The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion. The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters. Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits. The federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups and mosques. Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members. Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees. In May federal anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein, responding to what he stated was the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents in the country, said he could “no longer recommend Jews wear a kippah at every time and place in Germany.” Many Jewish leaders in the community were supportive of Klein, but some prominent politicians, Jewish leaders, and national media responded negatively. Senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Seven additional state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, bringing the total number of states with such commissioners to 13 (out of 16), in addition to the federal Jewish life and anti-Semitism commissioner. In July the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 44 million euros ($49.4 million) in 2020, including for the first time pension payments to Holocaust survivors’ widowed spouses.
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents. These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Jews expressed security concerns after several widely publicized anti-Semitic acts, including a gunman’s attack in Halle on Yom Kippur that killed two individuals outside a synagogue. Federal crime statistics for 2018 cited 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, an overall increase of 20 percent from 2017. Sixty-nine of those crimes involved violence. The federal crime statistics attributed 89 percent of anti-Semitic crimes in 2018 to the far right; however, the federal anti-Semitism commissioner expressed concern over methodology that attributed to the far right all incidents in which the perpetrator was not identified. He stated that the country’s Jewish community experienced more open hostility from Muslims than from other groups. Demonstrations occurred expressing anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment. The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) continued to make public statements opposing the COS.
The U.S. embassy and five consulates general assessed the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance; expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Muslim acts; and advocated for more law enforcement and other resources to prevent violent attacks on religious communities. In November the Secretary of State visited the synagogue in Halle to pay his respects and the Neue Synagogue in Berlin to commemorate the 81st anniversary of the Reichs Pogromnacht (previously known as Kristallnacht/Night of Broken Glass). Embassy representatives met with the federal anti-Semitism commissioner at the Ministry of Interior and the federal commissioner for global freedom of religion at the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development; consuls general met with state-level government representatives and anti-Semitism commissioners. The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 80.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Unofficial estimates based on the census and figures provided by religious groups indicate approximately 28 percent of the population is Catholic, and 26 percent belongs to the EKD – a confederation of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and United (Prussian Union) Protestant regional churches. Other Protestant denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, Baptist communities, and nondenominational Christians, account for approximately 1 percent of the population. Orthodox Christians represent 1.9 percent of the population.
According to government estimates, approximately 5.3 percent of the population is Muslim, of which 75 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alevi, and 7 percent Shia; the remainder includes Alawites (70,000), Ahmadis (35,000), and Sufis (10,000). Intelligence officials estimate there are approximately 11,300 Salafi Muslims in the country. According to the Ministry of Interior, approximately 25 percent of Muslims are recent immigrants; between 2011 and 2015, an estimated 1.2 million Muslim immigrants entered the country. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely; the Central Council of Jews estimates it at 100,000, while other estimates place the number at approximately 200,000 when including Jews who do not belong to a specific Jewish community. According to the secular NGO Religious Studies Media and Information Service (REMID), Buddhists (270,000); Jehovah’s Witnesses (169,000); Hindus (100,000); Yezidis (100,000); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) (40,000); Sikhs (10,000-15,000); and Church of Scientology (COS) (3,400) together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. All of REMID’s estimates are based on members who have registered with a religious group. According to the nonprofit Research Group Worldviews Germany, approximately 39 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or belongs to religious groups not counted in government statistics.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience, freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, and freedom to practice one’s religion. It also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions, nor be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools, and parents have the right to decide whether their children receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and permits groups to organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and to provide religious services in the military, at hospitals, and in prisons.
The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence, inciting hatred or taking arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare. The prohibition and penalties apply equally to online speech. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
By law, social media companies with more than two million registered users in the country must implement procedures to review complaints and remove or block access to illegal speech within seven days of receiving a complaint and within 24 hours for cases considered “manifestly unlawful.” Noncompliance may result in fines of up to 50 million euros ($56.2 million). Unlawful content includes actions illegal under existing criminal code, such as defamation of religions and denial of historic atrocities.
The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups – such as the Church of Scientology – as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects,” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms, such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled the government must remain neutral toward a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.
Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Those applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence they are a religious group through their statutes, history, and activities.
A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes (8 percent of income tax in Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, 9 percent in the other states) on members, who must register their religious affiliation with federal tax authorities. Each state collects the tithes on behalf of the religious community through the state’s tax collection process, separately from and in addition to income taxes. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service. PLC status also allows for benefits, including tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status, which provide public services, such as religious schools and hospitals. Additionally, due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to pre-1919 Germany, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.
According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.
Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices. Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, however, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.
According to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply. Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland States render decisions on a case-by-case basis. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen, and Lower Saxony do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality. A law in Berlin bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, law enforcement staff, and primary and secondary public school teachers. The Berlin law permits teachers at some categories of institutions, such as vocational schools, to wear headscarves. Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.
Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving, including by a niqab. Infractions are punishable by a 60 euro ($67) fine.
According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.
All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or those without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state granting them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to ensure the curriculum is in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary by state) express an interest. Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein States also offer some religious instruction in Islam. In most of the federal states, Muslim communities or associations provide this instruction, while in Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state does. In March the Bavarian cabinet decided to expand its program, which at the time reached 16,500 pupils at 350 schools. In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction is offered for all students by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.
Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states, those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all states.
The government provides annual payments to Holocaust victims and their descendants, and regularly expands the scope of these programs to broaden the eligibility requirements.
In February Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein launched a nationwide online platform for reporting anti-Semitic incidents, including those that do not rise to the level of a crime. The Research and Information Center for Anti-Semitism (RIAS), a nonprofit organization that receives some federal and state funding and that had already been managing a similar service in Berlin, is responsible for running the program.
In September, in response to several anti-Semitic attacks in Berlin, Klein called for harsher penalties for such attacks. He also recommended additional training for police and prosecutors to help them recognize and appropriately deal with anti-Semitic incidents. Klein criticized the police procedure of automatically classifying anti-Semitic incidents in which the perpetrator is unknown as right-wing extremism, a practice that resulted in 89 percent of anti-Semitic incidents being classified as right-wing. Klein said the country’s Jewish community experienced more open hostility from Muslims than from right-wing extremists.
In July the federal Interior Ministry announced the creation of a new advisory committee to combat anti-Semitism. The eight-member committee has the mandate to support Klein’s work by formulating strategies to identify fields of action against anti-Semitism and to increase the visibility of Jewish life in the country.
During the year, Berlin, Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saarland, Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and Lower Saxony States established state-level anti-Semitism commissioners, bringing the total number of states with such commissioners to 13 (out of 16). The responsibilities and functions of the position vary by state but generally include developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs. Klein urged all states to establish anti-Semitism commissioners because the distribution of powers in the country’s federal system provides the states with greater authority to combat anti-Semitism.
All 16 state interior ministers and Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer presented a new plan in October to combat anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism that included a stricter weapons law, an obligation to report hate speech online, increased protection for Jewish institutions, fast-tracking anti-Semitism cases, and hundreds of new personnel positions for the federal criminal police (BKA) and the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (OPC – domestic intelligence agency) for such cases. Seehofer had previously advocated similar measures without success, but the attack in Halle provided new urgency and led to additional support for his plan.
On November 29 the Bundesrat (upper house of parliament) approved a motion to amend a section in the country’s penal code that includes anti-Semitism in the list of aggravating criteria, along with “racist, xenophobic, and inhumane motives,” for judges to consider in determining the severity of sentences. The previous day, Federal Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht separately said she would support such legislation. At year’s end, the Bundestag had not yet voted on the proposed change.
In May the federal parliament passed a nonbinding resolution designating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as anti-Semitic. The resolution stated the government would not fund organizations that question Israel’s right to exist or actively support BDS. This resolution replaced the parliament’s January 2018 resolution to “counter” BDS.
In January Schleswig-Holstein established a new, independent “Statewide Office for Information on and Documentation of Anti-Semitism.” In March the Hesse Ministry of Education began a statewide anti-Semitism prevention project to organize workshops and training events for students and teachers. In April the Bavarian anti-Semitism commissioner established a registration office for anti-Semitic incidents, modeled after RIAS Berlin, and in November the Baden-Wuerttemberg anti-Semitism commissioner did the same.
In July Duesseldorf appointed a commissioner as part of a comprehensive plan to fight anti-Semitism, and the public prosecutor’s offices in Karlsruhe and Stuttgart added anti-Semitism officers. In July the Baden-Wuerttemberg State anti-Semitism commissioner published his first report to the state parliament, which warned of conspiracy theories targeting Jews, and detailed 87 anti-Semitic offenses in the first nine months of 2018, a 38 percent increase compared with 2017. In July the NRW State anti-Semitism commissioner presented a plan to establish a reporting office for anti-Semitic attacks. She also called for new educational programs to combat anti-Semitic attitudes and stereotypes.
According to the first annual report by Berlin Anti-Semitism Commissioner Claudia Vanoni, law enforcement authorities there initiated 386 proceedings with an anti-Semitic background during the year, 156 involving online cases. At year’s end, 169 of the overall cases were terminated because the perpetrators could not be identified, and 27 were concluded – most of which resulted in fines. Investigations in 49 cases were ongoing at the end of the year.
In May federal anti-Semitism commissioner Klein said – in response to what he stated was the rising number of anti-Semitic incidents in the county – he could “no longer recommend Jews wear a kippah at every time and place in Germany.” Many Jewish leaders in the community were supportive of Klein, but prominent politicians and national media responded negatively. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “No one should ever have to hide their Jewish faith again – not in Germany nor anywhere else,” while government spokesperson Stefan Seibert said, “The state has to ensure the free exercise of religion is possible for everyone, and thus it’s the job of the state to ensure that anyone can move around securely with a kippah in any place in our country.” Klein then called on individuals everywhere in the country to wear a kippah in solidarity with Jews on June 1 during the annual anti-Israel al-Quds demonstration in Berlin.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in the NRW State Parliament introduced a resolution in April 2018 to deny PLC status to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat community, which it asserted was working “towards the establishment of a theocratic order of rule.” Following a January hearing, all other parties in the state parliament rejected the motion in May, stating that only the State Chancellery had the authority to grant or reject PLC status. At the end of the year, the State Chancellery had yet to make a decision on the Ahmadiyya application, which was submitted in early 2018.
In April Rhineland-Palatinate signed a state agreement with the Muslim Alevite community outlining conditions for Alevi holidays and religious instruction in schools. Four Rhineland-Palatinate elementary schools offered Alevi religious instruction.
In June the Federal Labor Court ruled a physician employed in a Catholic hospital in Duesseldorf should not have been fired in 2009. He was dismissed because the hospital stated his remarriage without an annulment of a previous marriage was a violation of canon law. The press spokesman of the Archdiocese of Cologne said the country’s Catholic Church liberalized its labor law in 2015, and the dismissal would likely not take place today.
According to reports from the federal OPC and Scientology members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Thuringia continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. At least four major political parties – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), Social Democratic Party (SPD), and Free Democratic Party (FDP) – continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership. “Sect filters,” signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors. The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members.
In July the UN special rapporteurs on minority issues and freedom of religion or belief wrote the government to ask for its response to allegations of “continued use of discriminatory (sect filters) against Scientologists in government grants and employment.” In its response in September, the government cited a 1995 ruling by the Federal Labor Court that stated the COS did not qualify as a religious community under German law, COS goals were geared toward commercial activities, and the COS had “aspirations opposing the free democratic constitutional system,” making it ineligible for government grants and contracts. According to the government, the COS therefore was not eligible for religious protections and use of the sect filters was not a violation of human rights. Also in September, the COS asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to “investigate” the practice of sect filters in the country and to “assist in promoting a real dialogue” between the COS and the government on the issue.
In May, responding to a parliamentary inquiry, the NRW State OPC disclosed it was monitoring 109 mosques for extremist activities. Based on the monitoring, authorities identified 156 individuals as “relevant persons” and 260 as “potentially dangerous.” Of these, 127 of the “relevant” and 110 of the “potentially dangerous” were considered capable of action because they were present in the country and not in detention.
Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor numerous Muslim groups, including the terrorist groups ISIS, Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as groups such as Turkish Hezbollah (TH), Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH), the Muslim Brotherhood, Milli Gorus, and various Salafist movements. The director of NRW’s OPC stated in June that the Muslim Brotherhood was recruiting members among the refugee community and represented a “greater threat to democracy” than the Salafists.
Groups under OPC observation continued to say the OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist, and it constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.
At a May 14 conference, entitled “European Network: Combating Anti-Semitism through Education,” hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated Germany would prioritize the fight against anti-Semitism when it assumes the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2020.
In June unknown perpetrators desecrated 50 copies of the Quran at Bremen’s Rama Mosque by throwing them into toilets. Bremen Mayor Carsten Sieling said the Bremen Senate was “thoroughly appalled” by the “disgusting crime,” and the Senate stood firmly with Bremen’s Muslim citizens. Local politicians attended Islamic Friday prayers to show their solidarity.
In September the Higher Administrative Court agreed to hear the city of Oer-Erkenschwick’s appeal of the 2018 decision by an Administrative Court in NRW State banning a local mosque’s outdoor amplification of the call to prayer. The case was still pending at the end of the year.
In March the Bavarian Constitutional Court upheld the state’s ban on judges and prosecutors wearing headscarves, kippahs, or crosses but found the display of crosses in courtrooms to be acceptable.
In June the Rhineland-Palatinate Superior Administrative Court overturned the city of Koblenz’s ban on burkinis, an all-encompassing swimsuit worn by some Muslim women. The court ruled the ban violated the constitution’s call for equal treatment of all persons. In July the Federal Administrative Court ruled Sikhs were not exempt from the requirement to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle, even though helmets do not fit over their turbans.
In October the Higher Administration Court in Muenster denied state compensation to two headscarf-wearing Muslim teachers who claimed professional disadvantages because of their religious beliefs. The court determined it could not be demonstrated that the state refused to offer them employment due to religious reasons.
In March the EKD-sponsored charity Diakonie appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court to reverse a 2018 ruling by the Federal Labor Court that prevented Diakonie from denying employment to a social worker because she was not a member of a Christian church. The case was pending at the end of the year.
In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled German authorities at the local level did not violate a Christian family’s human rights when they placed the family’s children in foster care for three weeks in 2013. The family from Darmstadt had argued German authorities were in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights when they refused to allow them to homeschool their four children through a Christian distance-learning program. The ECHR ruled authorities were justified in removing the children from their home, and it was reasonable to assume the parents were endangering their children by not sending them to school because the children were isolated and had no contact with anyone outside the family.
In May Federal Minister for Migration, Refugees, and Integration Annette Widmann-Mauz called on the government to examine whether it could legally institute a ban on headscarves for children in schools. The president of the German Teachers’ Association supported a headscarf ban, calling them “hostile to integration.”
In January the state government of Baden-Wuerttemberg established a Sunni Muslim educational foundation to serve as a mediator between the state and various Islamic associations. This action followed the 2018 announcement that the Baden-Wuerttemberg State government planned to reorganize Islamic religious education in public schools. Two of the larger Muslim organizations – the Turkish-Islamic Union DITIB (connected to the Turkish government’s religious affairs ministry) and the Islamic Religious Community Baden-Wuerttemberg – refused to participate, saying they considered the arrangement unconstitutional.
In September an administrative court in Hesse State ruled state-run Islamic studies lessons in schools would be constitutional under national law. The case was in response to the state’s decision to phase out cooperation with DITIB because of its ties to the Turkish government and move to a purely state-run program.
Officials in Hesse continued to investigate a possible neo-Nazi network in Frankfurt’s police force, first discovered in December 2018. At year’s end, six police officers had been dismissed from duty as a result of the scandal. Overall, 38 officers were under investigation.
In September the Saarland State Education Ministry announced it would extend its cooperation with several Islamic associations that provide Islamic religious education in four public schools through at least 2023. The ministry also announced plans to expand the program to additional schools.
In February the Rhineland-Palatinate State youth welfare office revoked the operating license of the Al-Nur Kindergarten in Mainz – the state’s only Muslim day care center – due to its alleged promotion of Salafism and connections with extremist groups, citing the Muslim Brotherhood as an example. Al-Nur was told to cease operations by March 31, and that the city of Mainz would stop funding the facility. The Mainz Administrative Court upheld the decision, as did the Koblenz Higher Administrative Court on appeal.
In May Berlin Humboldt University, a public university, announced the initial cohort of students at its institute for Islamic theology would not be eligible to become religion teachers because the lack of Islamic religion classes at Berlin’s middle and high schools would prevent them from completing the internship required to become a teacher. These students, however, still could become imams or work in other religious capacities. The Islamic theology institute was established in the fall of 2018 to train future imams and religion teachers.
In April experts estimated NRW lacked more than 2,000 teachers for Islamic religious education. Only two universities in NRW offered courses to obtain the required teaching permit, and just 251 teachers in NRW had such a permit. There are more than 400,000 Muslim students in NRW, but only approximately 20,000 of them have received Islamic religious education.
In July the NRW state government opened a coordination office for Muslim engagement to reorganize its relations with a broad range of Muslim organizations and civil society groups. DITIB was included among the organizations, even though NRW previously ceased all cooperation with DITIB, stating it would reinstate relations only if DITIB took steps to reduce the Turkish government’s influence over its activities. At the end of the year, the state government had yet to resume any further cooperation with DITIB beyond the new coordination office.
In July the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 44 million euros ($49.4 million) in government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 480 million euros ($539.3 million) in 2019 to 524 million euros ($588.8 million) in 2020. For the first time, pension payments will be extended to Holocaust survivors’ widowed spouses, and these payments are to be applied retroactively.
The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government contributed 13 million euros ($14.6 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international group researching the history and culture of German Jewry.
State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions
According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state government contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD totaled approximately 548.7 million euros ($616.5 million). The union said it calculated its estimate based on budgets of the 16 states.
In May the Wuppertal Regional Court fined seven men from 300 to 1,800 euros ($340-$2000) each for wearing yellow vests marked “Sharia Police” and patrolling the streets in 2014 to counter “non-Muslim” behavior. They were charged with wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion. A regional court acquitted the men in 2016, but the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the acquittal in 2018. The defendants appealed to the Constitutional Court in June, and the case was pending at the end of the year.
In April media reported on a police cadet in NRW State who was fired because of his close contacts with Salafists and his extremist views. The police headquarters in Bielefeld refused to offer the Muslim man tenure as a police detective at the end of his three-year training.
The government continued the German Islam Conference dialogue with Muslims in the country, which began in 2006. The dialogue’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and – in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country – further develop partnerships between the government and Muslim organizations.
The states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Wuerttemberg held conferences for law enforcement officials in August and September, respectively, to discuss methods to better prevent and police anti-Semitism. The events were largely aimed at awareness-raising. In both states, more than 150 members of the security services, state and local governments, and the Jewish community gathered for the events.
In August media reported local authorities would not allow a Brazilian Pentecostal congregation to purchase the former Protestant church building it had been renting in Berlin since 2016 as the headquarters for the denomination’s branches in Germany and Austria. District Mayor Stephan von Dassel vowed to continue blocking the sale to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), whose message he described as “People should donate a lot of money to the church, then their problems will just go away.” Von Dassel was also quoted in the media, stating, “The UCKG enriches neither our neighborhood nor its surroundings.” The most recent deed of sale specified the church could be resold only with the approval of city administrators.
In September the city of Dortmund and the national jury for the award rescinded the awarding of the Nelly Sachs Prize, one of the country’s most renowned literary prizes, to author Kamila Shamsie due to her membership in the BDS movement. Also in September, the Aachen Art Association announced it would rescind the prize it awarded to artist Walid Raad due to his support for the BDS movement, but it reversed that decision in October after determining he had not engaged in any anti-Semitic behavior. The mayor of Aachen responded to the reversal by withdrawing the city from the award ceremony and criticized Raad’s involvement in a “cultural boycott of Israel.”
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes committed during 2018 (the most recent statistics available). These included 69 incidents involving violence, a 20 percent increase compared with the 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, reported in 2017.
On October 9, a gunman attacked the synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on Yom Kippur, where approximately 50 individuals were attending a prayer service. When the gunman failed to gain entrance to the locked building, he shot and killed two persons outside the synagogue in a snack bar. He was arrested shortly after the attack. The federal public prosecutor’s investigation of the suspect’s background and motives was ongoing at year’s end, but according to media reports he admitted to the investigating authorities he harbored far-right extremist political sympathies. Several prominent Jewish organizations called for police protection at all synagogues during services. Leading government officials, including Chancellor Merkel, Federal President Steinmeier, and Foreign Minister Maas, promised a more determined fight against anti-Semitism and far-right violent extremism.
The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents increased from 28 in 2017 to 48 in 2018. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer stated, “We can find in almost all areas of far-right extremism hostile attitudes toward Jews … It’s a development that we must take very, very, very seriously.” According to the report, membership in right-wing extremist parties, such as the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), decreased from approximately 6,000 in 2017 to 5,500 persons in 2018.
In May the BKA presented its annual statistics, which indicated 36,062 politically motivated crimes in 2018, an 8.7 percent decrease from 2017. The BKA report covers a broader definition of “politically motivated crime” than does the MOI in its separate annual report. Notwithstanding the general downward trend, anti-Semitic crimes increased 19.6 percent. Moreover, crimes registered as being motivated by racism or xenophobia increased 22 percent, and the overall number of politically motivated crimes was the third-highest since these statistics were first reported in 2000.
The NGO RIAS, to which victims may report anti-Semitic incidents independent of filing charges with police, reported 404 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of the year, compared with 579 incidents over the same period in 2018. This included 33 incidents involving violence or threatened violence (down from 47) and 46 online hate speech postings (down from 73). RIAS used categories different from official police statistics and counted anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. According to RIAS, the largest motivating factor for anti-Semitic attacks was right-wing political ideology.
At a May 16 conference hosted by several German NGOs working to combat anti-Semitism, participants said anti-Semitism “is now expressed more openly in Germany” than it was two years ago. Head of the Central Council of Jews Dr. Josef Schuster described the rise in anti-Semitic incidents as “alarming,” but said the increase may be due in part to the increased options victims of anti-Semitism have for reporting incidents and crimes. Head of Berlin’s Anne Frank Center Patrick Siegele cited a study by Bielefeld University indicating Jews aged 16-29 experienced more severe anti-Semitic stereotypes compared with previous generations – a significant change in recent years. Head Manager of the Ministry of Family’s “Living Democracy” program Thomas Heppener described how the program provided funding to NGOs fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. He said the ministry failed to place appropriate emphasis on countering right-wing extremism as a main source of anti-Semitism in its 2015 round of funding and vowed to address this in its 2020 programming.
In April the federal OPC published a report titled “Anti-Semitism in Islamism,” which stated, “Anti-Semitic events with an Islamic background are not uncommon in Germany.” According to the report, while anti-Semitism was traditionally linked to the far right, it was also widespread in the social and political center of society. The report noted the arrival of more than a million Muslims in the country between 2014 and 2017 increased the significance of Islamic anti-Semitism. The report stated anti-Semitic ideas were increasingly prevalent among Muslims who were not members of Islamist organizations.
In January the Hamburg Senate reported 74 anti-Semitic crimes in 2018 – up from 44 in 2017 and 35 in 2016. The Saxony-Anhalt state minister of interior reported anti-Semitic crimes in the state rose from 54 in 2017 to 62 in 2018.
In 2018 the Ministry of Interior registered 910 incidents targeting Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers, including 74 attacks involving bodily harm. This was a decrease from the 1,075 incidents in 2017. The Ministry of Interior classified 92 percent of these incidents as right-wing extremism, although this included incidents in which the perpetrators were unknown. Other recorded infractions included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street.
The Ministry of Interior counted 121 incidents against Christians in 2018, including 11 cases involving violence, a slight decline from the 129 incidents in 2017. The Ministry of Interior classified 39 percent of these incidents as motivated by religious ideology and 35 percent as motivated by right-wing ideology.
In March the Duesseldorf Regional Court sentenced an Iraqi asylum seeker to three years and 10 months in prison for stabbing an Iranian in 2017, causing life-threatening injuries. The alleged motive was the Iranian’s conversion to Christianity, although the Iraqi denied this.
In May a 27-year-old man shouted anti-Muslim slurs at two teenagers in a tram in Bremen before stabbing one of them in the neck with a knife. The suspect confessed to the stabbing after he was arrested and was taken to a medical center for psychiatric examination.
In March the regional court found three young men guilty of arson for attacking a mosque in Lauffen-am-Neckar, Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2018 and sentenced them to between two and a half and three years in prison.
There were four reported incidents of arson in churches. During the night of May 18, unknown individuals broke a church window with stones, broke several sacred objects, and burned a statue of Jesus in the Church of the Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit in Grossholbach. On the same night, police discovered a tablecloth and church balcony were burned in St. Blasii’s Evangelical Church in Nordhausen. A fire in St. Nikolaus Catholic Church in Ankum was discovered on June 1. On July 29, a fire was set at St. Magnus Church at Schussenried Abbey in Bad Schussenried. Pictures and a wooden cross were damaged. Police began investigations of all the cases, which were pending at year’s end.
In separate incidents in Berlin in June, two young Jewish men were assaulted. A 23-year-old U.S. citizen tourist was harassed by three individuals, one of whom hit him in the face. Police were investigating the attack as an anti-Semitic crime. Days earlier, a 20-year-old man wearing a kippah was harassed and the perpetrator tried to spit on him. Both cases were under investigation at the end of the year.
In October a German with Palestinian roots was sentenced for incitement of hate, insult, coercion, bodily harm, and fare evasion following his anti-Semitic assault on a university professor visiting Bonn in July 2018. Added to an already existing sentence for robbery, the attacker was sentenced to a total of four years, six months. In March local media reported the suspension of criminal proceedings against four police detectives for allegedly using excessive force against a Jewish victim during an incident; they had originally mistaken him for the attacker. The officers faced an internal investigation, but prosecutors denied the victim’s request to provide testimony to the investigation, and the officers returned to regular duty without charges.
In June Hamburg Chief Rabbi Shlomo Bistritzky and a senior member of the Jewish community were threatened by a reportedly mentally unstable man of Moroccan descent at city hall. On June 27, the Hamburg mayor and the rabbi launched a new initiative to oppose anti-Semitism and discrimination.
In June a rabbi in Duesseldorf was threatened by a passerby. In July a prominent American rabbi and community leader in Berlin was spat on and insulted while walking home from a synagogue with his son. In August another rabbi was insulted and then pushed to the ground by two unidentified suspects in Berlin. Also in August, a rabbi and his two sons were insulted and spat on while leaving a synagogue in Munich.
In June unknown perpetrators desecrated 20 gravestones and a wall with Nazi graffiti at the Jewish cemetery of Gotha, Thuringia State. Mayor Knut Kreuch led a moment of silence during the city council meeting, and investigations by local authorities were ongoing at the end of the year.
The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly. “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church investigated “sects and cults” and publicized what they considered to be the dangers of these groups. On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views warned the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing these groups.
According to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Survey released in October, 24 percent of respondents in the country expressed unfavorable opinions of Muslims, while 6 percent expressed unfavorable opinions of Jews.
In May the European Commission (EC) carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 43 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 52 percent said it was rare; 64 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religious belief than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 87 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 79 percent said they would be with an atheist, 77 percent with a Jew, 74 percent with a Buddhist, and 68 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if a child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 85 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 73 percent if atheist, 71 percent if Jewish, 66 percent if Buddhist, and 51 percent if Muslim.
In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU-member state. According to the survey, 66 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, and 61 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 71 percent; on the internet, 67 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 62 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 64 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 63 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 64 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 48 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 50 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 43 percent.
In November the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 49 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Germany; 27 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 42 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In July a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found many Germans had negative perceptions of Islam. The study found respondents believed Islam’s beliefs and stance toward other religions could be harmful to democracy in the long run. Half of the interviewees perceived Islam as a threat. This sentiment was stronger in the east, where 30 percent of respondents said they did not want Muslims as neighbors, compared with 16 percent who expressed the same preference in western German states.
According to media reports, women who wore the hijab continued to face employment discrimination.
In September a research project at the University Duisburg-Essen published results from a survey of students on anti-Muslim sentiment and its causes among youth. The survey indicated young persons with no interaction with Muslims who drew their knowledge about them from social media were likely to develop stereotypical and negative views of Muslims. Students who interacted with Muslim peers were more critical of negative media reports and had lower levels of anti-Muslim sentiment.
The far-right group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden, although media reports indicated significantly fewer demonstrators than in previous years. There were approximately 3,000 PEGIDA marchers on October 20 for the fifth anniversary of the group’s first demonstration, but they were outnumbered by the more than 5,000 counterdemonstrators. Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings. In May the public prosecutor’s office in Saxony State reported it had initiated 198 preliminary proceedings against speakers and supporters of PEGIDA between 2014 and 2018; the most frequent crimes were assault and battery and the display of symbols of unconstitutional organizations.
In October the Dresden City Council declared a Nazi emergency. Local politician Max Aschenbach initiated the measure in response to rising levels of right-wing extremist attitudes and actions, saying, “Politics must finally begin to ostracize that and say: No, that’s unacceptable.” The resolution called on the city and civil society organizations to strengthen a democratic culture, protect minority and human rights, and help the victims of right-wing violence.
An estimated 23 churches continued to use bells with Nazi symbols and inscriptions. One person filed a criminal complaint on February 2, accusing a Protestant church in Thuringia State of violating a ban on the use of Nazi symbols by using six bells with Nazi symbols in five churches. The individual said he repeatedly asked the church to stop using the bells but was ignored. Thuringia’s Jewish community had complained about the six Nazi bells in January. A church spokesman told the KNA news agency that regional leaders had written to churches using the bells and organized a meeting in April to discuss the issue. In May the public prosecutor’s office in Erfurt, Thuringia State, declined to investigate the state bishop or the Protestant Church of Central Germany. The man who filed the February complaint appealed the public prosecutor’s decision, and the case was pending at year’s end.
In June approximately 1,200 participants marched in the annual al-Quds Day demonstration against Israel in Berlin, fewer than the 2,000 participants in 2018. Demonstrators called for the destruction of Israel and for Jerusalem to be returned to Muslims, and some displayed illegal signs or chanted prohibited slogans in support of the banned groups Hizballah or Hamas. Approximately 1,200 individuals took part in a counterdemonstration. Berlin Interior Senator Andreas Geisel said he regretted it was legally not possible to ban the demonstration. He advocated designating Hizballah a terrorist organization, which would enable him to ban future al-Quds Day marches.
In May the Hesse State OPC issued a warning about the “radicalization potential” of the group Realitaet Islam (Reality Islam). The OPC said the group rejected the country’s liberal democratic order and was striving for a theocracy.
Eighteen right-wing extremists, including members of the NPD and the far-right Wodans Erben Germanien (Odin’s Heirs Germania) group, marched past a refugee center in Nuremberg on the evening of February 23. Police identified the marchers and recorded their march, but after police departed, the demonstrators continued with lit torches to the former Nazi parade grounds in Nuremberg, an area used by Adolf Hitler for annual rallies from 1933 to 1938. The individuals filmed themselves and later released a video on the internet. Prosecutors were considering filing charges, according to Nuremberg mayor Ulrich Maly, who said, “This is an event that should alarm all of us across Germany and especially in Nuremberg – the fact that such symbols are used at places like this.” Police admitted they had failed to assess the group’s intentions correctly and preventive measures failed to keep the groups from using the “historically burdened” site to further their propaganda.
In April a militant neo-Nazi group distributed flyers at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. The flyers called for the killing of Muslims, imams, and rabbis and for “total civil war.” The group signed its flyers as “Atomwaffen (Atomic Weapons) Division Germany,” claiming ties to the U.S.-based network of the same name.
In August several soccer fans in Frankfurt hurled anti-Semitic insults at an Israeli referee during a Europa League qualifying match. The fans were escorted out of the match and at least one was banned from the stadium in the future.
In June politicians from the AfD were not invited to speak at the biannual German Protestant Church Assembly in Dortmund. High level representatives from other main political parties were invited. The AfD’s attendance at the event in 2017 led to protests. The AfD criticized the leadership of EKD for being biased.
In July two day care centers in Leipzig announced plans to remove all pork items from their lunch menus out of consideration for two Muslim children. The country’s largest newspaper Bild reported on the change, which subsequently became a trending topic on social media. The centers received anonymous death threats, and police provided them with additional protection. The director of the centers announced in July he would put the plans on hold.
In May a bloody pig’s head, plastic bags filled with blood, right-wing extremist slogans, and swastikas were found in front of the Arrahman Mosque in Moenchengladbach. Authorities investigated, but as of the end of the year had not filed any charges. The following weekend, approximately 260 protesters took part in a right-wing demonstration initiated by a representative of the “Alliance of Hooligans against Salafists” who was also a member of the Moenchengladbach City Council. A counterrally attracted approximately 325 marchers.
In July unidentified persons left excrement covered with pages torn from a Quran in the prayer room, as well as a torn and soiled Quran, in the mosque of the DITIB community in Minden, NRW State. Before the incident, the prayer room had been freely accessible to the public, but was since kept closed. A police investigation was ongoing at the end of the year.
In July the DITIB mosque in Duisburg, NRW State, received a bomb threat by email signed by the violent right-wing extremist network Combat 18. The mosque was evacuated and searched, but no explosives were found. In September the mosque received a second bomb threat. A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
In July the DITIB Central Mosque in Cologne received a bomb threat by email signed by “Volksfront,” which authorities believed to be an extreme right-wing organization that originated in the United States. The mosque complex, the largest in the country, was evacuated and searched, but no explosives were found. At year’s end, authorities continued to investigate.
In March Diakonie and a local organization of Muslims in Duesseldorf launched a joint project to introduce Islamic customs to preschool children as a contribution to early childhood education. As part of the program, a Protestant pastor and an imam would visit the day care center together to promote religious tolerance. Before the first event in April, Diakonie received threats and hate mail, including allegations the imam might hold radical views. The imam rejected the charge, and both Diakonie and the local Jewish community supported him. The preschool program was held as planned.
In May the Duisburg-based association “Jungs e.V.,” a group of young Muslims engaged in combatting anti-Semitism, received the inaugural Mevluede Genc Medal from the NRW state government. The state established the award in 2018 to recognize special services towards promoting tolerance, reconciliation between cultures, and the peaceful coexistence of religions.
In April the association Sekten-Info (Sect Info) NRW, a counseling service providing information about new religious and ideological communities, publicly warned against the Korean Shinchonji Bible movement, whose adherents were reportedly using psychological pressure and social isolation to recruit new members, especially near the university in Essen. The movement counted approximately 200 active members in the greater Ruhr region.
Volkswagen announced in June it would fund an ADL office in Berlin because of the rise of extremism, especially anti-Semitism, in Europe. At year’s end, the office had not yet opened, but ADL recognized Volkswagen for its “generous gift.”
In August, according to media reports, the Yezidi community inaugurated its first temple and cemetery in the country, in Augsburg.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy and the five consulates continued to engage closely with authorities at all levels of government regarding responses to incidents of religious intolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism Klein and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Federal Commissioner for Global Freedom of Religion Markus Gruebel. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials met regularly with a wide variety of federal and state parliamentarians to discuss religious freedom issues. Consulate officials in Frankfurt met with the commissioners for anti-Semitism in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hessen, and Rhineland-Palatinate to express concern about anti-Semitism and discuss ways of ensuring anti-Semitic incidents were correctly recorded. Consulate officials in Duesseldorf met with the commissioner for anti-Semitism in NRW State to discuss cooperation possibilities.
In November the Secretary of State visited Halle Synagogue to pay his respects following a Yom Kippur 2019 attack on the community, and the Neue Synagogue in Berlin to commemorate the 81st anniversary of the Reichs Pogromnacht (previously known as Kristallnacht/Night of Broken Glass) attacks committed by the Nazi regime against Jewish institutions in 1938. At Halle, the Secretary said, “The world must work together against this threat and this vicious attack against religious freedom, and in particular, religious freedom of the Jewish people.”
In October the. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism visited Frankfurt, Berlin, Halle, and Munich and met with a wide range of government officials, advocates, and representatives of the Jewish community to discuss how best to combat anti-Semitism. In Frankfurt he met law enforcement officials from four states, including 30 high-ranking officials from state-level Interior and Justice Ministries, including police officers, state prosecutors, judges, and state anti-Semitism commissioners. In Halle the special envoy visited the synagogue a gunman had attempted to attack earlier in the month. In Munich he attended the International Meeting of Special Envoys & Coordinators Combating Anti-Semitism organized by the World Jewish Congress. The Ambassador hosted an event for the special envoy in Berlin, which was attended by law enforcement officials, politicians, Jewish NGOs, and other representatives of the Jewish community.
Embassy and consulate general representatives met with members and leaders of numerous local and national religious and civil society groups about their concerns related to tolerance and freedom of religion. Topics of discussion with Jewish groups included concerns about what they characterized as the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism through the country’s changing political landscape and concern that refugees and other migrants might be bringing concepts of anti-Semitism into the country. Embassy and consulate general representatives also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with the Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant churches; COS; Central Council of Muslims; Association of Islamic Cultural Centers; the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany; the World Uyghur Congress; Alevi Muslims; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and human rights NGOs.
The Ambassador met frequently with NGOs and Jewish leaders to discuss how to combat rising anti-Semitism. In March he hosted a roundtable in Frankfurt with local community leaders, government officials, and civil society members engaged in the fight against anti-Semitism. The discussion centered on youth engagement strategies and effective educational programs, accurately recording and quantifying the rise of anti-Semitic incidents, and the need for stricter laws to deter anti-Semitic incidents.
In April the Ambassador attended a memorial service on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In May the Ambassador took issue with federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner Klein’s public statement that Jews should be wary of wearing kippahs at all times and in all places because of rising anti-Semitism in the country, writing on Twitter, “Wear your kippa. Wear your friend’s kippa. Borrow a kippa and wear it for our Jewish neighbors.” The Ambassador also spoke at a counterdemonstration to Berlin’s annual al-Quds Day march in June, where he countered the anti-Semitic messaging of the event and called for the ban of Hezbollah in the country. In September he hosted a dinner in honor of the Middle East Peace Forum, during which participants discussed how to combat the BDS movement.
In March the Ambassador met with two members of the Kurdish community to discuss secular Islam, anti-Semitism, and extremism. He met with representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in July to discuss the difficulties Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses encountered trying to obtain asylum in the country and the increased harassment they faced.
In January, as part of the embassy’s broader engagement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a high-level embassy official held a roundtable with the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and representatives from NGOs and the government engaged in promoting religious tolerance and combating anti-Semitism. The discussion focused on Holocaust education, integration, and religious freedom. A senior embassy official also met with her Israeli counterpart in September to discuss ways to counter anti-Semitism in the country.
The embassy and consulates worked closely with Jewish communities, especially in eastern Germany, to provide small grants in support of programs promoting religious tolerance to leading NGOs countering violent extremism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.
In May Embassy Berlin and Consulate Duesseldorf staff visited the Alevitische Gemeinde Deutschland e.V. (Alevi Community Germany) and the VIKZ Verband der Islamischen Kulturzentren (Association of Islamic Cultural Centers) to discuss issues of concern to those religious communities. They also met with the managing director of the Jewish Synagogue Community Cologne and with a Muslim contact to discuss religious freedom.
In August staff from the embassy and the consulate in Duesseldorf met with the chief administrator of the Jewish Community in Duesseldorf and with staff of SABRA, a Duesseldorf-based NGO for antidiscrimination engagement and counseling against racism and anti-Semitism. The discussion focused on the experience of the Jewish community in Duesseldorf and on countering anti-Semitism.
In October officers from the consulate general in Frankfurt met with police and justice ministry officials from Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, Saarland, and Baden-Wuerttemberg States on combating anti-Semitism. Many of the participants commended the event for offering a neutral space to discuss best practices and challenges and requested the consulate to host it on a regular basis.
In November embassy officials met with the imam of a mosque that included a prayer space not segregated by gender and open to LGBTI worshippers. They discussed possibilities for future cooperation and support.
The embassy sponsored a 10-day visitor program for a group of 16 youth leaders from the Berlin-based Kreuzberg Initiative Against Anti-Semitism to travel to Washington, D.C., Birmingham, and Dallas in February-March. The program focused on countering intolerance through the lens of effective anti-Semitism programs. The Ambassador attended the briefing and debriefing sessions at the embassy.
The embassy and consulates actively promoted religious freedom and tolerance through their social media channels, utilizing Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to highlight the engagement of the Ambassador and other senior embassy officials on this issue. For example, following the October attack on the synagogue in Halle, the embassy published a statement condemning it as an attack on religious freedom and tolerance on its social media accounts. The postings received high levels of engagement.
The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations – including several in July against the ongoing detention of IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky – resulting in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, which left as many as 30 dead, including protesters and police. Security forces fired on Shia religious processions for Ashura in September, killing 12, according to the IMN. Following the July violence, the government banned the IMN and declared the group a terrorist organization. The IMN stated it planned to legally contest the ban. In July the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to local and Catholic media. The government continued its detention of El-Zakzaky despite a December 2016 court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The government launched new security operations in the North West states and continued ongoing operations in the North Central states that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian. There were several incidents of violence involving these groups in the North Central and North West. In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled. Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out person-borne improvised explosive device (IED) bombings – many by young women and girls drugged and forced into doing so – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. In July ISIS-WA abducted six Action Against Hunger (AAH) aid workers from a convoy heading to deliver food in Borno State. In July 65 people returning from a funeral in a predominantly Muslim community in Borno State were killed by Boko Haram. In September ISIS-WA released a video depicting the beheading of two Christian aid workers; in the video one of the killers vowed to kill every Christian the group captured in “revenge” for Muslims killed in past conflicts. In October ISIS-WA filmed and publicly released its killing of one of the six abducted AAH aid workers, who was Muslim. On December 24, Boko Haram killed seven people and abducted a teenage girl in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State. On December 26, ISIS-WA released a video of the execution of 10 Christians and one Muslim to avenge the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Conflicts between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in the North Central states continued throughout the year, although the violence was lower than during the 2017-2018 spike, reportedly due to government intervention and efforts of civil society to resolve conflicts. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern that this conflict took on increasingly religious undertones. In addition to religious differences, local authorities, scholars, and regional experts pointed to ethnicity, politics, lack of accountability and access to justice, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources among the key drivers of the violence. Attacks and killings by Fulani herdsman continued during the year, although according to the publicly available Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the number of civilian victims fell dramatically, from over 1,500 in 2018 to approximately 350 in 2019. According to international media, in February 131 Fulani and 11 Adara were killed in Kaduna State. On April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Some domestic and international Christian groups stated that Fulani were targeting Christians on account of their religion. Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities.
U.S. embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials regularly promoted principles of religious freedom and religious coexistence in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. The Ambassador, Consul General, and other senior U.S. officials hosted interfaith dinners, participated in interfaith conferences, and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored training sessions for journalists who report on ethnoreligious conflicts to help reduce bias in their reporting and prevent tensions from becoming further inflamed. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator visited Abuja, Bwari Local Government Area, and Lagos to highlight U.S. government support for interfaith cooperation and conflict mitigation efforts.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 208.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). While there are no official indicators of religious affiliation in the country, most analysts say it is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, while approximately 2 percent belong to other or no religious groups. Many individuals syncretize indigenous animism with Islam or Christianity.
A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identifies as Sunni, the vast majority of whom belong to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, though a sizable minority follows Shafi’i fiqh. The same study found 12 percent of Muslims in the country self-identify as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “just a Muslim” (42 percent). Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi brotherhoods, including Tijaniyah, Qadiriyyah, and Mouride. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi and Kalo Kato (Quraniyoon) Muslims. A 2011 Pew report found among Christians, roughly one quarter are Roman Catholic and three quarters Protestant, with small numbers of Orthodox or other Christian denominations. Among Protestant groups, the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches maintain the largest populations, while evangelicals, Pentecostals, Anabaptists (EYN Church of the Brethren), Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses report tens of thousands of adherents each. Other communities include Baha’is, Jews (including significant numbers of Judaic-oriented groups), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.
The Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim North West and North East states. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri, also reside in the North East and North West. Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the North Central and South West states, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group – whose members include both Muslims and Christians – predominates. In the South East and South states, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where ethnic groups include Ijaw, Igbo, Ogoni, Efik, Ibibio, and Uhrobo among others, Christians form a substantial majority; a small but growing minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the North Central and South East, South, and South West regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja. The Shia Muslim presence is heavily concentrated in the North West states of Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kano.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other virtues, as a distinct “national ethic.”
The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law courts. Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for “civil proceedings”; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear civil cases in which all litigants are Muslim and provides the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in the sharia courts if they wish.
The constitution is silent on the use of sharia courts for criminal cases. In addition to civil matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for hudud (serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning). Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, may seek advice from sharia experts.
Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
To build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($55).
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place that community wholly maintains.
Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools for registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations, some of which resulted in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces. IMN was the largest Shia organization in the country and was led by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky who, according to his writings and online communications, draws inspiration from the Iranian revolution and from the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Between March and July, members of the IMN conducted daily protests in Abuja to contest the continued detention of El-Zakzaky, despite a December 2016 Abuja High Court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The protests continued until his temporary release due to illness in August. During an initially peaceful IMN demonstration in Abuja on July 9, an IMN member sparked an exchange of gunfire between police and IMN protestors when he grabbed an officer’s holstered pistol, resulting in the deaths of the officer, 15 IMN members, and a security guard, according to press reports. IMN members also broke through police barricades at the National Assembly and police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Following the July 9 events, the Senate called for the arrest of IMN members involved in the violence, while the House of Representatives called on the government to urgently engage the IMN to resolve the conflict and expressed fears the Shia group was fast evolving “the way Boko Haram started.”
Human Rights Watch reported that on July 22, police opened fire on peaceful IMN protesters and killed 11 protesters, a journalist, and a police officer, while dozens of others were wounded or arrested, according to witnesses and authorities. On November 27, police arraigned 60 IMN members arrested at the July 22 protest on charges of culpable homicide, destruction of public property, and public disturbance.
On July 26, the Federal High Court ruled IMN’s activities amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the government to proscribe the “existence and activities” of the group. On July 28, the government complied, officially banning the IMN as an illegal organization and thereby prohibiting its meeting or activities. In its announcement, the government emphasized its proscription of the IMN “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.” Following the ban, then-Archbishop of Abuja Cardinal Oneiyekan defended the country’s Shia Muslims and criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to Catholic media. On September 10, despite the government prohibition, the IMN sponsored Ashura religious processions in Bauchi, Kaduna, Gombe, Katsina, and Sokoto States. The IMN reported as many as 12 participants in the processions died in clashes with security forces, with media sources reporting between three and nine killed.
In August the government granted El-Zakzaky temporary release to seek medical treatment in India; he traveled but reportedly refused treatment in India after stating armed Indian guards had been posted in his room during his medical treatment. Upon his return home the government returned him to custody, where he remained through the end of the year.
On November 27, police broke up an IMN protest and arrested 12 members and two journalists. The journalists later were released.
Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. Approximately 100 IMN members arrested after that clash remained in detention.
In June the Kaduna state legislature approved a bill to regulate religious preaching. While the government said the new law would protect against “hate speech,” religious leaders said it infringed on freedom of speech and the rights of Christians and Muslims. The law required all preachers to be licensed by a state-level body composed of religious leaders, government officials, and security agencies. Later in June Kaduna’s highest court nullified the law, stating that it was inconsistent with the constitution’s guarantees for freedom of expression, association, and religion. The state government announced it would appeal the decision at the federal level.
In May the Kano state Hisbah Board arrested 80 Muslims accused of eating in public rather than fasting during Ramadan. The Kano hisbah spokesman said they were all eventually released since it was their first offense but noted they would be taken to court if detained again. In October the Kano state hisbah arrested four men for organizing a false online wedding to a young woman over Facebook, stating it “mocked Islam” as well as demeaned the “sanctity of the institution of marriage.”
Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or effectively mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities in the Middle Belt region.
In June some ethnoreligious organizations in the South West and South East reacted with threats of violence to news of a government plan to resettle predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country. In the South West, both Muslim and Christian groups threatened violence against members of the Fulani ethnic group. The government later abandoned the plan.
In June President Muhammadu Buhari announced plans for the eventual ban of Almajiri Quranic schools due to their reported practice of forcing students to beg in the streets and their perceived association with urban crime and violence; he said the government first would consult with states, which have jurisdiction over the schools, and others in the education community. In July the Kaduna State Commissioner for Education announced that Quranic schools would be integrated into the formal education system. In October the Kano state government announced a “free and compulsory education initiative” that would abolish the payment of school fees and integrate all Almajiri pupils into the formal education system in 2020.
In October police raided four Islamic schools in Kaduna and Katsina States and freed over 1,000 men and boys living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, including being chained and physically abused, according to international media. In November police freed 259 men, women, and children from an Islamic school in Oyo State and rescued 15 people chained in a church in Lagos. In November Human Rights Watch reported its investigators found individuals chained in 27 of 28 institutions they visited, which included psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, traditional healing centers, Christian churches, and both Islamic and state-owned rehabilitation centers. Following the raids, President Buhari issued a statement saying, “No responsible democratic government would tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation of the victims.”
In January Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III and then-Archbishop of Abuja Onaiyekan organized a conference with religious leaders from throughout the country to promote peaceful elections.
In September the Kaduna State Urban Planning Development Agency served the 110-year-old St. George Anglican Church a notice to vacate its premises within seven days on the grounds that the church did not have a certificate of occupancy. A week later the Kaduna state government issued a statement saying the church would remain because of its historical value.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Numerous fatal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Fulani Muslim herders. Scholars and other experts, including international NGOs, cited ethnicity, politics, religion, lack of accountability and access to justice, increasing competition over dwindling land resources, population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from crime and other forms of violence all as drivers contributing to the violence. Several international and domestic experts noted that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought herder groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they are unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups. Similarly, internal transhumance (movement of livestock) to the North Central and Southern parts of the country has increased in recent years due to demographic and ecological pressures, according to the UN.
Multiple Christian NGOs stated that religious identity was a primary driver of the conflict. A Le Monde op-ed in December, however, stated “reducing the violence in the center of the country to sectarian confrontation is an extreme simplification,” and other analysts noted that the same conflict dynamics exist across the region where both herders and farmers are Muslim, including the North West, but had received less media attention.
According to a report released by the U.K.-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), “Fulani militia” killed over 1,000 Christians throughout the year. The report noted that the “underlying drivers of the conflict are complex,” and stated that violence targeting predominantly Christian communities, the targeting of church leaders, and the destruction of hundreds of churches suggested religion and ideology were key factors. It also stated that retaliatory violence by Christians occurred, though “we have seen no evidence of comparability of scale or equivalence of atrocities.” According to various secular and Christian media outlets, from February to mid-March, Fulani herders and Boko Haram terrorists killed 280 individuals in predominantly Christian communities. ACLED data, however, documented 350 total civilian deaths by “Fulani militia” in 2019.
A study by the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel noted that within the country, “there are many different Fulani clans, sub-clans, local Fulani cultures and dialects, and variations in herding practices.” Experts stated there was no evidence to suggest the Fulani had an explicit Jihadist agenda or were mobilized behind a common ethnic agenda, and noted there are between 30-40 million Fulani in Africa.
On February 10, on the eve of general elections, as many as 131 members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group and 11 members of the predominantly Christian Adara ethnic group were reportedly killed and some 10,000 were internally displaced in clashes in Kajuru. In response, the Kaduna governor arrested the Adara leaders and elder statesmen, a move which local Christian leaders condemned. The governor also announced there were 131 casualties of the attacks and said, “The more the police dig into this matter, the more it is clear that there was a deliberate plan to wipe out certain communities.” Christian leaders disputed the casualty figures announced by the governor, while Fulani leaders later released a list of what they said were the names of the 131 Fulani killed. A Fulani herder told The Los Angeles Times, “There is no effort to protect our villagers,” and added that “bandits” were responsible for a deadly attack on [farmers in] Ungwan Barde, not herders; “We don’t know why [the farmers] blamed us.”
On March 14, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Fulani militia members had killed 120 persons since February 9 in the Adara chiefdom of South Kaduna. According to the Adara Development Association, on March 11, Fulani militia killed 52 persons in attacks on Inkirimi and Dogonnoma villages in Maro, Kajuru Local Government Area, while the Kaduna Police Command reported 16 deaths.
According to local and international media, in May the discovery of two dead boys at the border between a Christian village and a Hausa Muslim community in Plateau state sparked ethnic-based riots against Hausas, resulting in from five to as many as 30 deaths. In August and September, local media reported armed, ethnicIgbo Christian criminal gang members posing as Fulani Muslim herdsmen killed two priests in the South East in an attempt to incite religious conflict. According to international media, on April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Pastor Samson Gamu Yare, community leader of the Mada ethnic group in Nasarawa State, called on the federal government to take measures towards curtailing these attacks on his people.
During the year, media and religious groups reported several cases of priests and other Christian clergy and their families who were attacked, killed, or kidnapped for ransom, often by attackers identified as of allegedly Fulani ethnicity. These cases included, among others, the killing of Father Paul Offu and Father Clement Ugwu and the beating of an evangelical Christian pastor from Kaduna State and kidnapping for ransom of his wife, who died in her captors’ custody. Authorities stated these incidents were criminal acts and not religiously motivated, reportedly due to the ethnicities of those arrested for the crimes, although many Christian civil society groups pointed to such incidents as examples of religiously motivated persecution. In August 200 Catholic priests marched through the streets of Enegu city, protesting insecurity and what they characterized as “Fulani attacks on Christians.” Muslim religious figures were also the victims of kidnapping. In March Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Sulaiman was kidnapped in Katsina State and released after 15 days.
According to international media, in October in Chikun, Kaduna State, Fulani gunmen kidnapped six school girls and two teachers from Engravers College Kakau, a high school with a Christian perspective that has a secular curriculum and enrolls both Christian and non-Christians. Shunom Giwa, vice principal of Engravers’ College, told Morning Star News that security issues led to some parents withdrawing their children from the school. Media reported the abductors stormed the boarding school when most of the students and teachers were asleep. The individuals were released after authorities paid a ransom.
In its report, “Nigeria: The Genocide is Loading,” NGO Jubilee Campaign stated that it had documented at least 52 Fulani militant attacks between January and June 12. HART, in its report, stated the situation between Fulani herdsman and farmers amounted to genocide and governments worldwide should recognize and respond to it as such. Other longtime observers, however, including those with the Africa section of the French National Center for Scientific Research, expressed concern that describing the situation as one of “pre-genocide” was inaccurate, and ran the risks of “misrepresenting the facts, discrediting the media, and making the situation on the ground worse.” In a Le Monde op-ed on conflict in Nigeria, scholars stated that the term “genocide” allows some Nigerian politicians to “vindicate one group and instrumentalize another.” Other international observers warned against framing the issue as an attack on one group, since such a claim ignored the complexity of the issue and could deepen and perpetuate the conflict.
In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled.
In November student protests took place after the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in predominantly Christian Enugu State, announced it would host a conference on witchcraft and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria called for Christians to pray against the event. The event took place as scheduled after the university removed the term “witchcraft” from the title of the conference.
On February 23, interfaith leaders and members of the Strength and Diversity Development Center held a “Weekend of Prayer and March for Peace” in seven states across the country.
On January 10, the NGO 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative organized the first of three international religious freedom roundtables. Participants included representatives of several Muslim and Christian communities. The group formed an interfaith steering committee to guide its efforts to promote religious tolerance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals on the basis of religion and religious tension issues in the country in discussions throughout the year with government officials, including the vice president, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. They also discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance. In August the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development visited Abuja and Lagos, engaging with government and religious leaders as well as NGOs, to highlight U.S. support for interfaith cooperation and to encourage greater efforts to combat ethnoreligious violence. The Administrator met with the vice president, local government officials, and members of the Interfaith Mediation Center, the Islamic Education Trust, the Christian Association of Nigeria, and the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association.
Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials hosted interfaith dinners and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. They also participated in multiple interfaith conferences and summits throughout the year encouraging religious, traditional, government, and community leaders to continue to engage in dialogue and work towards sustainable peace. They also emphasized these messages in media interviews during multiple trips to states affected by ethnoreligious conflict, including Kaduna, Plateau, Benue, Taraba, and Adamawa.
In March the embassy held an event celebrating the heroism of Imam Abdullahi Abubakar of Barkin Ladi, Plateau, who in 2018 sheltered his Christian neighbors in his home and in the mosque while his village was attacked, confronted the attackers, and refused them entry. The embassy also featured Abubakar on the cover of the April/May edition of its outreach magazine. In July Abubakar received the Department of State’s 2019 Religious Freedom Award.
In June and July the consulate general engaged southern socio-cultural groups, religious leaders, and politicians to reduce tensions emerging from reports of government-sponsored programs to resettle Fulani communities to southern areas of the country. The embassy and consulate general also worked with a wide range of organizations, including religious groups, to promote peaceful, free, and fair elections in 2019.
In September a senior U.S. government official visited a U.S. jointly funded peacebuilding camp for young people in Nasawara State.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 29 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals. Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets stated that four Christians were tortured or mistreated by police in August and September, resulting in the death of one of them. On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 judgment overturning the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7, after death threats made it unsafe for her to remain. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who had spent 18 years in prison for blasphemy. On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to state they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies used to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of the perpetrators, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. In some cases of alleged kidnapping and forced conversions of young religious minority women, however, government authorities intervened to protect the alleged victim and ascertain her will. On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, along with a visa-free transit corridor for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, which resulted in very few religious minority applicants competing and qualifying for private and civil service employment.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. On April 12, a bomb attack in Quetta, Balochistan, targeting Shia Hazaras killed 21 persons, including eight Hazaras. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Islamic State (ISIS) each claimed responsibility. On May 7, terrorists affiliated with Hizbul Ahrar, a splinter group of TTP, attacked police stationed outside the Data Darbar Shrine in Lahore, the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia, killing nine and wounding 24. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays, and no religious festival was disrupted by violence for the second year in a row.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was an increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There also continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this responsibility being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Senior Department of State officials , including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, Charge d’Affaires, Consuls General, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, the minister for religious affairs, and officials from these ministries to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The Secretary of State praised the safe departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan in May, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy verdict on December 23. The embassy released videos discussing religious freedom and respect throughout the year.
On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 210.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017, 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom national law does not recognize as Muslim), Hindus, Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants, among others, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalash, Kihals, and Jains.
Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population and Shia, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.
According to the 2017 provisional census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.59 percent Christian, 0.22 percent Ahmadi, and 0.32 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Parsis. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution.
The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad … the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Muhammad.” It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”
According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, or carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine. On February 7, the government of Azad Kashmir amended its interim constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim.
The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty.
The military courts’ mandate to try civilians for terrorism, sectarian violence, and other charges expired on March 31. The government may also use the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs), established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.
The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.
The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.
The constitution mandates the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.
The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.
The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.
The constitution states no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.
The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.
By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the suprasectarian Jamaat-i-Islami. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of five wafaqs.
The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.
The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights if they so choose. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.
The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”
In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codified legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion or by fraud.” The act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. In 2018, the Sindh provincial government further enacted amendments to its 2016 legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The 2018 Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.
Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized. Under such judgments, children born to a non-Muslim couple could be considered illegitimate and ineligible for inheritance if their mother converts to Islam. The only way to legitimize the marriage and the children would be for the husband also to convert to Islam. Under such judgments, the children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert to another religious group could be considered illegitimate, and the government could take custody of the children. The law does not speak on any of these practices.
The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution, but does not have arrest authority. A 2010 constitutional amendment devolved responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.
According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal and provincial levels of government.
The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces; however, students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.
The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information in national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.
The constitution requires the president and prime minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires that elected Muslim officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam.
The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the president and prime minister be Muslims.
According to civil society reports, there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, and at least 29 under sentence of death, compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by NGOs, authorities registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals during the year. Courts issued two new death sentences and sentenced another individual to five years’ imprisonment. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction of one person for blasphemy, and a lower court acquitted another person charged with blasphemy during the year. Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least one individual was accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately affected members of religious minority communities. Of the 84 imprisoned for blasphemy, 31 were Christian, 16 Ahmadi, and 5 Hindu. According to civil society sources, as of the end of the year, 29 individuals remained on death row for alleged blasphemy. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses. NGOs continued to report lower courts often did not adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.
Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets reported four cases of police mistreatment of and discrimination against Christians in August and September, including one case that resulted in the death of Amir Masih in September. According to multiple media reports, police in Lahore arrested Masih after he was accused of theft and held him for four days before notifying his family to pick him up. Closed-circuit television showed policemen bringing Masih out of the hospital in a wheelchair, and he died a few hours later. Media reported that a post-mortem examination found signs of torture, including burn marks and broken ribs. According to some media reports, Masih’s brother said that one of the policemen made derogatory comments about Christians, including, “I know how to deal with these infidels.” The Punjab Inspector General of Police removed the investigation officer and arrested five others, but there were no further reports of investigation or prosecution of the officers involved. Instances of torture and mistreatment by some police personnel were part of broader human rights concerns about police abuses against citizens of all faiths reported by local and international human rights organizations; some police agencies took steps to curb abuses by incorporating human rights curricula in training programs.
On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7; numerous sources stated that death threats from anti-blasphemy political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and others made it unsafe for her and her family to remain. On November 13, an ATC indicted TLP leader Khadim Hussein Rizvi, TLP’s religious patron-in-chief Pir Afzal Qadri, and 24 others with sedition and terrorism. The formal charges came approximately one year after police took Rizvi and Qadri into custody for their roles in leading nationwide protests and calling for the assassination of public officials at the time of Bibi’s acquittal. On May 15, the Lahore High Court ordered Rizvi and Qadri to be released on bail for health reasons, and they remained free at year’s end.
On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. He was simultaneously sentenced to life imprisonment for defiling the Quran and 10 years’ imprisonment for outraging the feelings of Muslims. Hafeez was arrested in 2013 after members of Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami at Bahauddin Zakariya University complained of his allegedly liberal and skeptical views, and one of his first lawyers was killed in 2014 for defending him against the blasphemy charges.
On September 12, a special cybercrimes court sentenced Sajid Ali, a Muslim, to five years imprisonment for blasphemy on social media. Authorities charged Ali with posting “sacrilegious, blasphemous, and derogatory material against Hazrat Umar” (a senior companion of the Prophet Muhammad) on Facebook in 2017 under both the blasphemy law and PECA. His conviction was the first time an individual was punished for insulting the companions of the Prophet Muhammad online.
On May 27, police in Mirpurkhas, Sindh Province, arrested Hindu veterinarian Ramesh Kumar after a prayer leader from a local mosque said he had desecrated the Quran by wrapping medicines in pages of Quranic verse. As word spread, a mob burned Kumar’s clinic and attacked the police station. In addition to arresting Kumar, which media reported police said was for his own protection, local police arrested six suspects on charges of rioting and attempted murder. Police also provided security at Kumar’s residence. Media reports quoted a senior district police official who described the rioters as “miscreants” who neither loved Islam nor their neighbors.
On September 15, police in Ghotki, Sindh Province, arrested Hindu teacher Notan Lal after a student accused him of blasphemy in an Islamic studies class. Local religious leaders led a mob that vandalized a Hindu temple and looted other Hindu-owned properties. Police, supported by paramilitary officers, dispersed the crowd and moved Lal to an undisclosed location for his own protection, according to a senior police official. After the riots, the Ministry of Human Rights set up an investigative committee, which included Hindu lawmakers and human rights activists of diverse faiths. The committee found the riots were premeditated, with political motivations. The committee further recommended a formal judicial inquiry as to whether the blasphemy law had been misused. At the end of the year, no action on this recommendation was reported. Some civil society members held a peace rally to express solidarity with the Hindu community.
During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others of their charges after the accused had spent years in prison. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Wajih-ul-Hassan, a Muslim, for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent 18 years in prison. The Supreme Court’s judgment criticized the lower court’s conviction of ul-Hassan based on lack of witnesses, weak evidence, and an extrajudicial confession. On January 15, the Kasur Sessions Court in Punjab Province acquitted Christian laborer Pervaiz Masih of blasphemy after a three-year trial.
In May the Lahore High Court upheld the death sentences of three of the five men convicted of murder in the 2014 killings of Christian couple Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, but it overturned the convictions of two others.
According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; Sawan Masih; and Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar – remained in prisons and continued to await action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution. The Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) stated it believed the widespread protests following the Supreme Court’s 2018 overturning of Asia Bibi’s conviction may have increased many judges’ reluctance.
On March 28, an ATC sentenced two additional individuals to life in prison for their role in the 2017 killing of university student Mashal Khan for alleged blasphemy. The sentencing came after the primary shooter was sentenced to death and five others were sentenced to life in prison in 2018. One of the men, Arif Khan, a local government official affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) (PTI) party, was seen in two videos participating in the killing of Mashal and congratulating another accused individual for committing the killing.
Authorities charged 11 Ahmadis in connection with practicing their faith during the year, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders. Among these, six Ahmadis were arrested and charged with blasphemy, although three were released. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders stated that due to arrests and criminal charges for offering a sacrifice at Eid al-Adha in previous years, Ahmadis carried out the ritual sacrifice in private to avoid exposure and arrest. On March 18, a judge released elderly Ahmadi bookseller Abdul Shakoor from prison after reducing his sentence to the three years he had already served. Shakoor had been convicted of propagating the Ahmadiyya faith and “inciting hatred.”
According to law enforcement reports, there was at least one instance in which the government intervened in a case of intercommunal violence. According to those reports, a Shia procession near Lahore deviated from its approved route during the commemoration of Ashura, sparking a violent response from a Sunni group. There were no deaths but multiple injuries from gunshots and thrown stones. Police called in support from Ranger forces when they could not put down the clash on their own.
Police intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On March 26, police in Saddar, Punjab Province, called on a district peace committee and a local cleric to help them interrupt a mob beating seven individuals accused of blasphemy. According to media reports, the attackers released the accused only following promises that police would arrest them. In these instances, police intervened to save the lives of the accused, stop violence, and mitigate damage to property, but they also arrested and charged the accused under the blasphemy law and did not always charge those responsible for the violence. In another case, however, police in Yousafabad, Punjab Province on October 28 intervened and convinced clerics to drop charges of blasphemy against a Christian sanitation worker who found a bag containing pages from the Bible and the Quran. When he brought the pages to a Muslim shopkeeper to ascertain how to best handle the pages, the shopkeeper reportedly accused him of blasphemy and took him to a mosque, where the imam called for attacks on Christian homes.
In March three assailants killed Hindu laborer Ghansam Bheel in a village near Umerkot, Sindh Province. The killing sparked protests by Hindus in many Sindh towns against alleged police apathy. According to some reports, police began an investigation only after senior government officials intervened.
More than 40 Christian men remained in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, accused of lynching two Muslim men after terrorist suicide bombers attacked two Christian churches in March 2015. An ATC indicted the men on charges of murder and terrorism in 2016, and the trial had not concluded at year’s end. Civil society sources reported that the judge and legal counsel for the families of the two men killed and the imprisoned men were seeking a way to resolve the cases through conciliation and compensation. NGO Pakistan Interfaith League (PIL) stated the move toward conciliation and compensation was a positive development but expressed concern that the families of the imprisoned men had no way to pay because their primary income earners had been imprisoned for years.
Historically, Hindu and Sikh leaders had noted the legal uncertainty surrounding the process of registering marriages for their communities created difficulties for Hindu and Sikh women in obtaining inheritances, accessing health services, voting, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. Observers stated the enactment of the 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and its 2018 amendments, the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act, and the 2018 Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act addressed many of the problems and also codified the right to divorce. Members of the Sindh Provincial Assembly stated that the Sindh cabinet adopted regulations to implement the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act in December.
On August 14, Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly stated, “Those in Pakistan who convert people to Islam by force…are going against Islam.” On November 21, the Senate established a Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions. The committee included the minister of religious affairs and interfaith harmony, the minister of human rights, and several Christian and Hindu senators. Religious minorities, however, said they remained concerned that government action to address coerced conversions of religious minorities to Islam was inadequate. Minority rights activists in Sindh cited the province’s failure to enact legislation against forced conversions as an example of the government’s retreating in the face of pressure from religious parties. Sindh Assembly member Nand Kumar Goklani introduced a bill against forced conversions on April 5. The draft updated a similar bill approved by the Sindh Assembly in 2016 that the governor refused to sign, reportedly under pressure from extremist groups. On October 23, the Sindh Assembly voted against the new bill after Islamist parties and religious leaders lobbied against it.
The family of Huma Younus, a 14-year-old Christian girl, filed a case saying Abdul Jabar, a Muslim man, kidnapped her from her Karachi home, raped her, and forcibly converted her to Islam on October 10. According to the family’s lawyer, Huma’s family had not seen her since she was taken, and she did not appear at a court hearing on November 11. Sindh Province law prohibits the marriage of minors under 18 years old.
There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion, although enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare. On May 31, a Hindu woman testified in court that men kidnapped her from Tando Bago, Sindh, took her to another village, assaulted her, and forced her to convert to Islam. Police recovered the woman within a few days of her husband’s reporting the kidnapping. The court ruled the woman should return to her family but did not order any legal action against the suspects. On September 4, Punjab police removed a 15-year-old Christian girl from a madrassah and took her to a women’s shelter in Sheikhupura after her parents filed an abduction complaint with the Punjab Ministry of Human Rights and Minority Affairs. According to civil society and media reports, the girl’s parents became alarmed when she did not come home from school and learned the school principal had taken her to a madrassah. After visiting three madrassahs, the parents found their daughter, but they were barred from bringing her home. The girl’s principal reportedly told her she had automatically become a Muslim by reading Arabic and offered to financially compensate her parents if they would convert to Islam.
Other cases of alleged forced conversions received high-level government intervention after minority communities lobbied for assistance. On March 20, in a case that received wide media coverage, Hindu sisters Reena and Raveena Meghwar disappeared from their home in Ghotki District, Sindh. Their father and brother said they had been abducted, and that they were underage. Local police did not file a case immediately and reportedly dismissed the family’s claims. On March 21, a video of the sisters, in which they claimed they were over 18 and had converted to Islam voluntarily and married two Muslim men, spread rapidly on social media. The sisters were taken from Sindh to Punjab Province to marry at the office of Sunni Tehreek, a religious political party. On March 24, Prime Minister Khan ordered authorities in Sindh and Punjab to investigate, and on March 25, police arrested 12 individuals, including the marriage officiant and witnesses. Also on March 25, the sisters filed a petition in the Islamabad High Court seeking protection from their family. The court ordered the government to provide protection for the women and formed a commission to investigate the case. The commission included the minister for human rights, the chair of Human Rights Commission Pakistan, the chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women, and a prominent Muslim cleric, but no minority religious members. On April 11, the court ruled that the sisters were of marriageable age and had not been forced to convert to Islam. There was no clear-cut evidence as to the age of the sisters at the time of marriage and whether they had willingly converted and gone to Punjab to marry, but in the aftermath of the incident, Hindu and Christian members of the National Assembly proposed bills to enhance punishment for those involved in forced conversions and to make child marriage a criminal offense.
On August 28, a community dispute arose when a 19-year-old Sikh woman married a Muslim man in Nankana Sahib, Punjab. According to media reports, Jagjit Kaur, a Sikh and the daughter of a prominent Sikh religious leader, converted to Islam to marry for love, but her family accused the Muslim family of kidnapping and forcibly converting her. Kaur’s family filed charges and threatened to immolate themselves if police did not bring her home. Kaur stated in court that she was of legal age to marry and converted of her own free will, and a judge ordered her to remain in a women’s shelter while the Punjab government met with representatives of each side. On September 3, Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar met with representatives of each family and stated the situation had been amicably resolved, although Sikh sources stated Kaur remained in the women’s shelter at year’s end. Media reports quoted Sarwar as stating he would not negotiate a resolution in any case he suspected to be kidnapping and forced conversion, which, he said, were unacceptable and should not be tolerated.
The Ministry of Interior maintained multi-tier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). On March 5, the government added UN-listed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD, a political front of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyiba) and its charity wing Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) to the list of organizations proscribed under Schedule 1. On May 10, the government added seven JuD and two FIF affiliate organizations to the Schedule 1 list. Punjab police arrested JuD founder Hafiz Saeed July 17 on terrorism finance charges, and at year’s end he faced three separate terrorism-finance-related prosecutions. Other groups, including LeJ, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), remained on Schedule 1, but groups that sources stated were widely believed to be affiliated with them continued to operate to various degrees.
According to the Ahmadiyya community spokesperson, on October 25 Assistant Commissioner of Hasilpur, Punjab, Mohammad Tayyab, led a group of police officers and other officials, who tore down part of an Ahmadi mosque. Throughout the year, police closed down two Ahmadi prayer centers in Rawalpindi, citing law and order concerns, and another prayer center in Lahore. In June police in Sheikhapura District, Punjab Province, denied Ahmadis access to a mosque they used for prayer and forced them to sign a declaration they would no longer pray in the mosque. In September police also prevented Ahmadis from praying in a private home in Gujranwala, Punjab Province, and in a newly-built prayer center in Nankana, also in Punjab. In all these cases, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders cited complaints from Muslim clerics as prompting police to prevent their worship. Civil society members also reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set on fire Ahmadi mosques. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years.
According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Muhammad. On March 28, the Lahore High Court directed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) and the PTA to remove or block proscribed religious material and “inauthentic” e-copies of the Quran available in app stores and other online sources; a petitioner complained to courts that Ahmadi groups had posted Ahmadi publications of the Quran online.
While the law required a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint could be filed, a requirement that NGOs and legal observers stated would help contribute to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases, some NGOs said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. There were some cases in which police received custody of the accused from a court for 14 days in order for a senior officer to carry out an investigation. At the same time, NGOs reported that sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, rather than a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, or that police would not carry out a thorough investigation. NGOs and legal observers also stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.
According to religious organizations and human rights groups, while the majority of those accused and convicted of blasphemy were Muslim, religious minorities continued to be disproportionately accused of blasphemy relative to their small percentage of the population. According to data compiled from multiple sources, since 2001 there were 28 convictions of non-Ahmadi Muslims, 16 convictions of Christians, and four convictions of Ahmadi Muslims.
Community leaders continued to report the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such. In 2018 the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam. Neither the National Assembly nor the Senate had acted on the 2018 judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the IHC judgment. According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of prophethood,” something which they stated was against Ahmadi belief, in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections.
Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered part of the Hindu religion.
Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, as those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961. Some community representatives said Christians faced difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars – usually church authorities. Parliament, church leaders, and advocates debated the text of a new draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, as the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of the National Assembly and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice held consultations with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but there was no agreement among different church denominations and between church leaders and NGO representatives on elements of the text pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage at year’s end. NGOs lobbying for amendments to permit divorce in a wider range of circumstances praised the Ministry of Human Rights’ efforts to consult with stakeholders and overall efforts to accelerate progress on the bill.
The government continued to fund and facilitate Hajj travel for most Muslims, but Ahmadis were unable to participate in the Hajj, community leaders said, because of passport application requirements to list religious affiliation and denounce the founder of the Ahmadiyya community.
The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel. Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – was located in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow them to travel to Israel. In January the federal government allowed Jewish citizen Fishel Benkhald to travel to Israel after he appealed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for special permission.
According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram – religiously significant for Shia Muslims – authorities at the federal and provincial levels again restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing. According to civil society and media reports, the government restricted the movement and activities of these individuals because they were known for exacerbating sectarian tensions.
Some religious minority leaders stated the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.
The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. To seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so as non-Muslims, even though they self-identify as Muslim.
The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior may grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas are valid for one year and allow one re-entry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated extensions could be granted for two years with two re-entries per year, excluding from India. Approximately 50 missionaries affiliated with one Christian organization, some of whom had been working in the country for many years, were denied visa renewals after a long appeal period.
In 2018 the Federal Cabinet approved a bill with amendments to PECA to bring online blasphemy and pornographic material within its ambit. Further proposed amendments include life imprisonment for “desecrating the Quran through information systems” and the death sentence for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. The bill remained in legislative process at year’s end.
The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the PTA. The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal. Users are advised to report such content on firstname.lastname@example.org for action under PECA 16.”
In July PTA Chairman Amir Bajwa told the Senate that the government should either increase the PTA’s technical capabilities or block social media websites to stop the sharing of blasphemous content, which he said he believed mostly came from other countries. Bajwa also recommended the government sign mutual legal assistance treaties with other countries so that access to what the government considered blasphemous content on international social media platforms could be blocked in the country. Bajwa further stated the PTA had received 8,500 complaints regarding blasphemous internet content and had blocked approximately 40,000 websites for containing blasphemous material since 2010. Human rights activists and journalists expressed concern the government could use this initiative as a pretext to suppress views on the internet that differed from those of the government, including on religious issues.
According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Some Sikh and Hindu places of worship also reopened during the year. On July 29, the Evacuee Trust Property Board reopened the thousand-year-old Teja Singh Temple near Sialkot, Punjab Province that had been closed since 1947. The government further promised to restore and reopen more Hindu temples each year. On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, built where the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak is said to have died, along with a visa-free transit corridor (the Kartarpur Corridor) for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Before the refurbishing of the site and the opening of the visa-free transit corridor, the gurdwara had fallen into disrepair, and Indian Sikhs were unable to visit. Prime Minister Khan welcomed Sikh pilgrims at the site’s inauguration and gave a speech celebrating Guru Nanak and religious tolerance.
Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.
Legal experts and NGOs continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests. The NCHR remained without a new mandate for a second four-year term and without new commissioners at year’s end.
Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the federal Ministry of Law and Justice, as well as by the federal Ministry of Human Rights and its provincial counterparts. They also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.
On August 8, representatives of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Baha’i communities submitted a resolution to the prime minister requesting additional protection for religious minorities and women. The resolution called for the minimum age of marriage for women to be raised from 16 to 18 nationwide, the establishment of a federal ministry for religious minorities, a 5 percent quota for national and international educational scholarships for minorities, protection of minorities’ houses of worship from government seizure, and provision of spaces for worship for minority communities in state institutions. Additional requests included legislation to prevent discrimination against minorities, elimination of derogatory curriculum material, government subsidies for security at minorities’ schools, and legislation to address abductions, sexual violence, and forced conversions of women from religious minority communities. Finally, the resolution requested that minorities “be given particular protection” from the abuse of blasphemy laws.
In some cases, senior government officials condemned instances of discrimination by government officials. In March the ruling PTI party forced Punjab Provincial Minister for Information and Culture Fayyazul Hassan Chohan to resign after he made derogatory remarks against Hindus, and multiple cabinet ministers and senior advisors condemned Chohan’s speech. Chohan later received a new cabinet appointment as provincial minister for colonies in July and was reappointed as provincial minister for information and culture in December.
Legal observers continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, which led to some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups such as the TLP often threatening the defendant’s attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, they reported, blasphemy trials were held inside the jail for security reasons, in which case the hearings were not public, resulting in a gain in immediate security but a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.
Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. These conferences were organized by groups saying they were defending the teaching that the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet but were often characterized by hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims. On January 6, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari spoke at a Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference hosted by the Golra Sharif Shrine in Islamabad. According to media reports, Bukhari said that Pakistan would be the first to counter any propaganda against the finality of prophethood and that anyone working against the theological conviction “is not a human.” Bukhari later denied making anti-Ahmadi statements and tweeted on March 26, “Pakistan belongs to ALL Pakistanis.” On August 6, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Shaukat Yousafzai spoke at a Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar.
Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students were required to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission as long as they did not claim to be Muslims.
Members of religious minority communities stated public schools gave Muslim students bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but there were no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit available for religious minority students.
Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring, but there were exceptions. In September Pushpa Kumari became the country’s first female Hindu assistant subinspector of police. While there remained a 5 percent quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal level, minority organizations said government employers did not enforce it. On October 15, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government notified the Supreme Court it had raised its quota for hiring religious minorities from 3 to 5 percent, bringing it to the 5 percent quota already required by the Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan Provincial governments. According to religious minority activists, however, provincial governments also often failed to meet such quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.
Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff still listed being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. In June civil rights activists from many faiths raised concerns over a Pakistan Army advertisement specifying only Christians could apply for the job of sanitation worker in the army’s Mujahid Force. On June 28, the director-general of the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations Agency responded that the advertisement had been reposted with no discriminatory qualifications.
Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. Although there were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, they said in practice, non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.
The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Education held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year in a review of textbooks for derogatory material. Officials of the Ministry of Human Rights stated in August that after their review and further reviews from the provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, “All hate speech had been removed” from school textbooks in these provinces. The Ministry of Human Rights reported the Ministry of Education adopted all its recommendations to remove hate speech, but its recommendations to include new rights-based content were not accepted. Some minority faith representatives said their inclusion in the review process was minimal, however, and stated they feared problematic content would remain in curricula. In a March peace conference, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine stated that Christian representatives would sit on the Punjab Textbook Board during the preparation of curriculum to ensure derogatory statements were removed, but the promise was reportedly not fulfilled at year’s end. Ahmadiyya community representatives said local associations of clerics frequently distributed anti-Ahmadi stickers to school districts to place on textbooks, and the school boards usually accepted them. These stickers contained phrases such as, “It is strictly prohibited in Sharia to speak to or do any business with Qadianis,” “The first sign of love of the Prophet is total boycott of Qadianis,” and “If your teacher is a Qadiani, refuse learning from him.”
While schools were required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources reported many non-Muslim students were also required to participate because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools.
Prime Minister Khan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul-Haq Qadri all spoke on peace and interfaith harmony at the November 9 opening of the Kartarpur Corridor to the Sikh Gurdwara Darbar Sahib worship complex. Qadri and several PTI Members of the National Assembly spoke of the government’s commitment to stop kidnappings and forced conversions at a ministry-hosted event celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi. Member of the National Assembly Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali at a Sikh Gurdwara.
From September 1-10, leading to and during the Shia commemoration of Ashura, the ninth and tenth days of Muharram, the government emphasized unity among Muslims around the Ashura holiday. Prime Minister Khan, President Arif Alvi, and Foreign Minister Qureshi used the Ashura story to exhort Muslims to be ready to lay down their lives for the cause of good against evil. Law enforcement again deployed extra security around Shia processions in major cities throughout Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan Provinces, including for Hazara Shia communities in Quetta. According to civil society sources, authorities again restricted the movement and public sermons of both Sunni and Shia clerics accused of provoking sectarian violence. The government placed some clerics on Schedule 4, a list of proscribed persons based on reasonable suspicion of terrorism or sectarian violence, and temporarily detained others under the Maintenance of Public Order Act.
Authorities also provided enhanced security for Christian and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year. After an attack on a mosque in New Zealand that killed 51 on March 15, the government increased security at churches throughout the country, which Christian community members stated was out of concern for potential retaliation against Christians. Sindh Minorities’ Affairs Minister Hari Ram Kishori Lal announced on November 18 the provincial government would provide CCTV cameras to enhance security at 243 religious minority houses of worship in Sindh. Several activists and Christian pastors reported improved security at places of worship, notably in Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta during the major holidays of Holi, Ashura, and Christmas.
The Sindh provincial government declared Diwali a public holiday for Hindu government employees.
There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine, which the government sought to curb through madrassah registration and curriculum reform. On September 3, the federal government approved the Ministry of Education’s assumption of administrative control and registration authority of the country’s estimated 30,000 madrassahs. Prime Minister Khan, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood, and Chief of Army Staff General Javed Bajwa stated the goal of madrassah registration and curriculum reform was to bring madrassah students into the mainstream, create a uniform education policy, and improve madrassah graduates’ economic prospects. Government officials reported ongoing consultations with leaders of the five wafaqs throughout the year and stated the Ministry of Education would open 12 regional offices throughout the country to assist with the registration process.
On November 5, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the country was committed to taking concrete actions against terrorism under the NAP. The ministry further stated the country had taken “extensive legal and administrative measures” to implement its obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1267 to freeze assets and deny funds to all UN-designated entities and individuals. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) continued to operate its “Surfsafe” app, launched in 2018, to help citizens report websites that published extremist content and hate speech.
Print and broadcast media outlets continued to occasionally publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. On November 9, PTI politician and former minister for science and technology Azam Swati said in a live talk show broadcast that he and PM Khan both “sent curses” upon Ahmadis, responding to Islamist politicians’ accusations that PM Khan was sympathetic to the Amhadiyya community. Ministry of Human Rights officials stated the government ordered PEMRA to monitor television broadcasts and take action against any broadcaster airing hate speech against Ahmadis. Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and op-eds, estimating nearly 3,000 instances of hate speech were printed during the year, some of which could be considered inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media.
Civil society groups said the government made some progress in implementing a 2014 Supreme Court decision ordering the government to take several steps to ensure the rights of minorities and promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, including establishing a Supreme Court mechanism to hear complaints, a task force to protect religious minority places of worship, and a national commission for minority rights. On October 3, the Supreme Court established a special judicial panel made up of Supreme Court justices to hear petitions related to the rights of minorities and appointed a commissioner to oversee the court’s own implementation of the judgment. According to officials from the Ministry of Human Rights, the Ministry of Interior established a task force convening cabinet ministries, police branches, Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, and religious representatives to discuss implementation of the judgment. As chair of the task force, the Ministry of Human Rights stated it had given 10 priority action points to the ministries involved. The government did not establish a special task force to protect minority places of worship, as was called for by the judgment. Many faith community members, however, said they believed the government did increase efforts to protect places of worship. Human rights activists continued to state that neither the federal nor most provincial governments had made substantial progress in implementing other aspects of the 2014 decision. According to several human rights activists, the most notable area of inaction was the continued failure to establish an empowered National Commission for Minorities. Officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony and the Ministry of Human Rights stated they were committed to establishing such a commission as directed by the Supreme Court. Some civil society groups attributed lack of progress to a belief within the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony that such a commission was not necessary due to the existence of its own interfaith harmony commission.
Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, from bonded labor practices. Only eight of Sindh’s 29 districts have established District Vigilance Committees, which are legally mandated to monitor and eradicate bonded labor practices. Of the eight established District Vigilance Committees, only three are fulfilling their legal mandate. In some districts of Sindh Province, members of Hindu scheduled castes were disproportionately affected by bonded labor practices in agriculture and brick kiln industries, according to human rights activists. On December 19, the Sindh Provincial Assembly passed the Sindh Women Agriculture Act to strengthen protections for female agricultural workers, including the right to a written contract and collective bargaining, but implementing regulations were not drafted by year’s end. The Sindh Province government also did not pass regulations to implement the Bonded Labor Abolition Act of 2015, which would enhance the monitoring and eradication of bonded labor practices.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Societal abuses of religious freedom included targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims and violence and discrimination against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims. Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia, including predominantly Shia Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.
Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Balochistan Province, continued to express concern about targeted killings taking place for the last several years. Although the government increased security measures around Hazara neighborhoods in Quetta, some Hazara community members continued to state that these measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.
On October 8, unknown assailants shot and killed Hindu trader Ashok Kumar in Hub, Balochistan Province, outside a hotel. The local trader community protested by blocking a road and burning tires. The motive of the assailants was unknown, and no arrests were reported.
According to Ahmadiyya community representatives, three incidents of what appeared to be targeted killings of Ahmadiyya community members by unknown individuals took place. On January 3, in Mandi Bahauddin District, Punjab, Ahmadi Mahdi Khan was shot and killed by unknown assailants. According to community representatives, his family was the only Ahmadi family in their village, and Khan had received threats from TLP members before the killing. His family relocated after the killing out of fear of further violence. On March 14, two Ahmadi men were killed in Koh Fateh Jang in what the Ahmadi community said it believed was a targeted killing, but other sources said may have been a land dispute.
There were no reports of individuals killed for apostasy, but members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.
Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. On June 7, a 12-year-old Hindu girl in Hyderabad, Sindh was found unconscious after being raped. Police later arrested two suspects. On September 16, 25-year-old Hindu dental college student Nimrita Chandani was found dead in her college hostel room in Larkana, Sindh Province, in what her friends and family said was a murder staged as suicide. The school administration originally stated the death was a suicide, but an ensuing postmortem exam showed evidence of rape and strangulation. The Sindh High Court ordered a judicial inquiry on September 18 and, according to media reports, detained 32 individuals for questioning, but there were no charges at year’s end. CLAAS reported numerous cases of rapes of Christian women, including 17-year-old Sara Aslam from Sheikhapura, who was allegedly abducted and raped by Muslim man Ali Raza on May 15. According to CLAAS, police did not arrest the suspect until several Christians drew attention to the case. According to CLAAS and the PCLJ, although the victims filed reports with local police, they were treated similarly to most rape cases, in which the cases rarely went to trial or received a verdict due to threats from the accused party’s family, lack of witnesses, or lack of interest from police.
According to CLAAS and PCLJ, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked after spurning a man’s advances, including Saima Sardar, who was reportedly shot and killed on July 10 in Faisalabad by Muhammad Waseem after she refused to convert to Islam and marry him.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a national NGO, said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh, continued to occur. In an April report, HRCP said 1000 cases of forced conversions of Christian and Hindu women were reported in 2018 in Sindh alone. The group reported Hindu girls were being kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to Muslim men. According to HRCP’s interviews, Hindu community leaders said they believed girls were held against their will for several days, sometimes raped, and coerced into giving a conversion testimony. Some community representatives stated influential Muslim clerics, including the custodian of the Bharchundi Sharif Mian Mithoo Shrine, were driving a conversion campaign that took advantage of poverty, low education, and a desire to escape low social status. The HRCP report further stated that influential local business and political leaders turned a blind eye to forced conversions due to their business interests with newly established madrassas along growing trade routes.
Christian activists also stated young women from their communities were vulnerable to forced conversions. CLAAS reported at least 15 young Christian women were kidnapped and forcibly converted during the year. Of these cases, three women were returned to their families by orders of the court. For example, on February 6, a 14-year-old Christian girl named Sadaf Khan was kidnapped in Bahawalpur, Punjab Province, and forcibly married and converted. According to minority rights activists, a Muslim man named Mubashir harassed her as she went to and from school, and after she withdrew from school because of his intimidation, he kidnapped her. Christian activists reported that this case and others affected entire communities, because many young women withdrew from school as a result. As of the end of the year, no charges had been filed and Khan was believed to still be held by her abductor.
International and Pakistani media, as well as Christian activists, reported that young Christian women, many of them minors, were specifically targeted by Chinese human traffickers because of their poverty and vulnerability. The traffickers told pastors and parents they would arrange marriages to Chinese men who had supposedly converted to Christianity, after which the women were taken to China, abused, and in some cases, sexually trafficked. Reports indicated parents and pastors were frequently paid by the traffickers for the women, and that some pastors were complicit in the trafficking. In May the FIA arrested eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis in Punjab Province in connection with the trafficking. In September FIA investigators sent a report detailing cases against 52 Chinese citizens and 20 Pakistani associates in Punjab and Islamabad to Prime Minister Khan, according to the Associated Press. In October a court in Faisalabad, Punjab acquitted 31 of the accused Chinese citizens after several women interviewed by police refused to testify. According to human rights activists and officials cited in media reports, the government pressured the FIA to end its investigation out of concern for damaging the country’s relationship with China.
Kalash representatives in Khyber-Paktunkha Province continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim school teachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.
On March 20, Khatib Hussain, a student at Bahawalpur Government Sadiq Egerton College, stated he killed head of the English department Khalid Hameed for “speaking against Islam.” When asked in an interview after the killing why he did not oppose his professor with lawful methods, the student stated the country’s laws were “freeing the blasphemers.” Police arrested Hameed, but as of year’s end had not brought charges against him. Media reported that a preacher associated with TLP and suspected of inciting the killing was not charged and was released on bail.
Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events were often covered by English and vernacular media and featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric, including language that could incite violence against Ahmadis.
Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks on Ahmadi individuals, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns. On March 14, an Ahmadi wedding was disrupted in Mirpurkhas, Sindh Province, when Muslim clerics forced the wedding hall owner to evict the wedding party in the middle of the ceremony. In Peshawar, a pharmacy owner lost all his employees after khatm-e-nabuwat activists threatened him and his staff. Also in Peshawar, the children of one Ahmadi family were expelled from a private school for their faith. There was a surge in condemnations of Ahmadis following formerly imprisoned Ahmadi Abdul Shakoor’s participation in a July 17 meeting of religious persecution survivors with President Trump at the White House. On July 26, Barelvi Sunni groups observed a nationwide “black day” against the government’s so-called pro-Ahmadiyya stance and held rallies in major cities. Although the rallies were not covered in print or electronic media, photographs and video footage circulated on social media. Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives also noted an increase in social harassment in July and August after Shakoor’s participation in the White House meeting. In Toba Tek Singh District, Punjab Province, local residents organized a khatm-e-nabuwat procession, forced a young Ahmadi man to abandon his job and leave the town, and attacked the home of a recent convert to Ahmadiyya Islam. According to media reports, in August the Islamabad Bar Association made membership for anyone identifying as Muslim contingent on swearing an oath to the finality of prophethood. Islamist politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman gave several speeches attacking Ahmadis and accusing Prime Minister Khan of being sympathetic to Ahmadis during a two-week protest in November.
Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants. Media reported Javed Masih, a Christian, was killed by his employer, Abbas Olaf, after informing Abbas he was leaving the farm job for which he was paid less than minimum wage. Yasir Talib, an activist who collaborates with the Punjab Provincial Ministry for Human Rights and Minority Affairs in Faisalabad, said, “Many Muslims also work in the fields, but conditions for Christians are four times worse.” In November Christian journalist Gonila Gill stated she resigned her job in Lahore after harassment from Muslim coworkers pressuring her to convert to Islam and denigrating her religion.
Observers reported English-language media covered issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. Many Facebook users posted a profile frame calling for the death of Ahmadis after formerly imprisoned Ahmadi Abdul Shakoor’s participation in a July 17 meeting of religious persecution survivors at the White House. Facebook removed the profile frame on July 31 and said the company did not tolerate any content that incites violence.
Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.
Reports continued of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. On February 6, unknown vandals broke into a Hindu temple and burned religious scriptures and images in Kumb, Sindh Province. Prime Minister Khan condemned the incident as “against the teachings of the Quran” and urged the Sindh government to take “swift and decisive action” against the perpetrators. On April 21, vandals broke into a Shia mosque in Karachi and damaged books, religious symbols, and names of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Police registered complaints from the mosque’s leader under the antiblasphemy law. In May unknown individuals vandalized a Christian cemetery in the village of Okara, Punjab, destroying crosses and desecrating the graves of two priests.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials met with government officials and senior advisors to the prime minister, including the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.
In February the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with cabinet members, religious leaders, and members of civil society. The Ambassador at Large expressed concern about the country’s blasphemy laws and individuals serving life sentences or facing death under these laws, as well as the country’s anti-Ahmadi laws and sectarian violence, with the ministers of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, and Human Rights, and the foreign secretary. The Ambassador at Large also recognized the government for positive steps taken to advance the rights of religious minorities, such as statements by leadership condemning violence, threats, or denigration of individuals on the basis of their faith. The Ambassador at Large hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives of various religious communities on religious freedom conditions and ways to improve them. He also visited the Eidgah Sharif Shrine in Rawalpindi and discussed opportunities to promote interfaith harmony among persons of all faith traditions.
The U.S. government funded a police curriculum development program in Sindh which included a module on human rights. This training, which every recruit and in-service trainee completes, included lessons on identifying forced conversions and training police on how to protect the rights of religious minorities.
In April the Charge d’Affaires toured the Eidgah Sharif Shrine in Rawalpindi to show respect for a uniquely South Asian expression of Islam and demonstrate the importance of interfaith engagement. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers met with groups of civil society and interfaith activists to discuss the situation of religious minorities and other vulnerable communities and avenues for engagement by U.S. government representatives.
In April the Consul General in Karachi led a delegation of Muslim, Catholic, Sikh, Bohra Muslim, and Parsi faith leaders and community representatives on a tour of different religious sites in Karachi to celebrate interfaith harmony and religious freedom. Diplomats from the United Kingdom, Germany, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan also participated in the tour. On November 22, the Charge d’Affaires and the Consul General in Peshawar discussed religious freedom and respect with Muslim and Christian clerics at Peshawar’s historic Mohabbat Khan Mosque.
Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities and continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect between religions and enhance dialogue. Department of State programs helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders.
The Secretary of State praised the safe departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan in May, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy verdict on December 23. The embassy released videos discussing religious freedom and respect throughout the year.
On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Throughout the year, authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that banned and criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” by raiding homes, seizing personal property, detaining hundreds of suspected members, and sentencing individuals to prison. There were reports that authorities physically abused Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious minority groups in detention. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media reports, on February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. The detainees said that during their interrogation, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied the men’s hands behind their backs, beat them, stripped them naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns. Authorities continued to fine, detain, and imprison members of other religious minority groups and organizations for alleged extremism, including individuals belonging to the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. As of the end of the year, the human rights NGO Memorial identified 245 persons who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs or affiliation, an increase from 177 in 2018. The majority were Muslim, including 157 detained as of October for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated between 5,000 to 10,000 members had fled the country since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including private homes, for religious services. On November 14, the Constitutional Court ruled providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” Critics said the court’s ruling, which included limitations based on the rights of neighbors and health and safety requirements, was vague and gave law enforcement too much discretion to stop home worship activities. Authorities continued to fine, arrest, and prosecute individuals under the Yarovaya Package, a set of legislative amendments passed in 2016 that prohibits, among other things, “unauthorized missionary activity.” Authorities fined a Buddhist man for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit, and a Baptist pastor for publicly baptizing a new congregant in a river. Officials continued to delay and/or prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and denied renovation or construction permits for houses of worship. They also continued to deny religious organizations ownership of property expropriated during the Soviet era, such as churches and church-affiliated schools. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions. The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals, including a Baptist pastor from Germany, for what authorities said was illegal religious activity.
A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center, however, found that approximately 10 percent of the population held negative views about Jews. According to the Levada Center poll, approximately 15 percent held negative views about Muslims. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they were harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. According to the NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), there were 19 reported cases of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 in 2018. These included individuals setting fire to Russia’s largest yeshiva, located in the Moscow Region, as well as unknown individuals knocking down a cross at the site of a tenth century Christian church near Stavropol, defacing the grave of a 19th century rabbi in Kaliningrad, and damaging 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the Astrakhan Region. According to the SOVA Center, national and local media, including state-run media, continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious minorities were dangerous.
During the year, the U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict their activities. The Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In June senior officials from the Department of State met with the chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country. Representatives from the embassy and consulates general in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss legislation impacting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases. The embassy organized speakers and programs designed to promote religious tolerance and used its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom concerns. On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on two members of the Investigative Committee in Surgut for their involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention there in February.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 141.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). A poll conducted during the year by the Public Opinion Foundation found that 65 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, and 7 percent identify as Muslim. Religious groups constituting approximately 1 percent or less of the population each include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, Scientologists, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000; however, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia states the number of Jews is approximately one million, most of whom live in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is nearly 1.5 million. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, the Muslim population reached 25 million in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the total population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia are mostly Muslim. The majority of Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and provides equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”
The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.
The law states those who violate religious freedom will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,200) or 500,000 rubles ($8,000), depending upon which code governs the offense.
By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.
In December 2018, the government amended anti-extremism legislation, stipulating speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” on the basis of group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative, rather than criminal, penalties for first-time offenses. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($320) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000) for legal entities. Individuals who commit multiple offenses within a one-year period are subject to criminal penalties, including fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to four years, or imprisonment of up to five years.
The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,800), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.
Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($12,800) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities, as well as to persons in management roles at commercial or nongovernment entities, the prescribed prison term is seven to twelve years, or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($11,200). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.
Local laws in several regions, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” in the territories of these republics but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative penalties for violating these laws.
A Supreme Court 2017 ruling declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closed the organization on those grounds, and banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses activities, including the organization’s website and all regional branches. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious beliefs, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”
The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2003; Nurdzhular (a russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”) in 2008; and Tablighi Jamaat in 2009. In 2015 the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) added the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to its Federal List of Extremist Organizations.
The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.
The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional MOJ, of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with proper notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.
An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.
To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body, with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, “and other religious items.”
The Expert Religious Studies Council, established by the MOJ, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.
Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.
The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.
The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings, lands, and facilities owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.
The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned, but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. Currently, there are more than 120 chaplains in the program.
The country’s 83 federal subjects (excluding Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) have varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Hijabs are banned in public schools in Stavropol and Mordovia, rulings that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. The law in Chechnya permits schoolgirls to wear hijabs.
Federal law, as amended by the Yarovaya Package, defines missionary activity as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, in order to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document authorizing him or her to share beliefs from a religious group or registered organization. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.
Engaging in missionary activity prohibited by law carries a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($80 to $800) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($480 to $800) and are subject to administrative deportation.
The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.
Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist sua sponte, i.e., of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. There is no legal procedure for removal from the list, even if a court declares an item should no longer be classified as extremist, but lists are reviewed and reissued on a regular basis and publications may be dropped from lists. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.
According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($16 to $48), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($32 to $80) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.
The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”
The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If a structure (e.g., the warehouse) does not meet legal requirements and is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.
Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses, and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.
The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.
The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.
Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from an 80,000 rubles ($1,300) fine to six months in prison.
By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activity of political parties or movements, or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations and not to their individual members.
The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, but individuals from both traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber, initially by the president. Subsequently, the selectees themselves choose additional members to serve in the group. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.
The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or person without citizenship from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism[.]”
Foreigners engaging in religious work require both a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.
Amendments to the law enacted in May and July grant religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities, both on a paid and free-of-charge basis.
Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.
As of December 31, Memorial identified 245 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. This was an increase from 177 in 2018. In October Memorial’s list of persons it identified as political prisoners included 66 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 157 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts. In October Memorial also identified an additional 140 Jehovah’s Witnesses as “victims of politically motivated prosecutions” whom it did not consider to be political prisoners because they had not been placed in custody.
Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist. Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs reported authorities raided homes, seized personal property, and detained hundreds of suspected members. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights NGOs, and media, authorities physically abused adherents while in detention. On February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut in west Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiysk Region detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the men, during their interrogation at the police station, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied their hands behind their backs, and beat them. Authorities stripped the men naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns for two hours. Authorities demanded to know where local Jehovah’s Witnesses met and who attended the meetings. Multiple domestic and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses called for an investigation into the accusations of abuse. In March the Khanty-Mansiysk Investigative Committee division said after an internal investigation it found no evidence its staff had used unlawful force. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a case with the ECHR.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on June 26, law enforcement officers in Kaluga raided the home of Roman Makhnev and took him and Dmitriy Kuzin into custody. At the station, officers handcuffed Makhnev to a pipe and left him there overnight. For the next three days, officers denied him food while they interrogated him. Authorities charged Makhnev and Kuzin with organizing extremist activity and held them in pretrial detention for six months. On December 25, a judge approved their release from the facility, but according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the case remained pending at year’s end.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 6, authorities in Uray conducted searches of eight Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes and took Andrey Sazonov into custody. The officers beat the man on the palms of his hands, forced him to kneel during his interrogation, and threatened him. According to Sazonov, when he would not answer questions about fellow believers, investigators turned off the recording machine, beat him more severely, and then resumed the interrogation. Two days after the search, Sazonov’s mother was expelled from the marketplace where she sold goods and her market stand was destroyed. On August 22, an appellate court banned Sazonov from participating in Jehovah’s Witnesses religious activities.
According to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while exact numbers were unavailable, 5,000 to 10,000 adherents had fled the country in fear of persecution since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. The association estimated more than 150,000 adherents remained in the country. One source estimated there were at least 26,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia continuing to worship clandestinely.
The SOVA Center reported criminal charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses were initiated in 21 new regions, meaning criminal prosecutions were ongoing in 52 regions at year’s end. The SOVA Center stated authorities accused 313 individuals of belonging to the group and filed charges against 213 of them during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported as of November, 287 members were subject to ongoing criminal prosecution. Of these, 46 adherents were in pretrial detention, 23 were under house arrest, and at least 135 were under travel restrictions.
According to the SOVA Center and Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of extremism for practicing their religion during the year in criminal cases; nine of them were sentenced to prison, including three who received six years in a penal colony. The remainder received suspended sentences, probation, fines, and/or community service. According to media and Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, on February 6, a judge in Oryol sentenced Danish citizen Dennis Christensen to six years in prison, making him the first Jehovah’s Witness to receive a prison term for “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Authorities had detained Christensen since May 2017. On May 23, the Oryol Regional Court denied his appeal and on June 6 authorities transferred him to a penal colony in Lgov, Kursk Region.
Media and Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that in September the Leninsky District Court in Saratov sentenced six Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison terms of between two and 3.5 years for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization. In November a judge in Tomsk sentenced local resident Sergei Klimov to a six-year prison sentence for the same offense. Klimov had been held in pretrial detention since June 2018. In December a court in Penza sentenced Vladimir Alushkin to six years in prison, also for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.
According to the international human rights NGO Forum 18, a court in Khabarovsk sentenced Valery Moskalenko to two years’ forced labor followed by six months’ probation for “participating in the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Forum 18 reported the prosecution based its argument on a 10-minute recording of Moskalenko reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount at a Jehovah’s Witnesses gathering.
Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the Investigative Committee, Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police carried out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 44 regions between January 2018 and October 2019. Citing Jehovah’s Witness sources, Human Rights Watch reported 491 raids on homes and apartments during the year, compared to 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witness sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, and conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered the residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on April 19, agents from the Center for Countering Extremism and FSB agents disrupted a religious meeting in the home of an 81-year-old adherent and searched her home for five hours, during which the woman fell ill and required medical attention. On April 3 in Porkhov, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported masked FSB agents dressed in camouflage broke into the apartment of one Jehovah’s Witness couple. They struck the man several times on the head and legs and knocked him to the floor. Officers accessed his online accounts and seized electronic devices and money. They took the couple into custody and interrogated them. Authorities charged the man with participating in the activities of an extremist organization. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that on October 10 in Sochi, groups of armed and masked security officers, some with dogs, conducted 36 home searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities took Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin into custody and charged them with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, at year’s end the group had 49 applications pending with the ECHR and five complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings.
According to Memorial, during the year, the government detained, arrested, and/or sentenced at least 25 individuals it accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. This number excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula who were initially detained by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea before being transferred to Russia where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir was legal in Ukraine.
On September 12, media reported authorities completed a criminal investigation of Eduard Nizamov, whom the government alleged to be the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and, according to Memorial, beat and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention. As of year’s end, his trial was pending.
Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to the human rights monitoring and reporting outlet OVD-Info, on March 13, the Volga District Military Court sentenced five men from Tatarstan to between 14 and 22 years in a maximum-security prison. The judge found one of the men guilty of participating in the activities of a terrorist organization and the others guilty of organizing the activities of a terrorist organization.
The courts continued to sentence individuals for what authorities said was membership in other Islamic organizations. Local media reported that on September 25, a court in Tatarstan sentenced three persons to prison terms of between two and six years for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, which Memorial characterized as a peaceful international Islamic missionary movement. On October 4, the FSB detained a Kyrgyz preacher whom authorities said was linked to Tablighi Jamaat. A court in Smolensk subsequently ruled that the man, a Kyrgyz national, be deported to the Kyrgyz Republic.
Although the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi continued to be banned, authorities did not pursue any new cases against his followers during the year. Experts from the SOVA Center continued to state that Nurdzhular, an organization purportedly based on Nursi’s teachings and banned as extremist by the authorities, did not actually exist in the country, and a number of individuals accused of belonging to the organization also denied its existence as part of their defense.
Several individuals continued to serve out prison sentences for what authorities said was their adherence to Nursi’s teachings. According to Forum 18, Ziyavdin Dapayev, Sukhrab Kaltuyev, Artur Kaltuyev, and Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev continued to serve prison sentences ranging from three to eight years for organizing the activities of a banned religious organization. Imam Komil Odilov was released in March after serving nine months of a two-year sentence in a labor camp, but was ordered to spend the next eight years on probation and under curfew (not allowed to leave his home between 10 PM and 6 AM). According to Forum 18, Odilov remained on the government’s list of terrorists and extremists.
In May the SOVA Center reported authorities stripped Yevgeny Kim, a naturalized Russian citizen since 2005, of his citizenship due to what they said was his allegiance to Nursi. This decision rendered Kim, who was nearing the end of a four-year prison sentence, stateless, since he had previously given up his Uzbek citizenship. At year’s end it was unclear whether authorities deported him; experts believed he remained in a detention center in Russia.
On June 19, a district court in Kazan sentenced five members of the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to five to seven years in prison. Although the Fayzrakhmani group was considered an extremist organization, the SOVA Center described it as a “typical closed religious community” that lives a secluded life and maintains religious practices different from traditional Islam.
Media reported in May that Sahib Aliyev, an accountant in the St. Petersburg branch of the Church of Scientology (COS), pled guilty to organizing an extremist community, illegal entrepreneurship, and “humiliation of human dignity.” Authorities arrested Aliyev and four other members of the COS in June 2017 as part of a probe into what police said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship,” incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy. According to Newsweek, in March police raided the offices of the COS in Moscow and St. Petersburg in connection with fraud investigations. Authorities accused the COS of raising approximately 2.8 billion rubles ($45 million) in seminars and other events around the country and sending the money to the United States. They also said the group stole money from investors. The state news agency TASS reported that in November authorities released from custody Ivan Masitsky, the head of the COS in St. Petersburg, after he spent more than two years in a pretrial detention facility. At year’s end, the case against Masitsky and COS officers Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva remained pending.
Media continued to report official harassment against Muslims. Moskovskaya Gazeta reported on March 27 that police detained 27 Muslims praying at a mall in Moscow and accused them of violating the rules for holding public events. According to the SOVA Center, the men received administrative fines.
Authorities continued to refuse to register the St. Petersburg and Moscow COS branches as religious organizations despite a 2014 ECHR ruling that the government’s refusal was a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
According to the Ministry of Justice, at the end of 2018 (the latest year for which information was available) there were 30,896 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.
The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say the Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ about which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”
Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, was employed by authorities to limit religious freedom. They said officials often cited concerns about missionaries being sources of foreign influence. They said the broad definition of missionary activity in the legislation included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences, without prior authorization. In 2018, Forum 18 said the legal framework for an individual exercising his or her beliefs outside a designated place of worship was unclear and authorities applied the law inconsistently.
The SOVA Center stated in its annual report, “Persecution of religious organizations for ‘illegal’ missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments package continued, although, judging by the Supreme Court data for the first half of 2019 [the time period for which data was available], its intensity ha[d] slightly diminished.” The majority of the 174 cases initiated under “violation of the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations” during the first six months of the year were for missionary activity. Seventy-four individuals, two officials, and 26 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts in the first six months was 1,899,100 rubles ($30,500), compared with 2,471,000 rubles ($39,700) for the same period in 2018.
Forum 18 and the SOVA Center reported that on January 15, authorities in Yoshkar-Ola fined Sergei Roshchin and Valery Turkin, members of an unregistered Baptist group, 5,000 rubles ($80) each for passing out literature at a bus stop in Ryazan without a permit; on March 6, a district court ruled their actions constituted illegal missionary activity and upheld the fine. On February 7, authorities fined a Buddhist man in Sochi 5,000 rubles ($80) for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit.
According to the SOVA Center, in November a municipal court in Ryazan fined a man identified as Oleg Alekseyevich K. 5,000 rubles ($80) for illegal missionary activity for distributing Bibles at Ryazan State Radio Engineering University. The SOVA Center also reported that in August, the Mufti of Moscow, Ildar Alyautdinov, and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Moscow were fined 30,000 rubles ($480) each for distributing literature without proper markings. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, in February authorities in Novosibirsk fined two Jewish lecturers, one from the United States and one from Israel, 2,000 rubles ($32) each for conducting missionary work while on tourist visas. The men spoke at a seminar for Jewish youth hosted by the Beit Menachem Jewish Community Cultural Center. The SOVA Center and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that on April 7, authorities, including police and FSB officers, firefighters, and representatives of the city administration, disrupted services in a house in Verkhnebakansky, a town near the Black Sea, at which Pastor Yuri Korniyenko and 50 Baptist congregants were celebrating the Annunciation. On April 9, the prosecutor charged Korniyenko with engaging in illegal missionary work. Authorities sealed the house and banned the pastor and congregants from using it for religious purposes.
RFE/RL also reported that in November authorities fined a Baptist pastor in Tatarstan 20,000 rubles ($320) for organizing an unsanctioned public gathering in June at which a group of adherents assembled to watch him baptize a new member in the Kama River. On December 11, Kommersant reported a judge in the city of Satka fined the New Generation Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) 50,000 rubles ($800) for holding weekly meetings in a cafe without proper documentation.
On October 10, the Constitutional Court overturned a lower court 2018 decision imposing a fine on the Reconciliation Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, registered in Yoshkar-Ola, for illegal missionary activities for distributing printed materials outside the borders of the municipality in which the group was registered. The Constitutional Court ruled the scope of missionary activities of religious associations was wider than the territorial scope of their main religious activities.
In December the Russian Union of Evangelical Christina-Baptist reported that a Baptist pastor from Germany who had lived in Sverdlovsk Region since 1994 was deported after the regional office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs revoked his residence permit. The group said that without evidence, the FSB alleged he “advocated a violent change of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation” and “urged citizens to refuse to fulfill their legal duties and to confront the Russian Orthodox Church.” According to media reports, in March two American volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ were detained in Novorossiysk, fined 30,000 rubles ($480), and deported for teaching English without a license and violating the terms of their visas.
Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,003 as of December, compared to 4,514 as of October 2018. There were reportedly no new Islamic or Jehovah’s Witnesses materials added to the list during the year but there were additions of anti-Semitic and anti-Orthodox Christian materials. During the first six months of the year, authorities imposed 1,964 sanctions for distribution of extremist materials, compared with 1,133 during the same period in 2018. According to Forum 18, in some cases, those in charge of places of worship and other public or semipublic spaces were held responsible for distribution of banned religious publications, which could have been left at the site by anyone at any time, including before the ban. The government’s ban on all Jehovah’s Witnesses websites, imposed in 2017, remained in effect.
As of year’s end, the government did not act on the 2018 ECHR finding that court decisions to prohibit Nursi’s books violated the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ECHR ruled the country’s courts did not provide sufficient and relevant grounds for interfering with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression, and their intervention could not be considered necessary in a democratic society. The court further ruled the government should pay one of the plaintiffs 7,500 euros ($8,400) in compensation for non-pecuniary damages.
The SOVA Center reported that on September 11, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree requiring religious organizations to alter their places of worship to conform with specific counterterrorism measures in order to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities had to be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 had to have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 had to be guarded by private security guards or Rosgvardiya (National Guard) personnel. The SOVA Center stated, “It is obvious that few religious organizations have the financial ability to meet these requirements, and the penalty for noncompliance is high: fines of up to 100,000 rubles [$1,600].”
Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including their homes, “not for its intended purpose,” i.e., for religious services. Officials reportedly continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship. Forum 18 stated in September, “Since municipal authorities are usually unwilling to permit the construction of purpose-built churches and mosques, congregations can be obliged to meet in residential, agricultural, or commercial buildings. This leaves them vulnerable to the complexities and contradictions of the legislation which regulates the use of land.” Forum 18 reported that between January and October there were 21 known instances of individuals being fined for using homes as places of worship, compared with 10 in 2018. Forum 18 reported on November 14, however, that the Constitutional Court ruled that providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship and/or for use as a legal address “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” The court stated religious use of residential premises must take into account the rights and legitimate interests of residents and neighbors, as well as health, safety, and environmental requirements. The court further stated it would be “unacceptable” for a dwelling to lose the features of a residential premises and acquire those of a religious or administrative building. The case involved a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rostov who allowed the congregation to use her home as its legal address and meet there for four hours per week for religious purposes. According to Forum 18, on November 20, human rights lawyer Vasily Nichik said in a blogpost, “Some words in the ruling do not have regulatory certainty, which leaves ample room for interpretation by law enforcement.”
Authorities continued to demolish houses of worship. According to Forum 18, on May 22, authorities demolished an Islamic prayer house located on private farmland in Chernyakhovsk District of Kaliningrad Region after several raids by FSB agents. Officials said the mosque violated planning regulations by being used for nonagricultural purposes.
Authorities continued to confiscate the property of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center. In February the Syktyvkar City Court seized a house of worship after ruling the real estate agreement concluded in 2007 transferring the property to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was void, and returned the building to the municipality.
Media in August reported Sverdlovsk regional authorities rejected proposals made by members of the Buddhist Shedrub Ling Monastery to preserve the stupas and outdoor Buddha statues around the monastery on Mount Kachkanar. A court ordered the religious buildings and statues to be demolished to allow for mining operations in the area. On October 18, the Sverdlovsk Region vice governor announced the mining company and the Buddhist community had signed an agreement whereby the community would relocate to a different area but would have periodic access to the religious structures on Mount Kachkanar until their demolition. A Buddhist leader interviewed by Novaya Gazeta stated the agreement was contrary to his community’s interests but there was no other way to avoid conflict with the company and the local population. Under the agreement, the Buddhists must leave the area permanently by November 2020, after which the company plans to demolish most of the religious structures.
Forum 18 reported that on January 25, a Moscow court ordered the Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists to suspend all activities for 60 days after the federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor found fault with the organization’s theological bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff. In February the seminary was prohibited from admitting new students. Representatives of the seminary told Forum 18 Rosobrnadzor inspectors said staff had not undergone required medical examinations and the seminary was not following approved curricula. The seminary stated it was allowed under the education law and the religion law to develop nonaccredited courses that were not subject to the same requirements as state-accredited equivalents. The court subsequently suspended the seminary’s license to engage in educational activities indefinitely. At year’s end, the case was pending.
In December media reported Rosobrnadzor posted on its website that it had prohibited the Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg from admitting new students for “failing to comply with requests in a timely manner.” Rosobrnadzor did not provide further details.
As in years past, according to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law recognizing the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. The ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations. During the year, Saratov Region authorities transferred the former Old Believers Kazanskaya (Gorinskaya) Church to the Russian Orthodox Gymnasium after refusing to return it to the Old Believers community. Per a decision by the Property Relations Committee of St. Petersburg, authorities gave the building housing the School of Olympic Reserve Specializing in Nordic Combined to the Orthodox Spaso-Pargolovsky parish over the objection of school staff and parents. No archival documents confirming that the ROC had previously owned the building were presented to the parents or school staff.
Some government officials continued to make anti-Semitic statements publicly. According to media, during a visit to Jordan in August, Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov told a group of expatriate ethnic Chechens that Jews were “the main enemies of Islam.” The meeting was broadcast on Chechen state television. The month prior, he told a group of Chechen police that Israel was a “terrorist organization.” In an op-ed published on the Zavtra news website on May 6, Sergey Glazyev, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, wrote that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, together with American and “extreme right-wing forces in Israel,” could orchestrate a “massive relocation” to replace the ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine with “inhabitants of the Promised Land.” Glazyev denied the op-ed was anti-Semitic, saying it did not mention Jews. On April 24, the acting mayor of Lipetsk, Yevgeniya Uvarkina, responded to a question at a public hearing from a local resident seeking to halt local stadium construction by wondering aloud whether the resident had a “Jewish last name.” She apologized for the remark the next day.
Multiple officials supported the construction of Orthodox churches, stating the country was an Orthodox nation. According to the Moscow Times, Yekaterinburg City Deputy Alexander Kolesnikov expressed public support for a proposed plan to build a new cathedral in a popular central park. Kolesnikov said, “If there is no cathedral, there will be mosques, and you will get another Switzerland. The government will work better if church bells are ringing.” According to media, in May thousands demonstrated for several days to protest the municipal government’s unilateral decision to locate the cathedral in the park without consulting local residents. Following a referendum, municipal authorities made plans to construct the cathedral at an alternate location.
The government continued to withhold property expropriated during the Soviet Union from minority Christian groups. Media reported Father Grigory Zvolinsky, a Catholic priest in the city of Kirov, had lost five court appeals since 2011 for the return of the Alexander Church, a Catholic church built by the Polish community in 1903. For several years, the church has been used as a concert hall. The city administration allowed Zvolinsky to rent the church for Mass on certain days but informed his lawyer near the end of the year that he would be allowed to continue doing this only if he dropped his court case altogether. Zvolinsky refused and declared his intention to continue trying to reclaim the church, despite being subject to official harassment and surveillance.
The SOVA Center reported authorities returned some properties to religious communities during the year. In June in the Altai Region, following lengthy litigation with the Barnaul city administration, the Catholic community regained ownership rights to its church building that had for many years housed a pharmacy. Media reported that in August the municipality of Syzran in the Volga Region returned a synagogue to the local Jewish community approximately 90 years after Soviet authorities had closed it. The community of approximately 150 members requested the return of the synagogue in 1943. Its request was denied at the time and the synagogue became a cultural center. The reports stated the community planned to rededicate the synagogue within two years.
Among issues cited by the Jehovah’s Witnesses were government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($89 million), which remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 39 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Russia; 50 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 50 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center concluded that attitudes toward various religious denominations remained relatively unchanged over the past 10 years. Nearly all Russians held positive views about Christians, and the majority held positive or neutral views about members of the other religions included in the survey (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus). Approximately 10 percent admitted to holding negative views about Jews and approximately 15 percent admitted to holding negative views about Muslims.
Media reported that in August a group of Krasnodar residents entered a synagogue and interrogated a rabbi for an hour, accusing him of spreading alien religious practices. The group’s leader later announced that she would commence “partisan actions” against a Jewish community center.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report adherents were increasingly harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in April a Jehovah’s Witness working as a psychotherapist in Chelyabinsk was forced to resign after a woman posted on the website of the city’s health department that the therapist had used her professional role to promote a banned organization. In February authorities dismissed a firefighter in Surgut after two decades on the job due to his religious affiliation as a Jehovah’s Witness.
The SOVA Center reported 19 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 incidents in 2018, continuing the general downward trend of such vandalism over the past decade (from a high of 177 incidents in 2010).
The SOVA Center reported that on April 18, the day before the beginning of Passover, unidentified individuals set fire to the country’s largest yeshiva, Torat Haim, located in the Ramensky District of Moscow Region, and drew swastikas on the walls. No one was injured, but a storehouse burned down. In March unknown individuals in Kaliningrad defaced the grave of Israel Salanter, a 19th century rabbi, drawing on the tombstone a swastika and abbreviations associated with a neo-Nazi movement. The same month, unknown persons near Stavropol knocked down a granite cross erected on the site of a tenth century Christian church; the cross had been previously defaced with swastikas and pagan runes in October 2018. On June 2, unknown individuals set fire to a building belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kabardino-Balkaria. In September police arrested a man accused of setting fire to an Orthodox church in St. Petersburg. On June 18, unknown individuals damaged 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the village of Osypnoy Hill in Astrakhan Region. On June 17, police arrested a woman who attempted to set fire to the door of a Catholic church in St. Petersburg.
According to the SOVA Center, national and local media continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious groups were dangerous. The state-owned television channels Rossiya-1 and Zvezda broadcast negative stories about Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology, respectively. In April the St. Petersburg TV channel 78 broadcast a story about Falun Gong practitioners, accusing them of extremism and espionage. According to the SOVA Center, in October the Tatarstan-based internet information agency Sobytiya made defamatory and xenophobic statements about Jehovah’s Witnesses when announcing an upcoming October trial of the organization’s members in Naberezhnye Chelny. The former head of the Department of Religious Studies at Kazan State University, Larisa Astakhova, invited as one of the experts, said that Jehovah’s Witnesses “had to be disposed of” since the government had made the decision to ban them.
Many congregations said they pursued ties with other faith communities. A leader in the Catholic Church in Yekaterinburg said his church had ongoing relationships with local ROC, Muslim, and Protestant communities, as well as with immigrant communities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with a range of government officials throughout the year and expressed concern regarding the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities. They also urged authorities to investigate the credible claims of torture and abuse that Jehovah’s Witnesses and alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir made against local law enforcement officials.
In June senior officials from the Department of State met with Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country.
Consular officials attended many administrative hearings of U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administrative requirements. Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases stated they believed the government targeted them for being members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities.
The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with members of religious and nongovernmental organizations and held discussions with leaders from multiple religious organizations to emphasize a commitment to religious freedom and the value of interfaith dialogue. In April the Ambassador met with Dr. Yuri Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, to discuss interfaith relations and combating anti-Semitism. The Ambassador also participated in events with other Jewish leaders, including Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar, emphasizing the U.S. commitment to combating anti-Semitism, and discussing the challenges the Jewish community faced. Throughout the year, the Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC, representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses, legal representatives of the COS, and a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In November the Charge d’Affaires held a roundtable with representatives from Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, and Orthodox Christian organizations to explore how the embassy could facilitate better cooperation among them. The embassy also partnered with religious organizations, such as the Russian Jewish Congress, for a number of events, including one honoring American citizens recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Representatives from the Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with the ROC, rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community, muftis and other Islamic leaders, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, and representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These discussions covered developments related to legislation affecting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.
The embassy used its social media platforms during the year to highlight issues related to religious freedom, including expressing specific concern on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On February 6, the embassy spokesperson posted on Twitter, “Deeply concerned by the six-year sentence imposed on Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Christensen. We agree with President Putin that persecuting peaceful believers is utter nonsense, and call on Russia to respect freedom of religion. #ReligiousFreedom.” The embassy also invited speakers and organized programs designed to promote religious tolerance and interfaith understanding, especially through art and music. In June the embassy funded the visit of the Chicago-based theater company Silk Road Rising to Moscow and St. Petersburg to perform American playwright Jamil Khoury’s play Mosque Alert in Russian. The play addressed the topics of anti-Muslim sentiment and Muslim-American relations. In November the embassy sponsored performances by Joseph Malovany, a leading American cantor, at the Moscow Conservatory to promote the importance of Jewish musical traditions.
On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on Vladimir Petrovich Yermolayev, Head of the Investigative Committee in Surgut, and Stepan Vladimirovich Tkach, Senior Investigator at the Investigative Committee in Surgut, and their immediate family members, for Yermalayev and Tkach’s involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention in Surgut in February. When making the announcement, the Department of State spokesperson said, “Russia should end its unjust campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and immediately release the over 200 individuals it currently has imprisoned for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.”
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained. In April the government executed 37 citizens for “terrorism crimes,” the largest mass execution since 2016. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following what they stated were unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses. In January rights groups reported Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and mistreatment, and in August, Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri died due to a heart condition while held in solitary confinement in Tarafia Prison. Authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, three Shia Muslims who have written in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia Muslims, in April with no official charges filed; they remained in detention at year’s end. On February 1, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. During the year, government leaders, including the crown prince and the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), took new steps to combat religious extremism and to encourage interreligious tolerance and dialogue, conducting prominent public outreach, particularly with Christian and Jewish leaders and groups.
According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother reportedly because he was Shia. In September an academic at Qassim University, Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out heretic Shia from the holy city of Medina. Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in legal and security matters and in private sector employment. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.
In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, Vice President Pence called on the Saudi government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating that Badawi, among others he highlighted, “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added that “the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia 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. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 33.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including more than 12 million foreign residents. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.
Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they probably constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, probably number at least a few hundred, most of whom are of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering a total of approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.
Foreign embassies indicate the noncitizen population, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there were approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion. The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna. The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.
Blasphemy against Islam may also be legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences and lashings. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.
The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” On January 25, authorities issued implementation regulations that criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to access government-held evidence.
The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.
The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.
Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.
Clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.
Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses amount to one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the king’s behalf. By decree, the CPVPV’s activities are limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; those actions are explicitly reserved as the purview of the police and counternarcotics units. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges. The CPVPV’s religious purview includes the prohibited public practice of non-Islamic faiths or displaying emblems (such as crosses) thereof; failing to respect Islam, including Ramadan fasting; “immodest” dress; displaying or selling media “contrary to Islam;” and venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices.
The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters, and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king. The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas. The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.
The country’s legal architecture does not derive from a common law system, and judges are not bound by legal precedent. In the absence of a comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.
In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; in some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.
Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases.
The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year, the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.
Social media users who post or share satire attacking religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000). The country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter: “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
There were NGO and Shia activist reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including two cases of abuse that led to prisoners’ deaths. On November 13, human rights NGOs announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country said that authorities tortured al-Ribh while detained. In January another Shia activist, Naif al-Omran, died after eight years in detention, while serving a 20-year sentence for protest-related charges in Qatif dating back to 2011. According to al-Omran’s family, his body bore visible marks of abuse.
On April 23, the MOI announced the execution of 37 citizens in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Asir regions in connection with “terrorism crimes.” According to HRW, at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism. Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Attiyah was among the executed. Amnesty International said those executed were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair trial standards and which relied on confessions extracted through torture. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet commented, “It is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing.” According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at least six of the executed were minors at the time of their alleged offenses: Abdullah Salman al-Sarih and Abdulkarim Mohammed al-Hawaj, whose charges date back to age 16; and Said Mohammed al-Sakafi, Salman Amin al-Quraysh, Mujtaba Nadir al-Sweiket, and Abdulaziz Hassan al-Sahwi, whose charges date back to age 17. The government denied the individuals were minors and disputed the ages reported by HRW and ESOHR. The mass executions were the largest since January 2016.
On January 7, security forces raided the predominately Shia al-Jish village for suspected “links to cases of state security” in al-Qatif Governorate, killing six people and arresting others after an exchange of fire, according to Saudi Press Agency. Five officers were also wounded in the operation.
On May 11, security forces killed eight members of an alleged Shia terrorist cell in a security operation in Taroot in Qatif Governorate in the Eastern Province, according to the Presidency of State Security. The statement added the newly formed “terrorist cell” had plans to carry out terrorist operations targeting vital installations and security sites.
On January 8, security forces stormed the Shia village of Umm al-Hamam, killing five persons and injuring an unspecified number, according to SRW. SRW said authorities also used armored vehicles in a separate operation in Jaroudiya town. SRW also reported a number of arrests during these operations, including Qatif-based Shia rights activist Mohammemod Nabil al-Jowhar on January 11.
On January 20, the London-based human rights group ALQST (“Justice” in Arabic) reported that Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and possible torture. Authorities detained Al-Amari, the former dean of the School of Quran at the University of Medina, in 2018, and he suffered a brain hemorrhage on January 2. The Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, and ALQST reported the 69-year-old’s death was caused by “intentional neglect” on the part of the prison authorities.
On August 3, rights groups reported the death of Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri due to health complications he had developed at Tarafia Prison. Authorities kept Al-Dhamiri, who suffered from a heart condition, in solitary confinement, according to the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account.
On November 13, family members of Islamic scholar Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi announced that al-Qadi had died in prison. The government detained Al-Qadi in 2016 and sentenced him in October to six years in prison. The circumstances surrounding his death remained unknown at year’s end. Prisoners of Conscience reported he was detained after he sent a letter of advice to the Royal Court.
As many as 39 individuals, most of them believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to ESOHR. ESOHR also reported that up to seven minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher. The government disputed the claim that these individuals were minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted, and noted the courts use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations (which could differ from Western Gregorian calendar ages by a few months). Five Shia individuals, including al-Nimr, al-Marhoon and al-Zaher, faced a final death sentence and nine faced preliminary death sentences, which still needed to be upheld by an appellate court, the Supreme Court, and the king. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting the ruling of the Court of Appeal after his second verdict. Some human rights NGOs reported that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.” International human rights NGOs reported that these individuals said authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.
On August 25, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence, to an additional five years in prison and a five-year ban on international travel after he was convicted of supporting demonstrations in Qatif and cybercrimes. According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.
On February 1, human rights NGOs reported the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals, including her husband.
Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes and authorities suggested informally that there were no current plans to do so. According to international human rights contacts, Badawi declared a hunger strike in September to protest his poor treatment and lack of medical attention while in prison. In December he reportedly went on a second hunger strike to protest his placement in solitary confinement.
The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. In January local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery.
In April, authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, who wrote in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia in the country. By year’s end, authorities had not filed official charges against them and they remained in detention. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Sadiq and al-Ibrahim write regularly for Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, a Qatari funded news website based in London, while al-Marzouqi published articles on his own blog as well as contributing to Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and to the Okaz newspaper.
During the year, the SCC continued trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and the Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents. In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.” The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.” The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization. Amnesty International reported al-Odah was ill-treated while in prison, including solitary confinement.
On May 18, authorities released Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer from prison after he completed his eight-year jail term. Officers arrested al-Amer in 2011 and the SCC convicted him in August 2014 of slander against the state and abuse of the faith, stirring up sectarian strife, and calling for change in a series of sermons delivered in 2011.
In March authorities detained Shia cleric Majed al-Sadah for three days over comments criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in his hometown of Saihat, Qatif Governorate. According to online activists, al-Sadah had to sign a written pledge to refrain from interfering in internal affairs. According to Al-Jazeera, authorities arrested cleric Omar al-Muqbil in September after he criticized music concerts sponsored by GEA, calling them a threat to the kingdom’s culture, according to the Prisoners of Conscience rights group. Al-Muqbil described in a video the GEA’s actions as “erasing the original identity of society.”
A court sentenced an Indian national to 10 years for “misusing social media,” “blasphemy,” and “hurting the religious and national sentiment of the Kingdom.”
During the year, social media reported the SCC held many hearings in the trial of influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali. The government detained al-Hawali along with three of his sons in 2018. Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.
During the year, the SCC held at least five hearings on the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. In 2018, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labeling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS.
In February Deputy Governor of Makkah Province Badr bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz ordered the arrest of comedian Yasir Bakr for allegedly mocking the CPVPV at an entertainment event in Jeddah. Bakr, founder of Al-Comedy Club in Jeddah, later appeared in a video on Twitter apologizing for his comments.
On April 20, local media reported that the public prosecutor summoned a man for investigation regarding a tweet that “disturbed public order” under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. According to press reports, the man tweeted a call for all women in the country wearing a niqab to come together at Riyadh Boulevard in order to burn them, according to media reports.
On June 23, authorities arrested Dammam-based Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullatif Hussain al-Nasser when he attempted to travel to Bahrain. The government provided no reason for his arrest. Security officials interrogated Abdullatif and then transferred him to the State Security Prison in Dammam, according to activists.
On June 27, the SCC held the first hearing for three Shia men, Ramzi al-Jamal, Ali Hasan al-Zayyed, and Mohammed Issa al-Labbad, who turned themselves in to security authorities in 2017 after their names appeared on a list of 23 individuals wanted by the authorities. The public prosecutor sought the death penalty for the three on protest-related charges, according to ESOHR and activists.
Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.
The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.
The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons; it restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas. In 2018 the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. A May article in a government-linked newspaper described the hotline as a 24/7 service to report “undisciplined imams and mosques that need maintenance.” In 2018 the MOIA launched a mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) which monitors sermons and allows mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.
In March the Council of Ministers approved a new regulation for imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina stipulating that the clerics be “moderate,” among other requirements.
Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden. Some Shia community members reported that Shia pilgrims were permitted to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj. Sources also stated that Shia pilgrims were permitted to approach, but not touch, the graves of the four Shia imams buried in the al-Baqi Cemetery in Medina for a period of two hours after morning prayers and two hours after noon prayers.
Since 2016, authorities have permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the largest Shia population in the country. These commemorations included significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.
According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There is, however, a public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. There also is a private, non-Muslim cemetery only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.
In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunni practice), or in some instances not to close at all.
The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government prohibited eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.
The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction for employment credit, while the government generally recognized graduates of Sunni religious training institutions for government positions and religious jobs.
The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The Institute for Gulf Studies found that Saudi textbooks in 2019 were still teaching students that “Christians, Jews, and other Muslims are ‘enemies’ of the true believer, and to befriend and show respect only to other true believers, specifically the Wahhabis.” According to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, Saudi textbooks in 2019 taught students “to consider Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘assassins’ bent on harming Muslim holy places, and to punish gays by death.” Shia community representatives in the Eastern Province reported throughout 2018-19 that textbooks no longer disparaged Shia beliefs. The Anti-Defamation League reported the newest edition of textbooks for the fall of 2019 continued to contain problematic passages.
Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.
Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.
The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that contained “objectionable” content such as views of religion it considered extremist or ill-informed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anti-cybercrimes law. The government also located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger. Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked.
Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to approve extension of endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Authorities allowed Shia communities to rebuild a mosque in Taroot, near Qatif, during the year. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar. Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.
Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.
Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.
Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur, particularly with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities. Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring. There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown. Many Shia stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.
Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. There were seven Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.
Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Muslims were concentrated, had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. Shia Muslims were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. According to HRW, the Saudi government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.
According to international human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.
There were continued media reports that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Reports of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, reportedly were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.
The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.
The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”
The government hosted many Jewish and Christian religious leaders, but did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis, continued to hold low-profile services without government harassment, although they reportedly found restrictions on clergy travel particularly problematic. Authorities also allowed regular visits by the Catholic bishop, resident in Bahrain, who has responsibility for Catholics in the country, and by evangelical Protestant leaders.
In November the Presidency of State Security released a video on Twitter that categorized feminism, homosexuality, and atheism as extremist ideas. The animated clip said “all forms of extremism and perversion are unacceptable.” It also included takfir, the practice by some Muslims of labeling followers of other schools of Islam unbelievers, among the categories of unacceptable behavior. The security agency later deleted the post and said the video contained “many mistakes” while suggesting that those behind it would face a formal investigation, according to a statement posted by the official press agency.
According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, [and] The Protocols of [the Elders of] Zion.” In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.
On April 5, August 23, October 11, and December 27, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Makkah in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”
In May the Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa called for the protection of followers of religions and places of worship after the terrorist attack on a Jewish temple in California and previous terrorist crimes. Al-Issa offered condolences to a number of Jewish religious leaders in New York.
During the May MWL International Conference on Moderation in Islam in Mecca, King Salman called for encouraging “concepts of tolerance and moderation, while strengthening the culture of consensus and reconciliation.” He added that the country was founded on values of moderation. The conference adopted the “Mecca Charter,” which calls for laws “to deter the promotion of hatred, the instigation of violence and terrorism, or a clash of civilizations, which foster religious and ethnic disputes.”
During the year, some Qatari nationals again reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017. The Saudi Press Agency announced that Qataris and foreign residents of Qatar would be allowed to land at Jeddah or Medina airports to perform the Hajj. The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah and Medina. In May, however, the government of Qatar stated that the Saudi government continued to deny Qatar-based religious tour operators’ access to Saudi Arabia to make Hajj and Umrah arrangements for pilgrims. Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said that the government rejected the politicization of the holy rituals, adding that it has never barred any nationalities from performing them.
On September 10, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Jeddah. Following the meeting, the group met with MWL Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level. The delegation and the MWL agreed in a joint statement to promote respect for religions and mutual trust and to encourage religious harmony.
On April 28, al-Issa visited a New York synagogue, the first such trip by an MWL leader to a Jewish house of worship in the United States, and signed an agreement with the NGO Appeal of Conscience Foundation supporting the protection of religious sites around the world. On April 30, al-Issa signed a memorandum of understanding with American Jewish Committee (AJC) in which the MWL and AJC agreed “to further Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperate against racism and extremism in all its forms.” In May the MWL invited a Jewish delegation to visit the country in January 2020. Al-Issa said discussions during the visit, the first ever by a Jewish group, would address the issue of Holocaust denial.
In November the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Issa visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discuss “ways of supporting bridging relations between followers of religions and cultures to promote peace and positive harmony.”
At the annual Jeddah International Book Fair, several vendors sold anti-Semitic material, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf. Additional titles were observed that linked Jews to conspiracies.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother, reportedly because he was a Shia. Local media reported the public prosecutor’s office in Medina assured the victim’s family that it was investigating the perpetrator.
Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were commonly found in public discourse. In September an academic at Qassim University, Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out Shia from the holy city of Medina, stating that “myths and self-flagellation of Persians has reached the holiest place on earth… They must be uprooted and eradicated before this disease spreads.” In January cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini named Shia “rejectionists” in a tweet. In February another tweet described Shia as “enemies of God” and “infidels.”
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.
Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.
Anti-Semitic comments occasionally appeared in the media. In January columnist Muhammad al-Sa’idi wrote in an article in Al-Watan newspaper that Jews deliberately promote the publication and circulation of anti-Semitic literature in Arab countries that describes them as secretly running the world “in order to convince the Arabs of their power and thereby demoralize and frighten them.” When the same literature appears in the West, he added, the Jews fight it in order to maintain their positive image and present themselves as victims.”
On March 3, journalist and businessman Hussein Shobakshi wrote in his column in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat Arabic daily, owned by a member of the royal family, of the “deeply rooted hatred of Jews in Islamic culture,” in which the term “Jew” is strongly derogatory. He stated, “Anti-Semitism in the Arab world is the product of loathsome, racist education that is rooted in the Arab mentality that is used to labeling people according to tribal, family, and racial affiliation, and according to the religious school to which they belong.”
On April 5 and August 23, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” His prayer included, “Oh Allah, show us the wonders of Your might and ability inflicted upon them.”
In May columnist Mansour al-Nugaidan, who U.S. National Public Radio described as a former “jihadi” turned “moderate,” said in an interview with Dubai-based Rotana Khalijiah TV channel “atheism is a faith that should be respected because it’s man’s choice.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, the Vice President called on the government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating Badawi and others “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” Senior embassy and consulate general officers pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, the MOIA, the Muslim World League, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, and it and the penal code prohibit discrimination against any religion or its members. The constitution delegates regulation of the relationship between government and religious groups to the 26 cantons. A law in the canton of St. Gallen entered into force barring the wearing of facial concealments in public if deemed a threat to security or peace. A Federal Council decree to provide 500,000 Swiss francs ($518,000) annually to enhance protection of Jewish, Muslim, and other religious minority institutions went into effect in November. In February the state prosecutor in Schaffhausen Canton rejected a complaint against a cantonal police officer who fined a Muslim man for publicly saying “Allahu akbar” while greeting a friend in 2018. In February voters in Geneva Canton approved a law banning the wearing of visible religious symbols in the workplace by cantonal government officials, but a Geneva court exempted cantonal and communal parliamentarians. In March the Zurich High Court upheld a ruling that a Muslim father violated the law when he failed to send his sons to school rehearsals of a Christmas song. In February the same court upheld a lower court’s 2018 conviction of a man for shouting anti-Semitic epithets at an Orthodox Jew, but it reduced his prison sentence and ruled the man’s cry of “Heil Hitler!” did not constitute Nazi propaganda. A University of Fribourg study said politicians approached non-Christian religions, especially Islam, with caution and showed little political will to award minority religions privileges similar to those of Christian churches.
A nongovernmental organization (NGO) and a group of Jewish communities cited 577 anti-Semitic incidents in the German-speaking part of the country in 2018, of which 535 involved online hate speech. The 42 other incidents, which included one case in which a man threatened a group of Orthodox Jews with a knife and shouted anti-Semitic insults at them, compared with 39 such cases the groups recorded in 2017. Another NGO reported 174 anti-Semitic incidents in the French-speaking region in 2018, two of which it described as “grave,” including one assault of a Jewish man on a train, and four as “serious,” compared with 150 in 2017. A collaboration between an NGO and the Federal Commission Against Racism cited 44 incidents against Muslims in 2018 consisting primarily of derogatory remarks and marginalizing treatment, compared with 54 in 2017. In September a Muslim man reported that another man at a supermarket had questioned his wife about her headscarf and called her a “dirty Muslim.” Local media reported that two booksellers listed books with Nazi content in their online shops before removing them.
U.S. embassy officials discussed with the federal government its projects aimed at promoting religious freedom and tolerance, and with cantonal government officials cantonal recognition of minority religions, especially Islam. Embassy officials met with NGOs and religious leaders, eliciting their views on religious discrimination and government funding for security for religious institutions. The embassy hosted an iftar with discussion of religious tolerance and diversity and cohosted a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. Embassy staff spoke on religious freedom and tolerance at an iftar organized by a group promoting religious dialogue. Embassy staff also convened a roundtable with representatives of multiple faiths during a visit of the U.S. Special Advisor for Religious Minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to Federal Statistics Office figures compiled in 2015-17 and issued in January, 35.9 percent of the population older than 15 is Roman Catholic, 23.8 percent Reformed Evangelical, 5.9 percent belongs to other Christian groups, and 5.4 percent is Muslim;. There are approximately 18,000 Jews. Persons identifying with no religious group constitute 26.0 percent of the population, and the religious affiliation of 1.4 percent of the population is unknown. According to the Federal Statistics Office, of the population older than 15 belonging to other Christian groups, 2.4 percent is Orthodox Christian or Old-Oriental Christian and 2.2 percent is other Protestant, including evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christian. The remaining 1.4 percent includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Apostolic Church. The Christian Catholic Church estimates the number of Christian Catholics (also known as Old Catholics) at more than 12,000. Religious groups together constituting 1.4 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and Sikhs.
Approximately 95 percent of Muslims are of foreign origin, from more than 30 countries. Media report most come from countries of the former Yugoslavia, predominantly from Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, while others come from Albania, Turkey, North Africa, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. According to reports issued in 2018 by local media and the University of Zurich, 75 percent of the Muslim community is Sunni, 15 percent Alevi, and approximately 10 percent Shia or other Muslim, including Ahmadi. According to the gfs.bern polling and research institute, approximately 80 percent of Muslims live in cities, with the largest populations found in Zurich, Aarau, Bern, St. Gallen, Solothurn, Lausanne, and Geneva. Approximately 50 percent of Jewish households are located in Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne, and Lugano.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In its preamble, the constitution states it is adopted in the name of “Almighty God.” It guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, states each person has the right to choose his or her religion and to profess it alone or with others, and prohibits religious discrimination. It states the confederation and cantons may, within the scope of their powers, act to preserve peace between members of different religious communities.
The federal penal code prohibits any form of “debasement,” which it does not specifically define, or discrimination against any religion or religious adherents. Inciting hatred or discrimination, including by electronic means and on the basis of religion, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine. The law also penalizes anyone who refuses to provide a service because of someone’s religion; organizes, promotes, or participates in propaganda aimed at degrading and defaming adherents of a religion; or “denies, justifies, or plays down genocide or other crimes against humanity.”
The constitution delegates regulation of relations between the government and religious groups to the 26 cantons. The cantons offer legal recognition as public entities to religious communities that fulfill a number of prerequisites and whose applications for recognition are approved in a popular referendum. The necessary prerequisites include a statement acknowledging the right of religious freedom; the democratic organization of the religious community; respect for the cantonal and federal constitutions and rule of law; and financial transparency.
The cantons of Basel, Zurich, and Vaud also offer religious communities legal recognition as private entities. This gives them the right to teach their religions in public schools. Procedures for obtaining private legal recognition vary; for example, Basel requires approval of the Grand Council (the cantonal legislature).
There is no law requiring religious groups to register in a cantonal commercial registry. Religious foundations, characterized as institutions with a religious purpose that receive financial donations and maintain connections to a religious community, must register in the commercial registry. To register, the foundation must submit an official letter of application to the relevant authorities and include the organization’s name, purpose, board members, and head office location as well as a memorandum of association based on local law, a trademark certification, and a copy of the organization’s statutes.
Tax-exempt status granted to religious groups varies from canton to canton. Most cantons automatically grant tax-exempt status to religious communities that receive cantonal financial support, while all other religious communities must generally establish they are organized as nonprofit associations and submit an application for tax-exempt status to the cantonal government.
All of the cantons, with the exception of Geneva, Neuchatel, Ticino, and Vaud, financially support at least one of four religious communities that the cantons have recognized as public entities – Roman Catholic, Christian Catholic, Reformed Evangelical, or Jewish – with funds collected through a mandatory church tax for registered church members and, in some cantons, businesses. Only religious groups recognized as public entities are eligible to receive funds collected through the church tax, and no canton has recognized any other religious groups as public entities. The church tax is voluntary in the cantons of Ticino, Neuchatel, and Geneva, while in all others an individual who chooses not to pay the church tax may have to formally leave the religious institution. The canton of Vaud is the only canton that does not collect a church tax; however, the Reformed Evangelical and Roman Catholic Churches are subsidized directly through the cantonal budget.
In January new legislation in the canton of St. Gallen entered into force barring the wearing of facial concealments in public if the concealment poses “a threat to public security or religious and/or societal peace.” The law determines threats on a case-by-case basis and does not specify penalties for violators. While the legislation does not specifically mention types of facial covering, political discussions about the law predominantly focused on Islamic garb, including the burqa and niqab. Legislation in the canton of Ticino also bans the wearing of face coverings in public.
In February voters in the canton of Geneva approved a law banning all cantonal government officials from wearing visible religious symbols, such as head scarves, kippahs, or crosses, in the workplace. In November the Constitutional Chamber of the Geneva Court of Justice granted an appeal submitted by the Green Party to exempt cantonal and communal parliamentarians from the ban but ruled it would remain in place for all other cantonal officials. The new law also grants all religious communities the right to apply for financial support from cantonal authorities.
The constitution prohibits the construction of minarets. The prohibition does not apply to the four existing mosques with minarets established before the constitution was amended to include the ban. The law allows the construction of new mosques without minarets.
A federal animal welfare law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior anesthetization, effectively banning kosher and halal slaughter practices. Importation of traditionally slaughtered kosher and halal meat is legal, and such products are available.
The constitution sets education policy at the cantonal level, but municipal school authorities have some discretion in implementing cantonal guidelines. Most public cantonal schools offer religious education, with the exception of schools in Geneva and Neuchatel. Public schools normally offer classes in Roman Catholic and/or Protestant doctrines, with the precise details varying from canton to canton and sometimes from school to school; a few schools provide instruction on other religions. The municipality of Ebikon, in Lucerne Canton, and the municipality of Kreuzlingen, in Thurgau Canton, among others, offer religious classes in Islamic doctrine. In some cantons, religious classes are voluntary, while in others, such as in Zurich and Fribourg, they form part of the mandatory curriculum at the secondary school level, although schools routinely grant waivers for children whose parents request them. Children from minority religious groups may attend classes of their own faith. Practices vary from canton to canton, but most often these classes are held outside of school premises and school hours and financed by the minority religious groups. Parents may also send their children to private religious schools at their expense or homeschool their children.
Most cantons require general classes about religion and culture in addition to classes in Christian doctrines. There are no national guidelines for waivers on religious grounds from religion classes not covering doctrine, and practices vary.
On November 1, a decree the Federal Council issued in 2018 went into effect. The decree stipulates the government will provide 500,000 francs ($518,000) annually in federal grants for the enhanced protection of religious minority institutions, notably of the Jewish and Muslim communities. According to the decree, the funds are to cofinance the communities’ infrastructural, technical, and organizational security measures, including establishing walls, security cameras, and alarm systems and organizing risk-identification and threat-awareness training.
The law grants clerics exemption from mandatory military service. The law categorizes clerics as members of a religious order living in a communal congregation bound by a religious oath and official duties; and officials of a formally organized religious community with more than 2,000 members who are above the age of 25 years and have at least three years of religious education.
Religious groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize, but foreign missionaries from countries not members of the European Union (EU) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) must obtain a religious worker visa to work in the country. Visa requirements include proof that the foreigner does not displace a citizen from a job, he/she has completed formal theological training, and he/she will be financially supported by the host organization. Nonrecognized religious groups must also demonstrate to cantonal governments that the number of their foreign religious workers is not out of proportion to the size of the community when compared to the relative number of religious workers of cantonally recognized religious communities.
Foreign missionaries must also have sufficient knowledge of, respect for, and understanding of national customs and culture; be conversant in at least one of the three main national languages; and hold a degree in theology. The law requires immigrant clerics with insufficient language skills or knowledge of local culture and customs, regardless of religious affiliation, to attend mandatory courses to facilitate their integration into society. In some instances, the cantons may approve an applicant lacking this proficiency by devising an “integration agreement” that contains certain goals the applicant must try to meet. The host organization must also “recognize the country’s legal norms” and pledge it will not tolerate abuse of the law by its members. If an applicant is unable to meet these requirements, the government may deny the residency and work permits.
The law also allows the government to refuse residency and work permits if a background check reveals an individual has ties to religious groups deemed “radicalized” or that have engaged in “hate preaching,” defined as publicly inciting hatred against a religious group, disseminating ideologies intended to defame members of a religious group, organizing defamatory propaganda campaigns, engaging in public discrimination, denying or trivializing genocide or other crimes against humanity, or refusing to provide service based on religion. The law authorizes immigration authorities to refuse residency permits to clerics the government considers “fundamentalists” if authorities deem internal security or public order is at risk.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February the state prosecutor’s office of the canton of Schaffhausen rejected a racial discrimination complaint the NGO Left People-of-Color Zurich filed in January against a Schaffhausen cantonal police officer who fined a Muslim man 210 francs ($220) for publicly saying “Allahu akbar” (“God is Great”) while greeting a friend in May 2018. The state prosecutor’s office stated the police officer’s actions did not constitute racial discrimination. According to the state prosecutor, public actions were considered racially discriminating only if directed against a larger group of individuals not personally connected to the accused. The man told local media he tried to explain the expression to the officer, who subsequently called for police reinforcement to frisk him. According to press reports, the man decided to pay the fine without submitting an appeal in order to avoid further altercations.
In March the Federal Court rejected an appeal by a Basel-based lawyer against a May 2018 regulation issued by the canton of Basel’s Council of Courts prohibiting all judges, law clerks, and court trainees from wearing publicly visible religious symbols in court. The council reportedly issued the regulation after a female Muslim lawyer submitted an application for a traineeship at the cantonal court that contained a photograph of herself wearing a headscarf. Cantonal authorities stated the regulation was based on the court’s “obligation to independence and religious neutrality.” The Federal Court stated the regulation did not violate the right to religious freedom and avoided creating a perception that judges were religiously biased.
By year’s end, authorities in the canton of St. Gallen had not levied any fines on Muslim women for wearing the niqab since the January enactment of the canton’s law banning public face coverings. Press reported the canton of Ticino had also not fined any Muslim women for violating that canton’s face-cover ban.
In March the Zurich High Court upheld a 2017 ruling by the board of magistrates of the city of Dietikon against a Muslim father for violating the municipal education law after not sending, in 2016, his three sons to the rehearsals of their school’s Christmas song performance. School officials had previously granted the children dispensation from the performance upon the father’s request, but they had ordered the children to attend rehearsals. While the high court approved the initial ruling by Dietikon authorities, it reduced the fine from 500 to 300 francs ($520 to $310). The father appealed the sentence to the Federal Court, where it remained pending at year’s end.
A study the University of Fribourg published in July found that more than 80 of 140 parliamentary motions on religious issues members of 15 cantonal parliaments submitted between 2010 and 2018 focused on queries and policies related to Islam. According to the researchers, politicians approached non-Christian religious communities, especially Muslim, with caution and “defensive tendencies.” The researchers stated there appeared to be little political will to award minority religions privileges, such as the right to collect church taxes, similar to those granted Christian churches.
In February the Zurich High Court reduced from 24 to 12 months the prison sentence of the member of a heavy metal band convicted by a lower court in 2018 for violating the antiracism law by shouting anti-Semitic epithets at an Orthodox Jewish man in 2015. The high court, which ruled the band member’s cry of “Heil Hitler!” did not constitute Nazi propaganda, also increased the fine he had to pay the Jewish man from 1,000 to 3,000 francs ($1,000 to $3,100).
The government continued to grant visas primarily to religious workers who intended to replace individuals serving in similar functions in the same religious community. Turkish nationals applying for short- and long-term religious worker visas needed to show they were associated with the Turkish Central Authority for Religious Affairs.
Pursuant to past court decisions, the government continued not to issue religious visas to missionaries of certain denominations, such as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, because they did not possess a theology degree. Church of Jesus Christ missionaries from EU and EFTA countries could work, however, because they did not require visas to enter the country.
The Federal Service for Combating Racism, which is responsible for matters related to religious discrimination, provided 55,000 francs ($56,900) during the year to fund five projects focusing on religious freedom, including 1,000 francs ($1,000) to support a seminar to combat anti-Islamic hate speech and 34,000 francs ($35,200) towards fighting anti-Semitism – including 20,000 francs ($20,700) for a Holocaust exhibition at the Basel Historical Museum – and 20,000 francs ($20,700) towards the development of school material on the country’s religious diversity.
Although Holocaust education was not a requirement, most schools included it in their curriculum and participated in the annual Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 29.
On January 28, members of the federal government and parliament, including President of the Federal Assembly Marina Carobbio Guscetti, attended an official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Yehudi Menuhin Forum in Bern. In a speech at the ceremony, Carobbio Guscetti highlighted the importance of “sensitizing the younger generation and ensuring they become responsible citizens, so that they remain aware that discrimination can lead to annihilation.” Separately, President Ueli Maurer called on society to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to ensure the continued protection, respect, and dignity of minorities in a public message to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The 2018 Anti-Semitism Report, produced jointly by the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) and the NGO Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism (GRE), cited 577 anti-Semitic incidents, 535 of which involved anti-Semitic online hate speech and 42 other types of incidents, in the German-speaking part of the country in 2018. The SIG and GRE said they had changed their incident reporting and research methodology, documenting online anti-Semitic hate speech for the first time and carrying out more proactive and independent research of anti-Semitic incidents. In 2017, the report cited 39 anti-Semitic incidents, excluding online hate speech. The 2018 report documented one case where a man followed a group of Orthodox Jewish men in Zurich, threatening them with a knife and shouting anti-Semitic insults.
Separately, the Geneva-based NGO Intercommunity Center for Coordination against Anti-Semitism and Defamation (CICAD) reported 174 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, including 111 cases of online anti-Semitic hate speech, in the French-speaking region, compared with 150 cases in 2017. The CICAD report deemed two cases “grave” (involving acts against the integrity and wellbeing of a person, including aggression, harassment, or destruction of property), and four “serious” (involving acts such as anti-Semitic letters, insults, or graffiti). One of the “grave” cases involved a Palestinian man who assaulted a Jewish man on a train from Fribourg to Lausanne by throwing the man’s kippah in the trash, breaking his glasses, and stealing his watch. The report cited a continued resurgence of right-wing extremist activities and anti-Semitic incidents. It also observed a continued rise in online anti-Semitic hate speech posted by right-wing, left-wing, and Islamic groups, 21 percent of which circulated anti-Semitic tropes of a global Jewish conspiracy controlling the world. Examples of online hate speech included calling Israel a Nazi state for occupying Palestinian territories and denying the number of Jewish victims who died during the Holocaust. The report further cited the growing trivialization of the Holocaust under the guise of “childish jokes.”
In April the Consulting Network for Racism Victims, a collaboration between the NGO humanrights.ch and the Federal Commission Against Racism that provides consulting and counseling services related to racism and religious discrimination, released its report for 2018. It stated there were 44 anti-Muslim incidents in that year (the third-highest number in the categories it tallied), compared with 54 in 2017. According to the report, anti-Muslim incidents were predominantly verbal and behavioral, involving primarily derogatory remarks and marginalizing treatment, including discrimination, denial of services, and racial profiling, among others, occurring mainly in neighborhoods, at school, and at work. In one incident, according to the consulting network, an advisor at a government employment-services center accused a Muslim woman of wearing her headscarf as an excuse to not find work. The advisor told the Muslim woman she would have been more successful in obtaining employment if she had decided not to wear a headscarf.
In September a Muslim man told the local newspaper 20 Minuten that a man in a supermarket had questioned his wife about her wearing a headscarf. He reportedly called her a “dirty Muslim” and referred to Muslims as a “pack of pigs.” The supermarket staff reportedly reprimanded the man, and police were called to the scene after an altercation ensued between the husband and man over the incident.
In May local media reported the bookstores Exlibris and Orell Fussli listed books with National Socialist and anti-Semitic content in their online shops. Exlibris reportedly featured Alfred Rosenberg’s The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Jewish World Politics, while Orell Fussli sold copies of Jupp Daehler’s The Underman. Both bookstores stated the listings were “an oversight” and that they had removed the books from their catalogues.
According to media and NGO reports, the main groups responsible for engaging in anti-Semitic rhetoric were Geneva Noncompliant, European Action, the Party of Nationally Oriented Swiss (PNOS), and the Swiss Nationalist Party (the French-speaking branch of PNOS). CICAD reported a resurgence of activities by right-wing individuals in all French-speaking cantons.
Many NGOs and representatives of the religious community coordinated interfaith events to promote tolerance locally and nationwide. In November the Week of Religions, a national event sponsored by religious communities, civil society groups, and the cantons, featured more than 100 interfaith events nationwide, including exhibitions, music and dance concerts, film screenings, roundtables, panel discussions, sporting activities, and communal dinners. The SIG and the Federation of Islamic Organization in Switzerland continued to support a project to encourage tolerance and address misconceptions between Muslims and Jews. The independent Zurich Institute for Interreligious Dialogue continued to provide a platform to study the religious histories and cultures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as to discuss contemporary developments related to the religions, by organizing educational courses, speeches, panel discussions, and excursions. The institute hosted courses on the history of religions and seminars comparing religious texts from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as a conference on Jewish prayers.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials discussed with the government’s Service for Combating Racism federal government-supported projects for promoting religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy representatives also discussed with cantonal government officials the cantonal recognition of minority religions, especially Islam.
Embassy officials met with the Muslim Association of Bern, the Christian Katharina Werk Community, and other religious associations; representatives from civil society; leaders of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities; and representatives of other religious minorities, including the Baha’i, Alevi, Sikh, and Hindu communities, to discuss discrimination against religious groups, availability of religious education for religious minorities, and government funding for security measures to protect religious institutions.
On January 27, the embassy cohosted with the Israeli embassy a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Yehudi Menuhin Forum in Bern. In his remarks, the U.S. Ambassador underscored the importance of religious freedom.
Embassy staff spoke about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance at an iftar at Bern’s House of Religions, a community-funded association working to strengthen religious and cultural dialogue and promote religious tolerance. Embassy staff organized an iftar in June and discussed religious tolerance, diversity, and inclusion with Muslim representatives.
The embassy convened a roundtable with representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Church of Jesus Christ, Sikh, Alevi, Hindu, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths during a March visit of the U.S. Special Advisor for Religious Minorities.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Islam. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox community elected a new patriarch in December; members of the community and rights organizations criticized government interference in the election process. Minority communities continued to object to the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. The government did not return any church properties seized in previous decades. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In March President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly raised the possibility the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque. With President Erdogan in attendance, the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground in August on a new church in Istanbul, the first newly constructed church since the country became a republic in 1923. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the country’s largest mosque, which may accommodate up to 63,000. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.
In May a Muslim televangelist associated with a private television station converted a 13-year-old Armenian boy living in Turkey to Islam during a live broadcast without his parents’ permission. Members of the Armenian community and members of parliament (MPs) denounced the action. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship continued to occur. In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District of Istanbul with derogatory messages on the door and walls. Anti-Semitic discourse continued in public dialogue, particularly on social media. In July a video posted on social media showed children at an apparent summer camp being led in chants calling for “death to Jews.” In January the premier of the film Cicero generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red-carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions. In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”
The Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials to emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination. Senior officials continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 81.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members represent 0.2 percent of the population, while the most recent public opinion surveys published in January by Turkish research firm KONDA suggest approximately 3 percent of the population self-identifies as atheist and 2 percent as nonbelievers.
Leaders of Alevi foundations estimate Alevis comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population; Pew Research Center reporting indicates 5 percent of Muslims state they are Alevis. The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population.
Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia); 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines); and 16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs); 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits); and 10,000 Baha’is.
Estimates of other groups include fewer than 1,000 Yezidis; 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses; 7,000-10,000 members of Protestant denominations; fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians; and up to 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Maronite Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) estimates its membership at 300 individuals.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship. It stipulates individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion, and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion” or “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.
The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters. According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable and promote the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam; educate the public about religious issues; and administer mosques. The Diyanet operates under the Office of the President, with its head appointed by the president and administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties. The Diyanet has five main departments, called high councils: Religious Services, Hajj and Umrah Services, Education, Publications, and Public Relations. While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.
There is no separate blasphemy law; the penal code provides punishment for “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs. The penal code prohibits religious clergy from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.
The law criminalizes “insulting values held sacred by a religion,” interfering with a religious group’s services, or defacing its property. Insulting a religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.
Although registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups to operate, registering the group is required to request legal recognition for places of worship. Gaining legal recognition requires permission from the municipalities for the construction or designation of a new place of worship. It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law.
Interfering with the service of a religious group is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison. Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to recognized religious groups.
The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.
Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection. A government policy allows individuals to pay a fee of 31,343 Turkish Lira (TL) ($5,300) instead of performing full military service; however, they are required to complete a three-week basic training program. Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and, if convicted, could be subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.
The leadership and administrative structures of religious communities do not have a legal personality, leaving them unable to directly buy or hold title to property or press claims in court. Communities rely on separate foundations or associations governed by individual boards to hold and administer assets and property.
A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law. Non-Muslim citizens direct these longstanding foundations; 167 continue to exist, the majority of which are associated with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. In practice, a religious group formed after the 1935 law may successfully apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious. According to the Protestant community, there are six foundations (four existing before the passage of the 1935 foundation law), 36 associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.
The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all foundations, and it assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational statute. There are several categories of foundations, including those religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.
If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to rule it is no longer operational and transfer its assets to the state. Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close foundations by decree. The state of emergency instituted in 2016 ended in July 2018, but laws similar to regulations during the state of emergency remain in force.
A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties, as well as from donations. The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level.
Associations must be nonprofit and receive financial support only in the form of donations. To register as an association, a group must submit an application to the provincial governor’s office with supporting documentation, including bylaws and a list of founding members. A group must also obtain permission from the Ministry of the Interior as part of its application if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is a founding member; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of its residence permits. If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change the bylaws to meet the legal requirements. Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials for actions deemed to violate the organization’s bylaws. Only a court order may close an association, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close associations as well as foundations by decree. The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.
By law prisoners have the right to practice their religion while incarcerated; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship. According to the law, prison authorities must allow religious groups visitation by clergy members and allow them to offer books and other materials that are part of the prisoner’s faith.
The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public and private schools at all levels starting with fourth grade, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction, which falls under the authority of the Office of the Presidency. Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through 12. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. Atheists, agnostics, Alevis, or other non-Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Yezidis, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card are not exempt from the classes. Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.
The government continues to issue chip-enabled national identity cards that contain no visible section to identify religious affiliation. The information on religious affiliation is recorded in the chip and remains visible to authorized public officials as “qualified personal data” and protected as private information. National identity cards issued in the past, which continue in circulation and only require replacement if the card is damaged, the bearer has changed marriage status, or the individual is no longer recognizable in the photograph, contain a space for religious identification with the option of leaving the space blank. These older cards included the following religious identities as options: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, No Religion, or Other. Baha’i, Alevi, Yezidi, and other religious groups with known populations in the country were not options.
According to labor law, private and public sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on religion. Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court. If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the reversal of the employment decision.
Multiple monitoring organizations and media outlets, including Middle East Concern, International Christian Concern, World Watch Monitor, Mission Network News, and Voice of Martyrs, reported entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country. On December 2, the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for Migration Management (DGMM) announced that as of January 1, 2020, the government would deny extension requests to long-term residents for tourist purposes, in the absence of another reason to request a residency permit (i.e. marriage, work, study). Several religious minority ministers, including Christians, conducted religious services while resident in in the country on long-term tourist residence permits. While similar measures occurred in previous years, multiple groups said they perceived a significant increase in the number of removals and entry bans during the year.
Multiple reports said these Protestant communities could not train clergy in the country and relied on foreign volunteers to serve them. Local Protestant communities stated they aimed to develop indigenous Turkish leaders in their congregations because it was becoming increasingly difficult to rely on foreign volunteers; however, they faced difficulties because they could not operate training facilities in-country. Community sources also said some of the deportations and entry bans during the year targeted foreign-citizen members of the community who had lived legally, as long-term residents, in the country for decades and who had previously not experienced any immigration difficulties. According to community members, these immigration procedures also affected a local community’s ability to raise funds for local churches because foreign clergy members attracted individual donations and support from church communities in their countries of origin. Some of the individuals with entry bans or resident permit denials requested review of their immigration status through the country’s legal system. None of the cases reached conclusion by year’s end and could take several years to resolve due to the complexities of and backlog in the judicial system, according to media reports.
According to a report by the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, released and presented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on September 19, 63 Jehovah’s Witnesses faced prosecution as conscientious objectors, with 44 individuals facing 177 different charges and fines totaling more than $54,000. The report stated a person may be called for military service multiple times per year and charged as a “draft evader” because there was no form of approved alternative service in the country. The report also stated the Ministry of Defense sent letters to the individual’s employer to encourage the termination of his or her employment.
The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ to remove its volunteers and international staff from the country remained in effect throughout the year. In April 2018 the Church cited safety reasons as the reason for the removal. According to local members, some followers stayed away from church because they feared retribution and discrimination. Some said they had lost their jobs, including in the public sector, because of their faith, and they experienced difficulties in finding new employment.
The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship. In March 2018, the head of Diyanet said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis.
In December the Armenian community elected Bishop Sahak Masalyan as the 85th Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Istanbul. Some members of the community said in public statements and social media posts that the government’s involvement in the process and the community’s decision not to oppose the state-issued election regulations undermined the legitimacy of the process. In September the Ministry of Interior issued regulations governing the election of a new patriarch following the death of Mesrob II Mutafyan in March. According to public statements and media reports, multiple Church officials and rights groups widely criticized the regulations, stating they infringed on the community’s religious freedom by limiting eligible candidates to bishops currently serving within the patriarchate. The regulations also lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and expanded the number of elected delegates from 89 to 120, which Church officials said they regarded as positive steps. In July the Constitutional Court published its ruling that the Istanbul governor’s decision to block the patriarchal elections in 2018 violated the right of religious freedom for the community. In February of that year, the Istanbul governor’s office denied a 2017 application by the Armenian Patriarchate to hold patriarchal elections, stating the patriarchate had not met the required conditions for an election since the patriarch had not passed away or resigned.
The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country. Because of a lack of seminaries within the country, the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy. Protestant churches also reported an inability to train clergy in the country made their communities dependent on foreign clergy. Local Protestant church representatives raised concerns that the government’s reported accelerated deportation of foreign clergy members hurt their community’s ability to instruct local clergy unable to travel abroad for training.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I again called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clergy in the country. A 1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure. Amendments to the constitution in 1982 allowed for the establishment of private institutions of higher education but also placed significant restrictions on the institutions, and the seminary was not permitted to reopen and operate under its traditions. According to the ecumenical patriarch, the continued closure interrupted a tradition of instruction dating back centuries to the historical roots of the school as a monastery. In July 2018, the Diyanet announced plans to open an Islamic educational center on the same island as the shuttered seminary. At year’s end, the Diyanet had not taken further steps to advance the project.
According to media reports, several imams criticized the Diyanet for becoming increasingly politicized after those imams were dismissed from their posts, reportedly for not supporting the government. In statements to media, multiple former employees said the Diyanet did not apply its regulations fairly. The justification provided for the dismissals was a “breach of guidelines,” applicable to all imams, including neither praising nor criticizing political parties; however, some of the dismissed imams said the sanctions were not applied to those supporting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). According to media reports, an imam lost his position after accepting an invitation to lead a prayer for an opposition party before the local elections on March 31.
In October the Diyanet established a radio and television commission tasked with reviewing products prepared by the Diyanet itself or public institutions, agencies or production companies.
The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic and the Ecumenical Patriarchates and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, overseen by separate governing boards, to hold and control individual religious properties.
Members of religious communities reported the inability to hold elections for the governing boards of their foundations remained an impediment to managing their affairs. They said when board members died, retired, or left the country, foundation boards had a more difficult time fulfilling their duties and ran the risk of eventually not functioning without new members. If they reached the point of no longer functioning, the government could then declare the foundation defunct and transfer its properties and other assets to the state.
In March the Directorate General of Foundations issued a decree allowing foundations to appoint members to their governing boards but did not issue new regulations to permit elections, which had been pending since 2013. The Freedom of Belief Initiative, a human rights project of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said the action was contrary to the traditions of foundations in the country, describing it as further interference in the rights of religious communities. Some foundations stated they would not make use of the new order and instead would await new regulations to hold elections for their governing boards. According to local religious community representatives, without the ability to hold new elections, governing boards risked losing the ability to manage the activities and properties of their communities, and foundations could become inactive without newly elected leadership.
The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and kill its pastor in 2013 continued throughout the year.
In January the ECHR ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly and association, because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. The court ruling required the government to pay six members of the congregation in Istanbul a total compensation of 8,724 euros ($9,800). Compensation could include legal assistance and legal and court registration fees; by year’s end there was no information available on whether the government had compensated the six individuals and no disclosure of any government payments.
According to media reports, in May a court released Uighur activist Abdulkadir Yapcan after nearly three years in detention, but he remained under judicial controls that limited his movements to his neighborhood in Istanbul. The deportation case against him continued at year’s end. In 2003 China listed Yapcan as one of its 11 most-wanted terrorists and accused him of supporting violence and founding a terrorist organization. Uighur activists and rights organizations, however, said the extradition request was punishment for his political positions. His defense attorney said China did not produce any evidence to substantiate its claims despite previous promises to do so, according to public statements to local media after the May hearing. In 2016 the ECHR ruled against removing Yapcan from Turkey during the ongoing court case due to concerns about his safety and potential refoulement to China should he be deported to a third country. In August media reports quoted Interior Minister Soylu stating, “We do not send anyone back to China if they face persecution.”
The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so. The government’s position remained that the ecumenical patriarch was only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011 stopgap solution intended to widen the pool of candidates eligible to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in that city, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens.
The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations.
Multiple Protestant church representatives continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in registering places of worship. Church representatives said they had to continue meeting in unregistered locations for worship services. According to Protestant group representatives, local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, including minimum space requirements not imposed on mosques. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, which they permitted to build worship facilities in malls, airports, and other smaller spaces. Additionally, some Protestant churches reported local authorities did not allow them to display crosses on the exterior of their buildings.
In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and governorate of the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house in the city. Previously, a court had fined the two government agencies as part of a longstanding case. The lawyer of the victims’ families said they would appeal the October ruling. According to their lawyer, if the ruling held, the families would have to return compensation totaling 900,000 TL ($151,000) with interest to the ministry and the governorate.
In February an Istanbul court acquitted Berna Lacin on charges of insulting religious values, sometimes referred to locally as “blasphemy charges.” The charges stemmed from Lacin’s 2018 post on Twitter about the alleged number of rapes in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The tweet was in response to calls by the Grand Union Party, families of victims, and some newspapers to reinstate capital punishment for child abuse crimes following a wave of molestation reports in media. “If capital punishment was a solution, the city of Medina would not be breaking records in rape cases,” Lacin said in her post. In the indictment, the prosecutor said Lacin insulted people’s religious values and went beyond what was permissible under the law governing freedom of expression.
In February the ECHR rejected the country’s appeal to reduce the 54,400-euro ($61,100) compensation it was obligated to pay the Alevi Cem Foundation. The Cem Foundation took the government to the ECHR in 2010 for discrimination for not paying the electric bills of Alevi places of worship, a service provided for mosques. The government appealed for a fee reduction to 23,300 euros ($26,200). In November 2018 the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled cemevis are places of worship and therefore should receive the same benefits as Sunni mosques, including being exempt from paying utility bills. Alevi organizations continued to call on the government to comply with the ruling throughout the year.
In February the GDF announced restoration plans for, and began work on, the Surp Giragos Armenian and Mar Petyun Chaldean Churches, both in Surp District, Diyarbakir. The Kursunlu Mosque reopened in March following the completion of structural renovations. Religious communities challenged the government’s 2016 expropriation of their properties damaged in clashes between government security forces and the U.S. government-designated terrorist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The government expropriated those properties for its stated goal of “post-conflict reconstruction.” In September 2016, the GDF began restoring the expropriated Armenian Catholic Church; the restoration continued through year’s end, and the church was not accessible for public use. During the year, the government again did not pay restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.
During the year, the government did not return properties seized in previous decades; it returned 56 properties to the Syriac community in 2018. Representatives from various communities said they continued to pursue property returns through the appropriate legal and government channels. From 2011, when the compensation law was passed, through 2013, when the period for submitting compensation applications expired, the GDF received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations that sought compensation for seized properties. Because the period for submitting new applications expired in 2013, no new applications were filed during the year. In previous years, the GDF returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties. The GDF had rejected the other applications pending from 2011; it said the applications did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to say these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Due to their legal status, recognized religious foundations were eligible to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.
According to media reports, in June the Ovacik District Governorate sent a letter to the muhtars (village leaders) of eight villages in the district ordering them to evacuate as soon as possible due to the villages “being in a natural disaster zone.” The district is home to many Alevis and their religious sites. According to media reports, the villages were scheduled for removal because the government had awarded a Canadian-Turkish mining consortium rights to conduct exploratory mining in Munzur National Park – a spiritual area for the Alevis containing many holy sites. The letter did not specify when the villages were to be evacuated; as of December there was no public update on the case.
In March President Erdogan raised the possibility that the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque during a televised interview, adding that the name could change to Ayasophia Mosque. The government took no action following the president’s comments.
Progovernment newspaper Yeni Safak reported in November that the Council of State (the highest administrative court) ruled a former church and mosque now serving as the Chora Museum should be returned to its status as a mosque, sparking concerns in the global Christian community that this decision could pave the way for similar changes to the status of the Hagia Sophia. The museum, famed for its mosaics and frescos depicting Christian imagery, was originally constructed and repeatedly renovated as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior in the fifth century and then converted into the Kariye Mosque in 1511 before becoming a museum in 1945. According to the Yeni Safak report, the Council of State determined the 1945 decision to designate the structure as a museum was illegal because it violated the charter of the foundation that owned the then-mosque; the charter stated the building would serve indefinitely as a mosque. Yeni Safak said the decision moved to the cabinet for action; no changes to the museum’s status were reported at year’s end.
Religious communities, particularly Alevis, continued to raise concerns about several of the government’s education policies. At year’s end, the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ECHR ruling that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to Alevi religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECHR decision, but Alevi groups stated the material was inadequate, and in some cases, incorrect. In February various Alevi organizations issued a joint statement: “Alevis respect all religions … but will keep their distance from those who ignore, limit or attempt to transform Alevism.” They also called on the government to implement the ECHR decisions.
Non-Sunni Muslims and secular Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives dealing with different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as Muslim. The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups, including Alevis and members of Christian denominations, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups, such as some educational texts referring to Alevi beliefs as mysticism. In February the Konya Regional Administrative Court ruled the changes made in the compulsory religion course curriculum did not eliminate violations to educational freedom as ruled by the ECHR in 2013. In June the Istanbul 12th Regional Administrative Court accepted an Alevi parent’s appeal for his son’s exclusion from the compulsory religious course.
Members of other minority religious groups, including Protestants, said they continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from religion classes. Some rights groups said that because schools provided no alternative for students exempted from the compulsory religious instruction, those students stood out and as a result could face additional social stigma.
In March the Council of State ruled to end a three-year agreement between the Ministry of National Education and the Islamic Hizmet Foundation to provide “moral values” education in schools. The state council ruled the 2017 agreement contradicted a provision of the constitution that requires the conduct of education in state schools be performed by public sector employees. In September the ministry issued a new regulation enabling international organizations and NGOs to organize social activities in schools. In 2018 the teachers union Egitim-Sen applied to the Council of State, which hears cases seeking to change administrative policies of the government, to end the moral values education protocol, and stated conducting such programs during school hours would force students to attend regardless of religious affiliation.
According to media reports and public statements, in January administrators of an Istanbul public high school reprimanded with letters to their files 12 students for participating in a December 2018 demonstration where they stated “Islamist students supported by school principals” pressured them to attend “religious conversations” in their spare time. Egitim-Is, an education sector union, criticized the school administration and said the government had handed over secular schools to religious groups.
According to media reports, in January a religious culture and ethics teacher at a high school in Istanbul, Cemil Kilic, was suspended from duty reportedly after making public comments favorably comparing the morals of atheists and deists to those of “self-professed” Muslims and saying headscarves were not obligatory in Islam. In May he was allowed to resume his duties in the central province of Nigde while awaiting the ruling of a disciplinary committee. According to media reports, Kilic faced possible dismissal pending the outcome of the committee’s deliberations.
In January a headmaster in Ankara distributed a leaflet and issued a warning against teachers who wore high heels, stating it was against Islam. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), demanded the headmaster’s removal from office. The headmaster subsequently issued an apology to the teachers.
In August Egitim-Sen stated only one of every five students was learning in gender-segregated classrooms. Egitim-Sen said this violated the rights of children living under a secular constitution and it contradicted the 2018 National Education Ministry regulation allowing separate classrooms for girls and boys in multiprogram (offering regular, technical, and vocation programs) high schools. Officials of the Ministry of Education denied allegations the regulation was a step towards creating single-gender classrooms in all schools. Multiprogram schools continued to bring regular, technical, and vocational high schools together in less populated areas where the requirement for the minimum number of students for each program could not be met.
The Mental Health Professionals’ Platform in February criticized the continuing assignment of Diyanet employees to university dormitories as an example of greater religious influence on the education system. It stated social services should not be provided by individuals without the appropriate professional background. In 2017 the Diyanet announced a plan to expand and make permanent a pilot program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms and provide the Diyanet’s provincial muftis with performance reviews every six months.
The government continued to provide funding for public, private, and religious schools teaching Islam. It did not do so for minority schools recognized under the Lausanne Treaty, except to pay the salaries for courses taught in Turkish, such as Turkish literature. The minority religious communities funded all their other expenses through donations, including from church foundations and alumni.
The government continued to permit Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government continued to classify legal migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive a diploma from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. According to members of the Syriac Orthodox community, which has operated a preschool since 2014, the community was still unable to open additional schools for financial reasons. The government did not grant permission to other religious groups to operate schools.
Parents of some students again criticized the practice of converting some nonreligious public schools into imam hatip religious schools. Sources said this created a hurdle for those preferring to attend secular public schools because the number of imam hatip middle schools increased by more than one hundred and the number of students by nearly 40,000 for the 2018-2019 academic year, according to official statistics. These sources rejected government claims that demand drove the increase, and they said limited options often compelled nonreligious families to send students to the religious schools. The country’s 2019 investment program in the general budget included the government’s associated priorities, with 460 million TL ($77.42 million) allocated for new imam hatip schools, compared with TL 30 million ($5.05 million) for new science schools.
Many public buildings, including universities, continued to maintain small mosques. In June 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued a regulation requiring every new school to have an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported the approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country were insufficient to meet demand. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.
In January several Alevi foundations requested the end of an ongoing program that takes school children ages six to 13 to local mosques for religious instruction during their two-week winter break. In 2018 the Ministry of National Education signed a contract with Server Youth and Sports Club for 50,000 children drawn from each of the 81 provinces to participate in the voluntary program. Alevi representatives said they objected to the program because students not participating could be “singled out” for not participating and as being different from the other students.
In November an IYI Party MP commented on a government official’s family’s “excessive” display of wealth on social media, posting “There is a group of people that have become rich due to their undeserved income and live luxuriously; we call them Protestant Muslims. These people have become Jews, mentally.” The post received widespread criticism from social media users and members of the Jewish community.
According to media reports, in February the Prophet Lovers Foundation (Peygamber Sevdalıları Vakfı), a group based in the southeast of the country, received permission to conduct religious examinations in public schools. One exam answer stated the concept of Jews and Christians going to heaven was a “poisonous idea.”
The government continued not to authorize clergy of religious groups designated as non-Islamic or heterodox Islam, including Alevi leaders (dedes), to register and officiate at marriages on behalf of the state. Imams received this authority in November 2017. Some critics continued to state the law solely addressed the demands of some within the Sunni Muslim majority and not the needs of other religious groups.
The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 107,206 Sunni personnel at the end of 2018, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 109,332 in 2017. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.
The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and to fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet’s most recent published statistics, there were 88,681 mosques in the country in 2018, compared with 88,021 Diyanet-operated mosques in 2107. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the largest mosque in the country. Located in Istanbul, it can accommodate 63,000. Although Alevi groups were able to build some new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction and maintenance in most cases.
In August leaders of the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground on the St. Ephrem (Mor Efrem) Church in Istanbul during a ceremony attended by President Erdogan and representatives of other religious communities. Once completed, it will be the first newly constructed church since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. To date, the approximately 18,000-member Syriac Orthodox community in Istanbul has used churches of other communities, in addition to its one current church, to hold services. Erdogan said the church would add “new richness” to the city and stated, “Our region has been the heart of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity,” according to media reports. Community representatives said the project would not have been possible without the public support of the president.
The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant Christian sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, and the House of the Virgin Mary, near Selcuk. The Ecumenical Patriarchate again cancelled an annual service at Sumela Monastery, near Trabzon, because of its continuing restoration. A portion of the Sumela Monastery reopened to visitors in May after renovations were completed on part of the complex, but large portions continued under renovation.
In April a court sentenced the chairperson of Alperen Ocaklari Foundation to one year in prison for inciting public hatred and animosity during a 2017 protest in front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul. During the incident, a group hurled rocks at the synagogue, kicked its doors, and threatened members of the Jewish community. The protest was a reaction to the placement of metal detectors by Israel in front of Al Aqsa Mosque, according to the members of the protesting group.
In June a local court in Bursa approved the application by the Protestant community in Bursa to start a foundation. At year’s end the government still had not responded to a request by the Protestant foundation to allow long-term use of a church renovated in 2018 using government funding. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations continued to share the building, owned by the GDF for more than 10 years.
The government continued to provide incarcerated Sunni Muslims with mesjids (small mosques) and Sunni preachers in larger prisons. Alevis and non-Muslims did not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons; however, clergy of other faiths were permitted to enter prisons with the permission of the public prosecutor to minister to their adherents as long as doing so was not considered a threat to a facility’s security.
For the second year in a row, the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country was officiated by the then-acting Armenian patriarch. Authorities canceled annual services between 2015-2017, citing security concerns arising from clashes between the military and the PKK.
Government funding for daily and weekly newspapers published by minority communities increased from a total of TL 200,000 ($33,700) in 2018 to 250,000 TL ($42,100) during the year.
Jewish citizens again expressed concern about anti-Semitism and security threats. According to members of the community, the government continued to coordinate with them on security issues. They said the government measures were helpful and the government was responsive to requests for security.
In December the Gaziantep Synagogue, located in the southeast of the country, reopened for a Hanukkah celebration after remaining closed for 40 years due to the shrinking size of the congregation. The synagogue was used as a cultural center by Gaziantep University until reopening for special occasions following renovations by the GDF.
A then-AKP MP denounced in a social media post the red carpet premier of the film Cicero, which depicted detailed features of a concentration camp, stating “There can be no explanation” for using “one of the most tragic and calamitous crimes in the history of humanity as material for entertainment at a film gala.”
Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 24, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement commemorating the victims and underlined the service of Turkish diplomats who aided Jewish victims of persecution by providing Turkish passports and identity documents to help them flee the tragedy. The deputy foreign minister for EU affairs, members of the diplomatic corps, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, other leaders of the Jewish community, and high school students took part in the event. In February the government for the fifth year in a row commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration.
In April and September President Erdogan again sent messages to the Jewish community celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The messages described Turkey as a symbol of “love and tolerance” and recognized “diversity as the most important wealth that strengthens unity and solidarity.” In December the Jewish community celebrated Hanukkah with a ceremony at Galata Tower Square in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood. President Erdogan extended his congratulations and best wishes for wellbeing and happiness to mark the beginning of the Festival of Lights. He said in a written statement, “It is of great importance for us to ensure each and every one of our citizens’ liberty to practice their faith.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May a Muslim televangelist, Nihat Hatipoglu, converted a 13-year-old Armenian Christian boy to Islam during a live broadcast on private television channel ATV without the permission of his parents. Members of the Armenian community denounced the act as a forced conversion and violation of the Lausanne Treaty. Then-acting Armenian Apostolic patriarch Atesyan also issued a statement and personally expressed his concerns to the chairman of the Diyanet. MPs of the ruling AKP and opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP) criticized the conversion, and Turkish Armenian HDP MP Garo Paylan filed an official complaint with the radio and television oversight body.
In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” Police launched a criminal investigation into the incident. The investigation continued through the end of the year.
Some converts to Christian Protestant groups from Islam or from Christian Orthodoxy reported social shunning within their family, among friends, and at their workplaces following their contacts’ discovery of the conversion, according to local community members.
The premier of the film Cicero in January generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. The local Jewish community, columnists, a then-AKP MP, and social media users denounced the display as disgraceful. The filmmakers subsequently apologized.
Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions.
During the campaign for Istanbul mayor, altered images of opposition CHP Party candidate Ekrem Imamoglu showing him shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and meeting with a group of Orthodox Jews appeared on social media in an effort to discredit him, according to commentators. Disparaging comments and statements calling Imamoglu a “friend of Zionism” accompanied the images.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a Hrant Dink Foundation project on hate speech, there were 430 published instances of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the press between January and August depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and a threat to the country, compared with 899 published instances during the same period in 2018. A reader’s letter published in the newspaper Yeni Akit stated Jewish residents in Istanbul trained street dogs to bite Muslims and repeated historic accusations of blood libel. Some commentators criticized the letter as ridiculous, and Mustafa Yeneroglu, an MP formerly with the ruling AKP party, denounced the content as “the language of the Nazis,” according to multiple media reports.
In January anti-Semitic comments surfaced on social media following an increase in gas and electric bills, with some users reacting by asking, “What have we done to get such a bill; did we burn Jews?” The editor-in-chief of Shalom, a Jewish community newspaper, called the comments a despicable example of racism and a reaction of sick minds. He added that such forms of anti-Semitism were increasingly common on social media and asked legal authorities to intervene.
In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. The posters cited a Quranic verse that appeared to advise Muslims not to befriend Christians and Jews. The images also included a crucifix and Star of David with what appeared to be droplets of blood. Social media users from all three faiths criticized the posters as insulting to religious minorities, misrepresenting the message of the Quran, and undermining the dignity of the nation. The private advertising company leasing the billboards said the associations changed the content of the posters before printing them. It replaced the images with Turkish flags shortly after the concerns appeared on social media. The Anatolian Youth Association described the situation as a misunderstanding and said it was investigating the incident. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”
In June at a memorial service in Istanbul for former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, the crowd chanted anti-Semitic slogans. President Erdogan attended the service.
Several Christian and Jewish places of worship experienced acts of vandalism and received threats, according to local observers and the Freedom of Belief Initiative. In January three assailants reportedly threw a “sound” grenade at the door of the Mardin Protestant Church. The suspects were detained and released after making statements to police.
In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the doors and walls of the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District, Istanbul that included derogatory messages. A representative of community foundations to the GDF, Moris Levi, said in a statement that police had opened an investigation and received security camera footage of the incident. HDP MP Garo Paylan condemned the attack. According to the community, the perpetrators had not been found by year’s end.
According to media reports, in March a person attempted to vandalize the Beth Israel Synagogue in Izmir with a Molotov cocktail. The synagogue was not damaged in the incident. Police arrested and charged the individual for attempting to damage a place of worship. He stated his intention was to “protest Israel,” according to multiple media reports. Representatives of the Jewish community expressed gratitude to the İzmir Security Directorate for what they said was its swift response and sensitivity to the community’s security needs.
In January a small group of protestors demanded the status of the Hagia Sophia change from a museum to a mosque following the social media posting of a woman dancing inside the structure. Police prevented the group from entering the structure, and museum officials said they would investigate the incident. The investigation continued at year’s end.
In February hundreds of persons gathered in front of the Hagia Sophia for Friday prayers in an event organized by the Platform on Unity in Idea and Struggle, which advocates for the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque.
Despite the law permitting teaching and spreading religious beliefs, church officials and rights groups indicated these types of activities were widely viewed with suspicion and occasionally led to societal stigmatization.
Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders again joined representatives from various municipalities in Istanbul and the minister of culture and tourism for a public interfaith iftar in May. Organized by the representative of community foundations to the GDF with the support of all religious minority communities and hosted this year by the Syriac Catholic community, the event was described by organizers as an opportunity for communities that have shared the same lands for thousands of years to share their tables as friends.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diyanet, and GDF. They underscored the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups.
U.S. officials also provided overviews of the 2018 International Religious Freedom report in private meetings with government officials. They offered to hear from government representatives specific claims of potential religious freedom issues raised by local religious communities and how best to collaborate between the governments of the two countries to protect and respect religious freedom.
U.S. government officials urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups, raised the issue of property restitution and restoration, and discussed specific cases of religious discrimination.
Senior U.S. government officials continued to publicly, and privately with government officials, express their understanding of the Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance, and to support its preservation in a manner that respects its complex multireligious history. They underscored the importance of the issue with government officials and emphasized that the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of peaceful coexistence, meaningful dialogue, and respect among religions. Embassy staff continued to press for the restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.
The Secretary of State and other senior U.S. government officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki and allow all religious communities to train clergy in the country. In May the Charge d’Affaires and the Istanbul Consul General visited Halki to demonstrate ongoing interest in the reopening of the seminary. In October staff of the consulate general in Istanbul joined representatives from 24 other missions and the foreign ministry to visit Halki with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. In April the Charge d’Affaires attended Easter services at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. George to show support for religious minorities.
In March embassy officials met with the leaders of a recently renovated Greek Orthodox Church in Antalya to learn more about the community’s concerns and aspirations for its growing congregation, and to express the U.S. government’s interest in promoting religious freedom in the country.
In September the Principal Officer of the consulate in Adana attended the annual Mass at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van in the east of the country, officiated by the acting Armenian patriarch, to emphasize U.S. government support for religious minorities in the country.
In April the Istanbul Consul General traveled to the city of Edirne to visit Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Baha’i historic sites and demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In May senior embassy officials hosted a Jewish community leader at the embassy to learn firsthand about the community’s views and concerns.
In January a senior embassy official attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ankara University with senior host government officials and the leadership of the country’s Jewish community. Local media provided positive coverage of the event.
Senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials regularly engaged with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns, visit their places of worship, and promote interreligious dialogue. Officials from the embassy and consulates met with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Church of Jesus Christ, and Baha’i Faith communities, among others, throughout the country. The embassy and consulates utilized Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to emphasize the importance of the inclusion of religious minorities, including messages under hashtags such as #DiniOzgurluk (religious freedom) on designated days that recognized and underscored the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and human rights.
The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution maintains the separation of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs. The law on religion requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to reregister with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) every three years in order to operate legally. According to religious organizations, government security forces continued to surveil religious organizations and ban the importation of religious literature, and it remained difficult to obtain places of worship. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as of the end of the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service, including several new cases of Witnesses sentenced during the year, to terms from one year to four years. The government continued not to offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. The international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that police in Ashgabat and Lebap Province forced men under 40 to shave their beards and mustaches. The government did not register any previously unregistered religious groups during the year. Two previously registered groups successfully reregistered during the year although they stated that registration requirements were onerous. According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of some registered and unregistered Christian organizations continued to face official and unofficial harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics and scrutinize or obstruct religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes. In September and November, the Ministry of Justice hosted roundtable meetings for all registered and unregistered religious groups in which members could advocate for their organizations, ask questions, and refer problems to a panel of government ministry representatives. The government promised to identify a point of contact for groups to contact to ask questions and resolve issues, and to create a website that would have information and a portal for posing questions. Many religious groups stated this was a productive meeting and a small sign of progress, but continued to experience an either poor or complete lack of response to inquiries. Outside of the roundtable meeting and direct communication with the ministries, religious groups have no official methods of advocacy.
Religious leaders and others stated they were reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Between September 2018 and May 2019, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that unknown individuals distributed leaflets in Russian and Turkmen containing defamatory statements about the Witnesses. Numerous citizens stated that the government’s suspicion of religion was often mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even “excessive” expressions of religion could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported societal prejudices against religious groups that are not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox.
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy officials, and other U.S. government representatives, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. U.S. officials raised issues, including the legal status of conscientious objectors, the country’s listing as a “Country of Particular Concern,” the ability of religious groups to register and reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. The Ambassador personally requested that the president pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors. Embassy officers met on a regular basis with 11 minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedom. Topics discussed with these groups included: the status and challenges of the groups’ registration and reregistration, the groups’ ability to secure a permanent place of worship, the requirement to keep a legal address in a location physically separate from the place of worship, the challenges of importing religious literature, harassment of members by both government and nongovernment entities, restrictions on proselytizing, the religious groups’ relations with the government, interfaith cooperation, the ability of clerics to access prisoners and military personnel, and the organizations’ ability to carry out educational and charity activities.
Since 2014, Turkmenistan 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 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, the country is 89 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 9 percent Eastern Orthodox, and 2 percent other. There are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, Roman Catholics, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals.
Most ethnic Russians and Armenians identify as Orthodox Christian and generally are members of the Russian Orthodox Church or Armenian Apostolic Church. Some ethnic Russians and Armenians are also members of smaller Protestant groups.
There are small pockets of Shia Muslims, consisting largely of ethnic Iranians, Azeris, and Kurds, some located in Ashgabat, with others along the border with Iran and in the western city of Turkmenbashy.
According to the Israeli embassy, approximately 200 Jews live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution separates the roles of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs or carrying out state functions. The constitution states public education shall be secular in nature. It provides for the equality of citizens before the law regardless of their religious preference.
The law requires all religious organizations, including those that had registered previously, to reregister with the MOJ every three years in order to operate legally within the country. The law permits only the registration of “religious organizations,” which must have a minimum of 50 resident members above the age of 18. The law defines a religious organization as a voluntary association of citizens affiliated with a religion, organized to conduct religious services and other rites and ceremonies, as well as to provide religious education, and registered in accordance with the country’s legislation.
According to the law, the State Commission on Religious Organizations and Expert Evaluation of Religious Information Resources (SCROEERIR) is responsible for helping registered religious organizations work with government agencies, explaining the law to representatives of religious organizations, monitoring the activities of religious organizations to ensure they comply with the law, assisting with the translation and publication of religious literature, and promoting understanding and tolerance among different religious organizations. The law states SCROEERIR must approve all individuals appointed as leaders of religious organizations, although the law does not specify the procedures for obtaining the required approval. SCROERRIR operates under the leadership of the grand mufti, who is appointed by the government, as are all other senior Muslim clerics. The deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers for education, health, religion, sports, tourism, science, new technologies, and innovation oversees SCROEERIR’s work.
To register, organizations must submit to SCROEERIR their contact information; proof of address; a statement requesting registration signed by the founders and board members of the organization; two copies of the organization’s charter; a registration fee of 100 manat ($29); and the names, addresses, and dates of birth of the organization’s founders. Once SCROEERIR endorses an application for registration, it is submitted to the MOJ, which coordinates an interministerial approval process involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of National Security (MNB), Ministry of Interior (MVD), and other government offices. According to government procedures, the MOJ may additionally request the biographic information of all members of an organization applying for registration. The law states that leaders of registered religious organizations must be citizens who have received an “appropriate religious education,” but does not define that term. Each subsidiary congregation of a registered religious organization must also register, and the registration process is the same as that which applies to the parent organization.
The tax code stipulates registered religious organizations are exempt from taxes.
The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the constitution or if SCROEERIR does not endorse its application. The law does not specify the standards SCROEERIR uses to make that determination. The law assigns the Office of the Prosecutor General to monitor the compliance of a religious organization with the constitution. The law specifies a court may suspend the activities of a religious organization if it determines the organization to be in violation of the constitution, and that suspension may only be overcome if the organization submits documentation satisfying the court that the activities that led to suspension have been stopped. The law also states that grounds for dissolution of a religious organization include activities “that violate the rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of citizens” or “harm their health and morale.”
The administrative code covering religious organizations delineates a schedule of fines for conducting activities not described in a religious organization’s charter.
Unregistered religious organizations and unregistered subsidiary congregations of registered religious organizations may not legally conduct religious activities; establish places of worship; gather for religious services, including in private residences; produce or disseminate religious materials; or proselytize. Any such activity is punishable as an administrative offense by fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($29-$290), with higher fines for religious leaders and lower fines for lay members.
The law states MOJ officials have the right to attend any religious event held by a registered religious organization and to question religious leaders about any aspect of their activities.
The administrative code stipulates penalties from 200 to 500 manat ($57-$140) for officials who violate an individual’s right of freedom to worship or right to abstain from worship.
The criminal and administrative codes provide punishment for the harassment of members of registered religious organizations by private individuals. According to the administrative code, obstructing the exercise of religious freedom is punishable by a fine up to 1,000 manat ($290) or detention for 15 days. The criminal code states such an obstruction is punishable with a fine up to 7,900 manat ($2,300) or one year of “corrective labor,” which involves serving in a government-assigned position in a prison near one’s home or at a location away from one’s home. If an obstruction involves a physical attack, the punishment may entail up to two years in prison. According to the criminal code, the fine is calculated as five to 10 average monthly wages (3,950 to 7,900 manat – $1,100-$2,300).
The law allows registered religious organizations to create educational establishments to train clergy and other religious personnel after obtaining a license to do so. The Cabinet of Ministers establishes the procedures for obtaining a license. The law also states individuals teaching religious disciplines at religious educational establishments should have a theological education and carry out their activities with the permission of the central governing body of the religious organization and the approval of SCROEERIR.
Local governments have the right to monitor and “analyze” the “religious situation” within their jurisdiction, send proposals to SCROEERIR to change or update legislation on religious freedom, and coordinate religious ceremonies conducted outside of religious buildings.
Under the criminal code, polygamy carries penalties of up to two years of labor or fines of 15,800 to 23,700 manat ($4,500-$6,800).
The law prohibits the publication of religious literature inciting “religious, national, ethnic, and/or racial hatred,” although it does not specify which agency makes this determination. SCROEERIR must approve imported religious literature, and only registered religious organizations may import literature. Registered religious organizations may be fined for publishing or disseminating religious material without government approval. The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 200 to 2,000 manat ($57-$570), for producing, importing, and disseminating unauthorized religious literature and other religious materials.
The law allows local governments, with the approval of SCROEERIR, to make decisions regarding the construction of religious buildings and structures within their jurisdiction.
Religious instruction is not part of the public school curriculum. The law allows registered religious organizations to provide religious education after school to children for up to four hours per week with parental and SCROEERIR approval, although the law does not specify the requirements for obtaining SCROEERIR’s approval. Persons who graduate from institutions of higher religious education, and who obtain approval from SCROEERIR, may provide religious education. According to the law, citizens have a right to obtain religious education, although obtaining religious education in private settings such as residences is banned. Persons offering religious education in private settings are subject to legal action. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups or unregistered subsidiary congregations of registered religious organizations from providing religious education. The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 100 to 500 manat ($29-$140), for providing unauthorized religious education to children.
The constitution states two years of military service are compulsory for men over the age of 18. Although service in noncombat roles is allowed, the government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. Refusal to perform the compulsory two-year service in the armed forces is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison or two years of “corrective labor.” In addition, the state withholds part of the salaries of prisoners sentenced to corrective labor in the amount designated by the court. Salary deductions range between 5-20 percent. The law states no one has the right for religious reasons to refuse duties established by the constitution and the law.
The constitution and law prohibit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and the law prohibits the involvement of religious groups in politics.
The law does not address the activities of foreign missionaries and foreign religious organizations. The administrative code, however, bans registered religious organizations from receiving assistance from foreign entities for prohibited activities.
The law requires religious groups to register all foreign assistance with the MOJ and provide interim and final reports on the use of funds. The administrative code provides a detailed schedule of fines – up to 10,000 manat ($2,900) – for both unregistered and registered religious groups for accepting unapproved funds from foreign sources.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Military-age Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to be arrested and imprisoned for refusing military service. As of the end of the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service. According to Forum 18, on January 7, a court in the eastern Lebap Province sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Azamatjan Narkulyev to one year in prison for refusing compulsory military service, and in March, a court in the southeastern town of Bayramaly handed down a one-year sentence to Jehovah’s Witness Muhammetali Saparmyradov for the same offense. Forum 18 also reported that Jehovah’s Witness Bahtiyar Atahanov from Turkmenabat was jailed in July by a court in Tejen for four years, which it said was the longest jail term known to have been handed to a conscientious objector; the authorities deemed him a soldier committing medical fraud to avoid military service after forcibly conscripting him.
On March 29, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) adopted a decision finding that the government had violated the rights of two Jehovah’s Witnesses former prisoners of conscience, Vladimir Nuryllayev and Aibek Salayev in a 2014 case. Nuryllayev and Salayev were wrongly imprisoned on pornography charges, according to UNHRC. Salayev said he was subjected to numerous beatings and threats while in pretrial detention. Also, on March 29, the UNHRC adopted a decision finding that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witness Arslan Dawletow (Dovletov), a conscientious objector in a 2013 incident. These were the eleventh and twelfth UNHRC decisions finding that the country had violated the rights to religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses annual report published in December stated there were numerous incidents of police brutality, intimidation, and house searches of Witnesses. Police reportedly harassed, interrogated, and pressured the Witnesses, even threatening to “arrange an accident” if they did not renounce their faith. The report said that officials charged members of the Witnesses under the administrative code with the “production, import, export, distribution of religious literature.” On February 8, a village official in Lebap Province stated that a complaint had been received and police escorted a male Witness to the police station, where several law enforcement officers were waiting, including a district inspector and a criminal investigation officer. The officers interrogated him, searched his house, and seized personal belongings. The report said they took him back to the police station and threatened to push a pole with the national flag attached down his throat in an attempt to force him to kiss the flag. On March 15, he was summoned to the Carjew District Court and fined $55.
On February 5, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Witness was called to her daughter’s principal’s office in the Balkan Region. In the office, a law enforcement officer criticized her religious beliefs and threatened to fine her $832. The officer ordered the mother to stop teaching her child her religious beliefs and photographed the mother and daughter.
Forum 18 reported on its website that in Lebap Province on December 26, police raided a private home where a group of Protestant women had gathered for a Christmas celebration. Officers reportedly searched the home, seized telephones, and questioned the women at a police station. Forum 18 reported the women had not been fined. The status of more than 100 Muslims from in and around Turkmenabat who had previously been reported incarcerated in Ovadan Depe Prison was unclear at year’s end.
The status of more than 100 Muslims from in and around Turkmenabat who had previously been reported incarcerated in Ovadan Depe Prison was unclear at year’s end.
Unlike previous years, local human rights groups did not report surveillance of Muslim groups and religious minorities. According to local religious community members and international advocacy groups, members of some Christian organizations faced harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. They reported that security services interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ activities. Some members also reported that security officials interrogated their friends and family members, asking about the members’ religious activities. In one case, local security forces continuously harassed the pastor of a Christian group in the city of Turkmenabat and interrogated his friends and business associates. Eventually, the security forces threatened to arrest his friends unless the pastor ceased his religious activities. The pastor fled the country.
A member of a Christian group reported that on August 29 a Turkmenabat resident was interrogated by local security forces regarding the religious activities of the resident’s Christian relative. The resident was allegedly threatened in order to make the relative stop holding services and preaching. The member said that this situation was common among members of her group.
Christian groups reported that the Turkmen who converted from Islam experienced government scrutiny and were discriminated against. For example, converts were denied government jobs or fired from jobs based on their religion.
Unregistered groups stated their members were subject to arrest for “unlawful assembly” in addition to fines stipulated by law. Members of these groups said they continued to practice discreetly, mostly in private homes, and could do so as long as neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities. According to Open Doors USA, in areas where churches have not been registered, police repeatedly raided, threatened, arrested, and fined Christians.
Some registered and unregistered Christian groups reported that their venue rentals would be canceled at the last minute or that plainclothes “officials” would appear at the venues and prevent the groups from gathering. Other registered and unregistered Christian groups reported no problems with the rental of venues. Religious groups reported the fewest issues with obtaining venues in Ashgabat. Finding venues in the regional capitals was sometimes more difficult and attempts to meet outside the major cities met with the most official resistance.
Representatives of registered Christian groups said some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children. Some groups sought official approval of such activities even if they did not believe that approval was required, in order to assure the events would not be disrupted.
The government provided funding for 160 citizens to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage. The government reported that 2,133 persons self-funded their Hajj travel while a local media source reported that 2,242 pilgrims self-funded.
Two religious groups reported that, after attempting to do so for one to three years, they were finally successful in reregistering their organizations as required by law. Other groups reported their attempts to register or reregister had stalled due to onerous requirements such as the need to include petitions with personal information, an ambiguous approval process, overlapping bureaucratic responsibilities, general unresponsiveness from the government, and intentional obfuscation on the part of the government . One common complaint was the requirement for an organization’s legal address to be separate from the place of worship. This requirement, which was not official but nonetheless widely imposed, posed a burden of renting an offsite office location as a legal address, a burden some of the smaller and less financially endowed organizations were unable to meet.
Religious groups reported the government continued to prevent or severely limit the importation of and access to religious literature although some groups were successful in importing literature. Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s opaque procedures for seeking the approval of religious literature made it extremely difficult. The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many individuals kept a Soviet era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes. Few translations were available in the Turkmen language.
One Christian church reported that it successfully imported 50 copies of the Bible, 25 in Russian and 25 in Turkmen. While multiple churches reported success in importing Bibles, they were only able to import a small number of books and the imports could not exceed the number of registered members of the church.
Forum 18 reported that in January, security officials at Ashgabat Airport prevented a citizen from boarding an airplane to return to her job in Turkey, stating she had been banned from leaving the country. In December 2018, Forum 18 said that security personnel at the airport detained her because she was bringing back copies of the Quran. Officers seized the copies of the Quran and held her at the airport for 24 hours. “The police officer asked no questions, but the men in civilian clothes asked questions one after the other,” the woman told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), according to Forum 18. She said the two men shouted at her: “Aren’t you ashamed bringing such books with you, you’re a woman! So you’re trying to bring in religious/political propaganda!” Once she was released, local security officers also questioned her in Lebap Region. According to Forum 18, the Migration Service in Ashgabat refused to explain why she was prevented from leaving the country.
During the year, the Muftiate of Turkmenistan published two religious books: “Prayer book (teaches you how to pray, 2017)” and “Fasting Book (teaches you how to fast, 2019).” They were available in local bookstores, making it the first time religious books were made available in a government bookstore in at least six years, according to local observers.
Members of various religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rental of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes. Some of the groups reported that landlords feared government reprisal if they leased or rented properties to be used as places of worship. Some groups reported that they had secured properties only to have the landlords renege on the contacts after being instructed by the government. Other groups stated that attempts to purchase land or property to use as a place of worship were stymied by intentional government obfuscation or flat denial. Registered and unregistered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.
On January 8, RFE/RL reported that persons who practiced Islam in Lebap and Dashoguz Provinces during working hours were prevented from doing so by local security forces. The report said that government employees were threatened with termination if they practiced Islam at work and were questioned by authorities over their religion.
RFE/RL reported on January 30 that security services did not allow high school students to attend Friday prayer at local mosques in Ashgabat. The parents of these students reported that local security services dressed in civilian clothing prevented high school students from entering mosques.
On February 5, Forum 18 reported that police in Ashgabat and Lebap Provinces forced men under 40 to shave their beards and mustaches as they were allegedly viewed as extremist Wahhabis. Reports stated that police conducted a similar campaign in September.
According to a May 10 report on RFE’s Turkmen Service, the muftiate and state-controlled media did not announce the beginning of Ramadan, and few people in the country observed the fast during Ramadan. Forum 18 reported that some Muslims said they feared the police or security services would brand them as “extremists” if they were widely known to be observing the Ramadan fast.
According to a report in May on RFE/RL, religious sermons in the country’s state-controlled mosques often contained language praising the president and wishing him health and success. An RFE/RL correspondent who attended prayers in several mosques in Ashgabat said that one imam called on his congregation to love the president and to pray for the downfall of his foes. “May Allah save [the president] from all misfortunes and may his enemies fall at his feet,” the correspondent recalled the imam saying on May 17.
Mosques were under construction in Tejen and in Turkmenabat at year’s end. The theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. The MNB reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program. It was not possible to study theological subjects other than state-approved Islamic theology. Women remained banned from the program.
According to members of the Protestant community, clergy in Protestant organizations continued to receive their religious education abroad or via distance learning.
The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently; the government was not involved in appointing their leadership, but the senior Russian Orthodox priest was required to be a Turkmen citizen.
Unlike previous years, leaders of religious groups stated they could travel abroad during the year.
The government continued its practice of denying visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. Religious groups able to obtain religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers said the government continued to grant such visas for very short durations and required the groups to complete burdensome paperwork. As in previous years, the government did not report the number of religious visitors it allowed to visit the country, nor did it report the number of visa applications of foreign religious visitors it had denied.
According to the official government newspaper Neytral’nyy Turkmenistan, on September 14, during an extended Cabinet of Ministers meeting, Prosecutor General Batyr Atdayev reported on corruption and bribery at the muftiate. Reportedly, the chief specialist of the mufti’s administration, Rovshen Allaberdiyev, chief specialist of the human resources department at the Muftiate Muhametmyrat Gurbangeldiyev, and chief specialist of the department conducting liaison with religious organizations at the Cabinet of Ministers Gurbanberdi Nursahedov took bribes from September 2018 to July 2019 from individuals who wanted to participate in the Hajj. All three were arrested and their property confiscated, including money and four apartments.
Opposition media continued to report that, despite the quota of approximately 5,000 pilgrims authorized by the Saudi government, the government restricted the number of Hajj pilgrims to the number that could be carried onboard a Turkmenistan Airlines Boeing 777. A government media website, however, reported that 2,242 citizens self-funded their travel.
In September and November the MOJ conducted roundtable meetings with leaders of registered and unregistered religious organizations. Many religious groups stated this was a productive meeting and a small sign of progress, but continued to experience an either poor or complete lack of response to inquiries. Outside of the roundtable meetings and direct communication with the ministries, religious groups have no official methods of advocacy.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Minority religious groups said persons who are not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox continued to report harassment, such as public shaming, by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Members of registered Christian groups continued to report hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation. Religious leaders and others stated they were reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Numerous citizens stated that the government’s suspicion of religion was often mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even outward expressions of religion could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported continued societal prejudices against religious groups that were not part of the Sunni Muslim majority.
Persons who joined non-Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox religious groups reported continuing societal criticism. Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minority groups.
Between September 2018 and May 2019, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that unknown individuals distributed leaflets in Russian and Turkmen containing defamatory statements about the Witnesses. The Witnesses stated that the “leaflets included slanderous material designed to incite hatred, but they also targeted individual Witnesses and included personal data, photographs, names, birth dates and addresses.” Officials took no action to stop these distributions.
According to Christian community leaders, Muslims who converted to Christianity faced pressure from families, friends, and local communities to return to their former faith.
Forum 18 reported the level of societal harassment again increased for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who stated they continued to be treated with suspicion and scrutiny by fellow citizens.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and U.S. government officials continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. These included the legal status of conscientious objectors, Turkmenistan’s listing as a “Country of Particular Concern,” the ability of religious groups to register or reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. U.S. officials engaged counterparts both in Turkmenistan and the U.S.-Turkmenistan Annual Bilateral Conference in Washington, D.C. The Ambassador, personally in meetings, and the embassy, via diplomatic notes, requested that President Berdimuhamedov pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors.
In October the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom sent a letter to President Berdimuhamedov urging him to “take the concrete steps necessary to bring Turkmenistan’s laws and practices on religion into line with international standards…” and “…allow us to remove Turkmenistan from the CPC list.”
Embassy officers met on a regular basis with eleven minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedoms. Topics discussed with these groups included: the status and challenges of the groups’ registration and reregistration, the groups’ ability to secure a permanent place of worship, the requirement to keep a legal address in a location physically separate from the place of worship, the challenges of importing religious literature, harassment of members by both government and nongovernment entities, restrictions on proselytizing, the religious groups’ relations with the government, interreligious cooperation, the ability of clerics to access prisoners and military personnel, and the organizations’ ability to carry out educational and charity activities. Outreach to majority Muslim communities remained difficult due to government restrictions, government control of Islamic clergy and institutions, and fear of government reprisal for speaking with foreign officials.
Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church. The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion. The government created and filled two new positions dealing with religious freedom issues: an independent advisor on anti-Semitism and an independent advisor appointed to provide expert advice on a definition of “Islamophobia.” The government also appointed a new special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. In addition to coordinating efforts among faith groups in the UK, the special envoy will play a key role in the UK’s international advocacy for religious freedom and has been charged with implementing recommendations from an independent review into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO’s) support for persecuted Christians, completed in May. Following the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attack, the government doubled the amount of funding from 800,000 pounds ($1.06 million) in 2018-2019 to 1.6 million pounds ($2.11 million) from 2019-2020 available to provide security at places of worship and related security training. This was in addition to a new five million pound ($6.6 million) fund to provide security training for places of worship across England and Wales. The main political parties and party members faced numerous accusations of religious bias. The Conservative Party suspended several members who posted or endorsed anti-Muslim comments on Twitter. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) asked the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to launch an inquiry into “Islamophobia in the Conservative Party”; however, no inquiry was launched by year’s end. Separately, after receiving a number of complaints, the EHRC launched an investigation into whether the Labour Party had “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed, or victimized people because they are Jewish.” A BBC documentary reported allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and the party’s and its leader’s mishandling the issue.
The government reported a 3 percent increase (to 8,566 offenses) in religiously motivated hate crimes in England and Wales in the 2018-2019 period. The annual report of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Community Security Trust (CST) recorded 1,805 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, the highest ever annual figure recorded by the organization, and 7 percent higher than the preceding year. This was the fourth year in a row in which CST documented a record high. Among the anti-Semitic incidents were 157 assaults and one incident classified as “extreme violence.” There were a further 710 incidents of nonviolent abusive behavior. CST recorded 697 anti-Semitic online incidents, a sharp rise from 384 in 2018. The most recent annual report from NGO Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which monitors anti-Muslim activity, showed 3,173 reports of anti-Muslim hate incidents in 2018, including 1,891 recorded by police. This was the highest number since the NGO’s founding in 2011. A European Commission (EC) survey published in September showed that 61 percent of respondents believed discrimination based on religion or belief was very or fairly widespread in the country, while 34 percent said it was fairly or very rare. A Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews conducted in December 2018 showed that 62 percent of respondents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, and 44 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. A number of interfaith initiatives took place throughout the year, including activities across the country during Inter-Faith Week in October.
Visiting senior U.S. government officials and embassy staff engaged with government officials and religious groups to advance international religious freedom issues, supported by a strong social media presence. In July and October, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government officials and encouraged British Jewish and interfaith communities to continue to speak out against religious hatred and intolerance. In a roundtable with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other faith leaders in May, the Secretary of State welcomed input by faith leaders in the policymaking process. In April the Ambassador met with the top leaders of the British Jewish community to hear their concerns regarding the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK and Europe. In October the Ambassador co-hosted an event with the FCO to celebrate International Religious Freedom Day, joined by the Minister of State for the Commonwealth, UN, and South Asia. Throughout the year, the embassy’s social media messaging on international religious freedom reached approximately 170,000 persons.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 65.4 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Census figures from 2011, the most recent, indicate 59.3 percent of the population in England and Wales is Christian, comprising the Church of England (Anglican), the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), other Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and other Christian groups. Of the remaining population, 4.8 percent identified as Muslim; 1.5 percent Hindu; 0.8 percent Sikh; 0.5 percent Jewish; and 0.4 Buddhist. Approximately 25 percent of the population reported no religious affiliation, and 7 percent chose not to answer. The Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate there are 137,000 members in the country, and the Baha’i community estimates it has more than 7,000 members.
According to the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey, an annual survey conducted by the independent National Center for Social Research, 52 percent of those surveyed UK-wide described themselves as having no religion, 12 percent as Anglican, 7 percent as Catholic, and 9 percent as belonging to non-Christian religious groups. The survey showed 6 percent of British identified as Muslim, less than 0.5 percent as Jewish, and 3 percent as “other non-Christian.”
The Muslim community in England and Wales is predominantly of South Asian origin, but it also includes individuals from the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as a growing number of converts of British and other European descent. Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists are concentrated in London and other large urban areas, primarily in England.
Census figures for Scotland in 2011 indicate 54 percent of the population is Christian, comprising the Church of Scotland (32 percent), Roman Catholic Church (16 percent), and other Christian groups (6 percent). The Muslim community constitutes 1.4 percent of the population. Other religious groups, which together make up less than 1 percent of the population, include Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists. Persons not belonging to any religious group make up 36.7 percent of the population, and the remainder did not provide information on religious affiliation.
A 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found 44 percent of those surveyed did not identify with any religion, 21 percent identified as part of the Church of Scotland, 14 percent as Roman Catholic, 15 percent as other Christian, and 5 percent as non-Christian.
Census figures from Northern Ireland in 2011 indicate 41.5 percent of the population is Protestant – consisting of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (19 percent), Church of Ireland (14 percent), Methodist Church in Ireland (3 percent), and other Protestant groups (6 percent) – and 41 percent Roman Catholic. Less than 1 percent of the population belongs to non-Christian religious groups, and approximately 10 percent professes no religion; 7 percent did not indicate a religious affiliation.
In his 2019 ‘Sectarianism in Northern Ireland’ report, Ulster University Professor Duncan Morrow found there is a “clear statistical trend towards a change in the religious minority-majority structure of Northern Ireland.” His research illustrates a consistent decline of Protestants in all 26 district council areas of Northern Ireland since 2001, contrasted by an increased Catholic population in 19 of 26 council areas in the same time period. Morrow’s analysis of 2011 Census figures also illustrates this trend is likely to continue. Census figures show a Protestant majority in the over-60 age bracket and a Catholic majority in the under-20 age bracket. Professor Paul Nolan stated based on current statistical trends, there will be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland by 2021.
Census figures from Bermuda in 2010 cite 22 religious groups in the population of 71,000; 78 percent identifies as Christian, including 16 percent Anglican, 15 percent Roman Catholic, 9 percent African Methodist Episcopal, and 7 percent Seventh-day Adventist. Approximately 2 percent identifies with other religious groups, including approximately 600 Muslims, 200 Rastafarians, and 120 Jews. Approximately 20 percent did not identify with or state a religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have state religions. Legislation establishes the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church, but it is not dependent on any government body or the queen for spiritual matters or leadership.
The Human Rights Act 1998 protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” The Human Rights Act reaffirms the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 9, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society.”
As the supreme governor of the Church of England, the monarch must always be a member of, and promise to uphold, that Church. The monarch appoints Church of England officials, including lay and clergy representatives, on the advice of the prime minister and the Crown Appointments Commission. Aside from these appointments, the state is not involved in the Church’s administration. The Church of Scotland is governed by its General Assembly, which has the authority to make the laws determining how it operates.
In England and Wales, the law prohibits religiously motivated hate speech and any acts intended to incite religious hatred through the use of words or the publication or distribution of written material. The law defines religious hatred as hatred of a group because of its religious belief or lack thereof. Police are responsible for investigating criminal offenses and for gathering evidence; the Crown Prosecution Service, which is an independent body and the main public prosecution service for England and Wales, is responsible for deciding whether a suspect should be charged with a criminal offense. The maximum penalty for inciting religious hatred is seven years in prison. If there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with any crime, it is a “religiously aggravated offense” and carries a higher maximum penalty than does the underlying crime alone. In Scotland the law requires courts to consider the impact of religious bias when sentencing.
By law the General Register Office for England and Wales governs the registration and legal recognition of places of worship in England and Wales. A representative of the congregation, for example, a proprietor, trustee, or religious head, must complete and submit an application form and pay a fee of 29 pounds ($38) to a local registrar. The General Registrar Office typically provides registration certificates to the local superintendent registrar within 20 working days. The law also states buildings, rooms, or other premises may be registered as meeting places for religious worship upon payment of a fee; the General Register Office for England and Wales keeps a record of the registration, and the place of worship is assigned a “worship number.” Registration is not compulsory, but it provides certain financial advantages and is also required before a place of worship may be registered as a venue for marriages. Registered places of worship are exempt from paying taxes and benefit from participating in the country’s Gift Aid program. Gift Aid allows charities to claim back the 25 percent basic rate of tax already paid on donations by the donor, boosting the value of a donation by a quarter. The law only applies in England and Wales and does not cover the Church of England or Wales.
The law requires religious education (RE) and worship for children between the ages of three and 18 in state-run schools, with the content decided at the local level. Specialist schoolteachers, rather than religious groups, teach the syllabus. Parents may request to exempt their children from RE, and in England and Wales, students may opt out themselves at age 14, although religious worship continues until students leave school at either age 16 or 18. State schools that are not legally designated as religious require the RE curriculum to reflect “Christian values,” be nondenominational, and refrain from attempts to convert students. It must also teach the practices of other principal religions in the country. Students and, unless they are employed by faith-based schools, teachers may decline participation in collective worship, without prejudice. All schools not designated as religious, whether private or state-run, must maintain neutrality in their interpretation of the RE syllabus and must avoiding presenting one faith or belief as greater than another.
State schools in England and Wales that are not legally designated as religious are required to practice daily collective prayer or worship of “a wholly or mainly…Christian character.” Schoolteachers lead these assemblies; however, parents have the legal right to request their children not participate in collective prayer or worship. The law permits sixth form students (generally 16- to 19-year-olds in the final two years of secondary school) to withdraw from worship without parental permission or action. State schools not designated as religious are free to hold other religious ceremonies as they choose.
The government requires schools to consider the practices of different religious groups when setting dress codes for students. This includes wearing or carrying specific religious artifacts, not cutting hair, dressing modestly, or covering the head. Guidance from the Department of Education requires schools to balance the rights of individual students against the best interests of the school community as a whole; it acknowledges schools could be justified in restricting individuals’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs when necessary, for example, to promote cohesion and good order.
In Scotland only denominational (faith-based) schools practice daily collective prayer or worship; however, religious observance at least six times per year is compulsory in all Scottish schools. Religious observance is defined as “community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community.” Examples of religious observance include school assemblies and events to recognize religious events, including Christmas and Easter. Parents may make the decision to opt out their children from this requirement, but children may not make this decision themselves.
In Bermuda the law requires students attending state schools to participate in collective worship, characterized by educational officials as reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but it prohibits worship “distinctive of any particular religious group.” At the high school level, students are required to take a course that explores various religions until year 9 (ages 11-14); in years 10 and 11 (ages 15-16), courses on religion are optional.
There are two faith-based private schools in Bermuda that operate from kindergarten through high school. One follows the guidance of the North American division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The other follows principles of the Catholic Church.
The government determines whether to establish a faith-based school when there is evidence of demand, such as petitions from parents, religious groups, teachers, or other entities. If a faith-based school is not oversubscribed, then the school must offer a place to any child, but if the school is oversubscribed, it may use faith as a criterion for acceptance. Nonstate faith-based schools are eligible to claim “charitable status,” which allows for tax exemptions.
Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support, with approximately 90 percent of students attending Protestant or Catholic schools. Approximately 7 percent of school-age children attend religiously integrated schools with admissions criteria designed to enroll equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children without the intervention of the state, as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds. Students of different faiths are able to attend Protestant or Catholic schools but tend to gravitate toward the integrated schools. These integrated schools are not secular but are “essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none.” RE – a core syllabus designed by the Department of Education, Church of Ireland, and Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist Churches – is compulsory in all government-funded schools, and, “The school day shall include collective Christian worship whether in one or more than one assembly.” All schools receiving government funding must teach RE; however, students may request to opt out of the classes and collective worship. Catholic-managed schools draw uniquely on the Roman Catholic tradition for their RE, while other schools may draw on world religions.
An estimated 30 sharia councils operate parallel to the national legal system. They adjudicate Islamic religious matters, including religious divorces, which are not recognized under civil law. Participants may submit cases to the councils on a voluntary basis. The councils do not have the legal status of courts, although they have legal status as mediation and arbitration bodies. As such, rulings may not be appealed in the courts.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion or belief” or the “lack of religion or belief.” The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – a body sponsored by the Department of Education’s Government Equalities Office – is responsible for enforcing legislation prohibiting religious discrimination. The EHRC researches and conducts inquiries into religious and other discrimination in England, Scotland, and Wales. The minister for women and equalities appoints the members. If the commission finds a violation, it may issue a notice to the violator and seek a court order to enforce the notice. The EHRC receives government funds but operates independently. The Northern Ireland equivalent to the EHRC is the Equality Commission.
In Northern Ireland the law bans discrimination on the grounds of religious belief only in employment; however, schools may be selective on the grounds of religion when recruiting teachers. In the rest of the country, the law prohibits any discrimination, including employment discrimination, based on religious belief, unless the employer can show a genuine requirement for a particular religion.
Citing a limited broadcast spectrum, the law prohibits religious groups from holding national radio licenses, public teletext licenses, more than one television service license, and/or radio and television multiplex licenses, which would allow them to offer multiple channels as part of a single bundle of programming.
Twenty-six senior bishops of the Anglican Church sit in the House of Lords as representatives of the state Church. Known as the Lords Spiritual, they read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play a full role in the life and work of the upper house.
The law requires visa applicants wishing to enter the country as “ministers of religion” to have worked for at least one of the previous five years as a minister and to have at least one year of full-time experience or, if their religion requires ordination, at least two years of part-time training following their ordination. A missionary must also be trained as such or have worked previously in this role.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In July then-prime minister May appointed Lord John Mann as the government’s Independent Advisor on Anti-Semitism. Then-prime minister May created the position to address reports of rising anti-Semitism in the UK. Lord Mann is responsible for providing the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government with independent advice on the most effective methods to tackle anti-Semitism. Lord Mann was charged with collaborating with the UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues and the Special Envoy for the Freedom of Religion and Belief to ensure a consistent approach across domestic and international policy and efforts on anti-Semitism. In addition to speaking publicly and making statements to the media on prominent cases of anti-Semitism, he partnered with several organizations to raise awareness of anti-Semitism in the UK, including the Chelsea Football Club’s Say No to Anti-Semitism Campaign. In August new Home Secretary Priti Pratel told the media that she would “stand up to the threat of anti-Semitism” in the country.
In July Imam Qari Asim, Deputy Chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, was appointed independent advisor to lead work to propose a definition of Islamophobia. The stated purpose of the appointment was to help strengthen government efforts to combat anti-Muslim sentiment by developing a formal definition of “Islamophobia” after an existing definition came under question for potentially undermining freedom of speech. The Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group was established in 2012 to develop and implement proposals to address anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. The working group is the government’s main forum for discussing issues of concern with Muslim leaders and the communities whose interests they represent and convey. It both disseminates and provides feedback on key policy messages and approaches. The group is made up of representatives from Muslim communities, independent experts, academics, and a range of government departments, including the Attorney General’s Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, the FCO, and the Home Office.
In September the Johnson government appointed Member of Parliament (MP) Rehman Chishti as the new prime minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. The special envoy was given a mandate to coordinate religious freedom efforts across the government, faith actors, and civil society; advocate for the rights of all individuals who are being discriminated against or persecuted because of their faith or belief; and promote the country’s stance abroad in favor of religious freedom. Special Envoy Chishti was charged with leading the implementation of recommendations from the independent review into FCO’s support for persecuted Christians.
In January, then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned an independent report into the persecution of Christians worldwide and requested the Bishop of Truro conduct the research. The final report, released in May, stated, “Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times.” In addition to implementing the report’s recommendations, the FCO team overseeing freedom of religion and belief was directed to “make freedom of religion or belief central to the FCO’s culture, policies, and international operations.”
In August Lord Ahmad, then serving as the prime minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, read a statement from the prime minister at the UN General Assembly in which he underlined the country’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief. The statement said, “Freedom of religion or belief is at the heart of what the UK stands for. We will do everything possible to champion these freedoms and protect civilians in armed conflict, including religious, ethnic, or other minorities.”
The law continued to require religious accommodation for employees when it considered such accommodation feasible. The prison service recognized the rights of prisoners to practice their faith while in custody. The pastoral needs of prisoners were addressed, in part, through chaplains paid for by the Ministry of Justice, rather than by religious groups. All chaplains worked as part of a multifaith team, the size and breakdown of which was determined by the size of the prison and the religious composition of the prisoner population. Prison service regulations stated that “…chaplaincy provision must reflect the faith denomination requirements of the prison.”
The military generally provided adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith. There were approximately 240 recruited chaplains in the armed forces, all of whom were Christian. The armed forces also employed five civilian chaplains as full-time civil servants to care for Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim recruits. The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Policy Board was reviewing provision of chaplaincy for personnel of these religions and considering employing suitable chaplains in the reserve forces.
As of January there were 6,802 state-funded faith-based schools in England, representing 34 percent of all state-funded mainstream schools and serving approximately 1.9 million students. Of these, 6,179 were primary schools (ages three through 11), representing 37 percent of all state-funded primary schools, and 623 secondary schools (ages 11 through 16), representing 19 percent of all state-funded secondary schools. Church of England schools were the most common type among primary schools (26 percent); Roman Catholic schools were the most common at secondary level (9 percent). Additionally, at the primary and secondary levels, there were 72 “other Christian,” 36 Jewish, 25 Methodist, 14 Islamic, six Sikh, five Hindu, and two multifaith state-funded faith schools. There were 370 government-funded denominational schools in Scotland: 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian, and one Jewish. The government classified schools with links to the Church of Scotland as nondenominational.
In October the Welsh government launched an eight-week public consultation on proposals relating to the future of RE and Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE). Proposed changes include renaming the RE and RSE lessons “Religions and Worldviews” and removing the parental right to withdraw children from the lessons. The Welsh action followed a 2018 report by the Commission on Religious Education that recommended reform of RE in England, Scotland, and Wales, including a name change to “Religion and Worldviews.” The 2018 report followed a 2015 high court ruling that as part of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (a nationwide syllabus and academic qualification pursued by all students 14-16), schools (other than faith schools) must teach all religious and nonreligious world views without bias.
The Conservative Party faced allegations of anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Semitism. During the Conservative Party leadership contest in June, candidate Sajid Javid in a televised leadership debate urged his rivals to pledge an independent investigation into “Islamophobia within the party;” which they all agreed to do. In November PM Johnson apologized publicly for Islamophobia in his party and said an earlier inquiry into all forms of discrimination in the Conservative Party would continue. Shortly after the general election in December, PM Johnson appointed a psychiatry expert, Professor Swaran Singh, to investigate how the party handled complaints of discrimination. Singh is a former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the country’s semi-governmental human rights watchdog. Then-Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly said Singh’s appointment would help the party “stamp out unacceptable abuse.” The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) stated it was angered by the broad scope of the investigation into “discrimination” rather than specifically into Islamophobia and accused PM Johnson of breaking his promise. MCB General Secretary Harun Khan commented, “This appointment is at risk of being seen in the same light as the Conservative Party’s customary approach to Islamophobia, that of denial, dismissal, and deceit,” adding, “We were promised an independent inquiry into Islamophobia specifically.” The inquiry did not begin by year’s end.
In September during a session of prime minister’s questions on the floor of the House of Commons, Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Deshi publicly called on PM Johnson to apologize for his comments about Muslim women in a 2018 opinion article. Johnson did not do so. In November, when asked by media if he apologized for the Islamophobia that existed in the Conservative Party, PM Johnson replied, “Of course, and for all the hurt and offence that has been caused.”
In September the Conservative Party suspended several members, including at least one official, who posted or endorsed anti-Muslim comments on Twitter, one of which stated Islam was “the religion of hate.” The BBC highlighted 20 new cases to the party. While the number of suspensions was not revealed, the party told media that those found to be party members were suspended immediately, pending investigation. After calling for the Conservatives to launch an independent investigation into the alleged Islamophobia since 2018, in May the MCB formally asked the EHRC to open an inquiry. By year’s end, the EHRC did not take action.
Members of the Muslim community in Northern Ireland expressed concern that they could not apply for funding from the UK government’s “Places of Worship Protective Security Scheme” because Northern Ireland is not included in the plan. They pointed to attacks on mosques in recent years as evidence that funding is needed to increase security. Leaders of the Belfast Islamic Centre reported excellent relations with local Police Service of Northern Island (PSNI), which they said reliably responded to calls and provided additional security at mosques during periods when mosques had additional worshippers, including Ramadan.
In October Conservative MP Crispin Blunt suggested in an interview that the British Jewish Community demanded “special status” regarding circumcision and ritual slaughter. Blunt supported calls for eliminating subsidies to the CST, an organization that provided security for the British Jewish communities and reported anti-Semitic incidents in the country. When questioned by the Jewish Chronicle, Blunt said the “Jewish community has a special place in Britain” and while the CST “does a good job in protecting” British Jews, his “anxiety is that we have got to get to where faith and non-faith communities all feel secure.” He added the country needed to get to “a place where the Jewish community does not feel the need to have its own security.”
CST recorded over 100 anti-Semitic incidents monthly during the year. The highest single monthly totals came in February and December and, according to CST, coincided with months when anti-Semitism within the opposition Labour Party was under particular scrutiny and the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbin, faced further allegations of anti-Semitism. The CST stated it was “hard to precisely disaggregate the impact of the continuing Labour anti-Semitism controversy upon CST statistics, but it clearly has an important bearing.”
A poll commissioned by the Jewish Leadership Council in March found 87 percent of Jewish adults in the country viewed Jeremy Corbyn as anti-Semitic, compared to just 1 percent for former Prime Minister Theresa May and 21 percent for the leader of the far-right UK Independence Party, Gerard Batten. The same poll found 42 percent of respondents would “seriously consider emigrating” if Corbyn became Prime Minister.
In May the EHRC launched a formal investigation into whether the Labour Party had “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed, or victimized people because they are Jewish.” This was only the second such EHRC formal investigation taken against a political party. According to media reports, the EHRC opened the investigation based on complaints from party members, including Jewish members of parliament, about anti-Semitism within Labour. In a press statement, the EHRC said the party had committed to fully cooperate with the investigation. A party spokesperson reiterated Labour’s intention to assist the investigation and rejected “any suggestion that the party does not handle anti-Semitism complaints fairly and robustly.” The announcement was welcomed by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, the NGO that first referred the Labour Party to the EHRC in July 2018. At year’s end, the EHRC did not release any interim findings of its investigation.
In October the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an organization affiliated with the Labour party, announced its refusal to campaign for Labour in the event of a general election, and it carried out this pledge in the approach to the December 12 general election. The JLM cited a “culture of anti-Semitism,” but said it intended to remain affiliated to the party to “fight racism, rather than disaffiliate.” The JLM adopted a policy to campaign for certain Labour candidates who “have been unwavering in their support” for JLM.
Three weeks prior to the general election in December, spiritual leader of the nation’s Orthodox Jews Ephraim Mirvis wrote in The Times that the Jewish community was deeply anxious about the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister if Labour won because he had failed to stand up to anti-Semitism, including in his own party. The same day Mirvis’ commentary appeared, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby posted on Twitter, “That the Chief Rabbi should be compelled to make such an unprecedented statement at this time ought to alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews.”
During the general election campaign, the Scottish National Party suspended its candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Neale Hanvey, over anti-Semitic social media posts. Hanvey remained on the ballot as the party’s candidate because the suspension came too late for changes to be made. He was elected with a majority of 1,243 votes and will sit as an independent Member of Parliament until a disciplinary process is completed. Obervers stated that his election is thought to be the first time a candidate who was dropped by his party was elected as an independent.
In May vandals drew a 30-foot swastika on the side of the East London warehouse of Brexit Party candidate for the European Parliament and Jewish businessman Lance Forman, whose father was a Holocaust survivor. Police investigated the incident, but no arrests were made.
In March an Iranian Christian who said he converted to Christianity because it was a peaceful faith was denied asylum after a Home Office official used the Bible to argue that Christianity was violent and denied the applicant’s request. The Independent reported the refusal letter cited several biblical passages, including the book of Revelation, to say the Bible was “inconsistent” with the asylum seeker’s claim. The refusal letter said, among other things, “These examples are inconsistent with your claim that you converted to Christianity after discovering it is a ‘peaceful’ religion, as opposed to Islam, which contains violence, rage, and revenge.” The Home Office then said the case of the Iranian Christian did not follow proper procedure and the asylum request was being reconsidered, with a resulting withdrawal of its refusal and a commitment to reconsider the application.
In March the Northern Ireland Humanists group publicly called for the repeal of the region’s 1891 and 1888 blasphemy laws. The Catholic Church and the Irish Council of Churches responded by referring to a 2013 statement acknowledging “that the current reference to blasphemy is largely obsolete” and suggesting new legislation against discrimination and hate crimes could be introduced to provide more effectively for the freedom of individuals to practice their faith openly. All major political parties declared support for repeal, except for the Democratic Unionist Party, which stated antidiscrimination and hate crime legislation did not provide adequate protection for Christians.
In June the Northern Ireland Department of Justice requested a judicial review of hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland. At year’s end the review was ongoing, with a full report due in May 2020. Northern Ireland was the only part of the country that did not have specific hate crime laws; rather, current legislation allowed for increased sentencing if offenses were judged motivated by hostility based on race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. Crown Court Judge Desmond Marrinan led the independent review with the goal of extending coverage to marginalized communities currently not protected by legislation, including those discriminated against because of age and gender.
On July 30, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee launched an inquiry entitled, “Human Rights: Freedom of religion and belief, and human rights defenders.” The inquiry examined the FCO’s human rights programs and priorities, with a focus on freedom of religion and belief, and the work of human rights defenders overseas. The inquiry remained open to public input at year’s end.
In May then-prime minister May and several former prime ministers backed a proposal for a new Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre to be constructed in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. The government committed 25 million pounds ($32.98 million) to the project, which was matched by a contribution from a newly established charity for the purpose. At year’s end, the project was pending approval by the local planning authority and Westminster City Council.
In September the Foundation for Jewish Heritage bought a former synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales with a grant from Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environment service. Cadw contributed 44,000 pounds ($58,000), equating to 55 percent of the overall costs, towards the purchase of the building, which will be transformed into a Jewish Heritage Center.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to Home Office figures for the 12 months ending in March, there were 8,566 recorded offenses of religiously motivated hate crimes in England and Wales, a 3 percent increase from the previous year. There was no breakdown by type of crime. Home Office statisticians said the increase likely reflected both a genuine rise in hate crime and ongoing improvements in crime recording by the police. According to Tell MAMA, a national project that records anti-Muslim hate crimes, the figures rose sharply in March immediately following the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. Tell MAMA recorded 95 incidents in the week following that attack; in a typical week the total was 30-35.
In September David Parnham was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison after admitting to police that he wrote letters encouraging individuals to commit acts of violence against Muslims by awarding points for anti-Muslim offenses.
In Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service reported 529 religiously motivated crimes in the 12 months ending in March, an 18 percent decrease from the 642 crimes recorded in the same period in 2017-18. In the year ending in March, court proceedings commenced in 92 percent of cases. A spokesperson for the EHRC attributed the decrease to improvements in the methods victims used to report hate crime, but added more work needed to be done to give victims the confidence to come forward.
The PSNI reported 22 religiously motivated hate crimes committed in 46 incidents during 2018-19, a decrease from 41 crimes reported in the previous period.
The annual report of CST recorded 1,805 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, the highest ever annual figure recorded by the organization and 7 percent higher than the preceding year. This was the fourth year in a row in which CST documented a record high. CST recorded 697 anti-Semitic online incidents, a sharp rise from 384 in 2018.
CST recorded 158 violent anti-Semitic assaults during the year, an increase of 25 percent in 2018 and the highest number of violent incidents ever recorded by CST in a single year. Almost half of these were recorded in three locales: Barnet and Hackney in London, and Salford in Manchester. There were 88 incidents of “damage and desecration” of Jewish property; 98 direct anti-Semitic threats; 1,443 incidents in the category of “abusive behavior,” which included verbal and online abuse, anti-Semitic graffiti, and individual cases of hate mail; and 18 incidents of mass-mailed anti-Semitic leaflets or emails.
Almost two-thirds of anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in Greater London and Greater Manchester – the two largest Jewish communities in the country. CST recorded 947 anti-Semitic incidents in Greater London during the year, three fewer than the 950 incidents recorded in London in 2018. CST recorded a decline of 11 percent in anti-Semitic incidents in Greater Manchester, from 251 incidents in 2018 to 223 in 2019.
According to a Catholic news service, in late April in Glasgow, Scotland, two Catholic churches were targeted by vandals. Anti-Catholic slogans were painted on a bus stop outside of Holy Family Church and vandals entered the sanctuary of St. Simon’s Church, smashing a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and overturning a Marian shrine.
In January Ephraim Borowski, the director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, said Jews were “actively considering” emigrating from Scotland because of rising anti-Semitism. He added, “In recent years there has been a very worrying increase in the level of anti-Semitism in the country.” His comments led a number of Scottish politicians to call for a renewed effort to address anti-Semitism.
In February Jacek Tchorzewski, a self-described radical Nazi and Polish national, was arrested at London’s Luton Airport on suspicion of terrorism offenses as he attempted to board a flight to Poland. Police recovered an “enormous amount” of digital documents, which included manuals on making explosives and weapons and material praising Hitler, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitism and calling for genocide. In June Tchorzewski pled guilty to 10 counts of possession of information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism, and in September he was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison.
In March Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First, a nationalist party widely described as far right, was convicted of anti-Muslim hate speech by a Belfast court after making remarks at a “Northern Ireland against Terrorism” rally held in Belfast in August 2017. Fransen was sentenced to 180 hours of community service. Britain First leader Paul Golding and two other English men, John Banks and Paul Rimmer, were acquitted on similar charges.
In April Israeli author Tuvia Tenenbom noted that during a trip to Northern Ireland, he asked patrons in a Derry pub about Palestinian flags flying in the area. The patrons responded by describing Jews as the “scourge of the earth” and Israelis as “child-murdering scum.” At year’s end, the PSNI was investigating the incident. Leaders and representatives from across the all main political parties condemned the comments as “disgusting,” “vile,” and “disgraceful.”
According to The Daily Mail, an elementary school teacher was fired after telling Jewish students she would “ship them off to the gas chambers” if they didn’t finish their schoolwork.
Mark Meechan, who was fined in April 2018 for posting online videos of a pet dog taught to perform Nazi salutes, was selected as a candidate for Scotland from the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the May European elections. He was not elected after UKIP won less than 2 percent of the vote in Scotland. During the campaign, media reports highlighted he had previously used Twitter to promote racist and anti-Muslim views.
In June a Belfast resident was sentenced to four months in prison after phoning in a death threat in March to a Muslim resident of Birmingham, England whom he had identified on Facebook.
In July the founder of the self-styled anti-Islamic English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, was sentenced to nine months in prison on contempt of court charges for interrupting 2017 and 2018 trials of mainly Muslim men accused of sexual assaults against minors. In 2017, Robinson had called the defendants “Muslim child rapists.” He was released in September after serving nine weeks in solitary confinement.
In August media reported Jay Davison in Cardiff posted anti-Muslim and pro-Nazi comments on his social media account along with photographs of himself holding a shotgun. A jury convicted him of one count of stirring up religious hatred and two counts of stirring up racial hatred. A judge sentenced him to four years in prison.
In March the Irish Football Association condemned an online video appearing to show Northern Ireland soccer fans chanting, “We hate Catholics, everybody hates Roman Catholics.” Sinead Ennis, Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly and party spokeswoman for sport, called on the Irish Football Association to “identify and punish those involved.”
In the fall, a couple who said their children were being religiously indoctrinated during Christian school assemblies entered a judicial review claim, supported by national charity organization Humanists UK, that Burford primary school in Oxfordshire forced their children take part in Christian prayers and watch re-enactments of Bible stories, including the crucifixion. The couple withdrew their children from the assemblies but said the school refused to provide a meaningful alternative of equal educational worth. At the time the children enrolled, Burford primary school was a community school with no religious character. In 2015 it became an academy and joined the Church of England’s Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust.
In May the EC carried out a study in each EU-member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 61 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the United Kingdom, while 34 percent said it was rare; 93 percent would be comfortable with having a person of different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 97 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, 96 percent said they would be with an atheist, 96 percent with a Jew, 96 percent with a Buddhist, and 95 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if a child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 94 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 91 percent if atheist, 91 percent if Jewish, 89 percent if Buddhist, and 88 percent if Muslim.
In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU-member state. According to the survey, 62 percent of residents in the country believed anti-Semitism was a problem, and 44 percent believed it had increased over the previous five years. The percentage who believed anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 53 percent; on the internet, 53 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 50 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 51 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 43 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 50 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 40 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 56 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 49 percent.
In November the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 33 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the UK; 20 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 18 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
In December the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights conducted a survey of 4,731 individuals who identified as Jewish EU residents in order to understand their perceptions of anti-Semitism. Twenty-four percent said they had witnessed other Jews being insulted, harassed, or physically attacked in the previous 12 months, and 25 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Seventeen percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief, and 88 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
In May the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland voted to adopt the working definition of anti-Semitism held by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The move, initiated by the Reverend Dr. Richard Frazer, the convener of the Church and Society Council, highlighted that anti-Semitic incidents in the UK, per the CST report, were “at a record high for the third year in a row.”
In June bishops of the Church in Wales adopted the IHRA definition, stating, “We note that the IHRA definition itself does not preclude criticism of the State of Israel, and that legitimately holding the Israeli government to account is not anti-Semitic.” They added, “In making the decision we recognize the excellent relationships between faith communities in Wales.” The decision was welcomed by the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl.
On November 6, the Chelsea Football Club adopted the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism – the first English soccer club to do so. The announcement was made via a press conference alongside the prime minister’s independent advisor on anti-Semitism, Lord Mann. As part of the soccer club’s “Say No to Anti-Semitism” campaign, Chelsea played the New England Revolution team in Foxborough, Massachusetts in a first of its kind friendly charity match named “The Final Whistle on Hate.” The match raised $4 million for organizations promoting equality and tolerance including the World Jewish Congress, CST, the Tree of Life Synagogue (Pittsburgh), the ADL, and the Holocaust Educational Trust.
In July the University of Essex announced plans to introduce mandatory training on anti-Semitism for university staff and to expand current “bystander training” for students, to include anti-Semitism. The training was recommended in a review conducted by the university following anti-Semitic incidents earlier in the year, according to media reports.
Several interfaith organizations operated in the country, including Faith Matters, the Inter Faith Network, and Interfaith Scotland. Various interfaith efforts took place throughout the year, including an LGBT Faith and Coffee evening in Camden, North London; high school interfaith days in Scotland; and interfaith seminars throughout the country. During Inter Faith week November 10-17, organizations across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland hosted events to strengthen interfaith relations at all levels, increase awareness of different and distinct faith communities, and increase understanding between people of religious and nonreligious beliefs. Interfaith Scotland hosted a cross-party Holocaust Memorial Day in the Scottish Parliament.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In July the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism visited London and Oxford and met with key figures working to combat anti-Semitism, including religious leaders, government officials, parliamentarians, and representatives from the Jewish community. The special envoy stressed the United States views anti-Semitism from all sources – “whether the far left, far right, or radical Islam” – as equally abhorrent. He also delivered the keynote speech at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy’s annual summer Oxford Institute for Curriculum Development in Critical Anti-Semitism Studies, and he addressed members of the House of Lords. The special envoy also spoke about the importance of unity within the Jewish community and the opportunities for interfaith cooperation on shared interests, including countering threats to religious slaughter practices, and security issues. In October the special envoy addressed participants at a global anti-Semitism event at the House of Commons in Parliament and met with the independent advisor on anti-Semitism. Discussions centered around perceptions within British society of anti-Semitism on the far left of British politics, particularly accusations that the opposition Labour Party and its leaders had not adequately addressed allegations of anti-Semitism among its members, and the use of sports diplomacy to widen the campaign against anti-Semitism.
In April the Ambassador hosted a roundtable for Jewish organizations, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the CST, and the Jewish Leadership Council. Roundtable participants discussed challenges facing the Jewish community, including allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.
On October 28, the embassy hosted an event to celebrate International Religious Freedom Day and to honor the Hindu festival of Diwali. Approximately 100 guests, including senior religious leaders, government officials, civil society representatives attended. The program, cosponsored by the FCO and the embassy, featured speeches by the Ambassador and Lord Ahmad.
In December the Ambassador hosted a Hanukah celebration attended by more than 100 members of the Jewish community, including several Kindertransport survivors, representatives of the Israeli Embassy, and representatives from other religious and nonreligious groups. The reception celebrated the Jewish Festival of Light and the hope it signifies for the future of the freedom of religion or belief.
In March the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities delivered a video message to the Retford Religious Tolerance Forum that highlighted the U.S. government commitment to defending the rights of individuals to believe, or not to believe, free from discrimination or violence.
The embassy used social media to promote the recognition of International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, including tweets highlighting the International Religious Freedom Act, the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, and the Secretary of State’s statement on the importance of promoting religious freedom and defending vulnerable minorities. Similarly, the embassy used social media to call attention to International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.
Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from a wide variety of religious groups and began engagement with organizations such as Humanists UK, in an effort to broaden understanding and messaging on the right to religious freedom or belief.
Staff from the consulate general in Belfast maintained regular contact with Northern Ireland’s predominant and minority religious leaders, conducting regular visits to diverse places of worship, as well as convening formal and informal gatherings to discuss religious freedom, tolerance, and the shared societal challenges faced by their communities.