitic activity. Unia attributed the decline to the increased security at Jewish institutions, which it said probably discouraged potential perpetrators.

Jewish groups reported there were anti-Semitic statements and attitudes in the media, especially but not exclusively related to the government of Israel and the Holocaust. Jewish pupils also reportedly faced anti-Semitic abuse in public schools In one case, the mother of a 12-year-old filed a police complaint in June reporting anti-Semitic bullying at a school in the Brussels suburbs, including jokes referencing the Holocaust, which had taken place over two years. LBCA president Joel Rubinfeld stated it was one of several recent anti-Semitic bullying incidents in schools. The education board continued to investigate the case as of year’s end.

In March a visiting Dutch rabbi told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that stones were thrown at him and a friend by unseen individuals while he was walking through a park in the south of Brussels. He said he thought the stones were thrown at him because he was “visibly Jewish.” No one was hurt in the incident.

In July during a tennis tournament, as two players were arguing over a point, one of them shouted to his opponent “They should have gassed you all.”

In August media reported the 15-year old son of an imam published a video calling for the “murder of all Christians.” While the son later reportedly expressed regret for the video and said he had used the wrong words, the incident again called attention to his father. In November the father, who was not a Belgian citizen, was deemed a “hate preacher” by the authorities and was ordered to leave the country. He left the country later in November.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers met with representatives from the prime minister’s office; the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, and justice; and the regional governments to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, foreign government pressure on the country’s Muslims, the prospects for official recognition of Buddhism and Hinduism, and plans for recognition of additional places of worship. The State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities visited in March and met with officials at the ministries of justice and interior. He discussed efforts to strengthen tolerance in civil society and the country’s relations with Muslim majority countries.

Embassy officers continued to engage leaders and activists within the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to promote interreligious understanding. Embassy officers continued to meet regularly with NGOs monitoring incidents of religious discrimination. Embassy also continued to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination with religious community leaders.

During his visit, the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities also organized workshops for civil society groups concerned with discrimination and freedom of religious expression. In June another visiting U.S. government official met with Jewish community representatives and the European Network Against Racism to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment.

The embassy sponsored the visit of a U.S. imam, who met with several activists and Muslim representatives to discuss recent developments in the country’s Muslim community.

The embassy financially supported programs promoting interfaith dialogue and antidiscrimination among Brussels youth. Both programs brought together Muslim and Jewish youth, along with youth adhering to other religions or to no religion, to learn about their common heritage and citizenship.

Belize

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. Discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited. Nondenominational “spirituality” classes, including morals, values, and world religions, are taught in public schools. While there is no official rule governing students’ ability to opt out of these sessions, parents may decide their children will not attend these classes. A dispute over church representation in the senate caused a division among evangelical Protestants, leading to the formation of the National Evangelical Association (NEA) as an offshoot of the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (AEC). As the NEA was not officially recognized by the government, it could not contribute to the choice of church representation in the senate. A Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO) continued to manage the only prison in the country, which uses religion as the basis of prisoner rehabilitation.

Leaders in the Council of Churches said certain evangelical Protestant pastors acted irresponsibly in radio and television broadcasts attacking religious leaders who supported an August Supreme Court ruling that found parts of the criminal code criminalizing consensual same-sex activities unconstitutional. A representative from the council said there was “a need for respect and responsibility” in exercising freedom of religion.

U.S. embassy representatives interacted with a wide spectrum of religious groups to reinforce the importance of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 354,000 (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2010 census (the most recent), the Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious group, accounting for 40 percent of the population. Protestants make up 31.8 percent, including Pentecostals (8.5 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5.5 percent), Anglicans (4.7 percent), Mennonites (3.8 percent), Baptists (3.6 percent), Methodists (2.9 percent), and the Church of the Nazarene (2.8 percent). Jehovah’s Witnesses make up 1.7 percent of the population, while other religious groups, which include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Rastafarians, the Salvation Army, and Bahais, together constitute 10.9 percent. The percentage of the population not belonging to any listed religious affiliation is 15.6.

No religious group is a majority in any of the country’s six districts. Catholics live throughout the country. Mennonites and Pentecostals live mostly in the rural areas of the Cayo and Orange Walk Districts.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom – either alone or in community with others – to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. It states that no one may be compelled to take an oath contrary to one’s religion or belief. The constitution stipulates that religious groups may establish places of education and states that “no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community.” Discrimination on religious grounds is illegal.

The preamble to the constitution acknowledges “the supremacy of God.” The governor general appoints one of the 12 members of the senate following the advice of the Council of Churches and the AEC. The two groups together include the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, the Salvation Army, the Chinese Christian Mission, the Church of Christ, Assembly of God Church, the Seventh-day Adventists, and other evangelical Protestant groups.

An unenforced law limits speech that is “blasphemous or indecent.”

Religious groups must register with the official Companies Registry in a process similar to that of a business. Registration permits the religious organization to operate legally in the country, be recognized by the state, negotiate, sue and be sued, own property, hire employees, and lend or borrow money. There is a onetime registration fee of 295 Belize dollars ($148) and a yearly fee of five Belize dollars ($2.50). Requirements for registration are a memorandum of association with the government, which sets out the group’s objective and mission, an article of association, and a letter from the central bank, if the organization has foreign financial contributors. The government may shut down the facilities of groups that fail to register.

The government does not levy property taxes on churches and other places of worship, but other church-owned buildings occupied on a regular basis, such as clergy residences, are not exempt. Religious organizations may also partner with the state to operate schools, run hospitals and other charity organizations, and, depending on funding availability, receive financial assistance from the government.

Foreign religious workers require a religious worker’s visa to enter the country and proselytize. They must also purchase a religious worker’s permit.

The public school curriculum includes weekly nondenominational “spirituality” classes including morals, values, and world religions for students in both public and church-run schools from kindergarten through sixth grade. While there is no official rule governing students’ ability to opt out of these sessions, parents may decide their children will not attend. The constitution prohibits any educational institution from obligating a child to attend any religious ceremonies or observances. Most public elementary schools, high schools, and some colleges are church-managed. Catholic and other Christian holidays are routinely observed.

The defense force retains a Christian chaplain. Clergy from different religious groups have applied and regularly been granted access to serve inmates at the Belize Central Prison.

Government Practices

In late 2015, a dispute over church representation in the senate caused a division among members of the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (AEC), leading to the formation of a new group called the National Evangelical Association (NEA). As the NEA was not officially recognized by the government, it could not contribute to the choice of the church representative in the senate.

The government continued to own a single prison, managed by a Christian NGO, the Kolbe Foundation. The foundation coordinated religious instruction for inmates. Religion formed the basis of the prisoner rehabilitation program. Religious leaders from varying denominations visited the prison to hold services at a nondenominational chapel within the prison. The prison respected dietary restrictions for prisoners from various religious backgrounds.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Leaders of the Council of Churches said certain evangelical pastors acted irresponsibly in their radio and television broadcasts, attacking religious leaders who supported an August Supreme Court ruling that found parts of the criminal code criminalizing consensual same-sex activities unconstitutional. A representative from the council said there was “a need for respect and responsibility” in practicing religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy representatives interacted with a wide spectrum of religious groups to reinforce the importance of religious freedom.

Benin

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes a secular state and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice. All religious groups must register with the government. There were five deaths following the intervention of security forces in a dispute concerning the control of a mosque in Semere.

On the night of May 10, a group of Voodoo followers vandalized the Catholic prayer center of Notre Dame de Lanta in the commune of Klouekanmey in the southwestern part of the country. Residents of Save destroyed one of the mosques belonging to the Benin chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association in Save, in the central part of the country. Several NGOs including UNICEF and Plan International raised concerns over the inability of individuals in Voodoo convents to leave or convert from the religious group. Interfaith dialogue occurred regularly and throughout the country.

Embassy officials engaged with imams and other religious leaders to discuss strategies to best promote religious freedom and tolerance in the northeastern part of the country. The embassy hosted an iftar for prominent imams and delivered a message of religious tolerance and concord.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.7 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2013 census, 48.5 percent is Christian, 27.7 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 11.6 percent Voodoo, 2.6 percent indigenous religious groups, and 2.6 percent other religious groups. The largest Christian denominations are Roman Catholic with 25.5 percent of the population and Celestial Christian with 6.7 percent. Groups each constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Methodists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahais, Baptists, Pentecostals, followers of the Family Federation of World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Eckankar followers. The census reported 5.8 percent declare no religious affiliation.

Many individuals who identify themselves as Christian or Muslim also practice Voodoo or other traditional religions.

Most Muslims are concentrated in northern areas. The few Shia Muslims are primarily foreign residents. Southern areas are more heavily Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice, consistent with public order as established by law and regulations.

The Ministry of Defense through its gendarmes, generally in rural areas, and the Ministry of Interior through the police, generally in cities, have the authority to intervene in conflicts between religious groups to ensure public order and social peace, provided the intervention complies with the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs.

Persons who wish to form a religious group must register with the Ministry of Interior. Registration requirements include submission of administrative materials (including the applicant’s birth certificate, police record, request letter, copy of identification, and the group’s internal rules) and payment of a registration fee of 50, 000 CFA francs ($80). If a group is not registered, the Ministry of Interior will order the closing of the religious facilities until the group is registered.

By law, public schools may not provide religious instruction. Religious groups may establish private schools given the authorization of the state and may benefit from state subsidies.

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

Government Practices

Following a dispute between two relatives competing to become the imam of a mosque in Semere in the commune of Ouake, local authorities in October closed the mosque to allow for the two sides to come to an understanding. Supporters of the disputing parties, however, forced the mosque doors open for Friday prayers, according to the local police chief. Security forces intervened, resulting in five dead and many others injured.

On July 3, two factions of the Protestant Methodist Church of Benin signed an agreement that ended a 19-year-old feud between the two groups. Political leaders and media commentators attributed the agreement largely to President Patrice Talon’s mediation efforts. The two factions disagreed over the ownership of specific properties, despite a court ruling in favor of one faction. President Talon coordinated and attended a church service on July 3 at the Palais des Congres in Cotonou where leaders of the two factions signed a memorandum of understanding on reaching reconciliation.

On the occasion of Eid al-Fitr, the government, supporting an initiative of the former ombudsman, officially launched a petition requesting that the UN Secretary General create an appropriate structure for interreligious and intercultural dialogue for peace. The initiative was a follow-up to the May 2015 international symposium held in Cotonou on the theme “African Initiative on Education for Peace and Development through Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.” Many local religious and political leaders committed themselves to this initiative and to implementing projects to increase religious tolerance.

Government officials attended inductions, funerals, and other religious ceremonies organized by various groups. State-owned television often broadcast these events. Police provided security for any religious event upon request.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of interreligious conflict that involved intervention by government security forces. On the night of May 10, a group of Voodoo followers vandalized the Catholic prayer center of Notre Dame de Lanta in the commune of Klouekanmey in the southwestern part of the country. According to media reports, the Voodoo followers accused the chaplain in charge of the prayer center with counteracting the efficacy of their rituals intended to make rainfall in the region. They reportedly also blamed the chaplain for angering their deity by building the prayer center and practicing Catholic rites in the area. Gendarmes intervened in the conflict to restore peace to the community.

Residents of Save destroyed one of the mosques belonging to the Benin chapter of the Ahmadi Muslim Association in Save, in the central part of the country. A larger mosque was erected on the site of the old mosque with foreign funding, but the Ahmadi community stated that they had no role in the new mosque.

Several NGOs, including UNICEF and Plan International, raised concerns about the inability for individuals in Voodoo convents to leave or convert from the religious group. International media sources reported that children were often abducted and forcibly enrolled in such convents and were sometimes restricted when attempting to leave. UNICEF reported 432 convents in five of 77 municipalities.

Interfaith dialogue occurred regularly. On May 14, the Ecumenical Foundation for Peace in Africa (EFPA) gathered religious and traditional leaders from Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, France, and Asia in the city of Azove. Participants made a pledge to advance peace in the country and in Africa by fostering interreligious dialogue. In a keynote address, the president of EFPA cited potential threats to religious concord in the country and called for concerted efforts to address them. The president of EFPA raised issues about conflict within the Protestant Church, minor conflicts between the Catholic Church and Voodoo followers, land disputes involving religious groups, among other topics. The event concluded with a parade and a concert in Azove to engage the local population.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

During the year, embassy officials met with imams and other religious leaders to encourage religious tolerance. On January 28, embassy officials met with representatives of the Framework for Interfaith Dialogue in Kandi to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. Discussions focused on strategies developed by the Framework to promote religious tolerance while countering the threat of violent extremism in Kandi.

On June 27, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for prominent imams and Islamic scholars. The Ambassador highlighted the importance of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage.” It provides for the freedom of religion and bans discrimination based on religious belief. The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.” The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity between religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings. Representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) continued to report the activities of minority religious groups were placed at risk of legal sanction by what they said was the lack of clarity in the portion of the law addressing “inducements to conversion.” During the year, a group of Christian churches applied for registration, but reported they still awaited a response from the Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO), leaving one Hindu umbrella organization as the only registered non-Buddhist religious group. NGOs reported unregistered religious groups continued to be able to worship in private. Christians said they continued to hold religious meetings discreetly in private facilities; those Christians living near the border said they continued to travel to India to worship. There were reports school administrators sometimes denied Christian children access to schools.

According to NGOs, there continued to be societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. An NGO reported continuing societal discrimination against Christians in their personal and professional lives.

The United States does not have a diplomatic presence in the country. The U.S. Ambassador and officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi continued to visit periodically, promoting equal treatment for religious minorities in meetings with government officials.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 750,000 (July 2016 estimate). According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows the Drukpa Kagyu or Nyingma schools of Buddhism, while Hindus comprise approximately 22 percent of the total population and reside mostly in southern areas of the country.

Estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 2,000 (from the Pew Research Center) to 15,000 (from the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Transformation Index 2016 country report). The estimates by local and international Christian groups range from 3,000 to15,000. Most Christians are reportedly concentrated in towns in the south of the country. Although traditional Bon practices are often combined with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition, according to scholars. The Sharchop ethnic group, which forms the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to the advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom.

According to a December estimate by the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources there are 54,000 Indian laborers in the country, most of whom are Hindu or Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” The constitution states every citizen has “the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and bans discrimination based on religion. The constitution states the king must be Buddhist and requires the king to be the “protector of all religions.”

The constitution states “no person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” The penal code criminalizes coercion or inducement to convert as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.

The law prohibits oral or written communication “promoting enmity between religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. There were no reports of prosecutions.

The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” between religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment. There were no reports of prosecutions.

The law requires religious groups to register with the CRO. In order to register, a religious group must submit an application demonstrating its leaders are citizens and disclosing their educational background and financial assets. The law also specifies the organizational structure, bylaws, and procedural rules registered religious organizations must follow. The law prohibits religious organizations from “violating the spiritual heritage” of the country and requires them to protect and promote it. The law also states no religious organization shall do anything to impair the sovereignty, security, unity, or territorial integrity of the country. The law mandates the CRO certify religious groups applying for registration meet the requirements specified in the law.

Registered religious groups may raise funds for religious activities and are exempt from taxes. Registered groups require permission from local government authorities to hold public meetings outside of their registered facilities and must seek permission from the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs to invite foreign speakers to address them or to receive foreign funds.

Unregistered religious groups may not organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. According to the law, these activities are subject to penalties ranging from fines to prison terms, depending upon the offense. Unregistered religious groups may hold private worship services in homes. The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally. The CRO has authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading, as well as whether it has raised funds illegally. Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.

The law states the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities. The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the prime minister. A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the king’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board. The director of culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves as an ex-officio secretary. The remaining seats are occupied by the heads of Buddhist religious bodies and a Hindu body. The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”

The constitution states the king shall appoint the chief abbot of the central monastic body on the advice of the five masters of the monastic body. Those individuals and a civil servant administrative secretary make up the Commission for Monastic Affairs, which manages issues related to Buddhist doctrine. The constitution says the state will provide funds and “facilities” to the central monastic body.

The law permits the government to “avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses for public assembly, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and imposing curfews. The government may apply these measures to groups and organizations of all kinds, including religious groups.

Government approval is required to construct religious buildings. All religious buildings are legally required to adhere to traditional Bhutanese architectural standards. The CRO determines conformity with these standards.

The constitution states religious institutions have the responsibility to ensure religion remains separate from the state. It also says “religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.”

The law prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity. Ordained members of the clergy of any religion are prohib