Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i School of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” In April the government implemented the second and third phases of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which includes offenses punishable by corporal and capital punishments, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. The SPC, which is in force in parallel with the common-law-based secular penal code, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. Under full SPC implementation, Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia. Following international condemnation, the sultan announced in May that the de facto moratorium on the death penalty would be extended to include cases under the SPC and that “individual privacy” would be respected. He also declared the government would ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT). Responding to UN expressions of concern regarding the SPC, the foreign minister reiterated that the constitution recognizes the right of non-Muslims to practice their religions “in peace and harmony.” Non-Muslims reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions following the full implementation of the SPC but noted that the law imposes new restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize other non-Muslims, which until April had been legal. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. In October sharia courts charged non-Muslim defendants in two criminal cases. The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued to ban several religious groups it considers “deviant.” The sultan publicly warned the government to strengthen its stance against deviation from what he called authentic Islamic teachings. Government limitations on the construction of new churches and temples, and the renovations or expansion of existing places of worship, resulted in facilities that were too small to accommodate some congregations. Islamic authorities organized a range of proselytizing activities and incentives to explain and propagate Islam.

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. According to media reports and sources within the country, although some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community worried that new SPC laws would encourage homophobia, few believed that the harshest SPC punishments, such as stoning, would be enforced. In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments questioning the relevance of the Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) national philosophy or criticizing the SPC, while others called for increased Islamification and increased restrictions on non-Muslims. Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community.

The Ambassador, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. government officials engaged with senior government officials regarding the negative religious freedom implications of full SPC implementation, as well as the importance of ratification of UNCAT and the protection of minority rights. In meetings with senior economic officials and business leaders, the Ambassador highlighted U.S. concerns relating to the SPC, including those of the private sector. He also met with minority religious leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC. The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs echoed concerns regarding implementation of the SPC during a visit in September.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 458,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions, including indigenous beliefs.

There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups. According to 2016 official statistics, ethnically Malay citizens comprise 66 percent of the population and are presumed by the government to be Muslim as an inherited status. The ethnic Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and stateless permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes such as Dusun, Bisaya, and Murut make up approximately 4 percent of the population and are estimated to be 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder followers of other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining 20 percent of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Asia. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one-quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.

The legal system is divided between secular law and sharia, which have parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. The civil courts are based on common law. The sharia courts follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no concept of legal precedent and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC.

The government fully implemented the final phases of the SPC in April. The SPC spells out provisions for corporal and capital punishment for murder, theft, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, blasphemy, and other acts deemed crimes under sharia. Depending on the type and specifics of the offense, these punishments include fines, imprisonment, whipping, caning, amputation of hands or feet, or death (including by stoning). The SPC identifies murder, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, and blasphemy as capital offenses, although the law requires either a confession or the testimony of multiple pious Muslim male eyewitnesses to support a death sentence. Most SPC sections apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, and are applicable to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempt from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers and pay zakat (obligatory annual almsgiving). The SPC states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation.”

The SPC incorporates longstanding domestic laws based on sharia that prohibit drinking alcohol, propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close physical proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex. It prohibits “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”

Punishments included under the SPC have different standards of proof from the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, may be supported by a confession in lieu of witness testimony at the discretion of a sharia judge. If neither qualifying testimony nor a confession is available, the possible sentences are limited to caning, imprisonment, and fines.

The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which it defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and its main defense against “extremism.” A government body, the MIB Supreme Council, seeks to spread and strengthen the MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.

The Religious Enforcement Division under the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) leads investigations on crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. Cases involving crimes that are not covered by sharia legislation, such as human trafficking, are investigated by the RBPF. Since full SPC implementation began in April, RBPF and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both the secular and sharia laws. In such cases, an “assessment committee” composed of secular and sharia prosecutors and secular and sharia law enforcement officers decides which court system will try the case. The deliberations of the assessment committee to determine whether specific cases would proceed through secular or sharia court are not public, and the government does not make public the committee’s bases for its decisions.

The government bans several religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, Al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is available on MORA’s website. The SPC also bans any practice or display of “black magic.”

The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam. MORA has clarified to embassy officials that the use of certain words such as “Allah” by non-Muslims, does not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.

Under the SPC, Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion. Non-Muslims must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert or renounce their religion. If parents convert to Islam, their minor children automatically become Muslim.

The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks for leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information requested by the registrar. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,400), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.

The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private places in which gatherings do not require approval.

The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 BND ($14,900), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam, including the SPC itself.

Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith.

The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum that are administered by the Ministry of Education (MOE), and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.

MOE schools are required to teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children ages seven to 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Non-Muslims are exempted from all religious study requirements and receive teaching on moral behavior.

Ugama instruction in MORA schools is a seven-to-eight-year course that teaches the day-to-day practice of Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school. Under a 2012 government order, ugama instruction is mandatory for Muslim students ages seven to 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency; many students attend ugama schools in the afternoon after MOE schools have adjourned. Parents may be fined up to 5,000 BND ($3,700), imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year, or both for failure to comply with the order. The law does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs. MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education.

Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction in beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam as part of the school’s curriculum. Schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law requires that any person wishing to teach on matters relating to Islam must obtain official permission. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer private religious education in private settings, such as someone’s home.

All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to parents who are not both Muslim. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.

Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (the crime of close physical proximity between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.

A regulation requires businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for an exemption if serving non-Muslims.

MORA has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and describes it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification). The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM/C. In his 2017 fatwas, the state mufti declared that both male and female circumcision are required and specified that female circumcision involves a “small cut above the vagina.”

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

Government Practices

In March amid international criticism of the SPC by several governments, celebrities, and social media commentators, the government issued a statement asserting its right to enforce its own laws as a “sovereign Islamic and fully independent country.” The statement declared that the SPC would “educate, respect, and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race” and that the country’s parallel sharia and common law judicial systems would “maintain peace and order and preserve our religion, life, family, and individuals regardless of gender, nationality, race, and faith.”

In April the government distributed a set of points on the implementation of the SPC to foreign diplomatic missions highlighting that the country’s constitution “provides that Islam shall be the official religion, but also explicitly recognizes the right of non-Muslims to practice their religions in peace and harmony.” The points also stated the government “reaffirms its commitment to its international obligations in promoting and protecting human rights as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and that the government’s 2015 signing of UNCAT “testifies our strong rejection to acts of torture.”

On April 1, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a letter to the government expressing concern about “the imposition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishments” under the SPC and urging the government to “repeal it completely as it would not be in conformity with international human rights law.” Minister of Foreign Affairs II Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof responded with a letter reiterating that the constitution recognized the right of non-Muslims to practice their religions “in peace and harmony” and that the SPC “aims to respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals” and had no intention “to victimize a person’s status based on sexual orientation or belief.”

In May the sultan announced that the de facto moratorium on the death penalty would be extended to include cases under the SPC and that “individual privacy” would be respected. He also declared that the government would ratify the UNCAT.

Non-Muslims reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions in the country following the full implementation of the SPC but noted that the law imposed new restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims, which until April had been legal. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. Non-Muslims continued to express concern that the SPC had the potential to enable abuses in the future. Some non-Muslims described the SPC as a “scare tactic” that, alongside other government policies, would pressure non-Muslims to convert to Islam. They noted the SPC’s blasphemy provisions could be used to constrain non-Muslim groups’ activities but expressed greater concern about subtle pressure by the government than about the possibility of harsh sharia punishments.

Government-provided statistics indicated sharia courts convicted 107 individuals between January and October. In August authorities completed the first criminal prosecution in the sharia courts following the implementation of the SPC in April. The defendant, a local Malay Muslim, was sentenced to five months in prison for the theft of 100 BND ($74). During the year, the sharia courts convicted a total of 10 individuals under the newly implemented sections of the SPC – all relatively minor theft offenses resulting in a fine or prison sentence.

The sharia courts charged three non-Muslim defendants in two criminal cases during the year. In October an ethnic Iban (an indigenous group) man who local church officials stated was Catholic, was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for theft. In a case that was pending at year’s end, two Vietnamese men became the first non-Muslim foreigners to be charged in the sharia courts under the newly implemented SPC sections, accused of “causing hurt” for allegedly assaulting a colleague at their workplace.

The government periodically warned the population about the preaching of non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism. It permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths.

MORA continued to provide all mosques with approved sermons for Friday services. The government required that the sermons be delivered by registered imams, and deviance from the approved text was forbidden. In May, following a nationally televised interview in which a local government Muslim cleric claimed to have met the Prophet Muhammad in a dream, the sultan publicly urged the government to strengthen its stance against what he considered inauthentic Islamic teachings, including non-Shafi’i versions of Islam. Religious authorities reportedly chastised the cleric and required him to undergo additional training.

There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear a head covering (known locally as a tudong), and many women did so. When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards, Muslim females were required to wear a tudong. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.

As in past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the Chinese temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members. Members of the royal family publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with front-page coverage in state-influenced media.

The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic instructional materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. Authorities generally continued to ban non-Islamic religious texts from import, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviated from the Shafi’i school of Islam. Customs continued to check personal packages entering the country to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or perceived sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.

Christian leaders stated that a long-standing fatwa discouraging Muslims from perpetuating non-Islamic faiths continued to inhibit the expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities. Christian religious groups, however, said authorities generally permitted churches and associated schools to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety. The process for obtaining approval to renovate church buildings remained lengthy and difficult, and there were continuing reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated requirements. With only six approved churches in the country, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Chinese Buddhist temples were also subject to the same fatwa. Government data from 2015, the latest available, indicated there were 99 registered mosques. Christian worshippers continued to report difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled.

The government reported that many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses on their transcripts could be advantageous. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.

In February the sultan publicly called for extending Quranic education and encouraged all high schools to introduce “specialized Al-Quran education” in addition to their Islamic Religious Knowledge syllabus. School officials reported that by year’s end the government had not yet required them to introduce new Quranic studies programs.

Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. All church-associated schools were recognized by the MOE and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.

Throughout the year, the government enforced restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers. In May the Borneo Bulletin, citing the SPC, warned local eateries not to serve dine-in customers during fasting hours and cautioned the public not to eat, drink, or smoke in public places during daylight hours throughout Ramadan. There were no reports during the year of raids or of religious enforcement officers enforcing the ban on restaurants serving dine-in food during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

The government maintained a longstanding ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes and a restriction against the import or consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslims. After a period of increased enforcement on the ban of alcohol in 2018, enforcement reportedly returned to previous levels of routine customs checks at the border. Religious authorities allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but they continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.

The government offered incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing, welfare assistance, or help to perform the Hajj. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. According to government statistics, 292 individuals converted to Islam during the year, lower than previous years. Converts included citizens and permanent residents, as well as foreigners. Government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (one that remembers and obeys Allah).

Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings required approval from the sharia courts, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.

Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.

The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity and were used in part to determine whether he or she were Muslim; for example, all ethnic Malays, including those traveling in the country, were assumed to be Muslim. Malays were required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. Male members of the Islamic community reportedly felt pressure from family and friends to attend Friday prayers despite not having strong religious beliefs. Members of the LGBTI community expressed fears about openly expressing their sexual and/or gender identity, since they believed it would bring shame on their families for violating religious mores. According to media reports and sources within the country, although some members of the LGBTI community worried that new SPC laws would encourage homophobia, few believed that the harshest SPC punishments, such as stoning, would be enforced.

Religion and religious freedom continued to be discussed on social media outlets such as Facebook and Reddit. Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments questioning the relevance of the MIB national philosophy, and some commenters called for religion to play no part in government policy. Others called for increased Islamification and increased restrictions on non-Muslims. Residents who questioned the SPC or Islamic values on social media sometimes reported receiving online abuse, threats, and official monitoring. Some members of the LGBTI community, however, used social media to criticize the SPC and said they did so without fear of government reprisal.

Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion reportedly continued to fear social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same. Some non-Muslims said they felt pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. government officials engaged throughout the year with senior government officials regarding the full implementation of the SPC, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority rights. In all such engagements, the Ambassador or other officers highlighted U.S. concerns regarding the harsh and degrading punishments included in the SPC, the criminalization of same-sex activity, and the law’s impact on the freedom to change or disseminate religious beliefs.

In September the visiting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs echoed U.S. concerns regarding implementation of the SPC with senior government officials and reinforced the need to take affirmative steps to meet human rights obligations and follow through on commitments relating to the SPC.

U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about implementation of the SPC. Embassy officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of all principal religious groups, and facilitated discussions on the SPC and laws and policies affecting religious freedom in the country, including sharia and obstacles to practicing religions and beliefs other than Shafi’i Islam.


Executive Summary

The constitution states Buddhism is the state religion, and it is promoted by the government through holiday observances, religious training, Buddhist instruction in public schools, and financial support to Buddhist institutions. The law provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The law does not allow non-Buddhist denominations to proselytize publicly. The government continued to refuse to allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to accept permanently a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status. The government returned some land to indigenous communities, which predominantly practice animist beliefs, after initially offering it to a foreign company as a concession for development.

The press reported that villagers killed at least two people suspected of practicing sorcery due to their animist beliefs and practices. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that witchcraft-related crimes were still common and between 2012 and 2018, there were at least 49 incidents. There were continued reports of societal barriers to the integration of the predominantly Muslim Cham ethnic minority as well as Christians.

U.S. embassy officials regularly raised religious freedom and tolerance with Ministry of Cults and Religion (MCR) representatives and other government officials. Some embassy programs continued to focus on the preservation of religious cultural sites.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the MCR, approximately 95 percent of the population is Buddhist, of whom 95 percent practice Theravada Buddhism. The remaining 5 percent of the population includes Christians, Muslims, animists, Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents. Ethnic Vietnamese traditionally practice Mahayana Buddhism, although many have adopted Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic Vietnamese practice Roman Catholicism, and these make up the vast majority of Catholics in the country. Catholics constitute 0.4 percent of the population. Nongovernmental estimates of the Protestant population, including evangelical Christians, vary but are less than 2 percent of the total population.

According to government estimates, approximately 2.1 percent of the population is Muslim, although some nongovernmental organizations estimate Muslims constitute 4 to 5 percent of the population. The Muslim population is predominantly ethnic Cham, although not all Cham are Muslim. The Cham typically live in towns and rural fishing villages on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, as well as in Kampot Province. There are four branches of Islam represented in the country: the Shafi’i, practiced by as many as 90 percent of Muslims in the country; the Salafi (Wahhabi); the indigenous Iman-San; and the Kadiani.

An estimated 0.28 percent of the population are ethnic Phnong, the majority of whom follow animistic religious practices. An additional estimated 0.25 percent of the population includes Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, as long as such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security. The constitution establishes Buddhism as the state religion and provides for state support of Buddhist education; it also prohibits discrimination based on religion. The law requires that religious groups refrain from openly criticizing other religious groups, but it does not elaborate the legal consequences for those who violate this restriction. The law also forbids religious organizations from organizing events, rallies, meetings, and training sessions that are politically focused.

The law requires all religious groups, including Buddhist groups, to register with the MCR. The law mandates that groups must inform the government of the goals of their religious organization; describe their activities; provide biographical information for all religious leaders; describe funding sources; submit annual reports detailing all activities; and refrain from insulting other religious groups, fomenting disputes, or undermining national security. Registration requires approvals from numerous local, provincial, and national government offices, a process that can take up to 90 days. There are no penalties for failing to register, but registered religious groups receive an income tax exemption from the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The law bans non-Buddhist groups from proselytizing publicly and stipulates that non-Buddhist literature may be distributed only inside religious institutions. The law also prohibits offers of money or materials to convince persons to convert.

The law requires separate registration of all places of worship and religious schools. Authorities may shut down temporarily unregistered places of worship and religious schools until they are registered, although there were no reports of the MCR enforcing this. The law also makes a legal distinction between “places of worship” and “offices of prayer.” The establishment of a place of worship requires that the founders own the structure and the land on which it is located. The facility must have a minimum capacity of 200 persons, and the permit application requires the support of at least 100 congregants. An office of prayer may be located in a rented property and has no minimum capacity requirement. The permit application for an office of prayer requires the support of at least 25 congregants. Places of worship must be located at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) from each other and may not be used for political purposes or to house criminals or fugitives. The distance requirement applies only to the construction of new places of worship and not to offices of religious organizations or offices of prayer.

Religious schools must be registered with the MCR and the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MOEYS). The MOEYS advises religious schools to follow the ministry’s core curriculum, which does not include a religious component; however, schools may supplement the ministry’s core curriculum with Buddhist lessons. The government requires public schools to coordinate with MOEYS when implementing supplemental Buddhist lessons. Non-Buddhist students may opt out of this instruction. The law does not allow non-Buddhist religious instruction in public schools. Non-Buddhist religious instruction may be provided by private institutions.

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

Government Practices

Nuon Chea, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018 related to charges of ethnic- and religious-based genocide against ethnic Vietnamese and the Cham population during the Khmer Rouge era from 1975 to 1979, died at the age of 93, before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal had heard his appeal of the verdict.

The government continued to refuse to allow the UNHCR to permanently accept a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status. Of the estimated 200 Christian Montagnards who had fled Vietnam and were in Cambodia in 2017, 27 remained in the country. The government deported four back to Vietnam in June. Rights activists expressed concern that Montagnards deported to Vietnam would face harsh treatment upon their return. The UNHCR said that one of the four returned voluntarily, while the other three were found ineligible for refugee status by the UNHCR. Again in June, the government said it would allow the remaining 27 to move to a third country if the UNHCR would obtain approval from the Vietnamese government. The UNHCR rejected the proposal, however, saying the Cambodian government should communicate with the Vietnamese government directly.

The government continued to promote Buddhist holidays by grants of official status and declarations of government holidays. The government also provided Buddhist training and education to monks and laypersons in pagodas, and it gave financial support to an institute that performed research and published materials on Khmer culture and Buddhist traditions. The government did not grant similar treatment to other religious groups, including by declaring religious holidays.

On May 7, Prime Minister Hun Sen hosted an iftar, with Member of the Malaysian Parliament Wan Junaidi bin Tuanku Jaafar, a member of the Selagor Islamic Religious Council, representatives of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, 320 Muslims of 32 foreign nationalities, and 4,750 Cambodian Muslims in attendance. This marked the sixth straight year the prime minister hosted the event and he pledged to continue doing so. In his remarks, he promised to maintain “religious harmony to ensure Cambodia is free from ethnic and religious conflict.”

In October at a dinner with 3,000 Christians in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that the country did not experience any religious conflict. He encouraged those in attendance to maintain peace, security, and public order in the country.

In May, at a Quran recitation ceremony, Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An called on Muslims in the country to oppose foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs. She asked Muslims to “maintain peace, political stability, territorial sovereignty, and oppose attempts to have a color revolution and any attempts to meddle in internal national issues.”

On May 8, Health Minister Mam Bunheng issued a statement ordering all directors of public hospitals to prepare prayer rooms nationwide to facilitate the worship of Muslim staff and patients. On May 15, the MOEYS followed suit and requested 125 state and private institutes and universities across the country to add prayer rooms to their campuses.

On March 26, the government announced a decision to remove 742 hectares (1,800 acres) of land from an economic concession to Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Gia Lai and return it to indigenous communities in Rattanakiri Province, which predominantly practice animist beliefs.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On January 21, in Anlong Vil commune, Sangke District, Battambang Province, according to media reports, Vong Den attacked and killed Nork Sorl with an axe. The report stated that Den accused Sorl of using magic to make him and his family sick. The police arrested Den the day following the attack and charged him with premeditated murder.

On April 14, in Sre Chhok commune, Keo Seima District, Mondulkiri Province, according to media reports, Norn Mao shot Phchuch Phos while Phos was asleep in his home. Mao accused Phos of using magic to cause him and his family to be sick. The police arrested Mao on the same day, charging him with premediated murder.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that witchcraft-related crimes had decreased in urban centers, but remained an issue in remote areas. From 2012 to 2018, the OHCHR recorded 49 witchcraft-related crimes, among which 35 involved killings and 14 attempted killings and harassment.

There were reports from members of the Cham Muslim community of barriers to social integration, including barriers to job prospects and socio-economic advancement. Local media reported that some members of the majority Buddhist community continued to view the Cham and other minority ethnic groups with suspicion as purported practitioners of sorcery.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials regularly raised with MCR representatives and other government officials the importance of fully integrating religious minorities into Cambodian society and the benefits of supporting religious pluralism.

The embassy underscored the importance of acceptance of religious diversity with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups, emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance in a democratic society.

Embassy officers met periodically with ethnic Cham and other Muslim community members to support religious tolerance, respect for minority culture, and equal economic opportunity and integration of ethnic minorities into the wider culture. During several visits to the region, senior Washington officials also met with local authorities and civil society members to promote religious freedom.

Some embassy programs specifically focused on supporting the preservation of religious cultural sites.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and, as noted in the constitution, to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” Individuals continued to be detained and received prison sentences of up to five years for violations of blasphemy laws. One man was detained for reading the Quran disrespectfully in an online video. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including one Buddhist man who accepted caning in lieu of imprisonment. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as local regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. In August authorities took action against two Pentecostal churches, revoking a permit for one and stopping worship activities for another. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office continued to use a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against groups with what the government considered unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. Religious groups outside the six government-recognized religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, the latter widely interpreted by the government and society to mean Sunni Islam), again reported problems with identifying their religion on their national identification cards (KTPs), although a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allows for such a listing. Adherents of indigenous faiths cannot enter their specific names, however, because there are too many. Various jurisdictions agreed to use a common term, i.e., “Faith in One God.” Three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that could list “Faith in One God” as the faith category, but the practice was not widely implemented. There were again instances in which local governments and police acceded to the demands of groups, such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front, Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, called “intolerant groups” in media, to close houses of worship for permit violations or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. President Joko Widodo included six non-Muslims in his cabinet appointments announced on October 23, the same as during his previous administration.

Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media. In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the May 2018 suicide bomber attack on three churches. Local Islamic youth groups in coordination with police provided extra security outside Surabaya churches in conjunction with the anniversary. In March unknown individuals vandalized Jewish graves in Jakarta, and in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.

The Ambassador and U.S. embassy and consulate officials advocated for religious freedom with the government, including at the highest levels. Embassy and consulate officials engaged government officials on specific issues, including actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the importance of tolerance and rule of law, and the application of sharia to non-Muslims. Embassy and consulate officials also engaged civil society and religious leaders about tolerance and pluralism and spoke out publicly against discrimination and violence against minority religious communities. The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – endorsed by both governments and comprising religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts from both countries – met with the Ambassador to discuss religious freedom issues. The embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach to promote the message of respect for diversity and religious tolerance through events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 264.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, Gafatar, and other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.

The Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni. An estimated one to three million Muslims are Shia. Many smaller Muslim groups exist; estimates put the total number of Ahmadi Muslims at 200,000 to 400,000.

Many religious groups incorporate elements of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, making it difficult to disaggregate the exact number of followers. An estimated 20 million people, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as aliran kepercayaan. There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago.

The Sikh population is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, with approximately 5,000 in Medan and the rest in Jakarta. There are very small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, Jayapura, and elsewhere, with the total number of Jews estimated at 200. The Baha’i Faith and Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) communities report thousands of members, but independent estimates are not available. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists states it has more than 1,700 members.

The province of Bali is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the right to practice the religion of one’s choice and specifies that freedom of religion is a human right that may not be limited. The constitution states, “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God,” but it guarantees all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief, saying the right to have a religion is a human right that shall not be discriminated against.

The constitution also says the state is based on the belief in one God, and the state is obliged to guarantee the freedom of worship. It states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy, as noted in the constitution, “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society. The law restricts citizens from exercising these rights in a way that impinges on the rights of others, oversteps common moral standards and religious values, or jeopardizes security or public order.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) extends official recognition to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The government maintains a long-standing practice of recognizing Sunni Islam as the official version of Islam of local Muslims, although the constitution has no such stipulation.

The blasphemy articles in the criminal code prohibit deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six officially recognized religions or have the intent of preventing an individual from adhering to an official religion. These articles also stipulate that in any case of defamation of the six officially recognized religions, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the MORA, and the Attorney General’s Office must first warn the individual in question before bringing a defamation charge. The articles also forbid the dissemination of information designed to spread hatred or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Individuals may be subject to prosecution for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements under either of these provisions or under the laws against defamation and may face a maximum prison sentence of five years. A separate law forbids the electronic dissemination of the same types of information, with violations carrying a maximum four-year sentence.

The government defines a religion as having a prophet, holy book, and deity, as well as international recognition. The government deems the six officially recognized religions meet these requirements. Organizations representing one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law are not required to obtain a legal charter if they are established under a notary act and obtain approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Religious organizations other than the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law must obtain a legal charter as a civil society organization from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MORA before granting legal status to religious organizations. The law requires all civil society organizations to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God, justice, unity, democracy, and social justice, and they are prohibited from committing blasphemous acts or spreading religious hatred. By law, all religious groups must officially register with the government. Registration requirements for religious organizations include: (a) organizations may not contradict Pancasila and the constitution; (b) they must be voluntary, social, independent, nonprofit, and democratic; and (c) they must have a notarized articles of association (bylaws) and a specifically defined purpose. The organization then registers with the MORA. After MORA approval, the organization is announced publicly through the state gazette. Violations of the law may result in a loss of legal status, dissolution of the organization, and arrest of members under the blasphemy articles of the criminal code or other applicable laws. Indigenous religious groups must register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as aliran kepercayaan to obtain official, legal status.

A joint ministerial decree bans both proselytizing by the Ahmadi Muslim community and vigilantism against the group. Violations of the Ahmadi proselytizing ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy. According to the criminal code, vigilantism carries a maximum five and one-half-year prison sentence.

A joint ministerial decree bans proselytizing and other activities by the Fajar Nusantara Movement, known as Gafatar. Violations of the ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy.

There is no joint ministerial decree that bans proselytizing by other groups. The Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a quasi-governmental Muslim organization, however, has issued fatwas that ban proselytizing by so called deviant groups such as Inkar al-Sunnah, Ahmadiyya, Islam Jama’ah, the Lia Eden Community, and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah.

The government requires all officially registered religious groups to comply with directives from the MORA and other ministries on issues such as construction of houses of worship, foreign aid to domestic religious institutions, and propagation of religion.

A joint ministerial decree between the MORA and the MOHA states that religious groups may not hold services in private residences, and those seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are responsible for implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the city or district level and comprise religious leaders from the six official groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

The law requires religious instruction in public schools. Students have the right to request religious instruction in any one of the six official religions, but teachers are not always available to teach the requested religion classes. Under the law, individuals may not opt out of religious education requirements. In practice, however, students of minority religious groups are often allowed to opt out and attend study hall instead.

Under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a separatist conflict, Aceh Province has unique authority to implement sharia regulations. The law allows for provincial implementation and regulation of sharia and extends the jurisdiction of religious courts to economic transactions and criminal cases. The Aceh government states sharia in Aceh only applies to Muslim residents of the province, although nonresident Muslims and adherents to other faiths may accept sharia in lieu of punishment under the criminal code.

Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize consensual same-sex activity, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 1 p.m. Sharia regulations prohibit female Muslim residents of Aceh from wearing tight pants in public, and they must wear headscarves. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and caning. There are regulations intended to limit the amount of force that authorities may exert during a caning.

Many local governments outside of Aceh have enacted regulations based on religious considerations; most of these are in majority Muslim areas. Many of these regulations relate to matters such as religious education and only apply to a specific religious group. Some religiously inspired local regulations in effect apply to all citizens. For instance, some local regulations require restaurants to close during Ramadan fasting hours, ban alcohol, or mandate the collection of zakat (Islamic alms). Other local regulations forbid or limit the religious activities of religious minorities, especially Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

The marriage law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it contains an article stipulating that parties must perform the marriage ceremony according to the rituals of a religion shared by both the bride and groom.

The law requires the leader of an aliran kepercayaan group to demonstrate group members live in at least three regencies, which are administrative designations one level below a province, before the leader may officiate legally at a wedding. This constraint effectively bars believers of some smaller groups without such geographic presence from receiving official marriage services from a member of their faith, although groups may aid each other and facilitate marriages by a group with a similar faith tradition and rituals.

A joint ministerial decree requires domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the MORA to receive funding from overseas donors and forbids dissemination of religious literature and pamphlets to members of other religious groups as well as going door-to-door for the purposes of converting others. Most religious groups may, however, proselytize in their own places of worship, except for some groups such as the Ahmadi Muslims.

Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the MORA to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.

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

Government Practices

In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, despite a 2018 ban on public canings announced by Aceh’s governor. Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose punishment under sharia or civil court procedures, but Muslim residents of Aceh must receive punishment under sharia. According to media reports and human rights activists, several non-Muslim residents of Aceh chose punishment under sharia, reportedly due to the expediency of punishment and the risk of prolonged and expensive trials and possible lengthy prison sentences.

In August authorities in Aceh caned a Buddhist man and his Muslim girlfriend 27 times after the couple spent time in a Banda Aceh hotel room. According to a local reporter, the man accepted sharia punishment as an alternative to a prison sentence. He was the third Buddhist and eighth non-Muslim to choose punishment under sharia law since its introduction in 2014. Authorities also caned four unmarried Muslim couples between eight and 33 times each for extramarital sex, and they caned two unmarried couples 100 times each in the northern Aceh city of Lhokseumawe after they were found guilty of premarital sex, while a third man received 160 lashes for having sex with a minor.

In March the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Meliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman, who in 2018 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for blasphemy. The accusation came after she privately asked a local mosque caretaker’s daughter that the mosque lower its loudspeaker volume. Vice President Jusuf Kalla and some senior members of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, said her remarks should not be considered blasphemy. In May she was released on parole after serving the mandatory two-thirds of her prison term.

In April the Special Criminal Police of Bangka Belitung investigated and detained Daud Rafles, a resident of Sekar Biru Village, Bangka Island, for blasphemy. Village residents identified Rafles in a viral video in which he allegedly read the Quran disrespectfully.

In June, according to Human Rights Watch, authorities arrested a Catholic woman, Suzethe Margaret, and charged her with blasphemy after taking a dog into a mosque. Witnesses stated she was looking for her husband and accused individuals at the mosque of converting him to Islam to marry another woman. She allegedly kicked a mosque guard when asked to leave. Doctors stated the woman needed psychiatric treatment and did not understand what she did. Reports stated the woman faced up to five years in prison if convicted. At year’s end, prosecutors recommended the court sentence the woman to eight months in prison.

In April the Mayor of Malang, East Java, issued a circular urging non-Muslims not to “eat, drink, or smoke” in public places during Ramadan because it could hurt the feelings of fasting Muslims. The circular was posted on Malang’s municipal government twitter account.

In April the press reported that a Catholic family was forced to leave Karet Village in Bantul, Yogyakarta, after staying one night in a house the family rented; local residents protested the family’s presence and filed a report with Bantul regency officials. According to media reports, some villagers from Karet argued that under district law all newcomers must be Muslim. After mediation, the village chief and Bantul Regency government officials told the family they could stay in the village; press reports, however, stated the family chose to leave.

In March church leaders from the Christian church Gereja Bethel Indonesia in South Birobuli, Central Sulawesi, closed their place of worship due to objections from the local community. Media reported that church leaders, the head of the FKUB, local officials, and police met to discuss the fate of the church and that the church failed to receive approval from at least 60 members of the local community, as required by MORA regulation. Police told media that the land where the church was located was in dispute and the church did not have a building permit.

According to The Jakarta Christian Post, in August authorities revoked a recently issued permit for a Pentecostal church in Yogyakarta after protests and threats from Muslims in the area. The district chief stated he revoked the permit because the church did not meet requirements established by a ministerial decree regulating houses of worship, saying “a house of worship cannot be a home at the same time.”

In August according to media reports, the Indragiri Hilir District Civil Service Police Unit (Satpol PP) stopped worship activities at the Indonesian Pentecostal church Efata Church in Sari Agung Hamlet, Indragiri Hilir Regency, Riau. Worship activities had been proceeding there for five years. The head of Satpol PP said officials had to stop worship activities because they occurred at the pastor’s house and not in a house of worship. According to officials, the decision to stop services was made after the district government consulted with district leaders and the district FKUB, which included Christian representatives from Tembilahan, the district capital. A legal aid organization said the Sari Agung Hamlet pastor leading the congregation was not consulted during the process and therefore chose to continue to conduct religious services at a nearby tent. Local authorities identified an alternate worship site nine miles away from the pastor’s residence, but the congregation rejected this location due to its inaccessibility.

In September the regional secretary of Makassar Municipality in South Sulawesi released a government circular that stated, “Be wary of and not be influenced by Shia ideology and teachings.” The letter, issued on the day Ashura was observed, also asked persons to prevent dissemination of Shiism, calling it “deviant teaching.” Media reported the circular was based on an “illegal” circular issued by the South Sulawesi government in 2017. Dozens of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists in Makassar issued a statement a week later criticizing the circular and demanding that the provincial and municipal governments stop issuing what they termed intolerant circulars and prevent intolerant actions in the community.

In September the Regent of Gowa, South Sulawesi, issued a decree disbanding Tarekat Taj Al-Khalwaty Syech Yusuf, a Sufi religious group with 10,000 followers across Gowa and Takalar Regencies. The decision followed a 2016 heresy fatwa issued by the Gowa branch of MUI against the group. MUI Gowa reported the group and its leaders to the police for blasphemy and defamation against MUI Gowa and money laundering. In November Gowa police arrested the group’s leader, Puang Lalang, on charges of financial fraud, embezzlement, and blasphemy for charging followers up to 50,000 Indonesian rupiah ($4) for membership. MUI also issued heresy fatwas against the group in Sinjai Regency and Takalar Regency, South Sulawesi.

In September the speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly disallowed a non-Muslim female member from reading a prayer at the legislature’s final session on September 27, which would have marked the first time a non-Muslim woman read the closing prayers.

The government continued to support a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against individuals and groups with what the government considers unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office launched the app in December 2018 with the expressed goal of streamlining the heresy and blasphemy reporting system. Various human rights organizations continued to criticize the app, saying it could undermine religious tolerance and freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, the app identifies several religious groups and their leaders (including Ahmadi, Shia, and Gafatar), describes their “deviant teachings,” and provides their local office addresses.

The MORA maintained its authority at both the national and local level to conduct the “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. In several West Java regencies, local governments continued efforts to force or encourage conversion of Ahmadi Muslims with a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. According to the local Ahmadiyya community in Tasikmalaya and Banjar, local MORA offices obliged Ahmadis to sign forms stating they denounced Ahmadiyya teachings. This practice began in 2014.

According to religious groups and NGOs, government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedom and committing other acts of intimidation, such as damaging or destroying houses of worship and homes. These groups included the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council. For example, the FPI’s registration as a religious organization expired in June. Sources stated the FPI is known for violence against minority religious groups and forcing the shutdown of bars and entertainment establishments it deems immoral. In May an online petition was created demanding the MOHA not renew the FPI’s permit. As of year’s end, the MOHA did not indicate that it would renew the permit, despite the MORA endorsing the renewal of the permit in December, and the group had no legal status.

In March Setara Institute reported there were 202 cases of religious freedom abuses in 2018 (72 cases committed by government and the rest by society), compared with 151 cases in 2017. Abuses cited included discrimination, intolerance, and prohibitions on wearing hijabs in public school.

In September civil society organization The Wahid Foundation reported 276 cases of religious persecution in 2018, as defined by the foundation, including 130 from government-related institutions. The foundation recorded 265 cases in 2017, including 95 from government-related institutions. The foundation’s reported abuses included the issuance of sharia-based local regulations and prohibitions on building houses of worship.

In June the Pemalang police chief in Central Java conducted tolerance training for his police unit by having police officers and the public clean houses of worship of different faiths. In September NGO Madania conducted tolerance training called “Peace Initiative” for religious teachers.

In November FPI members intimidated the non-Muslim Regent of West Bangka, Bangka Belitung, to prevent his celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in his official residence.

More than 500 Shia Muslims from Madura remained displaced on the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, after communal violence forced them from their homes in 2012. In Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, 131 Ahmadi Muslims remained internally displaced in cramped apartments after a mob expelled them from their Lombok village in 2006.

Human rights organizations criticized a proposed bill, withdrawn after widespread protests, that would have revised the criminal code and expanded the 1965 blasphemy law. The bill proposed increasing the enumeration of “the elements of crime” to include items such as defaming religious artifacts. A coalition of local civil society organizations said the law would discriminate against non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, local religious minorities, as well as women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.

Across the country, minority religious groups, including Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority areas, continued to state the official requirement for a specific number of supporters to build or renovate a house of worship served as a barrier to construction. In May a group of Hindus wanted to build a temple in Bekasi, West Java. Persons in the surrounding area rejected the project by saying the number of Hindus in the neighborhood was too low.

Local governments did not issue permits even when the worshippers obtained the requisite numbers if opponents of the construction pressured neighbors not to approve. In many cases, a few vocal opponents from the local majority religious affiliation were reportedly sufficient to stop construction approvals. State-recognized religious leaders in government-supported interfaith forums reportedly found ways to block aliran kepercayaan believers from constructing places of worship, largely through stringent permit requirements. Aliran kepercayaan adherents said they were fearful of atheism accusations if they were to contest this treatment in court. Christian leaders reported that local officials indefinitely delayed permit approval for requests to build new churches because these officials feared construction would incite protests. Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians said they also faced problems when seeking approval to move to temporary facilities while a primary place of worship underwent renovation.

Local governments, police, and religious organizations reportedly tried to close religious minority groups’ houses of worship for permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had a proper permit. In July the Regent of Bantul, Yogyakarta, removed the building permit from a Pentecostal church in Sedayu, Bantul, following protests and pressure by the local community.

Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of a house of worship and often faced protest from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when authorities issued permits, they closed or forced construction to halt on some houses of worship after facing legal challenges and public protests. Protestant and Catholic churches also reported that “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money to continue operating without a permit. Some houses of worship established before the joint ministerial decree on house of worship construction came into effect reportedly were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops.

In August local residents stopped the construction project of an Indonesian Baptist church in Tlogosari Wetan, Semarang, Central Java. They argued that the building permit owned by the group had expired, and they subsequently blocked access to the project site where the church was being built. The Semarang administration subsequently decided to review the building permit. Semarang Mayor Hendrar Prihadi said the church construction would be halted until he verified the permit’s validity.

Church leaders in Jambi said they had been trying to obtain appropriate building permits from the city administration to build places of worship since 2003, but city authorities had not granted these due to opposition from community authorities. The head of the Jambi Municipal Civil Service Police Unit said three churches were shut down in 2018 because they violated regional regulations and did not have proper building permits. At year’s end, the three churches remained closed. In 2018 an activist created a petition online urging the government to reopen these churches. As of December, approximately 3,900 people had signed the petition.

Construction was completed on the Santa Clara Catholic Church in Bekasi, West Java. The congregation had waited more than 15 years for the approval of its construction permit before receiving it in 2015, and “intolerant groups” regularly targeted the construction site for protests. The church was formally opened by the Bekasi mayor on August 17.

Aliran kepercayaan followers continued to say teachers pressured them to send their children to a religious education class of one of the six officially recognized religions. Minority religious groups not among the six recognized religions said schools often allowed their children to spend religious education time in study hall, but school officials required parents to sign documents stating their children received religious education. Ahmadi Muslim students reported religion classes for Islam focused only on Sunni teachings.

In November media reported that a public school expelled two Jehovah’s Witness students after they declined to recite the national anthem, salute the national flag, and attend religious classes, citing their beliefs. The decision to expel the students was made in coordination with the local MORA branch, the Batam Education Authority, police, and the military. Following objections filed by a law firm representing the expelled students, the provincial Board of Education in Batam eventually ordered the cancelation of the expulsion letters. The two students returned to school after almost two months.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs, individuals continued to report difficulties accessing government services if they did so. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members, including those following indigenous beliefs, reportedly chose to identify as a member of an officially recognized religion close to their beliefs or reflecting the locally dominant religion. According to researchers, this practice obscured the real number of adherents to any particular religious group in government statistics. Following a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling, citizens were allowed to select indigenous faiths as an option on their KTPs. In 2018 MORA officials said they were planning on implementing this law in order to identify indigenous faiths on KTPs. Early in the year, three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that allowed the faith category “Faith in One God” in South Sulawesi, Bandung, and Cirebon (West Java).

NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to remove the religion field from KTPs. Religious minorities reported they sometimes faced discrimination after others saw their religious affiliation on their KTPs. Members of the Jewish community said they felt uncomfortable stating their religion in public and often chose to state they were Christians or Muslims depending on the dominant religion where they lived, due to concern that local communities did not understand their religion.

Men and women of different religions who sought to marry reportedly had difficulties finding a religious official willing to perform a wedding ceremony. Some couples of different religions selected the same religion on their KTPs in order to marry legally.

Minority Muslim groups, including Ahmadis, Shia, and Gafatar, also continued to report resistance when they applied for KTPs as Muslims, effectively denying them access to public services if they could not secure KTPs.

Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. For example, the Mayor of Solo was Catholic. After beginning a second term in October, President Widodo’s new 34-member cabinet included six members of minority faiths, the same as during his previous administration.

Foreign religious workers from many religious groups continued to state they found it relatively easy to obtain visas, and some groups reported little government interference with their religious activities.

Police provided special protection to some Catholic churches in major cities during Sunday services and Christian holidays. Police also provided special protection to Buddhist and Hindu temples during religious celebrations.

According to the law, a marriage is legitimate if it has been performed according to the laws of the respective religions and beliefs of the parties concerned. Nevertheless, interreligious marriage was difficult unless the groom or bride was willing to be married according to the religious rituals of only one of the two religions. Many individuals who performed interreligious marriage preferred to go abroad for the marriage.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to an Ahmadiyya leader in Bandung, West Java, “intolerant groups” continued to use MUI fatwas to justify actions against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, even though the fatwas lacked legal standing. For example, in January a group of individuals disbanded a book discussion organized by Ahmadiyya in Bandung, West Java, saying the book promoted Ahmadiyya messages.

Individuals affiliated at the local level with MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects. In July 12 anti-Ahmadiyya groups protested against an Ahmadiyya annual event in Gowa, South Sulawesi, held by members to discuss their annual strategy. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media.

Throughout the year there were disputes between religious groups in the predominantly Christian province of Papua. Some religious leaders stated that many disputes between ethnic Papuans and migrants to Papua were based on ethnicity, economic competition, and political grievances rather than religion. In July a group called the Moral Guard Alliance Makassar forced the closure of two food stalls that sold pork at a shopping mall in Makassar. The organization’s leader told media the mall management closed the stalls in response to an alliance letter asking the mall to prohibit nonhalal food items. Mall management said it would try to find a more suitable location for the stalls. The two food stalls opened in January, and the mall management stated the stalls put up signs warning visitors that they sold nonhalal food.

In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the anniversary of the May 2018 suicide bomber attack on three churches. Local Islamic youth groups in coordination with police provided extra security outside Surabaya churches in conjunction with the anniversary. Christian leaders in Surabaya said they were encouraged by sympathy and support shown toward the affected Christians by the local Muslim community.

In August Ustadz Abdul Somad, a Muslim cleric from Riau, was reported to district police for blasphemy when a video recorded three years earlier had gone viral. In the video, Somad said a Christian cross contained a kafir (infidel) genie (demon) in response to a question from a worshipper. Members of Horas Bangso Batak (a North Sumatra ethnic-based organization that is mostly Christian) filed a complaint with the district police in Metrojaya, Jakarta. Members of Brigade Meo, a Christian-based organization in East Nusa Tenggara, also reported him to the local police. At year’s end, the case remained under police investigation.

In March German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that several Jewish graves in a public cemetery in Jakarta were desecrated.

In October the inaugural report on anti-Semitism by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed found that “over 57 percent of teachers and lecturers and 53.74 percent of students in Indonesia agreed with a survey statement claiming that ‘Jews are the enemies of Islam.’” Additionally, the report stated that local Jewish community leaders reported it was common for the public to equate all Jews with Israel.

According to AsiaNews, in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.

MUI supported a Christian funeral service taking place in front of a mosque in Jakarta in September.

Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. In November Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and Grand Imam of Istiqlal Mosque Nasaruddin Umar stated that religious tolerance would be an increasing focus in the country’s education.

The largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups in many instances. For example, in February Haedar Nashir, Muhammadiyah chairman, called on all citizens to demonstrate tolerance and to live in peace with other religious communities. Said Aqil Siradj, Nahdlatul Ulama chairman, stated in August that tolerance was an important element of a proper attitude and a good personality.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy in Jakarta, the consulate general in Surabaya, and the consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on specific religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities; closures of places of worship; access for foreign religious organizations; convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion; the undue influence of “intolerant groups” and the importance of the rule of law; the application of sharia to non-Muslims; the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance; the equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion; and promotion of tolerance in international forums. Specifically, the embassy met with legislators and other government officials to advocate against the expansion of blasphemy provisions in a bill to amend the criminal code.

The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism, a civil-society-led entity endorsed by both governments, includes a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders from both countries established to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The Ambassador engaged its leadership to discuss ways to augment the council’s activity on issues affecting the country’s religious communities. In particular, the Ambassador urged council members to engage in activities with U.S. members and to use the council as a vehicle for joint collaboration between the two countries to combat violent extremism and promote religious freedom.

During Ramadan, the embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach throughout the country to highlight religious tolerance. The Ambassador promoted religious freedom and tolerance during his appearance on two of the country’s highest-rated television shows. A social media campaign used embassy-produced Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr videos to promote interfaith tolerance within the country.

The embassy’s annual “Ramadan in the U.S.” campaign promoted democratic values including tolerance, volunteerism, and strength in diversity. As part of the campaign, 4,000 high school and university students heard directly from U.S. government-sponsored exchange program former participants about their firsthand experiences of religious tolerance and diversity during their time in the United States. By highlighting the experiences of Muslim travelers and Muslim communities in the United States, the campaign celebrated interfaith tolerance.

In March embassy officials met with Muslim and Christian leaders, as well as with members of the local FKUB, in Jayapura, Papua, to discuss efforts to resolve disputes between religious groups in the province.

In April the Ambassador met with prominent Muslim leaders in Padang, hosted an iftar in an Islamic boarding school for women in Padang Panjang in West Sumatra, and discussed tolerance and religious freedom.

In October the consulate in Medan invited Muslim scholars from the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Cleric Coordination Body and Muslim academics from the North Sumatra Islamic State University De-Radicalization Research Center for dialogue on Islamic issues with visiting Washington-based officials.

The Ambassador met periodically with leaders of the country’s two largest Muslim organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, to discuss religious tolerance and pluralism and to further develop areas of cooperation.

The embassy implemented several professional exchange programs designed to foster and encourage religious tolerance. These included sponsoring a visit to the United States by eight influential imams (including the senior-most religious leader of the country and the imam of the largest mosque in Southeast Asia) to examine religious pluralism and promote tolerance. Other groups of civil society leaders, university officials, and the head of madrassah teacher training at the MORA attended programs focused on promoting pluralism and tolerance across religious divides and advancing interfaith relations.

The embassy created a new exchange program to expose emerging leaders within Islamic organizations to religious pluralism in the United States, in order to increase religious tolerance in Indonesia by showing how religious tolerance in the United States benefits the entire society.

The embassy sponsored four university students to participate in a Department of State-funded religious freedom program at Temple University. The embassy also sponsored the participation of five individuals in a program, which included a forum on “Tolerance and Coexistence” in November. During the forum, experts discussed topics such as “Interfaith Relations and Global Peace in the Digital Age” and “Making Sense of the New Information Space to Combat Divisions and Polarization.”

The embassy promoted participation in a parliamentary exchange program on religious tolerance and combating online hate speech. The program seeks to enhance the ability of members of parliament to utilize best legislative practices to combat hate speech and protect vulnerable groups against discrimination.

Embassy officials met regularly with counterparts from other embassies to discuss support for the freedom of religion and belief and to exchange information on areas of concern, programs being implemented, and possible areas of cooperation.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.” The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith. Decree 315, issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice, defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. Religious leaders said while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religions, particularly Christians. Media reported that in March police arrested a member of the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) in Phin District, Savannakhet Province, for allegedly cutting down a tree in a protected forest. The man said he was arrested because he was Christian and that while he was in detention, police beat him on the head and administered electric shocks. In April authorities detained three U.S. citizens for 10 days in Luang Namtha Province for distributing religious pamphlets and other materials without government permission. There were reports of local authorities warning citizens not to convert to Christianity and forbidding Christians to gather for religious services. District officials in Houaphan Province instructed village leaders to deny any applications for identification or other government documents to anyone registered with local authorities as a Christian. Previously, the government encouraged various Christian denominations to register under the auspices of the LEC, but in August the Seventh-day Adventist Church registered independently with the government. Religious leaders continued to say Decree 315 established onerous requirements sometimes used to restrict travel for religious purposes. Christian groups continued to report problems constructing churches in some areas. Reportedly, there were incidents in rural areas where local authorities harassed Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes. Members of minority religions said they had to hide their religious affiliation in order to join the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the government, and the military, and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. The National Assembly held a three-day workshop on religious freedom in October; representatives from many religious organizations attended, along with central and provincial level government officials. Central authorities said they continued to travel to provincial areas to train officials to implement Decree 315 and other laws governing religion properly.

According to government and religious group sources, tensions continued in rural areas between animists, Buddhists, and growing Christian communities. Religious leaders said in some rural areas there were reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from the village if they did not renounce their faith. Burial ceremonies remained a point of contention, with some reports of animists preventing the burial of Christians in public cemeteries.

U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases and issues regarding cumbersome government regulations, including registration procedures, with the government, and continued to encourage open dialogue and conflict resolution. The embassy maintained regular contact with officials in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) and other government agencies and discussed the challenges faced by religious groups and government efforts to improve religious freedom. Embassy officials maintained regular contact with leaders from a wide variety of religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to understand better the problems faced by minority religious groups. In September the embassy organized a series of concerts by an American gospel music group for local audiences, which culminated in the country’s first “interfaith musical exchange.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2015 national census, 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent is Christian, 31.4 percent report having no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent belong to other religions. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population. According to the Lao Front for National Development (LFND, formerly the Lao Front for National Construction), an organization associated with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that, along with the MOHA, is responsible for the administration of religious organizations, the remainder of the population comprises 50 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship. Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha’is, Mahayana Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and followers of Confucianism together constitute less than 3 percent of the population. According to the international Christian rights advocacy NGO Aid to the Church in Need’s 2018 Religious Freedom Report, Christians comprise 3.2 percent of the population. The Catholic Church estimates its membership at 55,000, and the LEC estimates its membership at 200,000. Muslim community leaders estimate the community has approximately 1,000 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion” and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group. The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.” It prohibits all acts that create division between religious groups and classes of persons. The government officially recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.

Decree 315 upholds “respect for the religious rights and freedom” of both believers and nonbelievers. The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.” The decree clarifies rules for religious practice and defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. The decree reiterates the constitutional priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens.

The decree requires any religious group operating in the country to register with the MOHA. The decree extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously had a de facto exemption. Groups may, but are not required to, affiliate with an officially recognized religious group.

Under the decree, religious groups must present information on elected or appointed officeholders to national, provincial, district, and village-level MOHA offices for review and certification. Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts are required to obtain provincial level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district level approval. If a group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, it must obtain approval at the corresponding level. A religious activity occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village authority approval. Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province. Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities, including routine events, in advance for local authorities to review and approve.

The decree states nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, travel for religious officials, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a provincial, district-level, and/or central MOHA office. The MOHA may order the cessation of any religious activities or expression of beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction. It may stop any religious activity it deems threatening to national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity between tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, properties, health, or reputations of others. The decree requires the MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.

The decree states the government may continue to sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.

The decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.

The building permit process for constructing houses of worship begins with an application to local authorities, and then requires district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFND and MOHA permission. All houses of worship must register under the law and conform to applicable regulations. Religious organizations must own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land to construct a place of worship. The MOHA at all levels must approve any maintenance, restoration, and construction activities at religious facilities. Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask the MOHA to review and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.

According to the Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES), although there is no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in any public schools, the government promotes the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture. Cultural sessions include lessons taught in Buddhist temples. Students are required to attend prayers during these lessons. The MOES states parents may remove their children from the classes if they are dissatisfied with the program. A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups exist throughout the country and accept students from any religious denomination.

Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable. For a period of less than three months, the village authority, as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve. The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.

The MOES and MOHA must approve the travel abroad of clergy and religious teachers for specialized studies. Generally, students going abroad for any kind of study (including religious studies) require approval from the MOES. Religious organizations conducting religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level.

According to the Law for Lao Front for National Development, as amended in 2018, the LFND may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.” LFND officials work with religious communities, police, and other authorities.

The government controls written materials for religious audiences. The decree regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions. The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism and the MOHA must approve religious texts or other materials before they are imported. The MOHA may require religious groups to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religions, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country. The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.

In June the government issued Decree 184 that defines principles and rules for civil servant ethics. The decree states government officials must provide services “in an equal, prompt, and fair manner without discrimination against gender, age, ethnic groups, social status, education levels, and faith.”

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.

Government Practices

Religious leaders said while authorities in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, including Decree 315, improper restrictions on religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), seven Christian church members were released on January 2 after paying a fine of 700,000 kip ($79). Police in Nakanong Village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, had arrested the seven – three church leaders and four other Christians – on December 29, 2018, for conducting an “illegal” church service. The Human Rights Watcher for Lao Religious Freedom, a U.S.-based NGO, reported village authorities also demolished the church stage, cut the power line, destroyed the sound system, and seized three mobile phones.

According to Asia News, RFA, and local sources, in March police arrested a member of the LEC in Phin District, Savannakhet Province, for cutting down a tree in a protected forest. Local sources said this was a pretext, since none of the other members of the group, who were all non-Christians, were arrested. The man said that while he was detained, police beat him on the head, causing temporary loss of hearing, and administered electric shocks. The police told him they would release him if he renounced his faith. He was released after being held for several days.

Media reported that in April authorities detained three U.S. citizens for 10 days in Luang Namtha Province for distributing religious pamphlets and other materials without government permission. The individuals were affiliated with Vision Beyond Borders, a U.S.-based Christian NGO. Provincial officials held their passports and told them they could not leave the province. After the Ministry of Public Security reviewed the case, officials returned the passports and deported the U.S. citizens to Thailand. International media reported the individuals were “treated well” when they were questioned by police.

According to government authorities, Decree 184, which defines principles and rules for civil servant ethics, was intended in part to ensure that local officials would issue government identification to Christians in rural areas. According to religious leaders, however, some local officials continued to withhold documentation. In Houaphan Province, district authorities issued a notice instructing village leaders to deny any applications for identification or other government documents of anyone registered as a Christian. An official with the Seventh-day Adventists said church members in Houaphan Province were told they would need to register as animists if they wanted to receive their identification documents. An official with a Christian organization said that in February village officials in Khammouane Province collected identification documents from Christian families and did not return them.

According to some minority religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, Decree 315 (or its predecessor, Decree 92), and social harmony as reasons for continuing to restrict and monitor religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic group members.

During the year some registered minority religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Baha’i Faith, successfully met the annual administrative requirements outlined in Decree 315 to maintain their registration, such as providing information on the number of members, religious texts, and plans for services during the year. The LEC’s application for annual registration renewal was under review as of November. In August the Seventh-day Adventist Church successfully registered with the government for the first time.

A MOHA official said it was easier compared with previous years for new religious groups to register; however, he said, the MOHA requested religious groups explain the different practices and beliefs between various Christian denominations before approving applications. The official stated that while in the past the government encouraged other Christian denominations wishing to be recognized to register as part of the LEC, that policy was changing as new religious groups successfully registered. He said during the registration review process, the MOHA consulted with other religious groups to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups, which sometimes delayed registration and other approval processes.

Several unregistered religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, the Methodist Church, and the Mennonite Church, stated they continued their efforts to register independently from the LEC due to differences in doctrinal beliefs. According to a MOHA official, during the year the ministry met with nonregistered religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, to discuss the registration process.

Leaders with the Seventh-day Adventists reported continued difficulties registering their churches at the provincial, district, and village levels, but said they hoped the process would become easier following the Church’s registration with the central government.

An international observer of religious issues in the country said that since Decree 315 was issued, Buddhist groups, who were previously exempted from registration requirements, engaged with the government more on religious issues and made an effort to meet administrative requirements they had previously ignored due to the belief that they did not need to follow the same rules as minority religions. These requirements included submitting an annual report detailing activities.

Although the law prohibited members of religious groups not registered with the MOHA or the LFND from practicing their faith, members of several groups said they continued to do so quietly and without interference, often in house churches. One Baha’i follower said his community was reluctant to gather in public, in part due to announcements made by the Ministry of Public Security at the village level that Buddhism was the only religion welcome in that village. One local LEC official confirmed the ministry made such announcements.

While religious groups said Decree 315 helped enshrine religious freedom and further clarified processes for administrative tasks, the groups also stated that some administrative requirements mandated by the decree (that were not fully implemented during the year) would be burdensome and restrictive if the government were to fully implement them. Among these were requirements to submit detailed travel plans and advance requests to hold basic religious services.

MOHA and LFND officials continued to acknowledge some local officials incorrectly applied regulations, created their own regulations contrary to national law, or were unaware of all the provisions in Decree 315. Several religious groups recommended the government devote more resources to implementing the decree and promoting religious freedom at the district and provincial level. Central government officials said they continued to train provincial and district officials on concepts of religious freedom and implementation of Decree 315 in an attempt to protect minority religious groups, but stated this was a challenge in isolated areas. An official with the Seventh-day Adventists said the government was trying to promote religious freedom, but added the government’s policies and statements sometimes “fall on deaf ears” at the provincial and district level.

Authorities stated that during the year the central government, in coordination with relevant local- and provincial-level officials, conducted assessments of how Decree 315 was being implemented in the city of Vientiane, and in Luang Prabang, Savannakhet, and Bolikhamxai Provinces. Officials said they invited representatives of some, but not all, religious groups in the respective areas to provide input.

In May Radio Free Asia reported an official with the Christian aid organization Vision Beyond Borders said government authorities were “harassing Christians and breaking up meetings and making it difficult for them to gather.” The official said, “Some Lao authorities remained deeply suspicious of Christians, sometimes resulting in social exclusion, harassment, and arbitrary detention by law enforcement officials.”

According to local Christian officials, there were fewer incidents of authorities prohibiting services or detaining travelers attending services during the Christmas season compared with 2018. A representative of the Methodist Church said that a village authority interrupted a religious service shortly before Christmas and told the congregation it needed permission from the district Ministry of Public Security office to hold services on any day other than December 25.

Some religious groups did not comply with the requirement to obtain advance permission to travel to other jurisdictions. An official with a prominent Christian organization said submitting a comprehensive annual travel plan was not practical because church members sometimes fell sick or died unexpectedly, requiring church officials to travel immediately. An official with a Christian organization said it was “impossible” to fully comply with the requirements for in-country travel and he chose to ignore them. According to some religious groups, the government also did not fully enforce the decree’s travel notice requirement. Representatives from the Catholic Church said they joined other religious organizations asking the government to amend the decree so that religious officials would not require permission to travel within the country.

Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to obtaining travel permission. Some religious leaders stated authorities sometimes detained Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside their normal locales. Members of the LEC said they submitted travel plans for the Christmas season to all appropriate levels of government but did not receive all the required approvals. Some local authorities detained religious officials even with proper travel authorization; sources said most cases were resolved within hours of occurrence.

According to Muslim community leaders, the approximately 1,000-member Muslim community continued to worship at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country. According to the leader of the Muslim Association, Muslims maintained a strong working relationship with both the LFND and the MOHA and did not encounter challenges from the government regarding freedom of worship. He said the community avoided actions that could be deemed incompatible with Lao culture.

The government continued to enforce rules requiring programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship to receive prior approval from local or higher authorities.

Christian religious leaders said the government continued to strictly enforce a prohibition on proselytizing in public, including by foreigners. Both the Church of Jesus Christ and the Seventh-day Adventists reported they had missionaries in the country, but the government restricted their activities to teaching English and promoting good health practices, such as hygiene and sanitation. Missionaries could not engage in religious discussions. Several religious groups said they welcomed foreign members visiting the country but needed to be cautious about the kinds of activities foreigners engaged in. The Church of Jesus Christ said it relied on word-of-mouth to attract new members.

Authorities continued to control imports of religious materials, but several religious groups said they could access most religious texts and documents online. MOHA officials said they coordinated with religious groups to review imported materials to help ensure these were in accordance with the organization’s beliefs.

Several minority religious groups reported problems building places of worship, although the LFND Religious Affairs Department stated it continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible. An MOHA official said the government encouraged religious groups to hold services in churches or temples, rather than in homes. The LEC reported operating approximately 600 churches throughout the country and conducting worship services in many more “unofficial” house churches. They attributed the large number of house churches to the difficulties of obtaining building permits from local authorities. According to religious leaders, local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal and told villagers they needed permits to worship at home.

Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction and generally received no response to requests. An official with the Catholic Church said the Church routinely waited years for approval to build a new church, only to be ultimately denied. The official said in June one Catholic congregation in Vientiane Province asked for permission to rebuild its church, which was old and in need of repairs. Provincial authorities denied permission and told congregants that because a nearby highway was recently paved, they could easily travel to a different church in another village. The Catholic Church official also said guidelines for the construction of religious buildings laid out in Decree 315 were unclear.

Some sources said the legal requirement that a religious organization own 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land in order to build a church or temple limited the ability of some smaller congregations, which lacked sufficient resources, to obtain a space of that size. An official with the Seventh-day Adventist Church said the land requirement was not an issue in rural areas; however, purchasing land was expensive in cities, where most Seventh-day Adventists live. He also said the government, usually at the local level, sometimes provided land, or facilitated land use, for Buddhist temples, but Christian churches had to buy the land. The Church official expressed concern that the government frequently retained the titles of land owned by churches, which could lead to potential problems if the churches needed to show ownership. According to a spokesperson for the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization, some Buddhist temples built on land donated by private citizens did not have the required documentation to clarify land ownership, which could lead to potential problems if a temple needed to show ownership.

According to Buddhist organizations, prominent Buddhists worked with the government to draft legislation to ensure laws reflected the role of Buddhism in Lao culture.

Christian students said they were uncomfortable with the requirement that they attend prayers in Buddhist temples during cultural classes taught there as part of the public school curriculum. In some rural areas lessons in Buddhism remained mandatory to pass to the next grade level, despite this not being an MOES requirement. This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.

With advance permission and a requirement there be no open proselytizing, government authorities permitted Lao and expatriate Christians to organize a public, open-air religious music event for the third year in a row. The Vientiane International Gospel Music Festival took place November 3 at the ITECC Center shopping mall, with performances by local and foreign artists and bands. The LEC leaders said that, as in 2018, they chose to omit the word “gospel” in Lao language materials so as not to risk government censure. The word “gospel” only appeared in English-language materials.

In October the Baha’i community in Vientiane organized an event to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bab, an important figure in the founding of the Baha’i Faith. Representatives from the MOHA, LFND, and National Assembly attended. Bounthavy Phonethasine, deputy director of the Religious Department at the LFND, spoke at the event and commended the Baha’i community for working towards “the betterment of the Lao community.”

An official with the Catholic Church said Catholic government officials needed to hide their religion in order to join the LPRP, government, or military, and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. He said a member of his church who is in the army was told he would be expelled from the army if he participated in Catholic services. Some members of religious minorities said they believed they were promoted more slowly than their peers due to their beliefs. A Seventh-day Adventist said there was a “hidden law” mandating a citizen could not be both a Christian and a member of the LPRP. Other religious groups said it was hard for their members to join the government or advance to higher-level positions, or to become village chiefs. Religious groups stated they were aware of no openly non-Buddhist or non-animist government officials at the provincial or national levels. A MOHA official working on religious affairs said it was difficult for non-Buddhists to join the government, but the government was actively trying to promote the idea that members of all religions had the right to join.

In October the National Assembly organized a three-day conference on religious freedom. At the conference, government officials and religious leaders addressed sensitive topics, including the government’s practice of encouraging non-Buddhists to attend government-sponsored Buddhist ceremonies, which the government deemed cultural events, and misperceptions such as a prevailing but mistaken belief that Christians did not serve in the military or police. The conference participants discussed ways to address those misperceptions. Government authorities reiterated that there was no state religion in the country.

An official with Institute of Global Engagement (IGE), a U.S.-based religious freedom NGO, said conditions for religious freedom had improved steadily in the 17 years since he first came to the country. He said the MOHA had taken on a more assertive role in promoting religious freedom during the year, but there were still many people in the government who believed Buddhism should be the only religion in the country, and the concept of religious freedom, while accepted by the central government, was virtually unknown to the average citizen.

According to government sources, due to staff turnover at the provincial and local levels, three years after Decree 315 became law there were still some officials unfamiliar with its provisions and proper application. The LFND and the MOHA stated they continued to visit areas where religious freedom abuses had reportedly taken place to instruct local authorities on government policy and law, and frequently traveled beyond the capital to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations. They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain their obligations under the constitution and the right of all citizens to believe or not to believe in religion. During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFND and MOHA officials on Decree 315 and other laws governing religion and held workshops with local authorities and religious leaders that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Baha’i Faith, and Islam. The MOHA, with support from IGE, held religious freedom workshops in 12 of 18 provinces during the year. The government fully funded one workshop, and religious groups contributed some funding for the remaining workshops.

In March the MOHA organized a seminar on religion and the rule of law with financial support from the IGE. Representatives from all 18 provinces attended the two-day seminar. Speakers discussed concepts of international religious freedom, as well as aspects of Decree 315 and how it should be implemented.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to religious leaders, most disputes among religious communities occurred in villages and rural areas, where the central government’s ability to enforce national laws was limited.

One official with the LEC stated that strong growth in church membership in recent years exacerbated tensions within some communities and brought increased scrutiny by villagers who remained wary of any religion other than Buddhism. The official said in Savannakhet Province church membership grew from approximately 16,000 at the beginning of 2017 to more than 23,000 in 2018. He said this rapid growth led to local conflicts between new adherents of Christianity and their majority non-Christian neighbors. Similarly, LEC leaders said rapid growth in the number of Christians in Vientiane Province, which totaled approximately 18,000 members, was evidence of increased religious freedom but also led to increased tensions with local communities.

Religious leaders said in some rural areas there were reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from the village if they did not renounce their faith. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA, “Abandoning Buddhism or animist beliefs is seen as a betrayal of family members and the community, which fuels the perception that Christians essentially excommunicate themselves from the Buddhist-animist community. Consequently, believers are persecuted by their immediate and/or extended family (usually one Laotian household is composed of three generations under one roof) and by local authorities who often stir up the community.”

According to provincial authorities and a U.S. citizen who monitors religious activities in the country, in May three families in Houaphan Province who were members of the LEC were expelled from their village by siblings who were animists. Authorities said while some of the siblings were animist and some Christian, the dispute was not connected to religion.

In many villages, disputes of all kinds (including religious disputes) were referred to government-sanctioned village mediation units. According to Christian group leaders, these units often encouraged Christians to compromise their beliefs by accommodating local Buddhist or animist community practices. In dealing with local disputes regarding religious issues, officials at MOHA said they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved. One MOHA official said the ministry did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.

Christians said burial practices remained a contentious issue. A leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church said in rural areas many animists believe the Christian practice of burying the dead, rather than the Buddhist tradition of cremating, would bring disharmony to the village and conflict with the village spirits. In some rural areas, Christians said that they were not allowed to use public cemeteries and were not given land for separate cemeteries, and that they had to resort to burying their dead on farms or in backyards. The official said in some areas the church was trying to buy land for cemeteries so members would not have to use public cemeteries.

Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which continued to play a traditional schooling role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable. Two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, conducted religious education for children and youths. Baha’i groups conducted religious training for children and adult members. The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Khammouane Province. The Muslim community offered limited educational training. Several private preschools and English-language schools received support from foreign religious groups of various denominations.

A spokesperson for the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization said the relationship between the country and Buddhism was akin to that of a person and his or her shadow. He said the long history of Buddhism in the country created a common understanding among the country’s ethnic groups and a strong level of trust with both the government and the LPRP.

Several religious groups said they provided donations without regard to the religious affiliation of the recipients after floods displaced hundreds in the southern region of the country in August.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials regularly advocated for religious freedom with a range of government officials, including those associated with implementing Decree 315, to ensure government activities were consistent with the country’s obligations under the ICCPR and other international instruments to which it was a signatory. In exchanges with the MOHA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and the LFND Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of harassment. Embassy officers raised concerns with appropriate officials about cumbersome procedures, including registration, obtaining advance permission to hold religious services and travel for religious purposes, as well as the government’s efforts to implement Decree 315 at the provincial and local levels.

Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from different religious and advocacy groups, including the LEC, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic Association of Laos, the Baha’i community, and the IGE to address religious equality concerns such as registration, Decree 315 administrative requirements, land acquisition, and tensions with local Buddhist and animist communities.

In September the embassy organized a five-day visit by an American gospel music group. The group performed at several venues, including a concert at the National Cultural Hall, attended by more than 1,250 people. The embassy partnered with the Metta Dhamma Project, an organization that promotes cultural aspects of the Buddhist faith, to host the country’s first-ever “interfaith musical exchange” at an auditorium next to a prominent Buddhist temple in Vientiane. The Metta Dhamma Project brought in Lao performers who sang, danced, and conducted religious rituals, while the American group performed traditional gospel songs. Government representatives and leaders from various religious organizations attended. The Ambassador spoke at the event about the importance of religious freedom, and these remarks were echoed by Bounthavy Phonethasine, Deputy Director of the Religious Department at the LFND. Maha Ves Masenay, vice president of the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organization, formally welcomed the gospel group and praised the interfaith music exchange. The embassy highlighted the event on its Facebook page.


Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. In April the country’s human rights commission announced state agents, namely the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch, were responsible for the 2016 and 2017 enforced disappearances of a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings and a Christian pastor. In June the government announced a special panel would investigate the human rights commission’s finding. Religious authorities arrested at least 30 people in two states in September for participating in Ashura celebrations and violating a state fatwa that declares Shia Islam to be “deviant.” In November religious authorities caned four men for attempting “sexual intercourse against the order of nature.” In December a sharia state court sentenced six men each to one month in jail and 2,400 to 2,500 ringgit ($590-$610) in fines for deliberately missing Friday prayers. In August the High Court upheld a 2014 fatwa declaring a nongovernmental organization (NGO) “deviant” because it subscribed to the principles of liberalism and pluralism. In March a special police unit was formed to monitor writing across all media platforms for anything deemed insulting to Islam. The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion without approval from a sharia court and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes. Religious converts from Islam to another religion had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards. Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty when they sought to use the word “Allah” to denote God. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report difficulty in gaining registration as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties expressed concerns about the judicial system because non-Muslims occupied senior government positions, including attorney general. In March a court sentenced a man to 10 years and 10 months in prison and a 50,000 ringgit ($12,200) fine for posting information “offensive to Islam” on Facebook, although his sentence was later reduced to six years. According to the home minister, the government no longer permitted Israeli citizens to enter the country to attend conferences or meetings organized by international organizations.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again stated society was becoming increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. In May police arrested four men for allegedly plotting attacks on houses of worship and an entertainment outlet. Some Muslim leaders supported calls on social media to “buy Muslim-made products first,” which some civil society representatives characterized as a boycott of non-Muslim businesses.

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of three Christians and a Muslim activist. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders, scholars, and the wife of a missing pastor in visitor exchanges and conferences that promoted religious tolerance and freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.2 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; and 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions. Other religious groups include animists, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Baha’is. Almost all Muslims practice Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school. Ethnic Malays, defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the peninsular east coast of the country – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims. Two-thirds of the country’s Christian population inhabit the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The federal constitution states, “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. Federal law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as “Heads of Islam” within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states and are the highest Islamic authority; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the king. Islamic law is administered by each state. The office of mufti exists in every state to advise the sultan in all matters of Islamic law. Sultans oversee sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils who manage the operations of the courts. In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the king assumes responsibility for this process.

Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law except in matters concerning Islamic law. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. However, since 2018, the Federal Court (supreme court equivalent) has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors, and that such jurisdiction cannot be abrogated by a constitutional amendment.

The Sharia Judiciary Department (JKSM) is the federal agency charged with coordinating the sharia courts. The federal Department of Development of Islam (JAKIM) is the permanent secretariat of the federal Fatwa Committee, which consists of 14 muftis, one from each state and one representing the Federal Territories. The Sharia and Civil Technical Committee within the Attorney General’s Chambers oversee the process of sharia lawmaking at the federal level. A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests, especially for those born Muslims, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. Penalties for apostasy vary by state. In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death, but this penalty has never been imposed, and its legal status remains untested. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam. In some states, sharia courts allow one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent.

A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15. A 2018 decision of the Federal Court ruled against the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents. The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. Convictions may result in prison sentences of three to seven years, or up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison, caning, or a 5,000-ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam. According to some state laws, Muslims may be fined 1,000 ringgit ($240) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia law in some states, individuals who sell food to fasting Muslims or Muslims who do not fast are subject to a fine, a jail sentence, or both.

JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare all Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques. JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all teachers of Islam before they may preach or lecture on Islam in public.

There is no legal requirement for non-Muslim religious groups to register, but to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Registrar of Societies (RoS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and by paying a small fee. These organizations are legally required to submit annual reports to the RoS to remain registered. The RoS may inspect registered organizations and investigate those suspected of being used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order, or morality.”

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state. Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual, same-sex sexual relations and prostitution. Caning is also permitted for a wider variety of offenses under the Penal Code.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, including imprisonment and caning. The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing without any restriction. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the marriage to be officially recognized.

State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and prayer rooms – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or prayer rooms.

Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. When civil and sharia jurisdictions intersect, civil courts continue largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where sharia judgements affect non-Muslims.

Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have symbolically enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of the code. The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, except in Selangor State, where Muslim and non-Muslim females must be 18. Sharia courts may make exceptions for marriage before those ages with the permission of their parents. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry but may marry as young as 16 with the approval of their state’s chief minister.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation, and the government uses them to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card. Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.

Foreign missionaries and international students for religious courses must apply for a Professional Visit Pass with Immigration. The visa is given on a year-to-year basis and must be endorsed by a national body representing the respective faiths.

JAKIM coordinates the Hajj, endowment (waqaf), tithes (zakat), and other Islamic activities.

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

Government Practices

An investigatory panel from the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) announced in April its “final decision” that Amri Che Mat, a Muslim social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings, and Christian Pastor Raymond Koh, who were abducted in 2016 and 2017 respectively, were victims “of forced disappearance by state agents, namely Special Branch.” Police called the decision against them “unjustified,” without providing any detailed rebuttal. In response to the announcement, several NGOs called for immediate action against those involved, including the resignation of Inspector General of Police (IGP) Fuzi Harun, who led the Special Branch from 2015 to 2017. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad later said the government “will let [Fuzi Harun] retire first and then we will have another IGP who will conduct an investigation” into his possible involvement. Fuzi retired in April, but as of year’s end, the new IGP did not initiate an investigation.

In June Minister of Home Affairs Muhyiddin Yassin announced the composition of a government panel to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Special Branch was responsible for the disappearances; the panel, however, was not tasked with investigating them. In separate statements, the wives of Amri and Pastor Koh noted the panel included only Malay (Muslim) men, one of whom represented the police during SUHAKAM’s inquiry and later rejected its findings. The Home Ministry later appointed a female representative and an ethnic Chinese representative; the police officer who had been involved in the SUHAKAM investigation stepped down from the government panel. An editorial in the online news site Malaysiakini by the spokesperson for NGO Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances called the Home Ministry’s investigation “bogus” because it was established to investigate the SUHAKAM report, not the abductions. The panel’s investigation continued at the end of the year.

SUHAKAM reported little progress investigating the case of Christian Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth, who disappeared in 2016, due to a lack of information on their disappearances.

The Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) raided a Shia religious center outside of Kuala Lumpur on September 6, three days before the beginning of Ashura commemorations, and arrested at least 22 people for violating a state fatwa that declares Shia Islam to be “deviant.” Religious authorities in Johor State also raided Ashura commemorations and detained at least eight individuals. Participants in the Johor event said religious authorities did not produce a warrant and were accompanied by masked police who brandished guns. The raid in Selangor came after mosques in the state delivered a government-sanctioned sermon calling Shia Islam “heinous,” “nonsense,” and “nauseating.” IKRAM, an Islamic NGO, supported the raid and in a statement urged the authorities “to continue to monitor and take stringent action against anyone who tries to spread, practice and promote Shia teachings.”

Following the raids, the federal minister of religious affairs reaffirmed the constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom but said states are ultimately responsible for regulating religious matters, adding, “We respect their decision.” The Penang State mufti, however, told media, “Shias should be allowed the freedom to follow their teachings without the involvement of the public. If adherents of other religions are allowed to practice their faiths in private, why are the Shias excluded? We must be consistent, not selective.” Later in the month, members of the Shia community met with SUHAKAM and, according to media, “spoke of how Shia Muslims were barred from enrolling their children in school or registering their marriages.” The representatives reportedly told SUHAKAM that “powerful individuals” in Johor State were involved in “oppressing” the community.

Religious authorities in Selangor State caned four men in November after a sharia court found them guilty of attempting “sexual intercourse against the order of nature.” A fifth man appealed his sentence and was not caned, while the sharia court continued its case against six other men charged with the same offense. In a statement, Amnesty International Malaysia said, “These vicious punishments against LGBTI people are the actual crimes being committed here. The Religious Police used more than 50 officers to ensnare these men in a sting operation – all to bring hateful charges and inflict cruel, degrading punishments. The whole affair is a scandal and a judicial travesty.”

In what media reported as “possibly the first case in the country,” a sharia court in Terengganu State sentenced six men each to one month in jail and 2,400 to 2,500 ringgit ($590-$610) in fines for deliberately missing Friday prayers. Religious enforcement officers arrested them during a “raid” on August 23 at a recreation area where they were picnicking with their families.

According to media reports in June, the Kelantan State Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (MAIK) planned to convert all indigenous people (Orang Asli) living in the state to Islam by 2049. According to MAIK’s deputy chairman, the organization worked with religious authorities and public universities and targeted indigenous groups through a database of profiles of those who had converted and those who had not. A human rights activist wrote on Facebook she had heard of cases of indigenous individuals not informing state authorities about the deaths of family members in order that the deceased not be buried against their will in an Islamic cemetery. The Society for the Promotion of Human Rights, an NGO, said, “We condemn any attempt by preachers who exploit the vulnerable Orang Asli community to lure them into religious conversions.”

Despite calls from the High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s ex-husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing at year’s end. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her ex-husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. Gandhi filed a police report in July alleging organizations affiliated with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), southern Thailand separatists, and followers of Islamic preacher Zakir Naik were involved in helping her ex-husband evade arrest.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech that allegedly denigrated Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In March Alister Cogia, of Sarawak State, pleaded guilty to posting offensive materials about Islam on Facebook and was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison and a 50,000 ringgit ($12,200) fine, although the sentence was later reduced to six years. His legal team said his family was not allowed to visit him while he was in detention and he was unaware of his court date, which resulted in his not being represented by a lawyer at his trial. “There is doubt whether Alister understood the gravity of the charges and the significance of his guilty plea,” a state assemblyman assisting in the case told media. Politicians and civil society leaders called the sentence “excessive,” with some pointing out that police rarely took action against individuals who allegedly insulted non-Muslims.

In August the chief minister of Selangor State said he would put forward a motion at the suggestion of the Selangor Islamic Religious Council to pass amendments permitting unilateral religious conversion of minors in the state. Legal scholars said such a move could not be enforced because federal laws restricting unilateral child conversion would supersede state laws.

In June the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs (MKI) approved a plan to standardize sharia criminal laws and punishments but did not implement any changes by the end of the year. A statement from the minister for religious affairs said, “There are certain offences which carry the punishment of whipping in some states, but not in other states. This inconsistency, among others, causes injustice, especially to the accused, the prosecution, and those involved in a sharia criminal case.”

NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert or non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to have their religious identification changed by the authorities.

Prime Minister Mahathir continued to justify previous anti-Semitic comments he made on the grounds of free speech. “Why is it that I can’t say something against the Jews, when a lot of people say nasty things about me, about Malaysia, and I didn’t protest, I didn’t demonstrate?” he said at a Columbia University event in September. He had previously said Jews were “hook-nosed” and the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was not six million.

According to the home minister, the government no longer permitted Israeli citizens to enter the country to attend conferences or meetings organized by international organizations. In January the government announced it would not permit Israeli athletes to participate in the World Para Swimming Championships, scheduled for July in Sarawak state. The International Paralympic Committee said in a statement it was “bitterly disappointed at the stance of the Malaysian government” and later canceled the country’s hosting rights, moving the event to London. Sports Minister Syed Saddiq told media the country would “lose its moral compass” if it allowed Israel to compete in the event.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines concerning what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam.

In October Minister of Home Affairs Muhyiddin said all foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to hold religious talks would undergo background checks for national security reasons to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant” teachings and to protect Malaysia’s “fragile” society.

State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments, and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex). In January the Kelantan State government announced an “anti-vice” campaign “aimed at preventing unmarried individuals of the opposite sex from sitting next to each other” and other “vice activities,” including drug abuse. The same month the state government banned shisha (hookah) and karaoke outlets, purportedly in an effort to curb social problems among youth. A government representative explained the decision by stating young people “hang out in droves to have fun while smoking shisha till two in the morning at these premises. When they go home late, they will be exposed to unhealthy activities.”

The Kelantan State Islamic Affairs and Religious Department (JAHEAIK) issued notices to 39 women in May for reportedly dressing immodestly and indecently in public during Ramadan. The NGO Sisters in Islam said in a statement, “The obsession to control what women wear needs to stop. Not only does this practice humiliate and degrade the value of women, but the compulsive need to control what women wear also implies that they are mentally, physically and spiritually defective and a danger to the moral order of society.”

The Kelantan State government ordered restaurants and other food outlets to close temporarily between the hours of 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. during Ramadan to encourage Muslims to perform the tarawih prayer (additional evening prayers performed during Ramadan). There were no reports of authorities enforcing the measure, however.

The Segamat Municipal Council (MPS) in Johor State denied media reports that MPS placed officers disguised as cooks and restaurant workers to catch Muslims who did not fast during Ramadan. In May the New Straits Times quoted the MPS president as stating, “We have specially selected enforcement officers who are dark-skinned for the undercover job. They sound convincing when they speak the Indonesian and Pakistani lingo, so the customers will believe they are really hired to cook, serve meals, and take orders.” In a statement MPS said, “MPS has never conducted any operation in disguise to spy on Muslim individuals who are not fasting during the month of Ramadan as stated. Such a move is beyond the jurisdiction of MPS.”

The Kelantan State government lifted a 28-year ban on performing the traditional Mak Yong dance but said cultural organizations must comply with sharia regulations in performances, including separation of men and women on stage and in the audience, and ensuring that dancers are properly covered. “We want to ensure only Islamic-related performances are shown to the audience,” Deputy Chief Minister Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah told media in September.

Authorities in Terengganu State said they would introduce “sharia-compliant” sportswear and a code of conduct for athletes participating in competitions in the state and for athletes representing Terengganu in other states, and make sharia-compliant uniforms compulsory for Muslim athletes beginning in 2020.

In September the chairman of the Terengganu State Youth Development, Sports, and Non-Government Development Committee said the state withdrew from women’s gymnastics events because such events went against Islamic requirements. “There is no compromise for these sports, as they display indecent movements, and unless the audience comprises only women, then maybe we will allow them. Even then, it would still be against the respective sports’ governing body regulations,” the chairman said. The director general of the National Sports Council opposed Terengganu’s decision, stating the National Sports Council “believes that the government should always provide a fair and equal platform in sports for all, regardless of religion, gender, and skin color.”

Police arrested Muhammad Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu, the head of an Islamic information center, in April for allegedly insulting Hinduism (“disrupting harmony” and “transmitting offensive communications”) during a 2018 religious lecture released on social media. The Mufti of Perlis State said individuals such as Zamri were driven to make remarks against other religions “because of the political reality that allowed Muslims to be bullied.” The Attorney General’s office announced in July it would not pursue charges against Zamri.

The federal minister for religious affairs announced in March the establishment of a unit “tasked with monitoring any writing or provocation deemed insulting to the Prophet and Islam across all media platforms, including social media.” By August, JAKIM had referred 5,000 such complaints to the new police unit. “Since the online complaint [platform] was opened, we have received many complaints, and there was a time when the unit received up to 10,000 complaints a day,” the religious minister said. Some groups raised concerns that the initiative only monitored insults against Islam and no other religious. “If they (JAKIM) are going to take action and report the insults to the police, then we also must be able to do the same,” R.S. Mohan Shan, the president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism said.

An Instagram account owner tweeted on February 22 that Instagram notified him that “because of an order from the government, court, or other authority, access to [his] account [had] been restricted in the region.” The account, which appeared to have been taken down entirely, included memes mocking Islamic authorities.

In August police instituted a “ban” on Islamic preacher Zakir Naik speaking in public and on social media after he made controversial statements about ethnic Chinese and Indian minority groups. Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said the ban “is only temporary, [but] if the situation doesn’t change, the order will remain.” Police said they “ordered” law enforcement officers to “advise” organizers of any events involving Zakir to cancel his participation. Police cited a law authorizing them to maintain “law and order [and preserve] …peace and security.” Some lawyers said police did not have the explicit authority to ban an individual from speaking in public under this provision. Naik later stated, “I feel I owe an apology to everyone who feels hurt because of this misunderstanding. Racism is evil and I am staunchly against it – as is the Quran – and it is the exact opposite of everything I stand for as an Islamic preacher.”

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam. In August the Sabah State Legislative Assembly passed amendments to the Sharia Criminal Offences Enactment of 1995 that prohibited the spread of non-Islamic religious doctrines and that included whipping as a punishment for those found guilty of spreading and/or performing any acts that are against the true teachings of Islam. “Islam is a religion that unites people. Any thoughts, actions and practices that cause rifts must be avoided. Likewise, deviant Islamic teachings that are permeating the Muslim community must be eliminated,” Sabah Minister of Law and Native Affairs Datuk Aidi Moktar said.

The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and provisions; these denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the RoS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups.

In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.

In August the High Court dismissed the arguments of the NGO Sisters in Islam that a 2014 Selangor State fatwa deeming the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights, but as of the end of the year no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to operate as it negotiated with the government to resolve the issue. The 2014 fatwa said Sisters in Islam deviated from the teachings of Islam because it subscribed to the principles of liberalism and pluralism. The fatwa also ruled the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The High Court judge who decided the case said because the fatwa was issued legally and dealt only with religious matters, he did not have jurisdiction to hear the NGO’s appeal. In response to Sisters in Islam’s argument that Islamic authorities could not issue fatwas against companies because companies do not profess a faith, the judge said the organization’s entirely Muslim board justified the ruling, adding, “Justice warrants lifting the corporate veil.” The NGO’s executive director told media she was “very disappointed” in the decision.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers, as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque. In a report released in March, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said, “Malaysia’s treatment of the Shia and Ahmadiyah minorities is directly contrary to its obligations to guarantee the rights to freedom of religion or belief and to equality under the law, and the non-discrimination of religious minorities.” ICJ also called on the country to “amend or repeal all laws that criminalize the propagation of religious beliefs among people of all faiths.”

Restrictions continued on the use of the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words by non-Muslims. These restrictions included saying certain words, such as “Allah,” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.” An appeal by the Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the right of the church and its Malay-language-speaking congregation to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications remained ongoing.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.” In April the High Court upheld a previous ban on three books published by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), ruling they “are likely to be prejudicial to public order and interest and likely to alarm public opinion” because their content did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam. IRF’s director, Farouk Musa, said, “It seems to me the minister of home affairs has the absolute discretion in banning books that do not conform to the version of [Islam preferred by] Islamic authorities.” The same month the High Court lifted the previous government’s ban on the book “Breaking Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy” by the NGO G25.

In September an appellate court dismissed sharia charges from 2013 against Mohd Ezra Mohd Zaid for publishing and distributing Canadian author Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta (Allah, Liberty, and Love) because it had been banned by the home ministry. The appellate court also granted Ezra 10,000 ringgit ($2,400) in damages for “mental distress and agony” caused by a 2012 JAIS raid on his property.

At the direction of the minister for religious affairs, Islamic authorities opened an investigation into an April forum held at a bookstore outside Kuala Lumpur entitled “Malay Women and De-hijabbing,” in which Muslim women discussed their decision to stop wearing the hijab. The event’s panelists said in a statement, “We condemn this unnecessary investigation as abuse of power to harass and intimidate women activists. We are ready to give full cooperation to the authorities; however, we are unequivocal that there has been no transgression of Malaysian laws.” Maryam Lee, author of “Unveiling Choice,” a book that was featured at the April forum, said JAIS summoned her in October as part of an investigation into activity that “insults or brings into contempt the religion of Islam.” Those found guilty of such an offense are subject to a fine up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said this practice remained largely tolerated but left the religious groups vulnerable.

Some government bodies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, were tasked with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM, compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. That department’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($67.3 million), while 1.3 billion ringgit ($317.9 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In September the Prime Minister’s Department issued a directive barring Muslims and non-Muslims from reciting joint prayers, either simultaneously or separately, before the start of government functions promoting unity that involved Muslims and non-Muslims. Instead, joint prayers at such events were to be “replaced with an activity where a message of unity is shared.” According to the Mufti of Negeri Sembilan State, Muslims praying alongside non-Muslims lowered the status of Islam. Observers noted that many government functions began with a recitation of the Islamic doa or prayer of supplication, and the ban only applied to interfaith events where prayers were previously offered by multiple faiths.

During the year, JAKIM continued to fund a wide variety of Islamic education- and mosque-related projects. There were no funds in the government budget specifically allocated to non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities.

At public primary and secondary schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with the recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Particularly in the country’s peninsula, community leaders and civil liberties groups said religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces, except for their eyes. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families continued to report difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.

In September the federal Ministry of Education issued a warning to the Methodist Girls’ School in Penang in response to allegations that students recited a prayer at an awards ceremony that did not also include an Islamic prayer. Police opened an investigation into the matter. Pusat Komas, a local NGO, issued a statement which criticized the government for an “unnecessary” warning that “bullied” the school. Federal Minister of Education Maszlee Malik later met with representatives of the Federation of Christian Mission Schools to discuss the matter and said the government would respect the ethos, character, and traditions of mission schools in the country.

Following public outcry, particularly from the ethnic Chinese community, the government reversed its plan to require students in Tamil and Chinese-language public schools to study khat, a Malay text that uses Arabic characters. Politicians and civil society leaders report that khat, once taught as part of Malay language and culture, has more recently become associated with Islam and is currently only included in religious curriculums. According to media, the cabinet decided in August to introduce khat only after achieving the consent of students, parents, and the Parent Teacher Association in those schools.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. The government continued its appeal of a 2017 ruling by the Court of Appeal that the National Registration Division was not bound by a 2003 edict issued by the National Fatwa Committee, a religious body, regarding when a child conceived out of wedlock could take the father’s name. Implementation of the court’s decision remained stayed, pending the appeal, limiting parents’ ability to give their child the father’s name if the child was deemed to be conceived out of wedlock. The government does not impose this restriction on non-Muslim families.

Prime Minister Mahathir said the government would consider five resolutions put forward at a “Malay Dignity Congress” in October, including proposals to banish Chinese- and Tamil-language public schools by 2026, require top government positions to be filled only by Sunni Muslims, and restrict “outsiders” from spreading “ideologies and teachings that deviate from Islam and the Malay culture.” Mahathir, along with Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, PAS Party President Hadi Awang, and United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Secretary General Annuar Musa attended the event, which was sponsored by four public universities. The event organizer told participants the country [exists] for the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, argued minorities must adhere to the “social contract” that gave them citizenship, and asserted that this “social contract” could be revoked. Haris Zuan, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, criticized political leaders for attending the event and for using public universities “as a tool to provide political legitimacy to government propaganda” and ethno-nationalist narratives.

In June JAKIM said a gender and sexuality conference to be held in Kuala Lumpur later in the year should be canceled because it “clearly promotes LGBT in Malaysia and is against Islam and the Federal Constitution.” In a post on social media JAKIM called on authorities to take “suitable action.” The conference took place in Sri Lanka instead.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in years past, local human rights organizations and religious leaders said society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They cited some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as heavily publicized statements targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups. A Facebook group entitled “The Malaysian Anti Shiah Movement” criticized the government for permitting an Iranian parliamentary delegation to visit the country’s parliament and said, “Shias are getting more active and are already spreading their wings to Parliament.” In response, the minister of religious affairs told media, “What is the problem if there are visits by those of the Shia faith? The Iranian ambassador was here several times. What is wrong if they visit Parliament? It does not make us Shia if there are Shia adherents.”

In May police arrested four men from a suspected ISIS terrorist cell for allegedly plotting attacks on houses of worship and an entertainment outlet. Police said the accused wanted to “avenge” the death of a Muslim firefighter who was killed when responding to a riot at a Hindu temple in 2018. According to media reports, the leader of the four was charged in May with terrorism-related offenses.

A July seminar entitled “Amman Message: A Platform for Peace,” hosted by the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies, a local think tank, was cancelled following a bomb threat. The “Amman Message” is a document signed in 2004 by prominent Muslim scholars and leaders, including then prime minister Abdullah Badawi, calling on Muslim majority countries to recognize different Islamic groups, including Sunni, Shia, Salafi, and Sufi; denouncing any effort to ban these groups; and condemning “ignorant and illegitimate” edicts or fatwas in the name of Islam. According to police, a member of the “Movement to Eradicate Shia” posted on Facebook a message stating, “We are bombing the place,” which prompted the hosts to cancel the seminar “for security reasons.”

In August authorities opened an investigation into a Facebook post allegedly from a JAKIM employee calling on Muslims to “get their slaughter knives ready” because the “kafir (non-believers) are acting like cattle for slaughter.”

Hundreds of Muslim men gathered in March outside the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur to protest the federal government’s failure to defend Islam, claiming it undermined ethnic Malay identity by having non-Muslims in positions of authority. Some participants shouted they were ready to wage “jihad” against those who insulted their faith. The UMNO youth chief spoke at the protest and blamed the Pakatan Harapan coalition government for failing to protect Islam.

During an August speech at the National Ummah Unity Convention, Aminuddin Yahaya, president of Ikatan Muslim Malaysia (ISMA), accused the Christian Federation of Malaysia of an “evangelical” drive to place as many Christians as possible in national leadership positions and called Christian evangelism one of the biggest threats to the Malay-Muslim community. The general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia told media the claims were “unfounded and meant to fear-monger by rallying Muslims to name Christians as enemies,” and was “tantamount to inciting hatred towards a minority religious community.”

In February PAS Information Chief Nasrudin Hassan Tantawi expressed concerns about the judicial system because non-Muslims occupied senior government positions, including attorney general, chief justice, and law minister. “We are doubtful about the legal system and the judiciary, which is not under the control of Muslims. When we raise this issue, they (the government) say we are racist, but they have grabbed these three positions and have not given anything to Muslims,” he said. SUHAKAM responded this “outdated view on racism should not be tolerated in the new Malaysia.” In January PAS President Hadi Awang wrote in an op-ed that Muslims would “end up in hell” if they were led by a non-Muslim.”

In May ISMA said postage stamps that included images of historic Christian churches was “another example of Muslims being bullied,” and that they could portray Malaysia as a “Christian nation.” According to the government postal service, the stamps, which also included other religions’ landmarks, were first issued in 2016.

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former co-believers, including friends and relatives.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear the headscarf or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming in public and on social media.

In July Azhar Mohamad, leader of the Badar Squad, an unregistered group based in Kedah State that harassed unwed Muslim couples who did not have what the group deemed to be proper supervision, said the group would expand nationwide, despite warnings from police that it could not operate as an enforcement agency. In April authorities fined Azhar and six others 1,000 ringgit ($240) each after they pled guilty to joining an illegal organization.

Some Muslim leaders, including from PAS, supported calls on social media to “buy Muslim-made products first.” A member of parliament from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) told media, “Encouraging a boycott on non-Muslim products by Muslims is wrong and goes against the spirit of our Federal Constitution, which guarantees equality, which includes one’s right to livelihood.” The PAS secretary general defended the campaign, stating, “It will help small and medium entrepreneurs, as well as those from rural areas, to compete. At the same time, it will create more jobs for the people, especially unemployed youths.”

Although the federal government said it would not ban images of pigs, which Muslims view as unclean animals, in public places during Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, media reported such images were “conspicuously absent from Chinese New Year decorations” at shopping outlets in and around Kuala Lumpur.

Religious groups hosted interfaith and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. Following the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on April 21, the Global Unity Network, a Muslim NGO, visited St. Joseph’s Church in Kuala Lumpur to show solidarity with the country’s Catholic community.

An event entitled “KL for Satan” with heavy metal band “Devour,” scheduled in Kuala Lumpur on Easter Sunday, was cancelled following public outcry. In a statement the Council of Churches of Malaysia said the concert would “be considered an affront to the religious sentiments of Christians in the country.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the MHA, MFA, RMP, and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as with other agencies, on religious freedom and tolerance issues throughout the year, including concerns about the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children, and the enforced disappearances of Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh.

In April the Ambassador led a “Harmony Walk” to several houses of worship of different faiths in Kuching, Sarawak, along with the mission commander of the Pacific Fleet’s annual Pacific Partnership exercise and U.S. sailors, local clerics, and the country’s military personnel. The event highlighted the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue. The embassy released a video of the event in conjunction with the UN International Day for Tolerance in November and received largely positive feedback.

Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, which described heavy government restrictions on their religious activities and continued societal discrimination. The embassy also met with Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as those from SIS, G25, Islamic Renaissance Front, and Komuniti Muslim Universal, to discuss strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.

The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.

In November the embassy sponsored six Islamic school educators to travel to the United States to study faith-based and secular education as a means of fostering understanding and promoting freedom of religion and expression.

In July the embassy facilitated the participation of civil society representatives and the wife of a missing pastor in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.

The embassy facilitated the participation of three Islamic clerics in the United Nations Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City in August. The program included discussion of interfaith understanding and the importance of greater interaction with people of different religious backgrounds.

In September the president of the Malaysian Youth Council attended an exchange program, with embassy support, on interfaith relations.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. On January 21, citizens of the five provinces and three major cities of western Mindanao ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), creating a new Muslim-led autonomous region and abolishing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The measure provided the area’s majority Muslim population a larger region of authority. Although the referendum was widely backed by national Muslim and Christian groups, some local religious minorities continued to express concerns about the new authority. On March 29, President Rodrigo Duterte led the inauguration ceremony of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at the national and local level. Catholic Church clergy continued to criticize the president’s policies, especially the drug war and his desire to reinstate the death penalty. Although the president agreed to stop denouncing the Church in 2018, he continued to express his displeasure with the conduct of its clergy. A number of priests critical of the government’s drug war received explicit death threats and raised concerns that the president’s negative statements promoted attacks against clergy. In July the government charged some members of the opposition, along with four Catholic bishops and three priests, with sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice because of their alleged involvement in the release of a supposed antigovernment video.

During the year, killings, bombings, and kidnappings by ISIS-affiliated and other militant groups continued. ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including a January suicide bombing at a cathedral in Jolo that killed 20 persons and wounded several others. In August a cathedral in Baguio received bomb threats, allegedly from ISIS affiliates. Following the attacks, members of the Catholic and Muslim communities gathered in the cathedral to show solidarity against terrorism. On December 22, an explosion occurred outside a Catholic church during its Sunday Mass. By year’s end no public claim of responsibility for the attacks had emerged, though authorities suggested ISIS-linked groups were the most likely perpetrators.

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported some tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu. The NCMF reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year, but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country. Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination.

In a U.S. embassy-organized forum in June, Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) representatives and legislative branch staffers discussed implementation of the BOL, including its implications for religious minorities and the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas. In meetings with religious groups, the government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), embassy representatives highlighted the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The embassy sponsored the visit to the United States of two scholars, who had advocated religious tolerance and social inclusion, for a three-week law and leadership program, and encouraged a local NGO to incorporate a religious tolerance module into its teaching curriculum.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 107.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2015 census (the most recent) conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), 79.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 9 percent belong to other Christian groups, including Seventh-day Adventists, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other Christian groups include locally established churches such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan), Members Church of God International, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the Name Above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim, according to the PSA; the NCMF estimates that 10 to 11 percent of the population is Muslim. The NCMF attributes the higher estimate to a number of factors: the reluctance of Muslims to officially register with the civil registrar office or to participate in the formal survey, the community’s transience due to internal movement for work, and the government’s failure to survey Muslim areas and communities thoroughly. According to the PSA, approximately 4 percent of those surveyed in the 2015 census did not report a religious affiliation or belong to other groups, such as animism or indigenous syncretic faiths.

A majority of Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups and reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Although most are practitioners of Sunni Islam, a small minority of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur on Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila, Baguio, Dumaguete, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Cotabato, and Davao, a trend that accelerated after the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi in which local residents fled to other provinces for their security.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

The BOL ratified on January 21 creates the BARMM, a new Muslim-led autonomous region. The BARMM replaces the former governing authority, the ARMM. The new entity has jurisdiction over five provinces and three major, noncontiguous cities. The BOL provides the framework for the transition to greater autonomy for the area’s majority Muslim population.

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

Government Practices

Some Catholic clergy who vocally criticized extrajudicial killings attributed to the war on drugs under President Duterte or who stated their opposition to the reinstatement of the death penalty reported being harassed, intimidated, and threatened with death by unknown perpetrators following Duterte’s threats against them in late 2018, which sources stated he and his government subsequently tried to walk back. In July following the release of a video linking President Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade, the government charged some members of the opposition, along with four Catholic bishops and three priests, with sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice concerning their alleged involvement in the video’s production and release. Various ecumenical groups condemned the charges, filed through the Philippine National Police (PNP) Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) received a complaint through its social media account saying a local government office in South Cotabato prohibited Balik-Islam (Philippine converts to Islam) from constructing mosques within its village. Initially, the local government stated that the structures did not meet building codes, but after public pressure, it relented and allowed the mosque projects to move forward. After conducting an investigation into a refusal to erect a mosque by local officials in Panagasinan, the NCMF determined that local officials halted construction because residents cited concerns that having the religious structure in their community might incite terrorism.

The CHR Mindanao regional office expressed concern over reported cases of church leaders and faith-based organizations being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. In February leaflets containing names of alleged NPA members, reportedly including some religious leaders, were posted and distributed in public places and private gatherings by unknown individuals; the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and PNP publicly denied any involvement.

In November media reported that the AFP included the National Council of Churches Philippines (NCCP) in a list of 18 organizations it described or “red-tagged” as communist terrorist groups or groups wittingly or unwittingly providing funds to such groups. The NCCP, one of the largest associations of Protestant and non-Roman Catholic denominations in the Philippines, described the listing as an “attack on [their] Christian faith and tradition.”

On several occasions, President Duterte expressed disapproval of the Catholic Church, despite his 2018 vow not to do so. In a public speech in February he said Catholicism may disappear in 25 years because of various criminal allegations, such as corruption and sexual abuse. Media reported that the criticism could relate more to the Church’s criticism of human rights abuses in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Duterte added in a speech in September that he would not support the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) celebration in 2021 of 500 years of Catholicism in the country. Some clergy continued to raise concerns that the manner in which the president denounced the Church promoted violence against its priests and leaders.

The Department of Education continued to support its Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or greater. For the 2018-19 school year, 1,686 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 145,591 students, compared to 1,622 schools and 158,093 students the previous year.

Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF and Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curricula that were subject to government oversight. There were 85 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education during the 2018-2019 school year. Many private madrassahs, however, choose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives.

The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. By law, only registered schools/madrassahs may receive financial assistance from the government. Madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 25 percent from the previous year. During the year, the Department of Education provided funding of 90,960,000 pesos ($1.8 million) to 18,192 private madrassah students, compared to 67,510,000 pesos ($1.33 million) allocated to 13,502 private madrassah students in 2018.

A study by the Institute for Autonomy and Governance showed that 90 percent of 169 madrassahs surveyed in 2018 sought government recognition and support; however, the study stated that complicated accreditation processes and requirements hindered them from registering. The survey also conveyed the concerns of Muslim school leaders about the perception that terrorist groups used traditional madrassahs for recruitment, especially after the Marawi siege. The NCMF distributed books in April in order to alleviate community concerns that all traditional Muslim schools bred violent extremist ideologies.

On March 29, President Duterte led the inauguration ceremony of the BARMM. The results of a January plebiscite added Basilan and Cotabato City to BARMM territories. Although the move was widely backed by Muslims and Christians nationwide, some local religious minorities continued to express their concerns about the new authority. The BARMM government designated two seats, one for a Christian and one for an indigenous delegate, to its council to allay minority community concerns. BARMM authorities, an amalgamation of members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and presidential appointees, continued setting up their government, establishing budget priorities, staffing offices, and implementing infrastructure projects. The BARMM government continued to reinforce existing legislation that governed the application of sharia and provided an alternative dispute mechanism for non-Muslims seeking redress in the courts.

NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination continued to occur in government offices but cited no specific examples. Some Muslim leaders, including an NCMF official, expressed concern about the low percentage of Muslims in senior government and military positions. There were 13 Muslims in the 301-member House of Representatives and one Muslim cabinet appointee. No members of the Senate were Muslim. In October seven Muslim lawmakers of the House of Representatives and the Federation of Free Workers issued statements calling for President Duterte to appoint a Muslim justice to the 15-person supreme court for the first time since 1995.

The PSA estimated during the year that 40 percent of five million total unregistered residents were children aged between birth and 14, primarily among Muslim and indigenous groups. Citizenship derives from birth to a citizen parent. The government initiated a pilot program in Metro Manila that provides undocumented Muslim Filipinos with an identity card – the Muslim Filipino Identity Card– stating that it was intended to help them access services, since many in this population did not have a birth certificate. Sources stated that the lack of a birth certificate did not generally result in a denial of education or other services, but it could cause delays in some circumstances. Undocumented Filipinos could use this secondary identification when applying for jobs, schools, and for other government services in lieu of a birth certificate or formal registry. The NCMF noted that this secondary identification helped overseas Filipino workers who found themselves in precarious labor situations. If their employers confiscated their passports, these secondary IDs could speed the government’s citizenship assessment, thus providing fast repatriation services. Critics expressed reservations about the potential for abuse in similar initiatives in the past.

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

In March the NCMF, along with other religious leaders, participated in an interfaith dialogue in Cebu City to highlight the importance of youth involvement in curbing violent extremism. NCMF Secretary Saidamen Pangarungan stressed that an effective way of achieving peace was through interfaith collaboration.

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

The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment continued to administer logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that 7,232 individuals made the pilgrimage during the year, lower than the 8,000-limit set by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for pilgrims from the Philippines, but an increase of 1,419 persons from the previous year. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects.

In February the senate adopted a resolution filed by Senate President Vicente Sotto declaring the first Thursday of February “Synchronized National Interfaith Prayers for Peace and Reconciliation.” The resolution aimed to encourage Filipinos of all religious groups to participate in a universal prayer for peace.

The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings in the south of the country to the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – both designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Department of State – the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and other ISIS-related terrorist groups. ISIS claimed responsibility for a January suicide bombing at a cathedral in Jolo that killed 20 persons and wounded several others. In August a cathedral in Baguio received bomb and terror threats from alleged ISIS affiliates. Following these attacks, members of the Catholic and Muslim communities gathered in the cathedral to show solidarity against terrorism. Eleven soldiers and nine civilians were wounded in a December 22 grenade attack adjacent to a radio station and a Catholic cathedral in Cotabato City. The attack reportedly unfolded as soldiers dismounted from a military truck to provide security for a Mass taking place at the cathedral. Authorities suggested the attack, which came on the eve of a planned visit by President Duterte to Cotabato, may have been linked to ISIS-linked groups operating in the area, though no one claimed responsibility by year’s end. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity.

Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported tensions among different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu. Social media comments denigrating the beliefs or practices of Muslims continued to appear.

The NCMF received several formal complaints of discrimination on the grounds of Muslim religious identity during the year. The organization reported that Muslims received stares in public for wearing hijabs, particularly in schools and banks. NCMF noted a successful legal intervention on behalf of a Muslim nursing student whose school, citing health concerns, initially prevented her from wearing a hijab. The NCMF also stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination continued to exist throughout the country, particularly among detainees in correctional institutions.

Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. The CBCP collaborated with other Christian groups and civil society networks to prepare for the implementation of the BOL. Other interfaith efforts by the CBCP, but not limited to religious freedom issues, included multi-sectoral consultations and meetings with provincial and local governments on localizing humanitarian coordination and collaboration against human trafficking.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In June the embassy organized a forum with BTA representatives and legislative branch staffers to discuss the implementation of the BOL, including its implications for religious minorities and the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas, as the BARMM moved forward. Embassy officers also met with religious leaders, CHR, and the Department of Foreign Affairs to discuss religious freedom issues, including the BOL.

Cognizant of the vital role that faith and education play in fostering peace in Mindanao, the embassy continued outreach and training with madrassah educators through the Empowering Madrassah Educators (EmpoweringME) program. Since 2015, EmpoweringME has provided intensive teacher training for 325 madrassah educators and administrators in Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Cotabato City, and Basilan. During the year, EmpoweringME introduced a module on social inclusion, which added matters relating to religious tolerance to its curriculum. The embassy also sponsored the visit of two scholars known for their work on religious tolerance and social inclusion to the United States for a three-week course on law and leadership. The program educated its participants not only on the law, but also on how to mitigate gender and religious intolerance they may face in their work. The embassy supported a two-year grant to a former participant of an embassy program to develop and implement a peace education curriculum, which included aspects of religious tolerance, in the 11 schools that comprise the Mindanao State University system. The Philippine Commission on Higher Education expressed interest in integrating elements of this peace curriculum across its entire nationwide network of colleges and universities. The embassy featured all these programs in press releases and on social media.

A senior embassy official hosted an iftar reception in May at a public university in Manila attended by more than 100 guests from the NCMF, civil society organizations, higher education, and religious and community sectors. He spoke about the importance of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s support in rebuilding the Islamic city of Marawi, as well as other forms of assistance across conflict-affected areas of Mindanao. The embassy also supported an interfaith forum to highlight the plight of the internally displaced persons of the Marawi siege and international religious freedom issues. In addition, the embassy hosted an iftar in Davao that was attended by BARMM officials and Muslim scholars.

The embassy regularly highlighted support for religious freedom and the protection of civil liberties for people of all faiths on its various online platforms. It posted a tweet in observance of the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief on August 22. The Ambassador posted tweets for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, while the embassy posted Facebook and Twitter content for the celebrations. Other notable posts included an ambassadorial tweet and embassy Facebook and Twitter posts publicizing the statement of the Ministers of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS; an embassy tweet on the confirmation of the identity of Maute group leader Abu Dar; ambassadorial and embassy tweets of condolences for the victims of the Jolo Cathedral Bombings; and an ambassadorial tweet on the Bangsamoro plebiscite and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority.

In October the embassy hosted a U.S. Muslim for five days of speaking engagements in Manila and Mindanao and programs on conflict transformation. The individual spoke on university campuses and at American Centers to engage emerging leaders on current issues in the BARMM.


Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” In October parliament passed legislation (not yet in effect at year’s end) that will allow the minister of home affairs to take immediate action against individuals deemed to have insulted a religion or to have incited violence or feelings of enmity against a religious group. The same bill will limit foreign funding to, leadership of, and influence over, local religious organizations. There is no legal provision for conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 11 conscientious objectors remained detained at year’s end. The government continued to ban all religious processions on foot, except for those of three Hindu festivals, including Thaipusam, and it reduced restrictions on the use of live music during Thaipusam. Authorities cancelled a concert by Swedish band Watain after public complaints that the group was offensive towards Christians and Jews. Authorities banned a foreign clergyman from preaching in Singapore after he refused to return to the country for a police investigation into anti-Muslim comments he had reportedly made at a Christian evangelical conference in 2018. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences, including in June during a 1,000-person international conference it had organized to discuss religious diversity and cohesion in diverse societies. Government organizations initiated interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives.

Seventy-seven percent of the population said they followed a religion, according to survey data. Most local residents perceived followers of other religions positively, although 16 percent saw Muslims as “threatening,” or “somewhat threatening.” A separate survey found that 97 percent of residents described the level of racial and religious harmony in Singapore as moderate, high, or very high. There were numerous community-led initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.

The Charge d’Affaires discussed the country’s approach to religious harmony and amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) legislation with the minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. U.S. embassy officials engaged with senior government officials and religious leaders at a May iftar, during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech embracing religious diversity. Visiting representatives from the Office of International Religious Freedom met with the imam of Ba’alwie Mosque. Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups to support religious freedom including the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), the government’s Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, Taoist, and interfaith groups. The embassy used social media, including a Facebook item featuring the work of a former participant in a U.S.-sponsored exchange program, to highlight its religious outreach and to demonstrate respect for the country’s religious diversity.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Of the four million individuals the local government counts as citizens or permanent residents, 81.5 percent stated a religious affiliation in the 2015 General Household Survey. According to the data, approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian, 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Unification Church. Although estimates varied widely, the government estimated there are 2,500 members in the Jewish community.

According to a report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.4 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent Muslim, and 12.1 percent Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs, and it does not prohibit restrictions on employment by a religious institution. The constitution states no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own.

The government maintains a decades-long ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the religion was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish or import their literature. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.

The MRHA authorizes the minister for home affairs to issue a “restraining order” (RO) against a person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister ascertains the person is causing feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or encourages disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. An RO places various restrictions on public activities in which a religious authority can participate. Under the MRHA, the minister must provide any individuals or religious groups 14 days to make written representations before an RO may be issued against them, and the minister must also consult and take into consideration the views of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) as to whether an RO should be issued. In addition, under the penal code, “Wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” may result in detention or imprisonment. Imprisonment may last up to five years.

The amended MRHA will require that key leadership roles in religious organizations be filled by Singaporeans or permanent residents, and that the majority of each organization’s governing body be composed of Singapore citizens. The law, as amended, will hold that, with some exceptions, religious organizations must disclose foreign donations of 10,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($7,400) or more, and that they must declare any affiliation to foreign groups that are in a position to exert influence. The minister could issue an RO against any religious group, which would prevent or reduce foreign influence affecting the group, if he or she believed this foreign influence could undermine religious tolerance or present a threat to public peace and order.

The PCRH reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of PCRH members to be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The MUIS, established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY), administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and the Hajj. The MUIS includes representatives from the Sunni majority as well as Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated if there are complaints.

The government appoints all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board and nominates four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards manage various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.

The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemptions. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered society may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 SGD ($3,700), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.

Prisoners, including those in solitary confinement, are allowed access to chaplains of registered religious groups.

Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.

By law, a publication is considered objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or deals with, among other things, matters of race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between racial or religious groups. The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. For offenses involving the publication of objectionable material, an individual may be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding 5,000 SGD ($3,700), imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both. A person in possession of a prohibited publication may be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and imprisoned for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.

The Ministry of National Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The ministry and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone and meeting the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups; they apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organizations or limited to religious use and must also be available to rent out for nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.

Registration with the MUIS is compulsory for all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning. Registration requires adherence to minimum standards and a code of ethics, as well as fulfilment of certain training requirements.

The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law is used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over marriage issues where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, and inheritance. The president of the country appoints the president of the sharia court. A breach of sharia court orders is a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment of up to six months, and an individual may lodge a complaint for breach in the civil courts. The sharia court does not have jurisdiction over personal protection orders or applications for maintenance payments. Divorce proceedings in the sharia court may be moved to the civil courts for decisions on custody or division of matrimonial assets. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeals board, which is composed of three members selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of at least seven Muslim individuals nominated every three years by the president of the country. The ruling of the appeals board is final and may not be appealed to any other court.

The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives, reviewing the husband’s financial capability, and evaluating his ability to treat the wives and families fairly and equitably. By law, the president of the country appoints a “male Muslim of good character and suitable attainments” as the Registrar of Muslim Marriages.

Under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam. This includes publicly teaching or expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law, which carries a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both. It is also a criminal offense for Muslims to cohabit outside of marriage, but that law has not been enforced in decades.

Under the law, Muslim couples where one or both parties are under the age of 21 must complete a marriage-preparation program and obtain parental or guardian consent before applying for marriage. Each party to the marriage must be at least 18.

According to legal experts in inheritance, Islamic law governs Muslims in the context of inheritance issues by default, but under certain circumstances civil law will take precedence when it is invoked. Islamic law may result in a man receiving twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. A man may also incur financial responsibilities for his female next of kin, although this provision is not codified in the country’s law.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools (mostly Christian but including three Buddhist schools). Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, however, the law allows only seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate citizen students; these schools must continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools. Public schools finish early on Fridays, which enables Muslim students to attend Friday prayers, or they allow Muslim students to leave early to attend prayers. Secondary school students learn about the diversity of the country’s religious practices as a component of their character and citizenship education.

The law empowers the Ministry of Education (MOE) to regulate primary and secondary schools. MOE rules prohibit students (but not teachers) in public schools from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform, including hijabs or headscarves. Schools have discretion to grant a child dispensation from wearing the official uniform based on health but not religious requirements. International and other private schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, which are all under the purview of the MUIS, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning.

The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, including for religious reasons. Male citizens or second-generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group the parliament or the government refers to it.

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

Government Practices

The official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that at year’s end, 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses were held in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete national service. Conscientious objectors are generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remained technically liable for national service, men who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They do not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.

The government reduced restrictions on the use of live music at the Tamil Hindu procession for Thaipusam, one of three religious foot processions, all Hindu festivals, permitted in the country. In January authorities permitted the use of percussion instruments in the two-day procession for the first time since 1973, and increased the number of hours, from 7:00 a.m. (one hour earlier than the previous year) to 10:30 p.m., during which live music could be played.

In March the authorities cancelled a concert by the Swedish band Watain. Authorities initially agreed to the band performing under an R18 (Restricted to 18 years and above) rating and with “religiously offensive” songs and “ritualistic acts” removed from the performance, but they retracted permission on the day of the concert after Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam raised concerns about the group’s history of denigrating religions and promoting violence. The ministry assessed that allowing what they called a Satanist band to play had the “potential to cause enmity and disrupt Singapore’s social harmony.”

Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” Some in the Muslim community continued to quietly petition for a change in government policy.

In March authorities banned a U.S. clergyman from preaching in the country after he refused to return to the country for a police investigation into anti-Muslim comments he reportedly made at a Christian evangelical conference in 2018.

While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly based on concerns that proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations. In March media reported that police investigated a complaint against a Christian man for allegedly preaching to Muslim schoolchildren; media did not report that charges were filed.

The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and to prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.

As part of the MOE’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. Secondary school students visited diverse religious sites, including Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, churches, and synagogues. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony,” which repeatedly affirms the importance of religious harmony for the country.

The government instituted a requirement that Islamic teachers, known as asatizah, must complete a mandatory three-hour ethics class prior to 2020 in order to fulfil registration requirements. Among other requirements, the code of ethics requires teachers not to denigrate any individual or group by means of terms or concepts that could erode social harmony.

In July the director of the Public Service Commission defended awarding a taxpayer-funded scholarship to a student of Buddhist studies after the local newspaper published two letters of complaint about the award. She said that to make sound policy, the public service needed a diversity of strengths and a deep understanding of the country’s religions: “Secularism does not mean being devoid of religious content.”

President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and government ministers regularly stressed the government’s commitment to the country as a multiracial and multireligious society and cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. Ministers frequently gave speeches on strengthening religious pluralism. In October Prime Minister Lee wished Hindus a happy Diwali on his Facebook page and wrote, “Here in Singapore, we are fortunate that we can share in the joy of one another’s cultural and religious festivals.” In September when accepting a World Statesman Award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, he praised the country’s institutions that protect multiculturalism, including the Presidential Council for Minority Rights and the IRO.

In June 1,000 delegates attended the government’s inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS), at which President Halimah celebrated religious diversity and distinctive cultures, while calling on different communities to accommodate others’ differences and to build interfaith understanding. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered the conference’s closing speech, during which he noted that the country must also learn to take into account the perspectives of the nonreligious, who comprise approximately 20 percent of the local population.

Members of parliament (MPs) expressed support for religious freedom, respect, and harmony. In July Ruling People’s Action Party MP Zainal Bin Sapari recommended on Facebook that employers accommodate male Muslim employees by allowing them to attend Friday afternoon prayers at mosques.

In May Muslim MPs from the ruling party, the opposition, and independent lawmakers held the first ever cross-party breaking of the fast within parliament. In March in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, Muslim MP Amrin Amin led a political-constituency visit by Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists to St. Andrew’s Cathedral, built on land donated by an Arab Muslim.

Under the auspices of the MCCY, local government and government-affiliated organizations advocated for interreligious understanding and support for followers of other religions. In February the country’s five district mayors launched a national interfaith initiative called Common Senses for Common Spaces, which included activities such as community dialogues on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

Interfaith activities occurred in each of the country’s five mayoral districts through the expansion of programs such as Common Sense for Common Spaces, while 89 “Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles” (IRCCs) continued to operate in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs conducted a variety of local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities. In May more than 100 volunteers from IRCCs, district council Racial Harmony Youth Ambassadors, and religious organizations joined Muslim MP and Mayor Maliki Osman in an interfaith iftar after the group had packaged and distributed adult diapers to the elderly in local nursing homes.

The government continued to work with religious groups through a community engagement program which trained community leaders in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. It also worked through the BRIDGE initiative (Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education), which provided financial support for community-based initiatives that fostered understanding of different religious practices and beliefs.

The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was established to promote greater religious understanding. The Harmony Center houses artifacts and information about Islam and nine other major religious groups in the country. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from different religious groups.

Authorities helped Muslims undertake travel for religious reasons through the MUIS, which maintains a national Hajj registration process, and which provides medical and welfare support for citizens making the Hajj. Ministers continued to advocate an increase in the number of permits that Saudi Arabia allocates to the country for pilgrims annually.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A joint study of more than 4,000 residents by the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and found that almost 97 percent of local residents described the level of racial and religious harmony as moderate, high, or very high. When asked if they knew someone of another religion to clarify any concerns about religious practices, more than half of respondents said they were acquainted with a Buddhist, Catholic, other Christian, Muslim, or Taoist, while 40 percent of respondents knew a Hindu, and 22 percent a Sikh with whom they could do the same. While 88 percent of respondents reported not experiencing any form of religious tension in their daily lives, some respondents reported negative experiences associated with religion; more than a quarter reported being upset in the last year over proselytization attempts as well as by something they watched on social or mainstream media that insulted their racial or religious customs. Religion was identified as an important potential fault line, with just under half of respondents saying the mismanagement of religion could result in suspicion, mistrust, and anger among communities in Singapore, while a third said it had the potential to engender violence.

Seventy-seven percent of the population said they followed a religion, according to a separate IPS survey of 1,800 residents. Most local residents perceived adherents of other religions positively, although 16 percent saw Muslims as “threatening,” or “somewhat threatening.” Seventy-three percent believed that persons of different religious backgrounds could get along when living close together.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the patron of the IRO, called on followers of all religious beliefs to “always protect the freedom to interact with each other as friends, neighbors, and fellow Singaporeans” when he opened the organization’s 70th anniversary Harmony of Faiths exhibition in March. The exhibition encouraged visitors to learn about all the religions practiced in the country. The IRO also worked with the National Library Board to organize interfaith gatherings. The IRO includes leaders of the 10 major religious groups in the country with the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among various religious groups by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year.

In September remarks made on social media by a local blogger about the turbans of two Sikh men “obstructing” her view during an event gained national attention for their insensitivity. A subsequent invitation to the blogger from the Young Sikh Association to visit the Central Sikh Temple to learn about Sikhism was widely reported on social and local media.

Religious groups and humanists continued to promote interfaith and intrafaith understanding. In August the Archdiocesan Catholic Council for Interreligious Dialogue hosted Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic representatives to discuss the concept of fasting. Throughout the year, the Center for Interfaith Understanding, chaired by a Muslim and a Taoist, hosted a range of seminars, including on such subjects as Chinese religion in everyday life, Christian-Muslim relations, and interfaith dialogue.

Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques, hosting intrafaith iftars during Ramadan. The organization Roses of Peace held several events in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, including a forum of Singaporean youth, to exchange ideas on race and religion.

Religious groups cooperated to provide practical support for their communities. Under a program run by the local community organization Giving Back Beyond Faith, religious groups collaborated with Sewa Pledge, a Sikh community project, and a Sikh temple, Gurdwara Sahib Yishun, to host an event for migrant workers in a place of worship, during which participants learned about Sikh culture and worship. Buddhist volunteers from Shinnyo-en served as road marshals to divert traffic from the nearby Abdul Razak Mosque during the Eid al-Adha prayers in August, when the road was closed off due to an overflow from the mosque. During Ramadan, the Hindu Endowments Board donated two tons of rice to local mosques, while the Singapore Buddhist Lodge donated 35 tons.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires discussed the country’s approach to religious harmony and amendments to its MRHA with the minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. In May at an embassy iftar attended by Senior Minister of State for Defense and Foreign Affairs Mohamad Maliki Bin Osman, religious leaders of numerous faiths, the diplomatic corps, and others, the Charge d’Affaires gave remarks promoting religious freedom and embracing religious diversity. The Charge’s speech was featured on Malay language television and in the leading English- and Malay-language newspapers.

Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of religious groups, including the IRO, MUIS, PPIS, interfaith groups such as the Center for Interfaith Understanding, and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, Taoist, and interfaith groups, to reinforce the importance of religious freedom. Visiting representatives from the Office of International Religious Freedom met with the imam of Ba’alwie Mosque, who displayed the mosque’s collection of old Qurans, Bibles, Judaica, and Buddhist scriptures. The embassy used social media to highlight the visit, including a post covering the embassy iftar in May, and to demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity. The embassy used social media to feature the work of a former participant in a U.S.-sponsored exchange program focused on peace, social cohesion, and interfaith harmony.

The embassy facilitated the engagement of visiting U.S. citizens with local community and religious groups to support the promotion of religious freedom. In September embassy representatives and the U.S. nongovernmental organization Writing Through conducted workshops with the staff of PPIS and the youth that benefit from its programs. The workshops focused on building the research and persuasive writing abilities of the staff and on improving critical thinking and writing skills of the at-risk youth PPIS supports. In April embassy representatives organized a visit by a Muslim American entrepreneur, who spoke with Muslim organizations, student groups, the business community, and media about becoming a successful entrepreneur and how being a Muslim impacted his perspective in business.


Executive Summary

The constitution “prohibits discrimination based on religious belief” and “protects religious liberty, as long as the exercise of religious freedom is not harmful to the security of the State.” The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process, outside the national civil code, for Muslim residents of the “Deep South” for family law, including inheritance. The Muslim community in the Deep South – described as southernmost provinces near the Malaysian border – continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what it says is a judicial system that lacks adequate checks and balances. In September the Royal Thai Police requested universities nationwide supply information on Muslim-organized student groups in the wake of the arrest of three ethnic Malay Muslims from Narathiwat Province in connection with multiple bombings that injured three persons during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial in Bangkok. The decision sparked protests in the human rights community and authorities postponed enforcement. As in previous years, authorities arrested and detained migrants without stay permits, including some refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and asylum seekers. The government’s traditional position on these arrests is that they were not motivated by religious affiliation and that members of a multitude of different religious groups were detained. In some cases, UNHCR-recognized refugees (including those fleeing religious persecution) reported staying in immigrant detention centers (IDCs) in crowded conditions for multiple years. Media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported during the year that several dozen Uighur Muslims from China remained in IDCs across the country, most of them reportedly in detention for more than five years. In December the government approved a new screening mechanism that provides temporary protection from deportation to individuals determined by the government to be protected persons. UNHCR and some NGOs welcomed the new regulation, but others expressed concern the process may be subject to political interference.

Insurgency-related violence continued in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where religious and ethnic identity are closely linked in a longstanding separatist conflict. Insurgents were blamed for a November 6 attack at a checkpoint in Yala Province that left 13 Buddhists and two Muslims dead, most of whom were village defense volunteers. An insurgent attack on security forces guarding a school in Pattani in January resulted in the death of four Muslim security guards.

U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met regularly with Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders, academics, and elected officials as part of the embassy’s effort to promote religious pluralism and reconciliation and to discuss complex religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics. In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic faith and civil society leaders to explore opportunities for and challenges to improve interfaith tolerance and religious freedom in the country. The embassy and consulate general organized workshops on peace and facilitated the presentation of speakers from the United States on religious freedom, engaging Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians in interfaith dialogue on the importance of protecting the rights of religious minorities to preserve freedom of religion for all.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 68.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2010 population census, the most recent available, indicated 93 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 percent Muslim. NGOs, academics, and religious groups state that 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include animists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, and Taoists.

Most Buddhists incorporate Hindu and animist practices into their worship. The Buddhist clergy (sangha) consists of two main schools of Theravada Buddhism: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community.

Islam is the dominant religion in three of the four southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani) near the Malaysian border, commonly referred to as the Deep South. The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population nationwide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as ethnic Thai. Statistics provided by the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture indicate that 99 percent of Muslims are Sunni.

The majority of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese practice either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese, as well as members of the Mien hill tribe, also practice forms of Taoism.

The majority of Christians are ethnic Chinese, and more than half of the Christian community is Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice as long as the exercise of these freedoms is not “harmful to the security of the State.” The constitution empowers the state to patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but it also provides for special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”

A special order issued by the former military government in 2016 and still in effect guarantees the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country but mandates all state agencies to monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.” A law specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy. Violators may face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($670), or both. The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups. Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 20,000 to 140,000 baht ($670-$4,700), or both.

The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. While there is no official state religion, the constitution continues to require the king to be Buddhist and declares he is the “upholder of religions.”

Religious groups associated with one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income taxes, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s foreign officials. Registration as a religious group is not mandatory, and religious groups may still operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized. Under the law, the RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which is overseen by the National Buddhism Bureau, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the prime minister.

The RAD may register a new religious denomination outside one of the five recognized religious groups only if it meets the following qualifications: the national census indicates the group has at least 5,000 adherents, it possesses a uniquely recognizable theology, it is not politically active, and it obtains formal approval in a RAD-organized meeting of representatives from the concerned ministries and the five recognized umbrella religious groups. To register with the RAD, a religious group’s leader also must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, and locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites. As a matter of policy, however, the government will not recognize any new religious groups outside the five umbrella groups.

The constitution prohibits Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election, running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate, or taking public positions on political matters. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, as of August there were 252,851 clergy who are thus ineligible to vote or run for office. Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress. Except for the chularatchamontri (grand mufti), imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.

The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body. The king has authority to unilaterally appoint or remove members from the Sangha Supreme Council irrespective of the monk’s rank and without consent or consultation with the supreme patriarch, whom the king also has legal authority to appoint.

The law requires religious education for all students at both the primary and secondary levels; students may not opt out. The curriculum must contain information about all of the five recognized umbrella religious groups. More instruction time is dedicated to teaching Buddhism than other religions. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of a particular religion may study at private religious schools and may transfer credits to public schools. Individual schools, working in conjunction with their local administrative boards, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. There are two private Christian universities and one Catholic-run college, which provide religious instruction open to the public. There are approximately 350 Catholic- and Protestant-run primary and secondary schools, whose curricula and registration the Ministry of Education oversees. The Sangha Supreme Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand create special curricula for Buddhist and Islamic studies required in public schools, respectively.

The Central Islamic Council of Thailand, whose members are Muslims appointed by royal proclamation, advises the Ministries of Education and Interior on Islamic issues. The government provides funding for Islamic educational institutions, the construction of mosques, and participation in the Hajj. There are several hundred primary and secondary Islamic schools throughout the country. There are four options for students to obtain Islamic education in the Deep South: government-subsidized schools offering Islamic education with the national curriculum; private Islamic schools that may offer non-Quranic subjects such as foreign languages (Arabic and English) but whose curriculum may not be approved by the government; private Islamic day schools offering Islamic education to students of all ages according to their own curriculum; and after-school religious courses for children in grades one through six, often held in mosques.

The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process outside the national civil code for Muslim residents of the Deep South for family law, including inheritance. Provincial courts apply this law, and a sharia expert advises the judge. The law officially lays out the administrative structure of Muslim communities in the Deep South, including the process of appointing the chularatchamontri, whom the king appoints as the state advisor on Islamic affairs.

The RAD sets a quota for the number of foreign missionaries permitted to register and operate in the country: 1,357 Christian, six Muslim, 20 Hindu, and 41 Sikh. Registration confers some benefits, such as longer visa validity. Representatives of the five officially recognized religious groups may apply for one-year visas that are renewable. Foreign missionaries from other religious groups, as well as foreign staff and volunteers at secular NGOs, must renew their visas every 90 days.

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

Government Practices

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of violence due to the Malay Muslim insurgency as being primarily based on religious identity.

According to the NGO Deep South Watch, insurgency-related violence from January to September resulted in at least 140 deaths – among them 102 Muslims and 36 Buddhists. Deep South Watch also reported 207 persons were injured during that period – 97 Muslims and 110 Buddhists. For all of 2018, Deep South Watch reported 171 Muslims, 43 Buddhists, and 4 unidentified persons were killed in the insurgency. Local NGOs reported insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to the Chairman of the Southern Border Provinces Teacher Confederation and an official from the Southern Border Provinces Education Administration and Coordination Center, no teachers or students were killed in insurgent attacks during the year. An insurgent attack on security forces guarding a school in Pattani in January, however, resulted in the death of four Muslim security guards.

The Muslim community in the Deep South continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what they said was a judicial system lacking adequate checks and balances. According to the Prachathai news website, in January Bangkok police detained 16 men from the Deep South working at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport for fingerprinting and DNA collection – reportedly without a court order. All were subsequently released without charges.

Authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including extending pretrial detention and expanding warrantless searches. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment by Muslims.

The Muslim news website “M-Today” in April published a report by the NGO Network of People Affected by the Implementation of the Special Laws that said a Muslim religious teacher from the Deep South, Marobi Buenae, was taken by security forces for interrogation and he was detained 34 days without charge.

Members of the Muslim community in the Deep South expressed frustration with a nighttime raid of a private Islamic day school in Pattani Province in January in which the military arrested multiple Cambodian Muslim students and one religious teacher. The military accused the students of being undocumented Cambodians receiving military-style combat training, while the school stated the students were merely playing and the raid was unjustified. The Cambodian students were deported to Cambodia after authorities found no links to insurgency in the Deep South but determined they were in the country illegally, according to press reports.

According to human rights groups and media reports, many of the refugees and asylum seekers in the country were fleeing religious persecution in their countries of origin. According to UNHCR, local law considered refugees and asylum seekers who entered the country without a valid visa to be illegal aliens, and thus they faced the possibility of arrest, detention, and deportation regardless of whether they had registered with the agency. As in previous years, immigration authorities conducted multiple raids targeting persons living illegally in the country, including some UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers. According to media reports, in July and December Bangkok authorities raided housing units and subsequently arrested dozens of Pakistani Christians, several of whom had asylum seeker or refugee status, according to UNHCR. The government said the raids did not target any specific religious group, and media coverage consistently highlighted the arrests were part of the broader immigration crackdown and not motivated by religion.

Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government generally allowed UNHCR access to detained asylum seekers and refugees. In some cases, UNHCR-recognized refugees (including those fleeing religious persecution) reported staying in IDCs in crowded conditions for multiple years. The government in most cases placed mothers and children in shelters in accordance with a policy to cease detention of migrant children; in practice, such shelters provided greater space than IDCs but still severely restricted freedom of movement.

Activists, including Human Rights Watch, expressed concerns about how the government might react to requests from China to extradite Chinese dissidents, including those associated with religious groups banned in China. Human rights activists reported during the year that Falun Gong practitioners who were recognized refugees in the country were periodically monitored or detained by police. For example, media and activists reported immigration authorities detained Falun Gong practitioner Leng Tao in November. UNHCR assessed the majority of Chinese asylum seekers and refugees, including those in detention, were not at risk of refoulement to China.

Media and NGOs reported during the year that several dozen Uighur Muslims remained in IDCs across the country, most of them reportedly in detention since 2015. In October press reported that the National Assembly’s House Standing Committee on Laws, Justice, and Human Rights visited Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Uighur detainees in an IDC near the country’s southern border. A Uighur detainee reportedly told the committee that he hoped to be released to a third country but was adamant against returning to China.

The government continued to investigate and prosecute embezzlement crimes allegedly committed by senior Buddhist monks and government officials from the National Buddhism Bureau (NBB). In September Minister of Culture Tewan Liptapanlop informed the House of Representatives that 32 corruption-related cases were completed, 51 cases remained in the courts, and 41 cases were under investigation by the Office of Anti-Money Laundering.

The Court of Justice on Anti-Corruption Litigation in April sentenced Rev. Kitti Phatcharakhun, the Abbot of Lad Khae Temple, to 26 years in prison for money laundering. Since the probes began in 2015, authorities arrested and tried more than 10 senior monks and NBB officials, uncovering the theft of at least 10 million baht ($336,000).

The government did not recognize any new religious groups and has not done so since 1984. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society groups continued to report unregistered religious groups operated freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference. However, a leading member of Falun Gong reported security authorities closely monitored and sometimes intimidated practitioners distributing Falun Gong materials.

In the run-up to the national general elections in March, some political parties expressed support for easing restrictions on Buddhist monks’ political rights. Monks and temple authorities continued to comply with the 2018 Sangha Supreme Council order prohibiting the use of temple land for political activities or rallies, meetings, or seminars for purposes that violated the law or affected national security, social order, or public morals. While at least one monk publicly advocated the restoration of political rights, there were no media reports of monks defying the Council order by attempting to vote or otherwise participate in other political activities.

The law denying legal recognition to female monks remained in effect despite the National Human Rights Commission’s recommendation issued in June 2015 that the government amend the law. The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the approximately 253,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, 285 were women. Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality protection by the government. Officials continued to neither formally oppose nor support female ordination. Officials allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples – primarily tax exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Unlike male monks, bhikkhunis received no special government protection from public verbal and physical attacks that sometimes involved male monks opposing the ordination of female monks. There were no reports of such attacks during the year, in contrast to previous years.

The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu; a mandatory peace studies course; and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings. As of August, approximately 3,000 students and 210 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.

Muslim students attending a public school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Muslim-majority Pattani Province in the Deep South continued to wear religious head scarves pending the outcome of a case before the Yala Administrative Court on the legality of their attire. The case was based on a 2018 challenge by Muslim parents to a new Ministry of Education regulation that barred students from dressing in accordance with their religious belief and required them to wear the uniform agreed to by the school and temple, without accommodation for personal religious attire. The case was pending at year’s end.

According to a senior member of a university in the Deep South, there were no reports of the military scrutinizing Muslim professors and clerics, in contrast to previous years.

In September the Royal Thai Police requested some universities nationwide to supply information on Muslim-organized student groups, including membership numbers, place of origin, and denomination affiliation. Human rights groups protested the action, and the government suspended its request on October 2 following protests by several Muslim organizations, including the Sheikhul Islam Office. Government officials, however, continued to state there was nothing wrong with the “routine request” for information, which was reportedly a response to multiple bombings during the ASEAN ministerial in Bangkok in August that were attributed to three ethnic Malay Muslims. Muslim leaders said the request represented religious discrimination because student groups from other religions were not asked for similar information. The leaders also stated the government’s action was a sign of anti-Muslim sentiment.

In May media reported the government canceled a scheduled sermon in Phuket by U Wirathu, a Buddhist monk in Burma and self-described nationalist, after migrant groups voiced concern that his talk could incite tensions between Buddhists and Muslims.

For the October 1, 2018-September 30, 2019 fiscal year, the government allocated RAD a budget of approximately 415 million baht ($13.94 million) to support non-Buddhist initiatives, compared with 410 million baht ($13.77 million) the previous fiscal year. Approximately 341.5 million baht ($11.47 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development, including promotion of interfaith cooperation through peace-building projects in the Deep South, compared with 333 million baht ($11.19 million) the previous fiscal year. The budget included grants of approximately 16 million baht ($537,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups and 240,000 baht ($8,100) for the chularatchamontri’s annual per diem.

The NBB, funded separately from the RAD, received 4.85 billion baht ($162.9 million) in government funding, compared with 4.9 billion baht ($164.6 million) the previous fiscal year. Of that amount 1.87 billion baht ($62.81 million) went to empowerment and human capital development projects, compared with 1.6 billion baht ($53.75 million) the previous period. A total of 1.6 billion baht ($53.75 million) was allocated for personnel administration, 1.1 billion baht ($36.95 million) for education projects, including scripture and bookkeeping instruction for monks and novices, and 242 million baht ($8.13 million) for Deep South conflict resolution and development projects. Comparable figures for the previous fiscal year were 1.6 billion baht ($53.75 million), 1.2 billion baht ($40.31 million), and 256 million baht ($8.6 million).

The government continued to recognize elected Provincial Islamic Committees, which increased by one to 40 nationwide. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing persons to serve as imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the Deep South continued to report some acted as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnonationalist and religious tensions.

Religious groups continued to proselytize without reported interference. Buddhist monks working as missionaries were active, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the NBB, there were 5,350 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide. Buddhist missionaries needed to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University and Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. In July the Sangha Supreme Council announced its goal of dispatching two missionary monks to every sub-district in the country, or approximately 15,100 monks nationwide, with implementation dependent on the availability of sufficient financial and human resources. None were dispatched under this program by year’s end. Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.

During the year, there were 11 registered foreign missionary groups with visas operating in the country: six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups, unchanged from the previous year. There were 1,357 registered foreign Christian missionaries. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of foreign missionaries in the country. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization. Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), which is not an officially recognized religious group, continued to exercise its special quota of 200 missionaries through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. Church leaders reported their missionaries who previously received one-year work permits were only eligible for 90-day renewable visas in accordance with regulations applying to all foreign missionaries as well as to volunteers and staff of secular NGOs. In May church leaders petitioned the government to reconsider the new regulations, but government officials advised them to comply with the regulations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Ethnic Malay insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims in the Deep South. Approximately 10 insurgents armed with assault rifles attacked Wat Rattananupab Temple in Narathiwat Province on January 18, killing three Buddhist monks – including the temple’s abbot – and injuring another. According to Reuters, this was the first time a monk had been killed in the southern violence since 2015. The attack followed the death of an imam in a shooting attack in Narathiwat on January 11 – the third imam to be killed in shootings in the preceding two months – leading some media sources to speculate the temple attack was a response to these attacks. The Sheikhul Islam Office and the national Human Rights Commission issued statements denouncing the killings of both religious leaders, as did several civil society organizations and Buddhist and Islamic groups. Some local Malay Muslims expressed frustration that the monks’ killing received more media attention than the imam’s.

Military officials blamed insurgents for a November 5 attack at a checkpoint in Yala Province that left 13 Buddhists and two Muslims dead, most of whom were village defense volunteers, according to local press. Following the attack, the nationalist Buddhism Protection Association urged Buddhists to rise up and called for a rally at the Buddha Monthon (Buddhism campus) in Nakhon Pathom. The NBB barred the group from using the venue and issued an official letter to all provincial chief monks asking them not to support the rally or allow monks under their supervision to join it, and to discourage Buddhist laypersons from participating.

The Duay Jai Group, a human rights organization based in the Deep South, stated the government prohibition on Islamic dress in certain schools, pending a final ruling by the Yala Administrative Court, further distanced the Muslim from the Buddhist population. Some Buddhist groups in turn expressed frustration with perceived special allowances for Muslims. In April the group Buddhist Power of the Land sent a letter protesting a special quota system for Muslim students from the Deep South at Mahidol University. A Buddhist group in Yala staged a rally during which it was stated Muslims received better treatment at state hospitals, including halal kitchens, and called for establishing corresponding special kitchens for Buddhists and special quarters for ill monks. The government continued to deny such oft-stated assertions and in January the Ministry of the Interior issued a press statement refuting claims that the government fully subsidized mosque construction and that Muslim clerics earned a higher per diem than Buddhist monks when performing religious and administrative functions.

In December the group “Buddhism Protection Organization of Thailand for Peace” convened approximately 50 monks and laypersons for a conference in the northeast of the country to discuss Islam’s perceived threat to Buddhism and to deplore the special treatment they alleged the government accorded Muslims. Following the conference the group submitted nine demands to the chularatchamontr including calls that the Muslim leader discourage mosque construction “to relieve minds,” stop issuing religious edicts that grant Muslims special protections, and help counter the “radical Islam disease” evidenced by insurgent violence and religious leaders who incite youth to violence against the state. In response, the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand wrote a letter to the House Standing Committee on Religions, Art, Cultures, and Tourism seeking members’ assistance toward reconciliation, but the committee did not respond by year’s end.

Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders stated a majority of their communities continued to advocate interfaith dialogue and cultural understanding.

Buddhist activists continued to campaign to designate Buddhism as the country’s official religion. The Pandin Dharma, or “Land of Dharma” Party, led by Buddhist nationalist Korn Meedee, whose platform advocates making Buddhism the state religion, fielded 145 constituency and 24 party-list candidates, winning 21,463 votes out of some 35 million votes cast. The party platform also calls for the establishment of segregated, Buddhist-only communities in the country’s three southern Muslim-majority provinces. The party’s Facebook page has approximately 10,000 followers. The Dharmmakaya Temple, often at the center of corruption scandals, has longstanding ties to Wirathu, the leader of Burma’s 969 movement, which has been described by leading human rights groups as anti-Muslim, and in December monks associated with the temple traveled to Mandalay, Burma for an annual New Year’s service.

In November Pope Francis conducted a three-day visit to the country, during which his messages of religious reconciliation and interfaith harmony were positively received by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate general officials regularly met Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders and academics as part of the embassy’s effort to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to discuss religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics. In March the Charge d’Affaires met with the chularatchamontri, Aziz Phitakkumpon, who served as the country’s Islamic spiritual leader, and discussed the embassy’s ongoing interfaith dialogue programs.

In November the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic faith and civil society leaders to explore opportunities for and challenges to improve interfaith tolerance and religious freedom in Thailand. The Ambassador also delivered the keynote address at the Fifth Annual Southeast Asian Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference, where he encouraged grassroots mobilization and the establishment of national roundtables to promote religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

As a follow-up to the embassy’s 2018 interreligious program on peace in Pattani Province, the embassy and consulate general in Chang Mai cohosted workshops in Bangkok and Chiang Mai with the NGO Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. The programs focused on using people-to-people engagement to bridge conflict. A U.S. Muslim associated with the program also delivered lectures on interfaith dialogue to multifaith audiences of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, the oldest Buddhist university in the country, and Payap University, the country’s oldest Presbyterian university. Local Muslim media outlets covered the events.

Embassy and consulate general staff regularly engaged with religious minority groups – including Muslims, Christians, the Church of Jesus Christ, and Hindus – through events such as interfaith dialogues to promote respect for individual rights to worship and the importance of religious pluralism, using social media to amplify the importance of these and other meetings and programs advancing religious freedom and tolerance.

In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar that was well attended by prominent Muslims. The embassy used the opportunity to promote the value of religious diversity and interfaith dialogue. Similar to the reactions from other policy-focused social media posts by the embassy, Facebook posts on the iftar by Muslim leaders generated a mix of positive and negative comments.

In July five prominent Buddhist and Muslim former participants in embassy-sponsored exchange programs participated in an academic exchange in the United States focused on religious freedom. During their three-city tour the participants engaged with other leaders from across Asia to advocate for interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and community development among religious and civic leaders. As a follow-on to the program, the participants organized a regional event in Bangkok in November focused on countering disinformation and extremist messages related to religion on digital communication and social media and increasing voices of tolerance and coexistence.


Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 97.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to January 2018 statistics released by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA), 26.4 percent of the population is categorized as religious believers participating in registered activities: 14.9 percent Buddhist, 7.4 percent Roman Catholic, 1.5 percent Hoa Hao Buddhist, 1.2 percent Cao Dai, and 1.1 percent Protestant. The GCRA, however, estimates 90 percent of the population follows some sort of faith tradition, registered or otherwise. Within the Buddhist community, Mahayana Buddhism is the dominant affiliation of the Kinh (Viet) ethnic majority, while approximately 1.2 percent of the total population, almost all from the ethnic minority Khmer group, practices Theravada Buddhism. Smaller religious groups combined constitute less than 0.16 percent of the population and include Hinduism, mostly practiced by an estimated 70,000 ethnic Cham in the south-central coastal area; approximately 80,000 Muslims scattered throughout the country (approximately 40 percent are Sunnis; the remaining 60 percent practice Bani Islam); an estimated 3,000 members of the Baha’i Faith; and approximately 1,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Religious groups originating within the country (Buu Son Ky Huong, Tu An Hieu Nghia, Minh Su Dao, Minh Ly Dao, Tinh Do Cu Si Phat Hoi, Phat Giao Hieu Nghia Ta Lon) comprise a total of 0.34 percent. A small, mostly foreign, Jewish population resides in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Others have no religious affiliation or practice animism or the veneration of ancestors, tutelary and protective saints, national heroes, or local, respected persons. Many individuals blend traditional practices with religious teachings, particularly Buddhism and Christianity.

Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 14 percent of the population. Based on adherents’ estimates, two-thirds of Protestants are members of ethnic minorities, including groups in the Northwest Highlands (H’mong, Dzao, Thai, and others) and in the Central Highlands (Ede, Jarai, Sedang, and M’nong, among others). The Khmer Krom ethnic group overwhelmingly practices Theravada Buddhism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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