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Bangladesh

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 161.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2013 government census, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Baha’is, animists, Ahmadi Muslims, agnostics, and atheists. Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers to be between a few thousand and 100,000 adherents.

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of destroying religious harmony or creating discrimination on religious grounds.

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

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

Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

On November 27, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced seven defendants to death for their role in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. An eighth defendant was acquitted. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said they would appeal the verdicts, the government appealing only the one acquittal. According to numerous reports, the attackers, who claimed loyalty to ISIS, singled out non-Muslims and killed the victims with machetes and firearms. According to media, a police investigation found 22 persons were involved in the attack: the eight whose trial just concluded, including two who had fled the country; five who were killed during the security response to the attack; and nine who died in a series of security actions in the country following the incident.

Legal proceedings against suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. In March a Dhaka court transferred the murder case to the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal for trial proceedings. The trial of six men accused in the killing began in April. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife, who was also injured in the attack, as they returned home from a Dhaka book fair. The press reported police suspected the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a militant Islamic organization claiming association with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent– accused of other acts of violence and banned by the government – was involved in Roy’s killing. Four of the accused appeared before the court during the year; the other two remained at large.

Law enforcement concluded one of eight investigations into a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District. In December 2017, 228 were charged with the attacks on the Hindu community, pending prosecution. However, according to media reports, all accused persons were since released on bail. According to media reports, in the three years since the attack, there was no further progress in this case following the completion of one of eight investigations, and no timeline was given for completing the other seven investigations or for scheduling hearings for the 228 charged. The courts held no hearings before the end of the year. The attackers injured more than 100 individuals and vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples following a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. The National Human Rights Commission stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area and obtain their land.

According to media reports in November, the government filed charges against members of the Santal Christian community, which was the target of a violent attack in 2016 that allegedly involved local authorities and law enforcement personnel. These charges necessitate these members paying legal and administrative fees, even if the cases fail to progress. Among those charged was the brother of a man killed in the attack. At the same time, authorities dropped charges against police officers videotaped in the attack for lack of sufficient evidence. On July 28, the UN Committee Against Torture reported the Police Bureau of Investigation submitted a report stating no police officers were involved in the burning of homes and schools and looting of property, despite the visual evidence suggesting their involvement.

Human rights organizations did not report the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year, in contrast with previous years.

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

The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, stating the program spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools,” which the government said reflected his teachings.

In May police arrested Catholic poet Henry Sawpon for “offending the religious sentiments of Catholics” in his many social media posts criticizing and insulting members of the clergy. The arrest followed a complaint filed by Father Larence Gomes, a local priest in the town of Barisal, also the home of Sawpon. According to Gomes, Sawpon said young priests organized a seminar for youth where girls were raped. At year’s end, Sawpon remained in jail.

According to the Ministry of Land, authorities adjudicated 15,224 of 118,173 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act as of 2018, the most recent year figures were published. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 7,733 of the cases, recovering 8,187.5 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 7,491 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

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

The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 11.68 billion taka ($137.4 million) for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which covers June 2018-July 2019, the most recent year for which figures were available. The budget included 9.21 billion taka ($108.4 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.24 billion taka ($96.9 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 780.8 million taka ($9.2 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 37.5 million taka ($441,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2018-19 budget, it received 2.8 million taka ($32,900) to run its office.

Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In July three CHT villages filed a report with the deputy commissioner accusing Jashim Uddin Montu, a businessman, of land grabbing. In an investigative report, The Daily Star discovered Montu falsified residency documents in Bandarban for the right to purchase CHT land to build a tourist property. Villagers said Montu donated money and some of the purchased land in CHT to build a two-story police camp in Bandarban. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups continued to attribute lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.

The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, celebrations during the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.

President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities. In October the prime minister’s foreign policy advisor, Gowher Rizvi, said at an interreligious event the majority faith (Islam) had the responsibility to protect minority religious groups and urged all to work under a common umbrella and address common problems together.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In September according to press reports, unidentified individuals killed four members of a Buddhist family living in Cox’s Bazar. The victims included two children under the age of 10. The family lived in a predominantly Buddhist village in Cox’s Bazar, and the precise motive of the murder remained unclear at year’s end.

In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, Vice Principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit, and Buddhist community members said he may have been killed and his body dumped from the train while returning to his hometown from Dhaka. Buddhists and human rights activists formed human chains and protest rallies throughout the country following Nanda’s death. At year’s end, however, no arrests were made.

In its Brief Yearly Report on the Minority Situation, the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said atrocities against minorities continued, but slowed. Communal acts against religious minorities, including land grabbing, rapes, and arson, remained a “day to day affair” but BHBCUC did not provide specific numbers or give examples. In contrast with 2018, when BHBCUC documented 806 cases of religious persecution against minorities, the organization did not release any statistical data during the year.

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

In October rioters clad in Islamic garb and brandishing Islamist banners protested the arrest of two Muslims in Bhola accused of hacking a Hindu student’s Facebook account to plant disparaging comments on Islam for extortion. The rioters demanded the incarceration of the Hindu student, ransacked a local Hindu temple, and incited local residents to join them. Police responded to the rioters, who they stated were armed with shotguns, and used lethal force in what they stated was self-defense, which resulted in four deaths. More than 100 people were injured in the riots. The two Muslims accused of the hacking remained under arrest, as did the Hindu student who reported to police the hacking and subsequent extortion attempt.

In November according to several media reports, unidentified persons broke into a Hindu Kali temple in Tangail and vandalized five idols. A local Hindu leader said the perpetrators acted in this manner to damage communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims in the area. Local authorities and law enforcement said they opened an investigation into the incident.

Actress Saba Kabir, according to media reports, was pressured to apologize after making remarks taken by some to be admitting to atheism. After heavy social media criticism, she apologized on her Facebook page for offending the religious beliefs of others.

The human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra said at least 101 people were injured in violence against religious minorities in the first 10 months of 2019. Apart from this figure, said the group, at least 65 temples/monasteries or statues were attacked and 53 homes of religious minorities were attacked and set on fire. Some Buddhists continued to say they feared local Muslims would commit acts of vengeance against them in reaction to Buddhist mistreatment of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma.

NGOs continued to report tensions in the CHT between the predominantly Muslim Bengali settlers and members of indigenous groups, primarily Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian, largely over land ownership. The government continued its efforts to resolve land ownership disputes affecting indigenous non-Muslims, using a 2017 amendment to the law providing for more inclusive decision making and a harmonization of the law with the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord. According to some members of the indigenous community, procedural issues had delayed resolution of many of their property disputes.

Maldives

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 392,000 (midyear 2019). The government estimates there are an additional 200,000 documented and an additional 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. While the vast majority of citizens follow Sunni Islam, there are no reliable estimates of actual religious affiliations. Foreign workers are predominantly Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the country is a republic based on the principles of Islam and designates Islam as the state religion, which it defines in terms of Sunni teachings. It states citizens have a “duty” to preserve and protect Islam. According to the constitution, non-Muslims may not obtain citizenship.

The constitution states citizens are free to engage in activities “not expressly prohibited” by sharia, but it stipulates the Majlis (the country’s legislative body) may pass laws limiting rights and freedoms “to protect and maintain the tenets of Islam.” In deciding on whether a limitation on a right or freedom is constitutional, the constitution states a court must consider the extent to which the right or freedom “must be limited” to protect Islam.

The constitution makes no mention of freedom of religion. Although it contains a provision prohibiting discrimination “of any kind,” it does not list religion as a prohibited basis for discrimination. The constitution states individuals have a right to freedom of thought and expression, but only in a manner “not contrary to the tenets of Islam.”

The law prohibits the conversion of a Muslim to another religion. By law, a violation may result in the loss of the convert’s citizenship, although a judge may impose a harsher punishment per sharia jurisprudence. Although the law does not stipulate such punishment, sharia jurisprudence is often understood to provide for the death penalty in cases of conversion from Islam (i.e., apostasy).

The law states both the government and the people must protect “religious unity.” Any statement or action found to be contrary to this objective is subject to criminal penalty. Specific infractions include expressing religious beliefs other than Islam, disrupting religious unity, and having discussions or committing acts that promote religious differences. The list of infractions also includes delivering religious sermons in a way that infringes upon the independence and sovereignty of the country or limiting the rights of a specific section of society. According to the law, sentences for violators may include a fine of up to 20,000 rufiyaa ($1,300), imprisonment for two to five years, or deportation for foreigners.

Laws criminalize speech breaking Islamic tenets, breaching social norms, or threatening national security. The penal code criminalizes “criticism of Islam.” According to the law, a person commits the offense of “criticizing Islam” by “engaging in religious oration or criticism of Islam in public or in a public medium with the intent to cause disregard for Islam; producing, selling, or distributing material criticizing Islam; producing, selling, distributing, importing, disseminating, or possessing ‘idols of worship’; and/or attempting to disrupt the religious unity of the citizenry and conversing and acting in a manner likely to cause ‘religious segregation.’” Individuals convicted of these offenses are subject to imprisonment for up to one year.

By law, no one may deliver sermons or explain religious principles in public without obtaining a license from the MIA. Imams may not prepare Friday sermons without government authorization. To obtain a license to preach, the law specifies an individual must be a Sunni Muslim, have a degree in religious studies from a university recognized by the government, and not have been convicted of a crime in sharia court. The law also sets educational standards for imams to ensure they have theological qualifications the government considers adequate. Government regulations stipulate the requirements for preaching and contain general principles for the delivery of religious sermons. The regulations prohibit statements in sermons that may be interpreted as racial or gender discrimination, discourage access to education or health services in the name of Islam, or demean the character of and/or create hatred toward persons of any other religion. The law provides for a punishment of two to five years in prison or house arrest for violations of these provisions. Anyone who assists in such a violation is subject to imprisonment or house arrest for two to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300). The law requires foreign scholars to ensure their sermons conform to the country’s norms, traditions, culture, and social etiquette.

Propagation of any religion other than Islam is a criminal offense, punishable by two to five years in prison or house arrest. Proselytizing to change denominations within Islam is also illegal and carries the same penalty. If the offender is a foreigner, authorities may revoke the individual’s license to preach in the country and deport the individual.

By law, mosques and prayer houses remain under the control of the MIA. The law prohibits the establishment of places of worship for non-Islamic religious groups.

The law states, “Non-Muslims living in or visiting the country are prohibited from openly expressing their religious beliefs, holding public congregations to conduct religious activities, or involving Maldivians in such activities.” By law, those expressing religious beliefs other than Islam face imprisonment of up to five years or house arrest, fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 rufiyaa ($320-$1,300), and deportation.

By law, a female citizen may not marry a non-Muslim foreigner unless he first converts to Islam. A male citizen may marry a non-Muslim foreigner if the foreigner is Christian or Jewish; other foreigners must convert to Islam prior to marriage.

The law prohibits importation of any items the MIA deems contrary to Islam, including religious literature, religious statues, alcohol, pork products, and pornographic materials. Penalties for contravention of the law range from three months’ to three years’ imprisonment. It is against the law to offer alcohol to a citizen, although government regulations permit the sale of alcoholic beverages to foreigners on resort islands. Individuals must request permission to import restricted goods from the Ministry of Economic Development.

The constitution states education shall strive to “inculcate obedience to Islam” and “instill love for Islam.” In accordance with the law, the MIA regulates Islamic instruction in schools, while the Ministry of Education funds salaries of religious instructors in schools. By law, educators who teach Islamic studies must have a degree from a university or teaching center accredited by the Maldives Qualification Authority or other religious qualification recognized by the government. By law, foreigners who wish to teach Islamic studies may receive authorization to do so only if they subscribe to Sunni Islam. Islam is a compulsory subject for all primary and secondary school students. The curriculum incorporates Islam into all subject areas at all levels of education, specifying eight core competencies underpinned by Islamic values, principles, and practices. In practice, foreign non-Islamic children may be allowed to opt out of studying Islam.

The constitution states Islam forms one basis of the law, and “no law contrary to any tenet of Islam shall be enacted.” The constitution specifies judges must apply sharia in deciding matters not addressed by the constitution or by law.

The penal code prescribes flogging for unlawful sexual intercourse (adultery, fornication, and same-sex relations), incest, false accusation of unlawful sexual intercourse, failing to fast during Ramadan, or (for Maldivian citizens only) consuming pork or alcohol. Other sharia penalties are not specified, but the code grants judges the discretion to impose sharia penalties for hudood listed in the Quran and qisas (retaliatory) offenses – including murder, apostasy, assault, theft, homosexual acts, drinking alcohol, and property damage – if proven beyond all doubt. The penal code requires all appeal processes be exhausted prior to the administration of sharia punishments specific to hudood and qisas offenses, including stoning, amputation of hands, and similar punishments.

The Supreme Council of Fatwa has the authority to issue fatwas, or legal opinions, on religious matters. The council functions under the MIA and comprises five members appointed to five-year terms. The president names three members directly and chooses a fourth from the faculty of either the Maldives National University or the Islamic University of Maldives. The minister of Islamic affairs recommends the fifth member, subject to the president’s approval.

The constitution stipulates the president, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and judges must be Sunni Muslims.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with a reservation stating the government’s application of the principles set out in ICCPR Article 18, which relates to religious freedom, shall be “without prejudice to the Constitution of the Republic of Maldives.”

Government Practices

In January the magistrate court in Naifaru Island sentenced a woman to death by stoning for extramarital sex using provisions in the law allowing for discretionary sharia sentences in cases of hudood offenses. The Supreme Court overturned the sentence within days, judging the lower court had violated the legal provision under which prosecutors charged the defendant, and the woman remained free at year’s end. The government reported three adults and two children were sentenced to flogging but did not always impose other sharia penalties for hudood and qisas offenses, despite having the legal authority to do so.

On September 10, MPS arrested a man from Thinadhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll under a court warrant for “criticizing Islam” on social media. The man posted about holding “irreligious discussions” with the youth on his island a day earlier and his intentions to plan rallies encouraging secularism. On September 9, the man had tweeted about filing a report with MPS after receiving death threats online. On September 11, MPS told media it was separately investigating the death threats against the man. On September 11, the criminal court authorized MPS to detain him for 15 days, but no charges were filed by year’s end.

On December 18, MPS and the Maldives National Defense Force launched a joint operation on Maduvvari Island in Raa Atoll to investigate allegations a religious group was depriving women and children of health care and education and was conducting illegal “child marriages.” According to media reports, MPS identified five children whose parents refused to vaccinate them on religious grounds, preventing them from attending local schools. The parents of four of these children agreed to vaccination during the operation, and the government took no adverse action against them. MPS arrested one set of parents and placed their child in the custody of a family member for continued refusal to vaccinate the child or send the child to school.

On October 11, MPS questioned a woman not identified by local media in relation to “content that criticizes Islam being posted on a social media account.” No charges were filed by year’s end.

A 2017 legal challenge to the constitutionality of a ban on the niqab for civil servants filed by Jamiyyatul Salaf, a local religious NGO, was still pending at year’s end.

On November 5, the MYSCE said it informed MDN that it was dissolving the organization because the group’s 2015 Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives had content contrary to Islam, and on December 19, the ministry proceeded with official dissolution of the NGO. MDN called on the government to reverse this decision. MDN subsequently removed the report and issued an apology. MDN’s executive director Shahindha Ismail said that, in making the decision to dissolve the NGO, the government had yielded to the demands of “religious extremists.” The report explored institutional practices such as teaching of Islam, enforcement of laws, public awareness and education, social media, and the work of religious organizations. In its initial decision suspending MDN’s activities, the MYSCE cited the relevant article of the Associations Regulation, which prohibits establishment of an association for the purpose of “conflicting with the principles of Islam, or disregarding Islamic religion, or rebuking or undervaluing religious harmony of the country, or expressing or propagating the thinking and beliefs of any another religion other than Islamic religion.” Government authorities investigated MDN at the request of the MIA following an online campaign led by religious scholars calling for the government to ban MDN. State Minister of Islamic Affairs Sheikh Ilyas Jamal said the report was “very dark and dangerous” and that it was aimed at introducing secularism and removing Islamic principles from the state and education sector. In an October 7 statement on the MDN report, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih said “any attempts to tarnish the name of Islam… will not be permitted” and called on the public to “conform to holy directives and principles of Islam.”

On October 23, police arrested Mohamad Ameen on suspicion of spreading an “extremist ideology.” Authorities alleged that Ameen was serving as a local recruiter for ISIS.

The trial of seven men for the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed, a critic of religious fundamentalism and violent extremism, remained pending at year’s end.

In September the Presidential Commission on Investigation of Murders and Enforced Disappearances reported that Ahmed Rilwan, a journalist abducted in 2014, was killed by “radical Islamists.” The commission’s head, Husnu Suood, stated Rilwan, a critic of the then government and radical Islam, had been threatened by foreign jihadi groups on several occasions prior to his death.

In January MPS announced it was “meeting with” individuals posting online content that “disrupts public unity and peace” and those responding to such content “with verbal attacks that encourage violence and hatred.” According to an MPS public statement and media reports, MPS questioned former member of parliament Ibrahim Rasheed to “clarify information” after he received online death threats following a report from a news website stating one of his tweets “insulted Prophet Mohamed”; independent reporter Aishath Aniya, who received death threats online for criticizing the design of a new mosque in Male; Mohamed Siruhan, who allegedly operated a Facebook page profiling citizens whom the page stated were apostates; and religious scholar Sheikh Ali Zaid. The latter two criticized Rasheed and Aniya over posts they said “insulted Islam.” MPS officials reported they advised and cautioned the individuals against posting content that disrupts public unity and encourages violence and hatred but took no further action.

Victims of online harassment and threats said they felt vulnerable because of the lack of police responsiveness to their complaints and because similar occurrences preceded the 2014 disappearance and killing of journalist Ahmed Rilwan and the 2017 killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed.

During the April parliamentary elections, some candidates belonging to the opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives and to the ruling coalition’s Jumhooree Party accused the MDP, the main party in the government coalition, of having an anti-Islamic agenda and staged rallies attacking perceived “secularism” of their opponents. In a March 25 campaign speech, Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim said if the MDP won a majority in parliament, the government would “build churches here, build temples. People of other religions will have the opportunity to live in the Maldives. Then we will be forced to wage war.” An MDP representative said Ibrahim’s statements were “ridiculous.”

The Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM) continued to maintain an unpublished blacklist of websites containing material it deemed un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. The CAM stated it did not proactively monitor internet content but instead relied on requests from ministries and other government agencies to block websites violating laws against criticism or defamation of Islam. Police reported investigating one website for un-Islamic content but did not file charges. In September Facebook removed a page at the request of Ministry of Science, Communication, and Technology officials who argued the page “mocked Islam” and posed a threat to public order and societal harmony.

The MIA continued to maintain control over all matters related to religion and religious belief, including requiring imams to use government-approved sermons in Friday prayers. The government maintained its ownership and control of all mosques, including their maintenance and funding. The government continued to permit private donors to fund mosques as well.

According to the MIA, foreign residents, such as teachers, laborers, and tourists, remained free to worship as they wished in private, but congregating in public for non-Islamic prayer remained illegal, as was encouraging local citizens to participate in such activities.

Customs authorities said the MIA continued to permit the importation of religious literature, such as Bibles, for personal use. The MIA also continued to allow some religious literature for scholarly research. The ministry continued to restrict the sale of religious items, including Christmas cards, to resort islands patronized by foreign tourists. In August the customs service confiscated 247 books from a public book fair in Male organized by a private bookshop for content that “violated the principles of Islam” but did not file charges. Customs officials reported 18 cases involving importation of religious idols, statues, and Christian crosses during the year. Authorities confiscated these items but did not press charges.

The MIA continued to conduct what it termed “awareness programs” through radio and television broadcasts in Male and on various islands to give citizens information on Islam, and it continued to provide assistance and counseling to foreigners seeking to convert to Islam. The ministry, in partnership with religious NGOs, continued to send imams to outer atolls to conduct workshops for students, youth, and others in schools and government buildings for the stated purpose of strengthening the islanders’ understanding and acceptance of Islam.

The National Institute of Education continued to implement a curriculum for public and private schools incorporating Islam into all subject areas. According to NGOs, passages in some textbooks portrayed democracy as being anti-Islam, encouraged anti-Semitism and xenophobia, glorified jihad, and demonized the West. The MIA continued to permit foreign individuals to opt out of Islamic instruction as a stand-alone subject. The MIA continued to permit foreigners to raise their children to follow any religious teaching they wished, but only in private.

Observers reported the Family Court continued in some instances to refuse to register children if one of the parents was a non-Muslim. Although the law allows the marriage of Muslim men to Christian or Jewish women, the court reportedly argued citizens could neither marry non-Muslims nor have children with them. Children not registered were unable to obtain birth certificates or identity cards, which are required for admittance to schools or for accessing government services. The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services reported intervening in such cases to ensure admittance to schools and government services despite the lack of documentation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs reported that persistent online and in-person threats against individuals perceived to be insufficiently Muslim effectively foreclosed the possibility of meaningful discussion on religious issues in the country. NGOs reported an increase in online death threats and attacks against those perceived to be critical of Islam since January with little action from authorities.

NGOs reported increasing instances of individuals deemed “secularists” or “apostates” receiving death threats, being cyberbullied, and being followed on the street by individuals with records as criminal gang members. In January MPS launched an investigation into hate speech and death threats after “Murtad Watch” (Apostate Watch), a public channel on the social media application Telegram, compiled a list and profiled citizens deemed to be “apostates,” arguing the sharia penalty for apostasy is death. MPS did not publicize findings of this investigation by year’s end. Days later, President Solih established a ministerial committee chaired by the vice president and directed it “to find a solution to the uprising issue on [sic] religious criticism targeted to [sic] Islamic faith.” MDN reported its staff received anonymous death threats and were the targets of hostile surveillance. During an October rally calling for the government to ban MDN, demonstrators in Angolhitheemu Island in Raa Atoll chanted for nonbelievers to be burned and for MDN executive director Shahindha Ismail to be killed.

NGOs reported continued community pressure on women to wear hijabs and harassment of women who chose not to do so.

In January unknown individuals vandalized the main door of private Mandhu College and issued online threats after its chairman questioned whether the January stoning sentence of a woman for extramarital sex was justified under sharia.

Media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion. Media reported higher levels of self-censorship in reporting on religion due to concerns about societal harassment and threats. Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from possible punitive actions or harassment. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment from being labeled “anti-Islamic.”

Morocco

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, and less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, according to U.S. government estimates. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca. Some citizen Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens. One media source reported that while most Christians in the country are foreigners, there are an estimated 8,000 Christian citizens and that “several thousand” citizens have converted, mostly to Protestant churches.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and an estimated 10,000 Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked in the country for generations but do not hold citizenship. There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier. There are an estimated 3000 foreign-residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca. Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north. In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 600. Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.

BBC Arabic reports that 15 percent of the population identifies as nonreligious, up from under 5 percent in 2013.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, and Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his or her religious affairs. The constitution states the king holds the title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society. According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam. Religions other than Islam and Judaism are not recognized by the constitution or laws.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches. Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($20,800).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith by exploiting his weakness or need for assistance, or through the use of educational, health, or other institutions and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). The same penalties apply to anyone who intentionally interferes with religious rites or celebrations where this causes disturbances or affects the dignity of such religious acts. It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense. Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law. The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21-$52). Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate 5 percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country. A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters. Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts. Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam. Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children. Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some “foreign” Christian churches). The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group (e.g., open and hold bank accounts, rent property, acquire land and building grants, and have access to customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities) or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters. An individual representative of a religious group neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, and/or petitions to the government. The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters. The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution. The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches (churches run by and attended by foreign residents only) are registered as associations. The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status. The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively. The Protestant and Catholic Churches, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government, which allows them to preserve houses of worship and assign foreign clergy.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence. Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of including or omitting religious instruction within the school’s curriculum. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation. Such fatwas are considered binding only on Maliki Achari Sunni Muslims. If the king or parliament declines to ratify a decision of the council, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

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

Government Practices

Authorities still denied Christian citizen groups freedom of worship in churches, the right to Christian or civil marriage, and funeral services. The government does not allow Christian citizens to establish churches.

The JCO, a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but continued to operate. It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered. The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations. According to media, there were instances in which the government prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials. On February 6, media reported authorities closed unlicensed mosques operating in the homes of JCO members in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane. According to Agence France Presse, local authorities in Casablanca stated the homes served as “places of prayer and gatherings” and were home to illegal activities.

In March the AMDLR/CMC released a widely publicized letter to Pope Francis asking him to pressure the government to open investigations into what it said was systemic harassment of Christian citizens by security forces. A number of local and foreign Christian leaders disputed the AMDLR/CMC claims that there was systemic harassment by security forces of Christian citizens. AMDLR leader Jawad El-Hamidy said that while “foreign Christians” were free to exercise their religious freedom, Moroccan converts were not and must worship in private. According to a February press report, El-Hamidy said, “There is lack of recognition of freedom of belief and an absence of legal guarantees when it comes to practicing some non-Islamic religious rituals: Morocco does not tolerate people converting to Christianity from Islam,” adding, “Christians do not possess ‘normal’ citizenship rights, and there is no political willingness to protect them.” Local citizen Christian leaders reported being closely monitored by state authorities during the pope’s visit from March 30 through 31.

Some foreign-born clergy and other community members tried to dissuade citizens from attending public worship services, for the citizens’ safety and that of the church and its members.

During the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting nonregistered religious groups from practicing their religion in private.

According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities continued to make phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.

A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious observations. There were no known Shia mosques. Shia representatives reported they did not attempt to register during the year because they feared security forces would harass them as had been the case in previous years.

AMDLR reapplied for registration as an association during the year. Authorities refused to accept the application, according to the head of AMDLR. A Christian group that applied to register as an association in 2018 was still awaiting a response from the MOI at year’s end.

The U.S. NGO Open Doors stated in its annual 2019 World Watch List that the penal code, which criminalizes “shaking the faith” of a Muslim, put many Christians who talked to others about their faith at risk of criminal prosecution and arrest. The NGO also stated that while the penal code provision “only punish[ed] proselytization, converts to Christianity [could] be punished in other ways, such as loss of inheritance rights and custody of their children.”

Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended officially recognized churches, and they discouraged them from doing so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing, which could lead to their inability to continue leading the church and its ability to provide services, and to avoid putting other priorities, such as building projects, at risk.

On August 27, authorities in the Al Houz region outside Marrakesh demolished a partially constructed installation described by its builder, German artist Olivier Bienkowski and his NGO PixelHelper, as a “memorial dedicated to the murdered Jews in Europe and standing against the persecution of minorities such as the Sinti and Romani (Eastern Europe), Muslim Uigurs (China), and gays,” after PixelHelper failed to obtain proper building permits. In media interviews, Bienkowski said he hoped to construct the first Holocaust Memorial in northern Africa for educational purposes and to memorialize forced labor camps in the nearby desert during World War II where Jews and others were confined. The government ordered Bienkowski to leave the country in August. Local authorities disputed Bienkowski’s version of events, stating the country had a “proud history” of diversity and peaceful coexistence of its various religious communities and emphasizing the lack of coordination with appropriate government offices and proper permits. According to a media report, a leader of the local Jewish community said that Bienkowski intended to harm the country by conveying a false image of it as anti-Semitic. He also said that the Jewish community in the Al Houz region welcomed the decision of the authorities to demolish the project.

The 2017 ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa remained in effect. The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban. The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use. Authorities continued to prohibit anchors on national television and police and army personnel in uniform from wearing a hijab or burqa.

The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious life and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 2100 morchidines (male Muslim spiritual guides) and 901 morchidates (female Muslim spiritual guides) in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country. The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning. It continued to provide government-required one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year. It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country. The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.

The government required religious leaders who work in the country to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher. The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. In January the MEIA suspended an imam for saying that celebrating the January 1 New Year was “haram” (against religion) during a sermon in a mosque in Rabat.

The MEIA continued to monitor Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and to ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.

The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism. Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.

Some Amazigh (Berber)-rights activists reported intolerance and suppression of traditional Amazigh customs in rural Amazigh villages by government-appointed morchidates.

The government’s policy remained to ban the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.

The government permitted the display and sale of Bibles in French, English, and Spanish. A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in higher education courses.

The government continued drafting and implementing an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” The Ministry of Education (MOE) continued a review of the religion curriculum used in primary and secondary education to make reforms based on universal values of liberty, empathy, solidarity, and honesty. Since the review began in 2016, 29 textbooks have been rewritten and modifications to textbooks continued during the year. The government was sharing its experience with other countries.

There were no reports from Shia citizens that security forces detained and questioned Shia citizens about their beliefs. In contrast to previous years, the MOE reported it granted the only two exemptions from mandatory Islamic education requested during the year.

The government continued to allow the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. In contrast to previous years, Christian leaders said there were no reports of authorities pressuring converts to renounce their faith by informing friends, relatives, and employers of the individual’s conversions. Foreign residents and visitors attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches. An estimated 10,000 individuals, including sub-Saharan African Christians as well as some who identified as Sunni Muslims, attended the Sunday Mass Pope Francis led in Rabat on March 30.

Jewish and Christian citizens continued to state elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam and Judaism over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Six) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam. For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance. According to the government and Jewish leaders, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues. In April the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez.

The Prison Administration authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the Grand Rabbi of Casablanca and the heads of the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in the country.

On March 30, King Mohammed VI received Pope Francis at Tour Hassan, the burial site of his father and grandfather, Kings Hassan II and Mohamed V. The by-invitation ceremony included foreign and domestic religious leaders, the diplomatic corps, sub-Saharan migrants, security forces, and local government officials. The king’s nationally televised remarks promoted interfaith dialogue and interreligious coexistence. Alternating between Arabic, French, Spanish, and English during his speech, the king said he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.”

On March 30, the king and Pope Francis also visited the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, which trains domestic, European, and African imams and morchidines and morchidates on a moderate interpretation of Sunni Islam as a counter to the spread of radical Islam, an institute the pope praised for “provid[ing] a suitable preparation for future religious leaders.” The institute trains up to 1,400 students to serve as imams, including foreign students.

After the pope and king visited the Imam Training Center in Rabat on March 30, their hosts staged a musical performance fusing the Islamic call to prayer with Jewish and Christian hymns. The International Union of Muslim Scholars, a Salafist organization, denounced the performance as offensive to Islam’s values. Many citizens turned to social media to denounce the criticism and defend the musical performance as an example of interreligious coexistence.

On October 3-4, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MFA) in partnership with the Rabita Mohammedia of Religious Scholars, an association of religious scholars promoting openness and tolerance in Islam and founded by the king in 2006, hosted the “First Regional Conference on Cultural Heritage Protection for Religious Communities.” Government officials, religious leaders, and cultural preservation experts from Morocco and other countries participated in the two-day conference that covered policies that promote respect for and protection of cultural heritage and efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of religious significance for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. The conference also aimed to raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the importance of cultural heritage related to religious communities. At the conference, Secretary of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mounia Boucetta said, “Moroccans have made an irreversible choice to uphold and practice the values of tolerance, coexistence, and peace, a choice that honors the legacy of our past but most importantly it is the only choice we have to ensure a stable and prosperous future for our country.”

On an April 14 television program, Minister of Human Rights Mustapha Ramid stated the government did not criminalize conversion from Islam, distinguishing it from the crime of “shaking” others’ faiths or attempting to convert Muslims to another religion. Stating that the convert was not “culpable,” Ramid said the criminal code focused on proselytizing that exploits the “fragility” and “needs” of potential converts.

Member of Parliament Amina Maelainine, a PJD member, said in March that “the veil is not an Islamic pillar” and that she had previously put “disproportionate” emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. She also stated that some members of her party were “open on the question of the hijab” but could not openly express their views because of “party and social constraints.” Faith, she said, was entirely a personal matter, and “freedom of conscience should be guaranteed for everyone.” Maelainine’s comments followed release of photographs on social media showing her unveiled during a visit to Paris.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. On June 21, the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca, which is home to an expatriate Anglican community, hosted the grand opening of its community center, built with approval from government authorities; the church building was under government-approved renovation, with an expected grand opening in 2020.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly.

During Ramadan, the press reported a teenage girl in Ouazzane was attacked on a bus by the bus driver for eating in public. Media reported she filed a complaint with the local authorities who opened an investigation into the case. In August the government reported the prosecutor general’s office closed the case after the victim and perpetrator of the attack came to a mediated resolution. During Ramadan, authorities arrested and fined several individuals for smoking in public.

According to the 2018-2019 AMDH report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and through Friday sermons. Shia reported they observed Ashura in private to avoid societal harassment. Shia Muslims said that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

In March the New York Times reported the country’s citizens could not freely express atheistic beliefs or conversion to another faith, adding that “Criticizing Islam remains extremely sensitive, and worship for indigenous Christians … is problematic, particularly for those who converted from Islam.”

There were reports from media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends. Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families reportedly did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations. Several Jewish citizens, however, reported increased perceived societal intolerance, particularly when news media gave prominent coverage to Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses if they wore a hijab or other head covering. When women who wore a hijab obtained such employment, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours. Conversely, some women cited on media outlets societal pressure to wear the hijab given the widespread societal emphasis on physical appearance and modesty as central to Islam. According to a media report, during an October 12 roundtable at the 12th annual Fez Festival of Sufi Culture, an audience member called for a woman wearing a hijab to remove her head covering before posing a question to the roundtable’s panel of experts. The woman wearing the hijab defended her right to do so and noted the forum was an Islamic festival.

In contrast to previous years, Baha’i leaders said they did not experience harassment during the year. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering a good education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

Abdelilah Benkirane, former prime minister and former secretary general of the PJD, told the press in May that the role of political parties is to find solutions faced by their country, independent from religion. Benkirane, who described the PJD as a political party with an Islamic orientation, said religion and politics can be separate, “The state’s body of laws should not necessarily be in line with Islamic rulings.”

A report published on June 27 by the Arab Barometer, an international research and polling network, found 38 percent of citizens said they were religious compared to 44 percent who were somewhat religious and 13 percent who identified themselves as not religious. Those aged 18-29 were more than 40 percent less likely to identify as religious compared to those aged 60 or older. The report also found “the younger generation is substantially less likely to want religious figures to have a say over government.” The report added, “Among…Muslims, roughly a quarter (27 percent) believe that the law should be entirely (12 percent) or mostly (15 percent) based on the sharia. Instead, a plurality (32 percent) say the law should be based equally on the sharia and the will of the people, while 21 percent say it should be based mostly on the will of the people, and 15 percent say it should be entirely based on what the people prefer. Support for making laws mostly or entirely based on the sharia has declined since 2016, falling by 9 points.”

Tunisia

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), of which approximately 99 percent is Sunni Muslim. Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, and nonbelievers constitute less than 1 percent of the population. There are approximately 7,000 Christians who are citizens, according to the Christian community, most of whom are Anglicans or other Protestants. The MRA estimates there are approximately 30,000 Christians residing in the country, most of whom are foreigners, and of whom 80 percent are Roman Catholic. Catholic officials estimate their church membership at fewer than 5,000, widely dispersed throughout the country. The remaining Christian population is composed of Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Jewish community numbers approximately 1,400, according to the MRA. One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital, and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and in the neighboring town of Zarzis. There is a small Baha’i community, but no reliable information on its numbers is available.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam is the country’s religion, but the constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and requires the president to be Muslim. The constitution guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices. The constitution also states that mosques and houses of worship should be free from “partisan instrumentalization.” It obligates the state to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance, protect holy sites, and prevent takfir (Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims). The law requires that all religious services be celebrated within houses of worship or other nonpublic settings. These restrictions extend to public advertisement of religious services. The constitution lists reasons for potential restrictions on the rights and freedoms it guarantees, including protecting the rights of others, requirements of national defense, and public order, morality, or health.

The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.”

There is no legal prohibition of proselytism, but the law criminalizes forced conversions.

Religious groups may form and register associations under the law to establish a bank account and conduct financial activities such as charity work and receive favorable tax treatment, including tax-free donations from government-approved associations, provided the association does not purport to represent all believers of a religious group or use the name of a religious group. To establish an association, a religious group must submit a registered letter to the Prime Minister’s Office stating the purposes of the association; copies of the national identity cards of its founders, who must be citizens; and two copies of the articles of association signed by the association’s founders or their representatives. The articles of association must contain the official name of the association in Arabic and any foreign language, if appropriate; its address; a statement of its objectives; membership criteria; membership fees; and a statement of organizational structure, including identification of the decision-making body for the association. The law requires that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles. The law prohibits associations from engaging in for-profit activities, providing material support to individual political candidates, or adopting bylaws or taking actions to incite violence or promote hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Once established, such an association may receive tax-exempt income from organizations, including foreign organizations that have a prior agreement with the government.

Once the association receives the return receipt from the Prime Minister’s Office, it has seven days to submit an announcement of the name, purpose, and objectives of the association to the government press. The government press has 15 days to publish the announcement in the government gazette, which marks the association’s official registration. In the event the government does not return a registered receipt within 30 days, an association may proceed to submit its documents for publication and obtain registration. A foreign association may establish a branch in the country, but the government may also reject its registration request if the government finds the principles or objectives of the foreign association contravene the law.

Violations of the provisions of the law related to associations are punishable first by a warning of up to 30 days from the secretary general of the government, then by a court order suspending the association’s activities for up to 30 days if the violations persist. If the association is still in violation of the law, the secretary general may then appeal to the court for dissolution of the association. Under the law, associations have the right to appeal court decisions.

Registered associations have the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, to publish reports and leaflets, to own real estate, and to engage in “all types of civil activities.”

A 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See grants official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. The modus vivendi allows the Church to function in the country and provides state recognition of the Catholic Church, although it restricts religious activities and services to the physical confines of authorized churches and prohibits construction of new churches and the ringing of church bells. A limited number of Catholic schools and charities may operate under the modus vivendi, but their financial activities are conducted through registration as an association, and their affiliation with the Church is not publicized.

The law states the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The grand mufti, appointed by the president, is charged with declaring religious holidays, issuing certificates of conversion to Islam, attending to citizens’ inquiries, representing the country at international religious conferences, providing opinions on school curricula, and studying and writing about Islam. The MRA suggests themes for Friday sermons but does not regulate their content. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.

By law, new mosques may be constructed provided they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations. The MRA pays for construction of mosques, although private and foreign donors also are able to contribute to construction costs. Mosques become government property upon completion, after which the government must maintain them.

It is mandatory for students in public schools to attend courses on the principles of Islam approximately one hour per week. Non-Muslim students generally attend these courses but may seek an exemption. The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity. Religious groups may operate private schools.

Provisions of law addressing marriage, divorce, and other personal status issues are largely based on principles of civil law, combined with elements of sharia. Laws of inheritance are principally based on requirements in sharia, but there are some provisions that allow for exceptions as outlined in the Code of Personal Status.

The law does not list religion as a prohibited basis for political parties but prohibits political parties from using religion to call for violence or discrimination.

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

Government Practices

On July 5, in the immediate aftermath of two June 25 terrorist attacks in downtown Tunis, Prime Minister Chahed issued a prohibition on wearing face coverings in administrative and public institutions, in order to “maintain public security and guarantee optimal implementation of safety requirements.” This directive remained in effect at year’s end. Government officials denied that the restriction limited religious freedom and stressed that its goal was to promote improved security. The media reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab.

According to Human Rights Watch, on May 19, police in Kairouan arrested Imed Zaghouani, a cafe owner, after Zaghouani declined to close his cafe during Ramadan. After he spent 10 days in jail, on May 29, a court sentenced Zaghouani to a suspended sentence of one month’s imprisonment and a fine of 300 dinars ($110) for “publicly offending modesty” or “publicly offending morality.” The Ministry of Interior issued a statement in late May denying any orders to close cafes or restaurants that were open during Ramadan, adding that the ministry works to apply the constitution, including the protection of freedom of belief and conscience.

In September the Aleph Institute, an international Jewish organization that assists individuals in prisons, expressed concern about possible anti-Semitism in the treatment of Jewish detainees held in the country’s prisons. In one case, the institute reported that Ilane Racchah was held from July 2018 to October 2019 in pretrial detention and that the investigative judge posted social media comments that “appear anti-Semitic” by referencing Racchah’s religion and “the history of Jews and Arabs” in his judgment. Authorities accused Racchah of inciting others to burn a car. Racchah’s legal case remained pending at year’s end. Although prison officials allowed his family to bring him kosher meals, the normal visiting hours precluded the family from visiting Racchah on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays, and the limited hours prevented the family from bringing him meals in a timely manner.

In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status. The Baha’i community reported that it was unable to proceed with an appeal of a 2018 court decision that denied its petition to be registered as an association because it did not have information on the grounds for the court’s decision. As of year’s end, the ministry had not responded to the Baha’i community’s request.

In contrast with previous years, Bahai leaders reported there were no instances of interrogation of members by security force personnel during the year.

The government continued to publicly urge imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. Since 2015, the MRA has conducted regular training sessions for imams on how to disseminate these messages. According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations and chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques.

On April 12, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced an imam to 20 years in prison for belonging to a terrorist group. Authorities also accused the imam of involvement in the 2013 assassination of politician Chokri Belaid. Separately, media reported that on April 19, the judicial police responsible for investigating terrorism cases interrogated an imam on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization based on documents uncovered during a search of his house.

In the period preceding the national elections in September and October, the MRA declared it would terminate employment of any imam or mosque employee who engaged in partisan politics. The MRA noted that ahead of the national elections, it prepared a charter for imams to guarantee their political neutrality inside of mosques. The MRA reminded imams and other religious leaders not to make political statements inside of mosques prior to the elections.

The MRA remained responsible for organizing citizens’ participation in the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. The ministry maintained responsibility for the safety of all of the country’s pilgrims and for making travel arrangements such as flight tickets, hotel, and transportation. The ministry conducted training sessions for the pilgrims prior to their travel dates. During the year, the ministry received 236,000 requests to participate in the Hajj pilgrimage and supported the travel of 10,982 citizens. The ministry sets the selection criteria for participation in the pilgrimage with priority given to older applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. The number of pilgrims the ministry supported matched the quota allocated to Tunisia by the government of Saudi Arabia.

On July 26, Prime Minister Chahed banned Egyptian preacher Wajdi Ghonim from entering the country after Ghonim criticized late president Beji Caid Essbessi for “fighting sharia law.”

Christian citizens continued to state there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to discuss publicly a church’s activities or theology. MRA officials met with Christian leaders in March to discuss revisions to update legal protections for the Christian minorities in the country in line with the constitution.

Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate within set guidelines and provided security for their services. The government generally restricted public religious services or processions outside churches. On August 15, however, the Santa Costa Church held a celebration in the streets of the city of La Goulette in honor of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. A number of Muslim citizens, including Mayor of La Goulette Amal El Imam and regional Ministry of Interior representative Fathi Hakami, attended this celebration.

Christian citizens reported the government continued to deny them the right to establish a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. The local Christian community again did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year. Christian cemeteries exist for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, continued to need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Citizens reported they generally did not request this permission due to what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse.

Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis but not those located in other cities, including Sousse and El Kef.

Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmed Adhoum hosted two conferences on religious tolerance and coexistence, the first in Tabarka from January 30-February 1 and the second held in connection with the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage in Djerba on May 22. During the conferences, Adhoum, the minister of tourism, and the minister of cultural affairs emphasized that peace and religious tolerance were essential to countering terrorism. On May 28, Adhoum hosted a Ramadan iftar in partnership with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, inviting representatives from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities in the country. Throughout the year, Adhoum met with representatives of the Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities.

Authorities again provided a high level of security for the annual Lag B’Omer festival held at the El-Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba in May, including security cameras and personnel around the synagogue.

In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either type of school full-time. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba. In May, during the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage, the Jewish community of Djerba inaugurated a new school for 120 girls from the Jewish community.

The Jewish community initiated applications to establish associations to better advocate with the government on behalf of Jewish community interests and serve as an organizing body for the Jewish communities in Gabes, Medenine, and Tunis. The MRA expressed support for this initiative.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some atheists reported receiving family and societal pressure to return to Islam or conceal their atheism, including, for instance, by fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from criticizing Islam. Some converts to Christianity reported strong family and societal rejection, and some of them were reportedly beaten and forced to leave their homes on account of their beliefs. Some members of the Christian community said that citizens who attended church services faced pressure from family members and others in their neighborhood not to attend. Christians reported that family members frequently accused converts of bringing “shame” to the family after their conversion. In one example, church officials reported that a nineteen-year-old Christian convert faced abuse from her family after her conversion, including physical and psychological abuse, prior to her family forcing her from the home.

The multicultural Attalaki Association for Freedom and Equality reported a positive exchange with a member of parliament from the Nahda political party, imams from the Association of Imams for Moderation and Rejection of Extremism, and representatives of the Christian community during a May colloquium organized to discuss interfaith issues, particularly for the Christian community. The association praised this exchange as a first step towards building strong communication among these communities, with a commitment for those outside of government to work together to advance several proposals raised by the Christian community, including efforts to facilitate their desire to license a cemetery and a church.

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