Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 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 the 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 to incite 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. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers; however, there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.
The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.
By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.
To register as a legal entity, a religious community must 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.” It also must be “free from materialism and [be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine 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 part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities, including Assyrians, Kurds, Russians, and Yezidis, among others. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar 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) to detention for up to two months.
The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of state and local governments.
The law prohibits police and employees of the NSS, the service for mandatory enforcement of court rulings, penitentiary service, and rescue service from being a member of a religious organization; however, the law does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization. The law prohibits members of police, military, and NSS, as well as prosecutors, customs officials, diplomats, and other national, community, and civil servants, from using their official positions for the benefit of “religious associations” or from preaching in support of them. The law also prohibits police, prosecutors, and other state and civil servants from conducting other religious activities while performing official duties. 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, it provides no definition for “religious associations.” A military service member may not establish a religious association. If a member of the military is a member of a religious association, the member does not have the right to preach to other service personnel during military service.
The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.
The law allows the AAC free access 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 with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.
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 for by law. While adding a history of the Armenian Church (HAC) course in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course becomes mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.
The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of their teachers. While the Church may nominate candidates to teach the course, HAC teachers are state employees. 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 the 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 30 months, or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position, and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($420 to $1,100) to prison terms of between three and six years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in Armenia. He was arrested and charged in 2017 and held under pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in July 2018. Local NGOs and human rights lawyers shared concerns about the surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest, which they believed was approved in violation of the law because it violated lawyer-client privilege. In April the Baha’i community filed a countersuit against the NSS with the Court of Appeals, stating the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil a Baha’i community member and the community’s office and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. According to the documents provided to the Baha’i community, the surveillance authorizations were approved based on the assertion that Manasyan was the head of a “religious-sectarian” organization and was “soul-hunting,” but no charges were proffered on these grounds.
Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11. There were anecdotal reports that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.
Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. According to the December Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with a Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia prepared by local NGOs, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced a number of challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The report identified schools, and HAC classes in particular, as the main setting where the right of minority children to freedom of religion was frequently abused. According to the report, in addition to obliging children of religious minorities to learn about and discuss religious beliefs other than their own, the class often included religious practices such as group prayer, Bible reading, the presence of church clergy in the classroom, school trips to religious sites, and participation in religious celebrations and ceremonies. The report identified widespread discriminatory attitudes as another obstacle to the realization of freedom of religion for minority children, including the usage of “Yezidi” as an insult. According to the report, Yezidi children tended to conceal their identity from teachers and classmates to avoid discrimination. This behavior occurred most often in schools in Yerevan and other locations where Yezidis are a small minority.
Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross, reportedly occurring during those classes, and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. The Ministry of Education again stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda. According to various minority religious groups, the personality of the teacher was the crucial factor in the treatment of minority children in class. Christian groups reported no egregious cases of classroom discrimination. Cases that Christian groups considered as minor, such as perceived unfavorable treatment of a student by a teacher because of the student’s religion, were resolved between parents and schools, according to those groups. Most religious organizations said classroom discrimination was likely more common in the regions outside Yerevan where they said tolerance for religious diversity was less common.
NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity. There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites. According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year (September-May), AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in less than 1 percent of all schools. According to official information provided to the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), AAC priests taught the HAC course in six schools, four public and two private.
According to media reports, the government’s plans to review the HAC curriculum and possibly replace it with a broader History of Religions class spurred heated debate, with more traditional groups describing the plans as an attack on Armenian identity and stating the course was needed to stop the spread of “sects.” On November 4, Prime Minister Pashinyan in a live Facebook broadcast discussed the issue of the HAC course, questioning the separate teaching of AAC and general Armenian history classes. In an interview with RFE/RL Armenia, AAC Chancellor Bishop Arshak Khachatryan said the position of the AAC had not changed and that in the Church’s opinion HAC should remain a separate course. In the same media report, historian Vahram Tokmajyan said the ongoing discussions around the HAC were a “fake agenda,” since before any substantive changes could be made to the school curriculum, new official educational objectives had to be adopted, a lengthy process expected to last until 2021-2022. Some observers said the discussion of the HAC course was being used by government opponents to manipulate public opinion.
According to the EPF, the following phenomena connected with the HAC course raised concerns: performing religious rituals or elements of religious rituals during classes; preaching and sowing hatred against religious organizations other than the AAC; equating religious and national identity; sowing intolerance toward other opinions; and hindering creative and critical thinking. According to some minority religious groups, a similar intolerance of religious groups other than the AAC, including slurs insulting minority religions, also occurred in universities.
Based on a Ministry of Education program launched in 2012, school administrations continued to have the option to include an additional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four. During the new school year, 74 schools followed this option, the same number as the previous year.
According to the government, as in 2018, no religious groups other than the AAC requested to visit a military unit. The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.
According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited penitentiaries seven, four, and 17 times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year for spiritual conversations with convicts.
On March 12, Epress.am, an independent online news outlet focused on human rights, published an article entitled “The Army Converts Atheists.” The article reprinted a copy of a questionnaire, initially posted by a Facebook user and reportedly distributed in military commissariats to be completed by future conscripts. One of the questions was: “Religious affiliation: if you belong to or are affiliated with any religious sect, belief, faction, or organization. You must also indicate since which year, as well as which of your family members belong to this or another belief. If not, fill in as a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church.” The government did not respond directly to the news item but stated the Ministry of Defense did not organize discussions or seek information on the religious affiliations of conscripts.
On February 19, the Center for Religion and Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration, requesting the 2017 decision reducing her classes be rescinded, the number of classes she taught restored, she be paid back wages, and the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds be acknowledged. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher had become a subject of discrimination based on her religion after the parents of students had accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The parents initially stopped allowing their children to attend her classes, stating they feared she might indoctrinate them. The acting principal temporarily restored the teachers’ hours despite community pressure, including the threat that he would not be elected principal on a permanent basis unless the teacher was removed. As of early December, the teacher continued to teach at the school, and the acting principal had managed to convince the parents to send their children to her class.
According to the Center for Religion and Law, in October 2018, the national chief of police dismissed longtime police officer, Edgar Karapetyan, on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. According to local observers, the same legal restrictions were not enforced for AAC members. The Center for Religion and Law appealed the dismissal to the Administrative Court and requested Karapetyan be reinstated, paid back wages, and that the court acknowledge he had been subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. The Administrative Court suspended the hearings and appealed to the Constitutional Court to determine if the relevant provisions of the law on police service complied with the constitution. On September 13, the Constitutional Court accepted the appeal. The court did not rule on the case by year’s end.
There were reports from other minority religious groups that their members were discriminated against in seeking public employment. Some individuals employed by public offices or law enforcement said they were afraid to make their religious affiliation known at the workplace or attend church services because they feared losing their jobs if they did so.
Even though there was no mechanism for enforcement of the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.
At year’s end, 129 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 123 in 2018. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals; local utility companies; park maintenance services; and facilities such as boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms).
On January 29, Prime Minister Pashinyan established by decree a working group on government-AAC relations. The prime minister’s chief of staff led the working group, which included deputy ministers of justice, defense, education, and other ministries and agencies, as well as five representatives of the AAC, including Chancellor of the AAC Bishop Khachatryan. Prime Minister Pashinyan and Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II co-chaired the group’s first meeting on May 3. The prime minister noted AAC’s unique role in the preservation of national identity and stated that the working group would review relations between the state and Church and discuss issues such as taxation and the mandatory teaching of the HAC course in schools.
On May 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan participated in an EPC regional conference held in Yerevan entitled “Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Armenia, Georgia, and Beyond.” The prime minister emphasized the government’s commitment to religious freedom. In his welcoming speech he stated, “Freedom of religion, freedom to believe in God is first of all the freedom of an individual to believe in himself.”
During Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan’s participation in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington D.C in July, he stated, “Armenia became a safe haven for a number of vulnerable religious minorities, particularly Yezidis and Assyrians. Today Yezidis are the strongest minority group in Armenia, and we are very proud that the biggest temple of this ancient people very soon will open in their Armenian homeland.”
On September 29, the world’s largest Yezidi temple, Quba Mere Diwane, opened in the small village of Aknalich in Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Mirzoyan said at the opening, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people. The children of the Yezidi people have been standing beside their Armenian brothers at many fatal and heroic moments.” Many Yezidis interviewed at the celebration stated the opening of the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction. A private venture maintained by the family that funded its construction, and sited on private land, the temple attracted tourists during the year in addition to serving as a site for Yezidi funerals.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to observers, extremely offensive anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. Some posts commented on a “Turkish-Masonic-Jewish” conspiracy aimed against the Armenian people.
On November 26, an AAC priest published an article entitled “Sects” on the website of one of the churches of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese, where he discussed several religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” According to the priest, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.”
A minority religious group reported that an AAC priest, who in September 2018 blamed the “evangelical sect” for the country’s loss of statehood in the past and accused it of working with the country’s historic enemy, the Turks, continued to enter public schools during the year. The priest urged students not to attend Sunday schools organized by evangelical Christian churches, even though the AAC had reportedly advised him not to provide such advice.
According to media analysts, private individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the former government ousted in 2018 continued to use religious issues to denounce the government. According to media and religious freedom experts, those individuals used various websites, controversial blogs, local troll factories, false Facebook groups, and false stories to propagate the idea that the revolution was carried out by minority religious groups or “sects” (commonly considered any group other than the AAC).
The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case on charges of incitement of religious hatred against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and the prime minister’s Civil Contract party. According to Word of Life representatives, the Facebook page posted a photograph of the senior pastor of the Church and included an article with anti-Armenian and anti-AAC statements, causing a public uproar against the Church. On April 8, the prosecution charged Iranian-Armenian dual citizen Armen Abi in this case; the investigation continued through year’s end.
There is one Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, serving all Islamic groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the 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 them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.
The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration 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 government.
To register, 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.
By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified 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 contradicts 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 may appeal registration denials to the courts.
The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and 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.
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 by those outside of the same religious group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It 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. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate 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 circumstances under 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.
The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.
An administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”
The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside 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 ($2900) to 7,000 manat ($4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 ($4,100) to 9,000 manat ($5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses. There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. 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. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading 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, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.
The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist actions; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate 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 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.
The Ganja and Lankaran Courts of Grave Crimes sentenced 57 individuals from the 77 persons detained after the July 2018 attack on the then mayor of the city of Ganja and subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. Security forces took 77 individuals into custody and killed five during operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government account of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed did not resist arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku, in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. Civil society activists and human rights defenders said they considered the vast majority of the verdicts as politically motivated.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were 17 incidents between September 2018 and August 2019 in Baku and eight other cities or towns. One follower said two police officers forcibly took a Jehovah’s Witness in Khachmaz to the police station in February. International religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that in February a State Committee official asked the Jehovah’s Witness why he was talking about the Bible and not the Quran. Officers reportedly seized his religious literature, threatened to have him fined, held him for 12 hours without food or water, mocked his beliefs, forced him to write two statements, and then freed him. The Forum 18 report said one police officer threatened to beat him during his detention.
In January former member of parliament Rahim Akhundov stated publicly he had been forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department of the Azerbaijani Parliament due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal unless he chose to resign voluntarily; he said the reason was fabricated. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home and informed parliamentary leadership that he had held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.
In February Muslim Unity Movement leaders Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Service officials in Gobustan prison. Authorities partially responded to their complaints, but the prisoners reported ongoing issues.
Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mixed religious and political ideology. Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat. Human rights defenders and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity similar to previous years. According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year ranged from 45 to 55, compared with 68 in 2018.
On January 30, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade on charges of drug possession. The Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Nuruzade to seven years in prison in March 2018, but activists stated the charges were fabricated to punish him for publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.
On June 12, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity members Ebulfez Bunyadov and Elkhan Isgandarov, convicted in 2018 on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism, and sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively. On July 10, the Nizami District Court ordered Bunyadov’s release on medical grounds.
On February 18, the Baku Court of Appeals ordered the release of Telman Shiraliyev with time served. The Khazar District Court had extended Shiraliyev’s prison term for an additional five months and 18 days for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell, a charge human rights defenders said was fabricated to prevent his imminent release at the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government had not implemented alternative military service for conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution. In April the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. In October Mehdiyev and Abilov filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
On October 17, the ECHR ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country who conscientiously objected to military service should not be criminally convicted. The ruling consolidated four applications to the Court lodged between 2008 and 2015. The applications involved five Witnesses: Mushfig Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Farid Mammadov, Fakhraddin Mirzayev, and Kamran Mirzayev. Each had been convicted and had served a prison term for their refusal to perform military service. The Court found since the Witnesses’ conscientious objection to military service was based on “sincere religious convictions,” the country’s actions against them violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered “nontraditional” by the government reported authorities at times subjected them to harassment and fines for conducting religious activities. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported their inability to obtain legal registration. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders reported that their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities discreet. The government said the inability to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members, and no administrative action was taken against unregistered religious communities.
According to a report from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in April a police officer went to the home of Jehovah’s Witness Gulnaz Nasirova in Lankaran and forcibly escorted her to the police station for interrogation. Police officers reportedly insulted her, threatened to send her to a mental hospital, questioned her about her beliefs and fellow believers, and demanded she provide her family members’ personal data. One officer made a vague threat that he would harm her children, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was detained for five hours before being released.
Religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration, particularly the to have a minimum of 50 members to apply for registration. For instance, Baptists communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration.
The government continued to allocate funds to religious groups. Experts said the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.
On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 government prohibition on the publication of theologian Elshad Miri’s book Things Not Existing in Islam. The SCWRA said it prohibited the book because its enumeration of ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage, could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country.
The SCWRA reported during the year, it prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239. By comparison, in 2018 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 1,704, and the publication of 26 books out of 192.
On May 6, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider his appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community. It was Shabanov’s second time appealing to the Constitutional Court; his first appeal was similarly dismissed in January 2018. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.
On April 4, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses Eldar Aliyev, Maryam Aliyeva, Elchin Bakirov, and Bahruz Kerimov in a civil case against the Mingechevir police department. The plaintiffs sought compensation of 500 manat each for the 2016 police raid on a prayer meeting in Mingachevir that they stated violated their religious freedom. On June 23, according to Forum 18, three police officers in Mingachevir tried to search the home of a Jehovah’s Witness where other Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered. They took the names of those present, but when they tried to search the home without a warrant the homeowner refused to allow it. The officers left, saying they would return with a warrant, but did not.
On June 4, the Shirvan Court of Appeals upheld the April 16 verdict of the Sabirabad District Court that fined husband and wife Safqan Mammadov and Gulnar Mammadova 1,500 ($880) manat for holding an illegal religious gathering for minors in their home. The Baptist couple stated they held a secular New Year’s celebration for community children in their home, and that police interrupted the event and characterized it as a Christian meeting by a non-registered group, which would make it illegal.
Following the December 2018 police dispersal of a prayer meeting of Christians Samir Ismayilov, Ismat Azizov, and Jalil Rahimli, the Sheki District Court fined them 1,500 ($880) manat each in separate hearings December 19, 2018 and January 3 for violating an administrative code that prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies”.
On March 3, the SCWRA registered the Baku community of the Fire Christian Church. On July 11, the SCWRA registered the Baku Christian communities of Star in the East and Evangelical Christian Baptist Church.
During the year, the SCWRA registered 34 religious communities, of which 31 were Muslim and three Christian, compared to 90 religious communities registered in 2018, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian. The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 941, of which 35 were non-Muslim: 24 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.
A March 16 presidential pardon that released a number of individuals considered political prisoners by human rights defenders included at least 16 religious activists, including 11 individuals arrested after a large police operation that targeted members of the Muslim Unity Movement in November 2015.
The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status were prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request, an authority the SCWRA said it could employ when necessary. Jehovah’s Witness and other communities have benefited from these letters.
According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. Aynur Veyselova, a senior advisor at the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, stated in May that while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment.
On May 24, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1,1800,00 ) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, compared with one million manat ($590,000 in 2018) and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews (250,000 manat – $147,000 in 2018). The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,000) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku (100,000 manat – $59,000 in 2018) and 100,000 manat ($59,000) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to “traditional” minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust. For example, one Baptist leader stated common citizens, as well as police and local government officials, did not understand or trust his community.
Sevda Kamilova, a linguist, stated she interviewed with several international companies, but each time was asked if she would be willing to remove her headscarf while working.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and shall respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,700) and imprisonment of one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($50,600-$84,300), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($50,600). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. In order to qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order. Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. To apply for this tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association. In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status. The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently. Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website. Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition.
The law states, “Detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They may practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,400). The core provisions of the legislation will expire at the end of 2020 unless renewed by parliament.
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($33,700) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.
The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross. The prohibition applies during working hours and at the place of employment.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the interior ministry, and the country’s president, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The prime minister appoints the chief rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories in Alsace-Moselle, and the interior minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state. Elsewhere in the country, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.
Missionaries from countries not exempt from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from non-exempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 28, at a conference of the country’s prefects, Interior Minister Castaner announced the nationwide expansion of an initial program authorities had implemented since February 2018 to counter “Islamism and communitarianism,” the latter term referencing, according to the Observatory for Secularism, a trend for community withdrawal and separation from the rest of society, up to and including enforcement of rules specific to that community. The initial project targeted 15 communities “particularly touched by the phenomenon of political Islam,” according to Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Laurent Nunez in a November 15 interview. In these communities, the MOI had conducted 1,030 inspections of establishments open to the public, including pubs, cafes, and liquor stores; cultural and sports establishments; private schools; and places of worship. As a result of the inspections, during that period the MOI closed 133 drinking establishments, 13 places of worship, four schools, and nine cultural establishments because, according to Nunez in his interview, those establishments employed a “communitarian” or “political Islam” discourse that put “the laws of God before the laws of the Republic.” The government did not identify the specific sites it closed under the initial program.
The prefect of Isere, who is subordinate to the minister of interior, closed the Al-Kawthar Mosque in Grenoble for six months starting February 7. The MOI stated it closed the mosque because it posted videos on its YouTube channel that incited hatred and violence towards Christians and Jews; its imam’s sermons justified armed jihad; and the mosque was frequented by known extremists. There were no reports the mosque reopened after the six-month period. The government said it closed one other mosque and monitored 63 mosques during the year but did not identify them or provide other details. On June 13, the association Action Muslim Rights (ADM) released a report criticizing the MOI’s closures of mosques. ADM stated that while the mosques were shut down, the government did not investigate them for terrorist ties. According to the report, none of the mosques had reopened, although the law limits the closures to a period not to exceed six months.
Between January 1 and July 18, the interior ministry expelled 44 foreigners it considered radicalized, a new record, Le Point magazine reported. While the article did not cite 2018 deportations, it reported that in 2017 the country deported a total of 20 radicalized foreigners. (A 2018 report the country had expelled 300 radical imams since 2017 was incorrect.)
On October 8, as President Macron paid tribute to four victims of an insider knife attack at the Paris police headquarters, he stated the country must develop a “society of vigilance” in which citizens look out for signs of individuals being influenced by Islamist extremist networks in the fight against the “hydra” of Islamist militancy. The attacker, a police employee who had converted to Islam, had contacts with individuals believed to be linked to an Islamist Salafist movement, according to prosecutors, who also said they believed the attacker harbored work-related grievances linked to his disabilities.
In response to the same knife attack, Interior Minister Castaner spoke before the National Assembly October 8 and articulated several signs that might indicate a person’s radicalization through changes in behavior, including “rigorous religious practice, particularly exacerbated during the period of Ramadan,” “wearing a beard,” whether or not he greets a woman with a traditional kiss on the cheek, if the person “has a regular and ostentatious practice of ritual prayer,” and the presence of hyperpigmentation on the forehead, widely interpreted as a reference to the zabiba, a mark often resulting from repeated contact of the forehead with a prayer rug.
The government maintained the deployment of security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship, and increased their number from 7,000 to 10,000. After the March terrorist attacks against mosques in New Zealand, the MOI increased patrols around religious sites.
At year’s end, the Paris Appeals Court had not issued a ruling in the case of Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four and injuring 40. In 2018 investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Diab and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed the case’s dismissal, and the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. Upon his release in 2018, Diab returned to Canada where he remained at year’s end.
In June police fined a group of Muslim women 35 euros ($39) each for bathing in burkinis at a municipal swimming pool in Grenoble in protest of local regulations banning the garment. Women from the same association reported the Citizen Alliance of Grenoble had carried out a similar protest “Operation Burkini” in May, which they called an “act of civil disobedience.” One of the women told the BBC they were being deprived of their civil rights and that “We must fight against discriminatory policies and prejudice in France….” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed support for the mayor of Grenoble and the regulations, saying, “No citizen can be released from the respect of the law or the common regulation on the basis of his religious convictions.” Marlene Schiappa, Junior Minister of State for Gender Equality and the Fight against Discrimination, said, “There is a political message” behind the burkini, which is: “cover up.” She added, however, “Women, whatever their religion or their way of life, must be able to access municipal swimming pools.” In 2016 the Council of State, the country’s highest court on administrative matters, overturned several burkini bans on the basis that local authorities could only restrict individual liberties if there was a “proven risk” to public order. The court ruling did not overturn other anti-burkini regulations nor did it make them illegal; other anti-burkini regulations thus remained in force unless mayors or prefectures suspended them. The ruling did, however, set a legal precedent upon which persons could contest those regulations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported three cases in which authorities had interfered with proselytizing during the year. They did not provide additional details on the incidents.
According to the Ministry of Justice, as of August 2017, the latest year for which statistics were available, the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains: 695 Catholic, 347 Protestant, 224 Muslim, 76 Jewish, 54 Orthodox Christian, 170 Jehovah’s Witness, and 19 Buddhist. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
At year’s end, the government did not respond to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) following the latter’s October 2018 finding that French authorities violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqabs in two separate cases in 2012. The UNHRC gave the government a deadline of 180 days to report to it action taken to respond to the violation and prevent other such violations. According to a statement the government issued on the same day as the UNHRC ruling, the law prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces was legitimate and did not infringe upon freedom of religion. The government added it would convey its views to the UNHRC in a follow-on report.
During an October 11 meeting of the Burgundy-Franche-Comte Regional Assembly in the central-eastern part of the country, Julien Odoul, an elected official representing the National Rally (RN) Party, told a woman who was accompanying her son on a school outing to the legislature to remove her hijab or leave. The law does not prohibit women from wearing hijabs while attending an assembly session. In response, Junior Minister Schiappa said that “it is by publicly humiliating mothers in front of their children that we create divisions” in society. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, however, said, “The law does not prohibit veiled women from accompanying children, but we do not wish to encourage the phenomenon,” which is “not in agreement with our values.” Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire stated the veil “is legal, but not necessarily desirable.” The woman filed one legal complaint against Odoul with the Dijon public prosecutor’s office for violence of a racial nature by persons of authority, and a separate legal complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office for “incitement of racial hatred by elected officials.” The complaints were pending at year’s end.
In April the Ministry of Culture created a five-person Mission for Research and Restitution of Spoliated Cultural Property in April to seek out the rightful owners or heirs of artworks, including those in museums and galleries, stolen or sold under duress during the country’s occupation. In the spring the government transferred authority for final decisions on art restitution claims from the Ministry of Culture to the Commission for the Compensation for Victims of Spoliation, a separate administrative body reporting directly to the prime minister, in order to address criticism that museum officials would be reluctant to hand over valuable artwork. On April 1, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended a ceremony returning artwork to its pre-WWII owners at the French consulate in New York.
The government continued to implement a 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the country, with a strong focus on countering online hate content. As part of the plan, Prime Minister Philippe awarded the first annual national anti-racism prize, named for Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man tortured and killed in 2006. In October DILCRAH dedicated 2.3 million euros ($2.58 million) and announced a call for local projects addressing education, prevention, training, and aid for victims of racism and anti-Semitism. The government also continued with an initiative for European Union legislation to require faster removal of illegal content online; created a national reaction team to improve education countering racist and anti-Semitic behavior; funded two thesis grants annually to finance work on racism and anti-Semitism; and established an online precomplaint system for victims of discrimination or racist or anti-Semitic acts.
Prime Minister Philippe advocated for a bill requiring websites to remove “obviously hateful” content, specifically racist or anti-Semitic content, within 24 hours. Deputy Laetitia Avia introduced the draft bill at the direction of Prime Minister Philippe and as part of the 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. The National Assembly passed the bill in July, but the senate did not vote on it by year’s end. Among other critiques on freedom of expression grounds, the European Commission published a letter November 22 raising concerns about the bill’s impact on freedom of expression and its potential conflict with European Union free speech directives. Facebook and others questioned the 24-hour window to remove content, citing the legal analysis needed to evaluate posts.
On April 2, Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet introduced a circular, which she said was part of the effort to combat anti-Semitism, urging prosecutors to use simplified, faster procedures (such as civil referrals to block access to “hate sites”) and criminal orders (trial without a hearing) to prosecute and convict authors of “racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” writings.
In a September 12 speech before the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) in Bordeaux, Interior Minister Castaner detailed several government measures to fight what he called “the poison of anti-Semitism,” including enhanced surveillance of 800 places of worship, the dissolution by decree of the Council of Ministers of several neo-Nazi groups, including Bastion Social and six affiliated associations, Combat 18, and Blood and Honor Hexagon, and an increase in the government contribution for the Shoah Memorial. He repeated President Macron’s February statement that the National Assembly would take up a proposal to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and said, “Anti-Zionism often has nothing to do with criticism of the foreign policy of the State of Israel; it is too often aimed at people of Jewish faith. It has become a disguised anti-Semitism.”
On July 10, the Observatory for Secularism, a body composed of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its sixth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals. According to the report, the subject of secularism remained a sensitive one, although “direct attacks on secularism” appeared better contained, for the third year in a row. The report credited a proliferation of training on secularism and treatment of religious subjects, as well as improved targeting of implementing partners for the training. Since 2013, the Observatory for Secularism said it had directly or indirectly contributed to training more than 250,000 persons to respond to questions of secularism in the workplace.
On April 14, a fire broke out at the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, destroying the roof and spire and causing extensive damage to the windows and vaulted ceilings. President Macron, Prime Minister Philippe, and Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Nunez visited the cathedral, which is government-owned, while the fire still burned. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said in a statement June 26 that a preliminary investigation found no signs the blaze was started deliberately, and that it was likely due to negligence. Macron vowed in a televised address on April 16 that the country would rebuild the cathedral in five years.
Interior Minister Castaner did not attend the iftar hosted by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), but attended an iftar in Strasbourg hosted by the Alsace Regional Council of Muslim Faith (Alsace CRCM) on May 29. At that event, Castaner, whose ministry oversees government relations with religious communities, expressed his disappointment with CFCM for its “reluctant” approach to implementing reforms. He praised the Alsace CRCM, however, as a “laboratory of ideas for the future of Islam in France.” He lauded the “peaceful and constructive approach” of the Alsace CRCM, specifically its work on prevention of radicalization, creation of a council of imams and religious leaders, and interreligious dialogue. Attendees at the event included regional Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, other government officials, and the mayor of Strasbourg.
Interior Minister Castaner continued a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the structure and the funding of Islam in the country. In his New Year’s address to CFCM at the Grand Mosque of Paris on January 23, he called for “powerful representatives” of Islam in the country, and stated, referencing the recurring “Yellow Vest” cost of living protests in the country, that he counted on Muslim leaders “to influence public debates including on nonreligious issues such as the protests”. “Islam,” he said, “like every organized religion, has its place in France. There is no incompatibility between praying to Allah and loving the Republic.” In December prefects in each department held a second round of listening sessions with local representatives from the Muslim community on issues related to institutional representation, financing of Islamic places of worship, and training of imams.
On October 28, President Macron met with Muslim leaders of the CFCM and called on them to fight Islamism and “communitarianism,” which he called a form of “separatism” in the country. He urged the CFCM to adopt clear position on issues including public wearing of the veil, women’s roles, and education in the Muslim community.
On August 29, President Macron met with the newly elected President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, to discuss reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, migration, relations between religions and the state, and proposed legislation on access to medically-assisted reproduction treatments. Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort expressed his concern about the proposed legislation, but said it was not the role of the bishops to prescribe political actions to Catholics. In September the archbishop stated those who were concerned about the law should protest it, but did not call on Catholics to do so. At year’s end, the national assembly passed the legislation, but the senate did not vote on it.
On September 19, Interior Minister Castaner attended the inauguration of the French Institute of Muslim Civilization (IFCM), a new national Islamic cultural center in Lyon. At the opening ceremony, Castaner spoke out against anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and all types of hate, and called the organization an essential initiative to fight prejudice and make Islam better understood in the country. Secretary General of the Muslim World League Mohammed al-Issa and Lyon Mayor Gerard Collomb also delivered remarks at the event. Collomb expressed his expectation that the IFCM would be “an instrument of peace.” The project was funded by one million-euro ($1.12 million) grants each from the central government, the city of Lyon, and the greater metropolitan region of Lyon, in addition to 1.5 million euros ($1.69 million) from the Muslim World League.
On January 9, Interior Minister Castaner, Justice Minister Belloubet, then-government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux, and Junior Minister for the Disabled Sophie Cluzel attended a CRIF-organized memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where four years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other persons hostage.
On February 20, President Macron delivered a televised speech at the annual CRIF dinner. Among the guests in attendance – who all wore badges reading “All united against Anti-Semitism” – were First Lady Brigitte Macron, former president Francois Hollande, former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve, 10 current cabinet members, the U.S. Ambassador, and the Israeli Ambassador. Macron stated anti-Semitism had grown and reached its worst level since World War II in the country and Europe and had gotten “worse in recent weeks.” He said he was drawing “new red lines” in the fight against hatred of Jews and announced a package of measures – some previously announced, some new – to combat the rise of anti-Semitism. Among these were that the country would define “anti-Zionism as a modern-day form of anti-Semitism,” putting it in line with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The government adopted the IHRA definition based on this direction, and the National Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution adopting the definition on December 3. Macron also announced the Ministry of Education would investigate the phenomenon of parents pulling their Jewish children out of public school over fears of anti-Semitism, and the government would dissolve several far-right extremist groups.
In response to a May 13 written request from Parliamentarian Meyer Habib of the Union of Democrats and Independents Party, Interior Minister Castaner declined to prohibit regular protests in favor of BDS in Paris. The minister cited as justification the right of assembly and protest enshrined in the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Before the July 25 Europa League match between Strasbourg Racing and Haifa Maccabi (professional soccer teams from France and Israel, respectively), the local police subprefecture announced a ban on any display that could serve to identify someone as a supporter of Haifa Maccabi in key areas of Strasbourg – including in all areas in and around the stadium. The ban included not only team logos, clothing, and paraphernalia, but any “national flag” associated with the team, widely accepted as a reference to the Israeli flag. The police notice specifically stated the risk for violence, referencing that contact had been established between “violent supporters of both teams, some of whom are politicized or identified as being at the origin of manifestations of anti-Semitism.” The notice, which stated identifying as a Haifa supporter “implicated risk” to that person, was followed by an outcry on social media in both France and Israel. Critics said the ban limited freedom of expression of the potential victims of anti-Semitism rather than demanding and enforcing law-abiding behavior from all fans. Following outreach to the interior ministry by leaders of the Jewish community and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Israeli Embassy in Paris, the subprefecture issued a new notice on July 25 – just before the match – rescinding the rules.
On July 21, Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in which 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “France betrayed its own children,” Parly said in her statements, adding, “The roundup … was the work of the French government, accomplished by the French.” She also promised to take up the late 19th century Dreyfus Affair, where authorities wrongly convicted Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason before eventually pardoning and reinstating him in the army. Parly said it was time to posthumously recognize the honor and years taken from Dreyfus and said she would take up the case “personally.”
President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions, including a February 19 visit to the Shoah Memorial, the same day thousands marched in Paris and elsewhere in protest of anti-Semitic acts; the February 20 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 Judaism Day observance. On October 29, President Macron, along with several government officials, attended the inauguration of the European Center of Judaism in Paris. “Judaism has played a key role across the continent to build all that is thought and all that is European civilization, to fundamentally forge who we are,” said President Macron in his speech.
As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities. The imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries. During Ramadan, when there was an increased number of worshippers, between 250 and 300 imams came to the country temporarily, including 164 from Morocco.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The MOI reported 154 registered incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 100 in 2018. Of the 154, 91 were threats and 63 were other acts, two of which involved shootings in front of a mosque in Brest in June and in front of a mosque in Bayonne in October. The government had not yet released figures on the number of acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship (there were 45 in 2018) and of desecration against Muslim cemeteries (six in 2018) that occurred during the year. Reported anti-Semitic incidents (threats or acts) totaled 687, of which 536 were threats and 151 other acts, compared with 541 total incidents in the previous year. The rise in anti-Semitic incidents came entirely from an increase (of 50 percent) in anti-Semitic threats, whereas other acts – including attacks against persons, which fell by 44 percent – declined by 15 percent from 2018. The government also reported 1,052 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property, compared with 1,063 in 2018. Of the anti-Christian incidents, 56 were threats and 996 other acts, primarily of vandalism or arson against churches and cemeteries.
On October 28, police arrested an 84-year-old man, Claude Sinke, suspected of shooting and seriously injuring two elderly Muslim men as they approached after spotting him trying to set fire to the door of the mosque in the southwestern city of Bayonne. Sinke ran in 2015 as a local candidate in Seignanx for the National Rally Party, the party confirmed in a statement. President Macron condemned the “odious attack” in a tweet and vowed to “do everything” to punish attackers “and protect our Muslim compatriots.” The country “will never tolerate hate,” he said. Interior Minister Castaner called for “solidarity and support for the Muslim community.” National Rally leader Marine Le Pen tweeted, “These crimes must be treated with the most total severity.” At year’s end, police placed Sinke in custody for attempted murder, and judicial police opened an investigation, but the national anti-terrorism prosecutor declined to investigate the case as a terrorist incident.
On May 22, perpetrators mugged and beat a Jewish driver working for a ride-sharing company in a Paris suburb because of his Jewish-sounding name, according to authorities. The victim reported a man in his 20s was waiting for him at the appointed place and asked to sit in the front seat. Then a group of approximately 10 young men surrounded the car. One of the perpetrators told him, “You must have money, we’re going to need to frisk you.” The men then beat the driver, causing him to lose consciousness. He sustained injuries and a concussion. In July authorities charged four persons with the attack and placed one teenager in pretrial detention, stating they considered the anti-Semitic nature of the attack to be an aggravating circumstance. The others were not held in pretrial detention, either because they were minors or because of the level of charges against them. There was no further information on the case at year’s end.
On September 21, a man crashed a car into a mosque in Colmar, in the eastern part of the country, breaking down the gate and doorway of the mosque before hitting a wall. Police subdued the man, who was shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”), in the prayer hall. No one was injured in the attack, although the former president of the Grand Mosque of Colmar stated approximately 60 persons were about to arrive for prayer. At year’s end, the attacker was in pretrial detention, and his motive was still under investigation. The public prosecutor of Colmar stated he charged him with attempted murder, degrading a place of worship, and willful violence with a weapon.
Authorities continued to investigate the 2018 killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, which they were treating as a hate crime, but had not set a trial date by year’s end. The two individuals arrested in connection with the killing remained in pretrial detention.
On December 19, the investigative chamber of the Paris Court of Appeals determined that Kobili Traore, charged with the 2017 killing of his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, Sarah Halimi, was “criminally irresponsible” for her killing. In a reversal of a 2018 ruling, the court ruled Traore could not be held criminally responsible because he was in a delusional state from smoking marijuana heavily in the hours before the killing. The court maintained anti-Semitism as an aggravating circumstance. Traore, who confessed to killing Halimi, was reportedly heard yelling in Arabic, “Allahu Akbar” and “Shaitan” (“Satan”) as he beat Halimi. Psychiatric evaluations of Traore differed in their assessment of his mental state. The third evaluation, released March 18, judged he acted during a “delusional state” caused by cannabis use. Sammy Ghozlan, president of the National Bureau for Vigilance Against anti-Semitism (BNVCA), said, “There has been a series of failures” in police and judiciary handling of the case. He added, “Today I no longer have full confidence that anti-Semitic hate crimes in France are handled properly.” CRIF President Francis Kalifat called the decision “unsurprising but difficult to justify.” He criticized a system that “renders a murderer, who is voluntarily under the influence of drugs, unfit for trial, while condemning with greater severity a motorist who has committed an accident under the influence of the same drug.” In April 39 intellectuals wrote an opinion piece in Le Figaro newspaper expressing outrage over the possibility Traore would not stand trial. On December 20, lawyers for the family said they would appeal the ruling. At year’s end, Traore was held in a psychiatric hospital.
On April 18, the Paris Special Criminal Court convicted Abdelkader Merah of complicity in the killing by his brother, Mohammed Merah (who was killed by police), of seven persons outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. The court overturned the 2017 acquittal of Abdelkader Merah on the complicity charge by a Paris criminal court, which convicted him on the lesser charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy. The Special Criminal Court ordered Abdelkader Merah to serve his existing 20-year prison sentence on that lesser conspiracy charge concurrently with the 30-year sentence for complicity.
On July 16, the BNVCA reported the judge in charge of investigating the September 2017 attack on a Jewish family in Livry Gargan did not order anti-Semitism be added to the case as an aggravating circumstance. The suspects are accused of breaking into the home of Roger Pinto, the president of Siona, a group that represents Sephardic Jews, and beating Pinto’s son and wife. One of the burglars said, “You Jews have money,” according to family members.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported four incidents of physical assault against their members and two cases of vandalism during the year. In one case, Church officials reported a man punched a Jehovah’s Witness in the chest and stated he “did not want to see” Jehovah’s Witnesses. In another, a man apparently under the influence of alcohol interrupted two Jehovah’s Witnesses while they were evangelizing and asked what they were doing. Church officials said the man then held a knife to the throat of one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and threated to kill him if he returned. In both cases, the individuals filed complaints with the police. As of year’s end, law enforcement did not file charges in either case.
On February 2, police arrested 19 persons in Strasbourg when approximately 50 Yellow Vest protesters threw rocks at police and tried to damage local property, including the main synagogue. Some protesters shouted anti-Semitic insults and launched firecrackers toward the synagogue entrance.
On June 21, authorities found death threats and racist and anti-Semitic graffiti targeting Thal-Marmoutier Mayor Jean-Claude Distel on the walls of the city hall of the nearby town of Schirrhoffen in the Bas-Rhin Department. Schirrhoffen has a large Jewish population, and Distel is a supporter of refugees and migrants. The graffiti included swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs, and the threats included, “A stabbing is coming quickly,” and “Distel you are going to die.” Another threat, “Distel-Lubcke,” referred to a pro-immigrant German leader who was assassinated in early June.
On March 21, Education Minister Blanquer announced that among 130 racist and anti-Semitic acts teachers reported occurring in schools during the first three months of the year, 16 percent were anti-Semitic. The figures were the result of the online platform the government established in late 2018 to enable teachers to report these cases. The ministry did not release figures of anti-Semitic acts in schools that occurred later in the year.
In a joint study released November 6, the French Institute of Public Opinion and the Jean Jaures Foundation found that 42 percent of Muslims in the country reported being targets of discrimination due to their religion at some point during their life, and 32 percent said they had been targeted in the previous five years. The study reported the most common contexts for discrimination were in interactions with police (28 percent), while searching for employment (24 percent), and while seeking housing (22 percent). The study, commissioned by the DILCRAH, was the first time the government publicly researched the experiences of the Muslim community. According to the survey, 45 percent of women – and 60 percent of those who regularly wore a veil – reported experiencing discrimination, compared with 35 percent of men.
The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, released in April, included the results of an Ipsos poll conducted in November 2018 and involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,007 residents over the age of 18. The results were almost identical to a poll Ipsos conducted a year earlier. According to the poll, 36 percent of the respondents (2 percentage points fewer than in 2017) believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 20 percent thought Jews had too much power in the country. The poll found 29 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 44 percent of them considered it a threat to national identity. The commission’s report again cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as women wearing a veil. It also stated there was an increase in anti-Semitic acts, which numbered 541, up 74 percent from 311 acts in 2017.
In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 32 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to France; 29 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 31 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In January the EC issued a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 72 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in France, and 51 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 78 percent; on the internet, 74 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 80 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 80 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 84 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 83 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 73 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 59 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 63 percent.
In May the EC carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 69 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 27 percent said it was rare; 83 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 95 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 95 percent said they would be with an atheist, 94 percent with a Jew, 93 percent with a Buddhist, and 92 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if a child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups , 94 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 93 percent if atheist, 90 percent if Jewish, 87 percent if Buddhist, and 81 percent if Muslim.
A Pew Research Center survey released in October found 22 percent of residents had an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, down 7 percentage points from 29 percent in 2016. Individuals aged 60 and older were much more likely to hold an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, at 38 percent, than those aged 18 to 34 (11 percent). The same survey found that 6 percent of persons had an unfavorable opinion of Jews.
On October 2, a Paris criminal court convicted Alain Bonnet, known as Alain Soral, of public anti-Semitic insults and “provocation to discrimination, hatred, or violence against Jews” and sentenced him to one year in prison for referring to the Pantheon, a national mausoleum of French notables, as a “kosher wasteland” in a video posted on his website. The court stated his language evoked the dehumanization and suffering Jews faced in concentration and death camps. The court also ordered Soral to take down the video and pay 1,000 euros ($1,100) in damages to the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, as well as one euro ($1) in symbolic damages to three other civil society organizations. It was Soral’s fourth conviction of the year, following previous violations for Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic insults, and publishing an anti-Semitic video, for which he was sentenced to one year, one year, and 18 months, respectively, in addition to multiple earlier convictions on similar charges. Soral remained free while he appealed all four convictions.
In February a Muslim convert, Benjamin Weller, shouted anti-Semitic epithets, such as “Go back to Tel Aviv,” and “We are the French people, France is ours,” at Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut during a Yellow Vest protest. Finkielkraut is a member of the Academie Francaise, the country’s preeminent intellectual institution, and the son of a survivor of Auschwitz. In response, President Macron tweeted, “The anti-Semitic insults he was subjected to are the absolute negation of what we are and what makes us a great nation. We will not tolerate them.” Interior Minister Castaner and then-government Spokesperson Griveaux, among others, also condemned the incident. On July 12, the Paris Criminal Court convicted Weller of making public insults based on “origins, ethnic origin, country, race, or religion” and sentenced him to a suspended two-month prison sentence.
On February 10, unknown persons wrote the word “Juden” (German for “Jew”) on the window of a bagel shop in central Paris. Minister of Interior Castaner and then-government spokesperson Griveaux both condemned the act. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation for “aggravated voluntary damage” and “provocation to racial hatred.” At year’s end, authorities did not identify any suspects.
On February 11, unknown persons chopped down a tree planted in a Paris suburb in memory Ilan Halimi, the Jewish man killed in 2006. Police opened an investigation, and DILCRAH Head Prefect Frederic Potier described the incident as “ignominious.” Interior Minister Castaner said anti-Semitism was spreading like poison, and the attack on Halimi’s memory was an attack on the republic.
In February in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, vandals defaced more than 90 graves at a Jewish cemetery. President Macron and Interior Minister Castaner visited the site on February 19, and prefecture and local politicians condemned the attack. On December 2, vandals desecrated more than 100 graves in the Jewish cemetery of Westhoffen, a town near Strasbourg. Spray-painted swastikas and the number “14,” associated with white supremacy, covered headstones. On the same day, residents found similar graffiti scrawled on the synagogue and the mayor’s office in the town of Schaffhouse-sur-Zorn, approximately 12 miles from Westhoffen. Both President Macron and Interior Minister Castaner condemned the acts, and Castaner visited the Westhoffen cemetery with community leaders on December 4. The gendarmerie in Westhoffen opened an investigation into the incident there, led by a special investigative unit.
Following a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the eastern part of the country, in April the Departmental Council in the Lower Rhine Department approved a list of 10 initiatives, mostly aimed at youth, to counter anti-Semitism and foster a culture of mutual understanding and respect. Citizen volunteers, Jewish and non-Jewish, also organized a Jewish cemetery watch in the Upper Rhine Department.
In March workers building a mosque in the southwestern town of Bergerac found a pig’s head and animal blood at the entrance to the site. The Bergerac police commissioner condemned the act.
In April two persons filmed themselves urinating on the property of UEJF at Dauphine University in Paris and streamed it live on social media. The UEJF called the act anti-Semitic and filed a police complaint against the men.
In late December 2018, according to press reports, a car belonging to a Jewish family in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles was broken into, filled up with trash, and had a mezuzah glued to its windshield. The mezuzah had been stolen from the family’s home months earlier. The family filed a complaint with police for a hate crime.
On May 13, police opened an investigation into the vandalism of a commemorative plaque in Paris devoted to Jewish children arrested by the Vichy government in the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup and deported to Nazi death camps. The graffiti included the number 4,115, representing the number of Jewish children arrested by the Vichy police and the word “extermination.” Paris 15th District Mayor Philippe Goujon denounced the act, and Paris City Hall and BNVCA filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office. At year’s end, authorities did not identify any suspects.
In February there were reports of at least 10 incidents of vandalism and desecration of Catholic churches. Incidents included smashing statues, knocking down tabernacles, scattering or destroying the Eucharist host, burning altar cloths, and tearing down crosses. Individuals vandalized five churches in separate incidents over the span of a week in Dijon, Nimes, Lavaur (Tarn Department), Maisons-Laffitte, and Houilles (Yvelines Department). At the Notre-Dame-Des-Enfants Church in the southern city of Nimes, vandals broke the tabernacle, damaged religious objects, and smeared excrement in the shape of a cross on the interior walls. In May police arrested a 21-year-old local resident, who admitted involvement in the Nimes incident. His trial was scheduled for March 2020. In response to the acts, Prime Minister Philippe said, “In our secular republic, we respect places of worship. Such acts shock me and must be unanimously condemned.” He also discussed the incidents with the Conference of Bishops. In June unknown persons toppled more than 100 tombstones in the main Catholic cemetery in Toulouse, The Catholic Herald reported.
A Jewish school in southern Paris received a letter in February with anti-Semitic messages, including “France is the base for Zionism in Europe” and “If Adolf Hitler had exterminated all the Jews, the Arab countries would live in peace.” The school filed a complaint with the police, who opened an investigation. At year’s end, they did not identify any suspects.
After reports that an administrator at an Orthodox Jewish high school leaked national exam materials to students in an effort to boost the school’s results, users posted hundreds of anti-Semitic posts on Twitter. The tweets included accusations that the students would avoid punishment because of their “protected community” status and that Jews “control everything” in the country.
On October 27, nearly 100 graves in a Christian cemetery in Cognac were vandalized and Christian symbols, including crosses, crucifixes, and angels, were damaged. Police arrested an 18-year-old man in connection with the incident. In online postings, the suspect had written about being a “Satanist” and “hating religion,” and also stated that “voices tell [him] to do certain things.” Prosecutors said he would undergo psychiatric evaluation before facing trial. Authorities placed him under a curfew and judicial control (similar to parole), pending trial.
On November 4, three burglars gained access to the Oloron-Sainte-Marie Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques Region, by ramming and destroying its medieval wooden door with their car. They then stole art and artifacts from the cathedral’s treasury, including gold and silver works, a chalice, and a monstrance. Local police launched an investigation.
In December France 24 reported the country’s Uighur Association said the Chinese government was threatening members of the Muslim Uighur community in France to induce it to spy on fellow Uighurs. The report cited a spokesperson for the association, who said a French Uighur provided personal information to Chinese police on her Uighur work colleagues out of fear of reprisals against her family in Xinjiang. Another Uighur testified his family in Xinjiang was arrested because he refused to return to China. The spokesperson added the Chinese government had successfully sowed distrust within the local Uighur community.
In November CRIF held its tenth annual convention in Paris, titling it, “Fractured France: Can We Unite Against Anti-Semitism?” CRIF President Francis Kalifat cited the challenges of growing anti-Semitism and stated 12 Jews had been killed in the country in the previous 20 years because they were Jewish. Education Minister Blanquer outlined the government’s strategy to combat anti-Semitism in schools and Interior Minister Castaner said, “I want zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism,” adding that the government was committed to combating online hate speech.
On June 16, Strasbourg celebrated the 12th anniversary of its interfaith dialogue initiative, which continued to bring together religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.
In August for the third consecutive year, young Christians and Muslims from across the country, Europe, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East participated in a three-day “weekend of friendship” event at the Taize Ecumenical Community in the Department of Saone-et-Loire. The approximately 200 participants attended panels and shared religious experiences. The conference focused on two themes: hospitality; and the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” a joint statement signed in February by Pope Francis and Egypt’s Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar.
The Council of Christian Churches in France, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to serve as a forum for dialogue. One observer represented the Anglican Communion on the council. The council met twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.