An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. Shia representatives said they saw no increase in Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) protection; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the Shia community ahead of large Shia gatherings. Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) in March that targeted Sikhs and killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of the lack of security and insufficient government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling commercial and civil disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation by the local community and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils.

There were reports that ISIS-K, an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities and that the Taliban targeted and killed individuals because of their religious beliefs or their links to the government. During the year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019 – causing 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. According UNAMA, consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. Two major attacks on the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, two gunmen opened fire on participants, primarily Shia Hazara, attending a commemorative ceremony in Kabul, killing 32; ISIS-K claimed responsibility. On May 12, three gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and health-care workers; no group claimed responsibility, although the government believed ISIS-K was responsible. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one person. Police also found and defused two other IEDs targeting Sikhs on March 26 and 27. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. Media reported an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission statement that on June 19, Taliban physically abused and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing funeral rites for a local police commander. Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques, including attacking two mosques in June, leading to the deaths of two imams and other worshippers. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were harassed by fellow students in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. One mullah in Herat reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia; authorities did not restrain his activities, citing the need to focus on the Taliban. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as music concerts, they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, due to the small size of their communities, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of violent attacks on the community, societal discrimination, and lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the Hindu and Sikh communities continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested the support of police, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. According to members of the community, at year’s end, approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

U.S. Embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost Province with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. The embassy used virtual platforms to engage communities so these discussions could continue despite COVID-19 restrictions. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 400 members of the Sikh community remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 600 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most of the community is located in Kabul, with smaller groups in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including at least one Jew.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The penal code contains provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years and specifies imprisonment for persons using a computer system, program, or data to insult Islam.

Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$780). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.

While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up hudood crimes as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood crimes are punished according to sharia as interpreted by the Sunni school of Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines age of maturity as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.

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

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

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

Licensing and registration of religious groups by the MOHRA are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.

A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs to reflect Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools, but there are no alternatives offered. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. MOHRA registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-registered madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.

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

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

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

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

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

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

The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu or Sikh communities. The person occupying the seat is not obliged to swear allegiance to Islam, only to obey the law and serve all citizens and the state.

MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues.

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

Government Practices

Media reported and representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, merely symbolic measures – and that the government failed to implement effective measures to protect the community, including from nonstate actors. Members of the Shia community reported they saw no increase in ANDSF protection during the year; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the community ahead of large Shia gatherings. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians under police authority to provide extra security for the Ashura commemoration. According to media reports, security forces took special precautions to reduce street traffic in the affected neighborhoods of Kabul during the Ashura commemoration period. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-K in March that killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of lack of security and insufficient government protection.

There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels” by many Muslims, although they were not always considered converts from Islam (apostates); as such, they were not charged with either crime.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics on the number of mullahs and mosques in the country because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry, but they estimated there were approximately 160,000 mosques. MOHRA reported that at year’s end, of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 7,000 mullahs were registered with and paid by MOHRA. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive monthly salaries of between 7,710 and 15,420 afghanis ($100-$200) from the government, depending on their location, the size of their congregation, and the knowledge of the mullah. MOHRA reported that just 7,000 mosques in the country were registered with the ministry.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate approximately 65 percent of its budget (188 million afghanis – $2.44 million) for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy but not to spread information about their religion or encourage others to practice it. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing commercial and civil disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and that they avoided pursuing land disputes through the courts for the same reason, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs also reported that individuals who lived near the cremation site continued to interfere with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government allocated 80 million afghanis ($1.04 million) for the repair of places of worship, including for Sikh and Hindu sites, of which 40 million afghanis ($520,000) were expended as of October 2020. Community leaders reported that MOHRA provided free water and electricity and was making efforts to provide repair services for a few remaining Sikh and Hindu temples.

According to MOHRA, due to insecurity, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said that in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs and that because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. In November, the First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, ordered the Central Statistics Office to register all teachers and students of the 362 madrassahs in Kabul City and of the 130 madrassahs in the other districts of Kabul Province. Once registration was complete in Kabul Province, the office was expected to conduct the same process throughout the country. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to media reporting, there were approximately 5,000 madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country registered with MOHRA. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates. The government stated that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not have sufficient resources to consolidate data on the enrollment of students in religious institutions.

MOHRA officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Approximately 80 Ministry of Education-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,000 public madrassahs were registered with the ministry, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of the number of unregistered madrassas available.

Members of the Ulema Council, the highest religious body in the country, continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.

MOHRA’s office dedicated to assisting religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus, focused on helping Sikhs and Hindus secure passports and visas so they could permanently leave the country, most often to India.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish and a number of deputy ministers, governors, and one member of the Supreme Court, but no cabinet-level positions, unlike in previous years. Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics, which they attributed to the government’s marginalization of minority groups and the lack of a supportive social environment. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia were overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras, who are mostly Shia Muslims, often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Some observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported that Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country.

A small and decreasing number of Sikhs continued to serve in government positions, including one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, and one as a presidential advisor on Sikh and Hindu affairs.

Three Ismaili Muslims were members of parliament, down one from 2019, and State Minister for Peace Sadat Mansoor Naderi is also an Ismaili Muslim. Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council (a Shia-led initiative with some Sunni members), and MOHRA continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. On October 25 and November 12, they held meetings in Kabul to address concerns and find areas of mutual cooperation. On October 1, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani organized the country’s first women’s Ulema conference, held in Kabul. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by ISIS-K and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Shia Hazara. During the year, UNAMA documented a reduction from 2019 in civilian casualties from attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. UNAMA recorded 19 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019. The attacks caused 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. The report attributed all the attacks to antigovernment elements.

UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISIS-K-directed, sectarian-motivated violence, primarily targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. It documented 10 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and Sikhs, resulting in 308 civilian casualties (112 killed and 196 injured), compared with 2019 when there were 10 incidents resulting in 485 civilian casualties (117 killed and 368 injured).

Several major attacks against the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazara, killing 32 persons; ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On May 12, three unidentified gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and healthcare workers; no group claimed responsibility. On October 24, a suicide bomber staged an attack on an educational center in the same Shia Hazara-dominant neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons and wounding 57. Most of the casualties were between the ages of 15 and 25. ISIS-K claimed responsibility.

On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11 during a six-hour siege. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection.

Progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Media reported that on January 28, the district director of the Hajj and Religious Department for Pashtun-Zarghon District in Herat Province, Mullah Abdulhamid Ahmadi, was shot and killed by unidentified individuals. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Media reported that on February 2, unidentified gunmen killed one person praying in a Shia mosque in Herat. On February 11, five children were killed and three others wounded when a bomb exploded at their Sunni madrassah in Kunduz Province. All the children were under the age of 14. On May 13, unknown gunmen attacked worshippers praying at a Sunni mosque in Khost Province. One person was killed and another wounded. On May 19, unidentified gunmen killed three persons and wounded another in a Sunni mosque in Khost. Also on May 19, in Parwan Province, gunmen opened fire on worshippers gathered at a Sunni mosque, killing 12, including four children, and wounding six. None of the perpetrators was identified.

On June 18, a bomb killed at least seven students at a seminary in Takhar Province. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there was no investigation of the incident by year’s end.

According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted progovernment Sunni mosques. On June 2, a bomb exploded inside the Sunni Wazir Akber Khan Mosque in Kabul, killing the imam and one other worshipper attending evening prayers. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 12, a bomb in the Sunni Sher Shah Suri Mosque in Kabul killed four men gathered for Friday prayers, including the imam. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Following these attacks on two mosques in June, clerics gathered in Kabul to demand government protection of religious figures. Media reported that the Ministry of Interior said it had assigned a team to investigate the incidents.

The Taliban continued to kill religious leaders and threaten them with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. Media reported that on December 22, the Taliban killed Imam Mawlawi Ghullam Sakhi Khatib in Farah because of his progovernment messaging.

In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on progovernment religious leaders was unclear. In these instances, although no individual or group claimed responsibility, local authorities said they suspected that ISIS-K or, less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On June 13, an imam in Takhar Province was killed and two of his companions wounded by unidentified gunmen as the imam returned from prayers. No group claimed responsibility. On October 17, a religious scholar was killed by a bomb that exploded inside the seminary where he studied in Nangarhar Province; no group claimed responsibility.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban monitoring the social practices of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their interpretation of Islamic law. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. The man with whom she was reportedly involved escaped. Media reported that on August 4, the Taliban killed a local singer in Takhar Province as he returned home from a wedding because the Taliban considered singing to be prohibited in Islam.

There were again reports of Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for members of the ANDSF and other government employees. According to media, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that on June 19, the Taliban tortured and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing the funeral rites of a local police commander.

According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.

There again were reports of the Taliban taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula; however, it was difficult to obtain information in Taliban-controlled territory.

Shia Hazara leaders said the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations in Doha offered a chance for a peaceful future but were concerned a postsettlement Taliban would “turn back the clock” to a time when human rights, including religious freedom, were not respected in Afghanistan. Hazara leaders expressed concern that, if the Taliban established an Islamic emirate in the country, the Taliban would not accept Shia Islam as a formal religion and would ignore laws currently in place that protect Shia. In March, the UN Security Council issued UN Security Council Resolution 2513 noting that the Security Council did not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic’s negotiating team for the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations included Shia Hazara representatives.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity in the country are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community reported they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Christian sources estimated there were “dozens” of Christian missionaries in the country, mostly foreign but some local.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts in urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.

Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadis continued to report the increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Ahmadis said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadis representatives said they did not report these threats to police because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from police and other officials.

Christian representatives continued to report public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few remaining places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were a total of 70 gurdwaras and mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, although they did not specify how many of each. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said their complaints over seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Paktiya, and Parwan Provinces – some pending since 2016 – remained unresolved at year’s end. The ONSC established a commission to assist in the restoration of these properties, but no further action was taken by year’s end.

Community leaders continued to say they considered the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders again reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools lacked capable teachers, books, and other items necessary to teach students.

While in past years Sikh leaders stated the main cause of Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities, due in part to illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education, during the year they said threats from antigovernment groups, inadequate government protection, and multiple attacks on the community in March caused many families to emigrate or consider doing so. Many left for India, where international Sikh organizations facilitated their relocation. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples because they could not afford permanent housing. Both Sikh and Hindu communities stated emigration would increase as economic conditions declined and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated fewer than 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country at year’s end, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year. They said the departure mirrored events in 2018, when 500 to 600 Sikhs fled the country following a major attack on the community. Some Sikhs and Hindus also reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam.

Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. Media reported a cleric in the city of Herat banned public music and concerts, stating that certain television programs and social media platforms were un-Islamic. The cleric enjoyed the support of hundreds of supporters; according to press and other observers, local law enforcement rarely interfered with the cleric’s strict interpretation and enforcement of sharia. The same mullah reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia, such as women not covering their hair or public contact between unrelated men and women.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform his religious rituals. He said that in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies had attended the synagogue, but they could no longer do so due to security concerns.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.

Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports. Women who swam at a private swimming club in Kabul and exercised at a gym in Kandahar told media they experienced harassment from men when going to and from these facilities and sometimes faced the disapproval of their families due to traditional attitudes against women’s participation in sports.

NGOs reported some Muslims remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, although COVID-19 restrictions changed the platforms for engagement used by embassy officials, and many discussions were held virtually.

Senior embassy officials met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities following the March attacks on the Sikh community to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith. On March 28, senior embassy officials met with Shia Hazara leaders to discuss the peace process and the protection of Afghan ethnic and religious minorities. On October 14, senior embassy officials met virtually with members of the Shia Hazara community to discuss their perspectives on the peace negotiations and how they might affect their community, including religious freedom.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could foment intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, especially in the context of peace negotiations. The embassy reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and tolerance. It coordinated events with researchers and religious scholars throughout the provinces to discuss religion as an avenue to promote tolerance. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. On February 20, representatives of the Lincoln Learning Center in Gardiz visited the Sikh minority community of Gardiz to highlight interfaith tolerance. On May 21, the Lincoln Learning Center network hosted a speaker who shared his personal experience about how Muslim Americans observe Ramadan in the United States. In addition, in the context of the connections between ethnicity and religious identities in the country, embassy officials hosted panel discussions to analyze antiracism efforts through an Islamic lens.

The embassy hosted in-person and virtual roundtables with researchers, Sunni and Shia religious scholars, Ulema Council members, including members of the Women’s Ulema, and MOHRA representatives to discuss means to counter violent extremism related to religion and to promote tolerance.

The embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On January 16, U.S. Religious Freedom Day, the embassy highlighted on Twitter and Facebook a roundtable with faith communities that centered on how tolerance promotes peace and underscored the U.S. government’s support for religious freedom. Senior Department of State officials condemned the late March attacks on the Sikh community in Kabul through tweets and media statements. In drawing attention to diversity in June, the Charge d’Affaires shared a quote on social media expressing U.S. commitment to stand with an Afghanistan that promotes freedoms for all its citizens, including in following their faith. The Charge d’Affaires condemned through Twitter the June 2 attack on a Kabul mosque that resulted in the death of its imam and other worshippers.

Australia

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law that imposes a state religion or religious observance, prohibits the free exercise of religion, or establishes a religious test for a federal public office. The government considered public feedback on revised draft religious freedom laws whose stated aim was to make it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious belief or activity in key areas of public life. Citing pressures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced the legislation’s consideration would be delayed to an unspecified date. As movement restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 began to ease in the latter part of the year, several religious leaders criticized remaining state government restrictions, saying they unfairly affected religious communities. Parliaments in the two most populous states – New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria – initiated inquiries into laws with the stated purpose of strengthening protections against religious discrimination and vilification. While Catholic archdioceses welcomed the legislation, some individual Catholic leaders expressed opposition to state laws enacted in Victoria and Queensland requiring religious leaders and workers to report evidence of child abuse, including evidence heard in confession.

There were reports that COVID-19 enabled conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazi sympathizers, and far-right hate groups to introduce new avenues of attack on religious organizations. Members of minority religious groups, including Jews and Muslims, experienced instances of religious discrimination, threats, attacks, and hate speech. Allegations of anti-Semitic bullying in a Melbourne school received widespread media attention and in July, the Victoria Department of Education launched an investigation into claims two Jewish brothers were regularly the subjects of verbal and physical abuse. There were several reports of anti-Semitic verbal attacks in Melbourne. In NSW, a man was jailed for 10 months for posting anti-Muslim threats on social media.

The U.S. embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included engagement with members of the country’s Uyghur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2016 census, 52.1 percent of residents are Christian, including Roman Catholics (22.6 percent of residents), Anglicans (13.3 percent), Uniting Church (3.7 percent), Presbyterian and Reformed (2.3 percent), Baptist (1.5 percent), and Pentecostal (1.1 percent). Muslims constitute 2.6 percent of the population, Buddhists 2.4 percent, Hindus 1.9 percent, Sikhs 0.5 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent. An additional 9.6 percent of the population either did not state a religious affiliation or stated affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 30.1 percent reported no religious affiliation.

Revised figures from the 2016 census indicate that indigenous persons constitute 3.3 percent of the population, and that there are broad similarities in the religious affiliation of indigenous and nonindigenous individuals. In 2016, less than two percent of the indigenous population reported adherence to traditional indigenous religions or beliefs. Fifty-four percent of indigenous respondents identify as Christian, and an estimated 36 percent report having no religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars the federal government from making any law imposing a state religion or religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or establishing a religious test for a federal public office. The constitution’s protection of the “free exercise of any religion” may be limited only when deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination may have recourse under federal or state and territory discrimination laws and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion. In Queensland, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory, freedom of religion is protected in statutory human rights charters. The antidiscrimination laws of all states and territories, with the exceptions of NSW and South Australia, contain a prohibition against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. NSW prohibits discrimination on the basis of “ethnoreligious origin,” and South Australia protects individuals from discrimination in employment and education on the grounds of religious dress. Complainants may seek redress through state and territory human rights bodies.

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

State and territory governments share responsibility for education policy with the federal government, and they generally permit religious education in public schools that covers world faiths and belief structures. Instruction in the beliefs and practices of a specific religion may also be permitted, depending on the state or territory. In some jurisdictions instruction must occur outside regular class time, while in others, alternative arrangements are made for the children of parents who object to religious instruction. The federal government provides funding to state and territory governments to support the employment of chaplains in public schools. Chaplains may represent any faith and are banned from proselytizing. Thirty-four percent of students attend private schools; approximately 94 percent of these schools are affiliated with a religious group.

In February, new laws in Victoria came into effect requiring religious leaders and workers to report suspected child abuse, including where discovered through confession. The law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a mandatory reporter (which includes persons in religious ministries) fails to report abuse to authorities. In September, the Queensland parliament passed laws requiring adults to report knowledge of child sexual abuse, including where information is gained during “a religious confession.”

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

Government Practices

In May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced delays to proposed religious freedom legislation as a consequence of his government’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. The government made no further announcements during the year related to the proposed laws’ revision or their introduction in the parliament. The government stated the purpose of the draft legislation was the prohibition of discrimination in key areas of public life on the ground of religious belief or activity and the creation of a new office of Freedom of Religion Commissioner in the Australian Human Rights Commission.

A revised draft of the religious freedom legislation, released in December, 2019, made several changes to the original draft legislation as a consequence of public consultation. This included provisions allowing religiously-affiliated hospitals, aged care facilities, and accommodation providers to take religion into account in staffing decisions; allowing religious camps and conference centers to take faith into account when deciding whether to provide accommodation; and narrowing conscientious objection protections for health professionals by expressly stating an objection must be to a service generally, rather than to the personal attributes or characteristics of an individual seeking a service. The draft laws continued to propose banning large businesses with a turnover of more than 50 million Australian dollars ($38.6 million) from setting codes of conduct that would have the effect of restricting or preventing an employee from making a statement of belief “other than in the course of the employee’s employment,” meaning outside the employee’s working hours, unless the business can prove it would cause “unjustifiable financial hardship to the business.” The draft laws continued to propose protections for “statements of belief” (i.e., statements of an individual’s religious beliefs) from the application of certain provisions of federal, state, and territory antidiscrimination laws that might otherwise make the statement of belief unlawful.

The government received approximately 7,000 submissions from interested members of the public related to the revised draft. The Australian Human Rights Commission praised the legislation’s objective of prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of religion, but it warned that other provisions “provide protection to religious belief or activity at the expense of other rights,” which in turn raised concerns about protections for religious organizations “participating in the general economy” that would allow them to deny services or exclude others in ways that the commission considered discriminatory. The commission recommended the government remove provisions exempting statements of belief from federal, state, and territory antidiscrimination laws. LGBTI Legal Service Inc. said these provisions “will allow discriminatory and hurtful comments to be made against a large portion of our community, including LGBTI people.”

Several religious groups, including the Australian Christian Lobby, welcomed “some improvements” in the revised draft, but they said there were “fundamental deficiencies” needing amendment, including broader protections for religious charities. The Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney welcomed changes permitting religious bodies to provide preference to persons who share their faith in an employment setting, but it lobbied for broader protections for religious charities and statements of belief.

Equality Australia, an organization that promotes “the wellbeing and circumstances of LGBTIQ+ people in Australia,” said the bill “continues to privilege the interests of some people and institutions over the rights of others,” and expressed concern that private sector employers “will find it harder to enforce universal standards of appropriate conduct across their workplaces.” The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the proposed protections for statements of belief potentially create “a serious issue for employers” in balancing employees’ public comments with their obligations to prevent discrimination in the workplace.

In response to a pledge made in late 2018 by the Prime Minister to remove religious schools’ ability to expel LGBTI students, Attorney General Christian Porter tasked the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into religious exemptions in antidiscrimination legislation. In March, the Attorney General amended the original December, 2020 reporting deadline, setting it at 12 months after the draft religious freedom legislation passes the federal parliament.

In November, the Victoria state government introduced a bill that would ban practices that encourage individuals to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. If enacted, violation of this law could result in fines of up to 10,000 Australian dollars ($7,700) and 10 years in prison. Some religious leaders, including Catholic and Baptist clergy, criticized the bill, saying its language was too broad and could cause restrictions not only on practices considered harmful but also on the free speech and free choice of those following their religious beliefs. As of year’s end, the bill had not been passed by the state parliament.

As restrictions on movement that were imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 began to ease in the latter part of the year, several religious leaders, including senior Catholic, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox clergy, criticized remaining state government restrictions, saying they unfairly affected religious communities. On October 21, the NSW state government eased restrictions on religious gatherings, increasing maximum attendance from 100 to 300 persons. St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney was granted an exemption from the NSW government’s 100-person cap on religious services to hold a larger ordination mass on September 19. In October, the Premier of Victoria State, citing public health recommendations, defended his government’s decision to ease restrictions in areas of Victoria outside the city of Melbourne on hospitality venues but not on religious gatherings. The leaders of several prominent religious groups criticized the decision.

State and territory governments administered grant programs supporting multicultural and multifaith communities throughout the country. In response to COVID-19, the Victoria state government provided grants to religious communities to upgrade their IT infrastructure to enable digital services in their facilities. In August, the Victoria government announced new grants to fund projects and IT capabilities for online cultural and religious festivals.

In February, several Hindu groups criticized comments made by Treasurer of Australia Joshua Frydenberg regarding the opposition Labor Party’s proposed “wellbeing budget” as demeaning to the Hindu religion, with the Hindu Council of Australia calling the comments “brazen, racist, and Hindu-phobic.” Frydenberg subsequently apologized for any offense taken by his depiction of an opposition spokesperson delivering his wellbeing budget after descending barefoot from an Ashram in the Himalayas.

When a new law requiring religious leaders to report suspicions of child abuse discovered through confession came into effect in February, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne said the Church “fully supported” mandatory reporting. She declined to comment on the Archbishop of Melbourne’s previous position, in which he indicated he would refuse to comply with such a law. Queensland enacted similar laws in September. The Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane criticized the laws as making priests “less a servant of God than an agent of the state.” The laws in Victoria and Queensland followed similar legislation passed in South Australia (2017), Tasmania (2018), Western Australia (2019), and the Australian Capital Territory (2019).

In April, Roman Catholic Cardinal George Pell won an appeal in the country’s highest court that nullified his conviction for child sexual abuse. The High Court of Australia’s decision was unanimous in its ruling that the jury ought to have had reasonable doubt about Pell’s guilt based on testimony from other witnesses. Pell had been found guilty by a Victoria court in 2018, sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, and required to register as a sex offender. After his release, victims’ advocacy groups and others criticized the verdict. The same night Pell was released, the cathedral in Melbourne was vandalized with graffiti that included calls for the cardinal to “rot in hell.” A tricycle was tied to the fence of the monastery where Pell spent his first night following his release from prison.

In late 2019, the Victoria state parliament opened an inquiry into existing antivilification laws, examining the potential for the expansion or extension of protections. The stated purpose of the inquiry was to examine the effectiveness of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, seek evidence of increasing vilification and hate conduct in Victoria, and examine online vilification. The inquiry was due to report back on September 1, but the deadline was extended to March 1, 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking to the media about the inquiry, Premier Daniel Andrews said, “Anti-Semitism is on the rise – that is a fact.” Sources said the review would also consider a prohibition on publicly displaying anti-Semitic iconography, such as swastikas.

In August, the NSW state parliament began an inquiry into the Anti-Discrimination Amendment (Religious Freedoms and Equality) Bill 2020, proposing to make discrimination on the ground of a person’s religious beliefs or activities unlawful. Equality Australia criticized the bill for privileging “the interest of some people and institutions over the rights of others, including LGBTIQ+ people, women, people with disabilities, and even people with different or no beliefs,” by allowing organizations “to discriminate in employment, education, and service provision against others with different or no beliefs, even when religion has no relevance to the role…” The Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney welcomed the attempt to protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of religious belief. The inquiry received 144 public submissions.

Muslim immigrants detained in Brisbane filed a complaint in September with the Australian Human Rights Commission, saying they had not been given certified halal food for more than 12 months. The detainees stated that their caterer confirmed to them that the food was not certified halal.

Due to what they stated was an increasing number of students in NSW public schools who do not identify with a religion, some education groups continued to advocate for the removal of Special Religious Education classes from high schools. According to the NSW Teachers Federation, “School time is for teaching and learning, and special religious instruction should not be interrupting the crucial learning of students during the school day.” Government-approved Special Religious Education providers included representatives of Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religious groups. The NSW government requires schools to provide “meaningful alternatives” for students whose parents withdraw them from Special Religious Education, which could include courses in ethics. At year’s end, Special Religious Education remained in place in NSW public schools.

The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful, continued to be based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion, and included religious freedom as a component.

The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In October, Stipe Lozina, who punched and stomped on a pregnant Muslim woman in 2019, was sentenced to three years in prison. Media reported that Lozina shouted “anti-Islamic hate speech at the victim and her friends” during the attack.

In January, a household in Victoria State prominently flew a swastika flag for several weeks. Neither the local council nor the police could require the flag’s removal, but a spokesperson for Victoria Police said it had been taken down after discussions with the homeowners, who stated they were not aware the flag could cause offense.

Sources stated that the COVID-19 pandemic enabled conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazi sympathizers, and far-right hate groups to introduce new avenues of attack on religious organizations. In August, during Victoria State’s second wave of COVID-19, a cluster of cases emerged at the Islamic Al-Taqwa College. Principal Omar Hallak told media that references to the “Al-Taqwa cluster” by state leadership, including Premier Daniel Andrews, had instigated online attacks from hate groups.

On July 17, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network expressed concern to a Senate inquiry into foreign interference that “right-wing extremist rhetoric” was being brought into the country through various social media platforms. The network also stated that there were 12 fringe political parties in the 2019 federal election that ran on platforms that supported “discriminatory anti-Muslim polic[ies.]”

The NSW Attorney General’s Department told the state parliament that it was aware of three instances of swastika flags being flown in the state during the year.

There were reports that anti-Semitic rhetoric increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one well publicized incident, Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews was targeted with anti-Semitic graffiti reading “Stop Dan Andrews,” with a Star of David replacing the “a” in “Dan” and a swastika replacing the “s” in “Andrews.” The Australian Jewish News reported that anti-Semitic content was posted online that included statements that blamed Jews for the COVID-19 pandemic and called it the “Jew Flu.” Anti-Defamation Commission chairman Dvir Abramovich warned that COVID-19 was fueling “anti-Semitic and hateful conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the pandemic.”

In June, an NSW man was jailed for 10 months for posting threats against Muslims on social media.

The Anti-Defamation Commission reported a Jewish man and his son were subjected to anti-Semitic verbal abuse in Melbourne in July. The two were standing on a busy road when a man began yelling at them, calling them “Jew dogs.”

In July, the Victoria Department of Education launched an investigation into anti-Semitic bullying at Brighton Secondary College, where two Jewish brothers said they were regularly the subjects of verbal and physical abuse, including taunts of “Heil Hitler” from students, as well as comments from teachers referring to Israel as “Palestine.” The brothers said they made numerous reports to teachers but no serious action had been taken.

In August, a Jewish Uber driver in Melbourne reported that a passenger asked him if he was Jewish. When the driver confirmed his religion, the passenger asked that the car be stopped, since he “did not want a Jew to drive him,” and as the car pulled over, the passenger verbally abused the driver with insults, including “Jewish scumbag.” Uber removed the passenger’s access to the app and the driver filed a complaint with Victoria Police.

On January 24, Islamic scholar Ismail al-Wahwah of the Australian chapter of Hizb ut-Tahrir delivered a sermon, later uploaded on YouTube, that denied the Holocaust and called for world domination by Islam.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry reported 331 anti-Semitic incidents involving threats or abuse during the year, compared with 368 the previous year. According to the council, there was an increase in several more serious categories of incidents, including physical assault (eight, compared with four in 2019) and direct verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation (128, compared with 114 in 2019). Graffiti reports declined to 42, compared with 95 in 2019.

The Community Security Group released a report on anti-Semitic incidents in 2019 in which it stated there were 451 reported incidents throughout the country, a 31 percent increase over the 343 incidents reported in 2018.

In May, vandals sprayed swastikas on a golf course in Melbourne that was originally founded by Jews nearly seven decades ago because they were not allowed to play at other clubs.

The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 36 complaints involving religion from July 2019 to June 2020, a 36 percent decrease from the previous year. Of these complaints, half occurred in the provision of goods and services, and just over a third occurred in employment. Complaints relating to employment under the Equal Opportunity Act and Racial Religious Tolerance Act decreased 28 in 2018/19 to 20 in 2019/20.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy and consulates general engaged government officials and a wide range of religious leaders, faith communities, and groups to promote religious freedom. This included engagement with members of the country’s Uyghur community, some of whom have reported harassment by the Chinese Communist Party in the country.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. On March 12, a Bangladesh Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim defendants of the group Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), a violent extremist group accused in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and to monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to deploy law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence. In January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the elections during a Hindu festival.

In October, media reported a crowd of several hundred persons beat to death a Muslim visiting a mosque after a rumor spread that he desecrated a Quran in Lalmonirhat District, Rangpur Division near the country’s northern border. The man’s body was then set on fire. In July, according to press and Sufi Muslims, a Sufi follower was stalked and killed outside a Sufi shrine in Gazipur. In July, press reported local residents exhumed the body of an Ahmadi Muslim infant buried in an Islamic cemetery and dumped the body at the side of the road in protest of the infant’s burial, because they considered her family to be “infidels”; the body was later buried in a government cemetery. According to leaders in the Hindu community and media, in November, a crowd of several hundred looted, vandalized, and set on fire Hindu family homes in Cumilla District after rumors spread that local Hindu residents supported Charlie Hebdo’s publication in France of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in September. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In meetings with government officials, civil society members, religious leaders, and in public statements, the U.S. Ambassador, other U.S. embassy representatives, and the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma and host communities. Embassy public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including an event held on November 24.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 162.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, the most recent official data available, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, animists, agnostics, and atheists. Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents.

Ethnic minorities concentrated in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and northern districts generally practice a non-Islamic faith. The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian, as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous (non-Bengali) populations of the CHT. Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barishal City and Gournadi in Barishal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj District, Monipuripara and Christianpara in Dhaka City, and in the cities of Gazipur and Khulna.

The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya, nearly all Muslim. Human Rights Watch estimates approximately 1,500 Rohingya in the refugee settlements are Christians; approximately 450 are Hindu. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than one million Rohingya refugees fled Burma in successive waves since the early 1990s. Most recently, in August 2017, approximately 740,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Burma took refuge in the country. Nearly all who arrived during the 2017 influx sought shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar District.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Digital Security Act, to charge individuals for acts perceived to be a slight against Islam. The Information and Communication Act criminalizes several forms of online expression, including “obscene material,” “expression(s) likely to cause deterioration of law and order,” and “statements hurting religious sentiments.” The Digital Security Act likewise criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” by denying bail and increasing penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of “destroying religious harmony”, the peaceful coexistence of religious communities, or creating discrimination on religious grounds.

Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB to approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB Director General has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation, or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence, Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, although the standards for this clearance are not transparent.

Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying the name being registered is not taken, and providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the National Security Intelligence; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; work plan; copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.

Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.

Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman.

Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Hindu women may inherit property under the law. Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.

Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Civil courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.

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

Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may neither be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.

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

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

The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state. In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, who fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.

According to law, if a lower court orders the death penalty, the High Court examines the verdict for confirmation of the punishment.

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

Government Practices

On March 12, according to media reports, a Bangladeshi Speedy Trial Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death four Muslim members of JMB, a violent extremist group, for their involvement in the 2016 killing of a Hindu priest. The victim, Jogeshwar Roy, chief priest at Sri Swanta Gouria Monastery, was stabbed to death while organizing prayers at the temple.

At year’s end, the death sentence of seven individuals for their roles in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka remained on appeal with the High Court. In November 2019, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced the seven, while acquitting an eighth defendant.

Legal proceedings against six suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. The trial began in the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in April 2019. In March, the trial proceedings stalled due to the absence of witnesses. In late March, authorities closed all courts until August due to the coronavirus outbreak, when the trial resumed. In November, two more witnesses provided testimony to the court, bringing the total witnesses to 24.

There was no progress in the court case regarding a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District; victims expressed frustration to media over the continued investigation into the incident.

Biplob Chandra Baidya, a Hindu man, remained imprisoned since October 2019 for anti-Islam messages posted to his Facebook account, which he stated was hacked. Rioters vandalized homes and religious temples following the postings.

According to press reports, in January, local authorities arrested a Baul folk singer, Shariat Sarker, for derogatory comments against religion and “hurting religious sentiments,” criminal offenses under the law. Baul singing incorporates elements of Tantra, Sufism, Vaishnavism, and Buddhism. Authorities arrested Sarker following a protest by more than 1,000 individuals and a complaint to police by a Muslim cleric. Authorities denied Sarkar bail at the first hearing of his case at the Tangail District Court on January 29. According to press reports, Sarkar spent six months in jail. In February, a lawyer accused another Baul folk singer, Rita Dewan, of making derogatory comments against Allah during a musical competition. After a video recording of the song went viral, she apologized. Criminal charges were brought against Dewan that same month, and following a police investigation, a court issued a warrant for her arrest in December.

In March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights requested the government to “urgently revise the Digital Security Act, to ensure that it is in line with international human rights laws and that it provides for checks and balances against arbitrary arrest, detention, and other undue restrictions of the rights of individuals to the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression and opinion.”

Human rights organizations reported a decrease in the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year. In 2019, there was a reported 54 percent decrease in reported cases of fatwa and village out-of-court arbitrations overall. Media attributed the decline to civil society activism. Fatwas, however, continued throughout the year, including a November edict issued against a sculpture honoring Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the country.

Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and provide guidance on the content of their sermons to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders again said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. The government maintained instructions to mosques to denounce extremism.

According to the Ministry of Land’s 2018-2019 report, the most recent figures available, as of 2018, authorities had adjudicated 26,791 of 114,749 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 12,190 of the cases, recovering 10,255 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 14,791 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the BHBCUC attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

Freedom House’s 2020 report assessed religious minorities remained underrepresented in politics and state agencies.

Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of religious minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 16.93 billion taka ($199.2 million) for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, which covers July 2020-June 2021. The budget included 14.25 billion taka ($167.6 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.12 billion taka ($95.5 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 1.435 billion taka ($16.9 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 46.8 million taka ($551,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2020-2021 budget, it received seven million taka ($82,400) to run its office.

Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. Some human rights activists said it was often difficult to determine whether these disputes and evictions were a result of deliberate government discrimination against religious minorities or of government inefficiency. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups continued to attribute lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities. Indigenous groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in particular, have large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. A portion of these communities speak tribal languages and do not speak Bangla, making it difficult to access government registrations and services and further disenfranchising these groups.

The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, celebrations during the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima. During the year, the government assisted places of worship implement COVID-19 precautions during major festivals.

President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities. In January, the Election Commission rescheduled local Dhaka elections after students and faith groups protested scheduling the election during a Hindu festival.

In January, the government said it would lift education restrictions for young Rohingya refugees. According to Minister of Foreign Affairs AK Abdul Momen, “We don’t want a lost generation of Rohingya. We want them to have education. They will follow Myanmar curricula.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools in the country remained closed beginning in March.

In September, Minister of Education Dipu Moni participated in an interreligious gathering on education, resilience, respect, and inclusion promoting what she termed the country’s history of religious harmony and tolerance for all faiths.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In October, according to police and local reports, a crowd of several hundred persons carrying sticks beat to death Abu Yunus Md Shahidunnabi Jewel and then set his body on fire. According to local press accounts, Jewel and a companion visited a mosque while away from his hometown, and while viewing the mosque’s Quran and Hadith, the Quran fell to the ground. A rumor quickly spread that Jewel had desecrated the sacred text. After a crowd attacked Jewel and his companion, officials attempted to protect them in the local government office. The crowd, however, broke into the office and grabbed Jewel. Although his companion successfully fled to the rooftop, Jewel was beaten to death. After Jewel was killed, according to eyewitnesses and video clips, the crowd burned his body while chanting, “Nara E Takbeer Allahu Akbar,” loosely translated as “Shout out loud, God is greatest.” The crowd also attacked law enforcement officers, and police opened fire in what was described as a measure to bring the situation under control, although no casualties were reported. Police authorities formed a government human rights investigation committee team that found after three days of review no evidence Jewel desecrated the Quran.

In late July, according to reports by Sufi leadership and a local media outlet, a Sufi follower named Soheil was stabbed to death in Gazipur, Dhaka. A local media report said criminals noticed Sohail outside a Sufi shrine, followed him, tied his arms and legs, then stabbed him in the stomach and disemboweled him. JMB claimed responsibility and published an online video of the killing. The following morning, the killers tied a brick to Sohail’s body and threw it over the Fakir Majnu Shah Bridge into the Shitalakhya River. While interrogating suspected JMB militants, the Dhaka Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit uncovered this incident and attempted to recover Sohail’s remains. According to Sufi leadership, Sohail was known for selling religious objects and conducting spiritual healings and had the nickname “Maizbhandar Sohail,” linking him with one of the major Sufi shrines in Bangladesh and potentially making him a target. Following the admission, the crime unit included this incident in its investigation into the JMB militants.

Also in July, major news outlets reported the exhuming and subsequent dumping of an Ahmadi Muslim infant’s body on the roadside in Brahmanbaria District. In a public statement, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community said the infant was born prematurely and died three days after birth. The bereaved family had buried the infant in a government cemetery, which according to the media reports caused local residents to become infuriated, not believing it appropriate to bury an Ahmadi Muslim’s body in a government cemetery for Muslims. After local residents exhumed the infant’s body, law enforcement responded to the incident and interviewed both the local residents and the family. Following intervention by law enforcement, the family agreed to rebury the infant in a separate Ahmadi cemetery. Human rights groups not associated with Ahmadiyya Islam termed the incident a “crude example of violence against religious minorities and abuse of human rights.”

According to the BHBCUC, communal attacks against ethnic and religious minorities occurred throughout the year, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. The BHBCUC counted 17 deaths in religious and ethnic minority communities between March and September. In June, the Bangladesh chapter of the World Hindu Federation released a press statement detailing a series of 30 incidents against Hindus in May. These included as many as four incidents in which Hindus were killed, according to the federation. The report also noted incidents of temple vandalism, forced conversion, rapes, and abductions of Hindu girls and women. In November, protesters demonstrated in Dhaka, Chattogram, and other parts of the country against communal attacks on minority religious communities. Saying government actions were not enough, protesters demanded tough action and accountability for perpetrators who they stated were harming religious harmony in the country.

In November, according to Hindu activist groups and widely reported in media, a Muslim crowd burned, looted, and vandalized Hindu family homes in Cumilla District, Chattogram Division. Local press outlets reported the crowd was incited by rumors that local Hindu residents supported the publication in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, initially published in 2015 and reprinted in France in September. In remarks to the press, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan promised “stern, punitive actions” against the culprits and increased police presence in the affected village following the attack. By the end of the year, police arrested 16 suspects in connection with the violence.

According to press reports, in January, unknown persons attacked several Rohingya Christian families at the Kutupalong Maga refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar. Although the reasons for the attack were unknown, one of the Christian refugees said intolerance against the Christian faith was the cause. According to Refugee Relief and Reparation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder, 25 Christian families were transferred to another camp following the attack.

According to media reports, in July, individuals destroyed and forcefully removed the bamboo fence bordering a 200-year-old Hindu temple to the god Shiva and privately owned land in Dighirjan Village of Pirojpur District, in an attempt to take possession of the land. The landowner said no arrests or charges were made in connection with this incident.

The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights NGOs continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism. The NGOs said individuals commonly associated a person’s faith with his or her surname. In spite of constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths, according to the Christian Welfare Trust, when someone’s professed faith deviated from the faith tradition commonly linked with his or her surname, particularly if the professed faith was Christianity, harassment, threats, and social isolation could ensue.

NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. In October, the Mro tribe, a majority Buddhist group, protested the development of a tourist hotel on Chimbuk Hill, Bandabarban, stating the project would displace tens of thousands of Mro from their ancestral land. According to NGO and press reports, the Mro acquiesced to handing over 20 acres of land believing it would be used for cultivation purposes. However, they later discovered an agreement between the Army Welfare Trust, a fund for Bangladesh Army officials, and a private Bangladesh company to construct a high-end hotel. The Mro said they were deceived when discussing the intended use of the property and did not relinquish their rights to the land.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives regularly met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights into security policy and stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from extremist attacks.

During the year, the United States provided nearly $349 million in assistance for programs to assist Rohingya refugees and host communities in the country, emphasizing U.S. support for protecting vulnerable religious minority groups.

As part of U.S.-funded training for community policing, the embassy specifically encouraged law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.

Public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year, including a virtual roundtable held on November 24 that brought together leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths. During the discussion, participants discussed reports of rising communal attacks against religious minorities and how the United States could assist in protecting religious minorities. On December 18, Department of State and embassy officials participated in a virtual meeting with Hindus and Christians, including the Bangladeshi diaspora community in the United States, to similarly discuss rising communal attacks, possible causal factors, and appropriate response measures. Embassy officials attended religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. On November 18, the Ambassador visited the Hindu Sri Siddeswari National Temple and met with temple leadership to discuss COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact on the Hindu community.

The embassy used social media throughout the year to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On October 27, U.S. International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy posted social media messages highlighting the U.S. government’s commitment to advancing religious freedom.

Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, BHBCUC, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, International Buddhist Monastery of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation. In these often virtual meetings, embassy and other U.S. government officials and representatives from the various groups discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, underscored the importance of religious tolerance, and identified challenges religious minorities encountered.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief. The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.” The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity among religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction by the government. The government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO) approved 14 religious groups during the year, but none from religious minority groups. Hindu leaders cited continued public support for the construction of Hindu temples from the highest level of government, including the new temple in the capital in 2019. There were no reports of unregistered religious groups, including Christians, being unable to worship in private, although such groups were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. The international Christian NGO Open Doors continued to list the country on its annual World Watch List. The report for 2021 (which covered events in 2020) alleged discrimination against Christians, stating that religious nationalism created broad pressure for citizens to follow Buddhism. Pastors cited acquiring permanent Christian burial plots as a continuing challenge. Leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai, one of eight religious organizations on the board of the CRO, cited strong official support for Hindu religious practice, including royal support for the construction of Hindu temples and participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.

NGOs reported continued societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors reported, “All Bhutanese citizens are expected to be Buddhists. Anyone who converts to Christianity is watched with suspicion, and pressure is usually put on them to bring them back to their former religion.”

The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country or a diplomatic presence there. Officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged virtually with both government and nongovernment figures on issues including freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities. Unlike in previous years, U.S. government officials were unable to visit the country during the year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 782,000 (mid-year 2020 estimate). According to a 2012 report (the most recent) by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Buddhism, and Hindus make up approximately 23 percent of the total population. Hindus reside mostly in southern areas adjacent to India. The 2020 report by the World Christian Database estimates that Buddhists comprised 83 percent of the population and Hindus 11 percent in 2019. The government does not publish statistics on religious demography.

According to a Pew Research Center report in 2012 and the Open Doors 2021 World Watch List, estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 0.5 to 3.6 percent of the total population. Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south. According to scholars, although traditional Bon practices are often combined with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition. The Sharchop ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to scholars.

Most of Bhutan’s foreign workers come from India. In 2019, India’s Ministry of External Affairs estimated that 60,000 Indian nationals lived in the country and 8,000 to 10,000 additional temporary workers entered the country daily. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Indian residents left the country and entry of foreign workers was greatly limited. While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most foreign workers are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and bans discrimination based on faith. The constitution says the King must be Buddhist and requires the King to be the “protector of all religions.”

The constitution states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” The penal code criminalizes “coercion or inducement to convert” as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Neither “coercion” nor “inducement to convert” is defined in law or regulation.

The law prohibits oral or written communication “promoting enmity among religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations.

The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” among religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment.

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

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

Unregistered religious groups may not organize public religious services, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. Penalties for unregistered organizations performing these activities range from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense. The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally. The CRO has the authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading and whether it has raised funds illegally. Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.

The law states the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities. The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the Prime Minister, who as of early 2020 was also the Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs. A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the King’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board. The director of culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves ex officio as secretary. Heads of Buddhist religious organizations and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya, a registered Hindu organization, occupy the remaining seats. The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”

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

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

Government approval is required to construct religious buildings. By law, all buildings, including religious structures, must adhere to traditional architectural standards. The CRO determines conformity with these standards.

The constitution states religious institutions have the responsibility to ensure religion remains separate from the state. It states, “Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.” The law prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity. Ordained members of the clergy of any religion may not engage in political activities, including running for office and voting.

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

Government Practices

Open Doors continued to list the country on its annual World Watch List with respect to discrimination against Christians, stating that religious nationalism creates broad pressure for citizens to follow Buddhism, especially from family members who sometimes see converting to Christianity as bringing shame on the family and who disown Christian family members.

The CRO approved 14 religious groups during the year, but none were from religious minorities. There are approximately 140 Buddhist groups, two Hindu groups, and no Christian groups registered by the government.

The CRO continued not to approve the pending registration request of any church, which, according to Open Doors, Christians “are technically worshipping illegally,” although Christian pastors reported they were generally able to worship in private. The government did not offer any official explanation to these groups for not registering them.

There were no reports of authorities threatening or forcing house churches to close during the year. One pastor reported that some new home Christian fellowships opened during the year. He said that he was not aware of any cases of the government persecuting religious minorities in the country during the year, in part because COVID-19 restrictions limited gatherings and movement. Open Doors’ 2021 report noted that “Buddhist monks oppose the presence of Christians. In general, local officials overlook this opposition.”

Christian pastors cited acquiring permanent Christian burial plots as a continuing challenge. The community was allowed to purchase one small plot of land for burials in 2019, but access was restricted, and government officials continued to press the community to cremate their dead instead of burying them “due to lack of space in the small country.” Pastors noted that Christians had less access to radio and television broadcasts and fewer officially endorsed public celebrations than the Hindu community. They also said the Christian community believed that ambiguities in religious affairs laws on “inducements” to conversion could be used to penalize the celebration of Christian religious services if they appeared to be proselytizing, which is illegal.

Open Doors’ 2021 report again said that Christians often faced difficulties in obtaining “nonobjection certificates” from local authorities that were required for loan and employment applications and property registration.

The King supported Hindu temples by allotting them land and funding and by participating in Hindu festivals. The King has also participated in the opening ceremony of a new Hindu temple in 2019. Hindu leaders reported increasing religious acceptance, in part due to the King’s public outreach to the Hindu community.

The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries. According to Minority Rights Group International, authorities gave Buddhist temples priority over Hindu temples in the licensing process.

The India-based Hindu organization Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that Hindu groups took a “cautious policy” toward the government due to the government’s delay in formally recognizing additional Hindu organizations. VHP said, however, that the government had a “better relationship with the predominantly Nepalese Hindus.”

Some courts and other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries. Some religious groups stated that government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and characterized persecution of Christians as “very high.” According to Open Doors’ report for 2021, “Buddhism is engrained in daily life in Bhutan, and anyone who leaves Buddhism to follow Jesus is viewed with suspicion by neighbors, friends, and even immediate family.” The report said that “family members go to great lengths to bring the [Christian] convert back to his or her original faith.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States does not have a diplomatic presence in the country and does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with the government. Unlike in previous years, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, U.S. officials were unable to visit the country during the year. Officers from the embassy in New Delhi, however, engaged virtually with government officials on issues including freedom of religious practices and the treatment of religious minorities. Embassy officers also remained in contact with religious leaders on relations between religious groups and the government and the impact of COVID-19 on religious practices.

Brunei

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.” The government enforces the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which includes offenses, such as apostasy and blasphemy, punishable by corporal and capital punishment, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. A 2019 de facto moratorium on the death penalty continued during the year. 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 the SPC, the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia. The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued its official ban of religious groups it considers “deviant,” including Ahmadi Islam, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government did not ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT), which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014, but the Foreign Minister reported the ratification process was ongoing. Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) enforcement officers deported a U.S. citizen in February for publicly proselytizing for a religion other than Islam. Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minorities reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019 but noted that the law continued to impose restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims. In March, the government announced that all places of worship would be closed to counter the spread of COVID-19. Some observers noted MORA neglected to announce the reopening of non-Islamic houses of worship when it announced the reopening of the country’s mosques in June, instead relying on the Ministry of Health to pass on the information. In September, the Sultan publicly reprimanded MORA for the slow pace of proselytizing in the country’s rural districts, where indigenous religious beliefs are prevalent, and for budget mismanagement. Members of the LGBTI community reported that MORA summoned transgender individuals to its offices and demanded that they maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of the reported cases. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation.

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, which were less prevalent than after introduction of the SPC in 2019, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments asking whether adhering so closely to Islam, the Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) national philosophy, and MORA’s policies was slowing the country’s development, and whether the large amount of required religious education was impeding secular academic studies. 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. Numerous individuals from throughout society praised the announcement that Roman Catholic Bishop Cornelius Sim had been created a Cardinal.

The Charge dAffaires and other embassy officers engaged throughout the year with senior government officials regarding the effects of the SPC, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority rights. The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities. Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy. U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC. Embassy officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of various 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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 464,000 (midyear 2020 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 2019 official statistics (the most recent), ethnic Malay citizens comprise 66 percent of the population and are defined by law as Muslims from birth. 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, Murut, and Iban, make up approximately four 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 other South Asian countries. 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 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. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty, announced by the Sultan in 2019, continued during the year.

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 is 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 MORA leads investigations of 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. 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 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 most non-Sunni forms of Islam and 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 officials state 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 children younger than 14 years and seven months 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) ($7,600), 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 ($15,100), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam as well as 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, and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.

Ministry of Education schools are required to teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children between the ages of seven and 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. Non-Muslim students are still required to take MIB classes.

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 (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

MORA enforcement officers deported a U.S. citizen in February for publicly proselytizing for a religion other than Islam, an offense that under the SPC is punishable by a fine not exceeding 20,000 BND ($15,100), imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or both. The head of MORA’s Enforcement Division stated that MORA officers followed a precedent set by a past proselytizing case, which had also resulted in deportation, but he also said that maintaining good relations with the United States was a factor in the decision to deport the man instead of arresting him.

The government did not ratify the UNCAT, which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014. The Foreign Minister reported, however, that the government was in the ratification process.

In March, the Sharia High Court issued its first verdict in a case of “causing hurt” – an offense under the SPC roughly equivalent to assault. The court sentenced the accused, a Bruneian Muslim man, to five years’ imprisonment, and for the first time since the implementation of the SPC, the judge ordered the accused to pay “blood money” of 91,516 BND ($69,200) to compensate the victim.

In January, a sharia judge dropped the 2019 case of two Vietnamese men who were the first non-Muslim foreigners to be charged in the sharia courts for “causing hurt” after both parties reached an out-of-court settlement.

In April, all sharia courts ceased operations due to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, sharia courts resumed operations mostly to hear routine cases of theft and khalwat.

Non-Muslims continued to note that the SPC imposed restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. Some non-Muslims described the existence of the SPC itself 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.

In March, the government announced that all places of worship would be closed to counter the spread of COVID-19. Senior members of minority religions reported good communications from the Ministry of Health about the rules for closing and reopening churches and places of worship. Some observers noted MORA neglected to announce the reopening of non-Islamic houses of worship when it announced the reopening of the country’s mosques in June, instead relying on the Ministry of Health to pass on the information, which it did soon after.

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, including by permitting non-Islamic churches to operate and allowing non-Muslim religious minorities to gather in private churches.

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. Government data from 2015, the latest available, indicated there were 99 registered mosques.

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 country’s sole Chinese Buddhist 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.

In December, the human rights NGO Jubilee Campaign wrote to the U.S. Secretary of State to report that MORA sent officials to ensure that a ban on Christmas decorations was enforced around the country. In practice, however, people were able to celebrate Christmas and decorate their private residences. There were no reports of shops or restaurants being warned by MORA for displaying decorations.

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 the import of non-Islamic religious texts, 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 officials 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 continued to state that a longstanding fatwa discouraging Muslims from supporting non-Islamic faiths inhibited the expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities; in accordance with the fatwa, government officials slowed or did not process building plans and permits for churches. Christian religious groups said that authorities generally only 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 and associated school 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, the last built in the 1960s before the country gained independence, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Several sources reported that schools associated with Christian churches had to pay government business taxes despite being nonprofit organizations. This measure was not applied to other nonprofit private schools with no religious affiliations. The Chinese temple was also subject to the same fatwa. 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.

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 Ministry of Education and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no warnings in the press to local restaurants not to serve dine-in customers during fasting hours for Ramadan as in past years. Throughout the year, the government enforced restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers.

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 continued to offer incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing and welfare assistance. The government allocated travel funding so that those who could not participate in the Hajj due to COVID-19 travel restrictions during the year could do so in the future. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. According to government statistics, 293 individuals converted to Islam during the year, approximately the same as the previous year. 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).

In a rare instance, during a surprise inspection in September, the Sultan publicly admonished MORA for the slow pace of Muslim proselytization in the rural districts, budget shortfalls, general poor performance, and poor management of the zakat (annual almsgiving) fund.

Members of the LGBTI community reported in September that MORA summoned transsexual individuals to its offices and demanded that they maintain the gender listed on their birth certificate, although no threats of punishment were made in any of these reported cases. Other members of the LGBTI community reported family members had been contacted by MORA and questioned on the individuals’ sexuality.

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. Some 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 or gender identity, since they believed it would bring shame on their families for violating religious mores.

The local press reported in November the announcement from the Holy See that the Apostolic Vicar of Brunei, Bishop Cornelius Sim, had been created a Cardinal. On social media, a cross-section of society praised the move. The government made no statement about Sim’s elevation.

In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, which were less prevalent than after introduction of the SPC in 2019, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments asking whether adhering so closely to Islam, the MIB national philosophy, and MORA’s policies was slowing the country’s development and whether the large amount of required religious education was impeding secular academic studies. Social media outlets such as Reddit and Facebook remained the only source of open public discussion on religion and the government.

Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion 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 if they were not young enough to have been automatically converted with their parents. Some non-Muslims said they continued to feel pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam. While the SPC outlined harsh punishments for converting to another religion from Islam, there were no known cases of the government applying those penalties. Non-Muslims reported, however, that government officials observed their religious services and events to ensure that no Muslims attended and that there was no anti-Muslim messaging.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers engaged senior government officials regarding the effects of the SPC, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority rights. In these engagements, the Charge d’Affaires and 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. The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials frequently met with government and religious leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC for the non-Muslim community and the limitations placed on the open practice of other religions. Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy.

U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC. Embassy officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of various 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.

China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws on minors’ participation in religious activities. The government continued to assert control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,600 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. According to the annual report of The Church of the Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 7,000 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions. The CAG reported some individuals died in custody or as a result of police harassment. Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, where authorities beat them and forced them to take medication. Authorities detained and arrested religious leaders trying to hold services online. The government continued its 2019-2024 campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts, including, according to media, stories from the life of Jesus, to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the State. In September, United Front Work Department (UFWD) vice head and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) director general Wang Zuo’an announced foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, and maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong. From January to July, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID restrictions. There were reports the government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase the surveillance and arrest of religious practitioners, including members of state-sanctioned groups, and to curtail private worship among religious groups. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized publishing and copying businesses that handled religious materials. Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country. The government removed architectural features that identified churches and mosques as religious sites. It altered textbooks to delete references to religious holidays. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In October, the Holy See extended for another two years its 2018 provisional agreement with the government concerning the appointment of bishops. Critics stated the agreement did not alleviate government pressure on Catholic clergy to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture, while promoting ethnic Han individuals in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread.

In multiple public speeches, the U.S. Secretary of State criticized the government for curtailing religious freedom. In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four Chinese leaders and additional PRC entities pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. During the year, the U.S. government added 20 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List that were implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing the visa restrictions, the Secretary of State said, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” The U.S. also prohibited import of merchandise believed to have been produced in Xinjiang with forced labor. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country. An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than one percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020 report, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. The SCIO report states there are six million Catholics, although media and international NGO estimates suggest there are 10-12 million, approximately half of whom practice in churches not affiliated with the CCPA. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uyghur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 14.9 million residents, or 60 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimate tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates there are seven to 20 million practitioners.

Some ethnic minorities follow traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as an expression of “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but it limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining normal. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in or do not believe in any religion.” The constitution states, “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution. Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

The CCP is responsible for creating religious regulations and oversees the UFWD, which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities. SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations and administers the provincial and local bureaus of religious affairs.

CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practice. Members found to belong to religious organizations are subject to expulsion, although these rules are not universally enforced. The vast majority of public office holders are CCP members, and membership is widely considered a prerequisite for success in a government career. These restrictions on religious belief and practice also apply to retired CCP members.

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups. Criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison. There are no published criteria for determining or procedures for challenging such a designation. A national security law also explicitly bans cult organizations.

The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other organizations. The government continues to ban the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy) and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.” The government also considers several Christian groups to be “cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of the Almighty God (CAG, also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

The Counterterrorism Law describes “religious extremism” as the ideological basis of terrorism; it uses “distorted religious teachings or other means to incite hatred or discrimination, or advocate violence.”

The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Regulations require religious organizations to register with the government. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations are permitted to register, and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. The five associations, which operate under the direction of the CCP’s UFWD, are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (TSPM), and the CCPA. Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See, are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations. Registration information is only required once, but religious organizations must reregister if changes are made to the required documentation.

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in June, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code. The revisions formalized the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions. Previously, bank accounts and real estate holdings were commonly held in the name of individual staff members, making it difficult in some cases for authorities to separate the financial matters of members from those of the religious institution.

Religious and other regulations permit official patriotic religious associations to engage in activities such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities. The CCP’s UFWD, including SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

Government policy allows religious groups to engage in charitable work, but regulations specifically prohibit faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities require faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once they are registered as official charities, authorities allow them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government does not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government requires faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of their registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often require these groups to affiliate with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

Article 70 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.” Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100 and $30,600). Illegally obtained income connected to the travel may be seized and “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

The regulations specify that no religious structure, including clergy housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. SARA regulations place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions, and they state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,300) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

The regulations require that religious activity “must not harm national security” or support “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling the credentials of clergy.

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations. Many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect. In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, may permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices. In Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces, for example, local governments allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.

SARA states, in a policy posted on its website, that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government. A provision states, however, that religious organizations should report the establishment of a religious site to the government for approval.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody. However, the PRC defines the right to religious faith differently than the right to religious activities, such as prayer facilities and access to clergy. Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states that no state unit, social organization, or individual may force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion. Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 criminalize the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments or symbols; doing so is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release, and a concurrent fine. Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

Publication and distribution of literature containing religious content must follow guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. Online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups require prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools.

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must first receive approval from the religious affairs department of the local government when the facility is proposed, and again before services are first held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space. Therefore, every time such groups want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel room or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for that specific service. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, gained either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity and is subject to criminal or administrative penalties.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or the construction of “key” projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local bureau of religious affairs (guided by SARA) and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or to provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules varied widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students. The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the XUAR state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities. No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.” Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues. Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.” Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

The law states job applicants shall not face discrimination in hiring based on religious belief.

On February 1, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism. Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With respect to Macau, the central government notified the UN Secretary-General, in part, that residents of Macau shall not be restricted in the rights and freedoms they are entitled to unless otherwise provided for by law, and in case of restrictions, the restrictions shall not contravene the ICCPR. With respect to Hong Kong, the central government notified the Secretary-General, in part, that the ICCPR would also apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Government Practices

Police continued to arrest and otherwise detain leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention. Authorities reportedly used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.

Sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities had targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,492 individuals imprisoned for “organizing or using a ‘cult’ to undermine implementation of the law.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that according to a government source, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a confidential document in September ordering a nationwide, three-year crackdown on the CAG. The campaign outlined three main goals: “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad.” Bitter Winter reported increased arrests of Church members following the issuance of this document, including 71 arrests in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province, in September and 160 arrests in Nanyang City, Henan Province, on November 10 alone.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 42,807 church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 32,815 in 2019. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 35,752 church members (at least 26,683 in 2019), arrested 7,055 (6,132 in 2019), detained 4,045 (4,161 in 2019), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 5,587 (3,824 in 2019), sentenced 1,098 (1,355 in 2019), and seized at least RMB 270 million ($41.3 million) in church and personal assets. At least 21 church members died as a result of abuse or persecution (19 in 2019). The 21 included four who died as a result of physical abuse or forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and four who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the CAG annual report, in August, a woman named Qin Shiqin died in custody in Shandong Province 10 days after her arrest. Facial swelling and blood in the corners of her mouth could be seen on her remains. A 71-year-old woman identified as “Xiang Chen” died in prison in Sichuan Province while serving a three-year sentence because of her faith. Her remains appeared emaciated, her face was swollen and bruised, and a scar was visible under her nose. A man named Zou Jihuang died in custody in Hubei Province of liver cirrhosis. Zou had been arrested in 2017. During his imprisonment, he had developed a liver condition for which he was denied medical treatment, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor. In Shaanxi Province, a 77-year-old woman named Yang Fengying committed suicide after police went to her home multiple times over the course of three years to intimidate and threaten her.

According to the CAG annual report, at least 847 CAG members were arrested between February and April, many of whom were apprehended as a result of the CCP’s antipandemic household checks or at identity card checkpoints. Police extracted information on the church from these individuals through physical abuse, such as administering electric shocks and handcuffing them painfully, with one arm over a shoulder and one twisted up from below.

Media reported authorities used measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups. The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic. According to media reports, the government conducted door-to-door household inspections, during which they identified and arrested members of banned religious groups. One CAG member said she hid under the bed every time officials came for an inspection. A government employee in Shandong Province said his superiors ordered him to search for nonlocal tenants, particularly members of banned groups, such as the CAG and Falun Gong.

In May, Bitter Winter reported the political and legal affairs commission of a locality in northeastern China released a document stating the CCP had established “a stability maintenance mechanism” targeting religious groups, among other individuals and groups, that the government determined posed “a danger to social stability” during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that between February and March, authorities used COVID-19-related mandatory identification checks and home inspections to arrest 325 CAG members. In February, authorities arrested two church members during an identification check, searched their home, and confiscated RMB 45,000 ($6,900) of church valuables. During interrogation, officers reportedly placed a plastic bag over the head of one of the Church members and beat him. They also strapped him to a “tiger bench” with his body tied in a stress position and shocked him with an electric baton. According to Bitter Winter, another church member was arrested when a pandemic inspection team that included community representatives, health personnel, and police officers came to his home. During his interrogation, officers reportedly covered his mouth with a plastic bag and hit him on the face with a desk calendar, stepped on his feet, beat his calves with an iron rod, and forced him to hold a live electric baton.

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,659 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed 8,576 practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith, compared with 6,109 arrested and 3,582 harassed in 2019. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted. Those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, authors, and dancers. Minghui stated individuals were tortured in custody. Minghui also reported that authorities sentenced 622 practitioners to prison throughout the country during the year. The sentences ranged from three months to 14 years, with the average sentence being three years and four months.

Minghui reported that during the year, 83 individuals from 20 provinces and centrally controlled municipalities died due to being persecuted for being Falun Gong practitioners. Some individuals died in custody as a result of physical abuse, including being deprived of sleep and food, forced into stress positions, and denied proper medical attention. Others died shortly after being released on medical parole. On May 13, authorities in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, arrested Zhang Zhiwen for distributing Falun Gong materials the previous August. Zheng’s husband attempted to bring her clothes and insulin for her diabetes, but authorities refused to accept the items, saying they would provide her medication. Zheng died in custody on May 17 and authorities sent the body directly to a funeral home without notifying her husband. Falun Gong practitioner Li Ling of Dazhangjia Village, Penglai City, Shandong Province, died on July 13 after reportedly being severely beaten following her arrest on June 28. Village authorities forced her family to cremate her remains on the same day. According to her family, her face was deformed, and she was covered in bruises. The village’s CCP secretary and a group of paramilitary soldiers took Li from her home on June 28 after a fellow villager reported seeing her with dozens of Falun Gong booklets.

According to Minghui, on September 22 and 23, authorities in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, arrested 27 Falun Gong practitioners and three family members who were not practitioners, and confiscated books, laptops, printers, money, photographs of Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi, and other personal items. Authorities harassed eight other practitioners within days of the arrests. One practitioner returned home to find police ransacking her home. They confiscated books on Falun Gong and arrested the woman along with her husband, who was not a practitioner. Following a group arrest of Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun City, Jilin Province, in July, police beat one practitioner, hit his head against the wall, and dragged him around on the concrete floor. He suffered severe injuries to his knees as a result.

According to Bitter Winter, on May 18, authorities assaulted several individuals who were protesting the demolition of a Buddhist temple in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, that authorities declared was “a dilapidated building.” Police beat one woman for filming the scene. A witness said, “Three officers pressed her to the ground, hitting her collarbones until she lost consciousness, and the phone was destroyed.” Police injured a monk in his 70s for waving his walking stick at authorities and accused him of “assaulting the police.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report, Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ-transplant market. A related series of articles published during the year examining the country’s organ transplantation system questioned the plausibility of official government statistics about the sourcing of transplant organs, stating there was an overlap between medical personnel performing organ transplants and individuals involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign.

On March 1, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal established by the Australia-based NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, released its Full Judgment on the conditions of organ harvesting in the country. The report was a fuller account with appendices of the evidence the nongovernmental group had drawn on and methodology it had used to reach conclusions contained in its Short Form Conclusions and Summary Judgment report issued in June 2019. In the Full Judgment report, the group included accounts by individuals, including medical personnel, who stated they were eyewitnesses to abuses, including from medical personnel, and other evidence that documented what the NGO determined to be a decades-long and ongoing state-run program of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, principally Falun Gong practitioners. The Full Judgment report also contained eyewitness accounts from Falun Gong and Uyghur individuals of involuntary medical examinations, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, and DNA tests.

According to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated news organization, on August 2, authorities broke into the home of a Falun Gong practitioner, pinned her down, and forcibly took a sample of her blood, telling her it was “required by the state.” One officer shouted, “The law does not apply to you. We’re going to wipe you all out.” The Epoch Times stated that dozens of other practitioners across the country reported similar incidents. On July 22, authorities in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, arrested and took blood samples from 46 practitioners. An attorney familiar with the cases said the blood sampling did not appear to be a routine physical checkup but rather was illegally “collecting people’s biological samples.”

According to the CAG annual report, harassment of members included the collection of biological data, such as blood samples and hair.

In April, Bitter Winter reported instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. According to a staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it was hospital practice to begin “treatment” of CAG members as soon as they were brought in, without any tests or examination. According to a member of the Church from Tianmen City, Hubei Province, who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital, “A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests.” Nurses threatened to tie her up if she refused to take medication. One former patient said two doctors pressed her down on a desk and shocked her on the back, hands, and feet with an electric baton to force her to take medication. During the month she was in the hospital, doctors administered six electroshock treatments, causing her to suffer memory loss and numbness in her limbs. She said doctors threatened that her son’s job would be negatively affected if she continued to practice her faith.

International religious media outlets and human rights groups reported that local authorities in several districts around the country continued to award compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners from certain groups or confiscating donation money. Conversely, local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, a government employee from Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter the municipal government issued arrest quotas for CAG members to subordinate localities, leading to the arrest of 211 individuals. In Jiangxi Province, the police arrested 116 CAG members and confiscated RMB 378,000 ($57,800) of church and personal assets. Minghui reported police received an unknown amount of bonus pay for each Falun Gong practitioner arrested.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities raided the homes of and arrested at least eight members of the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during an online worship service on April 12, Easter Sunday. A pastor and a deputy deacon were among those arrested. According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), authorities continued to harass members in the weeks following the raid. On April 24, authorities took Church member Ran Yunfei to a police station shortly before he was scheduled to speak in an online service. He returned home later that same day. The NGO ChinaAid reported police summoned Ran again in November in connection with his participation in another online religious seminar.

The ICC reported that on May 23, authorities arrested a pastor from the Nanjing Road Church in Wuhan, Hebei Province, during an online evangelism event in which he was taking part. They interrogated him for approximately five hours before releasing him.

According to Bitter Winter, in February, police arrested 13 members of the Born Again Movement, also called the All Sphere or All Range Church, in Huai’an City, Jiangsu Province. Five of the members arrested were elderly and suffered from various illnesses. Police released the five after protests from their relatives but forced them to sign statements promising to stop their church activities. Police also came to the home of another church member who hosted church gatherings at her home and threatened to arrest her if she did not stop doing so. They said three generations of her descendants would be unable to take college entrance examinations, enroll in the army, or become public servants if she did not stop. The officers took samples of her blood and prints of her fingers and palms.

According to AsiaNews.it, on April 2, authorities took Zhao Huaiguo, founder and pastor of the Bethel Church in Cili County, Hunan Province, from his home and arrested him on a charge of “inciting subversion against state power.” Police returned to his apartment on April 15 to confiscate books, Bibles, and photocopies of books as evidence of “illegal trade” in books. His wife said he was likely arrested because he spoke to foreign news agencies about COVID-19 and had not affiliated his church with the TSPM church. ChinaAid reported the Zhangjiajie Intermediate Court tried Zhao in October for “inciting subversion of state power,” and prosecutors recommended an 18-month sentence.

In May, the ICC reported that authorities transferred Pastor Wang Yi of the ERCC from Chengdu City Detention Center to a prison in an unknown location. In December 2019, Wang had been sentenced to nine years in prison. According to the ICC, since his arrest, authorities had denied Wang’s parents the ability to visit him, either in person or virtually, despite their having the legal right to do so, and Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location under surveillance.

At year’s end, the whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police had detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups. In September, the NGO Jubilee Campaign submitted a written statement to the 45th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the government to “release unconditionally and with immediate effect all political and religious prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng.” Gao’s daughter, Geng Ge, submitted a video statement to the council, stating, “As of today, I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

In October, ChinaAid reported that since July, police in Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, had threatened and harassed Pastor Wang Hai of the Trinity Church and his wife and detained other church leaders and members of Wang’s extended family. Wang said authorities had targeted the Church because its members belonged to the ethnic Miao minority and were Christian. He said that due to the ongoing harassment, church attendance had dropped from 100 worshippers to only a handful who attended Sunday services.

AsiaNews.it reported that on September 1, authorities from the Religious Affairs Bureau in Fujian Province arrested Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of the Mindong Diocese, and held him incommunicado for 17 days to pressure him to join the CCPA. At least 20 underground priests in the region faced similar pressure from the religious affairs bureau, according to AsiaNews.it.

According to RFA, on April 19 and May 3, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Church pastor Yang Xibo told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM. According to multiple international press reports and mobile phone videos that Church members posted to Twitter, authorities forcibly entered a private residence in which Church members were holding a worship service, without a warrant or showing any form of identification. Authorities seized several congregants and tried to drag them out, injuring three; they detained at least nine members, releasing them approximately 12 hours later. According to RFA, authorities raided Xingguang Church again on June 11, taking away furniture and other church belongings, but did not arrest anyone. ChinaAid stated authorities broke into church members’ homes on July 22, destroying and removing property.

In January, RFA reported that authorities in Jinan City, Shandong Province, arrested Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country. He was held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” According to RFA, this charge was “frequently leveled at peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

The Falun Dafa Information Center, a Falun Gong rights advocacy group, reported authorities in Beijing detained at least 40 persons ahead of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on May 22. Sources said police also harassed practitioners and searched their homes and that police told the individuals they were taking the actions because of the upcoming political meetings. On April 21, police forcibly entered the home of Wang Yuling by prying open her window. They ransacked the house and confiscated books and printed materials related to Falun Gong, as well as a printer and computer. They took Wang and her daughter into custody. On April 27, authorities forcibly entered the home of Yang Yuliang, searched it, and confiscated Falun Gong books and photographs of Falun Gong’s founder. They held Yang and his daughter, Yang Dandan, in custody for three days.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities pressuring members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. Media reported the government threatened to withhold social welfare benefits and to retaliate against family members. The NGO CSW stated authorities instructed schools to report the religious beliefs of students and staff.

Bitter Winter reported that on November 1, the government began the seventh national population census, collecting a broad range of personal and household data, including individuals’ identification numbers. According to several census takers, although there were no questions about religion on the census questionnaire, they were instructed when visiting people’s homes to pay attention to religious materials and symbols and to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue. In one case, when five census takers entered a home in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, they saw a Bible and asked the residents if they were Christian. They determined the home was being used as a house church and ordered the residents to stop hosting gatherings. A census taker in Yantai City, Shandong Province, said local police told him and his colleagues to report any households with images associated with Falun Gong. A census taker in Heze City, Shandong Province, said he was ordered to report to police any person who did not allow him inside the home, because refusal might indicate the person held religious beliefs or hosted unauthorized religious gatherings.

According to the ICC, on October 11, police arrested Elder Li Yingqiang of the ERCC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, just before the church began an online service. During the arrest, police also threatened Li’s two young children. Police also arrested another church member, Jia Xuewei, and interrogated him for several hours about ERCC’s recent spiritual retreat and the worship that was about to take place. Both were released later that day. An ERCC member told the ICC that authorities likely detained Li and Jia to prevent the online service from taking place. According to the source, police told Li he would be taken from his home every week and that they would target his children if he posted about his experience online.

According to Bitter Winter, during the year, authorities in several provinces investigated the personal backgrounds of civil servants, hospital staff, teachers, students, and the family members of each to determine their religious status. In May, the Education Bureau of Jinan City, Shandong Province, required some primary and secondary schools to determine if any of their teachers, students, or their family members were religious.

There continued to be no uniform procedures for registering religious adherents. The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the state-sanctioned religious associations. Only government-accredited religious personnel could conduct such activities, and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. The April 2018 white paper by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) stated there were approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 were Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.

The 2018 SCIO white paper stated that by 2017, there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA: 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic, and 21 Protestant. Students younger than 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country: 222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered or, at other times, because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader. According to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, Article 34 of the new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups regulation, which governs money and finances, if enforced, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations, promulgated in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” According to Bitter Winter, on April 13, the UFWD in Zibo City, Shandong Province, issued an order calling on religious groups and clergy to write essays on their “love for the country and the Communist Party.” A Catholic dean in Zibo said that on April 16, a religious affairs bureau official told him to study Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Congress of the CCP for an examination he would have to take later. On February 18, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province issued a notice that the city’s religious groups should hold events to advance Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, the TSPM in Fujian Province issued a document stating, “Posters promoting the core socialist values shall be posted in prominent positions in all church venues. Clergy members should highlight the core socialist values in their sermons and use important festivals, major events, and other occasions to interpret and publicize the core socialist values, so that they are inserted into believers’ minds, their Sunday worship services, and daily lives.” Local government authorities reportedly threatened to close churches whose clergy refused to help spread government propaganda.

According to Bitter Winter, the government regularly pressured clergy to incorporate government messages into sermons. Following President Xi’s call in August to curb food waste in the country, two Chinese Christian Councils of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, demanded all TSPM churches integrate the president’s ideas into their sermons, so that “the policy reaches everyone in society.” In response, some clergy members reportedly integrated the president’s exhortation into the Biblical story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country. Many religious groups faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances. Following investigations, authorities shut down hundreds of churches that were reportedly unregistered or whose registration had not been updated under the new regulations. In late 2019, the Jilin Province Religious Affairs Bureau issued a document calling for investigations of churches related to or funded by overseas religious groups and blocking their activities online, and it began implementing these measures during the year. In Shandong Province, national security officers interrogated a house church pastor in February for evangelical activities abroad.

The government media outlet Xinhua reported that in September, UFWD vice head and SARA director general Wang announced that in the previous 70 years, through the development of the TSPM, foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in the country.

On May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association held a training session for Buddhist professionals and monks across the province. The training included advising monks on how to implement religious Sinicization, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National Religious Work Conference, and the religious affairs regulations.

The BAC-affiliated Buddhist website AmituofoCN.com reported that on April 16, approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized by the Hainan Province UFWD, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School. Participants studied the principles of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the Regulations on Religious Affairs. Hainan UFWD deputy director general Liu Geng in his opening remarks told the religious professionals to “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.” According to AmituofoCN.com, on May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association organized another training session for clergy, teachers, and religious workers from various temples in the province. Song Xinghe, an official in the Hainan UFWD Religious Affairs Bureau, gave a lecture entitled, “Insistence on the Sinicization of Religion.”

According to Gospel Times, a Chinese Christian news website, from July 15 to 17, the Guangdong TSPM held a training session for 98 clergy to study new regulations and promote Sinicization in Guangdong Province. An associate professor from Jinling Union Theological Seminary gave a lecture on TSPM and the Sinicization of Christianity. Government officials also gave a lecture on “anticult” measures.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders. The publication reported that on July 20, the Dandong City Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province required TSPM clergy to participate in a sermon competition on the Sinicization of religion. The clergy were told to prepare sermons by “looking for elements in the Bible that are relevant to the core socialist values and traditional Chinese culture,” in conformity with “the progress of the times.” One clergy member told Bitter Winter that only competition participants would pass the annual review to receive a clergy certificate.

In August, a conference to study the new civil code and volume three of Xi Jinping on Governance was held at the Guangxiao Buddhist Temple, organized by the Guangdong Buddhist Association. Approximately 800 leaders of all religious groups in Guangdong Province attended in-person and virtually.

The state-owned China News Service reported that on December 1, SARA director general Wang delivered remarks at the 10th National Congress of the BAC. Wang called on the BAC to “pursue political progress toward the adherence of Sinicization of Buddhism” to ensure Buddhist content was suitable for “contemporary social development.”

From August 10 to16, the Gansu provincial UFWD held what it described as the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of temple management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. A UFWD press release stated the training was intended to direct the Sinicization of Islam, promote the statement of CCP principles, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and “increase political literacy, all while highlighting policies and regulations, history and culture, and national and provincial conditions through the lens of patriotic education.”

In November, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an Islamic scholar in the northwestern part of the country said of Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out. You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out – but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

On October 13, the state-owned China National Daily News reported the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association released an outline for implementing the “five-year plan for Hubei Province to adhere to the Sinicization of Islam in China (2018-2022).” According to the article, measures to implement the plan included “strengthening political identity,” studying the works of Xi Jinping, studying the Regulations on Religious Affairs, and guiding imams to interpret the scriptures in accordance with “Chinese traditional culture and the core values of socialism.”

China News Service reported that on November 28, the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Taoist Association was held in Jurong, Jiangsu Province. In addition to passing a code of conduct for Taoist teachers, the congress elected Li Guangfu as the new Taoist Association chairman. Li stated that Taoism should “adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “adhere to the Sinicization of Taoism.”

Media reported in September that Catholics in the country protested the distorted retelling of a Bible story in a textbook the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology Press published to teach “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools. In the original biblical story from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who committed adultery and prevented a crowd from stoning her to death. In the textbook, Jesus disperses the crowd, but he says to the woman, “I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” and he then proceeds to stone her to death himself. According to UCA News, Catholic critics said the authors of the textbook “want to prove that the rule of law is supreme in China and such respect for law is essential for a smooth transfer to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Sources told media that authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians wearing skull caps or veils.

During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating loyalty to the CCP over the church. In a press release on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Pastor Wang Qingwen, senior pastor of Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches in the city to “unswervingly adhere to the three-self patriotic principle of teaching and strive to promote the theological construction of the Sinicization of Christianity.” In the press release, Wang urged churches to continue to adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to “hold high the banner of patriotism.”

In December, the Jerusalem Post reported there were approximately 100 practicing Jews among the 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Lacking access to the Torah, they used Christian Bibles containing the Old Testament. Members of the community said they worried about government crackdowns on religion and had to celebrate Hanukkah and hold other gatherings in secret. One community member said, “Every time we celebrate, we are scared.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities placed pastors of house churches and dissident Catholic priests under arrest to make sure they would not lead Christmas celebrations in churches or private homes. According to the publication, in Xiamen, Fujian Province, police stopped a group of Christians from singing Christmas songs at a mall, even though they had been invited to perform there. Authorities fined a Christian in Lushan County, Henan Province, RMB 160,000 ($24,500) for gathering people to pray and sing Christmas songs. The NGO Human Rights Defenders reported there was pressure on schools across the country to teach children that Christmas should not be celebrated and that gifts should not be exchanged. According to the NGO, the government gave permission for “spontaneous” street demonstrations by people carrying banners reading “Christmas, Get out of China.”

The government labeled several religious groups as “cults” (xie jiao – literally “heterodox teachings”), including the CAG, the Shouters, the Association of Disciples, and the All Sphere Church. The government also continued to ban certain groups, such as Falun Gong, which it classified as an illegal organization. In July, Bitter Winter reported that several provinces had introduced measures that encouraged individuals to report on members of what it called “cults,” which carried a penalty of between three and seven years’ imprisonment. According to the CAG’s annual report, authorities harassed and threatened with imprisonment more than 8,400 Church members across the country who refused to sign statements renouncing their faith. In Shandong Province, those who reported on suspected “cult” members could receive up to a RMB 2,500 ($380) award, while Hainan Province offered awards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300). Guangdong Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Nanjing City introduced similar measures. Actions by cults to be reported included using the internet to produce or disseminate religious materials; producing or disseminating religious leaflets, pictures, slogans, newspapers, and other publications; and hanging religious banners and posters in public places. Sources told Bitter Winter the campaign against xie jiao was ubiquitous throughout the country. Bitter Winter posted photographs of a park in Yuchen County, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, that contained multiple large red banners with anti-xie jiao messages.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it labeled as cults and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities. Faluninfo.net reported that in June, a police supervisor in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, fired Falun Gong practitioner Zha Zhuolin from the force for refusing to write a statement denouncing the group. According to Zha, the supervisor, Xu Wang, said, “The first rule for a police officer is to be loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Media reported that in Guangzhou, pandemic-control volunteers delivered anti-xie jiao brochures, along with facemasks and hand sanitizer, to residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then broadcast anticult propaganda when an industrial park reopened in April.

According to media, police and local religious affairs bureau officials raided the Dongguan Branch of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church on the evening of August 21 when more than 10 adherents were holding a Bible study session. Police accused the attendees of “spreading heterodox teachings” and detained three individuals. Two were released shortly, but the minister, Yang Jun, was detained until the next day on a fraud charge.

According to Bitter Winter, the government responded to protests against school reform in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region by blaming the unrest on banned religious groups, such as Falun Gong, or groups it labeled cults, such as the CAG. On August 28, the region’s Anticult Association launched “Prevention of Xie Jiao Propaganda Month.” Activities during the month included holding events, distributing brochures, and teaching “all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia to guard against xie jiao.”

In October, CSW reported that some ethnic minority villages had established “village rules” to allow villagers to isolate and target Christians. According to CSW, in September, village authorities in Huang Fei Village, Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, issued a notice stating that the traditional faith of the Dai community was Buddhism and that Christianity was an “evil cult.” The notice announced that anyone who violated the rules of the village “by believing in Jesus Christ and other sects” would have to pay a financial penalty to the community. CSW stated that individuals on social media reported the Li community in Hainan Province had also imposed a financial penalty on persons believing in Christianity.

From January to June or July, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bitter Winter reported, however, that authorities allowed Taoist temples displaying Mao Zedong images to stay open throughout the lockdown. Sources told Bitter Winter that people worshiped at the Arhat Temple in Zhumadian City, Henan Province, throughout the lockdown because it had a Mao Zedong wall painting. The director of the Chinese National Ancestors’ Temple in Shanqui City, Henan Province, said authorities allowed his temple to remain open during the pandemic because it had a Mao Zedong statue.

Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown. On February 23, Shandong Province’s two state-run Christian organizations, the TSPM and the Chinese Christian Council, issued a notice prohibiting live streaming of religious services. A former TSPM pastor from Jiangxi Province told Bitter Winter that in early February, police shut down a chatroom he was using for a religious gathering. The ICC reported that on August 11, the local religious affairs bureau in Yunnan Province fined Zhang Wenli of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for conducting unauthorized online Bible study. A TSPM pastor in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, told Bitter Winter in April that the government blocked the link he shared with his congregation on WeChat, a Chinese social media application. A house church director in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, live-streamed a church service on YY, a video-based social network, but the service was suspended less than half an hour into the broadcast. An imam in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, reported that shortly after he discussed Islamic festivals on a social media platform, police blocked his account. A local government official in Liaoning Province was summoned by his superiors in March for attending an online service of a South Korean church. They forced him to uninstall the app that allowed him to join the service.

In June, AsiaNews.it reported that although the government had begun allowing churches to reopen, the bureaucratic process and conditions for reopening made doing so difficult. A priest in central China said these conditions included getting permission to reopen from the village, city, and provincial governments and meeting strict sanitation requirements. The priest said, “Religion does not seem to belong to us; it belongs to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” The Catholic News Service reported authorities in Zhejiang Province issued a notice on May 29 stating that priests were required to “preach on patriotism” as a condition for resuming in-person services. Bitter Winter reported in June that authorities in Zhejiang Province required churches to praise the government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to pray for “national economic and social development,” “attainment of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and “promotion and realization of human destiny community,” all of which were President Xi Jinping’s political slogans.

According to Bitter Winter, in July, before the government had begun to lift lockdown restrictions and reopen religious venues in Nanyang City, Henan Province, the city’s religious affairs bureau ordered several folk religion temples to remove religious books and incense burners. Government authorities inspected the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple three times in August. As a condition for reopening the venue, officials ordered the temple to burn scriptures and expel a nun who lived on the premises. The temple remained closed, however, even after meeting these conditions.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although it allowed some musical, cultural, and political events to take place. On Christmas Day, riot police blocked the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral of the Savior in Beijing (also known as the Xishiku Church), saying religious gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic. A large Christmas tree was used to block the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing, and signs were also posted there saying gatherings were cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to Bitter Winter, officials placed arbitrary restrictions on Catholic churches affiliated with the CCPA, closed facilities, and merged others without the congregations’ consent. Government officials in Linyi used a point system to determine whether a congregation should be merged, considering such factors as whether the congregation had more than 10 members or the facility was equipped with a blackboard, audio system, desks, and chairs.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 10, the local religious affairs bureau and the security bureau ordered Father Liu Jiangdong, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, to leave the Zhengshou Diocese, which was affiliated with the CCPA. A source told Bitter Winter that government authorities had previously accused Liu of financial improprieties, suspended his priesthood certificate, and imprisoned him from October 2018 to December 2019. The source said Liu had in fact been imprisoned because he opposed removal of the cross from atop his church, formed a Catholic youth group, and allowed minors to attend religious services. A member of his congregation said that since Liu’s release, authorities had surveilled him, monitored his telephone calls, and locked him out of his residence. A churchgoer said authorities threatened to fine members of Liu’s former congregation up to RMB 200,000 ($30,600) if they sheltered him or invited him to hold Mass in their homes.

Media and human rights organizations reported that SARA issued a new requirement in October that only the IAC was permitted to organize Muslims’ pilgrimage trips. The new regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health. They also had to be able to completely pay the costs associated with going on the Hajj and must oppose religious extremism. The new administrative measure was reportedly intended to “preserve religious freedom and the continued Sinicization of religion in the PRC.”

According to Bitter Winter, the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang Province issued a document in April that required authorities to increase “counterterrorism and stability maintenance measures” during Ramadan. The document instructed police to intensify surveillance of local Hui and other Muslims, especially during Friday prayers, the daily breaking of the fast, and other important Ramadan activities. It also instructed police to surveil ethnic minority visitors from Xinjiang by checking their documents and luggage, determining their whereabouts while in the city, and acquiring other information.

NPR reported in November that in the spring, police detained 14 men in Yiwu City, Central Zhejiang Province, because they had purchased Islamic books. They were subjected to weeks of questioning about their political views and online correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and Chinese Muslims overseas. According to a friend of one of the men detained, “The police had printed out the text records everyone had on WeChat with writers and publishers…Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to [the police] beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

Sources reported churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

Bitter Winter reported that in April, authorities placed surveillance equipment, including facial recognition cameras, in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Authorities also installed surveillance cameras in all Protestant and Catholic churches in Jinxiang County, Jinin City, Shandong Province. A deacon at one TSPM Church in Henan Province, where authorities had installed a surveillance camera in December 2019, said, “[Government officials] always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” In March and April, authorities in a city in Zhejiang Province placed surveillance cameras outside the entrances of homes of seven members of the CAG. One church member reported she was told this was done for “theft prevention.”

In October, Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Jiangxi Province’s Poyang County, which has a large population of Christians, issued orders to install RMB one million ($153,000) in facial recognition cameras in all state-approved places of worship. According to the report, authorities installed approximately 200 cameras in more than 50 TSPM churches from July to September, and nearly 50 in 16 Buddhist and Taoist temples. A police officer stated the cameras were installed to monitor church members and sermons.

A Catholic source in the northeast part of the country told AsiaNews.it in July that government staff attended Sunday services to monitor activities and ensure children who were 18 or younger did not attend. The Grand Mosque in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, displayed signs prohibiting children who were 18 and younger from participating in religious activity. According to one worshipper at the mosque, authorities said this was to allow young people to focus on their secular education.

Minghui reported that police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, intensely surveilled Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zhenyu, who had been released from Suzhou Prison on September 19 after completing his three-year sentence. While monitoring Ma, authorities intimidated his mother and other practitioners.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in September that authorities in Sanya City, in the island province of Hainan, took measures against the predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, which comprised approximately 10,000 members. They banned girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school. An Utsul community worker said the ban prompted fierce protests by students and their families and that it was temporarily lifted after hundreds of students wore hijabs in public and boycotted classes. Photographs and videos circulated on social media showed girls wearing hijabs and reading from textbooks outside their primary school while surrounded by police officers. According to the SCMP, Utsuls working in government or CCP bodies were told the hijab was “disorderly.” The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued document, Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui Neighborhoods, which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods on the island. The document called for the demolition of mosques displaying “Arabic” features, the removal of shop signs saying in Chinese characters the words “Islamic” or “Halal,” and increased surveillance over the Utsul population.

According to Bitter Winter, from March to May, Islamic symbols and writings in Arabic were painted over or covered on signboards of 70 Hui-run businesses in Chuxiong, the capital of the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. According to some shop owners, officials from various state institutions, among them the public security bureau, urban management, and religious affairs bureaus, ordered them to remove the symbols from their signboards or replace them entirely. Otherwise, their business licenses would be revoked. A baker from the prefecture’s Lufeng County said that from December to May, Islamic symbols were removed from the signboards of 62 halal shops in the county. “The state is out of control, like during the Cultural Revolution…Hui men are not allowed to wear white caps and women, headscarves. Hui Muslims will disappear in two or three generations.” Local officials told shop owners that the order came from the central government and that the signboard-removal campaign was nationwide. According to one local resident in Songming County, Kunming Province, signboards on 176 Hui businesses were “Sinicized” between December 2019 and May. A restaurant owner said, “If we Hui people tried to argue with officials, they would call us rioters and arrest us on any trumped-up charge.”

The SCMP reported in September that new foreign teachers coming to the country had to attend a mandatory 20-hour training course of what the news source characterized as “political indoctrination covering China’s development, laws, professional ethics, and education policies.” According to the newspaper, the Hainan provincial public security bureau offered rewards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for tips on foreigners who “engaged in religious activities without permission,” including teaching religion and evangelizing. One teacher said authorities installed a surveillance camera in his classroom to monitor his lessons.

The SCMP reported in September that many foreign missionaries were not allowed to return to the country after it partially lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreign national residents. According to the Voice of America (VOA), in November, the Ministry of Justice published draft regulations requiring foreign worshippers wanting to host religious activities to apply for a permit and to demonstrate their groups were “friendly to China” in their country of origin. The regulations would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners and would require those organizing religious activities to provide the names, nationalities, and visa status of those who would attend as well as a detailed program of the service, including which texts would be read, before authorities would grant permission. According to VOA, authorities said the new regulations were intended to stop foreigners from spreading “religious extremism” or using religion “to undermine China’s national and ethnic unity.” The draft regulation specified it would also apply to individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups. During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” from unofficial distribution channels. The government-affiliated news outlet Meipian.com reported that in January, law enforcement officers inspected publication wholesale and retail locations, farmer’s markets, and “urban-rural junctions within their jurisdictions” looking for “illegal religious publications and illegal training courses of a religious nature.” The ICC reported that on March 24, the Zhongshan No. 1 District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong Province charged Christians Liang Rurui and Zhu Guoqing with conducting illegal business operations that “seriously disrupted market order.” According to the ICC, authorities in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, had arrested them in November and December 2019, respectively, for printing 7,000 children’s Bibles. According to the human rights blog Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network), on July 2, authorities arrested four Christians from the Life Tree Culture Communications Co., Ltd. – Fu Xuanjuan, Deng Tianyong, Han Li, and Feng Qunhao – on charges of “illegal business operations” for selling electronic audio Bible players, small handheld devices that allow the user to listen to (as opposed to read) Biblical text. According to Weiquanwang, the company had been legally established in 2011 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on September 14, the education and environmental protection bureaus in Luoyang City, Henan Province, inspected a local printing house to determine whether it was publishing banned religious materials. The printing house manager said, “They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content. If any such content is found, I’ll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed.” According to Bitter Winter, similar bans applied to photocopying businesses. One photocopy employee said, “I was told to report anyone who comes to copy religious materials.” Another said, “If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities.”

The ICC reported in September that the People’s Court of Linhai City in Zhejiang Province sentenced online Christian bookseller Chen Yu to seven years in prison and fined him for “illegal business operations,” allegedly for selling unapproved religious publications. Authorities first detained him in September 2019.

In July, Bitter Winter reported government restrictions on printing, copying, and mailing nonapproved Buddhist literature increased throughout the country. A source in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said authorities confiscated thousands of Buddhist books and compact discs from at least 20 stores in the region. One store owner said authorities confiscated more than 2,000 Buddhist books and materials from the store. Another shop owner said, “In the past, people would send me books and materials they printed themselves to distribute them for free, but nobody dares to do this now.” In March, police in Zhejiang Province forbade printing houses from fulfilling orders from venues not approved by the government. In June, authorities in Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia, banned copy centers from printing Buddhist and Christian materials. One copy shop owner said, “Government officials come every day to inspect computers and copy machines. If they discover that religious materials have been copied, I could be held legally accountable.”

Bitter Winter reported that in early September, police arrested a person in Jinan City, Shandong Province, who attempted to mail compact discs of sermons by Shenpo Sodargye, a Tibetan Buddhist master, to the more than 100 individuals in Weihai City, Shangdong Province, who had ordered them online. The names of the buyers were forwarded to local Weihai police, who summoned them for questioning.

According to Bitter Winter, during a meeting on Buddhism organized on July 31 by the Fuzhou City Religious Affairs Bureau in Jiangxi Province, authorities banned all temples in the city from keeping religious books from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the name of “preventing foreign infiltration.” The director of a Buddhist temple said, “The government controls all books on Buddhism; nothing that does not comply with the CCP ideology is allowed and is considered illegal. Only religious materials promoting the Party are permitted to be circulated.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Chinese New Year. Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them. One merchant in Luhe County, Guangdong Province, said, “We don’t carry religious couplets. Even if we had them, we wouldn’t dare sell them.” On January 19, three officials from Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, entered a TSPM church, took photos, and registered the personal information of those in the church. The officials distributed couplets praising the CCP and demanded they be posted. A government employee in Xinmi City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter that in early March, municipal authorities ordered all town and township governments to conduct door-to-door inspections of households and shops looking for religious couplets. Inspectors were instructed to remove the couplets and cooperate with the public security bureau to ascertain where they had been produced. One shopkeeper said authorities threatened to close his business if he posted Christian couplets again.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. According to VOA, in October, ChinaAid stated that online censors removed the words “Christ” (jidu), “Jesus” (Yesu), and “Bible” (shengjing) from social media posts and replaced them with the initials “JD,” “YS,” and “SJ.” The word Christianity was replaced with “JD religion.” According to some scholars, Christians were replacing the words in texts themselves to avoid online censors who might block the posts.

In May, Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to dismantle Islamic architectural features and remove Islamic symbols from mosques throughout the country, and it published photographs from multiple locations showing construction workers taking down domes and minarets as well as before-and-after pictures. In Weizhou City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, many of the more than 4,000 mosques in the city were remodeled or destroyed between 2018 and February 2020 as part of the government’s “de-Arabization and de-Saudization” campaign. Before-and-after photographs of the Weizhou Grand Mosque and other mosques showed that Chinese-style pagodas had replaced minarets and crescent moon symbols had been removed.

In late March, authorities removed the domes and star-and-crescent symbols from 17 mosques in Pingliang City, Gansu Province. A local imam said that before the removals, authorities forced imams to study “de-Arabization and de-Saudization policies as well as the promotion of religion ‘Sinicization.’” The imam said authorities threatened to revoke the credentials of imams who did not cooperate with removal of the symbols. Many mosques visible from major highways in Qinghai Province in September had replaced traditional Islamic minarets with more Chinese-looking structures or appeared to be in the process of doing so. Mosques with more traditional Han Chinese architecture, such as the Grand Mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, remained unchanged and were highlighted in public tours by imams and other mosque representatives.

According to Bitter Winter, in January, authorities removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from at least 10 mosques in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. On March 18, amid the coronavirus lockdown, government-hired workers remodeled the roof of the Gongmazhuang Mosque in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, to make it look “more Chinese.” Authorities had removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from the mosque in November 2019. In late March, the government ordered the removal of domes and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Xiaoma Village, Henan Province. In mid-November, authorities removed the dome and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Qinghua Town, Henan Province, and hung banners reading, “Resolutely resist religious infiltration and combat religious extremism” at the mosque’s entrance. In Maying Village, Henan Province, after the government ordered the removal of symbols from the local mosque, one resident said, “We have to listen to what Xi Jinping says and what state policies indicate. No one dares to challenge the state.”

In December, Bitter Winter published before-and-after photographs of numerous churches in multiple provinces, including churches affiliated with the TSPM, that showed that exterior crosses had been removed and facades altered to eliminate Western-style features that identified them as Christian worship venues. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM churches in Anhui Province between January and July. In April, UCA News reported the removal of crosses from several Catholic churches, including from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Anhui Diocese on April 18. A priest said dioceses normally cooperated with authorities on the removal of crosses in the hopes that they would not demolish the entire building. On June 6, all crosses, other religious symbols, and pews were removed from the Wangdangjia village church in Linyi County. The “Catholic Church” signboard above its entrance was covered with wooden boards.

According to Bitter Winter, between March 2019 and January 2020, authorities removed crosses from approximately 70 Christian churches, including TSPM churches, in Linyi City, Shandong Province. Authorities said the crosses were “too close to the national highway,” “too tall,” or might seem “unpleasant” to visiting provincial government superiors. They threatened to demolish the buildings if the crosses remained. On January 8, the provincial government ordered a TSPM Church near the high-speed rail line in Lanshan District, Shandong Province, to remove its exterior cross because it was “too eye-catching.” The Chinese characters for “love” and “Christian Church” were also removed. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM Churches in Anhui Province between January and July.

According to Bitter Winter, officials in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, pressured the abbot of the Buddhist Yuantong Temple to remove an 11-meter (36-foot)-high statue of Guanyin for being “too tall.” According to sources, authorities threatened to close the temple if the abbot did not comply. On March 9, workers dismantled the statue, and photographs accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed it lying in pieces on the ground.

Media reported authorities continued to destroy religious sites, including those affiliated with the TSPM and CCPA. Throughout the year, Bitter Winter published numerous before-and-after photographs showing churches, temples, and other religious structures that had been reduced in whole or in part to rubble. Bitter Winter reported that on March 10, authorities demolished a TSPM Church in Shangqiu, Henan Province. A source told Bitter Winter that on March 10 at 4:00 a.m., more than 200 government personnel and police came to demolish a TSPM Church in Xiazhuang Village, Shangqiu City, Henan Province. According to the source, police kicked in the door and forcibly removed a member of the congregation who was guarding the church, fracturing two of his ribs. The contents of the church were buried under the rubble.

On April 20, the government of Shangrao County in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Prefecture, demolished a TSPM Church, saying the structure was “unlicensed and dilapidated.” Sources said local officials told the congregation higher-level officials had ordered the demolition because “the government doesn’t allow belief in Jesus.” A church member told Bitter Winter the structure was in fact sound and was also registered with the local religious affairs bureau. The church member said that, contrary to law, authorities did not compensate the congregation for destroying the building. Accompanying the article were photographs showing the church before demolition and a pile of rubble following the demolition. According to another church member, following the demolition, congregants began practicing separately at home but had to be cautious. “The government arrests anyone in unauthorized religious gatherings. When they find two or three of us meeting, they can charge us with any crime at will, saying we are against the CCP.”

The ICC reported that on September 12, authorities in the town of Xiezhou in Yanhu District, Yucheng City, Shangxi Province, demolished the tombstones of more than 20 Swedish missionaries who had performed missionary work in the country in the early 1900s. They threatened to arrest anyone who photographed or videotaped the incident. Authorities planted vegetation over the gravesites.

Local sources reported authorities continued to close Christian venues or repurpose them into secular spaces. According to Bitter Winter, in April, the government of Qingshui Township in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, closed a TSPM Church for being “unlicensed and too eye-catching.” Officials destroyed religious symbols inside the church and posted a closure notice at the entrance. In May, officials converted the church into an activity center for the elderly, placing a ping-pong table, Chinese chess boards, and secular books inside.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 1, six local government officials and police officers raided a Catholic nursing home in Fuzhou City, Jiangxi Province. They confiscated 30 religious publications, a cross, and other religious symbols, sculptures, and paintings. A photograph accompanying the article showed that a mural of Jesus that had been displayed behind the alter was replaced with a landscape painting and an outdoor sculpture of Jesus was covered with a shed. Authorities pressured the church’s priest to sign an application to join the CCPA, but he refused. According to Bitter Winter, authorities also targeted the Benevolence Home, a nursing home operated by nuns in Saiqi Village, Fujian Province. On January 12, nearly 50 local government officials and police officers raided the nursing home where more than 30 persons lived, some of whom were from impoverished households or disabled. Authorities forced the elderly residents out and cut off the building’s electricity and water supply.

In July, a Catholic source in southeast China told AsiaNews.it that the local government denied permits to construct new Catholic churches and halted construction that was already underway. In January, AsiaNews.it reported that in at least five parishes in Mindong Diocese, Fujian Province, including Fuan, Saiqi, and Suanfeng, authorities cut off power and water to prevent churches from being used, citing “fire safety” measures.

Bitter Winter reported that government and law enforcement personnel destroyed the Great Hall of Strength, a Buddhist temple in Handan City, Hubei Province, on March 6. A local Buddhist said authorities demolished it because it “lacked a religious-activity venue-registration certificate.” The temple director said he was never approached about obtaining such a certificate. The local Buddhist said, “The government just wanted to demolish the temple…People cannot argue with authorities; they will accuse us of breaking the law as they please.”

According to Bitter Winter, authorities demolished the Buddhist Phoenix Temple in Qitang Town, Chongqing Municipality, on January 3. In March, authorities ordered eight Buddhist temples in Yongchuan District, Chongqing Municipality, to close and brick up their entrances, rendering the buildings unusable. Authorities demolished the Longhua Temple in Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, on April 1.

Sources told Bitter Winter that on May 18, more than 20 officials and police in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, destroyed a Buddhist temple that authorities had declared “a dilapidated building.” When a protester attempted to film the scene, police officers pressed her to the ground and hit her in the collarbone until she lost consciousness. Police then destroyed her mobile phone.

Bitter Winter reported several cases of authorities destroying folk religion sites throughout the country. From April 14 to 19, authorities demolished three buildings in the Yangfu Temple in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. On April 22, authorities demolished 18 statues in two folk religion temples in Linzhou, Henan Province. From April to June, authorities demolished 85 small folk religion temples in Handan, Hebei Province. On May 1, authorities demolished an ancestral hall in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 2 in Dangtu County, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Prefecture, more than 100 police officers destroyed a village folk temple. One villager said police first cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching. The witness said, “They then smashed the lock to get inside and demolished the temple after dragging out the eight elderly believers protecting it.” The online magazine posted a video on social media that showed a large number of police standing guard while a bulldozer knocked down the structure.

Bitter Winter reported in July that authorities had not yet reopened the Cao’an Manichean temple in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police were seen periodically patrolling the temple. Before its closure, authorities ordered the construction of a flagpole for the national flag and placed government propaganda slogans inside the temple.

Religious education for minors remained banned, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.

AsiaNews.it reported authorities sent a directive to Xilinhaote Middle School Number 6 in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia dated March 25 forbidding students from taking part in religious activities in or outside of school. The directive reportedly prohibited parents from teaching their children about religion and religious organizations from operating in schools. Students and teachers found disobeying the restrictions faced expulsion and dismissal.

In November, Bitter Winter reported that a fifth-grade teacher in a Liaoning Province primary school told the online magazine any mention of religious holidays had been purged from English-language textbooks. The teacher said a text originally entitled “Easter Party” had been replaced with “English Party” and descriptive passages such as “You will meet the Easter Bunny” with “You will meet Robin the Robot.”

In January, AsiaNews.it, reported the government had closed down several Tibetan Buddhist centers in Sichuan Province because, authorities said, “Illegal activities” were carried out in the centers. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet said the government’s actual purpose was to limit the influence of Khenpo Sodargye, a Buddhist monk who founded these centers. The centers were associated with the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, from which authorities had expelled more than 15,000 Buddhist monks and nuns since 2016 and destroyed significant portions of the property.

Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning continued to be required to obtain the support of the corresponding official state-sanctioned religious association. The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates from religious schools. Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.

Religious groups reported state-sanctioned religious associations continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice. The associations also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “Uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22-years-old.” According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge to renew their license each year.

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations and the Holy See had no official representative to the country. On October 22, the Holy See and the PRC announced they had agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. The two parties signed the original agreement in 2018. The precise terms of the agreement were not made public, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA) and Vatican News, it was a “pastoral” effort to help unify members of the underground Catholic Church in China – which had remained in communion with the Holy See – with Catholics belonging to the CCPA. Vatican News stated the agreement “does not directly concern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between the clergy and the authorities of the country. The Provisional Agreement concerns exclusively the process of nomination of bishops…” Following the signing of the agreement, seven CCPA-affiliated bishops appointed without papal mandate were brought into full communion with the Holy See; an eighth bishop was posthumously recognized. AsiaNews.it reported that on November 23, Reverend Thomas Chen Tianhao became the third new bishop without a prior affiliation with the CCPA to be ordained under the agreement, assuming the position of Bishop of Qingdao in Qingdao City, Shandong Province. UCA News reported that on December 22, a fourth bishop, Peter Liu Genzhu, was ordained bishop of Hongdong in Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Commentators, human rights groups, and some Catholic leaders criticized the agreement as doing little to protect freedom of religion or belief for Catholics in China. On November 17, the America Jesuit Review published an article discussing 30 bishops who belonged to the underground Catholic Church and refused to join the CCPA. “The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong in his online blog of October 7 said the agreement was lopsided, with the CCP nominating bishops for the Pope to approve, and that persecution of the underground Catholic Church had increased since 2018.

Catholic clergy and laypersons told media the situation of both registered and unregistered Catholic communities worsened during the year. A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the Pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. According to Bitter Winter, the Catholic Diocese of Mindong in Fujian Province suffered severe persecution from the CCP after most of its priests refused to join the CCPA. Authorities closed five parishes in January. Bitter Winter reported multiple instances of authorities pressuring Catholic leaders to join the CCPA and, in some cases, arresting and physically abusing Catholic leaders who refused. According to Bitter Winter, during the first half of the year, the CCPA attempted to force 57 unregistered Catholic priests from the Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 had complied, three had resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. Local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests to join.

According to Bitter Winter, on April 2, officials detained Father Huang Jintong, a priest from the Mindong Diocese’s parish in Saiqi Village in Fuan City, Fujian Province. Police deprived the priest of sleep for four days before he signed a document saying he would join the CCPA. According to AsiaNews.it, on September 1, the local religious affairs bureau detained another priest of the Mindong Diocese, Father Liu Maochun, for at least 17 days for refusing to join the CCPA.

Sources told Reuters News Agency that in May, two Catholic nuns serving at the Holy See’s Study Mission to China in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were arrested by mainland authorities when they traveled to Hebei Province to visit their families. The nuns were detained in Hebei for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They remained under house arrest as of year’s end, and their families’ homes were under surveillance. The nuns were reportedly allowed to attend Mass but were not permitted to leave mainland China.

In July, AsiaNews.it reported that a priest said authorities often gathered priests in order to “brainwash” them, congregation members were no longer able to host Mass in their homes, and bishops of underground dioceses were increasingly arrested since the 2018 signing of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China. One lay member said there were more restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to attend religious gatherings, children younger than 18 were forbidden from entering the church, and government authorities often sat in on church meetings to surveil the church.

CNA reported that on October 4, Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the auxiliary bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province, announced he would no longer preside over public masses or receive any tithes and said that all administrative matters associated with the diocese should be referred to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. In 2006, the Holy See excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese while Guo stepped into the subordinate position. Zhan was one of seven individuals appointed without papal mandate whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. The government did not recognize Guo, who was not a member of the CCPA, in his role as auxiliary bishop. In an open letter announcing his withdrawal from public religious duties, Guo stated, “The sacraments celebrated by those who sign [a document joining the CCPA] and those who do not sign are legitimate.”

In June, CNA reported that authorities detained underground Catholic bishop Cui Tai in Zhangjiakou Municipality, Hebei Province. According to AsiaNews.it, authorities in the past had repeatedly placed Cui under house arrest or sent him to forced-labor camps for engaging in evangelization activities without official government permission and for criticizing the CCPA. As of year’s end, it was unclear whether he had been released from detention.

Sources told Bitter Winter the government threatened to retaliate against family members if clergy in the Mindong Diocese did not join the CCPA. Authorities forced Father Feng from Xiyin Village, Fuan City, to sign an application to join the CCPA by threatening to dismiss his younger brother and sister-in-law from public employment. After another priest refused to join, authorities confiscated the vehicle his brother used for business and shut down his nephew’s travel agency.

The ICC reported in July that a member of the ERCC said authorities threatened to send the children of church members to “reeducation camps” and take adopted children away from their parents. The source said authorities had already taken four adopted children from one church family and returned them to their biological parents or found them other homes.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers. Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities. Minghui reported cases of Falun Gong practitioners losing their jobs due to their beliefs.

Bitter Winter reported that in June, a sanitation worker in Henan Province was fired for reading the Bible while on a work break. The director of the Environmental Sanitation Bureau fired her after publicly criticizing her earlier in the day. Thereafter, the Environmental Sanitation Bureau required that new workers show a “certificate of no faith” issued by police in the area of their permanent residence registration and stated that “one who believes in the Lord is not allowed.” A man in Shaanxi Province told Bitter Winter that he was required to provide a “certificate of no faith” to each of the multiple hotels he had worked at over the course of his career. A man working in the public security sector in Shandong Province said he lost his job because his father was a member of the CAG.

Discrimination against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs continued. Since 2017 and 2018 when articles in the 2005 Public Security Administration Punishment Law related to “suspicious activity” began to be enforced in earnest, Falun Gong practitioners reported ongoing difficulty finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Sources stated the enforcement of this law continued to move the PRC further away from informal discriminatory practices by individual landlords towards a more formalized enforcement of codified discriminatory legislation.

Sources told Bitter Winter that government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility towards that group. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread. Bitter Winter reported that in March, police in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, sent notices to many rental and real estate agencies forbidding them to rent apartments or shop spaces to Uyghurs. One property owner said police fined him RMB 500 ($76) for renting to Uyghurs and demanded he send police identification information and photographs of all Uyghur tenants. One Uyghur man said his family had, after some difficulty, found an apartment to rent, but on the condition that the family report to a local police station three times a week. The man said, “Three days after we signed the rental contract, police officers installed a surveillance camera at our building entrance.” One man in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, said owners preferred to keep their properties empty rather than to rent to Uyghurs. A Uyghur man said he had to use his friend’s bank card because local banks refused to issue him one. Uyghur grocery store and restaurant owners said constant police visits had a severe negative impact on their businesses. A Han businessman told Bitter Winter, “The government tries every means possible to deprive Uyghurs of their rights, prohibiting them from renting, doing business, and staying in hotels. The goal is to drive them away and cut off all their sources of survival, forcing them back to Xinjiang to be locked in ‘transformation-through-education’ camps.”

According to Bitter Winter, several college students stated college administrators encouraged students to report on fellow students who appeared to engage in religious activities. One Christian student in Inner Mongolia said she had been reported and that school administrators investigated her, frequently summoned her, and forced her to write self-criticism statements. A university professor who was a member of the TSPM Church was demoted from her teaching position after mentioning the Bible in class and was subsequently investigated by the State Security Bureau.

There were reports that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other religious minorities continued to face difficulties in finding accommodation when they traveled.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On September 30, at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy in Rome, Italy, the Secretary gave a speech on the restrictions of religious freedom in China. The Secretary said the CCP “has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.” In an October speech on tolerance while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.”

Embassy and consulate officials regularly sought meetings with a range of government officials managing religious affairs to obtain more information on government policies and to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials, including the Ambassador and Consuls General, urged government officials at the central, provincial, and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and to release prisoners of conscience. The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in meetings with senior officials. The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience and advocated on behalf of individual cases of persons imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu (prior to its closure by the Chinese government in retaliation for the closure of PRC Consulate Houston), Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The Consul General in Chengdu (prior to its closure) met with Tibetan and Muslim leaders in Sichuan Province to emphasize support for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities. Embassy officials met with visiting members of U.S. religious groups to discuss how these groups were engaging with local communities.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to its Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 120 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 250,000 social media users engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy staff and with each other. The embassy also highlighted the Secretary’s visit to the Vatican to emphasize U.S. support on religious freedom.

The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments, such as “Countries that respect religious freedom will be respected,” “Freedom of religion is a prerequisite for building a civil society,” and “The essence of religion is to lead people to the good. As a democratic power, the United States has guaranteed religious freedom.” For International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy published the Secretary’s message supporting respect for religious freedom as well as information describing the Chinese government’s continuing control over religion and restrictions on the activities of religious adherents. These posts on Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter social media platforms garnered more than 750,000 views and approximately 10,000 engagements.

In January, the Consulate General in Guangzhou submitted comments to the Guangdong People’s Congress and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission regarding the new draft of Guangdong Religious Affairs Regulations. The government stated the new regulations would “protect citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious harmony and social harmony, standardize the management of religious affairs, and improve the level of legalization of religious work.” In December, the embassy submitted comments and recommendations on the central government’s draft Rules for the Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Foreign Religious Activities, which proposed burdensome preapproval procedures for almost all religious activities. The draft rules also limited activities of unregistered religious groups and conflated peaceful religious practice with “terrorism.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons, bring the total number of entities added to the Entity List during the year to 20. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 1, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee; and Wang Mingshan, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB). They and their immediate family members became ineligible for entry into the United States. In making the announcement, the Secretary said the United States “will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB organization, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed a second round of sanctions pursuant to the Executive Order on one government entity and two current or former government officials, in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC.

On December 10, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on Huang Yuanxiong, chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau Wucun police station “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xiamen, China.” In his statement, the Secretary said, “Huang is associated with particularly severe violations of religious freedom of Falun Gong practitioners, namely his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.” The action also applied to Mr. Huang’s spouse.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities.

PRC authorities consistently harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend. Authorities routinely declined to approve or postponed U.S. officials’ requests to visit religious sites and meet with religious leaders.

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Read a Section

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Fiji

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. It also mandates the separation of religion and state. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation, and laws make inciting hatred or “disaffection” against any religious group a criminal offense. Religious groups must register with the government. In August, Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama ordered state broadcaster Fiji Broadcasting Corporation to refrain from airing an interview with the leader of the Lotu-Vanua (First Nation Spiritual Revival Movement), stating that it would confuse religious groups in the country and the general public. The Pacific Council of Churches criticized the Prime Minister, stating his “interference was authoritarian” and that the series of televised interviews between the Lotu-Vanua leader and religious leaders illustrated freedom of expression. Hindu religious leaders and the Fiji Human Rights and Antidiscrimination Commission condemned comments made on social media by Lynda Tabuya, an opposition Member of Parliament (MP) for the Social Democratic Liberal Party, in which she stated the Hindu Diwali festival should not be celebrated on Sunday because it would disturb Christians. The holiday was celebrated over the November 14-15 weekend in the country. She later deleted the post and publicly apologized.

The Methodist Church of Fiji issued a statement distancing itself from comments made by the Church’s communications manager that the use of fireworks on Sunday (as part of the Diwali celebration) would disturb other religious gatherings. In November, a Catholic church in Suva was vandalized, the first such act of vandalism against a Catholic church in the country. In May, a Protestant church was set on fire in Votualevu, Nadi.

U.S embassy officers and local staff met with religious leaders to promote religious tolerance and to encourage and maintain an active interfaith dialogue. In May, the Ambassador hosted an iftar to promote religious tolerance. In June, the Ambassador convened an interfaith dialogue with religious leaders in the western region and discussed the importance of respect for religious freedom as a universal human right. The embassy used social media posts and videos to highlight U.S. support of religious diversity in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 936,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2007 census (the most recent with a breakdown by religion), 64.5 percent of the population is Christian, 27.9 percent Hindu, and 6.3 percent Muslim. Protestants make up 45 percent of the population, of which 34.6 percent is Methodist, 5.7 percent Assembly of God, 3.9 percent Seventh-day Adventist, and 0.8 percent Anglican. Roman Catholics make up 9.1 percent of the population, and other Christian groups 10.4 percent. There are small communities of Baha’is, Sikhs, and Jews.

Religious affiliation runs largely along ethnic lines. According to the 2007 census, most indigenous Fijians, who constitute 57 percent of the population, are Christian. The majority of the country’s traditional chiefs belong to the Methodist Church, which remains influential among indigenous persons, particularly in rural areas, where 44 percent of the population lives, according to the 2017 census. Most Indian Fijians, who account for 37 percent of the total population, are Hindu, while an estimated 20 percent are Muslim and 6 percent Christian. Approximately 60 percent of the small Chinese community is Christian. The small community of mixed European and Fijian ancestry is predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. The government may limit these rights by law to protect the freedoms of others, or for reasons of public safety, order, morality, health, or nuisance. The constitution mandates separation of religion and state. Citizens have the right, either individually or collectively, in public and private, to manifest their religion or beliefs in worship, observance, practice, or teaching. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation, and laws make inciting hatred or “disaffection” against religious groups a criminal offense. The constitution provides that individuals may not assert religious belief as a reason for disobeying the law. The constitution places limits on proselytizing on government premises and at government functions. Sacrilege is outlawed and is defined as committing any crime within a place of worship after breaking and entering or before exiting with force or intentionally committing any act of disrespect in a place of worship. Penalties may include up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

By law, religious groups must register with the government through trustees, who may then hold land or property for the groups. To register, religious bodies must submit applications to the registrar of titles office. Applications must include the names and identification of the trustees signed by the head of the religious body to be registered, a copy of the constitution of the proposed religious body, title documents for the land used by the religious body, and a registration fee of 2.30 Fiji dollars ($1). Registered religious bodies may receive an exemption from taxes after approval from the national tax agency, on the condition they operate in a nonprofit and noncompetitive capacity. By law, religious bodies that hold land or property must register their houses of worship, including their land, and show proof of title. There is no mention in the law of religious organizations that do not hold land.

Permits are required for any public meeting on public property organized by religious groups with the exception of regular religious services in houses of worship.

There is no required religious instruction under the law. Private or religious groups sometimes own or manage school properties, but the Ministry of Education administers and regulates the curriculum. The law allows religious groups the right to establish, maintain, and manage places of education, whether or not they receive financial assistance from the state, provided the institution maintains educational standards prescribed by law. The law permits noncompulsory religious instruction in all schools, enabling schools owned and operated by various religious denominations but receiving government support to offer religious instruction. Schools may incorporate religious elements, such as class prayer, as long as they do not force teachers to participate and students may be excused if their parents request it. The government provides funding and education assistance to public schools, including schools owned and operated by religious organizations, on a per-pupil basis. Some schools maintain their religious and/or ethnic origin but must remain open to all students. According to the law, the government ensures free tuition for primary and secondary schools.

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

Government Practices

In August, Prime Minister Bainimarama ordered state broadcaster Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (FBC) to refrain from airing an interview with the leader of the Lotu-Vanua. According to media reports, the Prime Minister said the broadcast would confuse religious groups in the country and the general public, since Lotu-Vanua was not an organized religion and the public might believe group leader Timoci Nacola’s stated beliefs, such as that Jesus Christ was born in Fiji. The FBC did not broadcast the interview, but the company’s chief executive said that was due to the controversial material and not the Prime Minister’s comments, according to media reports. While the Pacific Council of Churches criticized the Prime Minister, stating his “interference was authoritarian” and stifled freedom of expression, other Christians, including some Methodists, supported Bainimarama’s actions and criticized the interviews overall, specifically Nacola’s comments against the Bible and Christian practices, such as tithe collection. Earlier, two other television companies, Fiji Village and Mai TV, aired similar interviews with Nacola and representatives of two Christian groups, the Christian Methodist Fellowship Church and the New Methodist Church.

On November 10, Hindu religious leaders and the Fiji Human Rights and Antidiscrimination Commission condemned comments made on social media by Lynda Tabuya, an MP from the opposition Social Democratic Liberal Party, in which she said that Diwali “should not be celebrated on a Sunday because it was a quiet day of rest for Christians.” Tabuya later deleted the Facebook comments, which were widely criticized, and issued a public apology.

Prime Minister Bainimarama, other cabinet ministers, and members of parliament continued to emphasize religious tolerance during public addresses. According to media reports of his address to the nation on October 30 for the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday, the Prime Minister said, “No person has a God-given superiority over another.” In November, Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum emphasized that religious freedom is guaranteed in the constitution, which also allows all faiths the space to practice their religion.

A decision on an appeal against the 2018 acquittal of three staff members of the Fiji Times on sedition charges remained pending at year’s end. The three, which included the editor in chief, were charged for the 2016 publication of a letter to the Fiji Times indigenous-language newspaper Nai Lalakai that the government characterized as antagonistic toward the country’s Muslim community.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 10, Catholic Archbishop of Suva Peter Loy-Chong issued public messages commemorating Diwali, which was celebrated in the country over the November 14-15 weekend. Also in November, the Methodist Church of Fiji issued a statement distancing itself from comments made by the Church’s communications manager on social media, similar to those by MP Tabuya, that “the use of fireworks on Sunday [as part of the Diwali celebration] would disturb other religious gatherings.”

On November 11, police arrested a man for the desecration of a religious statue at the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral in Suva. According to Archbishop Loy-Chong, “A mentally challenged man threw a piece of block at the statue of Mary located in the grotto in front of the church.” He called for Catholics to be compassionate to the person. In public comments, some Indo-Fijians approved of the vandalism. The man’s case remained pending at year’s end. This was the first such act of vandalism against a Catholic church in the country.

On May 24, according to media reports, an unidentified person set fire to the Bible Truth Fellowship Church in Votualevu, Nadi. Members of the church put out the fire, but the building was damaged. At year’s end, a police investigation into the incident was underway.

The Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Hindu and Muslim groups operated numerous schools, including secondary schools, which were eligible for government subsidies based on the size of their student population.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers met with local religious leaders, including the head of the Methodist Church in the country, to promote religious tolerance and to encourage them to maintain an active interfaith dialogue.

On May 20, the Ambassador hosted an iftar to promote religious tolerance. In addition to senior members of the Muslim community, guests included the Minister for Industry and Trade, the Attorney General (both Muslims), and foreign diplomats. In his remarks, the Ambassador highlighted the diversity of religious groups in countries such as Fiji and the United States.

On June 25, the Ambassador convened an interfaith dialogue with religious leaders from the country’s western division and discussed the importance of respect for religious freedom as a universal human right. Religious leaders in attendance included members of the Christian, Hindu, Arya Samaj, International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’i, Sikh, and Muslim communities.

On November 6, the Ambassador spoke on social media and also during remarks at a Diwali commemoration about the importance of faith and protecting religious freedom.

The embassy used social media, including posts that highlighted diverse religious traditions in the country, to promote religious pluralism and tolerance.

Hong Kong

Read A Section: Hong Kong

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.

Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. If a state of emergency is proclaimed, the rights may not be limited based solely on religion.

On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both, provided they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Dafa Association is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it may establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.

Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.

Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”

In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”

Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.

Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.

In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.

Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.

In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.

Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.

Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

Read a Section

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

India

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Ten of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In February, continued protests related to the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excludes Muslims from expedited naturalization provisions granted to migrants of other faiths, became violent in New Delhi after counterprotestors attacked demonstrators. According to reports, religiously motivated attacks resulted in the deaths of 53 persons, most of whom were Muslim, and two security officials. According to international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch, “Witnesses accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation of the riots by New Delhi police. The investigations were still ongoing at year’s end, with the New Delhi police stating it arrested almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims. The government and media initially attributed some of the spread of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six of the conference’s attendees tested positive for the virus. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s early COVID-19 cases were linked to that event. Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said conference attendees spread COVID-19 “like terrorism,” which politicians and some media outlets described as “Corona Jihad.” Courts across the country dismissed numerous charges filed against Tablighi Jamaat members. Two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating the COVID-19 curfews in Tamil Nadu. NGOs reported that nine police officers involved in the incident were charged with murder and destruction of evidence. In June, more than 200 Muslim residents of a village in Uttar Pradesh said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities. Political party leaders made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts about religious minorities. Attacks on members of religious minority communities, based on allegations of cow slaughter or trade in beef, occurred throughout the year. Such “cow vigilantism” included killings, assaults, and intimidation. Uttar Pradesh police filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August. In October, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim individual arrested under the act. NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized amendments passed in September to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) as constraining civil society by reducing the amount of foreign funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, could use for administrative purposes and adding onerous oversight and certification requirements. The government said the law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country. In February, the government cancelled the FCRA licenses of five Christian-linked NGOs, cutting off their foreign funding. In September, the NGO Amnesty International India ceased operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to a FCRA investigation that the NGO says was motivated by its critical reporting against the government. In September, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court acquitted all 32 persons, including former BJP politicians, charged in the case of the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The CBI court ruled that the demolition of the mosque was a “spontaneous act” and there was no evidence of conspiracy.

There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. In January, during anti-CAA protests in New Delhi, an armed crowd stormed a mosque, killed the muezzin, beat the imam, scattered worshippers, and set the building on fire. In September, media reported that a Hindu woman was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying a Muslim; two Muslims were arrested for the crime. The NGO United Christian Forum’s violence monitor stated that attacks on Christians and their places of worship continued to escalate in both number and severity in 2020. The Christian NGO Persecution Relief documented 293 instances of attacks or harassment of Christians in the country in the first half of the year, despite the widespread pandemic lockdown, including six rapes and eight murders. There were 208 incidents during the same period in 2019. In its annual report, the NGO Alliance for Defense of Freedom (ADF) documented 279 instances of violence against Christians during the year, with Uttar Pradesh State reporting 70 incidents and Chhattisgarh State 66. In June, a 14-year-old boy was abducted and killed in the Malkangiri District of Odisha State. Christian organizations attributed the killing to his family’s conversion to Christianity three years earlier. Police arrested two suspects, and four remained at large at year’s end. Some Hindu leaders accused Christian leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation.

During engagements with the majority and opposition parties, civil society representatives, religious freedom activists, and leaders of various faith communities, U.S. government officials discussed the importance of religious freedom and pluralism, the value of interfaith dialogue, the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, and difficulties faced by faith-based and human rights-focused NGOs following the FCRA amendments and allegations that Muslims spread the COVID virus. Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths to discuss their perspectives and concerns. In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable with civil society members in New Delhi to discuss interfaith harmony and promoting tolerance. In January, the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event to discuss the importance of mutual respect and combating religious intolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute fewer than two percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially recognizes more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated 10 million of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members are Christians, according to the 2011 census.

According to government estimates, there are large Muslim populations in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state or territory in which Muslims are a majority. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni, with the remainder mostly Shia. Christian populations are distributed throughout the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three northeastern states have majority Christian populations: Nagaland (90 percent), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of the population of Punjab. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. According to media reports, approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as religiously based restrictions on access to public or private establishments. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits the use of public funds to support any religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.

Federal law empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunal tensions, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate laws governing foreign contributions.

Ten of the 28 states in the country have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.

Violators, including missionaries, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if converts are minors, women, or members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($680). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment, fines of 25,000 rupees ($340), or both. Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may include prison sentences.

Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near places of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($68).

The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and their members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.

There are no requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funding, in which case they must register under the FCRA. Federal law requires religious organizations registered under the FCRA to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.

Organizations conducting “cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” that receive foreign funding are required to obtain a license under the FCRA. The federal government may also require that licensed organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject a license application or a request to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be acting against “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”

Legislation passed in September reduces the amount of funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, may use for administrative purposes from 50 to 20 percent and prohibits NGOs from transferring foreign funds to third parties.

The constitution states that any legal reference to Hindus is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Jains, but it identifies the groups as separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.

Federal law provides official minority-community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status under state law to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region. Members of recognized minority groups are eligible for government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government is responsible for protecting religious minorities and enabling them to preserve their culture and religious interests.

Personal status laws establish civil codes for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national and state legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If law boards or community leaders are not able to resolve disputes, cases are referred to the civil courts.

Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are generally required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment, although this requirement varies across states. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.

The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages but does not include divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For example, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.

Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that traditionally consume beef. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. Gujarat state law mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts of manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.

One state, Madhya Pradesh, sets fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($340 to $680) and prison sentences of six months to three years for “cow vigilantism,” i.e., committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.

The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These agencies have no enforcement powers but conduct investigations based on written complaints of criminal or civil violations and submit findings to law enforcement agencies. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.

The constitution establishes the legal basis for preferential public benefit programs for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities and members of the “Other Backward Classes,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. The constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists are eligible to be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste. As a result, Christians and Muslims qualify for benefits if deemed to be members of “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.

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

Government Practices

In February, continued protests and counterprotests related to the CAA devolved into rioting between members of Hindu and Muslim communities in East Delhi, during which 53 people were killed and nearly 400 injured. Two security officials were also killed. The police arrested 1,829 persons in connection with the riots. In its report covering 2020, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that while a police officer and some Hindus were also killed in the rioting, the majority of victims were Muslim. The HRW report also said, “Witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” In one example reported by The Guardian, Mufti Mohammad Tahir was forcibly removed by police from a mosque near Mustafabad and handed over to a crowd, which beat him unconscious and set fire to the mosque.

Among those arrested in the protests were activist and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid and Jamia Milia Islamia student and activist Safoora Zargar, both Muslims. The Delhi High Court released Zargar on bail in June for health considerations. On October 22, Khalid told a Delhi court that he was being kept in solitary confinement, which had taken a toll on his “mental and physical health.”

Human rights activists and NGOs said that members of the governing BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindu nationalist organization made inflammatory public remarks about anti-CAA protesters but were not charged by police. HRW said that the violence in Delhi broke out soon after a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, demanded that the police clear the roads of protesters. In another example, in a widely viewed video posted online on January 3, Somashekhara Reddy, a state-level BJP member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, threatened Muslims protesting the CAA. He said, “We are 80 percent and you [the CAA protesters] are just 17 percent. Imagine what will happen to you if we turn against you.”

On April 9, the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) demanded the police take action in response to attacks against Muslims in New Delhi during the CAA protests. The DMC requested a report from the commissioner and unspecified “proper action” from the police over “random arrests” of Muslims in connection with the CAA riots in February. The DMC also asked police to file formal charges against perpetrators for an alleged attack on a mosque in Delhi on April 8. A July report by the DMC said the violence in Delhi was “planned and targeted,” and it found that police were filing cases against Muslims for acts of violence but were not acting against Hindu leaders accused of inciting violence, including municipal-level BJP politicians.

Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation into the riots by Delhi police. The Delhi police commissioner stated that the investigation was being carried out without regard to religion and party affiliation and noted that arrests included almost equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus.

Parliament passed the CAA in December 2019 to provide an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered the country on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. As of late 2020, the government had not yet enacted rules to implement the CAA. Domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties criticized the exclusion of Muslims from the legislation, sparking widespread protests. Activists, NGOs, and political parties filed petitions against the CAA on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. None of the more than 100 legal challenges had been heard by the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Commentators, members of some political parties, and activists said the CAA was part of an effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. They also questioned delays in hearing legal challenges to the legislation. The government stated the legislation facilitated naturalization for refugees from religious minorities who had fled neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could also apply for citizenship through other mechanisms.

According to AsiaNews, two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating COVID-19 pandemic curfews in Thoothukudi District, Tamil Nadu. The victims were a man and his son, who were detained for keeping their shop open beyond restricted hours on June 19. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said to the media, “Such violence from those who should defend citizens is unacceptable. Justice must run its course and punish the guilty.” The All India Catholic Union also called for intervention by the authorities. The NGO International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that four police officers were suspended after the state government opened an investigation. HRW stated that the CBI, which was asked to investigate the deaths following nationwide outrage, charged nine police officers with murder and destruction of evidence in the case.

In September, the Jharkhand Health Ministry ordered administrative action against two doctors who had allegedly declined to provide adequate medical care to Tabrez Ansari, a Muslim who was assaulted by a mob in Jharkhand in 2019 and subsequently died. In August, Ansari’s wife met with Chief Minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren and requested an expedited trial and enhanced compensation. Some NGOs and media outlets continued to report that lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence. HRW reported that since May 2015, 50 persons had been killed and more than 250 injured in mob attacks, including instances when Muslims were beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans. HRW reported that in some cases, police failed to investigate these attacks, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses to intimidate them.

Some Hindu community leaders accused Christian community leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation. According to the ICC, in June, Chief Minister of Haryana State Manohar Lal Khattar announced his intention to add an anticonversion law to the state’s legal code. Such a law had not been passed by year’s end. On August 11, Hindu nationalists attacked four Christian women at a prayer service in Faridabad District of Haryana.

On November 25, Uttar Pradesh State approved a law which would impose penalties of up to 10 years in prison for “unlawful religious conversions” and “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion.” The governor signed the law into effect on November 28, and authorities made their first arrest under the new law on December 2, according to Indian media sources. The suspect, Owais Ahmad, was accused of pressuring a Hindu woman married to another man to leave him, convert to Islam, and marry Ahmad. His case was pending at year’s end. The Uttar Pradesh government had proposed the law after 14 cases were reported in Kanpur of Muslim men concealing their religious identity, allegedly to lure Hindu girls into romantic relationships, marry them, and force them to convert to Islam, a practice commonly referred to as “love jihad” (a derogatory term). In September, Kanpur police established a special team to investigate these cases after 11 instances of forced conversion on the pretext of marriage were reported in one month.

On December 26, Madhya Pradesh State implemented the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion ordinance, replacing the 1968 Freedom of Religion Act. The ordinance requires prior permission from a district official to convert to the spouse’s faith in case of interfaith marriage, with a prison term of up to 10 years for violators. Some NGOs criticized the law for targeting Muslim men wishing to marry or enter into relationships with non-Muslim women. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan State, Ashok Gehlot (Congress Party), said the law was “manufactured by the BJP to divide the nation on communal lines.” BJP politicians, including in states where the law had not been proposed, stated that the legislation was necessary to protect Hindu and Christian women from forced religious conversion.

On March 13, the Delhi High Court rejected a petition by local BJP politician Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay to enact a law in that state to regulate and prevent religious conversions by force or deceit, similar to the anticonversion laws enacted in other states. The court stated that religion is a personal belief and to convert to a different faith was an individual’s choice.

On March 8, according to media reports, police detained a pastor and a group of volunteers from his church for distributing food and medicine to slum residents in Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu. A local Hindu filed a complaint that the church group was proselytizing. The minister and volunteers denied the allegation and said they had been slapped and harassed while in custody at the Marakkanam police station. Police released them with a warning.

According to ADF India, on February 18, a district court in Ratlam acquitted eight Christians who had been accused in 2017 of conspiring to kidnap 60 children and covert them to Christianity in Maharashtra State.

On March 15, a group of Hindus attacked a church service in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, with hockey sticks and steel rods without intervention from police who were present, according to Pastor Indresh Kumar Gautam. Gautam told media that the Hindus accused the worshippers of increasing Christian conversions in the area. Instead of stopping the attack, police took the pastor, three Christian worshippers, and a non-Christian into custody, Gautam said. The pastor said the non-Christian was released immediately. The other four were held for six hours and released on bail after signing affidavits stating they would not be involved in further Christian conversion activities in the area. Gautam also said that a police officer beat him.

The NGOs ICC and ADF India stated that authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, most frequently Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, including Section 259A of the national penal code. In September, the ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A and were subsequently released on bail.

On June 6, more than 200 Muslim residents of Taprana village in Shamli town, Muzzafarnagar District, Uttar Pradesh, said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. Villagers told media that a police raid on May 26 prompted them to move. They said police ransacked and looted homes during the raid and arrested a Muslim resident who had returned to the village before his six-month ban for cow slaughter had ended. One witness said this was the fourth such raid in two months.

On September 30, a special CBI court acquitted all 32 persons, including former senior BJP politicians L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, charged in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu activists in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, which sparked violence that led to an estimated 2,000 deaths, mostly of local Muslim residents. The court ruled that the destruction of the mosque had not been a “preplanned act” and that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to carry it out. Some Muslim organizations pledged to appeal the ruling, and some political analysts noted that the judgment was likely to fuel feelings of discontent and marginalization among the country’s Muslim minority, while others disagreed with the ruling but welcomed a resolution to the divisive case after several decades. NGOs and opposition politicians said the outcome was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s prior findings and expressed frustration that the court’s judgment meant an absence of accountability for the mosque’s destruction.

In November 2019, the Supreme Court awarded the site where the Babri Mosque had stood to a trust for the purpose of constructing a Hindu temple there and provided five acres of land in the city for the construction of a new mosque. On August 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the inauguration ceremony for construction of the temple. Some opposition politicians and members of civil society expressed opposition to the Prime Minister’s attending a religious ceremony in an official capacity.

On July 9, a temple and two mosques located on the premises of a Telangana State office complex were damaged during the construction of a new office complex, prompting Hindu and Muslim organizations and political parties to call for reconstruction of the structures. State Chief Minister Chandrashekar Rao said the damage was accidental, expressed regret for the incident, and said the state would construct a new temple and mosques as part of the new complex. In response to a demand from the Christian community, the Chief Minister announced on September 5 that a church would also be built in the new complex.

In October, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple on the former site of the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple, which had been demolished in August 2019 as part of a government drive against illegal properties. Hindu Dalit groups had protested the demolition and demanded the temple’s reconstruction.

The government and media initially attributed early cases of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six conference attendees – including some who had travelled from abroad – had tested positive for the virus after gathering at a large event in contravention of social distancing provisions. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s COVID-19 cases were linked to the event. Some studies indicated the event had resulted in an initial spread of COVID-19. A BJP member of the state legislative assembly in Karnataka said the Tablighi Jamaat conference attendees were spreading COVID-19 “like terrorism.” A senior state-level BJP leader in Maharashtra State called the Muslims who attended the conference “human bombs.” Politicians and some media labeled this “Corona Jihad,” which some NGOs said reflected increasing anti-Muslim sentiment.

At a press briefing on April 4, Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary Punya Salila Srivastava said that law enforcement agencies “through a massive effort, had located and placed around 22,000 Tablighi Jamaat workers and their contacts in quarantine.” Most of those quarantined were Muslim. In July, authorities charged conference participants from 34 countries, most of whom were Muslim, for violation of visa conditions and “malicious spreading of COVID-19.” Of 956 Tablighi Jamaat members and foreign nationals detained in Delhi, 249 were granted bail and an additional 132 were released in July. In Uttar Pradesh State, 512 Tablighi Jamaat members were released in June following court orders.

In an online address to the nation on April 26, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS, called on Indians not to discriminate against anyone in the fight against COVID-19. In a reference to the March Tablighi Jamaat conference, he asked people not to target members of a “particular community” (i.e., Muslims) “just because of the actions of a few.” Prime Minister Modi tweeted on April 19, “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, color, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood.”

On April 3, the Gujarat High Court directed national and Gujarat State officials to submit a list of citizens and foreign nationals who participated in the Tablighi Jamaaat conference and later entered Gujarat. On August 21, the Aurangabad bench of the Mumbai High Court annulled complaints against 29 foreign nationals alleged to have violated their visas by visiting Maharashtra State (where Mumbai is located) after attending the conference. The judges said that authorities had identified and charged the foreigners in order to make them scapegoats. On September 21, during a Gujarat State legislature meeting, Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel and other BJP lawmakers in Gujarat said that Tablighi Jamaat members were responsible for the initial spread of COVID-19 in that state.

On September 24, the Nagpur Bench of the Mumbai High Court dismissed a case against eight Burmese Muslims who were charged with engaging in religious activities that contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in Maharashtra State. The eight had visited a mosque in Nagpur just before pandemic restrictions were imposed in March.

On June 17, the Telangana State High Court questioned Hyderabad police on why cases were registered against “a disproportionate number of Muslims” on the charge of violating COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The court asked the state police chief to submit evidence of action taken against police officials who used excess force on the alleged violators of the lockdown. Police denied that they were targeting Muslims and said their internal investigation showed that all had suffered their injuries “accidentally.”

The NGO Shia Rights Watch said that during the month of Muharram (August 20 to September 17), authorities had restricted Shia processions in areas of Jammu and Kashmir, blocking roads, arresting 200 persons, and injuring 40. Authorities said the processions were in violation of the COVID-19 lockdown orders.

On March 27, police in Kandhamal District of Odisha arrested a pastor and an official of a church on a charge of violating lockdown restrictions and conducting prayers with approximately 60 attendees. The pastor said he was leading the prayer service because it was “the only weapon” against the virus. The two were later released on bail.

On March 29, police in Hyderabad detained a pastor for organizing worship in a church during a COVID-19 lockdown. He was charged with disobeying an order from a public servant and conducting an act likely to spread an infectious disease dangerous to life. The pastor was released on bail; his case remained under investigation at year’s end.

On April 5, police in the Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh dispersed a Sunday church gathering of 150 persons and arrested Pastor N. Vijay Ratnam on a charge of violating lockdown guidelines. On April 8, police in Hyderabad arrested 10 Muslims, including two imams, for violating lockdown restrictions and offering prayers in a mosque. Ratnam and the imams were released on bail; their cases were under routine investigation at year’s end.

On November 5, a National Investigative Agency (NIA) court in Mumbai extended the detention of Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and 84-year-old social activist, on sedition charges in connection with a violent demonstration that resulted in several deaths. NIA officers arrested him on October 8 at his residence on the outskirts of Ranchi, Jharkhand, and his communication with others during detention was strictly regulated. Swamy remained in jail at year’s end.

On July 28, according to media reports, the BJP-controlled Karnataka State government removed some lessons on Christianity and Islam from middle school social science textbooks, stating that the move was intended to shorten the curriculum while school sessions were limited due to pandemic restrictions. After strong reaction from the state’s opposition parties, the state government agreed to review the decision. As of the end of the year, the review was pending.

On October 19, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state’s Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim arrested under the act. Uttar Pradesh police had filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August. According to Uttar Pradesh State government data, the National Security Act (NSA) was also used in some cow slaughter cases; observers said this was to make the charges more serious. Persons detained under the NSA may be held up to 12 months without formal charges.

On March 9, the Gujarat High Court overruled a lower court’s order and allowed two Hindus to sell their property to a Muslim under the terms of the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act, which mandates that property buyers and sellers of different religions receive prior permission for transactions in specified neighborhoods. The State of Gujarat has the only such law in the country. The court decision was significant, according to the Gujarat Minority Coordination Committee, which monitors human rights in the area, because the Gujarat law in practice often restricted Muslims to buying and selling property in low-income areas.

On August 30, a Hindu man in Gujarat filed a complaint with police objecting to his Parsi neighbor’s selling land to a Muslim and alleging the buyer concealed his religion and forged documents to evade provisions of the Gujarat Disturbed Areas Act. The complaint remained under police investigation at year’s end.

In July, Minister for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi stated that cases of triple talaq (the practice by which a Muslim man may immediately divorce his wife by saying the Arabic word talaq three times) had declined by 82 percent since the government passed a bill in 2019 criminalizing the practice. He said the law had nothing to do with religion and had been passed to ensure gender equality by ending an “inhuman, cruel, and unconstitutional practice.”

In February, Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde referred to a seven-judge panel for action a 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions, including Aligarh Muslim University, and their independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. The panel had not ruled on the petition by the end of the year.

On September 15, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath announced that a new museum in Agra would be renamed after the Hindu warrior-king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj instead of in honor of the nation’s historic Muslim Mughal rulers, as had been announced by the previous government in Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath said that the Muslim rulers “cannot be our heroes.”

In September, the national parliament amended the FCRA to prohibit NGOs registered under the act from using more than 20 percent of the foreign funding they receive for administrative expenses. Previously, this limit was 50 percent. The amendment also prohibited FCRA-registered NGOs from transferring their foreign funding to a third party. Opposition parties and NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized the amendment and said it was an attempt to muzzle civil society voices. According to HRW, the amendments “added onerous governmental oversight, additional regulations and certification processes, and operational requirements, which would adversely affect civil society groups, and effectively restrict access to foreign funding for small nongovernmental organizations.” The government defended the amendment, stating it strengthened the regulatory mechanism that governs use of foreign funding by NGOs in the country and that NGOs were required to comply with relevant laws.

On February 5, the Ministry of Home Affairs suspended the FCRA licenses of Ecreosoculis North Western Gossner Evangelical in Jharkhand, the Evangelical Churches Association (ECA) in Manipur, the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jharkhand, and the New Life Fellowship Association Mumbai, preventing the organizations from receiving funds from outside of the country. The ministry said these organizations were engaged in proselytizing, which is a violation for organizations registered under the FCRA.

On September 29, Amnesty International India announced that it was ceasing operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to an FCRA investigation. The NGO said the government had accused it of violating foreign funding laws in reprisal for its human rights advocacy. In 2018 and 2019, the NGO had documented what were described as numerous hate crime incidents against Christians and Muslims in the country.

On September 15, in response to a petition filed by Jamia Milia Islamia, the Supreme Court suspended broadcasts of a news serial program, Bindas Bol, on the grounds that it was prejudiced against the notion of Muslims joining the Indian civil services and that it “vilified” the Muslim community. The court upheld the suspension in subsequent hearings.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah told the media in September that as a result of the central government’s ending the special constitutional status of the territory in 2019 and assuming responsibility for government personnel decisions, an unknown number of Muslim civil servants had been removed from their positions in the territory and replaced by Hindus.

In November, Karnataka member of the legislative council Shantaram Siddi said that members of his Siddi minority group, who are descended from African slaves in Goa, should not be considered members of the Scheduled Tribes, and thus eligible for government benefits, if they converted from Hinduism to Islam or Christianity. He stated that those who converted and received benefits were putting Hindu Siddis at a disadvantage.

Organizations representing members of Dalit communities continued to challenge at the Supreme Court the practice of denying members of lower castes eligibility for educational and job placement programs for those who convert from Hinduism to another religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

International media reported that Hindus led violent attacks against Muslims during February riots in East Delhi. In one case reported by The Guardian, Muhammed Zubar said he was beaten with clubs by a group chanting Hindu slogans. The Guardian also reported the case of Imran Khan, who said a mob surrounded him on the street, identified him as Muslim, and beat him unconscious with iron rods, crowbars, and metal pipes before dragging him into a gutter with a rope tied around his neck.

According to the NGO Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), national media reported 23 incidents of mob lynching during the year, compared with 107 incidents in 2019. The CSSS said the decline was attributed to the COVID-19 lockdowns around the country. Twenty-two individuals were killed in the attacks, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, according to the CSSS. Seven of the incidents were directly linked to cow vigilantism. For example, on January 31, a mob in the Bhiwandi District of Maharashtra State attacked Muslims Nafees Qureshi, Aamir Khan, and Aakib Aalam, who were loading a buffalo into their vehicle. Police arrived to break up the attack, but Qureshi died in the hospital from injuries inflicted by the mob. Police later filed a murder case against six of the attackers.

On April 16, according to media reports, a mob in Palghar, Maharashtra, lynched Hindu monks Kalpavrukshagiri Maharaj and Sushilgiri Maharaj along with their driver, accusing them of being child kidnappers. The mob pulled the three monks from a police vehicle and killed them, also injuring two police officers. Opposition party members in Maharashtra said the killings were motivated by the religious identity of the victims and that the perpetrators were Christian, but the Maharashtra government stated the incident was due to general fear and suspicion of child kidnapping in the area.

The NGO United Christian Forum’s violence monitor stated that attacks on Christians and their places of worship continued to escalate in both number and severity during the year. According to the NGO, COVID-19 lockdowns did not lessen attacks on religious minorities. However, the monitor recorded 200 attacks against Christians as of November 12, compared to more than 300 cases reported in all of 2019.

Tehmina Arora, the director of ADF India, said attacks against Christians happened “nearly every day.” In its annual report, the ADF documented 279 instances of violence against Christians in 2020, with Uttar Pradesh reporting 70 incidents and Chhattisgarh 66. On November 16, a group of individuals described as religious extremists disrupted a wedding ceremony at a church in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, and threatened the pastor. The protesters also prevented the pastor from holding prayer services, according to the ADF. The ADF report also said that the Uttar Pradesh law against unlawful religious conversions targeted Christians and restricted their individual freedom to convert to another faith.

The Christian NGO Persecution Relief reported 293 cases of attacks on or harassment of Christians in the country in the first half of the year, despite the widespread pandemic lockdown. The incidents included six rapes and eight killings, according to the NGO. During the same period in 2019, Persecution Relief recorded 208 incidents. The NGO also reported an increase in social media posts by Hindus accusing Christians of forced conversions that included footage of attacks on Christians.

In July, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) stated there had been 135 attacks against Christian churches, homes, or individuals across the country in the first six months of the year. EFI general secretary Vijayesh Lal said attacks increased during the pandemic lockdown. In September, however, EFI reported 32 incidents of religiously motivated violence against Christians in Uttar Pradesh in the first six months of 2020, compared with 86 recorded incidents in the state in all of 2019. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, the COVID-19 lockdowns likely reduced persecution in Uttar Pradesh, but reported attacks against Christians increased once pandemic restrictions eased.

In its World Watch List 2020 report, the NGO Open Doors stated that Hindu extremists, who believed the country should “be rid of Christianity and Islam,” used extensive violence, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background. According to the NGO, Christians were often accused of following a “foreign faith” and physically attacked in their villages.

Unlike previous years, the government did not present statistics on religious violence to parliament during the year.

In an example of the sectarian violence sparked by continued protests over the CAA, CNN reported that an armed crowd stormed a mosque in the Ashok Nagar area of New Delhi on January 25, killed the muezzin, beat the imam, scattered worshippers, and set the building on fire.

On September 25, according to media reports, Priya Soni, a Hindu, was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying Muslim Ajaz Ahmed in a civil ceremony. Ahmed and Shoaib Akhtar, also a Muslim, were arrested for the crime and were in custody while the police investigation continued at year’s end. According to media, Ahmed and Akhtar were part of an organized group that lured Hindu women into marriage and then forced them to convert.

On October 26, Nikita Tomar, a Hindu, was killed by a Muslim outside her college in Faridabad, Haryana State. Tomar’s family said that she had resisted pressure by her killer to convert to Islam and marry him. In January, the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala issued a statement that 12 Christian women had been forcibly converted to Islam and taken to Syria to join ISIS and that some may have been killed.

On June 4, 14-year-old Samaru Madkami was abducted and killed in the Malkangiri District of Odisha. Police said they suspected he was killed because the attackers believed he had been practicing witchcraft, but Christian organizations attributed the killing to his family’s conversion to Christianity three years earlier. Police arrested two suspects, while four remained at large at year’s end. A church source stated that 14 Christians had been killed in Malkangiri District in the previous two years.

On August 12, according to media reports, police in Bangalore fatally shot three persons during violent protests by Muslims regarding a Facebook post they said denigrated the Prophet Mohammed. Sixty police were also injured. Bangalore police arrested the nephew of a Karnataka State legislator from the Congress Party for posting the item on Facebook.

The NGO Persecution Relief reported that on January 12, Hindu activists attacked several Christian homes in Banni Mardatti village in Karnataka State, which led Christian families to move away from the village. On March 1, a Karnataka pastor was attacked by Hindu activists as he led church services. Persecution Relief reported that the pastor was dragged out of his house church, tied to a tree, and beaten with sticks.

Morning Star News reported that a crowd of more than 200 attacked a house church in Haryana State on January 5, beating and kicking the pastor, whom they accused of forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity. Police officers took the pastor to a hospital for treatment of a broken leg before detaining him for forcible conversion. He was released on bail on January 7.

The NGO ICC reported that a crowd disrupted a prayer service being hosted in a local home on March 11, then returned to beat the leader of the service and ransack his home when he and his family would not renounce their faith. The victim was hospitalized for a week. Local police declined to take action against the assailants, according to the NGO.

On September 16, assailants in Jharkhand State’s Simdega District reportedly beat seven tribal Christians, partially shaved their heads, and forced them to chant Hindu invocations. The assailants alleged the Christians had slaughtered a cow. Police arrested four of the nine assailants.

In March, the Juvenile Justice Board in Alwar, Rajasthan State handed down the first punishment in the 2017 mob killing of Muslim cattle trader and dairy farmer Pehlu Khan. The board sentenced two minor defendants to three years in a juvenile home.

Several Muslim leaders and activists in Telangana State said local BJP leaders and other Hindu activists encouraged Hindus not to buy from Muslim merchants following media reports that many attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi in March, who had been accused of spreading COVID-19, were from Telangana.

In April, a leading Urdu-language newspaper warned against a “new wave of hatred against Muslims” created under the pretext of the Tablighi Jamaat’s “so-called civic irresponsibility amid the lockdown.” The newspaper stated, “The assumption that the [Tablighi] Jamaat and Muslims are solely responsible for the spread of coronavirus in India is very dangerous.”

In June, the ICC stated that local Hindu groups in charge of food aid distribution during the pandemic lockdown denied aid to Christian groups unless they renounced their faith. In at least one instance, according to the ICC, Hindus and police attacked a pastor and his congregation, saying the aid was not meant for Christians.

On March 5, a group of Hindu activists prevented a Christian evangelist and his wife from distributing Bible literature in Vellore District, Tamil Nadu State. The activists then assaulted the couple and smeared Hindu sacred ash on their foreheads.

On March 2, Hindu activists entered the Catholic Sanjo Hospital in Karnataka State and assaulted staff for keeping copies of the Bible in hospital rooms and holding prayer services. Police subsequently arrested one hospital employee for proselytizing.

According to Persecution Relief, a Dalit Christian family was prevented from obtaining water from a local well by Hindu groups in a village in Karnataka State. Local police were called to resolve the matter, and the family was permitted to retrieve water.

On February 2, Jharkhand Disom Party (JDP) workers in West Bengal’s Malda District violently disrupted a Hindu mass wedding ceremony for 130 tribal couples organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). A JDP leader told the media that the tribal individuals were being converted to Hinduism by being married in a Hindu ceremony. The leader also said that the VHP had enticed participants by promising each couple 12,000 rupees ($160). VHP representatives said they organized the wedding ceremony in line with tribal customs.

There were numerous acts of vandalism and arson targeting Christian sites and symbols during the year. The NGO Persecution Relief documented 49 cases of churches being vandalized, destroyed, or burned over six months, including in Belgaum District, Karnataka, where a church under construction was set on fire on December 17. The NGO said the pastor filed a complaint with police, but arsonists returned on December 22 and set the church on fire again. Police provided protection to the pastor and church members after the second incident.

On June 13, unidentified individuals burned down the Church of True Peace Pentecostal Church in Tamil Nadu’s Chengalpattu District. The pastor said he suspected arson and filed a report with local police. According to Persecution Relief, attacks on Christians in Tamil Nadu increased steadily in recent years, with 57 reported in 2017, 67 in 2018, and 75 in 2019.

In January, unknown individuals vandalized the St. Francis Assisi Catholic Church in a suburb of Bengaluru and ransacked the altar, according to media accounts. Police opened an investigation.

On March 3, police removed a statute of Jesus from a Christian cemetery in Doddasagarhalli, Karnataka, after local Hindus pressed local authorities to remove it, according to the Catholic news site Crux. Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore condemned the “forceful removal” of the statute from land that local Christians had used without incident as a cemetery for more than 30 years. He stated the site was not being used for forcible conversions, as alleged by Hindus from outside the village. Machado said the removal was a “violation of the religious freedom guaranteed to us by the Indian Constitution.”

Media reported that in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, a group threw a bottle filled with gasoline at one mosque and stones at another in retaliation for an attack made on a local Hindu leader during the protests against the CAA.

A Hindu temple in East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh State was damaged by fire on September 6. In the protests that followed on September 8, a mob attacked a local church with stones, damaging its windows and compound wall. Police arrested 43 persons belonging to various Hindu organizations in connection with the attack on the church. Andhra Pradesh police opened an investigation into the church attack, but all suspects were free on bail at year’s end. On September 11, the state government ordered a separate probe by the CBI into the temple fire; the probe had not begun as of year’s end.

On September 1, unidentified persons demolished a church in Khammam District, Telangana State. The pastor said that Hindu nationalists carried out the attack in retaliation for a complaint he filed against them in 2019 for disturbing worship.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

During the year, U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government officials to discuss reports of religious freedom abuses. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with members of parliament and politicians from the ruling and opposition parties on the CAA. They emphasized the importance the United States attaches to religious freedom and the responsibility of democracies to ensure the rights of religious minorities. Among the issues discussed were the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, difficulties faced by faith-based NGOs in the wake of amendments to the FCRA, and allegations that Muslims spread the COVID-19 virus.

Embassy and consulate officials met with political leaders from religious minorities, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities and reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy representatives engaged civil rights NGOs, media representatives, interfaith groups, religious leaders, and politicians to discuss their perspectives on the CAA and its continued impact.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the importance the U.S. government attached to religious freedom in the country. Members of academia, media commentators on interfaith issues, NGO interfaith activists, and representatives of multiple faiths participated.

In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable on religious freedom issues with civil society members in Delhi. Also in January, the U.S. Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event at his residence and discussed with representatives of principal faiths the rising trend of religious intolerance in the country and how to confront it. In March, embassy officers met with activists of a Dalit human rights network to discuss the perspectives of Dalits and other marginalized religious communities.

Indonesia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides a guarantee of 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 for violations of blasphemy laws. In April, police arrested individuals across the country for blasphemy related to social media uploads that included altered lyrics to a popular song about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including caning a woman, who received 200 strokes for her extramarital affairs with two men, who each received 100 strokes for their involvement. In Riau Province, a local community had been preventing renovations at a Catholic church until President Joko Widodo’s cabinet became involved in February and mediated the dispute to ensure the renovations could begin. At the national level, government and religious leaders cooperated closely in developing restrictions to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some disputes occurred between government authorities and religious groups at the local level. In December, a joint ministerial decree outlawed the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group known to observers for violence and religious intolerance, for its violations of law. That same month, police arrested the leader of the FPI for organizing large gatherings in violation of COVID-19 health protocols and for being involved in an altercation that left six FPI members dead. In September, a Christian pastor was killed in Papua Province, with human rights organizations stating that members of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) involved in a conflict with Papuan armed separatists were responsible. In February, local authorities in Bandung, Central Java, organized an interfaith parade that attracted more than 6,000 persons, where government and police officials signed a document stating their intent to support religious tolerance and harmony.

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. Individuals affiliated at the local level with the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a national, quasi-governmental Muslim clerical body, used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims. There were multiple reports of assaults on Shia Muslims at Shia events. In August, several Islamic organizations associated with the South Sulawesi chapter of the United Islam Community Forum (FUIB) released a statement condemning the Shia community and its plans to commemorate Ashura. In April and May, reports of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” spread on social media that claimed Jews, Christians, and communists were using COVID-19 and restrictions on public gatherings to destroy Islam. In March, an interfaith group of representatives from 11 youth wings of the largest religious organizations in the country signed a declaration promoting religious tolerance within the country and internationally.

In October, the U.S. Secretary of State gave a speech at an event hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest independent Muslim organization in the world, on the importance of religious freedom and pluralism. The Ambassador and embassy and consulate officials advocated for religious freedom with the government, including at the highest levels. Issues raised included 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. Members of the U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – an organization 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. The embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach to promote 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 267 million (midyear 2020 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, 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 five 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 persons, 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.

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 (CSO) from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MORA before granting legal status to religious organizations. The law requires all CSOs 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 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 may be charged with blasphemy, and may receive a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy.

There is no joint ministerial decree that bans proselytizing by other groups. The MUI, 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. While the MUI has not labelled Shia Islam as deviant, it has issued fatwas and guidance cautioning against the spread of Shia teachings.

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

A 2006 joint ministerial decree issued by 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 provincial and district/city 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 sexual conduct, 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 clothes in public, and officials often recommended wearing headscarves. The regulation allows local officials to “remind” female Muslims of these regulations but does not allow women’s detention for violating them. 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 law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it requires 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 similar faith traditions 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 door-to-door proselytizing. Most religious groups may, however, proselytize in their own places of worship, except for some groups such as 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

The government was involved in a number of actions against the FPI that included a December 7 altercation with police that resulted in the deaths of six FPI members; the December 12 arrest of the FPI’s leader for violating COVID-19 related health protocols; and a December 30 government proclamation outlawing the FPI, its symbols, and any of its activities. Civil society and religious organizations have long accused the FPI of being a hardline Muslim group that engages in acts of violence, extortion, intimidation, and intolerance against other Muslims and religious and ethnic minority communities.

On November 10, Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the FPI, returned to the country after three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia. Shihab had originally left in 2017 while facing criminal investigations related to accusations that he had committed blasphemy, spread hate speech, been involved in land grabs, insulted the national ideology of Pancasila, and violated the antipornography law. Following his return, Shihab organized several large gatherings in Jakarta and West Java on November 13-14. Police arrested Shihab on charges of involvement in organizing mass gatherings in violation of COVID-19 health protocols. On December 29, a South Jakarta District Court judge ordered authorities to reopen the investigation into Shihab’s possible violation of the antipornography law for exchanging sexually explicit messages with a follower, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of 12 years in prison.

On December 7, police shot and killed six FPI members on the Jakarta-Cikampek toll road. According to Jakarta police, they received a tip that the six were part of a group planning to prevent police from questioning Shihab. Police officials said the shooting occurred in self-defense after the six FPI members attempted to attack the police. An investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), an independent, government-affiliated body, was underway at year’s end.

On December 30, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD announced a joint ministerial decree that declared the FPI was a “nonregistered” organization; it banned the organization, its symbols, and its activities. The FPI’s permit to operate as a religious organization had expired in June 2019, and it had been operating without a clear legal status for 18 months. Mahfud MD stated that during this period, the FPI had engaged in activities that violated the law and public order and refused to amend its articles of association to make it consistent with the law. A coalition of prominent human rights organizations released a statement saying that while they criticized the FPI’s violent actions, hate speech, and violations of law, the joint ministerial decree was not consistent with the country’s constitution and was an unjust restriction on the right of association and expression.

On September 19, Yeremia Zanambani, a Christian pastor, was fatally shot in Intan Raya Regency, Papua. Local activists and religious leaders called for an independent investigation into the killing, accusing TNI personnel as being the likely culprits. Minister Mahfud MD established an independent fact-finding team that concluded TNI personnel may have been involved. Komnas HAM publicly released its own report into the incident, which determined that TNI personnel were responsible for the killing. A TNI internal investigation continued at year’s end. Human rights organizations and religious leaders linked the incident to operations by security forces against armed separatists in the region, but they did not attribute the attack to religious discrimination or persecution.

In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs. Canings continued to occur in public spaces despite the Aceh governor’s 2018 order that they should be executed only in prison facilities. Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose punishment under either 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 its expediency and to avoid the risks of prolonged and expensive trials and possible lengthy prison sentences.

On February 12, authorities in Central Aceh Regency caned a Christian man 27 times for selling alcohol. On March 5, authorities in Bireuen Regency caned a non-Muslim man and a Muslim woman 24 times each for sexual relations outside of marriage. In both cases, the non-Muslim men accepted punishment under sharia in lieu of punishment under the regular judicial system. On April 10, authorities in Aceh Tamiang Regency caned a woman 200 times for her extramarital affairs with two men, who each received 100 strokes. On April 21, authorities in North Aceh Regency caned two men 25 and 40 times, respectively, for sexual abuse of a child, and a couple convicted of adultery received 100 strokes each. On June 5, authorities in the North Aceh Regency began caning a man sentenced to 100 strokes for adultery. The man collapsed following the 74th stroke and was taken away in an ambulance.

In August, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation reported 38 blasphemy cases from January to May, two of which involved five individuals younger than 18. According to two government officials, blasphemy laws were often used to discriminate against religious minorities. On August 21, the chairman of Komnas HAM, Ahmad Taufan Damanik, said a lack of clarity in the blasphemy law meant it was often used to target religious minorities. On March 6, the commissioner of the National Women’s Commission, Siti Aminah Tardi, said prosecutions under blasphemy laws targeted women, especially those from religious minorities.

On January 7, police in West Sumatra arrested Sudarto, an activist from Pusaka Foundation Padang, a human rights and environmental advocacy organization, for violating the Electronic Information and Transaction (ITE) law by disseminating information with intent to incite hatred based on religion, ethnicity, race, and/or class. Sudarto had uploaded a post on Facebook that stated the local government in Dharmasraya Regency, West Sumatra, had banned Christmas. According to media reports, in December 2019, police officials in Dharmasraya had told the local community not to hold Christmas services there and instead travel to a church in neighboring Sawahlunto Regency, 75 miles from the village. Sudarto was released a day after his arrest.

On January 15, police in South Sulawesi arrested and charged Paruru Daeng Tau, the head of the Organization for Implementing the Mandate of Adat and Pancasila (LPAAP), with blasphemy after receiving a complaint that Tau allegedly told his followers he was the last prophet and to disregard the basic tenets of Islam. The local MUI branch in Tana Toraja Regency had issued a fatwa in December 2019 denouncing LPAAP as a heretical organization. On June 3, Tau was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years and four months in prison.

In February, media reported that a panel of judges decided that Suzethe Margaret, a Catholic woman accused of blasphemy after bringing a dog into a mosque in June 2019, was guilty of blasphemy but would not be sent to prison due to mental illness. Prosecutors had previously recommended that she be sentenced to eight months in prison.

In March, police in Probolinggo Regency, East Java, arrested Indriyanto for sharing a picture of Hajar Aswad (a spiritually significant stone set in one of the corners of the Kaaba) that resembled female genitalia and for sharing an image that showed the word “Allah” being defecated on. On July 9, the Probolinggo State Court of East Java sentenced Indriyanto to four years’ imprisonment and imposed a five million rupiah (IDR) ($360) fine for violating the ITE law.

In April, police arrested and charged individuals across the country for social media uploads that included an altered version of “Aisyah Istri Rasulullah,” a popular song about the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. On April 10, Rahmat Hidayat, a YouTube celebrity popularly known as Aleh Khas Medan, was arrested in Medan, North Sumatra, for posting a YouTube video that included the song, as well as for actions authorities deemed offensive. On October 1, Hidayat was sentenced to seven months in prison under the ITE law. On April 15, police in Surabaya arrested and charged Bambang Bima Adhis Pratama under the ITE law after Bambang uploaded a video of himself on social media, singing the song with changed lyrics. On April 30, police in South Sulawesi detained Bahrul Ulum, a university student, for tweeting the changed lyrics of the song. In May, police in Gorontalo Province arrested three young adults after they uploaded a video of themselves singing and dancing to the song with changed lyrics on WhatsApp.

On May 4, police in Central Lombok Regency, West Nusa Tenggara, detained a woman for blasphemy after she uploaded a video to TikTok of herself dancing in clothes traditionally worn during prayer. Following the arrest, an official from Muhammadiyah, one of the largest Islamic groups in the country, encouraged local police to release the woman, stating that she did not intend to commit blasphemy. It was unclear whether police released her.

On July 9, port police in Makassar arrested and charged Ince Ni’matullah with blasphemy after she allegedly threw a Quran during an argument with her neighbor.

On August 4, a court in Medan sentenced Doni Irawan Malay to three years in prison for blasphemy. According to prosecutors, on February 13, Malay desecrated a Quran in the Al-Mashun Mosque, including putting it down his pants, tearing out pages, and throwing it in the trash.

On August 8, police arrested Apollinaris Darmawan in Bandung under the ITE law for a series of tweets and videos posted on Twitter and Instagram that, among other things, stated Islam was not a religion and should be expelled from the country. Immediately prior to the man’s arrest, a crowd outraged at his postings stormed his house, dragged him into the street, and stripped him of his clothes. It did not appear that police detained anyone involved in the assault. On November 24, public prosecutors formally charged Darmawan under the ITE law and sought the maximum allowable punishment of six years in prison and an 800 million rupiah ($57,000) fine. Darmawan had been convicted and sentenced in August 2017 to four years in prison and an 800,000,000 rupiah ($57,000) fine for violating the ITE law for a series of pictures and articles he posted to Facebook which depicted Allah as a monster, the Prophet Muhammad as homosexual, and which made other disparaging descriptions of Islam. Darmawan was released early from prison in March as part of an assimilation program. It is not clear if this release was related to a government effort that helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 in overcrowded prisons.

On September 29, a court in Medan sentenced Muhammad Qadafi, alias Udin, to 18 months in prison for blasphemy after he was found guilty of throwing a Quran inside a mosque during an incident on March 25.

On December 4, police arrested a Muslim cleric in Cibadak Regency, West Java, for distributing a video in which the man conducted the call to prayer with altered wording that made it a call to jihad instead. The man was arrested under the ITE law for spreading hate. Prominent Muslim leaders from Nahdlatul Ulama and the MUI publicly condemned the video when it began circulating in late November.

On December 28, police called in Haikal Hassan for questioning related to potential violation of the ITE and blasphemy laws for stating he had met with the Prophet Muhammad during a dream. Haikal was the spokesman for the 212 Alumni Association, a group formed in commemoration of the December 2, 2016, protests by conservative Islamic groups against then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama that called for his prosecution under blasphemy laws.

From August 18 to August 27, a coalition of CSOs hosted an online conference entitled “Blasphemy Law: Protection or Criminalization?” The conference explored trends, patterns, and developments in criminalization involving accusations of blasphemy, as well as what were described as “discriminatory practices” occurring in the country. The organizers of the conference surveyed the 2,247 participants and found that 78 percent believed the greatest challenges facing religious freedom were discriminatory regulations, intolerant acts against minorities, and a lack of remedies for victims. The survey also showed that 84 percent agreed efforts were needed to eliminate discriminatory regulations, promote effective law enforcement against those who violate others’ religious freedom, and provide remedy for those accused of violating blasphemy laws.

The government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing policies to prevent the spread of the virus through limiting public events, including religious gatherings. At the national level, government and religious leaders cooperated closely in developing these restrictions. For example, on March 16 the MUI issued a fatwa recommending the suspension of communal Friday prayers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In June, President Joko Widodo met with interfaith leaders to discuss how their organizations and religious groups were planning to adapt to COVID-19.

Several other disputes between government authorities and religious groups occurred at the local level regarding health restrictions related to the COVID-19 virus. In April, members of Ar-Rahmah Mosque in Parepare city, South Sulawesi, reported the district head, Andi Ulfa Lanto, to police for blasphemy after Lanto attempted to stop Friday prayer at the mosque. Mosque officials said Lanto’s actions constituted blasphemy because the local COVID-19 regulation encouraged persons only to avoid mass gatherings, as opposed to explicitly banning Friday prayer. On May 1, Parepare Mayor Taufan Pawe responded by filing a police report accusing the members of the mosque of failing to adhere to health protocols and of obstructing an official from conducting his duties. The South Sulawesi chapter of the MUI and the FUIB stated that Lanto did not commit blasphemy.

On April 19, two men entered the residence of a Christian family in Bekasi Regency, West Java, and demanded they terminate a religious service being held in the home. The disruption was recorded and disseminated widely online. According to media reports, one of the men was a local Muslim leader.

On January 27, the Regent of Bogor, West Java, Ade Munawaroh Yasin, issued a letter to the local Ahmadiyya community stating that Ahmadi Islam was illegal in Bogor and calling on the Ahmadis to stop all activities inside and outside their compound in Kemang Bogor. On March 16, activists from the Benteng Aqidah Alliance, an ad hoc group comprised of local Islamic groups seen by observers as more hardline, rallied in front of the regent’s office to support her decision to outlaw Ahmadi activity in Bogor. In response, a group of 31 local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) created an Alliance for a United Bogor to condemn the rally and to support tolerance in Bogor.

According to media reports, in July, the Ternate Municipality Team for Supervision of Beliefs and Religious Sects in Society (PAKEM), which includes the police, the Prosecutor’s Office, MORA, FKUB, and MUI, implemented a ban on activities by the Shia Jafariah religious group in the North Maluku city. The PAKEM meeting was held after the Shia group hung a banner to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. The North Maluku chapter of the MUI issued a fatwa against the group in 2015, designating it a heretical organization.

On July 27, the congregation of the Indonesian Pentecostal Efata Church in Indragiri Hilir Regency, Riau, accepted an offer from the local government to relocate its church to a location 10 kilometers (six miles) away. In 2019, local officials had prevented the congregation from worshiping at the location because it was not formally registered as a house of worship.

On August 5, the Bali Customary Village Council, created in 2019 by the Bali provincial government, banned all worship activities by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in the province’s 1,493 customary villages. The council chairman stated ISKCON teachings were fundamentally different from Hindu teachings, and therefore the ban was necessary to preserve Hindu and Balinese culture. The Bali chapter of the Indonesian Hinduism Society (PHDI) publicly revoked its recognition of ISKCON and encouraged the central PHDI to do so on a national level.

On July 1, the MORA spokesperson stated the ministry would involve the TNI in efforts to increase religious harmony. Legislators and a coalition of CSOs stated that security forces’ involvement in religious affairs would likely create artificial and coerced religious harmony rather than the interfaith dialogue required for true harmony. On July 7, then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi, a retired TNI general, clarified before the legislature that the MORA had only requested the military’s input, not involvement, into religious efforts, and specifically only in Papua, to help ease tensions there.

The Smart Pakem smartphone app, launched by the Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office in 2018 to allow citizens to report heresy and blasphemy cases, was removed from both the Google Play Store and the Apple Store. Following its launch, human rights organizations had criticized the app and requested Google and Apple to remove it. It was unclear what caused its removal.

The MORA maintained its authority at the national and local levels to conduct the “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. Beginning in 2014, Ahmadiyya communities in several West Java regencies reported that local governments were forcing or encouraging the conversion of Ahmadi Muslims, using a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. However, in July, members of the Ahmadiyya community in Tasikmalaya City, West Java, reported they were no longer required to sign such forms prior to marriage or the Hajj.

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. Groups often identified as intolerant included the FPI, Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and Indonesian Mujahideen Council.

Throughout July and August, the East Nusa Tenggara FKUB held a short story competition on the value of religious harmony within the province. The organizers received 71 entries from university students. To celebrate the winning entries, the local FKUB chapter collaborated with local print media to publish the stories. The top 10 stories were also compiled into e-books, and published.

In August, East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa designated three villages in the province as “Harmony Awareness Villages,” Mojorejo village in Batu, Tenduro village in Lumajang, and Wonorejo village in Situbondo Regency. Governor Khofifah and East Java MORA officials selected them based on accomplishments in promoting religious tolerance.

In September, Minister of Villages, Underdeveloped Regions, and Transmigration Abdul Halim Iskandar designated Banuroja village in Gorontalo Province as a “Pancasila Village.” Iskandar and ministry officials selected Banuroja due to its ethnic and religious diversity.

In September, Tajul Muluk, leader of a community of more than 500 Shia Muslims, stated his intent to convert to Sunni Islam, along with the majority of his community. The community had been displaced to the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, since 2012 after communal violence forced them from their homes in Sampang Regency, Madura. In a September 10 letter to the Regent of Sampang, Muluk requested that he and his followers be converted to Sunni Islam. The letter and subsequent media interviews did not make clear the reason for the request for conversion. According to media reports, the regent stated that he had not requested Muluk write the letter.

In January, a group of local human rights organizations released a report entitled 2020 Outlook on Freedom of Religion and Faith in Indonesia. The report stated the number of religious freedom violations was increasing every year and criticized the government’s approach to religious freedom as increasing based on majoritarianism and repression. Speaking at the report release, Alissa Wahid, Coordinator of Jaringan Gusdurian and daughter of the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid, stated, “Favoritism and majoritarianism are getting stronger in Indonesia. The government is not doing enough to enforce the constitution, and more and more conflicts are being solved by local agreements, which often represent the interests of the majority.” Asfinawati, chairwoman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, stated during the report’s release that “the state has been employing a repressive approach [to religious differences], which only deepens conflicts and segregation instead of ending intolerance.”

In April, the legislature resumed discussions on a draft penal code that was tabled for further discussion in September 2019 due to mass public protests. CSOs expressed concerns that the legislation might expand the blasphemy laws and other criminal sections that could be used to restrict religious freedom. On April 14, the National Alliance of Reform of the Criminal Code, a coalition of 41 CSOs, released a statement criticizing the legislature’s proposal to resume deliberations in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic on the grounds that it would prevent meaningful public participation. The alliance was also critical of numerous provisions in the draft, including sections that might restrict religious freedom. The legislature continued discussing the proposed legislation at year’s end.

In July, the Wahid Foundation released a report documenting cases of religious freedom abuses, as defined by the foundation, that occurred from 2009 to 2018. The report found that during that period, there were 1,033 cases of abuse by state actors and 1,420 cases by nonstate actors, with the largest categories of state abuses being the restriction/closure of places of worship (163), and nonstate abuses being intimidation (205). According to the report, cases of persecution by state actors increased during the Joko Widodo administration compared to the prior administration, but nonstate and violent cases decreased.

The governors of two provinces requested the removal of translated Bibles that were available through smartphone apps. On May 28, the Governor of West Sumatra, Irwan Prayitno, sent a letter to the Minister of Communication and Information requesting the removal of an app called “The Bible in the Minangkabau Language.” Pravitno stated that the translation had made the Minangkabau people uncomfortable because it contradicted their culture. On May 30, acting Governor of Aceh Nova Iriansyah sent a letter to Google Indonesia requesting it remove an app titled “Aceh Holy Book,” a version of the Bible translated into the Acehnese language, stating it was provocative and triggered unrest in Acehnese society. In both cases, the developer chose to voluntarily remove the application from the Google Play Store. Sources stated that there was no indication that the application violated Google’s content policy or that the Ministry of Communication and Information requested the developer to remove the application.

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 was a barrier to construction. Members of the Jewish community stated that since their numbers nationwide were so few, it was impossible for them to build new synagogues.

Local governments did not issue permits for the construction of new places of worship even when congregations obtained the required number of applicants, since opponents of the construction sometimes pressured other congregants 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 feared accusations of atheism if they contested such treatment in court. Christian leaders reported that local officials indefinitely delayed the approval of requests to build new churches because the officials feared construction would lead to protests. Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians said they also faced problems when seeking approval to relocate 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 on the grounds of permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had been issued a proper permit.

Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of houses of worship and often faced protests from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when authorities issued permits, they halted construction 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 if they continued operating without a permit. Some houses of worship established before the joint ministerial decree on house-of-worship construction came into effect in 2006 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 February, President Joko Widodo and then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi interceded with the local government of Karimun Regency, Riau, to allow the renovation of a local Catholic church. The Saint Joseph Catholic Church had received a permit to renovate its premises in 2019, but local opposition prevented the beginning of construction. Following the intervention, construction of the Church began in April.

In February, President Joko Widodo approved the construction of an underground tunnel connecting Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, with the Jakarta Cathedral. President Joko Widodo termed it the “Tunnel of Brotherhood” to represent the deep connections among the country’s religions. Construction was to occur as part of a larger renovation of Istiqlal Mosque. Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo, head of the Jakarta Archdiocese, stated the tunnel was a continuation of the vision of the country’s first President, Sukarno, who decided to build Istiqlal Mosque opposite the cathedral to promote a message of tolerance. Istiqlal Mosque Grand Imam Nasaruddin Umar said that one day the road separating the two houses of worships might be removed to create one large interfaith campus shared by the two congregations.

In February, local authorities in Bandung, Central Java, organized an interfaith parade that attracted more than 6,000 persons. At the conclusion of the event, officials from the local legislature, government, and police signed a document stating their intent to support religious tolerance and harmony in Bandung.

Ahmadiyya congregations faced pressure from local officials to stop reconstruction and renovations on their houses of worship. According to a complaint filed by Ahmadi Muslims in Sukabumi city, West Java, to Komnas HAM in February and March, local government, police, and military officials attempted to intimidate the Ahmadi community in order to stop renovation of the Al-Furqon Mosque. Local officials visited the site on several occasions, warning that continued renovation would cause unrest and lead to attacks. According to media reports, on March 16, local officials permanently sealed the mosque. In a similar case, on January 27, the government of Tasikmalaya city, West Java, enacted a joint decree that banned renovation of the Ahmadi Al-Aqso Mosque, as well as forbidding Ahmadis from conducting worship activities publicly or proselytizing. On April 4, local officials sealed the mosque.

On March 6, protesters rallied against the construction of a Baptist church in the Tlogosari Kulon area of Semarang city, Central Java. The church had obtained a building permit from the city government in 1998, but construction had not been completed. Following the protests, local police contacted the church and requested it suspend building for three months to avoid more protests. On September 24, the mayor of Semarang issued a new building permit for the church, and construction resumed in October. Similar protests had stopped construction of the church in August 2019.

On July 20, local officials closed a tomb built by members of the Sunda Wiwitan religious group in Kuningan Regency, West Java. Local authorities said the group had built a monument, which according to local regulations required a building permit, while members of Sunda Wiwitan said that the structure was just a tomb and thus did not require a permit. Members of Sunda Wiwitan filed a complaint with Komnas HAM, which offered to mediate between local authorities and the religious group. On August 13, local officials removed the seals on the structure and it was reopened.

According to media reports, in September, in Cikarang city, West Java, individuals protested against a Christian church and used large speakers playing Islamic chants to drown out religious services. Leaders of the protest stated the church was located in a residence that did not have a valid permit to operate as a house of worship.

On September 17, the Regent of Singkil Regency, Aceh, sent a letter to Pakpak Dairi Christian Church ordering it to stop construction on a house for the pastor of the congregation. According to the letter, the house was being built without a proper permit and threatened the religious harmony of the area. Earlier in September, the congregation sent a complaint to the local office of the Komnas HAM that said local authorities were not responding to their communications. The congregation stated that since the building was a house for the pastor, it should not require the same approval as a house of worship.

According to media reports, on September 21, government authorities in Ngastemi village in Mojokerto Regency, East Java, asked a Christian woman to stop renovating her house after they suspected she was using her home as place of worship without a permit. Reportedly, local authorities halted the renovation after they discovered one of the newly renovated windows depicted a cross.

In March, the Paramadina Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy released a research study on the 2006 joint ministerial decree on houses of worship and FKUBs. Researchers received questionnaires from 24 provincial-, 33 city-, and 110 regency-level FKUBs – approximately 30 percent of the total 548 FKUBs in the country. The study found discrepancies among FKUBs in recommending whether new houses of worship should be built. For example, the FKUB in Solo, Central Java, had received 396 requests to build houses of worship, approving them all. The FKUB in North Lampung Regency, Lampung, however, had received 47 requests and refused 38 of them. The report concluded that vagaries in the 2006 decree meant the performance of FKUBs depended on local government regulation; the membership of FKUBs was not particularly diverse and was made up mostly of older, male government employees; and the FKUB’s mission to promote interfaith dialogue and prevent religious conflict was hampered by the administrative workload related to processing requests for the construction of houses of worship.

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

On June 12, the Regent of Gowa, South Sulawesi, implemented a Quran reading-fluency test for Muslim civil servants seeking promotion. The local regency required 76 local civil servants to read the Quran to be considered for promotion. Fourteen civil servants failed to pass the test and were told to achieve a sufficient level of fluency in six months; otherwise, they would be not be considered.

According to media reports, in April, the local government of East Lombok Regency, West Nusa Tenggara, asked the Ahmadi Muslim community there to relocate from their current temporary shelter to a new location. The community had been housed in the shelter since being displaced from their village of Gereneng by communal violence in 2018. The community refused the government request to relocate.

In Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, 131 Ahmadi Muslims remained internally displaced in cramped apartments after a mob expelled them from their East Lombok village in 2006. According to media reports in June, the governor of West Nusa Tenggara offered to build a new apartment for the community, but as of the end of the year no progress had been made.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their identity cards (KTP), 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 numbers of adherents to religious groups in government statistics. A 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allowed citizens to select indigenous faiths on their KTPs. According to media reports, in January, 450 adherents of Sapta Darma, an indigenous religious group, were able to change their KTPs to reflect their religion.

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, Andrei Angouw won the December 9 election for mayor of Manado, becoming the country’s first Confucian mayor. President Joko Widodo’s new 34-member cabinet included six members of minority faiths (4 Protestants, 1 Catholic, and 1 Hindu), the same total number as during his previous administration.

Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. On August 14, President Joko Widodo delivered his annual Independence Day address, during which he stressed the need for an inclusive and united society. He said, “Indeed, democracy guarantees freedom, but it is only for freedom that respects other people’s rights. No one should be self-righteous and blame others. No one should think of themselves as the most religious.” At a December 27 interfaith conference, newly appointed Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas stated that Ahmadi and Shia Muslims have the same protections under the law as any other citizen. Qoumas also stated that he opposed Islamic populism, which sought to use religion as a source of division and conflict, and encouraged religious differences to be resolved through dialogue rather than violence.

The MORA introduced a “Religious Moderation” campaign that sought to improve religious tolerance. In January, President Joko Widodo signed the 2020-2024 National Medium-Term Development Plan, a strategic document for the government’s overall development efforts, which included “Religious Moderation” as a goal. The national plan budgeted 21.9 trillion rupiah ($1.56 billion) for the MORA to pursue this goal from 2020 to 2024. Religious moderation was also included as a goal in the MORA’s strategic plan released in June. The principles underpinning the Religious Moderation campaign were laid out in a book published by MORA in October 2019. According to officials and civil society organizations involved in the effort, specific activities to be undertaken by the campaign were still being developed.

In September, Komnas HAM released its Standardized Norms and Regulations on the Rights to Freedom of Religion or Belief. The document is a consolidated reference guide for national and international law related to religious freedom in Indonesia, including definitions of key terms and rights.

Foreign religious workers from numerous 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 performed according to the laws of the respective religions and beliefs of the parties concerned. Religious leaders, human rights activists, and journalists stated, however, that interreligious marriage was difficult unless the groom or bride was willing to marry according to the religious rituals of only one of the two religions. Many individuals preferred to go abroad for interreligious marriage, although this option was severely limited due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In November, suspected Islamic militants killed four Christians in Lemban Tongoa village, Central Sulawesi Province. The perpetrators also burned down several homes, including one used as a house of worship. Following the attack, President Joko Widodo called the killings “beyond the limits of humanity.”

Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia and anti-Ahmadi rhetoric was common in online media outlets and on social media.

Individuals affiliated at the local level with the MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects. In February, the chairman of the East Java MUI, Abdusshomad Buchori, stated he wanted the national MUI to release a new fatwa against the Shia community. The national MUI did not address or repudiate local MUI officials who called for such fatwas.

In August, a group of youths attacked a Shia prewedding ceremony in Solo city, Central Java, shouting anti-Shia slogans and assaulting several participants. Following the event, local police arrested several suspects for the assault.

According to Shia Rights Watch¸ in August, unknown individuals assaulted Shia Muslims attending a welcome dinner for a new Shia leader in the community, resulting in injuries to two youths.

In August, several Islamic organizations associated with the South Sulawesi chapter of the FUIB released a statement condemning the Shia community and its plans to commemorate Ashura, and said they would disrupt any events that the Shia community planned. The chairman of the South Sulawesi chapter of the FUIB, Muchtar Daeng Lau, cited an MUI fatwa that denounced Shia Islam as a form of heresy and condemned Shia commemorations of Ashura.

In April and May, reports of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” spread on social media that claimed Jews, Christians, and communists were using COVID-19 and related restrictions on public gatherings to destroy Islam. Large Muslim organizations dismissed the conspiracy theory, with the secretary general of Muhammadiyah, Abdul Mu’ti, stating in April that it was baseless.

Many of 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 on numerous occasions. For example, on March 4, an interfaith group of representatives from 11 youth wings of the largest religious organizations in the country signed a declaration promoting religious tolerance within the country and internationally.

In January, the Alvara Research Center, a sociopolitical survey and marketing research company, released Indonesia Moslem Report 2019: The Challenges of Indonesia Moderate Moslems. The study consisted of face-to-face interviews with 1,567 Muslims across the country’s 34 provinces. The study’s findings included the following: 69.3 percent of respondents approved of or were neutral to the construction of houses of worship of other religions located near them, while 19.2 opposed such construction; 56.3 percent approved of or were neutral to the idea of non-Muslim political leaders, while 32.5 percent said they would not support a non-Muslim political leader; 82.9 percent would openly accept and help neighbors of different religions, while 16.3 percent said they would accept them but would limit the relationship due to religious differences; 0.5 percent said they would not accept neighbors of different religions; 81.6 percent believed the secular national ideology of Pancasila was an appropriate foundation for the country, while 18.3 percent believed a religious-based ideology would be more appropriate.

In November, the Center for the Study of Islam and Society at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University released a study showing that conversations on social media about religion were dominated by what it termed conservative narratives and traditional interpretations of the original teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Researchers categorized religious conversations on Twitter between 2009 and 2019 as being dominated by Islamist (4.5 percent), conservative (67 percent), moderate (22.2 percent), or liberal (6.1 percent) narratives. The lead researcher of the study, Iim Halimatussa’diyah, told media that a “noisy minority” pushing a conservative narrative was often able to co-opt conversations, while moderate narratives struggled to gain traction on social media.

In December 2019, the MORA released its Religious Harmony Index for 2019. The index used a survey of more than 13,000 respondents in 34 provinces to measure harmony across three dimensions: tolerance, equality, and solidarity. The index was scored from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most harmonious. The national score for 2019 was 73.83, up from 70.90 in 2018. According to the index, the most religiously harmonious provinces were West Papua (82.1), East Nusa Tenggara (81.1), Bali (80.1), North Sulawesi (79.9), and Maluku (79.4), all in the central and eastern parts of the country. The five lowest-rated provinces were Aceh (60.2), West Sumatra (64.4), West Java (68.5), Banten (68.9), and Riau (69.3), all in the west. Some civil society organizations and experts criticized the index as providing an overly optimistic assessment of religious freedom and harmony in the country.

On February 14-16, the Association of Journalists for Diversity held a three-day training event for students from different faiths and universities in Jakarta. Participants stayed with Ahmadiyya, Sunda Wiwitan, Catholic, and Christian communities in Kuningan Regency, West Java. After the event, the association encouraged participants to write about their experiences to promote religious freedom and tolerance among youth.

Hindu sites experienced acts of vandalism. In March, unknown individuals damaged three religious statues at the Agung Jagatnatha Temple in Denpasar city, Bali. In January, a Hindu school in Banyuwangi city, East Java, reported that unknown perpetrators broke into the facility and vandalized property.

On August 20, members of the local chapters of GP Ansor and Banser, organizations associated with Nahdlatul Ulama, confronted individuals suspected of supporting Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) in Pasuruan Regency, East Java. HTI is the Indonesian branch of the Hizbut Tahrir, outlawed in 2017 by the government. Video of the confrontation spread widely online and appeared to show GP Ansor and Banser officials aggressively questioning and reprimanding alleged HTI supporters. Then Minister of Religious Affairs Fachrul Razi praised the organizations’ actions, while the secretary of the East Java chapter of the MUI, Ainul Yaqin, stated they should have reported the case to local police.

On September 29, a mosque in Tangerang regency, Banten, was vandalized with anti-Islamic messages written on the walls. On October 1, police arrested a suspect.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 29, the Secretary of State visited the country and addressed an audience of interfaith leaders at an event on religious pluralism hosted by Nahdlatul Ulama. The speech focused on several themes: the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in democracies; opposing blasphemy accusations and discrimination against nonofficial religions; and calling on all religious leaders to defend the rights of other religions. The speech was followed by a question-and-answer session with attendees, where the Secretary emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue in pursuing peace and human rights around the world.

The embassy, the consulate general in Surabaya, and the consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on 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,” 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 or belief, and promotion of tolerance in international forums.

The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism is a civil-society-led entity endorsed by both governments that includes a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders established to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The Ambassador engaged its leadership by discussing ways to augment the council’s activity on issues affecting the country’s religious communities. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith gathering with council members, representatives of the country’s six officially recognized religions, and representatives of nonrecognized religions, including Ahmadi Muslims and Baha’is. During the event, the Grand Imam of the National Istiqlal Mosque, Nasaruddin Umar, who has published a series of weekly columns about religious pluralism in the United States since his return in 2019 from a U.S. exchange programs, thanked the Ambassador for frequent interfaith engagement during his tenure and noted the United States had been the most active country in doing so. In October, the chair of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights met with members of the council to discuss the environment of religious freedom in the country.

In August, the embassy initiated a project with the Yogyakarta-based Srikandi Lintas Iman to promote religious pluralism through early childhood education and utilizing social media among women. The project used funding related to the Department of State’s Meeting on Education, Resilience, Respect, and Inclusion. In August, the embassy launched a digital storytelling project, which places students from 20 high schools across four provinces (East Java, Central Java, West Java, and Jakarta) in interfaith groups to create videos, stories, photographs, and essays on themes of tolerance, diversity, and peace. Interactive webinars facilitated group discussions, and online content-creation workshops equipped diverse, interfaith groups of students with the skills to identity and avoid misinformation.

The embassy continued an $11.5 million project through a cooperative agreement with the Asia Foundation to engage with legal aid organizations to defend human rights and religious freedom in six provinces, including all provinces in Java except Banten and Papua. The embassy supported these partners in developing advocacy papers for outreach on regulations that discriminate against religious minorities, improving their capacity to represent minority religious groups in legal cases, undertaking strategic public campaigns to build wider civil society engagement in challenging intolerance, and publishing periodic reports on abuses of religious freedom.

The embassy continued a $27 million project aimed at developing more effective tools and systems to bolster religious tolerance. The project partnered with national and local-level government officials, CSOs, universities, research institutions, and grassroots movements that focus on promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Early in the year, the embassy launched a three-million-dollar activity to promote religious tolerance and pluralism among high school students. Through partnerships with the Ministries of Religious Affairs and Education and Culture, the project aimed to design and implement innovative arts and cultural curricula in select districts to advance community resilience to religious intolerance.

During Ramadan, the embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach throughout the country to highlight religious tolerance. The consulate in Surabaya hosted a Ramadan chat series with American Muslims that highlighted the contributions of U.S. Muslims in American society. The embassy hosted two events at its @America venue. The first consisted of former participants of embassy exchange programs discussing their experience of religious freedom in the United States during Ramadan. The second program celebrated Eid al-Fitr with an Egyptian-American singer-songwriter, who discussed his experiences practicing his religion in the United States.

The Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires 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.

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

In February, 23 leaders of religious groups and communities in East Java visited the consulate in Surabaya to learn about the consulate’s activities in the east, as well as to exchange ideas on how to collaborate to promote religious freedom.

In August, the consulate in Surabaya hosted an event on religious freedom and multiculturalism that was headlined by Zuhairi Misrawi, a former participant in a U.S. exchange program.

The embassy posted translated speeches and commentary on religious freedom by the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and other high-level government officials on its website. The embassy also developed graphics for social media and sent information to local journalists to encourage them to cover these issues.

Japan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. Falun Gong members continued to report difficulty in renting performance spaces, which they attributed to People’s Republic of China (PRC) embassy interference. Japan Uyghur Association (JUA) Honorary Chairman and World Uyghur Congress Representative for East Asia and the Pacific Ilham Mahmut reported concern regarding potential bias against Uyghur Muslims applying for refugee status at government immigration centers, as well as continued intimidation by PRC officials. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported that in 2019 (latest statistics available), its human rights division received 224 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 164 in 2018, and confirmed seven cases, compared with eight in 2018, as highly likely to be religious freedom violations. The country continued to have a low rate of approval of refugee applications, a policy the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized. In 2019 (latest statistics available), the government granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, to four applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons, compared with two in 2018.

The Beppu Muslim Association faced opposition from some residents in response to its plan to build an Islamic cemetery on land that it owns in Hiji Town, Oita Prefecture.

In meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and while participating in a symposium attended by lawmakers, U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to continue to work with the United States to protect Muslims originating from China and from other countries that restrict religious freedom. Embassy officials also engaged with faith-based groups and religious minority leaders and their supporters to promote religious freedom and acceptance of diversity. The embassy used its social media platforms to highlight the importance of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 125.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A report by the Agency for Cultural Affairs (ACA) indicates that membership in religious groups totaled 183 million as of December 31, 2019. This number, substantially more than the country’s population, reflects many citizens’ affiliation with multiple religions. For example, it is common for followers of Buddhism to participate in religious ceremonies and events of other religions, such as Shinto, and vice versa. According to the ACA, the definition of follower and the method of counting followers vary with each religious organization. Religious affiliation includes 88.9 million Shinto followers (48.6 percent), 84.8 million Buddhists (46.3 percent), 1.9 million Christians (1 percent), and 7.4 million adherents of other religious groups (4 percent). The category of “other” and nonregistered religious groups includes Islam, the Baha’i Faith, Hinduism, and Judaism. The indigenous Ainu people mainly practice an animist faith and mostly reside in the northern part of Honshu, in Hokkaido, and in smaller numbers in Tokyo.

Most immigrants and foreign workers practice religions other than Buddhism or Shinto, according to an NGO in close contact with foreign workers. A scholar estimates as of 2018, there are 157,000 non-Japanese Muslims and 43,000 Japanese Muslims in the country, an increase of nearly 60,000 from previous estimates from 2013. He attributed the increase to more non-Japanese Muslims holding permanent residency, marriages between non-Japanese Muslims and Japanese converts to Islam, and their children. Most of the approximately 350 Rohingya Muslims in the country live in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo, with some of them residing in Saitama, Chiba, and Tokyo, according to Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan (BRAJ) President Zaw Min Htut. Ilham Mahmut, the JUA honorary chairman and World Uyghur Congress Representative for East Asia and the Pacific, said most of the 2,000 to 3,000 Uyghur Muslims in the country reside in Tokyo or its surrounding prefectures of Chiba, Saitama, and Kanagawa. The total Jewish population is approximately 3,000 to 4,000, according to a long-term Jewish resident.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and requires the state to refrain from religious education or any other religious activity. It prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. It states that the people shall not abuse their rights and shall be responsible to use their rights for the public welfare.

The government does not require religious groups to register or apply for certification, but certified religious groups with corporate status do not have to pay income tax on donations and religious offerings used as part of their operational and maintenance expenses. The government requires religious groups applying for corporate status to prove they have a physical space for worship and their primary purpose is disseminating religious teachings, conducting religious ceremonies, and educating and nurturing believers. An applicant must present in writing a three-year record of activities as a religious organization, a list of members and religious teachers, the rules of the organization, information on the method of making decisions on managing assets, statements of income and expenses for the past three years, and a list of assets. The law stipulates that prefectural governors have jurisdiction over groups seeking corporate status in their respective prefecture, and that groups must apply for registration with prefectural governments. Exceptions are granted for groups with offices in multiple prefectures, which may register with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). After the MEXT minister or a prefectural governor confirms an applicant meets the legal definition of a certified religious group with corporate status, the law requires the applicant to formulate administrative rules pertaining to its purpose, core personnel, and financial affairs. Applicants become religious corporations after the MEXT minister or governor approves their application and they register.

The law requires certified religious corporations to disclose their assets, income, and expenditures to the government. The law also authorizes the government to investigate possible violations of regulations governing for-profit activities. Authorities have the right to suspend a religious corporation’s for-profit activities for up to one year if the group violates the regulations.

The law stipulates that worship and religious rituals performed by inmates in penal institutions, alone or in a group, shall not be prohibited. To support the law and the constitutional right to religious freedom, the Ministry of Justice offers inmates access to volunteer chaplains from various faiths in prisons.

The law states that schools established by the national and local governments must refrain from religious education or other activities in support of a specific religion. Private schools are permitted to teach specific religions. The law also states that an attitude of religious tolerance and general knowledge regarding religion and its position in social life should be valued in education. Both public and private schools must develop curricula in line with MEXT standards. These standards are based on the law, which states that schools should give careful consideration when teaching religion in general to junior high and high school students.

Labor law states a person may not be disqualified from union membership on the basis of religion.

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

Government Practices

According to the president of the Japanese Falun Dafa Association, Shen Yun Performing Arts (Falun Dafa’s performance company) continued to encounter intimidation tactics by the PRC embassy in Tokyo. During a performance in Fuchu City, Tokyo, in January, police prevented PRC embassy interference with the performance. The government continued to grant status to Chinese nationals self-identifying as Falun Gong practitioners, allowing them to remain in the country, while also allowing overseas artists, many of whom were Falun Gong devotees, to enter the country in conjunction with performances held in January and February prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

According to the JUA honorary chairman, the government generally showed willingness to protect Uyghur Muslims in the country. However, he expressed concern regarding potential bias against Uyghur Muslims applying for refugee status at government immigration centers. He said there were cases in which Uyghur Muslims’ applications for refugee status were initially rejected by administrative staff, potentially due to the applicants’ ethnicity. In such cases, the applications were later accepted after further review by officials.

According to footage broadcast by a national television station, a man claiming to be a PRC national security official contacted a JUA executive member in May through his brother in China. The alleged PRC official demanded that the JUA member disclose the identities of other JUA members and the association’s activities. In exchange for the JUA member’s cooperation, the PRC would guarantee the safety of his family in China and issue him documents necessary to apply for Japanese citizenship, the alleged PRC official told him. The JUA honorary chairman also said the PRC embassy’s opaque criteria for issuing passport renewals sparked mutual distrust among Uyghur Muslims in Japan. The PRC embassy’s failure to provide an explanation for its rejection of some passport renewals led Uyghurs to suspect covert ties with the PRC government of any successful Uyghur applicant, he said.

On November 27, in civil proceedings, the Hiroshima High Court found five individuals guilty of the kidnapping and confinement of a married couple for the purpose of forcibly converting them away from their religion. In 2014, Koji and Yuko Seo were kidnapped and held for several days by family members attempting to force them to leave the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The court ordered those found guilty to pay 610,000 yen ($5,900) in damages to the husband and 1.11 million yen ($10,800) to the wife.

In August, a district court ruled that the remains of six Ainu that were exhumed by academics in 1888 and 1965 for research purposes, as well as other burial accessories that also were unearthed, must be returned to the Rapollo Ainu Nation. The association representing the Ainu filed a lawsuit seeking the return of their ancestors’ remains, as well as 500,000 yen ($4,900) in damages, stating this had prevented them from holding a memorial service and violated their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

JAORO said the government excluded religious groups with corporate status from eligibility for a government stipend designed to assist groups that were economically affected as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, despite the stipend’s being designed for all groups certified by law, which included religious groups with corporate status. JAORO called the government’s decision unequal. The government said that its decision was based on the constitutional separation of religion and state.

According to JAORO, a decline in donations to religious groups stemming from COVID-19 adversely affected the survival of some religious groups and the sustainability of their religious activities. In response, JAORO approached the government and ruling political parties for a tax reduction, exemption, or filing extension while providing JAORO member religious groups with relevant information. In April, the government implemented tax break measures for religious groups with corporate status.

The MOJ’s Human Rights Bureau continued to operate its hotline for human rights inquiries available in six different foreign languages – English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Portuguese, and Vietnamese. In May, the MOJ reported that in 2019 (latest statistics available), its human rights division received 224 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 164 in 2018. It confirmed seven cases (compared with eight in 2018) as highly likely to be religious freedom violations, out of 16,481 suspected human rights violations in a variety of different types. The MOJ assisted the potential victims in all seven cases by mediating between the parties, calling on human rights violators to rectify their behavior, or referring the complainants to competent authorities for legal advice. These MOJ measures, however, were not legally binding.

According to the ACA, central and prefectural governments had certified 180,433 groups as religious groups with corporate status as of the end of 2019. The large number reflected local units of religious groups registering separately. The government generally certified corporate status for religious groups when they met the requirements.

According to the MOJ, penal institutions gave inmates access to 9,311 collective and 6,290 individual religious ritual activities, including worship and counseling sessions by civil volunteer chaplains in 2019, the most recent year for which figures were available. An estimated 1,625 volunteer chaplains were available to prisoners in 2019, according to the MOJ.

NGOs and UNHCR continued to express concern regarding the government’s low rate of approval of refugee applications (44 out of 10,375 in 2019). According to the MOJ, the ministry granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, to four applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons in 2019 (latest statistics available), compared with two in 2018. Civil society and legal groups expressed concern regarding restrictive screening procedures that led applicants to voluntarily withdraw their applications and accept deportation, specifically stating that the government’s interpretation of “fear of persecution” used when adjudicating refugee claims was overly restrictive. In the one case that the MOJ published, the MOJ determined that the applicant had a well-founded fear of being persecuted in her home country by an antigovernment, faith-based extremist group because she promoted women’s rights and education for girls. The extremist group threatened to kill her, claiming that her women’s empowerment activities were against its religious beliefs. The MOJ also concluded that her home-country government would be unable to protect her if she were repatriated.

The government continued to grant special permits to stay on humanitarian grounds, or temporary stay visas, to most of the approximately 350 Rohingya Muslims who had entered the country on the basis of ethnic and religious persecution in Burma. The majority of those individuals had resided in the country for more than 10 years – some for more than 20 years. Of the approximately 350 Rohingya Muslims in the country, the government granted refugee status to 18, but none since 2015, according to BRAJ President Zaw Min Htut. The BRAJ president also said another 18 additional undocumented Rohingya Muslims were not associated with any formal resettlement program, were prohibited from obtaining employment, and faced hardships, including lack of health care. Their children born in Japan remained stateless. The remaining Rohingya Muslims in the country were legally permitted to reside on humanitarian grounds, which allowed them to be employed and required regular renewal of their status by regional immigration offices. No Rohingya Muslims from Burma were deported during the year.

According to the JUA, the government has granted residential status or citizenship through naturalization to approximately 800 Uyghur Muslims from China out of a total population of 2,000-3,000, most of whom came to Japan initially to study. The government did not deport any Uyghur Muslims during the year. Although the government did not grant refugee status to any of the 10 who applied in 2017 on the basis of ethnic or religious persecution in China as of the end of the year, the government continued to grant other types of residential status to Uyghur Muslims, according to the JUA honorary chairman. NGOs and UNHCR reported a low rate of approval of refugee status. Civil society groups also reported that it takes an average of three years for an applicant to be recognized as a refugee, and some cases involving multiple appeals have lasted 10 years.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Muslim communities continued to report on the societal religious tolerance of their faith. The number of mosques grew to 105, according to a scholar. Several media outlets, however, reported that local communities were reluctant to have Islamic cemeteries in their neighborhoods, since local residents were concerned that the Muslim tradition of burying a body could contaminate soil and water. Due to this concern, the Beppu Muslim Association faced opposition from some residents to its plan submitted to local authorities in 2019 for a permit to build an Islamic cemetery on land that it owns in Hiji Town, Oita Prefecture. On December 4, the Hiji Town Assembly adopted a petition with approximately 100 residents’ signatures objecting to the association’s plan to construct a cemetery, the press reported. Hiji’s mayor had the final authority in determining whether the town would grant permission to establish a cemetery by municipal decree, according to the press. The mayor had not made a decision as of the end of the year.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and while participating in a symposium attended by lawmakers, embassy officials encouraged the government to continue to work with the United States to protect Muslims originating from China and from other countries that restrict religious freedom.

The embassy continued to use its social media platforms to highlight the importance of religious freedom. A story published in December 2019, “Japanese Manga Comic Tells Story of Uyghur Oppression,” received more than 21,500 page views in January, approximately 17 times higher than the next most popular article that month. It remained highly popular throughout the year, often far outpacing other articles.

In conversations and meetings with JAORO, as well as with leaders of religious groups and other minority organizations, including those of Rohingya and Uyghur Muslims, the Jewish and Falun Gong communities, and foreign workers, embassy officials underscored the priority the United States placed on respect for religious freedom, discussed issues faced by these communities, and advised them on their efforts to reach out to the government.

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities continued to impose restrictions and additional scrutiny on what the government considered “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government again raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register certain religious groups. In January, an Almaty court sentenced two Muslims to five years of restriction of freedom (probation) for incitement of religious discord and participation in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization via online chats. In October, a Muslim was retried and sentenced to eight years in prison for supporting terrorism through online posts in 2015, despite an earlier Supreme Court ruling annulling his original sentence. Religious minority groups stated that the authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. Five pastors and two church workers were detained, tried, jailed, fined, or warned for reportedly violating pandemic restrictions. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available. Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. In October, four ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens who had crossed the border earlier from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

Media outlets continued to release articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a number of defamatory articles and broadcasts. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics said members of some religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire as well as some Christian groups, including evangelicals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.

Despite limitations on in-person meetings and visits during the global pandemic, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in person and via virtual platforms with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MISD and CRA. This included raising concerns regarding the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. The country’s bilateral Religious Freedom Working Group with the United States met in person in February and virtually in October to discuss cooperation to allow all persons to practice their faiths freely in the country. U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. The embassy also engaged in social media outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the religious population include Jews, Buddhists, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population. Under the constitution, all persons have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs. These rights, however, are in practice limited to registered or “traditional” religious groups. “Traditional” is not defined by law, but it typically refers to Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and other major or historic religions.

The MISD and its component, the CRA, regulate the practice of religion in the country. By law, the MISD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement. It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism. The MISD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship. All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination. The MISD cooperates with law enforcement bodies to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so. The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.

The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.” It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable by imprisonment from three to seven years.

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization. The law defines “extremism” as an organization or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining of national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk. An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.” The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render judgement and act on a decision to 72 hours. After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to immediately revoke the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property. Prosecutors have the right to annually inspect all groups registered with state bodies for compliance with all applicable laws.

Under the law on countering terrorism, the Ministry of Finance may freeze the financial accounts of persons convicted of terrorism or extremism crimes.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups (that are) unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.” To register at the local level, an organization must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice that lists the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Religious organizations may be active only within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level. Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different region (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members. National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 regions and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent. Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or on inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in leading or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 126,250 tenge ($300) and 505,000 tenge ($1,200).

The administrative code mandates a 505,000 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CRA; systematically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws. Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 126,250 tenge ($300). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning, a fine of 252,500 tenge ($600), or both. Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 378,750 tenge ($900) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or does not rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 505,000 tenge ($1,200), the entity is also subject to a fine of 1,262,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.

The law authorizes local authorities to “coordinate” the location of premises for religious events outside religious buildings. By law, religious activities may be held in residences, provided that organizers take into account the “rights and interests of neighbors.” Authorities sometimes interpret this as a requirement to receive permission from the neighbors.

The government prohibits individuals who do not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.

The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites. The law further bans activities of religious organizations that involve violence against citizens or otherwise harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation. The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity. The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.

The law states that in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the prison’s internal regulations. The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory. Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system. Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners. They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law. According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if it is approved following an analysis conducted by a CRA religious expert.

The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MISD to regulate it. Together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), the MISD oversees the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or in other travel for the performance of religious rites. The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.

The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content are allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CRA. The law allows one copy of published religious materials to be imported for personal use without review by a CRA religious expert.

The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.

The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects. The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s vacation, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria. The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities. Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited. The law allows afterschool and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group. A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.” The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 15.2 million tenge ($36,100) or up to six years’ imprisonment. To perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa. These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months. To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country. The CRA must approve the letter of invitation. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals. The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CRA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Foreigners may not register religious groups.

Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of a region or of the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work. Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application. Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal. A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization to work on its behalf. The local executive body of a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent may refuse to register missionaries whose work is deemed to “constitute a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”

The law does not provide for conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds, but the government has exempted Jehovah’s Witnesses from mandatory service.

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

Government Practices

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, 24 Sunni Muslims were serving sentences connected to their religious activities or beliefs. Three Protestant Christians were given prison terms in absentia. Six individuals were serving “restricted freedom” sentences that consist of probation plus compulsory community service; such sentences could also include court-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement. Sixteen individuals who had completed their prison terms were banned from religious activities.

Media reported that on January 27, the Almaly district court found Karlygash Adasbekova and Daria Nyshanova guilty of incitement of religious discord and supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization banned by the government as extremist, through online posts to a WhatsApp chat group. During the trial, two witnesses withdrew their earlier testimony against the accused, and the witness who made the initial report that led to the Committee of National Security (KNB) investigation could not remember which WhatsApp posts he had cited in his report. Despite these discrepancies, the judge found the defendants guilty and sentenced each of them to five years of restricted freedom.

On January 21, the Supreme Court reviewed the Prosecutor General’s petition challenging the 2018 verdict in the case of Dadash Mazhenov and sent the case back to the appellate court for a new trial on the grounds that the expert who had analyzed Mazhenov’s online posts lacked the appropriate license and that the defense’s statements were not sufficiently verified. Mazhenov, a Sunni Muslim, was sentenced to seven years and eight months imprisonment in 2015 for supporting terrorism in online posts. On October 13, the appeals panel of the Akmola provincial court upheld the 2018 verdict against Mazhenov. In March, Mazhenov filed a complaint stating he was tortured for praying while held in a labor camp in the city of Shymkent in the summer of 2019. In May, the Coalition against Torture, a local NGO that monitors prisons and detention facilities, appointed a lawyer to advocate on Mazhenov’s behalf. The NGO noted that few prison torture cases ever reached court, with few officials found guilty.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that 23 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors encountered difficulties in obtaining exemption from military service, although all cases were eventually resolved through dialogue with the authorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said that local enlistment officers initially considered the certificates issued by the recruits’ local religious communities to be insufficient evidence to exempt the young men. The communities then provided clarification of the applicants’ eligibility for exemption, as well as letters from the conscientious objectors formally asking to be released from military service.

Religious freedom observers consistently reported that authorities continued to use the religion law to harass and restrict minority religious groups with fines and limitations on their activities. Violations included attending worship meetings not approved by the state; offering, importing, or selling religious literature and pictures, including on the internet; sharing or teaching faith; and violating procedures for praying in mosques. The CRA reported 552 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2019, the latest data available.

During the year, authorities dropped the 2019 charges against the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) for conducting a religious event without prior permission from the local government. ISKCON had been charged after a 2019 police raid on an apartment in Atyrau.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 63 members of the community were detained on charges of illegal missionary activity between January and October. Of these, 38 were given oral warnings, 14 were given written warnings, and 11 were taken to court for alleged violation of the religion law. Of those 11, nine were acquitted and two were found guilty and fined 277,800 tenge each ($660).

On March 15, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued a decree declaring a state of emergency to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of wide-ranging emergency restrictions, religious ceremonies were prohibited and the operations of mosques, churches, and other religious centers were temporarily suspended. On May 11, the state of emergency ended. Beginning May 18, mosques, churches, and other houses of worship were able to operate at 30 percent capacity and with other region-specific public health-related restrictions. Throughout the year, region-specific restrictions changed frequently in efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. At year end, large religious services (i.e., weddings and funerals) were still prohibited on public health grounds.

Religious minority groups stated that authorities used COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to discriminate against them. In April, courts in Karaganda Province found the pastors of three local evangelical Baptist communities liable for violation of the COVID-19 quarantine rules because they allowed parishioners to gather for Sunday services on March 29. The pastors were jailed for three days, and Pastor Dmitry Iantsen in Termirtau was fined 26,510 tenge ($63). The church leaders said the incidents were a result of the lack of clear rules on the allowed size of gatherings. The chief health inspector’s decrees prohibited mass gatherings, but without specifying how many participants constituted such a gathering. The churches said some lawyers and government officials defined 50 to 200 participants as a mass gathering. The pastors said they had taken precautions to prevent the spread of disease, including restricting the number of worshippers present.

On April 22, an evangelical Christian pastor from Shymkent affiliated with the New Life Church received a 10-day prison sentence for conducting missionary activity during the state of emergency. Church representatives said Pastor Zhetis Rauilov was called to a meeting at the mayor’s office by an employee of the local branch of the CRA on April 21 but went home when the official was not in the office, stopping at a supermarket on the way. Police then stopped him, searched his car, and detained him on suspicion of moving through the city to provide groceries to parishioners without permission. (Local restrictions required permission for delivering groceries, but not for simple grocery shopping close to home.) Rauilov said he believed his arrest was orchestrated by local authorities because it took place immediately following the aborted meeting at the mayor’s office. Rauilov served the sentence and was released.

On May 15, according to Forum 18, police raided a shopping center in Aktobe to enforce COVID-19-related restrictions on public gatherings four days after the national pandemic state of emergency had been lifted. The administrator of the shopping center, Gulnar Kurmangaliyeva, was fined 132,550 tenge ($310) for permitting an Islamic prayer room to operate in the shopping center, and authorities closed the prayer room for three months.

Authorities continued to charge individuals under the administrative code for holding unsanctioned religious meetings, offering religious literature for sale, and for other violations of the religion law.

On February 29, police detained Oleg Stepanenko and Nadezhda Smirnova, members of a Christian Evangelical Baptist church in Pavlodar Province, for unsanctioned distribution of religious literature. Local media described them as adherents of a “harmful” religious group. On March 2, the local court found them guilty of breaking the religion law and imposed administrative fines. Authorities also seized and destroyed approximately 200 religious books in their possession.

In September, media reported that the Kokshetau administrative court found an individual guilty of disseminating religious literature, for writing a social media advertisement for books CRA theologians deemed to contain banned extremist content. Government experts found the advertisement while monitoring social media. Police located and charged the author, who was fined 100,000 tenge ($240).

On March 29, Pavlodar police raided the house of worship of the Pavlodar Council of Evangelical Christians and charged a 66-year-old pastor with leading an unregistered religious group. On April 20, the Pavlodar administrative court found the pastor guilty and fined him 194,460 tenge ($460).

The international Christian NGO Open Doors cited the country on its World Watch List for the government’s control over religious expression in the country, including surveillance, raids on church meetings, and arrests. The NGO said Christians from a Muslim background bore the worst persecution.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing in schools. The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country during in-person instruction, but media reported the ban was not strictly enforced during online instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reported on September 29 that according to the Aktobe Region Education Department, 11 students chose to study online at their own expense due to the government’s ban on wearing headscarves in schools.

According to Forum 18, some Muslims faced repeated questioning from law enforcement authorities about their faith.

According to CRA statistics for the first nine months of the year, there were 3,818 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared with 3,770 in 2019.

The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from those observing the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw. All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and were officially unable to practice in the country, although religious leaders reported some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.

The MISD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs continued to state this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval regarding any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK. The SAMK also set the curriculum for religious education across the country and provided guidelines and sample texts for sermons during Friday prayers.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques. According to the CRA, there were 2,684 mosques in the country, 46 more than reported in 2019, but the government and news media offered varying and occasionally inconsistent statistics about the number of mosques nationwide.

The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,684 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over appointment of imams as well as over the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The MISD continued to work closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrassahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or doctoral programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. There were 11 schools for religious training of Sunni Hanafi imams, one for Roman Catholic clergy, and one for Russian Orthodox clergy.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered during the year; authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in 2016. Government experts had previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that it must remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials. Community members reported that since they were not registered, they did not engage in any religious activity.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law, in keeping with its policy of maintaining a distance from the government. Community representatives reported that authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels and that police followed and surveilled them, as in prior years.

The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization. The government allowed the Church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but it did not allow the Church to engage in activity considered religious by the government.

Some religious minority groups faced attempts by local governments to seize their property. On September 17, the Almaty City Court upheld an earlier court decision to seize buildings of the New Life Church in Almaty. In 2019, the Almaty Specialized Interdistrict Court had convicted the Church’s three pastors, who fled the country, of using hypnotism and psychological manipulation to harm and defraud former parishioners, and it ordered the seizure of the Church’s property, including buildings, money, and computers. Neither the New Life Church leaders nor their attorney were present at the court hearing, which was held without their knowledge after the court agreed initially to postpone it. The Church immediately filed an appeal. Church representatives said they were particularly concerned about the seizure of two buildings used to support vulnerable individuals, and they expressed fears that some who lived in the buildings would have no place to go if the buildings were confiscated. At year’s end, the seizure of the buildings had been delayed, pending an appeal hearing.

On February 14, the Mayor of Nur-Sultan issued a decree confiscating land shared by the Presbyterian Grace Church and Pentecostal Agape Church in order to build a government-run kindergarten. The Churches lodged a lawsuit against the mayor’s office, but a city court ruled against the Churches on September 7, accepting the mayor’s countersuit that the seizure decree should be enforced. The judge also ordered the Churches to pay for a panel of experts – mostly officials from the mayor’s office – to assess the value of the property. The Churches appealed the decision, but their appeal was denied on December 12. At year’s end, the land had not been confiscated and the Churches were fighting the decree.

On January 21, two ethnic Kazakh Muslims, citizens of China, were convicted of illegally crossing the border from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China and sentenced to a year in prison. They served shorter sentences and were released. In October, these and another two previously convicted ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens were granted asylum on the grounds of credible fear of persecution if they returned to China.

In August, the government granted an exception to COVID-19 restrictions on public ceremonies to allow a Jewish group to travel to Almaty to mark the 76th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Scheerson. The government designated the resting place a National Heritage Site.

The Church of Scientology reported that during the year, its members experienced harassment and intimidation by the authorities, including frivolous lawsuits and smear campaigns on national television, harassment, extrajudicial searches, destructive raids of their premises, and seizure of literature.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons continued to have dedicated specialists charged with creating programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism. Lawyers familiar with the program said most of the specialists lacked education or specialized training.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Observers and minority Christian religious communities again expressed concerns regarding negative articles and broadcasts about minority religious groups that the media regarded as “nontraditional.”

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming, including Islamic headscarves and beards, indicated “nontraditional” beliefs. According to a survey by CRA conducted in 2019 and published in 2020, however, Kazakhstani society was increasingly receptive to those wearing religious clothes, particularly hijabs. In the survey, more than half of respondents (38.4 percent) approved of or were neutral (26.6 percent) to people wearing religious clothes, compared to 31.4 percent of respondents who had negative opinions of those wearing religious clothes.

According to NGO Open Doors, Christians from a Muslim background were persecuted by family, friends and their community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MISD, and CRA and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom. In January, the Secretary of State met with ethnic Kazakh Muslims whose family members had been detained in internment camps or prisons in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. The Secretary called for the release of all those arbitrarily detained and the end of the program of systematic surveillance and repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, bilateral discussions also took place on virtual platforms. As in previous years, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom. They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.

U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and free practice of religion in bilateral meetings and at meetings of the U.S-Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom Working Group in person in February and virtually in October. U.S. officials expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms that enabled authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner. They encouraged the government to eliminate burdensome registration requirements for religious communities and to take other steps to amend the religion law to increase the ability of believers to practice their faith. U.S. officials also raised concerns over anti-Semitic content in local media and encouraged fair and equal treatment for faith organizations in land disputes with the government. On social media, the embassy also engaged in outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

Embassy officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates in-person and online. They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of a registered religious group.

Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred. It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of Tengrism, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups. By year’s end, parliament did not take up amendments proposed to the religion law in 2019 by the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), which include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing. The SCRA continued to refuse to register local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in the south of the country, despite a UN Human Rights Committee finding in 2019 that the law’s requirement that religious groups register with local councils in order to establish new places of worship was in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the constitution and despite an earlier Supreme Court decision finding the practice unconstitutional. The government did not always provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. The SCRA-proposed solution, which would divide public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space, remained pending as of year’s end. There continued to be reports of threats of violence and other harassment of Christian minorities, including threats against family members in the case of Eldos Sattar uulu, who was attacked by his neighbors because of his Protestant beliefs.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers held mostly virtual meetings with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. Embassy officers regularly met virtually with religious leaders, including representatives of the Grand Muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups, the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population. There is also a small Ahmadi Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated by an international organization at 1,000 individuals. According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, of which an estimated 40 percent is Russian Orthodox. Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population. Adherents of Tengrism, an indigenous religion, estimate there are 50,000 followers in the country.

According to the National Statistics Committee, in 2019 (most recent data available) ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, ethnic Uzbeks approximately 15 percent, and ethnic Russians approximately 6 percent. Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim. Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion; the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons; and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views. It prohibits actions inciting religious hatred.

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state. It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.

The law states all religions and religious groups are equal. It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA, a government organization composed of presidential appointees, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion. The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups unless a parent grants written consent.

The law requires all religious groups and religiously affiliated schools to register with the SCRA. The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens. Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually. The law also requires that religious groups register with local councils to establish new places of worship, despite a 2016 Supreme Court decision that nullified this section of the law.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. The SCRA may also deny or postpone the registration of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character. Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services. Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($6).

After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. The organization must submit an application to the ministry that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members. If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes. By law, religious groups are designated as NGOs exempt from taxes on their religious activities.

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group in cases where courts concur that a religious organization has undermined the security of the state; undertaken actions aimed at forcibly changing the foundations of the constitutional system; created armed forces or propaganda advocating war or terrorism; engaged in the encroachment on the rights of citizens or obstruction of compulsory education of children; coerced members to remit their property to the religious group; or encouraged citizens to refuse to fulfil their civil obligations and break the law. The group may appeal the decision in the courts.

The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.” A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of five to 10 years. Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.

The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and “extremism.” The law also allows for stripping the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national found to have trained to acquire skills to commit terrorist or extremist crimes outside the country. The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.

According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity. If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country. All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually. Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported. Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($12), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.

The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which may include examination by state experts. The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for state religious experts. The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions. The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations. The law requires that law enforcement officials to demonstrate an intent to distribute extremist materials to arrest a suspect.

The law allows public schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion. Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.

According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service. Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($220) to opt out of military service. Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age. Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 108 hours of community service or pay a fine of 25,000 som ($300). If males are unable to serve due to family circumstances and have not paid by the age limit, they must pay 18,000 som ($220). Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years. It is obligatory to serve in the military for 12 months, although the law provides for alternative forms of community service. Religious groups are not exempt from this law, and members must pay to opt out of military service.

The country is a party to the ICCPR.

Government Practices

The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued to ban all materials or activities connected to the Chechen Islamist militant leader A.A. Tihomirov (aka Said Buryatsky), whose activities and materials the Bishkek District Court deemed to be extremist in 2014.

During the year, the government continued to arrest members of the pan-Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir on extremism charges. According to local press, the government arrested 13 alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir during the first six months of the year. In most cases, the arrestees were detained in the State Committee for National Security’s (GKNB) pretrial detention center that housed violent extremists.

According to human rights NGOs, religious extremism arrests dropped significantly after the change to extremism laws in 2019 that removed provisions allowing the arrest of individuals for possessing materials deemed extremist. Official government statistics to corroborate this were not available. According to a human rights NGO that tracks these cases, in eight of 12 confirmed arrests on extremism charges during the year, charges were dropped after courts found there was insufficient evidence under the revised law. Extremist incidents were defined as membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, distribution of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization. Despite the change in the extremism laws, NGOs reported that the government arrested social media users who shared or liked digital content that the government considered extremist, especially religious literature connected to banned groups, in a shift away from arrests for possessing physical media. The NGOs noted that arrests were centered on ethnic Uzbek communities in the south.

Leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on September 3, the leadership of the SCRA hosted a local television program with members of the Russian Orthodox Church and a local Muslim cleric in which the SCRA participant repeatedly said that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were extremists.

Ethnic Uzbeks said that police continued to target and harass them, usually in connection with the possession of banned religious literature or support of banned organizations, which they said was based on false testimony or planted evidence. Unlike in 2019, there were no reports of government officials visiting Christian churches to demand to see their financial records.

There were reports that police and prosecutors continued to threaten members of Eldos Sattar uulu’s family with violence or arrest. Sattar uulu, a Protestant, returned to the country during the year after fleeing in 2018 due to being threatened because of his faith.

Parliament continued to consider draft amendments to the religion law submitted by the SCRA in 2019 but did not take action before year’s end. The amendments would ban on door-to-door proselytizing, require notification to the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad, and maintain the 200-member minimum for registration as a religious organization, which would restrict registered organizations from creating smaller filial branches across the country.

As of September, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the SCRA continued to refuse to register local houses of worship, based on a provision of law requiring religious groups to register with local councils to establish new places of worship. The requirement remained in effect despite a finding by the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019 that it was in violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR and the constitution, and a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that the requirement was unconstitutional.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ representatives stated that the SCRA and other government organizations continued to use spurious applications of the law to prevent them from establishing new congregations. On January 20, the Jehovah’s Witnesses community reapplied for registration of their local houses of worship. Their 2019 request had been denied by the SCRA. The SCRA rejected the January application, “in order to avoid a threat to social stability, interfaith harmony, and public order.” On May 28, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a lawsuit with the Bishkek administrative court, citing the SCRA’s insistence on using a provision of the law that had been deemed unconstitutional. On June 24, the court returned the claim without consideration, accepting the SCRA’s argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative appeal process. On July 14, the community filed an appeal of the initial decision with the SCRA. The SCRA rejected this appeal, stating that it was not submitted in a timely manner. On July 24, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a second suit against the SCRA in the Bishek administrative court, after which the SCRA announced that it was suspending consideration of the registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregations due to the lawsuit. On November 12, the Supreme Court upheld the Bishkek court ruling, accepting the SCRA argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had not exhausted the administrative process and thus could not appeal the SCRA decision in court. With the court’s ruling, the SCRA’s rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses application became final.

Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete, even when successful. One group reported that the SCRA had not registered it after five years of attempts. Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending. The SCRA reported it registered 112 mosques, 11 Christian churches (no information provided on denominations), 38 religious schools, and 28 religious organizations through October. The SCRA also reported that there were 2,662 registered mosques, two registered Islamic universities, 141 registered madrassas, and 77 registered Islamic foundations in the country.

Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadi Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group again stated it still had not obtained registration. The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2020. The SCRA has also refused to register Tengrism as a religion since 2013, declaring that government theologians said Tengrism is a philosophical movement and not a religion.

While the law does not require examination of all religious literature and materials, religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the SCRA required that they submit 100 percent of their imported religious material for review. According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, the SCRA continued its practice of having individuals designated by the SCRA as experts examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations, although the law did not mandate such a review. There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts who examined the religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship. According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts. Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code. The State Forensic Service, with support from SCRA on religious matters, screened the content of websites, printed material, and other forms of media for extremist content.

NGOs working in prison reform and countering violent extremism continued to report that laws mandating separate facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism were often poorly implemented. NGOs reported that violent extremists were not separated from inmates who were incarcerated for lesser crimes, including simple possession of extremist materials, which they said could lead to radicalization of other populations in the prisons. The government announced that it would review old convictions for possession of such materials, but there were no reports it had actually done so. NGOs reported that prison authorities required religious literature other than the Quran or hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammed) to be approved by the Muftiate.

According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service remained a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. A government policy announced in 2017 to address this problem by dividing public cemeteries by religion so that all faith groups would have burial space had not been implemented as of year’s end. According to the SCRA, the draft policy was approved by relevant government agencies and was undergoing revisions before implementation.

The SCRA held an interfaith dialogue forum in January, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented subsequent forums during the year. The event included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and the GKNB. As in previous years, the forum focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities as well as between the state and religious organizations, including a specific focus on religious communities outside of the capital.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups continued to occur in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations. In January, Eldos Sattar uulu, who fled to Ukraine in 2018 because of attacks against his Protestant faith, returned to the country, but not to his village of Tamchi, out of fear of reprisal from community members due to his decision to go to the media after the attacks against him. Sattar uulu returned after a reported settlement between his attackers and his family in which he agreed to not prosecute his attackers in exchange for his family’s safety. According to observers from the area, the settlement was likely due to continuing threats against Sattar uulu’s parents.

On March 18, the Muftiate suspended Friday prayers and Islamic proselytization (dawah) due to COVID-19. The Grand Mufti, Maksat Azi Toktomushev, encouraged Muslims to pray at home and maintain social distancing. On August 26, the Muftiate lifted those restrictions as long as mosques followed anti-COVID-19 protocols.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Before pandemic restrictions were imposed, the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials, including the SCRA deputy chief and high-ranking officials in the Grand Muftiate, to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. In November, an embassy officer met with SCRA officials to discuss plans for legislation in 2021, including proposed amendments to the Law on Religion, as well as how the new government planned to approach longstanding issues, including religious intolerance.

Embassy officers continued to engage with representatives of the Muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities. Throughout the year, these interactions were significantly reduced due to the pandemic, although embassy staff continued to interact with contacts virtually. The Ambassador also met virtually with members of religious communities, including representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Evangelical Unions of Kyrgyzstan, and discussed religious registration, interreligious relations, and religious extremism.

Laos

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, with Buddhism paramount. 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 that 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 religious groups, particularly Christians associated with the Lao Evangelical Church (LEC). Media reported that in March, local officials arrested LEC Pastor Sithon Thipavong for conducting religious activities in Kalum Vangkhea Village, Namdoy District, Savannakhet Province. Although he remained in detention, by year’s end authorities did not charge Sithon with a crime. According to media in July, authorities arrested four LEC members for attending a Christian family funeral in Khammouane Province. Authorities released the four Christians from jail on December 22. In February, media reported that local authorities and villagers from Tine Doi Village in Luang Namtha Province forced out of their homes 14 residents from three ethnic Hmong Christian families. Provincial leaders brokered an agreement with district authorities for the families to return, but under the condition they abandon their religious practices. Two new religious groups submitted applications for registration during the year – the Methodist Church and an unnamed Christian group. 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. Members of minority religions continued to hide their religious affiliation in order to join the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the government, and military and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. Central authorities said they continued to travel to provincial areas to train officials to implement Decree 315 and other laws governing religion.

According to government and religious group sources, tensions continued in rural areas among animists, Buddhists, and growing Christian communities. Religious leaders said there were reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from their villages if they did not renounce their faith. In October, media reported that residents of Pasing Village forced seven Christians from two households from their homes in Salavan Province for refusing to renounce their faith. Villagers later tore down the Christians’ homes; as of year’s end, the Christians remained homeless. Burial ceremonies remained a point of contention in some areas, with 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 regulations, including registration procedures, with the government and continued to encourage open dialogue and conflict resolution to resolve them. In exchanges with the Ministry of Home Affairs (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 and prolonged detention. In February, Department of State officials visited Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet to meet with government officials and representatives from religious groups. They discussed implementation of Decree 315 and treatment of certain religious groups by both government and nongovernmental groups. In October, the Ambassador commemorated the completion of the U.S.-supported restoration of the oldest Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang and handed over the successful restoration project to the government and residents of the city. Embassy officials regularly met with leaders from a wide variety of religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to understand better the problems faced by members of minority religious groups. The embassy also invited religious leaders and government officials responsible for religious affairs to embassy events, including those focusing on religious freedom and related issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.5 million (midyear 2020 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), an organization associated with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) that, along with 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 Catholic Church-affiliated NGO Aid to the Church in Need’s Religious Freedom in the World 2018 report, its most recent, Christians comprise 3.2 percent of the population. The Catholic Church estimates its membership at 55,200, the LEC estimates its membership at more than 200,000, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church estimates its adherents at 1,800. 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 among 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 MOHA. 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 religious leaders 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 must 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 that 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. MOHA may order the cessation of any religious activity 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 among tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, property, health, or reputations of others. The decree requires 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 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.

Per Decree 315, 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. MOHA officials at all levels must approve any maintenance, restoration, or 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 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 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. MOES states that 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.

MOES and MOHA must approve the travel abroad of clergy and religious teachers for specialized studies. Students going abroad for any kind of study (including religious studies) generally require MOES approval. Domestic religious organizations that also conduct religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level.

According to the Law for LFND, 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. Decree 315 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 MOHA must approve religious texts or other materials before they are imported. 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.

A government decree adopted in March defines principles and rules for “ethnic management.” One section of the decree provides for protection and preservation of traditional burial practices.

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 that 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. Religious leaders said many local officials were unaware of the decree’s content and how to properly apply it. Reports continued of local authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting and detaining followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Asia News, on March 15, local officials arrested LEC Pastor Sithon Thipavong for conducting religious activities in Kalum Vangkhea Village, Namdoy District, Savannakhet Province. MOHA officials said local authorities arrested Sithon for distributing Bibles without permission, but the LFND stated that a thorough investigation was warranted to determine the final charges. Local sources said the regional prosecutor assigned to Sithon’s case stated that Sithon broke no laws, but they said local authorities used a number of justifications – including the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and the occurrence of the provincial party congress of the LPRP – to keep him detained. Local sources also said the possible charges against him changed from violating Decree 315 to political charges, given what local officials said were Sithon’s connections to foreign powers based largely on previous international travel. RFA and local sources reported that at the onset of his imprisonment, local authorities did not allow Sithon’s family to visit him. At year’s end, authorities did not formally charge Sithon, although he remained in detention with family visitation.

According to RFA, local authorities in Phousath Village, Khunkham District, Khammouane Province arrested four LEC members on July 3 for participating in a Christian family funeral. Police arrested the four Christians before they were able to conduct the funeral prayer ceremony according to their faith. One local official told RFA the reason for the individuals’ detention was because they performed ceremonies that “don’t conform with Lao culture, which creates unrest and divides community solidarity.” Local authorities released the four individuals from jail on December 22. According to local sources, authorities detained or arrested additional religious believers during the year in Attapeu, Bokeo, and Phongsali Provinces.

According to the Union of Catholic Asian News and local sources, local authorities and villagers from Tine Doi Village forced 14 residents from three ethnic Hmong Christian families out from their homes in Long District, Luang Namtha Province on February 12. Local sources reported that local authorities and villagers destroyed the families’ homes, and the families fled to the border of neighboring Bokeo Province. The LEC reported that in June, the provincial LFND and the district struck an agreement to allow the families to return to their village, but under the condition that the families give up their Christian practices and convert to Buddhism or animism. According to local sources, villagers and local authorities tore down the families’ houses on October 1, and by year’s end authorities did not resolve the dispute.

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.

A MOHA official said two new religious groups submitted applications for registration during the year: the Methodist Church and an unnamed Christian group that separated from the LEC. MOHA requested these religious groups to explain the different practices and beliefs among various Christian denominations before approving the applications. The MOHA official also said that during the registration review process, the ministry consulted with other religious groups – including the LEC – to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups. Officials’ requests to consult with other religious groups often significantly delayed registration and other approval processes.

According to a MOHA official, during the year the ministry met with nonregistered religious groups, including representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ, to discuss the registration process. Church of Jesus Christ leaders said they were in the process of preparing documents for internal consideration.

According to an international observer of religious issues in the country, Buddhists continued to adjust to Decree 315’s regulatory changes, including the requirement that all religious groups register, a stipulation that had not previously applied to Buddhist groups.

Although the law prohibited members of religious groups not registered with 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.

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 again 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 requests in advance to hold basic religious services. A number of minority religious leaders said they often traveled within the country without prior government approval because obtaining permission took too much time and officials often ultimately denied the requests. A representative from an unregistered religious group said the group considered registering as a foreign entity to circumvent the onerous requirements under Decree 315. According to some religious groups, the government also did not fully enforce the decree’s travel notice requirement.

MOHA and LFND officials continued to acknowledge that 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 continued to recommend 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. According to an international religious freedom NGO that financially supported some of the sessions, while the training programs were beneficial, some local authorities used the programs to exploit gaps in Decree 315 to further restrict religious freedom.

Authorities stated that during the year the central government, in coordination with relevant local- and provincial-level officials, continued to conduct assessments of Decree 315 implementation. Officials said they invited representatives of some, but not all, religious groups in the respective areas to provide input.

Some religious groups continued not to comply with the requirement to obtain advance permission to travel to other jurisdictions. One religious leader said some of the requirements laid out in Decree 315 were so burdensome that groups often ignored them in order to carry out daily practices.

Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to the travel permission requirements. Some religious leaders stated authorities sometimes detained Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside their regular locales. According to the LEC and local sources, in October, authorities detained two LEC members for five days and fined them each 525,000 Lao kip ($57) for traveling to attend a regular monthly meeting in Bokeo Province. The LEC said numerous persons traveled without authorization to Bokeo Province that day, but authorities arrested only those identified as Christians.

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

According to the Catholic Church, the government routinely surveilled members and leaders of the Catholic Church, reportedly to monitor for and protect against foreign influence. In Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Catholic leaders reported being frequently questioned by a mix of plainclothes and uniformed police officers. These officers sought membership statistics, a list of Church members’ names, and information regarding new members. Church leaders also said that the government often monitored foreigners who attended a service at the Catholic Church in Vientiane.

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 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. The Church of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church said they 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. Due to these restrictions, Baha’i sources said they chose to produce and print their own religious documents in the country.

Several minority religious groups reported problems building and renovating places of worship, although the LFND Religious Affairs Department stated it continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible. 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. The Seventh-day Adventist Church attributed the large number of house churches to the difficulties of obtaining enough land to meet the requirements of Decree 315.

Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction and generally received no response to requests. A Catholic Church official said the Church often waited years for approval to build a new church, only to be ultimately denied, a point the Church raised again during training on the proper implementation of Decree 315 in Vientiane Province in December. According to the Catholic Church representative, the Church had been waiting since 2007 to receive approval to renovate a church building. The representative also said guidelines for the construction of religious buildings delineated 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 to build a church or temple limited the ability of some smaller congregations, which lacked sufficient resources, to obtain a space of that size. A Seventh-day Adventist Church leader said that while the land requirement was not an issue in rural areas, purchasing land was expensive in cities, where most Seventh-day Adventists live. He said the largest Seventh-day Adventist Church, located in Vientiane, sits on less than 3,300 square meters (35,000 square feet). As in 2019, he also said that the government sometimes facilitated access to land for Buddhist temples, while Christian churches had to purchase the land for their sites of worship. As common with Buddhist temples, he said, the government often retained the land title, which he stated could cause an issue if the church needed to prove ownership.

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

Christian students continued to say 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 not being a MOES requirement. This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.

Leaders of the Catholic Church and Seventh-day Adventist Church said Christian officials needed to hide their religion in order to join the LPRP, government, or military and to avoid facing discrimination in these institutions. Some non-Buddhists identified as Buddhist in their family book (a household registration document), including one Baha’i member who stated that his wife would encounter problems at her employment with a state-owned enterprise if the family identified as Baha’i. Seventh-day Adventist officials continued to say 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, advance to higher-level positions, or become village chiefs. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a member of the Church did not receive a promotion from the level of teacher to principal because he was Christian. According to the Methodist Church, some teachers were threatened with firing or denied promotions unless they renounced their faith.

A representative from the NGO Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) said that while conditions for religious freedom had previously improved steadily over the decade up to 2019, the arrest of Christians – and particularly the prolonged detention of Christians without formal charges brought against them – was a concerning development during the year.

According to government sources, due to staff turnover at the provincial and local levels, there were still some officials who were unfamiliar with the provisions and proper application of Decree 315 four years after it entered into effect. LFND and MOHA officials 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. 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. Due to funding and capacity constraints, MOHA, with support from IGE, held religious freedom workshops in only four of 18 provinces during the year, compared with 12 in 2019.

At year’s end, MOHA and LFND continued disseminating the March decree that included protection and preservation of traditional burial sites.

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.

LEC leaders continued to say that growth in church membership exacerbated tensions within some communities, particularly with villagers who were wary of minority religions. According to one official, majority non-Christian neighbors often harassed new Christian members in these villages for abandoning their traditions, typically Buddhist or animist.

Religious leaders said that in some rural areas, there were again reports that villagers threatened to expel Christians from their villages if they did not renounce their faith.

According to RFA, in October, villagers from Pasing Village forced out seven Lao Christians of two households from their homes in Ta-Osey District, Salavan Province, for refusing to renounce their faith. Local sources reported that villagers also damaged their homes and belongings and nailed their doors shut. According to LEC leaders, the families returned to their homes to repair the damage, but remained concerned regarding future conflicts. Villagers later tore down the Christians’ homes; as of year’s end, the Christians remained homeless.

In many villages, religious disputes continued to be referred to government-sanctioned village mediation units comprised of private citizens. 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, MOHA and LFND officials said they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved. MOHA and LFND officials continued to say their ministries did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.

According to Christian religious leaders, Christians said burial practices remained a contentious issue. In some rural areas, Christians said that they were not allowed to use public cemeteries, were not given land for separate cemeteries, and had to resort to burying their dead on farms or in backyards. A Christian leader said that in some areas, the church was trying to buy land for cemeteries so members would not have to use public cemeteries, and some Christian churches discussed purchasing land together to build Christian cemeteries.

Several religious groups said they provided donations without regard to the religious affiliation of the recipients after floods in the southern provinces of Sekong and Savannakhet occurred in October.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials continued to regularly advocate for religious freedom with a range of government officials, including those responsible for implementing Decree 315, to ensure compliance of the government’s activities with the country’s obligations under the ICCPR and other international instruments to which it was a signatory. In exchanges with 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 and prolonged detention. During meetings with National Assembly members and senior government officials, the Ambassador raised the prolonged detention of LEC Pastor Sithon and called for his release. Embassy officers raised concerns with appropriate officials regarding 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.

In February, Department of State officials visited Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Savannakhet to meet with government officials and representatives from religious groups. They discussed the implementation of Decree 315 and the treatment of certain religious groups by both government and nongovernmental groups.

In October, the Ambassador commemorated the completion of the restoration of Wat Visoun in Luang Prabang and handed over the successful restoration project to the government and residents of Luang Prabang. The Wat Visoun Temple, a center of Buddhist study and worship for more than 500 years and the oldest Buddhist temple in Luang Prabang, was restored using $347,000 of U.S. government funding. During the handover ceremony, the Ambassador said, “The work we have done here will help ensure Wat Visoun remains a culturally and spiritually significant site for many years to come.”

Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from different religious and advocacy groups, including the LEC, Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Islamic Association of Laos, the Baha’i community, the Buddhist 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. The embassy also invited religious leaders and government officials responsible for religious affairs to embassy events, including those focusing on religious freedom and related issues.

The embassy additionally amplified messages promoting religious freedom on its Facebook page, which had more than 350,000 followers.

Macau

Read A Section: Macau

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers. The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese. Sources stated the PRC central government and religious leaders from mainland-authorized churches invited Macau diocese representatives to public events.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

According to Minghui.org, with fewer foreigners visiting the SAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Falun Gong practitioners interacted more with local residents, handing out information on the streets, including publications called CCP Virus Special Editions and MinghuiWeekly. According to the website, “Local residents have always treated Falun Dafa practitioners with kindness.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

Read a Section

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Malaysia

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. 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. Individuals diverging 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. Sources stated that there was some selective persecution of non-Muslim faiths through legal and extralegal means. In February, the human rights commission (SUHAKAM) initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of a Christian pastor and his wife. A government-appointed panel formed in 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s findings on the enforced disappearances of another Christian pastor and a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings in 2016 made little progress. In February, the wife of the second Christian pastor initiated legal action against the federal government and senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s disappearance. In July, the High Court convicted a man for training members of a WhatsApp group to commit terrorist acts, including attacks on a Hindu temple and other houses of worship. The Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against a member of parliament who stated that sharia courts discriminated against women. The government continued to selectively prosecute speech that allegedly denigrated Islam, while it largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. Non-Muslims faced legal difficulties when they sought to use the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report challenges in registering as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties said only Malay-Muslim parties should be allowed to lead the country. In July, a court sentenced a man to 26 months’ imprisonment for insulting Islam and a Muslim politician. The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs and limited Malaysians ability to travel to Israel.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity. A joint council of minority religious communities released a statement expressing its “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.”

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, 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 the three Christians and a Muslim activist in 2016. 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 and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy funded a civic education curriculum and training program that will teach students in federal religious schools about freedom of expression and association, including freedom of religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.7 million (midyear 2020 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; 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions; and less than 1 percent each of other religious groups that 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 inhabits 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,” are the highest Islamic authorities within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the King, selected to a five-year term from among the nine sultans in an established rotation order. 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, the country’s highest, has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors and that such jurisdiction may not 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 Muslim and ethnic Malays, 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. According to former Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir, from 2000 to 2010, the sharia court approved 135 of 686 applications to no longer identify as a Muslim. NGOs report that most converts from Islam prefer to do so privately, without legal approval. 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. 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 sharia court to officially recognize the marriage.

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 ($250) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia law in some states, any 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 restriction.

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 judgments affect non-Muslims.

Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of that 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 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 the Department of Immigration. This 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 (waqf), tithes (zakat), and other Islamic activities.

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

Government Practices

Police made little progress in investigating the disappearance in 2016 of Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu, reportedly due to a lack of information on the case. In February, SUHAKAM initiated a public inquiry into their disappearance. A witness testified that Hilmy had told him that “religious authorities were looking for him” due to his conversion from Islam to Christianity without following the required legal procedures. The witness said Hilmy told him he had not been threatened. Another witness testified in March that Hilmy had shown him an email from then Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin instructing Hilmy to “leave the country.” Jamaluddin denied the accusation in a statement, noting, “I never personally knew Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Hilmy, nor (the witness) Selvakumar Peace John Harris. I also deny having sent the alleged email, nor have I contacted them through any means of communication.” SUHAKAM’s inquiry was suspended in March after two of its commissioners tested positive for COVID-19, but it resumed in August and was ongoing at year’s end.

A government-appointed panel formed in June 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Royal Malaysia Police intelligence unit, Special Branch, was responsible for the 2016 “enforced disappearance” of Shia Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat made little progress in its investigation, according to SUHAKAM. In August, the NGO Citizens against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) urged the government to release the findings of the panel and police to reveal actions taken in response to the SUHAKAM report. The government-appointed panel did not investigate the disappearance of Christian pastor Raymond Koh in 2016, however, as the government argued it was “out of scope” of the panel, purportedly because prosecutors had previously charged him with extorting Koh’s son for information in the case.

In February, Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Koh, initiated legal action against the federal government and several senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure.

Despite calls from the High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s former husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing as of September. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her former husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. In February, Gandhi initiated legal proceedings against the police and the police inspector-general (IGP) for failing to locate her daughter, Prasana. At year’s end, the IGP had not disclosed Prasana’s location nor announced any progress on her case.

In February, the Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against Member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah for statements she made in 2019 asserting that the sharia court discriminated against women. The prosecution said Chin’s comments harmed the reputation of the court.

In July, an Indonesian man was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment and fined 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) for training members of a WhatsApp group, “sejati sejiwa” (one true soul), to commit terrorist acts and for possessing items linked to ISIS. Police said the man had been preparing to attack a Hindu temple in Selangor in 2019 to “avenge” the death of a Muslim firefighter who was killed when responding to a riot at a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur in 2018.

In May, the Federal Court allowed a man to challenge the constitutionality of a law in the sharia legal code against “unnatural sex.” The man’s lawyer argued that the Selangor State legislative body had no power to apply sharia because sharia pertained to criminal law, which falls under federal jurisdiction, and that there was already a federal law on “unnatural sex” in the penal code.

Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is a member party of the ruling Perikatan National coalition, said that the NGO G25, described by academics and the media as a promoderation group of eminent Malay individuals and civil servants, posed an intellectual threat to Muslims and was more dangerous than a militant group. A G25 report on the administration of Islam in Malaysia stated that Muslims who chose to convert to another faith or practice no faith should not face criminal punishment.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In February, a sessions court fined Wai Foo Sing 15,000 ringgit ($3,700) under the Communications and Multimedia Act for posting what the court said was an obscene graphic of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife on Facebook. The court said, “It is undeniable that the accused’s inappropriate, offensive, and obscene posting based on religion has transgressed the parameters of free speech guaranteed under our constitution.” In March, a judge fined Ain Zafira Md Said, a student, 4,000 ringgit ($1,000) in lieu of three months in jail for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on social media in 2019. In April, authorities detained two individuals and initiated investigations under the Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act relating to a social media video mocking Muslims praying. In July, a court sentenced Danny Antoni to 26 months in prison after finding him guilty on two counts of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the president of PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang, in a Facebook post.

In September, police opened an investigation into Member of Parliament Nik Muhammad Zawawi Nik Salleh for his remarks in parliament stating that “the Bible was distorted or altered.” Zawawi said he had no reason to apologize, since his statement was “a fact,” and he said the Christian community had “no right to be offended.” The investigation against Zawawi remained open at year’s end.

Lawyers called for the Ministry of Education to issue a directive forbidding religious conversion of students in school. In January, a Christian family in Sarawak state sued authorities over the conversion of their son, a minor, to Islam by a ustaz (religious teacher) in his school without the parents’ knowledge or consent. “My client’s instruction is to challenge the validity of the conversion of their son. He is still a minor. The parents were unaware of the conversion. They were shattered when they found out,” said Priscilla Ruth Marcus, the family’s lawyer. According to Marcus, “This is not the first reported case.” NGOs reported that similar cases reinforced fears among parents of rural Christian communities in Sabah and Sarawak State about what might happen if they send their children to boarding schools.

In January, government and religious authorities in Sabah State initiated investigations into reports that the Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation, a quasigovernmental charity trust fund, offered cash to individuals who agreed to convert to Islam. Then Assistant Education and Innovation Minister Jenifer Lasimbang told media, “It’s not a new thing. These things have been happening for a few years.” The foundation denied the allegations.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines on 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 January, the NGO G25 denounced various state laws penalizing apostasy, whether by fines, caning, imprisonment, or extended “rehabilitation,” as inconsistent with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri made a statement in July that religious authorities would arrest transgender individuals and provide them religious education to “return to the correct path.” In August, JAKIM filed a police report against activist Nicole Fong, accusing her of defamation because of her tweets detailing JAKIM’s religious conversion program that targeted the LGBTQ community. In a statement, 15 NGOs said JAKIM intimidated human rights defenders with heavy-handed tactics that “send a message to Malaysians that we are not allowed to question governmental policies and programs.”

NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert and for non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to change the religious designation on their identification cards. A woman in Sabah State, Nusiah Pulod, faced significant bureaucratic challenges in attempting to remove the “Islam” designation printed on her identification card even though she said she was born Christian and had never converted. As a result, Nusiah was unable to marry her non-Muslim fiance, since the registration office would not recognize what it considered to be a mixed-faith marriage involving a Muslim. Nusiah said many Christian families in her village faced similar problems.

The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it limited Malaysians’ ability to travel to Israel. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in a June interview with Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV that it is better for Muslims to attack Israelis directly rather than carry out terrorist attacks against European countries and the United States. “The enemy is Israel. [If] you want to do anything, do it to the Israelis, like some of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, who individually attack Israeli soldiers. That is the enemy.” He also said that Jews controlled the media in the United States. “It is a propaganda campaign on the part of the Jews. They own all the newspapers in America. They own the TV stations. So they have tremendous influence.”

All foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to conduct religious talks were subjected to mandatory background checks for what the government termed national security reasons to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant” teachings.

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 Islamic Affairs and Religious Department in Kelantan State detained seven Muslim couples on suspicion of committing khalwat during a seasonal “antivice” operation in conjunction with the Lunar New Year celebration. A government representative said the operation was intended to “track down those who took the opportunity of the long public holiday to commit immoral behavior.” Four Muslim women were also issued summonses for wearing “sexy and tight clothing in public.”

In July, the Terengganu State government implemented a gender segregation policy in cinemas in what it said was a measure to ensure adherence to sharia. According to a local cinema operator, married couples needed to provide legal proof of marriage and were subjected to random checks. Muslim moviegoers were also required to dress according to Islamic regulations, while non-Muslim moviegoers were required to dress modestly.

Authorities in Terengganu State said they would soon introduce additional gender-segregation guidelines for event organizers barring female entertainers, including non-Muslims, from performing before male audiences.

In August, the chairman of the Kelantan State Community Unity, Culture, Heritage, and Tourism Committee said the state would review for “corrections” a century-old indigenous dance form, Main Puteri, that it considered “un-Islamic” in order to meet sharia compliance before the dance could be reintroduced for public entertainment.

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 February, a mosque in the state of Perak that organized a Chinese New Year celebration was censured by the Perak Islamic Religious Department for “disrespecting the sensitivity of the Muslim community.” In December, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmad Marzuk Shaary reported that the National Fatwa Council was investigating the teachings of Asmaul Husna Wan Maseri, founded by former PAS council member Professor Wan Maseri Wan Mohd in Kelantan, on allegations of deviation from Sunni Islam. The group had been declared as heretical in the states of Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang and the Federal Territories.

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 to conduct 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.

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 January, the Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) said there were 15 Shia religious centers, which JAIS considered to be a significant increase. The chairperson of JAIS said the agency would intensify efforts to monitor Shia Muslims and raid Shia religious gatherings and would also provide information on the alleged dangers of Shia Islam to schools and mosques throughout the state. In response, the NGO Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) said JAIS was promoting “an intolerant religion [Islam] in this modern age.”

In August, the Court of Appeal petitioned the High Court to determine whether 39 Ahmaddiya Muslims were to be considered Muslim following an appeal by JAIS against a 2018 High Court decision stating that the sharia court had no jurisdiction over the Ahmadi community, since JAIS had refused to recognize them as adherents of Islam. The petitioners challenged their 2014 sharia offenses charged by JAIS on the basis that Islamic authorities in Selangor State did not recognize Ahmadiyya as Muslims and that the petitioners were therefore outside JAIS jurisdiction. The High Court ruled in August, “The Ahmaddiya were, as with all other persons, entitled to freedom of religion, subject to the Federal Constitution.” The court also said the country’s dual legal system and the issuance of identity cards stating their holders’ religion as Islam compounded the ambiguity of their religious status as Muslims. The three-member bench chaired by Justice Badariah Sahamid further stated, “It is timely that all states, along with the federal government, work out a unified regime to determine the religious status of the Ahmadiyya so that they are not put at risk of sharia investigations and prosecution.”

The country’s movement control order (MCO), established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, banned gatherings of any kind from March 18 through June 4, including religious gatherings. During Ramadan, the MCO prohibited Muslims from worshiping in mosques, breaking their fast outside their homes, and visiting Ramadan bazaars, a popular tradition. The government assured Muslims that all religious obligations could be carried out at home and noted exceptions for front-line responders and those who were ill. State religious leaders, including conservative representatives from PAS, supported the federal government’s measures, noting “we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.” Non-Islamic leaders said that they were not consulted or warned by the government before restrictions were imposed.

In September, the Federal Court allowed the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) to proceed with a hearing to seek a court declaration to invalidate a Selangor State law that enabled sharia courts to review decisions made by state religious authorities. In 2019, the High Court dismissed the NGO’s application for a civil court to review a 2014 Selangor State fatwa that found the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights. The 2014 fatwa said SIS deviated from the teachings of Islam because the group subscribed to the principles of liberalism and religious pluralism. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The fatwa also ruled that the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. At year’s end, no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to function nationally.

In September, JAIS arrested Abdul Kahar Ahmad and 16 followers for spreading the teachings of a “deviant sect” that had been banned in 1991. JAIS confiscated books, cell phones, laptops, and other materials. Following the arrest, the Minister of Religious Affairs said the government will consider distributing reading materials on “deviant” teachings to imams and religious teachers appointed by religious authorities in order to warn the public of the dangers of such teachings. Abdul Kahar and three of those arrested were released on bail, while the other 13 remained in custody. Abdul Kahar, who proclaimed himself a Rasul Melayu (Malay prophet), was previously arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, six strokes of caning, and a fine of 16,500 ringgit ($4,100).

There were restrictions 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,” “al Quran,” or “fatwa” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.”

In October, the Court of Appeal dismissed a discovery application by Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the documents the Home Affairs Ministry used to support its ban on the Church’s and its Malay-language speaking congregation’s right to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The ministry argued that the documents sought by the Church fell under the Official Secrets Act 1972.

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 February, the Court of Appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books written by IRF. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017 for content that did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam, a decision the High Court upheld in 2019. IRF representatives welcomed the court’s decision, stating it fulfilled its role as “the last bastion for the protection of freedom of expression.”

A 2019 investigation into the book Unveiling Choices by Maryam Lee remained open. The book was alleged by JAIS to “insult or bring into contempt the religion of Islam.” It narrates Lee’s personal reasons for removing her hijab as well as the sociopolitical relationship between Muslim women and the Malaysian state. Lee would be subject to a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both, if found guilty.

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. In March, authorities demolished the 100-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman Temple located within the Kamunting detention center in Taiping, Perak State. According to media reports, authorities did not inform the temple’s leaders of the impending demolition. Facebook later removed a post by Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy questioning whether the demolition was in part organized by a federal government dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims. “I think the title of the post, which asserted that the structure was probably the first Hindu temple demolished under the Perikatan National [ruling coalition] government, irked the powers that be,” Ramasamy commented to the media.

PAS party leader Hadi said during a September speech at the annual general meeting of party that only Malay-Muslim unity could lead and save the country. According to media reports, Hadi said, “The nation that is with Islam must rise so that it is not swept away by the influence of non-Muslims, who lose their identity.” In January, Hadi described choosing between Muslim and non-Muslim rule: “If we [Muslims] are patient with each other, and even if [the leadership] is cruel, we can at least be cow herders, but under other people’s rule, we will become pig herders.” Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Democratic Action Party, which is part of the opposition coalition but has the most seats in the lower house of parliament, responded, “The advocates of this version of politics are gambling with the future of a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural nation.”

The Prime Minister’s office tasked government agencies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, 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 ($68.41 million), while 1.4 billion ringgit ($348.3 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In April, the government allocated 21 million ringgit ($5.22 million) to assist private Islamic schools whose operations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said the assistance was part of 100 million ringgit ($24.88 million) allocated to JAKIM under the 2020 budget supplement intended to finance the maintenance and upgrading of Islamic schools. Non-Islamic schools did not receive this funding.

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.

There were continued complaints concerning what critics said were religious overtones and symbols in public schools. In January, family members of children enrolled in government residential schools questioned what they said was an overemphasis on religious practices: schools frequently compelled students to attend group prayers and rituals, causing the studies of other subjects to be neglected. In response, the schools stated the rituals were intended to obtain “blessings” that would ensure that students excelled academically, and that would elevate the status of the school. “They are competing on which school is more Islamic instead of being better academically,” said one parent. Another parent told the online news portal Free Malaysia Today that her daughter was compelled to attend a “ruqyah” (exorcism) session to be cured from the possession of “bad spirits” after skipping Islamic instruction to attend biology classes.

An effort by the government to revive Jawi, an archaic Arabic script, in lessons on Bahasa Melayu in vernacular primary schools sparked tensions along ethnic and religious fault lines. Following an outcry from Chinese groups that the Jawi revival was an attempt at Islamization, the Ministry of Education pared down the pages to be taught on Jawi from six to three. Then Deputy Minister of Education Teo Nie Ching later clarified that Jawi lessons in vernacular schools could only be introduced with majority approval from parent-teacher associations.

In January, Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, vice president of Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, a Malay nationalist political party, wrote that a public school in Puchong, Selangor State, was propagating religion to its students through decorations for Lunar New Year. He stated, “The complaints we’ve received show unease at the excessive Chinese New Year 2020 decorations….This is distressing for Muslim students and is also against Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution.” In a sign of support for the school, the then Deputy Prime Minister and six other cabinet ministers visited it and helped put up Lunar New Year decorations.

In the same month, the Ministry of Education issued a circular stating that JAKIM advised that Ponggal, a Tamil harvest festival, is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Responding to a public outcry, then Minister of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that JAKIM had not prohibited schools from celebrating the festival, since, “It was permissible for Muslims to take part in the celebration as long as Islamic ethics were observed.” Mujahid called for stern action against the Ministry of Education official responsible for the circular in question.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. In a February ruling, the Federal Court determined that a Muslim child conceived or born out of what the state determined to be wedlock could not bear his or her father’s name, even if requested by the father. The court said the law “does not enable Muslim children to be named with the personal name of a person acknowledged to be the father” because ethnic Malays do not use surnames. The NGO SIS praised the court’s other ruling that children born out of wedlock do not have to automatically use the surname “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” which carries a social stigma in the country where children with these surnames are often “ridiculed, attacked, bullied, or targeted.”

Then Minister for Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said he would ask the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself wearing a prayer garment on pilgrimage in Mecca in February. Muhajid said Nur Sajat’s actions were an “offense” and could compromise the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. JAKIM circulated copies of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents were circulated on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety. The NGO Justice for Sisters condemned the government’s action, stating, “The real concern is not the telekung (prayer garment), but her safety and security, the breach of privacy, and the lack of rights and evidence-based response by the government.”

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 less tolerant of religious diversity. In September, the interfaith organization Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST) released a press statement to express “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.” NGOs also 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.

In January, the NGO ILMU, whose members were closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party and who have in the past spoken out against Shia Islam, hosted a national convention on “Knowledge of the Hadith,” in Kuala Lumpur. Sheikh Abdurrahman Ibrahim al-Rubai’in, the religious attache of the Saudi Arabian embassy, in his keynote speech, said it was useless to include Shia Muslims in any efforts to unite Muslims, since “They are deviant.” He added, “The difference between Sunnis and Shias is not merely over jurisprudence, but also between truth and falsehood.”

Hundreds of Muslim students gathered in January outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur to demand the government ban the Chinese educational group Dong Zong, on the grounds that Dong Zong opposed the inclusion of Jawi lessons in the national school syllabus. The PAS youth chief spoke at the protest and blamed Chinese majority political parties in the ruling and opposition coalitions for perpetuating baseless fears against Islam. The Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition said Dong Zong was attempting to foment a repeat of the country’s bloody 1969 race riots. Also in January, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad labeled Dong Zong as “racist” against the Malay-Muslim majority after the group petitioned against the government’s move to introduce Jawi lessons in schools on grounds that the measure would be a form of “Islamization.”

The leader of the apolitical group of Malay-Muslim NGOs Pertubuhan Pembela Islam (Pembela), Aminuddin Yahaya, called on the new Perikatan Nasional coalition government to appoint an ethnic Malay attorney general and to “take action” against insults to Islam. “We have to take this seriously because Malays don’t insult other religions or other races, but other races insult Malays and Islam. Therefore, there must be enforcement.”

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 cobelievers, 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 March, the Malaysian rock band Bunkface released its song “The End of Times,” which caused controversy over lyrics that urged the LGBTQ community to “go and die.” In a statement, the band defended the lyrics as a criticism of the growing Muslim LGBTQ movement in the country and indicated its rejection of any rights for LGBTQ Muslims, describing the LGBTQ community as haram. “What has been set as haram will always remain haram,” the band said in its press released. YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music removed the song from their platforms following international media attention.

In April, a video of a local man harassing a Rohingya individual from Burma surfaced on Facebook amid an increase in comments online aimed at the Rohingya community. In the four-minute video, the man demanded the Rohingya prove his Islamic faith. In April, activist Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi of the European Rohingya Council rights group said in response, “There is harassment [of Rohingya] on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before.” In the same month, Tengku Emma was threatened with rape on social media, including the online group “32 Million Malaysians Reject Rohingya,” after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers to land.

Religious groups hosted virtual interfaith dialogues and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. In September, the Dalai Lama and a professor from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, Osman Bakar, discussed compassion and mercy as common values in Islam and Buddhism in a virtual forum organized by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious groups’ taking the opportunity to discuss different ways of promoting people’s right to pursue different ways of life. In an interfaith dialogue in December, Council of Churches Malaysia secretary general Hermen Shastri said the establishment of a “truly interfaith council” was hindered by a “majority vs. minority” mentality, since interfaith groups in the country have yet to form an entity that engages with the majority Islamic community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, 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 disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, and Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu.

Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, who 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, and the Islamic Renaissance Front, and with MCCBCHST 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.

The embassy nominated Susanna Liew, wife of missing pastor Raymond Koh, for the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award and facilitated her travel to the United States to attend the annual IWOC ceremony in Washington D.C. in March.

Maldives

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion, requires citizens to be Muslim, and requires public office holders, including the President, to be followers of Sunni Islam. The constitution provides for limitations on rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” The law states both the government and the people must protect religious unity. Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense. The law criminalizes “criticism of Islam” and speech “in a manner likely to cause religious segregation.” The penal code permits the administration of certain sharia punishments, such as flogging, stoning, and amputation of hands, but no sentences were carried out during the year. During June and July, groups of religious scholars, island councils, and youth groups released statements calling on the government to deregister the women’s rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Uthema, citing the group’s Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women as including content derogatory to Islam. In October, a group of religious scholars called on the government to stop “allowing irreligious individuals and those who criticize Islam to remain free and take action against them as prescribed by Islamic Shariah and the law.” In March, Maldives Police Services (MPS) investigated a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll for a second time on suspicion of “criticizing Islam” and in April charged him with the lesser charge of “obstructing justice.” He was convicted in June, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and remained in detention at year’s end. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MIA) continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government continued to prohibit resident foreigners and foreign tourists from practicing any religion other than Islam in public.

NGOs reported that religiously motivated violent extremists continued to issue death threats against individuals on social media, including employees of human rights organizations, labeling them “secularists” or “apostates” and calling for attacks against them. NGO representatives said they continued to see what they termed Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism among the populace, stating the government’s efforts to address this trend were insufficient. NGO representatives also said the open investigation against the NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN), which was banned in 2019 on grounds of releasing a report that “criticized Islam,” and the failure of the government to publicly refute statements by popular religious figures characterizing NGOs as “irreligious” prevented them from publicly supporting those subjected to this harassment.

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in Maldives, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and Embassy Colombo staff represents U.S. interests there. In contacts with government officials, embassy officials regularly encouraged the government to investigate threats against individuals targeted as “secularists” or “apostates,” to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, and to ease restrictions preventing non-Sunnis from practicing freely. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern over harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” appealed against the dissolution of Uthema, and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.

Section I. Religious Demography

The total population of Maldivians is 392,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). The government estimates the total population is 557,426, including 117,000 documented and 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. While most citizens follow Sunni Islam (indeed, citizenship requires it), there are no reliable estimates of actual religious affiliations. Foreign workers are predominantly Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates Islam as the state religion, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings. It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam. According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.

The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” In deciding whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must consider the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.

The constitution makes no mention of freedom of religion. Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis for discrimination. The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenets of Islam.”

The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion. By law, a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence. Although the law does not stipulate such punishment, sharia jurisprudence is often understood by the public and religious scholars to provide for the death penalty in cases of conversion from Islam (i.e., apostasy), but the government has made no such statement.

The law states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.” Any statement or action found to be contrary to this objective is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, disrupting religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society. According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.

Laws criminalize speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam.” According to the law, a person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by “engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing ‘idols of worship’; and/or attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause ‘religious segregation.’” Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.

By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA. Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization. To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies from a university recognized by the government, and not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court. The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate. Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit making statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination, discouraging access to education or health services in the name of Islam, or demeaning the character of and/or creating hatred toward persons of any other religion. The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions. Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320 to $1,300). The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.

Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison or house arrest. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty. If the offender is a foreigner, authorities may revoke the individual’s license to preach in the country and deport the individual.

By law, mosques and prayer houses are under the control of the MIA. The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.

The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.” By law, those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320 to $1,300), and deportation.

By law, a female citizen may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A male citizen may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.

The law prohibits importation of any items the MIA deems contrary to Islam, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials. Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment. It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages to foreigners on resort islands. Individuals must request permission to import restricted goods from the Ministry of Economic Development.

The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools. By law, educators who teach Islamic studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government. By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic studies may receive authorization to do so only if they subscribe to Sunni Islam. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. The curriculum incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices. In practice, foreign, non-Muslim children are allowed to opt out of studying Islam.

The constitution states Islam forms one basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.” The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law, but sharia is not considered applicable to non-Muslims.

The penal code prescribes flogging for unlawful sexual intercourse (adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations), incest, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, failing to fast during Ramadan, or (for Maldivian citizens only) consuming pork or alcohol. Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for certain offenses under sharia – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt. The penal code requires that all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to these offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.

The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters. The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms. The President names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives. The Minister of Islamic Affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to the President’s approval.

The constitution stipulates the President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic.”

Government Practices

The government reported that eight adults were sentenced to flogging during the year, five for consuming alcohol and three for extramarital sex, but none of the sentences were carried out, pending completion of appeals.

In January, six men linked to a Maduvvari Island-based terrorist cell were charged with supporting a terrorist organization and promoting materials supporting terrorist organizations and producing or distributing obscene materials under the Anti-Terrorism Act and penal code. Their trial continued at year’s end, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office, but all six had been released from custody by the court because of an “excessive amount of detention.” The group was led by Maldivian ISIS leader and recruiter Mohamed Ameen, who was arrested in December 2019 and remained in custody with his trial underway at year’s end.

In March, MPS investigated a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll for a second time on suspicion of “criticizing Islam,” and in April charged him with “obstructing justice.” He was convicted in June, sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and remained in detention at year’s end. The man was initially arrested in 2019 after he posted on social media that he was holding “irreligious discussions” with the youth on his island with the intention to plan rallies encouraging secularism. The government filed charges of “criticizing Islam” against him in 2019, but the Thinadhoo Magistrate Court dismissed the case and released him from custody in March after police failed to present him for a court hearing. He was arrested again two days later for again posting social media content that authorities determined to be critical of Islam. In 2019, MPS told media it was separately investigating death threats against the man, but as of the end of the year, they had not made arrests or filed charges over the death threats.

In October 2019, MPS questioned a woman not identified by local media in relation to “content that criticizes Islam being posted on a social media account.” The case was closed with no further action when the woman left the country.

During the year, the government did not take further action on an investigation launched in 2019 against employees of the NGO MDN, which had been deregistered in December 2019 because the group’s 2015 Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives contained content that mocked Islam and the Prophet, according to MPS and the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment. MPS reported the investigation remained open as of year’s end.

In June and July, groups of religious scholars, island councils, and youth groups released statements calling on the government to deregister the women’s rights NGO Uthema because the group’s Shadow Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women included content the groups said was derogatory to Islam. The statements called on the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment to deregister Uthema as it had previously done with MDN. The government had not taken action against Uthema as of year’s end.

In January, the MIA announced it was looking into a complaint submitted by an unidentified party alleging the international NGO Quilliam Foundation had conducted “anti-Islamic” workshops for school students and parents in Hanimaadhoo Island in Haa Dhaalu atoll and Hithadhoo in Addu City in January. The ministry had taken no further action in the case as of year’s end.

NGOs reported the open investigation against MDN and failure of the government to publicly refute statements by popular religious figures characterizing NGOs as “irreligious” prevented them from expressing solidarity or publicly supporting those subjected to harassment in case of similar action against their organizations. In December, to mark one year since the deregistration of MDN, four international human rights NGOs released a statement that noted, “The Government of Maldives, by taking arbitrary and unconstitutional actions to silence civil society, has set a dangerous precedent that has resulted in a violent witch hunt of human rights defenders and civil society organizations.”

The trial of seven men for the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed, a critic of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism, remained pending at year’s end.

Victims of online harassment and threats continued to say they believed themselves vulnerable because of the lack of police responsiveness to their complaints and because similar occurrences had preceded the 2014 disappearance and killing of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 killing of Rasheed. MPS reported investigating one case of online harassment, which was concluded without any arrests or action.

The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) continued to maintain an unpublished blacklist of websites containing material it deemed un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. CAM did not proactively monitor internet content but instead relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites violating laws against criticism or defamation of Islam. Police reported investigating one website and 14 twitter handles for “criticizing Islam” because of un-Islamic content but had filed no charges as of year’s end.

The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government maintained its ownership and control of all mosques, including their maintenance and funding. The government continued to permit private donors to fund mosques as well.

According to the MIA, foreign residents, such as teachers, laborers, and tourists, remained free to worship as they wished in private, but congregating in public for non-Islamic prayer remained illegal, as was encouraging local citizens to participate in such activities

Customs authorities said the MIA continued to permit the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The MIA also continued to allow some religious literature for scholarly research. Customs officials reported 26 cases involving importation of religious idols, statues, and Christian crosses during the year. Authorities confiscated these items but did not press charges.

The Christian international NGO Open Doors said that Christians visiting the country reported being “closely watched.” The government reported that no such complaints were lodged with police or other authorities, and if any cases of this nature were identified, there would have been records of an investigation. There were no other reports of Christians being monitored in the country.

The MIA continued to conduct what it termed “awareness programs” through radio and television broadcasts in Male and on various islands to give citizens information on Islam, and it continued to provide assistance and counseling to foreigners seeking to convert to Islam. The ministry, in partnership with religious NGOs, continued to send imams to outer atolls to conduct workshops for students, youth, and others in schools and government buildings for the stated purpose of strengthening the islanders’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.

The National Institute of Education continued to implement a curriculum for public and private schools incorporating Islam into all subject areas. According to NGOs, passages in some textbooks portrayed democracy as being anti-Islam, encouraged anti-Semitism and xenophobia, glorified jihad, and demonized the West. The MIA continued to permit foreign individuals to opt out of Islamic instruction as a stand-alone subject. The MIA continued to permit foreigners to teach their own children religious content of their choice, but only in private.

In contrast with previous years, observers did not note any cases of the Family Court refusing to register children if one of the parents was a non-Muslim, although NGO representatives said they did not believe this was from any change in government policy.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs continued to report that persistent online and in-person threats against individuals perceived to be insufficiently Muslim effectively foreclosed the possibility of meaningful discussion on religious issues in the country. NGOs reported that online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam continued throughout the year with little action from authorities. MPS reported investigating one case of online harassment, which was concluded without any arrests or action.

NGOs reported continuing instances of individuals deemed “secularists” or “apostates” receiving death threats and being cyberbullied. As of the end of the year, MPS had yet to publicize any action taken in relation to an investigation into hate speech and death threats launched in 2019 after “Murtad Watch” (Apostate Watch), a public channel on the social media application Telegram, compiled a list and profiled citizens deemed to be “apostates” and pointed out that the sharia penalty for apostasy is death. MPS reported the lack of cybercrime legislation posed obstacles to investigation of online hate speech perpetrated by anonymous accounts and on social media channels. However, MPS reported in December that the Murtad Watch group “is currently not active on any platforms,” although MPS did not specify whether authorities had taken any action that resulted in the group’s removal, or if the operators deleted the group on their own accord.

In October, a group of religious scholars who had played a leading role in the campaign calling for deregistration of MDN in 2019 released a statement calling on the government to stop “allowing irreligious individuals and those who criticize Islam to remain free…,” and urging it to “take action against them, as prescribed by Islamic Shariah and the law.”

NGOs reported continued community pressure on women to wear hijabs and harassment of women who chose not to do so.

In its report covering 2020, Open Doors included the country on its World Watch List, noting that conversion to Christianity “can easily result in a report to Muslim authorities.” Open Doors reported that the children of converts experienced shunning and harassment in school if the conversion was discovered. They said that converts were forced to live secret lives and tried to conceal their conversion and blend in.

Media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment for being labeled “anti-Islamic.” Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from punitive actions or harassment.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country, but the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka to Sri Lanka is also accredited to the country, and Embassy Colombo staff represent U.S. interests there. In virtual meetings throughout the year, embassy officials continued to encourage the government to be more tolerant of religious traditions other than Sunni Islam, to ease restrictions preventing individuals other than Sunni Muslims from practicing their religions freely, and to prioritize investigations into threats against individuals targeted for their perceived “secular” viewpoints. In meetings with government agencies, embassy officials expressed concern regarding harassment of individuals and organizations characterized as “irreligious,” appealed against the dissolution of Uthema, and urged the government to formulate a longer-term strategy to deal with incidents of online hate speech and harassment of NGOs and individuals.

Mongolia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion, prohibits discrimination based on religion, and mandates the separation of the activities of state and religious institutions. The law requires religious institutions to register with authorities but provides little detail on registration procedures, leaving most specifics of implementation to local authorities. The law prohibits hindering the free exercise of faith but limits proselytization. Some Christian and Buddhist groups reported continued difficulties or extended delays in some localities obtaining and renewing registration or obtaining religious visas, due in part to differing registration guidelines among provinces, uncertain registration practices, frequent staffing changes, and the requirement for each branch (or place of worship) of a religious group to register separately. Registration authorities in several localities acknowledged these difficulties and delays, which they variously attributed to guidance reportedly issued by the National Security Council or the delayed promulgation of planned updates to the religion law that would provide greater clarity on registration and renewal procedures for religious organizations. The registration renewal application of a Jehovah’s Witnesses branch in the Ulaanbaatar district of Nalaikh remained pending, despite a 2017 court decision rejecting the city council’s argument that the congregation posed a potential threat to national security. The Office of the President eliminated the position of advisor to the President on cultural and religious policy in August, citing concerns it was inconsistent with the constitutional separation of state and religious institutions. The previous incumbent had made a number of public statements against “foreign” faiths.

Some religious groups expressed concern regarding television programs, including at least one on Mongolian National Public Television, that took a negative tone toward “foreign” religious groups, which is generally understood to refer to non-Buddhist and non-Shamanist groups, many of which are Christian. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, news of the virus’ spread among members of a South Korean Christian congregation received widespread media coverage, prompting an increase in negative social media comments regarding foreign religious groups.

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom concerns, including the renewal of religious visas and the registration and renewal difficulties faced by religious groups, with high level officials in the Office of the President, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, parliamentarians, provincial governments, and the Ulaanbaatar City Council. The Ambassador and embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders in Ulaanbaatar to discuss religious freedom and tolerance and the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on their communities. The Ambassador met with religious leaders in Uvs and Bayan-Ulgii Provinces in August, and an embassy official held a similar meeting in Khentii Province in May, for interfaith discussions on the status of religious freedom in rural areas. The embassy also regularly promoted religious freedom on social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.2 million. The national census conducted in January reports that 59.4 percent of individuals who are 15 and older identify as religious while 40.6 percent state they have no religious identity. Of those who expressed a religious identity, 87.1 percent identify as Buddhist, 5.4 percent as Muslim, 4.2 percent as Shamanist, 2.2 percent as Christian, and 1.1 percent as followers of other religions. The majority of Buddhists are Mahayana Buddhists. Many individuals practice elements of shamanism in combination with other religions, particularly Buddhism. The majority of Christians are Protestant; other Christian groups in the country include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). Other religious groups, including the Baha’i Faith, also have a presence. The ethnic Kazakh community, located primarily in the far west, is majority Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution lists freedom of conscience and religion among the enumerated rights and freedoms guaranteed to citizens. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It prohibits the state from engaging in religious activity and religious institutions from pursuing political activities. The constitution specifies that the relationship between the state and religious institutions shall be regulated by law. The constitution provides that, in exercising their rights, persons “shall not infringe on the national security, rights, and freedoms of others or violate public order.” It further provides that the state shall respect all religions, and religions shall honor the state. The law says that the state shall respect “the dominant position of Buddhism” in the country “in order to respect and uphold the traditions of the unity and civilization of the people.” It furthers states, “This shall not prevent citizens from following other religions.”

In accordance with the criminal code, if an individual is found to have used or threatened the use of force to hinder the activities or rituals of religious organizations, the individual is subject to a fine, ranging from 450,000 to 2.7 million tugriks ($160-$950), a community service obligation of 240-720 hours, or a travel ban ranging from one to six months. If a religious organization or religious representative, such as a priest, minister, imam, monk, or shaman, is found to have committed acts of proselytization through force, pressure, or deception, or to have spread “cruel” religious ideology, the law allows for fines ranging from 450,000 to 5.4 million tugriks ($160-$1,900), a travel ban ranging from six to 12 months, or six to 12 months’ imprisonment. The law does not define what constitutes “cruel” religious ideology.

The law on petty offenses provides for fines of 100,000 tugriks ($35) for individuals and one million tugriks ($350) for legal entities for recruiting children to religion against their will. The law provides for a fine of 100,000 tugriks ($35) for individuals and one million tugriks ($350) for any legal entity for disclosing an individual’s religion on identity documents without that person’s consent or for interfering with the internal affairs of a religious organization unless otherwise allowed by law. The law also provides for a fine of 150,000 tugriks ($53) for individuals and 1.5 million tugriks ($530) for legal religious entities for conducting government or political activity or financing any such activity. The law specifies a fine of 300,000 tugriks ($110) for individuals and three million tugriks ($1,100) for legal entities for organizing religious training or gatherings on public premises, including schools.

The religion law forbids the spread of religious views by “force, pressure, material incentives, deception, or means that harm health or morals or are psychologically damaging.” It also prohibits the use of gifts for religious recruitment. The law on children’s rights provides children the freedom to practice their faith.

The religion law prohibits religious groups from undertaking activities that “are inhumane or dangerous to the tradition and culture of the people of Mongolia.”

Religious groups must register with local and provincial authorities, as well as with the General Authority for State Registration (General Authority), to function legally. National law provides little detail on registration procedures and does not stipulate the duration of registration, allowing local and provincial authorities to set their own rules. Religious groups must renew their registrations (in most cases annually) with multiple government institutions across local, provincial, and national levels. Each individual branch (or place of worship) of a religious organization is required to register or renew as an independent legal entity, regardless of any affiliation with a registered parent organization. Some local authorities require children under the age of 16 to have written parental permission to participate in church activities.

A religious group must provide the following documentation to the relevant local provincial or municipal representative assembly when applying for registration: a letter requesting registration, a letter from the lower-level local authority granting approval to conduct religious services, a brief description of the group, the group’s charter, documentation on the group’s founding, a list of leaders, financial information, a declaration of assets (including any real estate owned), a lease or rental agreement (if applicable), brief biographic information on individuals wishing to conduct religious services, and the expected number of worshippers. A religious group must provide the General Authority its approved registration application to receive a certificate for operation.

The renewal process requires a religious group to obtain a reference letter from the lower-level local authority to be submitted with the required documents (updated as necessary), to the local provincial or municipal representative assembly. During the renewal process, the local provincial or municipal representatives commonly request a safety inspection of the religious organization’s offices and places of worship and remediation of any deficiencies found. The relevant provincial or municipal representative assembly issues a resolution granting the religious institution permission to continue operations, and the organization sends a copy of the approved registration renewal to the General Authority, which enters the new validity dates on the religious institution’s certificate for operation.

Public and private educational institutions are entitled to state funding for their secular curricula but are prohibited from using state funding for religious curricula. The education law prohibits all educational institutions from conducting any religious training, rituals, or activities with state-provided funding. A provincial or municipal representative assembly may deny registration renewals for religious groups that violate the ban on using state funding for the provision of religious instruction in educational institutions.

The law regulating civil and military service specifies that all male citizens between ages 18 and 25 must complete one year of compulsory military service. The law provides for alternatives to military service for citizens who submit an objection based on ethical or religious grounds. Alternative service with the Border Forces, National Emergency Management Agency, or a humanitarian organization is available to those who submit an ethical or religious objection. There is also a provision for paying the cost of one year’s training and upkeep for a soldier in lieu of service.

The law regulating the legal status of foreign nationals prohibits noncitizens from advertising, promoting, or practicing “inhumane” religions that could damage the national culture. The religion law includes a similar prohibition on religious institutions, both foreign and domestic, conducting “inhumane” or culturally damaging activities within the country.

Foreigners seeking to conduct religious activities, including proselytizing, must obtain religious visas, and all foreigners are prohibited from proselytizing, promoting, and practicing religion that violates the “national culture” and law. Only registered religious groups may sponsor foreigners for religious visas. Foreigners who enter on other classes of visas are not allowed to undertake activities that advertise or promote any religion (as distinct from personal worship or other individual religious activity, which is permitted). Under the law, “Engag[ing] in business other than one’s purpose for coming” constitutes grounds for deportation.

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

Government Practices

The government again did not submit to parliament planned updates to the religion law. According to observers, the government was primarily focused on amending the legal code to ensure consistency with constitutional amendments adopted in 2019 as well as on parliamentary elections in June and local elections in October. According to its concept note, the stated intent of the amendments was to improve the monitoring, registration, renewal systems, and accountability mechanisms of religious institutions. The lack of an updated religion law was cited by some religious registration authorities as a reason for their failure to process new registration applications submitted by religious groups.

Representatives of several religious groups, including Christian and Buddhist groups, stated that government authorities were not processing new registration applications, although some renewals were processed. Registration and renewal procedures continued to vary significantly across the country, largely depending upon the practices of local government officials. Registration delays could hurt a group’s ability to employ foreign religious workers, as valid registration is required to sponsor a religious worker.

The Ulaanbaatar City Council continued to issue renewals valid for one year, but some organizations complained of prolonged delays in the processing of their renewal application, and the Ulaanbaatar City Council said approximately 30 such applications remained pending as of November. Some provincial and municipal representative assemblies issued renewals for two or three years. An Ulaanbaatar City Council official said Christian groups constituted the majority of those seeking registration and renewal. Christian leaders stated the difficulty in obtaining visas for religious workers was mainly due to delays in the processing of their respective organization’s renewal.

Some religious groups again said they were deterred from registering because of the unpredictability of the registration process, which could take from several weeks to years; the difficulty and expense of establishing a dedicated, regular worship site; and changing government personnel. They said the requirement that each local branch of the organization separately register or renew as independent legal entities separate from their parent organization created additional bureaucratic burdens.

Ulaanbaatar City Council officials said the government used the registration and renewal process to assess the activities of the religious group, monitor the number of places of worship and clergy, determine the ratio of foreigners to nationals conducting religious activities, and determine whether their facilities met safety requirements. City council officials said approval of applications that were ostensibly “denied,” were more accurately “postponed” due to incomplete documentation, the poor physical condition of the place of worship, instances of a religious organization’s providing English-language instruction without an educational permit, or the existence of financial issues, such as failure to pay property taxes or declare funding from foreign sources. In such cases, religious organizations were instructed to correct the deficiencies and resubmit their applications. Some Christian groups continued to say the government inconsistently applied and interpreted regulations, changing procedures frequently and without notice. Some religious groups continued to state the registration and renewal process was arbitrary in some instances and that the prolonged delays gave them no appeal mechanism.

Some Christian religious leaders said temporary unregistered status could leave their organizations vulnerable to financial audit and possible legal action. Several groups reported they continued to operate normally, despite the fact that their renewal applications remained pending.

Shamanist leaders expressed concerns that the requirement for a registered place of worship placed limitations on their religion because of its practice of worshipping outdoors.

Unregistered churches lacked official documents establishing themselves as legal entities and as a result could not own or lease land, file tax returns, or formally interact with the government. Individual members of unregistered churches typically continued to own or lease property for church use in their personal capacity. According to one nongovernmental organization (NGO), the inability of unregistered churches to report donations from their members as income led to financial disputes. Some unregistered religious groups said they often could still function, although some reported experiencing frequent visits by local tax officials, police, and representatives from other agencies.

In September, the General Authority issued a notice suspending the registration of a large number of legal entities registered in Ulaanbaatar deemed by the Ulaanbaatar City Council to have violated the law, including 124 religious organizations. According to an NGO, some of those religious organizations had failed to submit their registration renewal paperwork on time or had ceased or suspended operations. The suspended faith organizations included Buddhist, Christian, and Shamanist groups.

According to a Christian group, in April, the Darkhan-Uul Provincial Council suspended the registration of six Christian churches for failure to complete timely renewal of their expired registrations. The lapses were discovered during inspections conducted to ensure the churches’ compliance with State Emergency Commission pandemic-related health and sanitation guidelines. Two of the churches successfully challenged their suspension in a local court and were again operating normally at year’s end, although their renewals were still pending.

The Office of the President eliminated the position of advisor to the President on cultural and religious policy, citing concerns it was inconsistent with the constitutional separation of state and religious institutions. Prior to the elimination of the position, the incumbent made several statements considered discriminatory regarding “foreign” religions in press opinion pieces, social media, and nationally broadcast television appearances. Her statements were challenged by observers, some of whom noted her attempts to link the country’s ties to democracies such as the United States with the growth of “foreign” religions, which, she said, degraded Mongolia’s Buddhist heritage. Some laypersons and members of the country’s faith communities also privately expressed concerns regarding the advisor’s statements.

One Christian group said the government placed additional burdens on religious organizations by subjecting them to closer scrutiny by official organs, such as the General Authority for Labor and Benefit, the Immigration Agency, or the Ulaanbaatar City Council. The group reported it submitted a fresh renewal application in March on the advice of the city council; the application remained pending at year’s end. Other religious organizations reported they had good relationships with local and district level authorities, but that lack of understanding of regulations governing religious organizations among some Ulaanbaatar City Council officials and provincial authorities resulted in delayed processing of registration and renewal applications.

Representatives of the Religious Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mongolia reported that the registration application for the Evangelizers of Good News of Holy Scriptures – their organization’s legal entity in Ulaanbaatar’s Nalaikh District – remained pending with the Ulaanbaatar City Council, despite a 2017 Ulaanbaatar Court of First Instance ruling that struck down the city council’s argument that the congregation posed a potential threat to national security. Although the city council revoked its decision to annul the group’s registration, it took no action to renew it.

The Immigration Agency rescinded the registration of a U.S.-based Christian NGO after determining that it violated its registered purpose of business by failing to carry out sufficient charity activities to be considered a humanitarian organization. The NGO stated it conducted such activities openly and transparently for several years and noted the law provides no mechanism for registering as a legal entity a humanitarian organization that is Christian but does not hold religious services. The NGO did not appeal the Immigration Agency’s decision and commenced winding down its operations.

Religious groups continued to experience periodic audits, usually by officers from tax, immigration, local government, intelligence, and other agencies. Religious leaders said such audits typically took place once in a two-year period, but some inspection visits reportedly followed routine submissions of registration renewal applications. However, several groups reported additional inspections from government officials who cited the need to ensure compliance with restrictions adopted in connection with the heightened state of emergency preparedness. Inspections varied from professional and cordial to intimidating, according to representatives of religious groups. Some religious groups reported that inspectors made inappropriate requests, such as asking for the names of members or requiring that security cameras be installed at their offices and places of worship. Some groups characterized these requests as a form of harassment.

Some Christian groups reported that some local authorities continued to restrict unaccompanied minors’ participation in Christian religious services due to stated fears of “brainwashing.” Children under the age of 16 required written parental permission to participate in church activities. Churches were required to retain this permission in church records and make it available upon request. According to the groups, this requirement had greater impact on Christian than other religious groups.

Some foreign nationals continued to face difficulties obtaining religious visas. Because religious groups were bound by the requirement they hire at least five local employees before they could sponsor their first foreign worker, groups that could not afford to hire enough local employees could not sponsor even their first religious visa, nor additional ones. Christian groups reported foreign missionaries seeking to enter the country often did so under nonreligious visas (such as student, teacher, or business visas), making them legally restricted from conducting activities allowed under religious visas. Inconsistent interpretations of the activities in which they could legally engage left them vulnerable to deportation, although there were no known instances of this happening during the year. The validity of religious visas remained linked to a religious organization’s registration, which some Christian religious groups said resulted in additional visa problems. Foreign citizens could not receive or renew a religious visa unless their religious organization’s registration or renewal was already granted. The length of the religious visa’s validity corresponded with, and could not exceed, the registration validity of its sponsoring organization. COVID-19-related border closures also created challenges for religious groups seeking to sponsor foreign religious workers.

According to a representative of the Asia-Pacific Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the legal provision allowing citizens who have ethical or religious objections to military service to carry out alternative civilian service was insufficient, as the alternative service requires participation in a two-week drill organized by the military leadership of the relevant locality. Another alternative to mandatory military service was to pay the equivalent of the costs associated with one year’s training and upkeep for one soldier, an excessive financial burden beyond the means of most of its members, the association stated.

In January, the national broadcaster, Mongolian National Public Television, aired a two-part program entitled “Silent Danger” that questioned the intentions of foreign religious groups and hinted at possible illegalities relating to their activities, registration, financing, and ownership. Ostensibly raising awareness of the dangers posed by cults and religions that engage in “inhumane activities,” the program called for a revision of the existing religious law and tighter government control over religious affairs.

The government continued to allocate funding for the restoration of several Buddhist sites that it stated were important religious, historical, and cultural centers.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were instances of negative popular sentiment toward “foreign” religious groups, a term sometimes used to refer to non-Buddhist and non-Shamanist religious groups, many of which are Christian, but religious leaders from a variety of faiths reported they generally encountered little difficulty practicing their religion. As news of the pandemic spread, several Christian groups reported an increase in negative comments on social media broadly directed against Christian groups and the alleged threat they posed to society through congregant worship. An example of a Christian congregation in South Korea that experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases was widely covered by local media.

Christian groups also expressed concern regarding television programs that featured negative messages regarding non-Buddhist religions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly discussed religious freedom with government officials and shared the U.S. government’s concerns regarding visa, registration, and renewal difficulties religious groups reported at the national, local, and provincial levels. During such meetings, they regularly raised concerns regarding pending amendments to the religion law. The Ambassador and other embassy officers encouraged officials to enhance efforts to protect religious freedom and underscored the value of dialogue between the government and religious communities during meetings with parliamentarians, and high level officials in the President’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, the Ulaanbaatar City Council, and provincial and municipal governments. For example, the Ambassador met in June with the Ulaanbaatar City Council chairman to raise concerns regarding the registration delays experienced by several religious groups. A few days after the meeting, some religious organizations reported that their renewals had been approved.

The Ambassador routinely visited religious sites and temples and met with local religious leaders in his travels outside Ulaanbaatar. For example, in August, the Ambassador met with local Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Shaman leaders in Uvs Province for an interfaith discussion on the status of religious freedom in rural areas. He also met in August with Muslim leaders in Bayan-Ulgii Province to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country’s only majority-Muslim province. In July, the Ambassador hosted Buddhist leaders to learn about how their communities were being affected by COVID-19-related restrictions. During a June visit to Khentii Province, an embassy official discussed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance with provincial authorities and met with local Buddhist and Christian leaders. The embassy also regularly promoted religious freedom on social media. For example, the Ambassador regularly tweeted in Mongolian and English about his visits to religious sites and meetings with religious leaders across the country’s diverse faith communities.

Nepal

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and prohibits religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. The law prohibits both proselytism and “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally. One man was killed by police in August in a confrontation with the Muslim community over cow slaughter. In September, police and protestors clashed in Lalitpur District when the government tried to prevent the celebration of a local religious holiday due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Officials arrested several pastors for violating the COVID-19 lockdown, including one who was arrested while sending parishioners home from their church. Another pastor was arrested, first for providing what the government said was misinformation about COVID-19, released on bail, and then arrested twice more for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity. Police arrested seven Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year for proselytizing, including two U.S. citizens, who were released on bail and were awaiting trial as of the end of the year. In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate most Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but prohibited the public celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday and continued to drastically curtail their ability to hold public celebrations. During the year, police surveillance of Tibetans remained high. Authorities cited the pandemic in restricting public ceremonies and gatherings while maintaining, and in some cases increasing, prepandemic levels of security personnel and scrutiny of Tibetan cultural and religious celebrations, particularly those involving the Dalai Lama. Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the anti-Christian sentiment of the Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which seeks to reestablish the country as a Hindu state. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs. The government again did not recognize Christmas or Eid al-Adha as public holidays, but allowed Christians and Muslims time off from work to celebrate and continued to recognize Buddha’s birthday as a public holiday. Christian and Muslim groups said they continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.

In August, assailants shot and killed a Hindu priest on temple grounds in southern Nepal in an attack that some sources stated was religiously motivated. Police arrested and charged two suspects and stated they were seeking three others in connection with the case. In September, a clash between Hindus and Muslims in a southern district left more than a dozen people injured. Christian leaders said that a Hindu activist openly threatened Christians on a television interview in January. Catholic and Protestant sources stated that threats of violence against Christians on social media had increased. Local media again published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other “high-caste” individuals continued to prevent persons of “lower” castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites. There were incidents of vandalism against a church and a mosque, characterized by sources as minor and which were addressed by authorities.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, U.S. embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code, including the continued criminalization of converting others and proselytizing. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against “forced or induced” conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. The embassy used social media to communicate religious freedom messages, highlight the country’s religious diversity, and promote respect and tolerance. Following the arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers spoke with the detainees, their lawyer, and police. Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the most recent, Hindus constitute 81.3 percent of the population, Buddhists 9 percent, Muslims (the vast majority of whom are Sunni) 4.4 percent, and Christians (a large majority Protestant and a minority Roman Catholic) 1.4 percent. Other groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Kirats (an indigenous religion with Hindu influence), animists, adherents of Bon (a Tibetan religious tradition), Jains, Baha’is, and Sikhs. According to some Muslim leaders, Muslims constitute at least 5.5 percent of the population, mostly concentrated in the south. According to some Christian groups, Christians constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population. Many individuals adhere to a syncretic faith encompassing elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional folk practices, according to scholars.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country to be a secular state but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” The constitution stipulates every person has the right to profess, practice, and protect his or her religion. While exercising this right, the constitution bans individuals from engaging in any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.” It also prohibits converting “another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion,” and states that violations are punishable by law.

The criminal code sets five years’ imprisonment as the punishment for converting, or encouraging the conversion of, another person via coercion or inducement (which officials commonly refer to as “forced conversion”) or for engaging in any act, including the propagating of religion, that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of any caste or ethnic group. It stipulates a fine of up to 50,000 Nepali rupees ($430) and subjects foreign nationals convicted of these crimes to deportation. The criminal code also imposes punishments of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees ($170) for “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing.

The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. It is not mandatory for Buddhist monasteries to register with the government, although doing so is a prerequisite for receiving government funding for maintenance of facilities, skills training for monks, and study tours. A monastery development committee under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation oversees the registration process. Requirements for registration include providing a recommendation from a local government body, information on the members of the monastery’s management committee, a land ownership certificate, and photographs of the premises.

Except for Buddhist monasteries, all religious groups must register as NGOs or nonprofit organizations to own land or other property, operate legally as institutions, or gain eligibility for public service-related government grants and partnerships. Religious organizations follow the same registration process as other NGOs and nonprofit organizations, including preparing a constitution and furnishing information on the organization’s objectives as well as details on its executive committee members. To renew the registration, which must be completed annually, organizations must submit annual financial audits and activity progress reports.

The law prohibits the killing or harming of cattle. Violators are subject to a maximum sentence of three years in prison for killing cattle and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($430) for harming cattle.

The law requires the government to provide protection for religious groups carrying out funeral rites in the exercise of their constitutional right to practice their religion, but it also states the government is not obligated to provide land grants for this purpose. There is no law specifically addressing the funeral practices of religious groups.

The constitution establishes the government’s authority to “make laws to operate and protect a religious place or religious trust and to manage trust property and regulate land management.”

The law does not require religiously affiliated schools to register, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religious schools must register as religious educational institutions with local district education offices (under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology) and supply information about their funding sources to receive funding at the same levels as nonreligious public/community schools. Religious public/community schools follow the same registration procedure as nonreligious public/community schools. Catholic and Protestant groups must register as NGOs to operate private schools. The law does not allow Christian schools to register as public/community schools, and they are not eligible for government funding. Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups may also register as NGOs to operate private schools, but they too are not eligible to receive government funding.

The law criminalizes acts of caste-based discrimination in places of worship. Penalties for violations are three months’ to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 rupees ($430 to $1,700).

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

Government Practices

According to members of civil society groups, on August 27, one man was killed by police in Jhapa during a confrontation between police and the Muslim community after two persons were arrested for slaughtering cows.

Police clashed with approximately 1,000 protestors on September 3 when they gathered in Lalitpur District to celebrate the Buddhist festival of Rato Machindranath in contravention of the government’s COVID-19 restrictions against festivals, large gatherings, or any nonessential activities. According to media reports, the crowd began to throw rocks and debris and to fire slingshots when police tried to stop them from pulling a five-story high ceremonial chariot through the streets. Approximately 650 Nepal Police and Armed Police Force officers responded with water cannons and tear gas and arrested nine protestors. The two sides clashed for four hours until community leaders and the Lalitpur Chief District Officer agreed on a compromise. District authorities imposed a day-long curfew enforced by armed police on September 5, the first unrest-related curfew in the Kathmandu Valley since November 2009.

On March 23, according to media reports and religious groups, police in Pokhara arrested Christian preacher Keshav Raj Acharya for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. A February 21 YouTube video showed Acharya praying to “damn” the virus and stating that those who follow Christ would not become infected. The Kaski District Administration Office released Acharya with a 5,000-rupee ($43) fine for the COVID-19 related charges, but police kept him in jail and subsequently charged him with religious conversion and offending religious sensibilities. On April 19, the administration office set bail for these charges at 500,000 rupees ($4,300). On May 13, when Acharya was released on bail, he was immediately rearrested at the courthouse and transferred 400 miles to Dolpa District to face additional charges of religious conversion. On June 30, Acharya was released on 300,000 rupees bail ($2,600). Multiple religious groups stated that local police prejudice continued to factor heavily in the selective enforcement of the vague criminal code provision against “forced conversion.” In a July 18 letter to Nepal’s Attorney General, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable described Acharya’s arrest as “arbitrary” and “discriminatory” and called for charges against him to be dropped.

According to media reports, police arrested two pastors on March 28, charging them with holding worship services in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. In the first case, Pastor Mohan Gurung was arrested in the Surkhet District of Karnali Province while he was talking with family members and assistant pastors who lived on church property with him. Gurung said “police jumped over the church gate, barged inside the premises, and accused [him] of holding a worship service” while he “was having family time, chatting, and studying the Bible.” In the second case, Pastor Prem Bahadur Bishwakarma was arrested in his church building, also in Surkhet District, while telling members of his congregation not to gather because of pandemic restrictions and showing them pictures depicting COVID-19 health precautions. Bahadur told the media that police officers using lathis (clubs) “charged at us” before arresting him. The two pastors were charged with violating the lockdown, disturbing the peace, and putting public health at risk. Both were released on bail on March 29.

According to a Christian news portal, in February, the government deported two Japanese and three Taiwanese individuals for spreading Christianity on tourist visas. The local NGO INSEC (Informal Sector Service Center) stated that four Japanese and two Taiwanese were transferred to the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu in late February, but it could not confirm their deportations.

According to civil society sources, during the year police arrested seven Jehovah’s Witnesses on two separate occasions in Pokhara for proselytizing. Two were U.S. citizens and five were Nepali citizens. The Nepali citizens were arrested on February 1 and released February 27 on 200,000 rupees ($1,700) bail per person. The U.S. citizens were arrested on March 17 and charged with religious conversion while they were visiting the house of friends, who were also Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were detained in police custody pending investigation for 11 days. On March 27, police released them due to COVID-19 protocols on 230,000 rupees ($2,000) bail each. On April 24, police recalled them and detained them until April 26, when the district court released them on an additional 200,000 rupees ($1,700) bail each, pending trial. The original 230,000 rupee bail was refunded to the U.S. citizens after they paid the second bail. As of the end of the year, their case was pending in Kaski District Court.

According to the Society for Humanism Nepal, 35 individuals were arrested for cow slaughter in nine separate incidents through October. These arrests took place in eight different districts throughout the country.

The government continued deepened restrictions on Tibetans’ ability to publicly celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, stating the religious celebrations represented “anti-China” activities. Although authorities allowed small private celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July, security personnel around these events outnumbered the Tibetan attendees. Similarly, Tibetans could only conduct other ceremonies with cultural and religious significance in private, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and World Peace Day, which commemorates the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tibetan leaders urged Tibetans to respect government-imposed restrictions on public gatherings to combat the spread of COVID-19 by celebrating days of religious significance in private. Tibetan leaders organized small “official” commemorations of these occasions, which were subjected to heightened scrutiny from security personnel despite compliance with government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions. Civil society organizations said this scrutiny was the result of the government’s policy to treat all religious programs associated with the Dalai Lama as constituting “anti-China activities.”

Abbots of Buddhist monasteries reported that monasteries and their related social welfare projects generally continued to operate without government interference, but they and other monks said police surveillance and questioning increased significantly during the year. Police continued to gather information from a 2019 circular sent to Tibetan institutes about Tibetan refugees studying in monasteries and nunneries. Tibetan Buddhist business owners also reported what they termed unwarranted police questioning about religious and social affiliations in their businesses and homes.

Human rights lawyers and leaders of religious minorities continued to express concern that the constitution’s and criminal code’s conversion bans could make religious minorities subject to legal prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of their religious practices, and also vulnerable to prosecution for preaching, public displays of faith, and distribution of religious materials in contravention of constitutional assurances of freedom of speech and expression.

Human rights experts continued to express concern that a provision in the criminal code prohibiting speech or writing harmful to others’ religious sentiments could be misused to settle personal scores or target religious minorities arbitrarily. According to numerous civil society and international community legal experts, some provisions in the law restricting conversion could be invoked against a wide range of expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups or merely speaking about one’s faith. Media and academic analysts continued to state that discussions on prohibiting conversion had entered into religious spheres in the country and that those seeking political advantage manipulated the issue, prompting religious groups to restrict some activities.

According to legal experts and leaders of religious minority groups, the constitutional language on protecting the “age-old religion” and the prohibition on conversion was intended by the drafters to mandate the protection of Hinduism. Christian religious leaders continued to state that the emphasis of politicians in the RPP on re-establishing the country as a Hindu state continued to negatively affect public perception of Christians and Christianity. The RPP currently holds one seat in Parliament and civil society sources stated that it uses anti-Christian sentiment to garner populist support. (The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007, when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.)

Leaders of the RPP outside of Parliament continued their calls for the reestablishment of Hindu statehood and advocated strong legal action against those accused of killing cows. Kamal Thapa, chairman of the RPP, tweeted praise for the Prime Minister’s efforts to control conversion, criticized the government for not doing more, and likened conversion to an epidemic. Civil society leaders said pressure from India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other Hindu groups in India continued to push politicians in Nepal, particularly from the RPP, to support reversion to a Hindu state.

Civil society leaders said what they characterized as right-wing religious groups associated with the BJP in India continued to provide money to influential politicians of all parties to advocate for Hindu statehood. According to NGOs and Christian leaders, small numbers of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) supporters were endeavoring to create an unfriendly environment for Christians on social media and occasionally at small political rallies and encouraging “upper-caste” Hindus to enforce caste-based discrimination.

Religious leaders said the requirement for NGOs to register annually with local government authorities placed their organizations at political risk, and one source reported their religious group was denied reregistration. Christian leaders expressed fears that changing obligations could potentially limit the establishment of churches, which must be registered as NGOs.

As in recent years, the government did not recognize Christmas as a public holiday. The government, however, allowed Christians and Muslims time off from work to celebrate major holidays such as Christmas and Eid al-Adha, and continued to recognize Buddha’s birthday as public holiday.

Christian leaders said the government-funded Pashupati Area Development Trust continued to prevent Christian burials in a common cemetery behind the Pashupati Hindu Temple in Kathmandu while allowing burials of individuals from other non-Hindu indigenous faiths. According to Christian leaders, the government continued its inconsistent enforcement of a court ruling requiring protection of congregations carrying out burials. Protestant churches continued to report difficulties gaining access to land they bought several years prior for burials in the Kathmandu Valley under the names of individual church members. According to the churches, local communities continued to oppose burial by groups perceived to be outsiders but were more open to burials conducted by Christian members of their own communities. As a result, they reported, some Protestants in the Kathmandu Valley continued to travel to the countryside to conduct burials in unpopulated areas.

Catholic leaders reported that despite their general preference for burials, almost all Catholic parishioners continued to choose cremation due to past difficulties with burials. Many Christian communities outside the Kathmandu Valley said they continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, conduct burials in public forests, or use land belonging to indigenous communities for burials. They also said they continued to be able to use public land for this purpose.

Muslim groups stated Muslim individuals in the Kathmandu Valley continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries but said they sometimes faced opposition from local communities.

According to Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups, the government continued to permit them to establish and operate their own community schools. The government provided the same level of funding for both registered religious schools and public schools, but private Christian schools were not legally able to register as community schools. Although religious education is not part of the curriculum in public schools, some public schools displayed a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on their grounds.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development (previously the Department of Education), which is under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, the number of gumbas (Buddhist centers of learning) registered rose from 111 in 2019 to 114. The department had 104 gurukhuls (Hindu centers of learning) registered during the year, up one from 2019.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development, 911 madrassahs were registered with district education offices, representing an increase of four from the previous year. Some Muslim leaders stated that as many as 2,500 to 3,000 full-time madrassahs continued to be unregistered. They again expressed apprehension that some unregistered madrassahs were promoting the spread of less tolerant interpretations of Islam. According to religious leaders, many madrassahs, as well as full-time Buddhist and Hindu schools, continued to operate as unregistered entities because school operators hoped to avoid government auditing and having to use the Center for Education and Human Resource Development’s established curriculum. They said some school operators also wished to avoid the registration process, which they characterized as cumbersome.

Many foreign Christian organizations had direct ties to local churches and continued to sponsor clergy for religious training abroad.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 19, assailants shot and killed a 65-year-old Hindu priest on the premises of Hanuman Temple, located in Rautahat District in the southern part of the country. The police arrested two individuals and registered charges against them on August 23. At year’s end, the case was pending in district court and three additional suspects remained at large. Prior to investigation, the attack was portrayed on social media as religiously motivated, with commenters accusing Muslims, although the individuals later arrested were not Muslim. Comments on social media criticized the Chief Minister of Province 2, who is Muslim, and Mohna Ansari of the National Human Rights Commission for failing to speak publicly about the incident.

Authorities reported no change in the 2016 case in which Banke District police filed charges against 29 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim clashes that led to the killing of two Muslims. The suspects were later released on bail and the District Administration Office provided each victim’s family 1,000,000 rupees ($8,500) in compensation in 2017. The case remained pending in the Banke district court, but a leader from the Muslim community stated he did not expect justice for the victims’ families.

A violent clash erupted in Sarlahi District in the south when a Hindu procession carrying an idol of the god Bishwakarma passed through a Muslim community on September 18, which some Muslim commenters said they believed was a deliberate provocation – an allegation the Hindu community denied. According to media reports, the procession planned to immerse the idol in a lake located near a mosque. Members of the Muslim community tried to stop the procession, which was accompanied by a tractor and DJ playing music. The dispute escalated and people began throwing stones at one another, leaving over a dozen injured. Police used tear gas to regain control of the situation, and the district administration office imposed an 18-hour curfew to prevent further clashes.

Some leaders of religious minority groups stated that some converts to other religions, including Hindus who had converted to Christianity, remained willing and able to state publicly their new religious affiliation. Some Christian leaders, however, reported that some converts to Christianity tried to conceal their faith from their families and local communities, mainly in areas outside Kathmandu.

Christian leaders said Manoj Sapkota, a Hindu activist affiliated with Shiva Sena, openly threatened Christians on a television interview in January. They also stated that Hindu activist Abhishek Joshi openly threatened the Christian community in several television interviews.

According to Catholic and Protestant sources, social media was increasingly used to spread threats of violence against Christians. Several sources noted a rise in anti-Christian propaganda and divisive religious content on social media due to the COVID-19 lockdown. When a song against Bahun and Chettri (two “high” Hindu castes) was placed on social media, Christians were blamed. Some civil society organizations stated that Pastor Sukdev Giri of the Trinity Fellowship Church in Chitwan District continued to receive insults and threatening messages through social media.

Some Muslim leaders continued not to accept converts to Islam, saying it would violate the law according to their interpretation. Instead, they continued to recommend that individuals who sought to convert travel to India to do so.

Local media again published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. After a disproportionate number of Muslims were among the first to test positive for COVID-19, Muslim leaders stated that some journalists and media outlets tried to use COVID-19 fears to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment and communal unrest. These included allegations that Tablighi Jamaat missionaries and other members of the Muslim community were deliberately spreading COVID-19. The Ministry of Health tested members of the Muslim community for COVID-19, and the government worked with Muslim leaders to curb the spread of misinformation.

A Christian religious leader said there were no news reports of social disturbances in rural areas caused by the spread of Christianity, as there had been in previous years. Multiple Christian sources said that inflammatory material migrated to social media, since there were very few public activities that could trigger disturbances due to COVID-19 restrictions.

According to NGOs, Hindu priests and “high-caste” residents continued to prevent Dalits, as members of a “lower” caste, from entering temples and sometimes prevented them from performing religious rites and participating in religious festivals. A provincial assembly member and local residents of Pokhara in Gandaki Province denied mourning rituals to Dalits in a public facility. The court case against perpetrators of the 2017 attack on a Dalit man for entering a temple in Saptari District remained pending as of December. A representative from a Dalit rights organization stated that the Dalit community did not expect justice to be served in this case, as impunity continued in many cases of Dalit rights violations.

Christian sources reported one incident of vandalism against a church in Dhading District in August. The incident was minor, according to the sources, and was quickly mediated at the local level. In October, Madani Mosque in Sundhara, Kathmandu, was vandalized with a bulldozer in a land dispute. Police arrested and later released the bulldozer driver and the individual claiming ownership of the land (which sources stated is owned by the government) but investigated the incident. The government determined that the land claim was fraudulent and as of the end of the year was in the process of returning it to the mosque. Madina Mosque in Bhairahawa, Rupandehi District, was also vandalized in October. Individuals on a motorbike threw a stone at a window, causing minor damage. Police promised the local community that they would investigate.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives expressed concerns to senior government officials and political leaders about restrictions on freedom of religion, including the rights to convert and to proselytize, posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code. They repeatedly emphasized to government officials working in law enforcement, immigration, and foreign affairs the importance of bringing legislation and practice into concordance with the country’s constitutional and international obligations. Embassy officers worked with legal advocates and rights groups to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens threatened by the criminal code and continued to highlight how anticonversion laws could be used to arbitrarily restrict the right to the freedoms of religion and expression. Following the arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers spoke with the detainees, their lawyers, and police to ensure they were being treated fairly and in accordance with the law. Embassy officers and visiting senior U.S. government officials raised concerns with government officials about the government’s restrictions on Tibetan Buddhists conducting peaceful religious activities, including celebrations of Losar (Tibetan New Year), the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and World Peace Day.

The Charge d’Affaires and a senior embassy officer led a group of 10 embassy participants to the February 26 Tibetan Losar celebration hosted by the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office at the Boudha Settlement Community Hall in Kathmandu. The Ambassadors from Australia, the European Union, and Switzerland and officials from the French and German embassies also joined. For the first time since 2008, the event was held outdoors. Plainclothes police were present and attendance was lower than in prior years.

Throughout the year, embassy officers and other U.S. government representatives discussed with civil society members and religious groups their concerns about arrests, access to burial grounds, public celebration of religious holidays, the prohibition against religious conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians.

The embassy used social media to communicate religious freedom messages, highlight the country’s religious diversity, and promote respect and tolerance. Although COVID-19 restricted the ability to attend many religious events in person, the Ambassador used social media to highlight and revisit past engagements in order to communicate U.S. continued support for religious freedom. Embassy officers frequently addressed religious diversity and tolerance using virtual platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

The embassy continued to provide financial assistance for the preservation and restoration of religious sites, including Buddhist stupas (shrines) and monasteries as well as several Hindu temples, and continued to promote religious tolerance in a program for underprivileged youth, including Muslim and Tibetan refugees, in Kathmandu.

New Zealand

Executive Summary

The constitution provides the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. In August, a court sentenced the individual convicted of committing the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, the worst mass killings in the country’s history, to life in prison with no parole – a sentence unique in the modern legal history of the country. The report by a royal commission established to investigate the Christchurch mosque attacks was published in December. In response, the government promised reforms aimed at safeguarding the country’s minority religious and ethnic communities and at improving greater social cohesion. In August, the government introduced a new law covering religious instruction in public schools, and in September, the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools designed to clarify the legal obligation of the schools’ boards of trustees when allowing religious instruction.

The government-funded Human Rights Commission (HRC) received 87 inquiries or complaints of discrimination based on religious belief for 2018-19, compared with 65 in the previous period. The New Zealand Jewish Council said that anti-Semitism increased, particularly online.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officers met with government officials to offer continuing support in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. They also met with representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2018 census data, of those responding regarding religious affiliation, 10.2 percent are Roman Catholic, 7 percent Anglican, 5 percent Presbyterian, 10 percent other Christian denominations (including Maori syncretic religions such as Ratana and Ringatu), 2.6 percent Hindu, 1.3 percent Muslim, 1.2 percent Buddhist, and 0.1 percent Jewish. More than 90 additional religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. The number of persons stating no religious affiliation increased from 42 percent to 49 percent between 2013 and 2018; 6.8 percent of the respondents to the census question on religion stated they objected to the question.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, comprising several basic laws, states that religious expression is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” According to the law, religious practices may not breach the peace.

The government does not require the licensing or registration of religious groups; however, for a religious group to collect money for any charitable purpose, including the advancement of its religion, or to obtain tax benefits, it must register with the Department of Internal Affairs as a charitable trust. The registration must provide the rules of the organization showing it is a nonprofit organization and a list of officers free from conflict of interest who will not put their own interests above the organization. There is no fee for registration.

According to the 2020 Education and Training Act, which came into force in August, individual school boards that choose to allow religious instruction in public schools must have signed consent from a parent or caregiver to include a child in that religious instruction (“opt in”). The previous legislation required parents or guardians to make their wishes known in writing if they did not wish a child to take part in religious instruction or observance (“opt out”). The national education law specifies that teaching in state primary and intermediate schools must be secular while the school is open. The law allows schools to close for up to one hour per week and no more than 20 hours per year to allow religious instruction by voluntary instructors, which must be held on an opt-in basis. To comply with human rights laws, school boards must ensure that religious instruction does not discriminate against religious or nonreligious beliefs of students. The law states this should involve boards consulting closely with the school community, offering valid alternatives to religious instruction, providing secular school and student support services, and having an adequate complaints procedure to resolve issues. Religious observance and religious instruction – when a particular religion or faith is taught or given preference in a state primary or intermediate school – differ from general religious education, which is not regulated by legislation.

Individuals may file complaints of unlawful discrimination, including on the basis of religious belief, to the HRC. The HRC’s mandate includes assuring equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, protecting the right to safety for religious individuals and communities, promoting freedom of religious expression and reasonable accommodation for religious groups, and promoting religious tolerance in education. In the event a complaint is not resolved satisfactorily with the assistance of HRC mediation, the complainant may proceed to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT). The tribunal has the authority to issue restraining orders, award monetary damages, or declare a breach of the Human Rights Act through a report to parliament. Conduct prohibited by the Human Rights Act (e.g., workplace discrimination, including that based on religion) may also be prosecuted under other applicable laws. In addition to the HRC dispute resolution mechanism, a complainant may initiate proceedings in the court system; in exceptional circumstances, HRRT cases may be transferred to the High Court.

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

Government Practices

In August, a court in Christchurch sentenced the perpetrator of the March, 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings that took 51 lives and injured 49 others to life in prison with no parole. This was the first time in the country’s history that such a sentence was handed down. A royal commission – the highest level of government inquiry – established to investigate the Christchurch mosque attacks published its findings in December. While the report found the government had made mistakes, it said the attack had been unpreventable. The government promised reforms aimed at safeguarding the country’s minority religious and ethnic communities and at improving greater social cohesion.

In August, the Ministry of Education released guidelines on religious instruction in state primary and intermediate schools to help trustees develop best practices for religious instruction in compliance with the new Education and Training Act. The guidelines provided guidance on how to enable the closure of schools for the delivery of religious instruction in a way that would reduce the possibility of discrimination.

In September, following the entry into force of the Education and Training Act, the Secular Education Network, a local nongovernmental organization, withdrew from its long-running court case with the Ministry of Education, which had asserted that religious instruction allowances in the previous Education Act were inconsistent with the more recent Human Rights and Bill of Rights Acts. The network stated it was committed to continuing its broader efforts to end what it termed “religious indoctrination” in state primary and intermediate schools.

In June, the Justice Minister delayed any possible changes to hate speech legislation, which he had previously described as “woefully inadequate,” until after the country’s October general election. The Human Rights Commission has recommended since 2004 that police should collect specific hate crime data – a recommendation repeated in the 2019 HRC report, It Happened Here: Reports of race and religious hate crime in New Zealand 2004-2012, which brought together for the first time the HRC’s annual summaries of media reports on racially and religiously motivated crime during that period. The HRC condemned the absence of systematically collected data on these crimes, saying, “Without such data it is difficult to have an informed discussion about the prevalence of hate crimes.” It advocated that authorities gather information, including the number of complaints, prosecutions, and convictions for crimes motivated by characteristics such as race and religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The HRC received 87 complaints of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or lack of religious belief during 2018-19, compared with 65 complaints during 2017-18. Reports of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs made up 13 per cent of all complaints raised with the commission in 2018-19.

While it said that anti-Semitic incidents remained rare, the New Zealand Jewish Council said online anti-Semitism was increasing. In January, a swastika was spray-painted on the outside wall of the Temple Sinai Wellington Jewish Progressive Congregation, and supportive anti-Semitic comments later appeared online.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officers met with government officials to offer continuing support in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks. Embassy and consulate general officials regularly met with officials in the HRC and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to consult on encouraging tolerance and religious freedom in the country. They also met with representatives of various religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society. The embassy worked closely with an activist for equal rights for Muslim women to expand her networks and increase her public profile.

North Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, with the stipulation that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.” In July, the UN Secretary-General reported to the UN General Assembly that the country “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly.” Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK was published. The COI found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government that constituted crimes against humanity. The government reportedly continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to limit the availability of details related to individual cases of abuse. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Open Doors USA (ODUSA) estimated that at year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), a South Korea-based NGO, citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2019 and other sources, reported 1,411 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 126 killings and 94 disappearances. In October, the United Kingdom-based NGO Korea Future Initiative (KFI) released a report based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, or perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims punished for engaging in religious practice or having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, or sharing religious beliefs. The KFI report said they were subjected to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, forced abortion, execution, and public trials. For the 19th consecutive year, ODUSA ranked the country number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing family members of Christians. According to ODUSA, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they [are] deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government on April 23 reportedly extended national emergency quarantine measures until the end of the year and ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites. In October, the UN special rapporteur stated the decreased contact with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate entrenched human rights violations. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures, including imprisonment, against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. In September 2019, an NGO posted on social media a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” and calling converts “worthless people.” According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019. According to NGOs, the government used religious organizations and facilities for external propaganda and political purposes. In June, the government demolished the inter-Korean liaison office after defector groups in South Korea sent materials over the border that included Bibles and other Christian materials.

The government encouraged all citizens to report anyone engaged in religious activity or in possession of religious material. There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify. Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from family members, neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely. According to one source, the practice of consulting fortune tellers was widespread.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights” and expressed very serious concern about abuses including imposition of the death penalty for religious reasons and restrictions on the freedoms of conscience, religion, or belief. The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. In a speech delivered at the Vatican in September, the Secretary of State urged Christian leaders to support religious freedom for Christians in the DPRK.

Since 2001, the DPRK has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The North Korean government last reported religious demographics in 2002, and estimates of the number of total adherents of different religious groups vary. In 2002, the DPRK reported to the UN Human Rights Committee there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 800 Catholics, and 15,000 practitioners of Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners is considerably higher than reported by authorities. According to the Religious Characteristics of States Dataset Project, in 2015 the population was 70.9 percent atheist, 11 percent Buddhist, 1.7 percent followers of other religions, and 16.5 percent unknown. UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 100,000 Christians, and ODUSA estimates the country has 400,000 Christians. In its 2020 World Christian Database, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported 58 percent of the population is agnostic; 15 percent atheist; 13 percent “new religionists” (believers in syncretic religions); 12 percent “ethnoreligionists” (believers in folk religions); and 1.5 percent Buddhists. Christians, Muslims, and Chinese folk religionists make up less than 0.5 percent of the population collectively. The NKDB reported that among defectors practicing a religion, the majority were Protestant with a smaller number of Catholics, Buddhists, and others. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002. Consulting shamans and fortune tellers and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The NKDB reported that five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies. It further states, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes, or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling. The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

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

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make individual arrests and punishments difficult to verify. The July 30 UN Secretary-General’s report Situation of the human rights situation in the DPRK stated the DPRK “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly… During the reporting period [September 2019 to July 2020], there was no evidence of any improvement with respect to the fulfilment of these fundamental rights and freedoms.” The report stated that the government “maintains a monopoly over information and retains total control of organized social life.” Multiple sources indicated the situation in the country had not changed since publication of the 2014 COI final report, which concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded that in many instances, the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government on April 23 reportedly extended national emergency quarantine measures until the end of the year and ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites. The October 14 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea stated, “The surveillance and control over the population continue in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the decreased contact with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate entrenched human rights violations, with more freedoms being restricted, discrimination worsening, and treatment in detention, including in political prison camps aggravating.”

In October, KFI released a report entitled Persecuting Faith: Documenting Religious Freedom Violations in North Korea, Volume I. The report was based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims of religious freedom violations. Of these, 215 adhered to Christianity, 56 adhered to shamanism, and two to other beliefs. The victims ranged in age from three to older than 80 years old. Women and girls accounted for nearly 60 percent of documented victims. According to the report, the government charged individuals with engaging in religious practice, conducting religious activities in China, possessing religious items, having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, and sharing religious beliefs. In some cases, the government charged a single victim with multiple offenses. Individuals were subject to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, refoulment, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, execution, and public trials and “resident exposure meetings.” According to the report, “In many cases, a single victim experienced multiple violations.”

In December 2019, ODUSA published a report entitled North Korea: Country Dossier. The report identified Communist doctrine and the cult of personality surrounding leader Kim Jong Un as the main drivers of religious persecution. According to the report, Christians were regarded as enemies of the Workers Party of Korea’s ideology.

The NKDB, relying on reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,411 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to December 2019. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,411 cases, authorities reportedly killed 126 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 94 (6.7 percent), physically injured.79 (5.6 percent), deported or forcibly relocated 53 (3.8 percent), detained 826 (58.5 percent), restricted movement of 147 (10.4 percent), and persecuted 86 (7.9 percent) using other methods of punishment.

The NGO NK Watch estimated that 135,000 political prisoners continued to be held in four political prison camps between September 2019 and July 2020. According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2019 white paper on human rights, the government operated five political prison camps. ODUSA estimated that as of year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, CSW estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. CSW and ODUSA said the government maintained a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing relatives of Christians, meaning they could be detained regardless of their beliefs. According to one defector, an entire family was arrested when an informant revealed the family had a Bible.

In its annual World Watch List report, ODUSA for the 19th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians. The NGO stated in its dossier, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they are deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” ODUSA stated arrests and abductions of foreign missionaries and punishments for Christians increased. “Christians do not have the slightest space in society; meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.” The ODUSA dossier stated increased diplomatic activity starting with and following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018 did not improve religious freedom for Christians in the country. According to the dossier, police raids aimed at identifying and punishing citizens with “deviating thoughts,” including Christians, reportedly increased.

Religious organizations and human rights groups outside the country continued to report that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. One defector told the NKDB in 2018 that a Christian woman was beaten while in custody, denied water, and died of dehydration. Another defector told NKDB in 2017 that in 2011, a Christian woman became so ill in detention she could not feed herself, and when she asked a guard a question, he beat her to death with a ladle.

According to KFI, Christians reported experiencing various forms of torture, “including: being forced to hang on steel bars while being beaten with a wooden club; being hung by their legs; having their body tightly bound with sticks; being forced to perform “squat-jumps” and to sit and stand hundreds or thousands of times each day; having a liquid made with red pepper powder forcibly poured into their nostrils; being forced to kneel with a wooden bar inserted between their knee hollows; strangulation; being forced to witness the execution or torture of other prisoners; starvation; being forced to ingest polluted food; being forced into solitary confinement; being deprived of sleep; and being forced to remain seated and still for up to and beyond 12 hours a day.” The report also documented incidents of torture and physical assault inflicted on persons adhering to shamanism. One victim who had been imprisoned for three years for practicing shamanism sustained permanent damage to the eyes because of repeated physical assaults.

According to KFI, authorities subjected pregnant adherents to forced abortions in detention or killed their infants shortly after birth by smothering them.

KFI also reported that officials repeatedly warned citizens in lectures and “people’s unit meetings” to not read Bibles and to report anyone who owned a Bible. The report documented multiple instances in which authorities found an individual in possession of a Bible and sent the person and other household members to prison. In one case, a Korean Workers’ Party member was arrested for possessing a Bible and executed at Hyesan airfield in front of 3,000 residents. Another respondent told investigators that a relative was arrested for possessing a cross and a Bible after the relative’s partner reported the individual to authorities.

In September 2019, the Christian advocacy group Voice of the Martyrs USA (VOM) posted to YouTube what it described as a “government training video.” In the video, the narrator tells the story of a Christian named Cha Deoksun from Sariwon City who crossed the border illegally into China, where she converted to Christianity. The narrator said the pastors of the church were disguised members of the South Korean secret service and converts were “spies.” Upon returning to North Korea, Cha traveled around the country preaching and organizing an underground church. The narrator described Cha as a “religious fanatic” and “good-for-nothing.” According to the video, she converted her family and other “worthless people.” At some point, “one of our conscientious citizens” reported Cha to authorities and she was arrested. VOM stated, “It is unclear how Deoksun died, but it is possible that she was executed.”

According to KFI, authorities arrested and executed individuals for possessing and sharing religious items such as Bibles. In one case, a victim who brought Bibles into the country was arrested and executed by firing squad close to Samjiyon Hospital, Ryanggang Province, in front of approximately 300 witnesses. In another case, a victim who had been in contact with religious persons was detained and interrogated in North Hamgyong Province. During her detention, an officer shouted at her, “Hey, you [expletive]. Does God know that you are in here?” The officer ordered the woman to crawl backwards out of her cell on hands and knees and beat her with a wooden club.

According to the NKDB, in 2016, there were forced disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities.

International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report that any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps. According KINU’s 2019 white paper on human rights, authorities punished both “superstitious activities” – including fortune telling – and religious activities, but the latter more severely. In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors had studied or possessed a Bible or were involved with Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitious activity with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

KFI documented cases in which family members of persons who had been charged with crimes associated with religion were subsequently targeted. In certain incidents, this led to the arrests of children as young as three. In other incidents, entire families were arrested. Investigators also documented incidents in which the spouses of persons sentenced for religious crimes were forced to divorce victims.

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019.

The government reportedly detained foreigners who it said were engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders. There was no further information on Kim Jung-wook, detained in October 2013; Kim Guk-gi, detained in October 2014; or Choi Chun-gil, detained in December 2014 – three South Korean missionaries detained in the country and sentenced to life in prison for “spying and scheming.” In December 2018, The Korea Times reported the South Korean government tried to negotiate their release.

During the year, VOM undertook a letter-writing campaign to urge the government to release Jang Moon Seok (aka Zhang Wen Shi), an ethnic-Korean Chinese national living in Changbai, China, on the border with North Korea. VOM stated that “Deacon Jang” assisted North Koreans who crossed the border and shared his faith with them. According to VOM, in November 2014, North Korean authorities kidnapped Jang from China, imprisoned him, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

In 2019, the HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes. There were neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment. Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country. KINU’s 2019 white paper reported one defector as saying, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The 2014 COI report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded that Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

According to NGOs, the government’s policy towards religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. As it had in years past, KINU stated in its 2019 annual white paper on human rights that it was “practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2018, there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church. The 2015 KINU annual white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and reported most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities and did not regard Buddhist monks as religious figures. The temples were regarded as cultural heritage sites and tourist destinations. KINU’s 2019 annual white paper concluded no religious facilities existed outside of Pyongyang.

In its 2019 report, KINU stated the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom. In its 2020 annual report, the NKDB stated, “Although there are several churches and other religious facilities in North Korea, such as Chilgol and Bongsu Church, as well as Jangchung Cathedral, they are sponsored entirely by the state, and therefore access to the facilities for the sake of genuine religious activity, especially for regular citizens, is heavily restricted.” Less than 2.5 percent of 13,958 defectors the NDKB interviewed between 1997 and 2019 said they had visited religious facilities. The 2014 COI report concluded that authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Chilgol Church, a state-controlled Protestant church, was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. In KINU’s 2019 report, one defector said that when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals, whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held, on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, and therefore authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches. According to KINU, in years past, foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged. In its 2019 dossier on North Korea, ODUSA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely. KINU’s 2019 white paper described the example of Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, which was built in September 1988. Defectors reported that only the building guard and the guard’s family lived there, but when foreign guests came to visit, several hundred citizens between the ages of 40 and 50 were carefully selected and gathered to participate in fake church services.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2019 KINU report, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.” According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report noted the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established Korean Catholic Council continued to hold masses at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church. There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country in previous years, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were citizens or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom had reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

In 2019, United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday Mass at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral. According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items as well as other items the government deemed objectionable. ODUSA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

According to KFI, beginning in kindergarten, children were taught antireligious views, with a particular focus on Christianity. The report stated, “While Buddhism and Cheondogyo were explained as matters of historical interest, rather than as religions, it was Christianity that was singled out for attention within the public-school system. Multiple respondents spoke of textbooks containing sections on Christian missionaries that listed their “evil deeds,” which included rape, blood sucking, organ harvesting, murder, and espionage.”

In June, the government demolished the inter-Korean liaison office, a building in the city of Kaesong near the border with South Korea. Media reported that the demolition occurred in retaliation after defector groups in South Korea sent anti-DPRK government leaflets and other materials over the border. Christian media reported that items sent over the border also often contained Christian materials, including tracts and testimonies written by North Korean Christian refugees, physical Bibles, and digital copies of the Bible on flash drives. Kim Yo Jong, then first deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the sister of Kim Jong Un, denounced those who sent the material as “betrayers” and “human scum.”

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies persons on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime. The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. KINU continued to report that religious persons and their families were perceived to be “antirevolutionary elements.”

According to KINU’s 2019 report, the government continued to view religion as a means of foreign encroachment. In the report, KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s Dictionary on Philosophy as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.” KINU reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year that emphasized ways to detect individuals who engaged in spreading Christianity.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and to allege that these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly maintained tight border controls that became even stricter in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hindering relief and assistance activities.

In 2019, the Asia Times reported that South Korean-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons and that in some cases, the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

In December, the UN General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution, cosponsored by the United States, that condemned “in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity.” The General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association[.]” The UN General Assembly also strongly urged the government “to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms[.]” The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion. Travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated this inaccessibility.

The 2014 COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities. According to the ODUSA dossier, due to the constant indoctrination permeating the country, Christians were seen as hostile elements in society, and family members and neighbors were expected to report suspicious activities to the authorities, including through the network of neighborhood informers. For this reason, “many parents prefer not to tell their children anything about their Christian faith.”

In 2019, the South China Morning Post reported that a defector described her family quietly singing Christian hymns on Sundays while one person watched for informers. Another described hiding under a blanket or in the bathroom while praying. ODUSA reported that many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks to which individuals had access dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II. These were kept hidden and passed among believers. One man said persons remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported. According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible, and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

In 2019, KINU again reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated that up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. In the “government training” video released by VOM in September 2019, the narrator claimed Cha Deoksun and other believers met in the woods. Some defectors and NGOs said unapproved religious materials were available and that secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. According to The Christian Post, the NKDB stated in its annual white paper published in October that since 2000, as many as 559 defectors said they had “seen a Bible.” NKDB stated that of the 14,091 individuals who defected between 1997 and 2019, only 167 (1.2 percent) said that they had personally experienced practicing religion in secret. Only 677 (5 percent) of 13,557 individuals had witnessed others practicing in secret.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented individuals from attending weddings and funerals, KINU reported that in prior years, religious ceremonies accompanying these events were almost unknown. Other sources, however, indicated there were still shamanistic elements in weddings and funerals.

According to KFI, the government intensified its campaign against shamanism during the year. The government hung posters and issued directives warning citizens against engaging in “superstitious acts.” These directives were posted in apartment blocks. NGOs noted, however, an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. KFI stated that shamanism was illicitly practiced by both ordinary citizens and officials. Investigators documented many persons engaging both publicly and privately in shamanistic practices, including traditional rituals, fortune telling, physiognomy, exorcism, the use of talismans, the use of the Christian Bible, the use of birth charts, and tarot cards. One source told RFA it was common for individuals to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, handling health matters, or considering other important decisions. One source told Asia Press that government officials also consulted fortune tellers about their health and careers. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. According to the source, however, fortune tellers who faced punishment were those “who [made] a lot of wrong predictions” and therefore did not receive the protection of officials. The source said, “The good fortune tellers are paid by officials and therefore do not get caught.” One defector who escape