The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.5 million (midyear 2021). According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 80-85 percent of the population, and Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent.
According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, together constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 400 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most members of the Sikh and Hindu communities are in Kabul, with smaller numbers in Ghazni and other provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the country numbers in the hundreds. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions. There are no known Jews in the country, following the departure of the country’s last known remaining Jew after the Taliban takeover.
Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2021). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the AOC 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jews. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer an optional census question about religious affiliation. According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religion Database, there are approximately 1.71 million Muslims (59 percent of the population), 1.01 million Christians (38 percent), 73,000 atheists or agnostics (2.5 percent), and 16,000 Baha’is. The World Jewish Congress estimates there are 40-50 Jews.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups and their status as legal entities. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by parliament.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually or collectively, in public or in private, and it explicitly recognizes the right of persons belonging to national minorities to freely express their religion without prohibition or compulsion. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred.
The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion, and it prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.
By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The commissioner may issue decisions and impose fines, which the affected parties may appeal in court.
The law specifies that the State Committee on Religion, under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister, is charged with regulating relations between the government and religious groups, protecting freedom of religion, and promoting interfaith cooperation and understanding.
The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but a religious group must register with the Tirana District Court as a nonprofit association to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and exemption from certain taxes. To register, a group must submit information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, the identities of its founders and legal representatives, the nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g., government ministries and civil society organizations), and the address of the organization as well as a registration fee of 2,000 leks ($19). A judge is randomly assigned within four days of submission to adjudicate an application and typically starts and finishes the adjudication in one day.
The government has agreements with the AMC, Bektashi community, Catholic Church, AOC, and VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A 2009 law directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time – the AMC and Bektashi communities, Catholic Church, and AOC. This law does not include VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision in the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.
Although the government’s agreements with the five religious communities stipulated the government would return religious objects and property, subsequent legislation delegated this role to the courts. Religious communities must file claims in court for restitution of, and compensation for, property confiscated by the former communist government, as must all other claimants. To reclaim property, the religious community must first obtain ownership title from the court, and then register the properties with the SAC, the official register established in 2020 to show quantity, value, and ownership of real estate. By law, bailiff offices must execute court rulings in property cases. If the property cannot be restituted because it is occupied, in use by the government, or otherwise unavailable, the community may, upon demonstrating ownership title, petition the Agency for the Treatment of Properties for financial compensation, which, until February, the government paid based on a legislatively determined formula. A February Constitutional Court ruling abrogated the formula, requiring a legislative amendment to re-establish the compensation formula.
The law allows the five religious communities with agreements with the government to operate educational institutions, as well as to build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.
Religious groups, including religious communities, foundations, and missions, must have building permits to construct new houses of worship. The law allows the government post facto to legalize “informal” buildings constructed prior to 2014 without permits.
Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion. The law allows the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 113 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, AOC, and VUSH communities operated numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AMC runs four madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued the process of legalizing buildings built by religious groups, primarily Sunni mosques, Catholic and AOC churches, and Bektashi tekkes (centers of worship) built without government approval after the fall of communism in the early 1990s. The SAC reported that during the year, it legalized 62 such buildings (compared with 92 in 2020): six Catholic churches and other buildings of the Catholic church, 46 mosques and other buildings of the AMC, two Orthodox churches, four tekkes, and four buildings used for religious purposes – a Catholic church belonging to the International Association for Solidarity, an addition to a mosque belonging to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Qatar Charity, a privately owned worship space, and a church of the Protestant NGO Little Family. Twenty-five other buildings, mainly belonging to the AMC, remained under review. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by the SAC and those of the religious communities. The AMC reported it obtained legalization papers for 32 mosques during the year, with 368 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported no new legalizations during the year.
Among the six Catholic Church properties legalized during the year were the Church of Koplik and the Franciscan Albanian Province Zonja Nunciate’s Museum against Genocide, both located in the northwest of the country. On December 25, SAC General Director Artan Lame presented the certificates of legalization for the two properties to Catholic Archbishop of Shkoder-Pult Angelo Massafra. According to Lame, “It is absurd that the Albanian state has not been able to provide permits before the construction of at least religious buildings, making us face the need for legalization for houses of God.”
The SAC reported challenges in returning property to religious communities seized under the former communist regime, providing physical compensation by means of other property, or paying cash compensation. According to the SAC, these challenges included refusal by current owners (including private owners and the government) to relinquish property, necessitating time-consuming litigation, and lack of government funds to pay compensation in cases where the government had transformed the properties into space that was no longer useable for religious purposes.
As of year’s end, the legislature had not acted to re-establish a formula for property compensation, as required by a February Constitutional Court ruling. According to the AMC, the Agency for the Treatment of Properties, which was responsible for paying compensation, stopped processing new applications once the Constitutional Court made its ruling and would not begin again until the legislature set a new formula.
Religious communities criticized the SAC’s approach to legalizing property, stating the process was bureaucratic, produced delays, and was hampered by the SAC’s inability to locate relevant documents in state archives. The AOC said the SAC’s refusals of applications were perfunctory and lacked documentary explanation or supporting arguments, making further pursuit of property registration in court difficult. Religious groups said that even in cases where the SAC approved applications, it often failed to provide the groups with supporting documentation, making it difficult for the groups to register the property or protect their rights in the future.
The AMC again expressed concern that the SAC gave it title only to buildings and not to the land on which they were built.
The AMC, the Bektashi community, and the AOC continued to state there were lengthy delays in court proceedings that could make it difficult to enforce an eventual restitution ruling before the 10-year statutory limit on the execution of civil judgments expired. The AOC said it won some property cases in court, but Church representatives stated outside influence on bailiff offices by interested parties, including businesses, private individuals, or government officials, was slowing the bailiffs’ execution of court rulings and that such influence often involved corruption. Bektashi representatives reported that at least four cases of property restitution and compensation between the Bektashi and the government or individuals were still pending in court at year’s end, while the AMC reported it had 67 property cases pending in court.
The Catholic Church and the AOC stated that the government had not implemented its agreements with these communities to return religious objects and properties. The Catholic Church said the government had not created the ad hoc commission stipulated in the agreement to handle restitution of objects and property, nor had it returned properties. The AOC reported it was still seeking restitution for several properties formerly owned by the Church but currently owned by different government ministries. The AOC informally proposed to the government and the Interfaith Council that special legislation be created to handle religious communities’ properties confiscated by the former communist regime, and that a special structure be created within the SAC to implement that legislation.
According to some government officials, officials in the human rights NGO Albanian Helsinki Committee, as well as media reports, corruption, lack of government knowledge of competencies and jurisdiction over property cases and large caseloads in the court system hampered religious communities’ ability to advance claims to their property or compensation. Thousands of cases were with the Supreme Court, which was still in the process of replenishing its quorum with judges who passed a comprehensive vetting process. Lacking a quorum, the Supreme Court was unable to decide cases for most of the year. The AMC reported that since 2016, it had submitted approximately 500 applications for restitution or claims for compensation encompassing approximately 23,000 hectares (57,000 acres) of property worth what AMC estimated to be approximately six billion euros ($6.8 billion). The AMC reported the government had not yet paid compensation on four judgments in its favor from 2020. The Bektashi community reported that during the year, the government paid it 146 million leks ($1.38 million) in compensation for “informal” (not legally recognized) properties others had built on Bektashi land. The community used the compensation to build new tekkes in Elbasan and Gjirokaster and to buy shares of the Continental Hospital, previously owned by a former member of the AMC. The SAC, however, reported the government had paid the AMC 13.88 million leks ($131,000) in compensation for land with an area of 510 square meters (5,490 square feet), and the Bektashi 12.33 million leks ($116,000) as compensation for land with an area of 2,534 square meters (27,276 square feet).
The AOC again said that despite numerous requests, the government had not returned all sacred objects, relics, icons, and archives confiscated during the communist regime. The AOC said that on April 12, the Ministry of Culture returned the remains of Saint John Vladimir to the Monastery of Shijon in Elbasan, and in October 2020, the ministry returned the land in Tirana on which Saint Procopius Church stands. AOC representatives said the government continued to oppose some of the Church’s claims on monasteries and churches, stating the properties were cultural monuments that fell under the purview of the state. The Ministry of Culture stated that although the law allowed religious communities to possess title to religious property listed as cultural heritage or a cultural monument, in some cases such property would remain property of the state, due to its national importance. According to the Ministry of Culture, in some cases, religious communities did not seek property title because the law on cultural heritage places the burden of restoration, rehabilitation, and maintenance primarily on the owner, with potential for additional financial penalties if not fulfilled as prescribed by law.
Bektashi leaders reported continued problems dealing with local property registration offices. The community again reported the government had not responded to its complaints at the central and local level that the government, without the community’s permission, built apartments for individuals who lost their homes during a 2019 earthquake on Bektashi property. In addition, the Bektashi community reported that four cases it had filed contesting a decision by the Agency for the Treatment of Property not to recognize the community’s property claims on tekkes in Frasher, Alipostivan, Permet, and Turan-Tepelene continued to work their way through the court system.
The Bektashi community and the AOC again objected to paying the value-added tax, as well as other taxes and fees, stating those payments violated their agreements with the government. The AOC reported it paid the government 113 million leks ($1.07 million) in annual taxes and social and health insurance but had not been reimbursed as called for in its agreement with the government. The Bektashi community reported it had held meetings with the government on the value-added tax (VAT) paid for its buildings but had not yet reached a resolution. It reported that in previous years it had paid 124 million leks ($1.17 million) in VAT on construction of the Odeon, a multipurpose center at the World Bektashi Headquarters in Tirana, and that it also had VAT disputes over the ongoing construction of the Grand Tekke of Elbasan and the tekke of Shtuf in Gjirokaster. Religious communities said public services and support received in return were not commensurate with the taxes paid.
VUSH stated the government again failed to respond to a request it submitted in 2017 for land on which to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities.
VUSH reported it remained unable to register its ownership of most of the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. VUSH’s case against the Tirana municipal government for issuing construction permits for others to build residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land after refusing permits for VUSH to build on its own land remained pending in the Tirana District Court. VUSH also filed a case in Tirana District Court against the construction company that built on its land, which was also pending at year’s end.
In March, the Ministry of Education and Sports approved the establishment of a bachelor’s degree program in Islamic studies in English, a master’s program in Islamic Sciences in Albanian, and a master’s degree program in Religious Studies in English at AMC-affiliated Beder University College. The programs began during the year. The master’s degree program offered degrees in Interreligious Dialogue, Religious Leadership, and Religious Education. The government continued not to recognize diplomas in theology and religious studies issued by foreign institutions.
The Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination reported one case of discrimination based on religious grounds in which the director of a school in Laprake, Tirana, asked a girl to leave the school because she wore a hijab, which the director said violated the dress code. The commissioner worked with the school and the family to enable the girl to continue attending school and took no action against the director.
Religious communities said they continued to face financial problems during the year due to COVID-19 containment measures that they had urged members of their communities to follow. They stated they felt discriminated against because the government did not respond to individual or collective requests through the Interfaith Council for additional financial support to pay religious workers during COVID-19 restrictions, such as lockdowns. They also said the limits on the size of gatherings, which applied to secular venues as well, inhibited their fundraising capabilities.
The Catholic Church complained of discrimination to the chair of the Technical Experts Committee on COVID-19 after the government, without consulting with the Church, decreed a COVID-19-related curfew at the last minute on Christmas Eve in 2020 that interfered with midnight Mass, but the Church received no response. The government’s anti-COVID-19 curfew remained in place throughout 2021, including on Christmas Eve, which passed without comment by faith communities.
The Council of Ministers again failed to adopt regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion. The AOC again raised concerns over the missing regulations, particularly in the south of the country, home to many members of the Orthodox faith.
The State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations counted 195 organizations, 174 of which were evangelical Christian. The AMC had one organization, the AOC four, and the Catholic Church 16. The then committee chair said responding to the census was not required by law but that the committee hoped through the initiative to gain better understanding of the religious communities.
The government postponed the 2020 population census to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious communities again expressed concern that the postponement would reduce their groups’ reported numerical strength, with a corresponding reduction in government support. The communities stated they had sought to participate in focus groups to help explain the religion questions in the census, but the government had not responded to their request. For the first time, AOC Archbishop Anastasios in a Mass in October instructed Orthodox parishioners publicly to confirm their religion during the 2022 census.
The Catholic, AMC, AOC, and Bektashi communities reported receiving government financial support totaling 113 million leks ($1.07 million), four million leks ($37,800) more than the previous year and the first increase since 2015. The AMC received 33.12 million leks ($313,000), an increase of more than one million leks ($9,400) over 2021, while the other remaining communities received 26.64 million leks ($251,000), a slight increase from the previous year. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff, as stipulated by a Council of Ministers’ decision in April. The Bektashi community used some of the funds to pay part of the wages of its staff; it used the rest to continue building the Grand Tekke of Elbasan and raise awareness of the Bektashi community domestically and internationally. The communities stated that the government should provide financial support according to the size of each community. The government did not indicate the basis on which it allocated the funds among the four communities.
VUSH continued to seek changes to the law that would allow it to receive financial support from the government.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the Ministry of Culture, the Albanian American Development Fund, and the Municipality of Vlora committed to building a museum in Vlora dedicated to the country’s efforts to protect persecuted Jews during World War II. The government and the Albanian American Development Fund opened the bidding process for the project in September but had not announced a winner by year’s end.
On March 22, President Ilir Meta awarded the Interfaith Council with an Honor of the Nation medal “in appreciation of the comprehensive contribution to preserving and promoting the spirit of harmony, understanding, and coexistence between religions in Albania.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.6 million (midyear 2021), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims who reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia. Religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.
Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. In 2020, the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern estimated there were approximately 600,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.
Christians reside mostly in Algiers and the Provinces of Kabylie, Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The new constitution, effective December 30, 2020, removed language from the 2016 constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience. The previous constitution said, “Freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion shall be inviolable. Freedom of worship shall be guaranteed in compliance with the law.” The new constitution’s language reads, “The freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to exercise worship is guaranteed if it is exercised in accordance with the law. The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence.”
The law does not prohibit religious conversion, including from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,200) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.
The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($360-$720) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.
The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.
The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and shall express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The President appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the President on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals and correct understanding of the religion. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the President.
The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. The law requires all organizations registered prior to 2012 to reregister. The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. Unregistered associations have no legal status, and may not own property, open bank accounts, convene gatherings, or raise funds. Members of active, unregistered groups are often subject to criminal prosecution. The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate
The law requires the Ministry of Interior to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all required documentation. The ministry has 60 days to respond to applicants following the submission of a completed application. If the ministry does not respond within the 60-day timeframe, the application is automatically approved, and the receipt may be used as proof of registration. If the ministry considers the application incomplete, it does not issue a receipt for the application. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but allows applicants to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.
The MRA has the responsibility to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision. The law does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.
The National Commission for Non-Muslim Worship is charged with facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups according to law. Non-Muslim religious leaders report no contact with the government committee. The MRA chairs the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs; the Presidency; national police; national gendarmerie; and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).
The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Under the law, non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.
The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal. Islamist insurgents, FIS guerrillas, and the government fought a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place. The law states that religious gatherings, for worship or other purposes, are subject to regulation, and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. Except for daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.
Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice and be administered by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant wali (governor) at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The event’s organizers must be identified and must also obtain a permit from the wali.
The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.
The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($720) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Any persons, including government-authorized imams, who act “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge” may be fined as much as 200,000 dinars ($1,400) or receive a prison sentence of three to five years. The law states that such acts include using the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.
The MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel, as well as healthcare and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.
The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all printed materials, including religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.
The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” In accordance with a governmental decree, a commission within the MRA reviews importation of the Quran. The decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.
The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.
The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam, although authorities do not always enforce this provision. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.
The law requires that couples present a government-issued marriage license before imams may conduct religious marriage ceremonies.
The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.
The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.
The law prohibits all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. The government passed a separate hate speech law in 2021, and religious belief or affiliation are not among the categories covered by the law.
The CNDH is responsible for monitoring and evaluating human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the President, who appoints the committee’s members.
By law, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders said there were 50 Ahmadi Muslims who were defendants in cases in the court system, a decline from their October 2020 estimate of 220. According to Ahmadiyya Muslim leaders, the authorities failed to pursue many of the cases predating 2018, and the cases were dismissed.
In February, a court in Algiers convicted Said Djabelkhir of blasphemy for “offending the precepts of Islam” and sentenced him to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars ($360). Djabelkhir is an expert on Sufism and founded the “Circle of Enlightenment for Free Thought,” an association for thinkers and academics who advocate a progressive Islam. Authorities reportedly summoned Djabelkhir to court after a fellow academic filed a complaint that his writings on various Islamic rituals, such as the Hajj and animal sacrifices on Eid al-Fitr, among other critiques, constituted “an attack and mockery of the authentic hadiths of the Sunna [the custom and practice] of the Prophet” and had caused persons psychological harm.
On August 2, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders reported that the court tried and convicted two of its community members in Adrar on charges of holding an unauthorized gathering. Their Algiers-based lawyer was unable to attend the court proceedings due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, and the judge refused the defendants’ request to postpone the proceedings. The authorities first imprisoned the two Ahmadis in November 2020, where they remained in pretrial detention until their trial. The court sentenced them to six months’ imprisonment and a 50,000 dinar ($360) fine.
In August, authorities placed Christian convert Soulimane Bouhafs in pretrial detention on terrorism-related charges. According to press reports, plainclothes agents abducted Bouhafs in Tunisia in August and transferred him to Algeria. Bouhafs was a member of the MAK, a political group advocating political autonomy for the Berber region. Authorities designated the MAK a terrorist organization in May. Bouhafs spent two years in prison for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, but the President pardoned him in 2018. Upon his release, Bouhafs fled to Tunisia, where he obtained refugee status from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He was arrested upon his return to Algeria.
In October, Ahmadi Muslim leaders reported courts had convicted several of its community members on charges of holding unauthorized gatherings and unauthorized fundraising. In Batna, a court sentenced an Ahmadi to one year’s imprisonment and a 50,000 dinar ($360) fine; in Tizi Ouzou, a court sentenced an Ahmadi to two months’ imprisonment and a 20,000 dinar ($140) fine; and in Constantine and Tiaret, the court convicted two other Ahmadis who were awaiting their sentences.
In January, during an interview with daily newspaper Liberte, Catholic Archbishop of Algiers Paul Desfarges said he was worried about the removal of the article on freedom of conscience from the constitution, a decision that “greatly grieved and saddened” him, and he said that he could not understand it. He added that he believed the article, along with one on freedom of religion, would “again find its rightful place one day.” The day after the interview, the MRA sent the Catholic Church a letter that said the reporter’s question had misled the Archbishop, and that the conscience clause “provision does not exist in the 2016 constitution nor does it in the previous ones,” adding that the Archbishop had misunderstood the constitution’s translation from Arabic. Other religious leaders also expressed concern about the removal of this language from the constitution.
On March 22, an Oran court upheld the five-year prison sentence and fine of 100,000 dinars ($720) of Hamid Soudad, convicted in 2018 of “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam” for reposting a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook account. Soudad’s lawyer, Farid Khemisti, attributed the severity of the sentence to Soudad’s conversion to Christianity.
In April, an Algiers court sentenced Said Djabelkheir, a well-known Islamic Sufi scholar, to three years in prison for “offenses to Islam.” Djabelkheir wrote that the sacrifice of sheep predated Islam and denounced child marriage. Djabelkheir told the newspaper Le Soir d’Algerie that he was surprised by the severity of his sentence and that he planned to file an appeal.
In April, authorities sentenced Hirak political protest activist Walid Kechida to three years in prison for insulting President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and “offending the precepts of Islam.” Authorities arrested Kechida in 2020 after drawing attention by sharing memes that depicted the Prophet on the internet.
NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the group remained unregistered because the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging a completed registration application that the community submitted to the government in 2012 to reregister the group as the law required. In September, the Ministry of Interior said it had never received a registration application from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and Ahmadi leaders reported they were preparing to file another application.
In September, Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they sent a letter requesting to meet with President Tebboune about their registration problems but had not received a response.
In September, the Ahmadi community again reported administrative difficulties and harassment since the community was unregistered and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community stated that after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regarded Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis stated they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.
The EPA, the United Methodist Church (UMC), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church said they still had not received responses from the Ministry of Interior to their 2012 and subsequent applications to reregister. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 registration application in 2015 and 2016, but despite several follow-ups with the government, the Ministry of Interior never accepted its application. None of the churches received receipts for their registration attempts. In March, the EPA said the MRA had told it that the Ministry of Interior was responsible for registration-related decisions and that the MRA could not get involved with the EPA’s registration issue.
In April, EPA leaders reported the Church had sent four letters to President Tebboune requesting to meet with the MRA to address their registration problem. At year’s end, they said they had not received a response.
Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.
Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment. Some Christian leaders in the country attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.
The MRA said it did not view Ibadis as a minority group and considered the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars stated Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.
On February 14, then Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad reopened mosques, Catholic and Anglican churches, and other public places that the government had closed for a second time in November 2020 as part of its COVID-19 mitigation strategy. On February 28, after the EPA asked the MRA if the reopening applied to other churches, the MRA told EPA leaders that it did not have the authority to authorize churches to reopen, calling the EPA’s request a “political issue.” In March, the MRA told EPA president Pastor Salah Chalah the MRA was not able to authorize its churches to reopen. In March, the EPA reported that local officials denied the Church’s request to resume in-person worship in Oran. When the Church questioned the decision, local authorities showed them a signed authorization to seal the churches – which they threatened to do if the Church did not stop asking for permission to reopen. Despite the restrictions, some EPA churches opted to hold Easter services on April 4. The authorities did not react to the decision, and some churches besides Catholic and Anglican ones continued to hold in-person worship services. In April, Chalah reported that the EPA-affiliated Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.
According to Catholic Church officials, the government changed the procedure in January for applying for authorization to conduct non-Islamic religious events. In previous years, the Church submitted its written requests to the local police station, which then stamped the request with a receipt to show the request was registered and approved. Beginning in January, the Church said police stations stopped issuing the receipts. Church leaders also said the police began frequenting one church to inquire about its activities, even though Church officials provided written notification of those activities to the local police.
Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services discreetly.
According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab, at work. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.
According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.
On June 30, a court in Ain Defla charged Christian convert Foudhil Bahloul with distributing Bibles, printing religious brochures to distribute to Muslims, and “agitating the faith of Muslims.” Bahloul had been in detention since his initial arrest in April for allegedly receiving donations illegally. At that time, police did not question him about the June 30 charges but reportedly questioned him about his religion and decision to convert from Islam. They also searched his house and confiscated religious materials and his identification documents. On July 7, the court sentenced Bahloul to six months’ imprisonment for illegally accepting donations and for proselytizing. On December 7, the court of appeal in Ain Defla sentenced Bahloul to a six-month suspended prison term and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($720).
Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight.
In April, EPA leaders reported that the MRA routinely limited the number of Bibles it approved for importation. For example, in late 2020, the Biblical Society, which imported religious texts for all Christian denominations, requested to import 300 Bibles, and the MRA approved 30. The EPA told the MRA there were more than 100,000 Christians in the country and that they therefore needed more than 30 Bibles. The MRA responded by asking for a list of the names and exact number of Christians living in each community, village, and city. The EPA declined to provide this information, and the MRA increased the approved number of Bibles by an additional 5 percent, i.e., by one or two Bibles. The EPA said the import fees cost more than the Bibles themselves but that it would continue to import Bibles only through official channels to avoid legal problems.
On June 6, a judge sentenced Christian Pastor Rachid Seighir to a one-year suspended sentence and a 200,000-dinar ($1,400) fine for “shaking the faith of Muslims” with Christian literature at his bookstore. On June 2, the authorities ordered the sealing of Seighir’s Oratoire City Church in Oran. Bookstore salesman Nouh Hamimi also received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,400) in the same case.
On November 16, authorities charged EPA President Chalah and three Christian members of his leadership team with proselytizing on social media, practicing non-Muslim religious rites without authorization, and inciting an unarmed gathering. Authorities postponed their trial to 2022.
MRA officials again said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials, in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.
On July 7, the authorities sealed three additional EPA affiliated churches in Oran: the Oratoire City Church in Oran, the House of Hope Church in Ain Turk, and an EPA church in al-Ayaida. In 2020, courts had upheld a 2017 government order to close the City Church in Oran.
At year’s end, there were a total of 20 EPA churches that the government had closed, including 16 that the government had physically sealed off. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.
The UMC continued to own and maintain Methodist properties throughout the country, despite the absence of an in-country bishop. The government denied the previous bishop’s residency renewal in 2008. Until 2019, the UMC maintained a power of attorney to manage the properties’ legal affairs, although the foreign-based Methodist bishop overseeing the UMC in the country reported that Algerian embassies abroad had regularly delayed the approval process to obtain the power of attorney. In 2021, the UMC continued its attempts to establish another power of attorney since the previous one expired in 2019.
Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.
According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.
EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.
Religious and civil society leaders again reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s war for independence.
Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas.
Catholic and Protestant groups continued to state the delays significantly hindered religious practice. One religious leader said the lack of visa issuances was a major impediment to maintaining contact with the Church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups.
In February, Catholic Church leaders reported that COVID-19-related entry requirements further exacerbated existing visa issues related to the Church’s foreign clergy. In January, for example, a Nigerian priest bound for a parish in Oran received his visa, but the government subsequently denied his entry request.
In February, the government denied the Anglican canon’s residency permit and visa renewals. The MRA told him that he was not eligible to renew his visa and had to submit a new application. The MRA also said the Cairo-based Anglican bishop must submit a letter reappointing the canon to his position. The government approved the canon’s visa in May but by year’s end had not approved a visa for his successor.
In April, the foreign-based Methodist bishop overseeing the UMC in the country stated that the UMC “gave up” on requesting clergy visas for its pastors. He said that UMC-affiliated clergy were regularly denied tourist visas. The last official UMC visit to the country took place in 2013.
During a May 5 speech to the Algerian Muslim Ulemas (scholars) Association, Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, former Minister of Religious Affairs and head of the High Islamic Council, stated, “Algerians can only be Muslim.” Ghlamallah said “The seeds sown by France are still germinating,” and he told Muslim scholars to “eradicate these residues.”
In October, local media reported that Algerian Radio management fired Mourad Boukerzaza, the director of the Cirta radio station in Constantine, as well as several other employees, because the station broadcast a Christian-themed song, “Oh Jesus, Life in the Tomb,” by Christian Lebanese singer Fayrouz. Algerian Radio disputed the reports as “fake news” and told state-run Algerie Presse Service (APS) that it fired the director in late September for “malfunctions and errors.”
Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic. The country’s state-run dedicated religious television and radio channels broadcast messages against religious extremism and integrated messages of religious moderation into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.
Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.
The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of the Catholic chapel at Notre Dame de Santa Cruz and its large statue of the Virgin Mary as part of its cultural patrimony. Catholic Church leaders in Oran reported a good relationship with the authorities and ongoing interfaith dialogue with Muslims there.
According to the government, the MRA contributed to the renovation and restoration of non-Islamic places of worship, specifically Notre Dame d’Afrique in Algiers, the Saint-Augustin Basilica in Annaba, and the Santa Cruz Chapel in Oran. The MRA also said it organized an initiative, in partnership with the Ministry of Interior and local neighborhoods, to clean up Christian cemeteries as part of an ongoing effort to maintain historical and cultural landmarks
According to the government, the authorities regularly invite accredited religious representatives to attend the national holiday ceremonies.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 86,000 (midyear 2021). The Andorran government estimates the population at 78,000 (2020 data), including 38,000 citizens and 40,000 other residents, mostly from Spain, France, and Portugal. The local government does not provide statistics on the size of religious groups, and there is no census data on religious group membership. In 2019, government officials estimated that 92 percent of the population was Roman Catholic. Muslim leaders estimate their community, largely composed of recent immigrants, has approximately 2,000 members. The Jewish community reports it has approximately 100 members. Other small religious groups include Hindus, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, the Baha’i Faith, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the New Apostolic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees “freedom of ideas, religion, and worship.” It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religion or beliefs. The constitution states such freedoms may be limited only to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, as prescribed by law or to protect the rights of others. The constitution acknowledges a special relationship with the Catholic Church “in accordance with Andorran tradition” and recognizes the “full legal capacity” of the bodies of the Catholic Church, granting them legal status “in accordance with their own rules.” The Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain, whose diocese includes Andorra and is one of two constitutionally designated princes of the country, serves equally as joint head of state with the other prince, the President of France. The current Bishop of Urgell is Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia.
The law provides for the right to equal treatment and nondiscrimination, including for members of any religious group. The law establishes judicial, administrative, and institutional guarantees, which protect and provide compensation for victims of discrimination. The law also provides for fines of up to 24,000 euros ($27,200) in cases of discrimination, including on the basis of religious affiliation, and stipulates the burden of proof in such cases rests with the defendant, who must demonstrate there has not been discrimination.
Faiths other than Catholicism do not have legal status as religious groups. The government registers religious communities as cultural organizations under the law of associations, which does not specifically mention religious groups. To build a place of worship or seek government financial support for community activities, a religious group must acquire legal status by registering as a nonprofit cultural organization. To register, a group must provide its statutes and foundational agreement, a statement certifying the names of persons appointed to the board or other official positions in the organization, and a patrimony declaration that identifies the inheritance or endowment of the organization. A consolidated register of associations records all types of associations, including religious groups.
The national ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, including those involving a religious motivation, in the public and private sectors. The ombudsman makes recommendations to the public administration to correct problems and reports annually to parliament. The ombudsman is a member of the commissions established by the Observatory on Equality, which is tasked with collecting and analyzing data and advising the government on issues pertaining to equality and discrimination, including those involving religious issues.
The law requires individuals applying for official documents, such as residence permits, passports, and driver’s licenses, to appear and be photographed with their heads uncovered.
According to the law, municipalities are responsible for the construction, preservation, and administration of cemeteries and funerary services.
Government regulation permits ritual slaughter as required by the Islamic or Jewish faith, as long as it takes place under the supervision of the veterinary services of the country’s slaughterhouse.
Instruction in the Catholic faith is optional in public schools. The Catholic Church provides teachers for religion classes, and the government provides space in public schools for Catholic religious instruction and pays the teachers’ salaries.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Catholic Church continued to receive special privileges not available to other religious groups. The government paid the salaries of the eight Catholic priests serving in local churches and granted all foreign Catholic priests citizenship for as long as they exercised their functions in the country.
Despite longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish community representatives for cemeteries where they could bury their dead according to their rituals and traditions, the government had not identified by year’s end a location for a multiconfessional cemetery, despite the announcement in 2020 that it had begun a search for public land on which to build such a cemetery. Government officials stated that the Ministry of Territorial Planning was still looking for a suitable site on public land.
Muslim community representatives stated they were disappointed by the lack of government response to their requests. According to municipal authorities, Jews and Muslims could use existing cemeteries, but these did not allocate separate burial areas for these communities to use. As a result, most Jews and Muslims continued to bury their dead outside the country. Muslim community representatives, however, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult to bury their dead outside of the country due to pandemic travel and health restrictions.
The government continued to fund three public Catholic schools at the primary and secondary level. These were open to students of all faiths. Catholic instruction was mandatory for all students attending these schools.
The Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth stated that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Observatory on Equality stopped work during the year, but the work of the national ombudsman continued.
During the year, the national ombudsman’s office did not report receiving any complaints of religiously motivated discrimination or intolerance in the public or private sectors. The principal religious groups said they had not reported any incidents of discrimination to the ombudsman. The Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth said it had not received any complaints of religiously motivated discrimination.
In September, a Muslim family accused the French school Lycee Comte de Foix of discrimination and racism after the school required the family’s daughter, aged 11, to remove her headscarf while in school. Government officials stated that French law prohibiting students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses, was applicable, as the school was part of France’s public school system, per a bilateral agreement.
At the time of the complaint, the country had no overarching laws regulating the use of religious symbols in its educational system. On October 4, following the complaint, the government modified the public school regulations nationwide to include a ban on the use of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including headscarves, kippahs, and large crosses.
The government continued to maintain a policy of issuing religious work permits for foreigners performing religious functions only to members of the Catholic Church. Foreign religious workers belonging to other groups said they could enter the country with permits for other positions such as schoolteachers or business workers and carry out religious work without hindrance.
Catholic rituals, such as priests blessing those gathered for an event or leading a Mass before an event, continued to be a part of many state ceremonies, including annual national day celebrations.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 33.6 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2014 national census approximately 41 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 38 percent Protestant. Individuals not associated with any religious group constitute 12 percent of the population. The remaining 9 percent is composed of animists, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, and other religious groups. Among Protestants, Tocoists (members of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the World) are the largest group, with 2.8 million adherents, according to the Ministry of Culture’s National Institute for Religious Affairs (INAR). The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) reports 500,000 members. Other major Protestant denominations include Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Baptists, and the Assembly of God Pentecostal. There is also a small number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country. INAR reports that in 2018, the most recent data available, there were 122,000 Muslims. INAR states the number has grown considerably since that time. A leader of one Muslim organization estimated there are 800,000 Muslims in the country, of whom approximately 95 percent are foreign migrants, mainly from North and West African countries. There are approximately 350 Jews, primarily resident foreign nationals.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the state as secular and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution requires the state to protect churches and religious groups as long as they comply with the law. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, and worship, and it recognizes the right of religious groups to organize and carry out their activities as long as they adhere to the law. The constitution permits conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons, prohibits questioning individuals about their religious beliefs for reasons other than anonymous statistical purposes, and specifies the government may not suspend rights related to religion even if the state declares a state of war, siege, or emergency. It recognizes the right of prisoners to receive visits from, and correspond with, religious counselors. The law establishes that conscientious objectors may perform civilian service as an alternative to military service.
The penal code increases the penalties for crimes committed because of religion or religious belief, including homicide, verbal or physical assault, discrimination, persecution, defamation, and genocide. Penalties for such crimes are variable and not based on a formula. For example, the punishment for willful homicide is 14-20 years in prison, while the punishment for willful homicide carried out on the basis of religious hatred is 20-25 years in prison. Hate speech, or inciting hate by other forms of communication based on religious belief, is punishable by imprisonment between six months and six years in prison. Impeding or disturbing a religious service or a funeral also carries criminal penalties.
The law requires religious groups to register to receive government recognition and allows the government to close the premises of unregistered groups. Legal recognition gives a religious group the ability to purchase property and use its property to hold religious events, exempts it from paying certain property and import taxes, and authorizes the group to be treated as an incorporated entity in the court system. The law requires 60,000 member signatures from legal residents to apply for registration and requires that at least 1,000 signatures originate from members residing in each of the country’s 18 provinces. Each signature and resident declaration must be notarized separately. Religious groups must also submit documents defining their organizational structure, location, methods and schedule of worship, financial resources, and planned construction projects. The law also establishes qualification requirements for clergy and requires religious doctrine to conform to the principles and rights outlined in the constitution.
The Ministry of Culture, through INAR, is the adjudication authority for the registration process and has an oversight role for religious activities. INAR assists religious groups through the registration process and analyzes religious doctrine to ensure that it is consistent with the constitution. There are 81 recognized religious groups and more than 1,100 unrecognized religious groups in the country. The Baha’i Faith and the World Messianic Church remained the only two non-Christian registered religious organizations. The other recognized religious groups include 50 Protestant denominations such as Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; 28 African Messianic denominations; and the Catholic Church.
Religious instruction is not a component of the public educational system. Private schools are allowed to teach religion.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In January, the government recognized new leadership of the IURD temples separate from leaders loyal to IURD’s Brazilian parent denomination. This followed a 2020 dispute between Brazilian and Angolan IURD pastors, which included allegations of tax fraud and money laundering made by Church members and pastors against the Church’s Brazilian leadership. Based on those allegations, the government closed all IURD temples in 2020. In March, the government allowed 11 temples under the new leadership to reopen. As of December, INAR reported that 340 IURD temples remain closed pending conclusion of criminal investigations and court cases. In May, the government expelled 55 Brazilian Church leaders who were not members of the newly recognized local IURD denomination. During the year, leaders loyal to IURD’s Brazilian denomination across the country filed multiple lawsuits in provincial courts to regain control of the denomination. The lawsuits were pending at year’s end. Some IURD Church members demonstrated against the government closure of their churches.
INAR reported that the government did not officially recognize any new religious organization during the year and had not done so since 2000. Unregistered religious groups continued to state that the notary and residential declaration requirements (60,000 total signatures, including 1,000 signatures from each of the country’s 18 provinces), which they estimated to cost approximately 3,300 kwanza ($6) per signature, were too expensive and burdensome for their congregations. In addition to the signature requirement, the large number of undocumented residents and an unreliable residential registry system continued to present obstacles to registration, according to religious group leaders.
According to INAR, since registration requirements were changed in 2019, which included lowering the number of member signatures required from 100,000 to 60,000, 97 religious groups submitted applications; all were pending government approval at year’s end. Among those pending, 17 groups had not yet provided the requisite 60,000 signatures but had met the other criteria for approval. While the law states the government may close the premises of religious groups that do not meet the registration requirements, government officials generally allowed groups with pending applications to hold religious services.
The government continued not to recognize any Muslim groups or issue any licenses to Muslim groups to practice their religion legally. Requests for official registration submitted in 2019 by two Muslim organizations, CISA (Islamic Community of Angola) and COIA (also translated as the Islamic Community of Angola), remained among the 97 pending applications. INAR officials said the primary reason Islamic groups had not been recognized was their lack of a single governing body. In July, COIA leadership held a congress to form the Islamic Council of Angola (CONSIA) to satisfy this requirement but failed to gain enough participation from CISA for INAR to consider it as the single body governing all mosques in the country. In the past, government officials stated that some practices allowed by Islam, such as polygamy, contradicted the constitution.
The INAR director and Ministry of Culture officials continued to state concerns regarding the proliferation of religious “sects,” some of which they said exploited vulnerable populations with limited financial means by requiring them to provide recurring payments or dues in order to worship or belong to these organizations.
In March, the government relaxed its COVID-19 preventative measures and allowed religious groups to meet on any day of the week instead of just on Saturday and Sunday. Gatherings for religious services were limited to 50 percent occupancy of the facility used, the same as for nonreligious gatherings. Churches and mosques generally adapted to the new restrictions; some held multiple smaller services during the day to avoid exceeding the occupancy limits. Unlike in 2020, there were no arrests or major protests related to COVID-19 restrictions.
Antigua and Barbuda
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 99,000 (midyear 2021). According to the 2011 census, the most recent, 17.6 percent of the population is Anglican, 12.4 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 12.2 percent Pentecostal, 8.3 percent Moravian, 8.2 percent Roman Catholic, and 5.6 percent Methodist. Those with unspecified or no religious beliefs account for 5.5 percent and 5.9 percent of the population, respectively. Members of the Baptist Church, the Church of God, and the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium each account for less than 5 percent of the population. The census categorizes an additional 12.2 percent of the population as belonging to other religious groups, including Rastafarians, Muslims, Hindus, and Baha’is, without providing percentages for each group. Based on anecdotal information, these four religious groups are listed from largest to smallest.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, as well as the right to change and practice one’s religion or belief. The constitution protects individuals from taking oaths contradictory to their beliefs or participating in events and activities of religions not their own, including participating in or receiving unwanted religious education. These rights may be limited in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights of others, unless actions under such limitations can be shown “not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The constitution prohibits members of the clergy from running for elected office. No law may be adopted that contradicts these constitutional provisions. The government does not enforce a law outlawing blasphemous language in a public place or any other place that would “cause annoyance to the public.”
Religious groups must register with the government to receive tax- and duty-free concessions and to own, build, or renovate property. To register, religious groups must fill out an online tax form that describes the group’s activities. The government uses this form to determine the group’s tax status. The Inland Revenue Department reviews and approves the completed form, usually granting registration and tax concessions.
The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Private schools may provide religious instruction. Public schools require parents to immunize their children to attend school. Some private schools do not require immunizations for their students. The law also permits homeschooling.
The law decriminalizing marijuana for any use also recognizes the government’s responsibility to uphold the religious rights of persons of the Hindu and Rastafarian faiths. The law allows these persons to apply for a special religious license to cultivate the plant within their private dwelling, use the plant for religious purposes within their private dwelling or within their approved place of worship, and transport the plant between their private dwelling and approved place of worship. The special religious license, however, does not permit any commercial or financial transaction involving any part of the cannabis plant.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government established a vaccine mandate in October for all public sector and government workers. Some religious leaders requested an exemption to the vaccine mandate, but Seventh-day Adventist leaders said they would not support exemption requests from their members. While its restrictions to address the COVID-19 pandemic were in effect throughout the year, the government on occasion granted curfew exemptions to religious leaders to engage in religious activities.
Some members of the Rastafarian community said they continued to object to the government’s requirement of vaccinations for all children attending public schools.
Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots
Section I. Religious Demography
According to a statement from the “Statistics Council,” as of August 2021, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 382,836. The census contains no data on religious affiliation. Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Alevi Culture Association estimates approximately 10,000 immigrants of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin and their descendants are Alevi Muslims. The TSPA estimates there are 1,000 Turkish-speaking Protestants. The government of the Republic of Cyprus estimates 290 members of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and 48 Maronite Catholics reside in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. According to sociologists, other groups include the Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Baha’i, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witness communities. According to “Ministry of Education (MOE)” statistics for the 2020-21 academic year, there were approximately 94,381 foreign students enrolled at universities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Of these, 60 percent were Muslim Turks and the rest were predominantly Christians and Muslims from more than 140 countries.
Section II. Status of “Government” Respect for Religious Freedom
The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” states the territory is a “secular republic” and provides for freedom of conscience and religious faith and unrestricted worship and religious ceremonies, provided they do not contravene public order or morals. It prohibits forced prayer, forced attendance at religious services, insulting others’ religious beliefs, and compelling individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. It stipulates religious education requires “state” approval and may only be conducted under “state” supervision, but the “law” allows summer religious knowledge courses to be taught in mosques without “MOE” approval. The “law” does not recognize exclusively any specific religion, and individuals cannot “exploit or abuse” religion to establish, even partially, a “state” based on religious precepts or for political or personal gain.
According to the “constitution,” the Vakf has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles. Although the “constitution” states the Vakf shall be exempt from all taxation, its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. The “constitution” does not explicitly recognize religious groups other than the Vakf. According to the “constitution,” Turkish Cypriot authorities shall help the Vakf in the execution of Islamic religious services and in meeting the expenses of such services. No other religious organization is tax-exempt or receives subsidies from Turkish Cypriot authorities.
The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and the treatment of Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other provisions, the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship for Greek Cypriots. The agreement states they are free to stay and “will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion.”
Turkish Cypriot “regulations” stipulate Greek Orthodox residents may conduct liturgies led by two priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches on the Karpas Peninsula Maronite Catholic residents may hold liturgies or masses led by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission at three designated functional Maronite churches: Agios Georgios Church in Kormakitis/Korucam, Timios Stavros Church in Karpasia/Karpasa, and Panagia Church in Kampyli/Hisarkoy.
Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox worshippers must submit applications to authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than the six designated churches, including at restored religious heritage sites. Although the “MFA” reported 78 churches open for religious services in the area administrated by Turkish Cypriots, these churches were only available for religious services upon “government” approval. The “MFA” continued to evaluate requests for religious services based on certain criteria.
For authorities to consider an application, the day of the requested service must be a religious day (Christmas, Easter, the church’s name day – sometimes referred to as its feast day) and should be of significance to that religious group. The church or monastery must be structurally sound and not be located in a military zone, with exceptions for some Maronite churches. It must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum, and there should be no complaints from local Turkish Cypriot residents, and police must be available to provide security.
Permission is also necessary for priests other than those who were officially predesignated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for individuals who do not reside in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, including members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, to participate. UNFICYP coordinates these applications, which religious groups must submit 10 days before the date of the requested service.
The “government”-appointed Mufti of Cyprus heads the “Religious Affairs Department” in the “Prime Minister’s Office,” which represents Islam in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and functions as a civil authority. Whereas the Vakf manages Muslim-donated property as an endowment for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and deliver Friday sermons in mosques.
Under the section “Offenses Against Religion” in the “TRNC Criminal Code,” any person who, with the intention of insulting the religion of any person, or knowing that any destruction, harm or defilement of any person will be an insult to their religion, destroys, damages or pollutes a place of worship or any property considered sacred by a certain group people, commits a minor offense.
Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations to assemble or worship, but only associations registered with the “Ministry of Interior (MOI)” have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. Religious and nonreligious groups have the same registration process, and they are required to submit the founders’ names and photocopies of their identification cards to the “MOI” along with a copy of the association’s rules and regulations. Associations do not receive tax-exempt status or any “government” benefits or subsidies. Religious groups are not permitted to register as associations if the stated purpose of the association is to provide religious education to its members.
There is mandatory religious instruction in grades four through eight in all schools, public and private. These classes focus primarily on Sunni Islam but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “MOE” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. Students may opt out of mandatory religion courses in grades six through eight. At the high school level, religion classes are optional.
There are no provisions or “laws” allowing conscientious objection to mandatory military service, which requires a 12- to 15-month initial service period and one-day annual reserve duty. The penalty for refusing to complete mandatory military service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 10,800 Turkish lira ($830), or both.
The “MFA” reported that despite the rule to submit religious service applications at least 10 days in advance for religious services, it granted three that were requested seven days in advance of the service. The UNFICYP office responsible for facilitating these requests said Greek Cypriot religious service applicants often complained “MFA” approvals were granted a few days before the requested service, causing organizers to cancel.
According to statistics reported by the “MFA,” authorities continued to grant access to Greek Orthodox places of worship. UNFICYP reported the “MFA” approved 21 of 38 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island between August and December. In 2020, UNFICYP reported 15 approvals of 18 requests. The “MFA” reported it approved 37 of 66 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated requests and requests submitted directly to the “MFA”) to hold religious services, compared with 26 of 31 total requests in 2020. The “MFA” also reported 18 requests were denied because they could not be facilitated, as they fell outside the predetermined criteria.
Three Greek Orthodox churches, Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas, were again open for individual prayers throughout the year, but Turkish Cypriot authorities continued to require advance notification for religious services. While St. Mamas and St. Barnabas Churches functioned as museums and were only open during working hours, individuals could still pray at the churches during those hours. The “MFA” reported that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no additional Greek Orthodox churches were reopened for services for the first time since 1974.
According to a church representative and media reports, on January 27, authorities raided the home and business of an expatriate American pastor living in the “TRNC,” seizing Bibles and Christian literature in various languages. Police said the pastor’s business, including a cafe, operated without a license. Kibris Postasi, a daily newspaper, published an article linking him to another American pastor who had been imprisoned in Turkey for two years on charges of espionage. After detaining him for 11 hours, the “government” released the pastor on a 160,000 Turkish lira ($12,300) bond and confiscated his passport. They charged him in March with illegally importing Christian materials. Authorities assessed a fine against the pastor of 5,000 Turkish lira ($390). He was required to apply for court permission to travel. At year’s end, he awaited trial.
The TSPA reported police continued to monitor its activities, asking specific questions about TSPA members and ceremonies. The TSPA said there was less monitoring during the year due to a reduction in church activities resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Greek Orthodox representative stated 72 religious sites remained inaccessible due to their being located within Turkish military zones or the buffer zone.
A Maronite community representative said the Turkish military continued to restrict access to the Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asomatos/Ozhan. Maronite representatives continued to report being required to submit by the preceding Tuesday a list of persons planning to attend Sunday services. The “MFA” said this was because the Church of Archangelos Michael is located within a military zone. The “MFA” said it required only advance notification, not a request for access, to hold Sunday services and that no one was refused admittance during the year. According to the “MFA,” the Turkish military again allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass in Ayia Marina in July and denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Korucam. The “MFA” reported that the physical and structural condition of the Church of Marki was not safe to hold a religious service and that the church was located in a military zone.
As a result of a UN Development Program- and TCCH-facilitated tender, restoration and maintenance work began at the Armenian Sourp Magar Monastery during the year. Although completion had been expected during the year, technical problems that emerged between the contractor and the UNDP cancelled the project.
The TCCH reported that during the year it completed 16 projects, including the restoration of two archeological sites, two cemeteries, two fountains, and 10 conservation and support projects at various religious sites.
In March, the TCCH announced completion of conservation efforts at the Afendrika archaeological site in Karpaz. The site, situated in the ancient settlement known as Urania, includes Panagia Church, Asomatos Church and Agios Georgios Church. The committee carried out conservation work at these sites with technical support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and EU financing. As part of the conservation work, the committee cleared the site of shrubbery, strengthened the structures, and opened water drainage for improved rainwater management. In June, the TCCH announced the completion of conservation work on Panagia Church and its perimeter wall.
During the year, the TCCH also announced the completion of conservation work at Agios Artemon Church in Afentaia/Gaziköy; Panagia Church and its perimeter wall in Askeia/Pasakoy; and the St. Epiphanos, Kampanopetra, and St. Barnabas basilicas at the Salamis archeological site.
In July, the TCCH announced a contract had been signed for conservation work at the church of Agios Synesios in Karpaz and that mobilization of the construction site had begun. The conservation work is expected to last nine months and be completed in the first quarter of 2022.
The TCCH also continued restoring other religious sites. It and the UNDP Partnership for the Future also continued restoration work on the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery on the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims. The TCCH reported preparations for initiating the tendering process for the second phase of the restoration.
According to local press reports, the Turkish government provided significant support to Sunni Islamic activities in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Such programs supplied iPads and bicycles as rewards to youth for participating in Islamic activities and funded community programs and iftars during Ramadan. According to press reports and the Turkish Cypriot Human Rights Foundation, the Turkish “embassy” distributed 5,000 bicycles to children for attending online religious courses and praying twice a day at a mosque. The program brochure, a photo of which was published in Yeniduzen, reportedly said, “Come to the mosque, get your bicycle.” Human rights activists called the program an “imposition of religion” and a “manipulation of children.”
Secular Turkish Cypriot groups and teachers unions continued to criticize a protocol with Turkey announced by the “MOE” in 2019 that opened a Turkish Anatolia Religious High School program within the premises of Hala Sultan Religious High School, a public school. They said the protocol imposed Islam on secular Turkish Cypriots. The Secondary Education Teachers Union reported the administration of the Hala Sultan Religious High School and the “MOE” enrolled 200 students in the school without the usually required entrance exams.
The Alevi Culture Association reported Alevi children were subject to mandatory Sunni Islam religious instruction at school and could not opt out.
The “Religious Affairs Department” continued to appoint and fund all 225 imams at the 210 Sunni mosques in the northern part of the island. “TRNC Prime Minister” Saner informed Mufti of Cyprus Atalay July 17 that he would be replaced as “Head of Religious Affairs” and Mufti of Cyprus effective immediately. While Atalay had exceeded the official but previously unenforced limit of 10 years in office (two five-year terms), local media commentators and other sources said they were surprised by the abrupt timing. Since it came immediately before Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha) and the July visit by Turkish President Erdogan, many observers assessed the change was politically motivated. Then “TRNC Prime Minister” Saner named Ahmet Unsal to succeed Atalay as Cyprus’s Mufti.
A representative of the Church of Cyprus again stated that some religious sites to which Church officials had little or no access were deteriorating.
Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to report authorities placed religious items, including icons, in storage rooms or displayed them in museums, against the wishes of the communities to whom they were sacred.
According to Greek Orthodox representatives, police monitored their church services. They reported plainclothes police officers were present during services, checking priests’ identification and monitoring the congregation.
In March, the Kurdish community living in the area administrated by Turkish Cypriots, together with leftist unions and left-wing political parties, including the main opposition Republican Turkish Party and “MPs,” gathered at the Kyrenia Gate in north Nicosia to celebrate Nowruz (the arrival of spring and new year in Kurdish culture). Press reported participation was low due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was a “very heavy police presence” at the event. Kurds lit a Nowruz fire and gathered around it singing songs. There were no incidents at the event.
On April 15, the Turkish Cypriot “Constitutional Court” ruled Quran lessons organized by the “Department of Religious Affairs” at mosques were unconstitutional, overturning legislation that gave authority to the “Department” to organize such courses. According to the decision, the “Department’s” organizing Quran courses without the approval of the “Ministry of Education” had violated the “constitutional” provision on secularism of the “state.” Head of the Turkish Cypriot Bar Association Hasan Esendagli said the court’s decision was a turning point and that it was the first time the “Constitutional Court” examined whether a law regarding religious belief and practice was permitted under the country’s secular constitution. He said the overturned “law” had been problematic, since it granted limitless powers to the “Department,” which is comprised of a group of religious figures. Turkish President Erdogan (along with other Turkish officials including the Vice President) criticized the decision, saying, “It is impossible for us to accept this. The head of the Constitutional Court should learn secularism.” Making a call to the head of the Constitutional Court to correct the mistake, Erdogan said, “North Cyprus is not France. They have to adopt the practices in Turkey. …otherwise, the steps we will take will be different.”
On April 19, Turkish Cypriot lawyers staged a demonstration to protest Erdogan’s remarks. Speaking at the protest, Esendagli said Turkish officials, including the Turkish President himself, had either spoken without knowing the details of the verdict or had deliberately distorted the facts. Chief Justice Narin Ferdi Sefik and several other Supreme Court judges supported the protest, saluting the lawyers from the court building.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 45.9 million (midyear 2021). According to a 2019 survey by CONICET, the country’s national research institute, 62.9 percent of the population is Catholic; 15.3 Protestant, including evangelical Christian groups; 18.9 percent no religion, which includes agnostics; 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); 1.2 percent other, including Muslims and Jews; and 0.3 percent unknown. Other sources state Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ together total 3 percent of the population. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Jews numbered 180,000 in 2019. The Islamic Center estimates the Muslim population at 800,000 to 1,000,000. Evangelical Christian communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing, but no reliable statistics are available. There are also small numbers of Baha’is, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice freely one’s faith. It declares the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.
The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies. The law does not require the Catholic Church to register with the Secretariat of Worship in the MFA. Registration is not compulsory for other religious groups, but registered groups receive the same status and fiscal benefits as the Catholic Church, including tax-exempt status, visas for religious officials, and the ability to hold public activities. To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements. To access many of these benefits, religious groups must also register as a civil association through the IGJ.
Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but it is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for events, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the Secretariat of Worship to receive a permit. Once registered, an organization must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, and the address of its headquarters.
The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law. Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution. Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.
Foreign officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country. The validity period of the visa varies depending on the purpose of the travel. Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of appropriate documents.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, nationality, ideology, politics, sex, economic or social condition, or physical characteristics, and it requires those found guilty of discriminatory acts to pay damages or serve jail time. Discrimination may also be an aggravating factor in other crimes, leading to increased penalties. The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups. INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion. INADI is not authorized to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court. The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination. INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives of several religious groups continued to state that a government requirement for religious groups to register first with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, noting the Catholic Church faced no such requirement. The groups said these legal processes were prerequisites for seeking tax-exempt status, visas for foreign clergy, and permission to hold public activities. Religious group representatives said they deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.
Representatives of some religious groups continued to criticize a 2020 IGJ resolution requiring all civil associations, including religious groups, to have gender parity on their administrative and oversight bodies. Several religious groups continued to state this requirement was unconstitutional and violated religious freedom. They also said the government had not implemented the resolution by year’s end and they knew of no religious organizations penalized for failing to comply with it.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government limited through September the size of religious activities nationwide to a maximum of 20 persons in enclosed or private open-air spaces, and to 100 persons in public open-air spaces. It similarly limited cultural, social, and recreational activities but did not limit to the same degree professional gatherings, government events, and educational events. On October 1, the government allowed full capacity for religious activities, although events of more than 1,000 persons required stricter protocols.
On May 2, provincial police halted and dispersed an open-air Mass in Androgue, Buenos Aires Province, attended by approximately 120 persons. According to a police statement, the event was “openly in noncompliance” with national anti-COVID-19 restrictions. Local media reported that attendees said the Mass was broken up “on very good terms.” In a May 4 statement, CALIR president Juan Navarro said these police actions were not an isolated event and that local and national authorities had repeatedly violated the right to religious freedom throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
On September 7, CALIR released a statement objecting to some municipalities’ prohibitions on religious services on Sunday, September 12, because of nationwide primary elections and related COVID-19 precautions. Although federal law prohibits large gatherings and acts of proselytism on election days, authorities generally allowed religious services. Local media reported that the municipalities of Merlo and Bahia Blanca, in Buenos Aires Province, issued prohibitions on religious gatherings for September 12, but Merlo’s authorities retracted the order after consulting with local religious leaders.
According to Jewish community leaders, there was no progress in bringing the accused perpetrators of the 1994 AMIA bombing to justice. On July 18, the 27th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, AMIA president Eichbaum urged the government to “intensify pressure on Lebanon and the Islamic Republic of Iran to cooperate on the investigation and extradite the accused that they are currently protecting.” On July 14, President Fernandez and Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri hosted AMIA leaders at the presidential residence to discuss the pursuit of justice and Fernandez told them he wanted to see progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the 1994 bombing. On July 18, Fernandez tweeted his support for families of the victims, writing, “In 27 years since the AMIA attack, the families of the 85 victims stand firm in their call for truth and justice. In memory of each one of them and in honor of those that lost their loved ones, we should stand united against impunity.” In response to Fernandez, dozens of individuals criticized what some called the “hypocrisy” of his message because of their perception that the government was complicit in allowing the impunity to occur.
In August, the MFA denounced the Iranian government’s appointment of two suspects in the AMIA bombing to senior positions in a new Iranian government. According to the MFA statement, the appointments of Ahmad Vahidi as Interior Minister and Mohsen Rezai as Vice President for Economic Affairs were an affront to the Argentine justice system and to the victims of the bombing, adding that both Rezai and Vahidi played key roles in the decision making and planning of the AMIA attack. It called on the Iranian government to cooperate fully with Argentine judicial authorities and to allow the suspects to be tried by a competent court.
According to press reports, on October 7, judges dropped obstruction of justice charges against Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in relation to a Memorandum of Understanding signed with Iran in 2013 when she was president. The court stated that the memorandum, “regardless of whether it is considered a political success or a failure, did not constitute a crime or an act of cover up.” On October 25, DAIA appealed the ruling, which remained pending at year end.
On January 24, a law entered into effect legalizing abortions through the 14th week of pregnancy and in later stages if the pregnancy was the result of rape or threatened the life of the mother. Many religious organizations, including the Catholic Church and the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches (ACIERA), criticized the law, and a growing number of medical professionals – especially in rural areas – refused to perform abortions on religious and ethical grounds. Most of the 120 gynecologists in the province of Jujuy, for example, declared themselves as conscientious objectors, as permitted in the law.
On March 27, approximately 50,000 persons, according to organizers, participated in marches in 14 of the 23 provinces to express their support for overturning the abortion law. With the encouragement of ACIERA, marchers demonstrated in Rio Negro, Tucuman, Chubut, Entre Rios, Cordoba, Buenos Aires, Chaco, Corrientes, Salta, Mendoza, Chaco, Corrientes, Santiago del Estero, and Santa Fe Provinces.
Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following a 2018 agreement between the government and the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), representing the Catholic Church, that delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to gradually reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church. Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from almost 157 million pesos ($1.46 million) in 2019 to 150 million pesos ($1.39 million) in 2020.
On May 20, Juan Carlos Giordano, a representative of the lower house of congress and member of the Socialist Left Party, stated during a session of congress, “An end must be brought to the Zionist state and a unified state must be imposed across the entirety of the historical territory of the Palestine – lay, not racist, and democratic.” DAIA denounced the statement, stating that it met the IHRA definition of antisemitism, as adopted by the lower house of congress in June 2020. By year’s end, the lower house had not sanctioned Giordano.
On January 6, Pablo Ansaloni, a representative of the lower house of congress and a leader of the Argentine Union of Rural Workers (UATRE), told a virtual meeting of the union, “We are more united than ever, no one can break us – no one from beyond our province, because they are like the Jews, they have no homeland, they don’t know where they are or who they represent.” Ansaloni faced criticism for his comments from several civil society actors, including DAIA and UATRE. On January 20, UATRE dismissed Ansaloni, stating his dismissal was due to his antisemitic statements.
Numerous public and private entities adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism during the year, including the government of Santiago del Estero Province, according to a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri, Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla, and other government representatives again participated in religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah observances, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches. They often did so virtually or through recorded videos, due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public gatherings.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Apostolic. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, as well as Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Baha’is, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and pagans who are adherents of a pre-Christian faith. According to a poll the International Republican Institute released in February, 87 percent of respondents identified as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent as Roman Catholic, and 2 percent as Orthodox Christian. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews. According to the census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with more recent estimates by Yezidi human rights activists and academics suggesting a figure of 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes the “exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church” as the national church in the “spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred. It stipulates that national minorities shall have the right to preserve and develop their traditions, religion, language, and culture.
The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers, but there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.
The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.
By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.
To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion on whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.” It also must be “free from materialism and [be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities, including Assyrians, Kurds, Russians, and Yezidis, among others. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.
The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($410) to detention for up to two months.
The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsperson) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of state and local governments. The ombudsperson may make recommendations but does not have the power to enforce them.
The law prohibits employees of the National Security Service (NSS) from being members of a religious organization, but does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization. The law prohibits members of the police, military, and the NSS, as well as prosecutors, diplomats, and public servants, from using their official positions for the benefit of “religious associations” or from preaching in support of them. While the law defines a “religious organization” as an association of citizens established for professing a common faith as well as for fulfilling other religious needs, it provides no definition for “religious associations.” A military service member may not establish a religious association. If a member of the military is a member of a religious association, the member does not have the right to preach to other service personnel during military service. The law also prohibits police, prosecutors, diplomats, and community servants (employees of local municipalities) from conducting religious activities while performing official duties. The law has not been interpreted as barring affected individuals from attending worship services or participating in other religious rituals.
The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.
The law allows the AAC free access to, and the right to station representatives in, hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state shall not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.
The law mandates public education be secular and states, “Religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law. A course on the history of the Armenian Church (HAC), which extends beyond the teaching of history to include AAC values and practices, remains a part of the recommended school curriculum for 2021-22 and 2022-23. If a public or private school chooses to include the course, it becomes mandatory for all students in grades five to 11, with no opt-out provision for students or their parents.
The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of the teachers. While the Church may nominate candidates to teach the course, HAC teachers are state employees. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities but not within the premises of state educational institutions.
The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on the religious views of employees. The labor code authorizes up to four days of unpaid leave for observing national and religious holidays or remembrance days, regardless of religious affiliation.
The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred by calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($410-$1,000) to prison terms of between two and six years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The trial continued of Edward Manasyan, a lawyer and prominent member of the Baha’i community, who was charged in 2017 with facilitating illegal immigration by advising Iranians wishing to settle in the country. Members of the Baha’i community said authorities initiated the case because of Manasyan’s religious beliefs. On March 26, the Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeals in the country, rejected the community’s appeal of a lower court’s 2020 decisions rejecting appeals by the community alleging the NSS had illegally wiretapped its secretary and its office and used the information gathered to charge Manasyan. On September 25, the Baha’i community filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on behalf of the secretary of the community. The community filed two additional appeals with the ECHR, one on behalf of the chairman of the community and another as a religious organization, on October 5. At year’s end, Manasyan’s trial, presided over by Judge Arman Hovhannisyan in Yerevan’s First Instance court, was continuing.
On July 29, Yezidi human rights activist Sashik Sultanyan was indicted on charges of “inciting hatred,” punishable by three to six years’ imprisonment, for comments he made to a journalist (that he said were supposed to be “off the record”) criticizing the treatment of Yezidis in the country that the journalist surreptitiously recorded and then published. On May 26, a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Transparency International, published a joint letter stating the case set a precedent that would “hinder any public discussion of problems related to discrimination or human rights of minorities by anyone, including members of national or ethnic minority communities.” Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling the prosecution malicious and the criminal indictment spurious. On August 6, the ombudsperson issued a statement saying that his office shared these concerns and that, even if some of Sultanyan’s criticisms were inaccurate, he should not be held criminally liable. The first hearing in the case took place on November 24 in Yerevan’s First Instance Court, presided over by Judge Karen Farkhoyan. At year’s end, Sultanyan’s trial was ongoing.
Almost all public and private schools continued to teach the HAC course throughout the country in grades five through 11. However, on February 4, as part of a larger education reform effort, the government approved new state standards for public education that would remove the HAC course from the mandatory curriculum, inserting the history of the AAC into a broader curriculum on Armenian studies. The new standards were undergoing pilot studies in Tavush Region during the academic year. The Ministry of Education stated it planned to implement the revised standards in full beginning in 2023 after training teachers and revising the existing educational materials.
The government’s decision to eliminate the HAC course generated significant public debate. While many individuals, including parents, teachers, and AAC clergy, said the course helped to develop a value system based on Armenian identity, others said schools should remain secular and moral values could be developed outside the HAC course. Various civil society actors, who had long criticized the HAC course as religious indoctrination, welcomed the decision.
On April 28, following reports that there would be a decrease of approximately 75 percent in the academic hours allocated for the HAC course as a result of the education reforms approved in February, the AAC issued a statement expressing strong disagreement both with the decision to alter HAC course instruction and the educational reform in general. The statement said, “Considering the anti-national policy of excluding the subject ‘History of the Armenian Church’ from the curriculum of the required subjects implemented by the authorities, the Subgroup on Educational Issues of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin will make every effort to prevent this destructive approach and to achieve the fulfillment of its historical, moral and legal imperative to serve the vital interests of our people.”
According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays with them. The ministry did not indicate whether clergy of other religious groups were able to provide spiritual services to detainees or convicts.
Although the law prohibiting membership in a religious group remained in effect for employees of the NSS (the government eliminated such restrictions for police and members of penitentiary and rescue services in 2020 in advance of a Constitutional Court ruling that the prohibition was unconstitutional), government officials did not report any dismissals of NSS staff during the year for membership in, or association with, a religious group. According to one religious minority group, most of its members did not seek public employment despite the 2020 liberalization, due to an ingrained fear that they might eventually have to give up their faith if they worked in the public sector.
On October 4, a trial court ruled in favor of restoring the rights of an evangelical Christian schoolteacher in Sevan in a court case brought on her behalf by the Center for Religion and Law, an NGO. The school principal fired the teacher in January, after what the NGO said was years of pressure and persecution due to her disagreements with the principal; according to the NGO, the principal used her religious affiliation as one of the reasons for her dismissal. The NGO said that in 2020, the principal invited a city AAC priest to a pedagogical council session during which there was a discussion of the teacher’s religious views and the priest described evangelical Christian churches as destructive sects, spies, and a “threat to national security more dangerous than the coronavirus.” The trial court declared the teacher’s dismissal invalid, restored the teacher to her position, and ordered the school to pay back wages.
Although there was no mechanism for enforcing the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they complied with the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.
According to experts, the absence of legal provisions regulating the invitation and stay of foreign religious volunteers affected several religious minority groups, whose foreign volunteers had to leave the country after 180 days and then return to renew their tourist status. Such travel was particularly difficult under restrictions related to COVID-19.
There were reports of unsubstantiated rejection of religion-based asylum claims during the year. According to individuals familiar with asylum procedures, religious background was not a major factor in the rejection of asylum claims in initial asylum procedures. However, the same sources stated the government’s national security assessment of cases continued to be a major factor in rejections at the stage of judicial review, and negative security assessments were reportedly more likely where non-Christians were concerned.
As of October, 124 Jehovah’s Witness conscientous objectors to military service were working in the alternative civilian labor service program, a number similar to previous years, and 302 had finished their service in the program. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals, local utility companies, park maintenance services, boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these civilian labor programs, and none chose to serve in alternative military service.
On May 19, the government announced an amnesty for those who failed to undertake military or alternative service or had not taken advantage of a government program allowing men who had not undertaken military service before age 27 to pay a fine to the Ministry of Defense (MOD) in order to avoid criminal prosecution. The program allowed men who fled the country to avoid military service to return. Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, stated that there was no mechanism to pay the fine to another agency if a person had a religious objection to contributing funds to the MOD. The amnesty allowed at least one Jehovah’s Witness who had refused to pay the fine to the MOD for reasons of faith to avoid criminal prosecution.
Human rights groups assessed there was a public deterioration in relations between the AAC and the government during the year. In December 2020, Catholicos Garegin II, the head of the AAC, called on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to resign. On June 12, at an election campaign rally, the Prime Minister stated that corrupt AAC clergy were discrediting the Church. In response, the press service of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin (the governing body of the AAC) stated that Pashinyan “continues making unfounded accusations against the Armenian Apostolic Church during his election campaign,” adding that “the attitude of current government toward the Church and national and spiritual values is well-known to our people.”
On November 17, parliament approved changes to the law on holidays and memorial days, removing January 5 (Christmas Eve) and 7 (Remembrance Day of the Dead) from the list of public holidays, despite an AAC appeal to parliament to retain them. January 6, AAC Christmas, remained an official holiday. The Ministry of Economy, which proposed the legislation, stated that the reduction in public holidays during the New Year’s/Christmas period from eight to four days would reduce the negative effect on the economy.
There were no reported sessions during the year of the official working group on government-AAC relations, a group established in 2019.
The government invited AAC priests to perform religious rites at the funerals of individuals who died during the fall 2020 conflict, even if they were not members of the AAC. While most religious minority groups affected said they did not see this practice as problematic, one religious minority group noted it would have appreciated being asked first. The group stated some families were bewildered by the AAC priest’s presence but did not speak up to identify their loved one’s faith; the group said families may have worried such a statement could affect the government’s decision to provide funerals and grave sites.
In a resolution on “Humanitarian consequences of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan/Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” adopted on September 27, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated that “the long running conflict has had a catastrophic impact on the cultural heritage and property of the region, for which both Armenia and Azerbaijan have a responsibility.” The assembly condemned the damage and destruction for which it said Armenia was responsible in the areas previously controlled by Armenia-supported separatists, which became again under Azerbaijani control, “and in particular the almost total destruction and looting of Aghdam, Fuzuli, and other areas over the last 30 years, as well as the transfer of cultural heritage.”
According to diplomats, civil society representatives, and journalists who visited the territories, while under the control of Armenia-supported separatists, hundreds of sites, including most mosques, shrines, and cemeteries used by the region’s ethnic Azerbaijani communities – approximately 400,000 people – were looted, vandalized, desecrated, and/or destroyed while under Armenian control.
An international photojournalist, Reza Deghati, know professionally as “REZA,” documented the systematic destruction of dozens of Azerbaijani cemeteries in Fuzuli, Aghdam, Zangelan, Kelbajar, and Jebrayil. Graves were desecrated; in some instances, holes were dug out to rob graves, while other sites showed evidence of the destruction and exhumation by heavy construction equipment. The methodical vandalism of headstones left few individual graves untouched. Many graves had the carefully hewn faces of the deceased (carved into gravestones) destroyed by hammers or similar objects. Additionally, the remains from Azerbaijani graves were exhumed and gold teeth removed, leaving skulls and bones strewn across Azerbaijani cemeteries or in some cases completely removed. According to Deghati, Armenian graves remained virtually undisturbed.
According to civil society representatives, the United Nations Development Program, and the Azerbaijani government, extensive mining of the territories returned to Azerbaijan made it impossible to access a vast majority of hundreds of religious sites in towns and villages, and the extent of any damage to these sites might remain unknown for years. Examples of known damage to significant religious sites include the 19th-century Haji Alakbar Mosque in Fuzuli District, which was destroyed, and the Juma Mosque in Aghdam, which was vandalized with Armenian-language graffiti and whose mehrab (the niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca) was riddled with bullet holes. Cemeteries throughout Aghdam were desecrated, looted, and/or destroyed, including the sacred and historic 18th-century tombs of Imarat Garvand Cemetery, the city’s “Martyrs’ Alley.” Western diplomats visiting Martyrs’ Alley reported seeing holes where bodies were once interred and that only one broken headstone remained in the cemetery. Because religion and ethnicity are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.8 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2016 census, 52.1 percent of residents are Christian, including Roman Catholics (22.6 percent of residents), Anglicans (13.3 percent), Uniting Church (3.7 percent), Presbyterian and Reformed (2.3 percent), Baptist (1.5 percent), and Pentecostal (1.1 percent). Muslims constitute 2.6 percent of the population, Buddhists 2.4 percent, Hindus 1.9 percent, Sikhs 0.5 percent, and Jews 0.4 percent. An additional 9.6 percent of the population either did not state a religious affiliation or stated affiliations such as “new age,” “not defined,” or “theism,” while 30.1 percent reported no religious affiliation.
Revised figures from the 2016 census indicate that indigenous persons constitute 3.3 percent of the population, and that there are broad similarities in the religious affiliation of indigenous and nonindigenous individuals. In 2016, less than 2 percent of the indigenous population reported adherence to traditional indigenous religions or beliefs. Fifty-four percent of indigenous respondents identify as Christian, and an estimated 36 percent report having no religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars the federal government from making any law imposing a state religion or religious observance, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or establishing a religious test for a federal public office. The constitution’s protection of the “free exercise of any religion” may be limited only when deemed necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Individuals who suffer religious discrimination may have recourse under federal or state and territory discrimination laws and bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The state of Tasmania is the only state or territory whose constitution specifically provides citizens with the right to profess and practice their religion. In Queensland, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory, freedom of religion is protected in statutory human rights charters. The antidiscrimination laws of all states and territories, with the exceptions of NSW and South Australia, contain a prohibition against discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. NSW prohibits discrimination on the basis of “ethnoreligious origin,” and South Australia protects individuals from discrimination in employment and education because of religious dress. Complainants may seek redress through state and territory human rights bodies.
Religious groups are not required to register with authorities. To receive tax-exempt status for income or other benefits and an exemption from the goods and services tax (sales tax), however, nonprofit religious groups must apply to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Registration with the ATO has no effect on how religious groups are treated, apart from standard ATO compliance procedures. To receive tax-exempt status, an organization must be a nonprofit entity. An organization’s activities, size, and permanence are some of the factors considered when determining its tax-exempt status.
State and territory governments share responsibility for education policy with the federal government, and they generally permit religious education in public schools that covers world faiths and beliefs. Instruction in the beliefs and practices of a specific religion may also be permitted, depending on the state or territory. In some jurisdictions, instruction may only occur outside regular class time, while in others, alternative arrangements are made for the children of parents who object to religious instruction. The federal government provides funding to state and territory governments to support the employment of chaplains in public schools. Chaplains may represent any faith and the government bans them from proselytizing. Thirty-four percent of students attend private schools; approximately 94 percent of these schools are affiliated with a religious group. The NSW government requires schools to provide “meaningful alternatives” for students whose parents withdraw them from Special Religious Education, which could include courses in ethics.
In Victoria, laws require religious leaders and workers to report suspected child abuse, including where discovered through confession. The law carries a sentence of up to three years in prison if a mandatory reporter (which includes persons in religious ministries) fails to report abuse to authorities. In Queensland, laws require adults to report knowledge of child sexual abuse, including where information is gained during “a religious confession.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 25, the Prime Minister introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to prohibit religious discrimination. The bill proposed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s religious belief or activity in a wide range of areas of public life, including in relation to employment; education; access to premises; the provision of goods, services, and facilities; and accommodation. It contained provisions allowing religiously affiliated schools, hospitals, or aged care facilities to take religion into account in staffing decisions. The bill also proposed protections for “statements of belief” (i.e., statements of an individual’s religious beliefs) from the application of certain provisions of federal, state, and territory antidiscrimination laws that might otherwise make the statement of belief unlawful, so long as such statements do not harass, threaten, intimidate, or vilify a person or group.
Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim faith leaders welcomed the bill in a joint statement that said the bill would “protect people of faith from discrimination on the basis of their religious beliefs.” LGBTQI+ advocacy group Equality Australia said the bill’s proposed protections for statements of belief would “undermine everyone’s right to respect and dignity at work, school, and wherever they access goods and services like healthcare” and called on parliament to oppose the bill in its entirety. Two parliamentary committees began studying the bill and were expected to conclude their work in 2022. The committees removed several provisions from the bill proposed in earlier drafts, including a prohibition on large employers penalizing employees for religious statements made outside work hours, and protections for health providers who refuse treatments due to a conscientious objection.
Separately, the Australian Law Reform Commission continued its inquiry into religious exemptions in antidiscrimination legislation. Its report is due to the federal government 12 months after religious freedom legislation passes the federal parliament.
In February, the Victoria state government passed a law banning practices that encouraged individuals to change or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. A person found to have conducted practices that caused serious injury faces criminal charges, including fines of up to 10,000 Australian dollars ($7,300) and 10 years in prison. Some religious leaders, including Catholic and Baptist clergy, criticized the law prior to passage, saying its language was too broad and could cause restrictions not only on practices considered harmful but also on the free speech and free choice of those following their religious beliefs. In February, Reverend Peter Barnes, leader of the Presbyterian Church, said his denomination would ignore the “authoritarian” law on the basis that Church leaders “don’t get our instructions from parliament house.” He said he would not turn away someone who came to him for prayer or help.
In August, a Queensland tribunal found that former senator Fraser Anning had broken antidiscrimination laws by vilifying Muslims and ordered him to remove 141 pieces of online content including memes, links to interviews featuring Anning, and calls to ban Islam in the country. The tribunal also ordered Anning to remove a press release issued the day of the March 2019 Christchurch mass shootings in New Zealand that blamed Muslim immigrants for the attack.
In December, the Victoria state government passed legislation prohibiting a religious body or school from discriminating against an employee based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or other protected attributes. Religious organizations and schools remained able to make employment decisions based on an employee’s religious beliefs where they were critical to the subject matter of the job, such as a religious studies teacher. The new laws prohibit religious organizations that receive government funding to provide services from denying these services based on a person’s sexual origination or gender identity. The Human Rights Law Alliance, a Christian charitable law firm set up to protect and advance religious freedom, stated that the law would result in religious schools being “unable to make hiring decisions that preserve the Christian ethos and mission of the school.”
Most state and territory governments at varying times imposed temporary restrictions on movement to control the spread of COVID-19, including requiring residents to stay at home unless commuting for a designated purpose, such as to purchase groceries or for essential work. These restrictions, typically put into effect in response to specific outbreaks, affected religious gatherings, including funerals and weddings, although many religious groups continued to hold services online. While a small number of religious leaders expressed concern, most of the religious community accepted the restrictions, which supported state and federal health measures as necessary for keeping the pandemic in check.
COVID-19 restrictions enacted by NSW on June 25 for the Greater Sydney region included bans on all in-person gatherings including those at churches. Churches and congregations moved to a virtual format for services. In August, police fined 31 parishioners from the Blacktown Christ Embassy Sydney Church 1,000 Australian dollars ($730) each, and the church 5,000 Australian dollars ($3,600) for an August 22 service. On September 9, the NSW government announced that on the first Monday after the state achieved the 70 percent fully vaccinated rate, churches could welcome in-person fully vaccinated worshippers.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in September the NSW health minister said anyone going to church unvaccinated would be “committing a breach of the public health orders.” Religious leaders including senior Anglican and Catholic clergy requested exemptions from the vaccination requirement, saying they had a responsibility to minister to all regardless of immunization status. Although authorities allowed places of worship to open on October 11 for fully vaccinated individuals, Catholic churches, some Anglican churches, and the largest mosque in Sydney announced they would delay reopening until the 80 percent vaccination threshold was reached on October 18, so that unvaccinated worshipers would not be turned away. As of October 18, when the state had reached 80 per cent vaccination rate, all worshippers were welcome regardless of vaccination status.
The Victoria government continued to restrict all public gatherings in Melbourne, setting a goal of having at least 70-80 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated before lifting restrictions. Religious organizations conducted services online, supported by religious community and church leaders, except for several Orthodox Jewish leaders, who insisted on in-person service. In August, Melbourne Jewish leaders urged the community to maintain compliance with all COVID-related public health measures after a widely publicized engagement party attended by dozens of members of the Orthodox Jewish community in contravention of public health orders. In September, Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community wrote a letter to the state government signed by nine rabbis calling on the government to allow small prayer groups to gather during Yom Kippur. The state denied this request, citing public health concerns. Police issued 11 fines of 5,452 Australian dollars ($4,000) each in response to several small Orthodox Jewish gatherings that breached COVID public health restrictions during Rosh Hashanah in September.
On September 19, the Victoria government announced its road map to exit the lockdown, maintaining some restrictions on density and numbers allowed to attend religious services, restrictions that sources stated were slightly more accommodating than requirements imposed on industries. In September, Bishop Paul Barker of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne told media he feared the unvaccinated would be treated like “the lepers of Jesus’ day,” noting tensions between public health measures and religious values. Also in September, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli said he was not comfortable with a “vaccine passport” requirement for attending worship. During the same month, the head of the Islamic council of Victoria, Adel Salman, said he supported a “no double-jab, no entry” policy for mosques.
State and territory governments administered grant programs supporting multicultural and multifaith communities throughout the country. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in incidents of antireligious behavior, such as abuse targeted at the Islamic and Jewish communities, the Victoria state government continued its interfaith community fund, offering up to 50,000 Australian dollars ($36,400) to faith-based organizations, including funding for the Islamic Society of Victoria and the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria, for activities that supported harmonious relations among faith communities.
In March, the Victoria state parliament published a report that examined the potential for expanding or extending protections under the anti-vilification laws, vilification being defined as engaging in conduct against another person or group in public that incites hatred, serious contempt, revulsion, or severe ridicule. Parliament examined the effectiveness of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001, sought evidence of increasing vilification and hate conduct in Victoria, and examined online vilification. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council praised the report, specifically its recommendation “to establish a criminal offence that prohibits the display of symbols of Nazi ideology, including the Nazi swastika with considered exceptions to the prohibition.” The parliament in Victoria completed soliciting public comments on laws that would strengthen protections against religious discrimination and vilification. In response, in September, the Victoria government announced it would make Nazi symbols including the swastika illegal and make civil and criminal vilification easier to prove so that victims could seek justice through the courts more easily. Following the Victoria government’s announcement, the Tasmania state government suggested in September that it would observe Victoria’s implementation of the anti-swastika law with a view to potentially enacting similar laws in the future. The NSW Labor Party in September proposed a bill to ban the display of Nazi symbols including swastikas and Nazi flags, with exceptions for swastikas used in connection with Hinduism and Buddhism. The proposal included sentences of six months and fines ranging from 5,500 Australian dollars ($4,000) for individuals to 55,000 Australian dollars ($40,000) for organizations who violated these guidelines.
The parliament in NSW completed soliciting public comments on laws to strengthen protections against religious discrimination. In March, an NSW state parliamentary inquiry recommended an amendment to the state antidiscrimination law that included the protection of individuals from discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs or activities. In September, the NSW government committed to support legislation outlawing religious discrimination – but only after the enactment of proposed federal antireligious discrimination legislation, citing the need to understand interaction between the two and address any constitutional inconsistencies. Equality Australia opposed the NSW bill and criticized it for “allowing people to use religion to hurt others (including other people of faith)” and making it “harder for employers and educational institutions to respond to inappropriate, offensive or discriminatory conduct” when that conduct was motivated by religious belief.
Special Religious Education remained in place in NSW public schools. Government-approved Special Religious Education providers included representatives of Christian denominations, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and other religious groups. During the year, the NSW government provided assistance to public schools to implement religious and ethics classes.
In March, Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan stated that his government would ban gay conversion therapy. The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), a group which seeks to bring Christian influence into politics, criticized the proposed ban as “draconian,” stating it could interfere with parental rights. At year’s end, the ban remained unimplemented.
In May, the state government-run Perth Theatre Trust (PTT) rejected an application from the ACL to use the publicly-owned Albany Entertainment Centre. The PTT originally defended the rejection on the grounds the ACL’s event was politically motivated and did not represent the views of the Western Australia government. Several LGBTQI+ advocacy groups welcomed the ban, including Albany Pride, which said the ACL had “a long history of opposing and speaking out against any kind of advancement in LGBTQIA+ rights and freedoms”. The PTT later reversed its decision.
The Australian Multicultural Council continued to provide guidance to the government on multicultural affairs policy and programs. The government’s national multicultural policy, entitled “Multicultural Australia – United, Strong, Successful,” continued to be based on a government-wide approach to maintaining social cohesion, and included religious freedom as a component.
The government continued to begin each session of parliament with a recitation of a short prayer, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, as has been the practice since 1901. Participation in the prayers remained optional.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.9 million (midyear 2021). According to religious groups and government estimates, Roman Catholics constitute 55 percent of the population, and Muslims – predominantly Sunni – 8 percent, while approximately 25 percent is unaffiliated with any religion. According to estimates from religious groups, Eastern Orthodox churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, and Bulgarian) constitute 5 percent of the population, and Protestants (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions) 3.2 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and other Christian and non-Christian religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from association with any religious community. The law stipulates, “Duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”
Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more individuals. The prohibition also applies specifically in the case of incitement in print, electronic, or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups, if such action violates human dignity.
The law divides registered religious groups into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home, “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”
There are 16 recognized religious societies: the Roman Catholic Church; Protestant churches (Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); the IGGO; Old Catholic Church; IKG; Eastern Orthodox Church (Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Antiochian); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; New Apostolic Church; Syrian Orthodox Church; Coptic Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Methodist Church of Austria; the Buddhist Community; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Alevi Community in Austria; and Free Christian Churches.
The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs; to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members; to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers; and to provide pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in several public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which the government denies to confessional communities and associations. The government grants all recognized religious societies tax relief in two main ways: donors do not pay taxes on donations, and the societies receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to the active practice of religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from a surveillance charge, otherwise payable when the state provides security to religious groups, and administrative fees for garbage collection and other municipal services. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common good and – like all religious groups – to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards, which the law does not define.
Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retained their status. The government grandfathered in 14 of the 16 recognized religious societies under this provision of the law. To gain recognition as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,700 persons) and have existed for 20 years, at least five of which must have been as a confessional community. The government recognizes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active as an association in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that they have a different theology.
The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs. The government recognizes 10 confessional communities: the Baha’i Faith, Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians, Pentecostal Community of God, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindu Community, Islamic-Shia Community, Old-Alevi Community in Austria, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, United Pentecostal Community of Austria, and Sikhs.
A recognized confessional community has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but it is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to confessional communities’ charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them and tax free for the groups receiving them, but the communities are not exempt from property taxes. Confessional communities may provide pastoral care in prisons and hospitals.
To gain government recognition as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit to the Office for Religious Affairs its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals and with the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the chancellery. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.
Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting for the government to recognize them as confessional communities.
The Church of Scientology and several smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, have association status.
According to the law, any group of more than two persons pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups may apply to the Ministry of Interior to obtain such status. To become an association, a group must submit a written statement citing its common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization.
Associations have juridical standing, the right to function in public, and many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services. Associations may not offer pastoral care in hospitals or prisons or receive tax-deductible contributions.
Pursuant to the law governing relations between the government and the Roman Catholic Church, the Church is the only religious group to receive government funding for pastoral care it provides in prisons. The law also makes various Catholic holidays official national holidays.
The law governing relations between the government and the IGGO and Alevi Muslim groups stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law (compliance with which is determined by the Office for Religious Affairs), and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims may raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are considered cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional community. This includes the IGGO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shia Community and the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, both of which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which the University of Vienna offers.
An amendment to the law pertaining to Muslims passed in July as part of an antiterrorism package provides for stricter annual government monitoring of the finances of mosques and Muslim cultural associations, focusing on financial flows from abroad. The legislation, which entered into force September 1, also allows the Federal Chancellery to request a list of all Muslim officials and associations and makes it easier to close mosques to “protect public security,” with the approval of the IGGO. The IGGO must report changes in Muslim associations, such as changes in by-laws, leadership, and funding to the Office for Religious Affairs, so that authorities have up-to-date information on such associations. The law also empowers Ministry of Interior officials, who already review requests to establish new associations, to scrutinize such requests to ensure that they are not “cover organizations” for religious groups attempting to bypass the transparency requirements for mosques. The antiterrorism package also introduced a new statutory offense banning “religiously motivated extremism.”
Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 14 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in some details, since they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years. As with the Muslim community, a law provides explicit protections for Jewish religious practices, including circumcision and ritual slaughter.
The law bans full-face coverings in public places as a “violation of Austrian values,” with exceptions made only for artistic, cultural, or traditional events, in sports, or for health or professional reasons. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150 euro ($170) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.
In accordance with a Constitutional Court ruling in 2020 that overturned a headscarf ban for children in elementary school, children of all ages may wear headscarves and other head coverings in schools.
The government funds, on a proportional basis, religious instruction for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies by clergy or instructors provided by those groups for children in public schools and government-accredited private schools. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in the respective religion classes is mandatory for all students who are members of those religious groups unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students younger than age 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religion classes. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.
The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.
Holocaust education is part of history instruction and is also part of other courses such as civics.
The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the Federal Chancellery Minister for Women, Family, Youth, and Integration, oversees discrimination cases, including those based on religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and it assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In a case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to court. The commission may issue expert reports for plaintiffs to present before the court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.
The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification “of the National Socialist genocide” or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
The law prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against a group because of its members’ race, nationality, religion, or ethnicity if the statement violates human dignity, and it imposes criminal penalties for violations.
On January 1, a law on hate speech, including religiously motivated hate speech, went into effect requiring online platforms to identify and delete posts that can be classified as hateful or defamatory. It broadens the definition of hate speech to include single offenses, cyberbullying, and photographs taken surreptitiously, for which a person may be prosecuted in court. The law also facilitates means of recourse by allowing individuals subjected to online hate speech to seek redress directly with the relevant communication platform, rather than go through civil courts. It mandates companies to designate a contact person to whom affected individuals and government authorities can send complaints, and it requires platforms to issue annual reports on how they received and processed hate speech complaints. Repeated failure by the platform to comply could lead to fines of up to 10 million euros ($11.34 million). The law applies only to large for-profit communication platforms with more than 100,000 users and revenues of 500,000 euros ($567,000) or more per year. Videos on video-sharing platforms such as YouTube or Facebook are excluded, as they are subject to a separate EU law, but comments on the videos fall under the new law.
The law extends citizenship to direct descendants of Austrian victims of Nazi crimes. Descendants may obtain citizenship by reporting to Austrian consulates. Dual citizenship is also possible.
The law bans certain symbols the government considers extremist, including those pertaining to the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, al-Qaida, Hizballah, and the Croatian Ustasha.
The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa-waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers of groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family based and is subject to a quota. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies also require immigrant visas but are exempt from the quota system. Religious workers from Schengen or EU-member countries are exempt from all visa requirements.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The IGGO expressed objections to the amendment of the law pertaining to Muslims enacted in July as part of the government’s antiterrorism legislation, stating it was discriminatory and interfered with religious freedom and the internal affairs of the Muslim community. The provisions in the amendment pertained only to Islam. IGGO president Umit Vural said he was also disappointed the government did not engage with the IGGO on the provisions of the amendment. Responding to his criticism, both Justice Minister Alma Zadic and Integration Minister Suzanne Raab stated the new legislation was in no way designed to target a specific religious group. The Office for Religious Affairs stated all religious groups in the country must adhere to the same restrictions concerning foreign funding and violating federal law and that only Islamic groups had violated either of these restrictions.
The Federal Chancellery’s Documentation Center for Political Islam, which was established in 2020, continued its research on what it described as politically motivated Muslim extremism. It stated that it made its research available to the general public to promote awareness of Muslim extremism, pluralism, and religious freedom, while also staging workshops and publishing studies relevant to Muslim extremism. In October, the Federal Chancellery hosted the Vienna Forum on Countering Segregation and Extremism in the Context of Integration, which brought together officials from Austria, Denmark, Belgium, and France as well as experts in the field to find avenues for cooperation on fighting “political Islam.” The four countries agreed to begin joint cooperation projects in fighting radicalization and Islamic extremism, focusing on exchanging best practices and cooperation in research. The Federal Chancellery said it would host the forum annually and seek cooperation with other countries as well.
In May, the Documentation Center for Political Islam created a website featuring an “Islam Map” compiled by the University of Vienna’s Institute for Muslim Theological Studies, listing Islamic institutions in the country, including mosques, Muslim associations, and prayer rooms. The Islam Map had already been available through the university’s website, but it only became widely known publicly after the government posted it to the Documentation Center’s website in June. Religious, political, and civil society groups criticized the map. Green Party integration spokeswoman Faika El-Nagashi called it “the opposite of what integration policy and dialogue should look like on an equal footing,” while IGGO President Umit Vural called it dangerous and said attacks against Muslims rose after the posting of the map. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the head of the Catholic Church in the country, called it “dangerous to give the impression that one of the religious communities is under general suspicion,” and asked why one of the country’s many religious communities was singled out. In June, following the posting of the map, individuals began to use the map to “out” certain locations as Muslim with posters and signs reading or “Beware! Political Islam is here.” The government briefly took the map down in June before reposting it online a few weeks later. Also in June, the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria filed a complaint against the University of Vienna professor who compiled the map, the University of Vienna, and the Documentation Office on Political Islam, stating the map violated data privacy rules.
In January, the Federal Chancellery Minister for the EU and Constitution, Karoline Edtstadler, presented a national strategy to combat antisemitism and established an office in the Federal Chancellery to coordinate measures by all ministries to implement the new strategy. The strategy focused on addressing antisemitism when educating new refugees and establishing security for the Jewish community, guidelines for tracking and prosecuting antisemitic incidents, and standards for EU-wide data comparison. It recommended increasing protection of synagogues, improving education about Judaism in schools and awareness campaigns, more vigorous prosecution of hate speech, and closing loopholes in the law pertaining to right-wing extremist groups and their symbols. Edtstadler stated that combatting antisemitism was a central priority of the government. Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler said the strategy reflected the country’s historic responsibility to combat antisemitism, and he warned against right-wing extremists exploiting protests against COVID-19 restrictions to spread antisemitism. Jewish community president Oskar Deutsch welcomed the strategy, saying it would ensure the security and continuity of Jewish life in the country.
The Federal Office of Sect Issues offered advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults.” The office was nominally independent but government funded, and the Minister of Women, Family, Youth and Integration appointed and oversaw its head.
In June, the government declared it had fulfilled the responsibilities of the Arbitration Panel for In Rem Restitution under the Law on the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism. Parliament unanimously took note of the Final Report of the Arbitration Panel. The Arbitration Panel was established in 2001 under the provisions of the Washington Agreement to decide on applications for in rem restitution of publicly owned property and movable assets for the previous owners and their heirs.
In August, an appellate court in the Styrian provincial capital of Graz ruled that nine police raids against Muslim Brotherhood individuals and associations in 2020 were illegal. The Graz appellate court ruled that raids targeting terrorist financing were illegal because they were not based on probable cause or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The court said there was no evidence that every member of the Muslim Brotherhood was “also a member of or promoted a terrorist organization, in particular Hamas.” Individuals detained in the raids, who were reportedly questioned and released, had told media the raids were “mere guesswork by the police” and that there was no evidence of terrorist financing.
Revenue authorities continued to investigate Islamic associations that they said might have evaded taxes, which would result in the loss of charity status for those associations. At year’s end, authorities had not stripped any Islamic associations of their charity status.
The Federal Office for Foreigner Affairs and Asylum (BFA) continued to refuse to issue or renew residence permits for foreign imams financed by foreign sources. There were no reports that other religious groups faced similar problems in obtaining residence permits for their foreign clerics, as those clerics are not financed by foreign sources according to the BFA.
At year’s end, the Vienna-based, Saudi Arabia-funded King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue remained open, despite a foreign ministry announcement in 2019 that it would close the center, consistent with a nonbinding parliamentary resolution calling on it to do so because of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. In October, Saudi Arabia announced it would move the center to Lisbon, although it did not indicate a timetable for the relocation.
In January, four online platforms, not publicly identified, sought an exemption from the new law on hate speech, stating it should not apply to them because they had offices in Ireland, but the Vienna Commercial Court rejected the claim. Officials in the Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs and the Federal Chancellery reported companies were complying to varying degrees, and some proceedings to penalize noncompliant companies were underway, but they did not provide details. By year’s end, KommAustria, an independent telecommunications supervisory authority responsible for monitoring compliance with the law, had not levied penalties on any companies.
Following the IKG’s April presentation of its annual report on antisemitic incidents in 2020, EU and Constitution Minister Edtstadler said much remained to be done and that it was important to implement the government’s strategy to fight antisemitism adopted in January. Vice Chancellor Kogler also stated combatting antisemitism remained a major challenge.
In March, Parliamentary President Wolfgang Sobotka presented the results of a survey of citizens commissioned by parliament that found antisemitism had become more visible during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the circulation of conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic’s origin. Of 2,000 persons polled in late 2020, 28 percent agreed with the statement that “Jews today try to take advantage of the fact that they were victims during the Nazi era.” Another 26 percent agreed that “Jews dominate the international business world.” Forty-nine percent of respondents agreed that it was citizens’ “moral responsibility to stand by Jews” in the country. The study’s authors, the Institute for Empirical Social Research and the Demox research institute, said that, despite better efforts to combat antisemitism in the country, a vocal minority exploited public frustration with health and safety restrictions and demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions as public platforms to make antisemitism more visible and exploit the right to assemble to spread conspiracy theories against Jews. Sobotka praised the study, saying it offered a chance to “grow awareness of the problem of antisemitism, which in turn is the basis for an actual change in the attitudes of Austrians,” adding that the country could not afford to view antisemitism as just a marginal phenomenon in society. Sobotka also criticized opposition Freedom Party (FPOe) Floor Leader Herbert Kickl for his participation at demonstrations in March against COVID-19 restrictions, where Sobotka said right-wing extremists had spread antisemitic messages equating persons affected by COVID-19 restrictions with Holocaust victims. In his speech at a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions, Kickl accused Israel of “vaccination apartheid.”
The international NGO Anti-Defamation League continued to conduct teacher-training seminars on Holocaust awareness in schools in the country, reaching approximately 100 teachers. School councils and the Ministry of Education, Science, and Research continued to invite Holocaust survivors to talk to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.
In September, Parliamentary President Sobotka presented the restored grave of the Epstein family, a renowned Jewish family that lived in Vienna in the 19th century, at the historic Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna to the IKG. Parliament had financed and organized the restoration project. Sobotka stated the cemetery was a “unique memorial for Jewish life in Vienna.”
The Vienna Prosecutor’s Office declined to prosecute the FPOe for incitement after the party posted slogans that equated traditionally dressed Muslims with radical, violent Islamism during Vienna municipal elections in October 2020. The Association of Social Democrat Academics had sought incitement charges against the FPOe.
In May, Education Minister Heinz Fassmann announced the establishment of a research office on right-wing extremism and antisemitism with the Documentation Center of the Austrian Resistance Movement, an NGO that monitors right-wing extremism. The center also provided schools with material for Holocaust education and supported investigations into right-wing extremists.
The government continued to allow headwear for religious purposes in official identification documents, provided the face remained sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.
According to statistics presented by Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in September, the government granted citizenship to 6,600 descendants of Austrian victims of Nazi crimes, including persons from the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom.
The city of Vienna continued work on the Campus of Religions, which it financed and launched in 2019. Vienna unveiled the winning design for the campus in September, which contains eight buildings on 2.5 acres of land and is expected to be completed in 2028. The campus is planned as a site where the Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox Churches, as well as Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and members of the New Apostolic Church will exercise their own religious activities, while also working together. Its designated function is to serve to promote faith, respect, diversity, and ideological tolerance. Alongside the interfaith University College of Teacher Education of Christian Churches Vienna/Krems, the campus is designed to be a meeting point that encourages dialogue between religions, science, and education, and it will include access for the general public.
The government did not impose any COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings, relying on religious organizations to regulate their own gatherings. Religious groups worked with government officials to establish COVID-19 guidelines that mirrored each other, which Catholic and Muslim leaders stated helped create unified restrictions that eliminated confusion and risk among their congregations. There were no reports of widespread dissatisfaction among religious community members about the restrictions.
In October, the country opened its redesigned exhibit at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum commemorating the victims and acknowledging the role of Austrian perpetrators in the Holocaust.
The government inaugurated the Shoah Wall of Names Memorial in Vienna in November listing the names of the country’s 66,000 Jewish Holocaust victims.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.3 million (midyear 2021). According to 2011 SCWRA data (the most recent available), 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are mainly Muslims, and non-Muslims are mainly Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other national minorities. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.
Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.
Under the legal code, a nonviolent crime is considered an administrative offense. An administrative arrest may last up to three months.
The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.
To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.
By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradict the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter or other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.
The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.
The law bans activities by unregistered religious groups, punishable by fines or imprisonment.
While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature; setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions; and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.
The law specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.
Amendments signed into law in June include a new requirement for the SCWRA to approve the appointment of all non-Islamic religious leaders. The new amendments forbid individuals from forcing children to practice religion; prohibit the promotion of religious extremism; disallow religious leaders from engaging in religious activities when employed by the state; provide government-approved religious centers the sole right to grant religious titles; require religious centers to coordinate with the government when opening religious education institutions; restrict religious ceremonies (with exceptions) to places of worship; require believers to inform the government about travel to foreign countries to visit religious sites; grant the government authority to approve the appointment of religious figures in non-Islamic religious communities; require religious communities to suspend activity when they lose a religious leader until a new one is appointed; and allow military service members to worship in their spare time, with the exception of during combat operations. The law also contains a new requirement for the reattestation every five years of Muslim clerics who are appointed by the CMB; reattestation is conducted with the involvement of State Committee officials. Smaller communities without a “religious center” are not allowed to grant religious titles or ranks to the clergy; apply for permission to have foreign citizens as religious leaders; establish religious educational establishments; organize visits by their adherents to shrines and religious locations abroad, or exercise other rights that are attributed only to “religious centers.” Mass religious worship, rites, and ceremonies (with some exceptions) may as a rule be held only in places of worship and shrines. SCWRA permission is required under the June amendments to hold religious “mass events” anywhere other than at state-approved places of worship or shrines.
Rituals and ceremonies related to Islam may be performed only by citizens of the country. The law allows foreigners invited by non-Islamic registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they obtain special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 to 5,000 manat ($590-$2,900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.
The administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people as well as the organizing or holding meetings by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”
The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.
According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishments for the “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law. Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900-$4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment. Violations by a group of individuals “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manat ($4,100-$5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.
There is no religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.
Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds. Refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code by imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.
The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist acts; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.
According to the constitution, the law may restrict the participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to parliament. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in a position of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity.
The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism,” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats against, or expressions of contempt for, persons based on religious belief.
The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.
The law prohibits the use of headscarves in passport photos.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On June 16, President Aliyev signed into law amendments to the religious freedom law. Among other provisions, the new amendments prohibit the promotion of religious extremism, disallow religious leaders from engaging in religious activities when employed by the state, provide government-approved religious centers the sole right to grant religious titles, and require religious communities to suspend their activities in the absence of a government-approved religious leader. The government justified the amendments by the need for security. Civil society said the changes provided the SCWRA even more control over religious groups. Parliament passed the amendments into law on June 4, following closed door discussions. Human rights groups criticized the laws as lacking public scrutiny and increasing restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief. When speaking to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, lawyer Asabali Mustafayev called the amendment regarding mass religious worship “dangerous” and noted the absence of a requirement regarding the number of participants for a meeting to be considered “a mass event.” The amendments also specified, “It is forbidden to force children to believe in religion. The religious upbringing of children shall not adversely affect their physical and mental health”; the provision was challenged by civil society as a vague one that could lead to abuse and the limitation of freedom of religion. A representative of the CMB said the amendment would not apply to the “traditional” religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but only to “certain religious movements whose participation in rituals and religious conversations is not considered appropriate by the state,” such as “satanic currents.”
According to Forum 18, registered religious communities, including Jews, Georgian Orthodox, Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans and other Protestants, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and International Society of Krishna Consciousness Krishna devotees (who are considered religious communities) seemed unlikely to gain the status of a religious center under existing laws. The government considered only the CMB, the Russian Orthodox diocese of Baku and Azerbaijan, and the Roman Catholic Apostolic Prefecture to be religious centers.
he government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.
In a judgment issued on June 10, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the rights of seven appellants, followers of the late Turkish religious scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, after what the court ruled was their unlawful detention and their subsequent fines in June 2015. The appellants, Emin Alakbarov, Javanshir Ismayilov, Elmir Jabrayilov, Sabuhi Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Rovshan Gasimov, and Parvin Yunusov, were followers of Said Nursi’s teachings of Islam. They were gathered at the private home of one of the appellants in the city of Gadabay when several police officers raided the premises, taking the group to the Gadabay District Police Department and detaining them for 14 hours. Six were subsequently fined for violating public order and the man hosting the gathering was fined for violating the legislative rules on organizing and holding religious meetings. The ECHR found that the applicants’ deprivation of liberty was unjustified, arbitrary, and unnecessary, and it ruled that the government had violated the right to liberty and security contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. The ECHR awarded compensation of 3,000 euros ($3,400) to each of the seven, plus costs of 1,000 euros ($1,100) for all the cases jointly, to be paid to their main lawyer, Rustam Mustafazade. The ECHR rejected the complaint of unlawful interference by the domestic authorities with the right to freedom of religion because the appellants failed to exhaust domestic remedies. According to Forum 18, Asabali Mustafayev, a Baku lawyer who also worked on the cases, said all involved were “a little dissatisfied” with the ECHR judgments, as the court had not looked at all aspects of the violations included in the cases. He described the 3,000 euros ($3,400) awarded to each individual as “a highly miserly sum,” especially as it included recompense for the fines that each had paid. He also described the sum awarded for legal costs as “very little, given that it covered legal costs for seven cases.”
On May 20, the ECHR adopted a judgment in favor of Afruza Maharramova and Sadaya Huseynova, who founded the NGO Religion and Women’s Rights. National authorities had rejected their application for state registration, thus denying their organization legal status. The two women, from the southern town of Masalli, applied in 2011 to the Justice Ministry for registration of the NGO. The ministry twice in 2011 and twice in 2012 sent the application back, citing what it said were irregularities in the documentation. The NGO challenged the denial through the courts, finally losing in the Supreme Court in November 2013. Maharramova and Huseynova filed a case with the ECHR in April 2014. According to Forum 18, the ECHR examined the case, together with 11 others involving NGOs in which the government had denied legal status, and awarded compensation of 4,500 euros ($5,100) jointly to Maharramova and Huseynova, plus costs of 6,000 euros ($6,800) for all the cases together, to be paid to their lawyer, Intigam Aliyev.
On May 27, the ECHR ruled that the case of Protestant Christian Rahim Akhundov was inadmissible on grounds of his failing to comply with timelines for filing court proceedings. Akhundov had filed a case before the ECHR concerning his dismissal from his job as a parliamentary staffer in Baku in 2018. He stated that after he met friends and relatives at his Baku home for Christian worship, study, and discussion, he was dismissed from his job at the Milli Majlis (national assembly) on the orders of the State Security Service. Akhundov lost his final appeal in 2020 before the Supreme Court.
On April 26, the United Nations Human Rights Committee published a report that found the government had violated the rights of six Jehovah’s Witnesses in Aliabad in the northern Zagatala District in 2013. The six were detained in a police raid, taken to a police station, had religious literature seized, and were then fined (or in one case, given an official warning). The committee found that “by arresting, detaining, convicting, and fining [six Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2013] for possessing religious literature and holding a peaceful religious service in a private home, the State party [Azerbaijan] violated their rights under article 18 (1) [“Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”] of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].” The committee defined an “effective remedy” for each (including reimbursement of the 1,500 manat ($880) fines handed down on five of them and any court fees) and called on the government to amend laws and practice to avoid future violations. According to Forum 18, Jehovah’s Witnesses from the country have six other freedom of religion or belief cases pending with the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Throughout the year, national courts continued reviewing appeals and held a trial for the final 10 individuals detained after a 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and a related demonstration against local government authorities. In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country. Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated. The Union for Freedom for Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan identified as political prisoners 47 individuals in prison at year’s end who were connected to the events in Ganja. Human rights groups reported that three persons imprisoned in connection with the Ganja case were released by presidential pardon in March. The sentences of several others were reduced, and/or some charges dropped during appeals hearings during the year. The final trial connected to the Ganja events ended in August. According to the judgment, nine persons considered political prisoners received sentences ranging from 18 to 20 years.
Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM. Authorities maintained the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran. As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity. According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of political prisoners who were members of religious groups was 21 (not including the 47 who were arrested in Ganja), compared with 41 to 48 in 2020. According to human rights defenders, the decrease in the number of those defined by human rights groups as “religious activists” in detention was largely due to a Presidential decree adopted in March that pardoned 38 political prisoners overall, including 30 individuals arrested during 2015 raids in Nardaran that targeted individuals whom the government said were fundamentalist, had external support, and wanted to establish an Islamic state.
On May 24, the Agjabadi court placed MUM member Vugar Hajiyev in pretrial detention for a four-month period after he was arrested on drug-related charges on May 21. MUM said the drug charges were baseless and called his arrest politically motivated. Following his arrest, MUM issued a statement blaming the government for “going back to its Islamophobic attitudes” and demanding the release of Hajiyev. Another MUM member, Razi Humbatov, was arrested on June 7, and on June 9, he was placed in pretrial detention on drug-related charges. He told his family that he had been tortured and had signed a confession under duress. Human rights groups said they considered both Hajiyev and Humbatov to be political prisoners.
MUM member Elvin Murvatoglu, who was arrested in March 2020 for illegal possession of weapons and sentenced to two years and three months in prison, was released on September 13 before the completion of his prison sentence. According to MUM, Murvatoglu was known as an activist and was also the author of many poems and songs about Tale Bagirzade, the chairman of the MUM. Human rights groups included him in their list of political prisoners and linked his arrest to his songs in praise of Bagirzade.
On October 19, law enforcement detained several Shia clerics, including Ilgar Ibrahimoglu and theologian Sardar Babayev. Ibrahimoglu was released; Babayev was criminally charged for treason under the criminal code. Babayev rejected the treason charges, saying they were politically motivated. The court ruled to place him in pretrial detention for four months pending trial.
Some Christian communities again stated that the SCWRA had made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them. In the past, Jehovah’s Witnesses were among those targeted by the police and other state officials. “At the moment we don’t have any problems with the police or the State Committee,” a community member from Baku told Forum 18 on June 15. He said, “Even before the pandemic, the State Committee’s representatives were very cooperative if we had problems with the police or other state agencies.”
The government again did not implement a civilian alternative to mandatory military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution. On October 7, the ECHR adopted a judgement in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov, who were convicted in 2018 and received one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. The ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the human rights of both men and ordered that they be paid compensation and costs in the amount of 3,500 euros ($4,000) for each defendant. The ECHR’s October decision brought to seven the number of conscientious objectors from the country whose human rights had been violated by the government according to the court, and to whom the government had to pay compensation.
During the year, the government articulated its potential readiness to change its policy towards conscientious objectors. The head of the SCWRA, Mubariz Gurbanli, who had previously opposed such accommodation, said after the country’s victory in the 2020 conflict with Armenia that the time had come for the country to adopt a religious exemption to military conscription. He expressed his willingness to promote this idea to members of parliament. Later in the year, however, a representative of the Presidential Administration stated that alternative service was not under discussion.
At year’s end, the SCWRA registered 16 new religious communities (all Muslim), compared with 14 religious communities registered in 2020 (12 Muslim and two Christian). There were a total 971 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also said 2,253 mosques, 16 churches, seven synagogues, and 11 religious education institutions were registered. There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.
The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registrations. While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.
The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities. The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would invite religious extremist groups supported by Iran and would cause security concerns. Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum. However, the government did allow small religious communities to band together under one organization’s umbrella, even if they were based in different cities, which facilitated the successful registration of some groups. A Baptist minister visiting the country said he met with several small, unregistered Baptist groups that were able to hold services based on the registration of another Baptist community. Jehovah’s Witnesses remained registered only in Baku. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.
The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. Some smaller non-Muslim communities reported no difficulty in importing religious literature and described continuing improvement in relations with the government.
During the year, Kamala Rovshan, a student, launched a social media campaign advocating for women and girls to be able to submit passport photos while wearing a headscarf. In March, Commissioner for Human Rights Sabina Aliyeva stated her support for lifting the restriction and permitting the wearing of a headscarf in passport photos.
The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups. On July 8, President Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2020. The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2020. The Moral Values Promotion Foundation used the funds to support some smaller non-Muslim religious communities.
In a resolution on “Humanitarian consequences of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan / Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” adopted on September 27, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) stated, “The long running conflict has had a catastrophic impact on the cultural heritage and property of the region, for which both Armenia and Azerbaijan have a responsibility.” PACE condemned the damage “deliberately caused to cultural heritage during the 6-week war, and what appeared to be the deliberate shelling of the [Holy Savior Cathedral] in Shusha and the destruction or damage of other churches and cemeteries during and after the conflict.” The resolution also stated PACE remained “concerned, in the light of past destruction, about the future of the many Armenian churches, monasteries, including the Dadivank monastery, and cross-stones and other forms of cultural heritage which have returned under Azerbaijani control.” The resolution expressed “concern about a developing narrative in Azerbaijan promoting a ‘Caucasian Albanian’ heritage to replace what is seen as an ‘Armenian’ cultural heritage.” There were numerous reports during the year of vandalism and destruction of Armenian cultural and religious sites, as well as deliberate actions by the government to sever and distort the connection of religious sites to their Armenian heritage. Government actions and rhetoric stating churches were “Caucasian Albanian” prompted international observers, Armenian officials, civil society representatives, and the Armenian Apostolic Church to express grave concerns about the preservation of Armenian ties to historical and religious sites now under Azerbaijani control.
For example, on May 4, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the Azerbaijani-funded reconstruction of the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha was “in accordance with the original architectural style in order to restore the historical image of Shusha” and attributed renovations of the site to reflect “Caucasian Albanian” heritage. Armenian officials said such statements attempted to conceal the church’s Armenian roots and structure, including the original spire. In a letter to UNESCO, Armenia’s acting Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sports Vahram Dumanyan accused Azerbaijan of actively implementing “a policy of falsification of historical facts” by calling the sites of Armenian cultural heritage in newly returned territory “Caucasian-Albanian.” On September 27, Caucasus Heritage Watch (CHW) reported the Azerbaijani government embarked on an extensive campaign after the November 2020 ceasefire to claim Armenian heritage sites either do not exist or have “Caucasian Albanian” origins.
Following the November 2020 ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kealbajar. The government initially allowed Armenian pilgrims to visit the church, but access became increasingly difficult throughout the year. According to media reports and Armenian Apostolic Church authorities, two groups of pilgrims were denied access to the monastery in February and April; Forum 18 reported in July that no Armenian pilgrims had been able to visit the monastery since May 2. Azerbaijani authorities cited COVID-19, flooding, and road damage as reasons for denying access to groups of pilgrims who were ready with Russian peacekeeper escorts to visit the monastery, according to the Armenian Apostolic Church. By year’s end, in addition to the monastery, no Armenian pilgrims had been permitted visits to any religious site in Azerbaijani-controlled territory (where no Russian peacekeepers were present) since May 2.
CHW’s June and September reports identified other religious and historical sites under the government’s control that were destroyed, damaged, or under the threat of destruction due to proximate construction. CHW reported the complete destruction of Mets Tagher Cemetery, an inscribed stone of Holy Savior Cathedral, and the Sghnakh Cemetery. CHW also reported damage to the Holy Savior Cathedral, St. John the Baptist Church (Kanach Zham), Surb Meghretsots Church, and Shushi Northern Cemetery. According to CHW, the following religious sites were threatened by nearby large-scale construction projects: Saint Astvatatsin Church, Vankasar Church, and Amenaprkich Church. In addition, CHW reported the destruction of the 18th century Aygek Mosque as a result of the construction of the Khudafarin-Gubadli-Lachin road along the Hakari/Aghavno River valley, following the November ceasefire.
CHW said it was concerned about the government’s reconstruction of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha. Footage after the November 2020 ceasefire showed partial destruction of the dome and bell tower of the church. According to a CHW analysis, the church previously had two cupolas; the analysis cited a February image taken from Google Earth showing a portion of the eastern cupola was still standing at that time. CHW said that based on satellite imagery from April 10, the eastern cupola had been destroyed.
On May 26, BBC reported the removal of a cross atop St. Yeghishe Armenian Church in Sugovushan (Mataghis). A video reposted in March by Armenia’s ombudsman Armen Tatoyan on social media had shown soldiers wearing Azerbaijani and Turkish insignia desecrating the church.
In June, The Art Newspaper published a report using satellite images that detailed the destruction of medieval Armenian churches in Agulis, Nakhchivan. The churches were seen in 1977 images but were missing in images from 2016 and 2019. The destruction included Surb Stepanos (Saint Stephen), likely founded in the 12th to 13th centuries, the medieval Surb Tovma (Saint Thomas), Surb Kristapor (Saint Christopher), Surb Hovhannes Mkrtich (Saint John the Baptist), and other ancient churches, such as Mets Anapat Surb Astvatasatsin (Greater Hermitage Holy Mother of God) and Surb Hakob Hayrapet (Saint Jacob of Nisibis). The Art Newspaper also chronicled the destruction of Armenian heritage throughout Nakhchivan, which once included 89 churches, 5,840 cross-stones, and more than 22,000 tombstones, according to documentation from 1964-87 collected by independent researcher Argam Ayvazyan. Because religion and ethnicity are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 352,000 (midyear 2021). According to the most recent census in 2010, more than 90 percent of the population practices a religion. Of those, Protestants make up 70 percent of the population – Baptists, 35 percent; Anglicans, 14 percent; Pentecostals, 9 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 4 percent; Methodists, 4 percent; Church of God, 2 percent; and Brethren, 2 percent. Twelve percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Other Christians are 13 percent of the population, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Orthodox Christians, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the census, 5 percent is listed as other, having no religion, or unspecified. Other religious groups include Jews, Baha’is, Rastafarians, Muslims, Black Hebrew Israelites, Hindus, and followers of Obeah, which is practiced by a small number of citizens and some resident Haitians. According to a leader of the Rastafarian community, there are more than 13,000 Rastafarians in the country. The leader of the Jewish community estimates there are 1,000 Jews.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to practice one’s religion. It forbids infringement on an individual’s freedom to choose or change his or her religion, and prohibits discrimination based on belief. Parliament may limit religious practices in the interest of defense, public safety, health, public order, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The constitution refers to “an abiding respect for Christian values” in its preamble; however, there is no state-established religious body or official religion.
The practice of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean belief system with some similarities to Voodoo, is illegal. Those caught practicing it or attempting to intimidate, steal, inflict disease, or restore a person’s health through the practice of Obeah may face a sentence of three months in prison. The publication and sale of any book, writing, or representation deemed blasphemous is punishable by up to two years in prison, but opinions on religious issues “expressed in good faith and in decent language” are not subject to prosecution under the law. The government typically does not enforce this law.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must legally incorporate to purchase land. There are no legal provisions to encourage or discourage the formation of religious communities, which have the same taxation requirements as profit-making companies if they incorporate. To incorporate, religious groups follow the regulations applicable to nonprofit entities, requiring the “undertaking” of the religious organization to be “without pecuniary gain,” and that the group maintains a building for gathering. In accordance with value-added tax (VAT) legislation, religious organizations seeking VAT exemptions must register with the Ministry of Financial Services, Trade and Industry and with the Department of Immigration and apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis.
The law prohibits marijuana use, including for religious rituals.
Religion is a recognized academic subject at government schools and is included in mandatory standardized achievement and certificate tests. Religion classes in government-supported schools focus on the study of Christian philosophy, Biblical texts, and, to a lesser extent, comparative and non-Christian religions. Religious groups may establish private schools. The constitution states no one shall be compelled to participate in religious instruction or observances of a religion other than his or her own. It allows students, or their guardians in the case of minors, to decline to participate in religious education and observance in private schools. Vaccinations are required to attend school. The government permits home schooling and regulates it under the Ministry of Education.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The practice of Obeah remained illegal, but reports of violations were infrequent, as Obeah was generally practiced in private on remote islands with no discernable organizing body. The Royal Bahamas Police Force, however, stated it investigated credible reports of its practice.
Some Rastafarians continued to state the government violated their constitutional right to religious freedom by prohibiting the legal use of marijuana in ceremonial rituals. Rastafarians said police continued to arrest them for possessing small quantities of marijuana used in ceremonial rituals. In August, the previous government received the final report of The Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana, a preliminary version of which recommended allowing medicinal and religious use, and it had advanced legislation to that end. It was unclear at year’s end if the new administration of Prime Minister Davis would pursue the same or similar legislation. In October, the government began reviewing expungement applications from individuals convicted of possession.
The Rastafarian community voiced concerns about possible mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirements. A Rastafarian leader said leaders of his community submitted a request to government officials in July to allow community members a religious exemption when accessing private institutions that required COVID-19 vaccinations. He said the government did not respond to their request for a religious exemption by year’s end.
The leader of the Jewish community, Rabbi Sholom Bluming, expressed appreciation that the government allowed the Jewish community to utilize government-run networks to donate food to families throughout the country.
The government continued to include Christian prayer in significant official events. Government officials and members of parliament normally quoted religious teachings during speeches, and senior government officials in their official capacities occasionally addressed assemblies during formal religious services.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.5 million (midyear 2021). The NGO World Population Review estimates the population is 1.7 million. According to the national government, there are approximately 712,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population. According to 2020 national government estimates, Muslims make up approximately 74 percent of the total population. The Ministry of Information Affairs website states 99.8 percent of citizens are Muslims, while the remainder of citizens are Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Baha’is. The ministry website states 70.2 percent of the total (citizen and noncitizen) population is Muslim and 29.8 percent adhere to other religions and beliefs, such as Christians (10.2 percent), Jews (0.21 percent), Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Sikhs. According to Jewish community members, there are between 36-40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country.
The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations. Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population.
Most foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and other Arab countries. According to national government 2020 census data, approximately 401,500 foreign residents are Muslim; 387,800 are Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Sikh, or Christian (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma Syrian from South India). According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 1.4 million Muslims, 205,000 Christians, and 109,000 Hindus.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.” The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as they do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed. All citizens have equal rights by law. According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith. The constitution states that sharia forms the principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code.
The labor law pertaining to the private sector prohibits discrimination against workers on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or belief. The labor law deems dismissal for religion to be arbitrary and illegal but does not provide an automatic right to reinstatement. The law also prohibits wage discrimination based on religion, among other factors. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) investigates claims of discrimination where there is an existing labor relationship; it can escalate violations to the Public Prosecution Office. The MOLSD does not have the authority to receive or manage complaints of religion-based discrimination in hiring. There is no law on discrimination in public sector employment.
The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine” and do not prejudice the “unity of the people” or arouse discord or sectarianism.
The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”
Islamic religious groups must register with the MOJIA to operate. Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf (endowment), while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf. MOJIA endowment boards supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls. Non-Islamic groups have the status of civil society organizations and as such must register with and receive a license from the MOLSD to operate. To register, a group must submit an official letter requesting a license to operate; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders and board members, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses. It must also submit other information, such as the group’s bylaws, candidates who seek election to the organization’s governing board, a physical address, and bank account in a bank registered with the Central Bank of Bahrain. The group must also request permission to receive funding or transfer funding. Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or MOI, depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. The law prohibits associations from engaging in politics. The law prohibits activities falling outside an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.
According to the MOLSD’s website, the following non-Islamic churches and spiritual groups were registered with the ministry: the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral, Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, House of Ten Commandments Synagogue, Shri Krishna Hindu Temple, and the Baha’i Social Society.
The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.
There is no explicit legal prohibition against apostasy. The penal code punishes any individual who insults another religious sect with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270). It punishes an individual for desecration of religious books with up to one year in prison and a fine of 100 dinars ($270). The law also prohibits any person from imitating in public a religious ritual or ceremony with the intention of ridiculing it.
The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, or advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman, the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission, and the National Institute for Human Rights address the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.
The law allows prisoners to receive “alternative non-custodial sentences” in lieu of custodial sentences, provided such a sentence would not endanger public security. The MOI supervises individuals following their release on an alternative sentence, and the trial judge and the public prosecutor determine their eligibility and conditions for an alternative sentence. Alternative sentences may include community service, home detention, electronic surveillance, no-contact orders, or participation in rehabilitation programs.
The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the King with recommendations from the president of the government-run and funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA). The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites. The government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) annually to each endowment board. Zakat (Islamic tithes), income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations. The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.
On January 20, the King issued a royal decree restructuring the Sunni and Jaafari Waqf directorates. According to the decree, the Sunni and Jaafari endowments are overseen by two independent councils that fall under the direct supervision of “a minister in charge of endowments affairs.” Each council manages its respective endowment, disburses revenues, and has full authority over endowment assets, including places of worship. The endowments were previously under the direct supervision of the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments.
The SCIA oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The council consists of a chair, a deputy chair, and 16 religious scholars – eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges. The King appoints all council members to a four-year term. Independent of other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships to low-income students for advanced Islamic studies. The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by parliament to ensure that draft laws comply with sharia. The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers. The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs. The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.
The King has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials. By law, construction of Islamic places of worship requires MOJIA approval. Non-Islamic groups must obtain MOLSD approval. Municipal authorities provide final approval for construction. Citizens may also offer private land to build mosques. Permission for construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, requires a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area. The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship. The law permits non-Islamic houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside their premises.
The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system. The government funds public schools for grades one through 12; Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims. Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and foreign-operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE. Outside of school hours, Muslim students may engage in religious studies sponsored by the MOJIA, as their parents deem fit.
In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence. According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded. The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas. There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad. The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.
Specialized MOE-run religious schools provide more thorough religious instruction – the Jaafari Institute for instruction in Shia Islam and the Religious Institute for instruction in Sunni Islam – for students from elementary through high school. The remainder of the curriculum is consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools.
Regarding family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia. The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia. The personal status law states that either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia, depending on the religious affiliation of the parties, shall govern family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court. Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody for non-Muslims.
The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates. Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination. Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.
The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries. It specifies that succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son. The royal family is Sunni.
The law prohibits any individual from being a member of a political society or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.
By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations. Islamic organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA. Non-Islamic organizations must obtain authorization from the MOLSD. On August 4, the MOJIA issued an amendment to a royal decree regulating fundraising that requires the Sunni and the Jaafari endowments to submit to the ministry annual reports on funds they collect for religious purposes, including for the construction or renovation of places of worship. The endowments must also deposit collected funds in a bank accredited by the Central Bank of Bahrain and notify the MOJIA. The amendment bans the endowments from receiving money from abroad without MOJIA approval.
The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.
Because religion and political affiliation are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to media, on November 21, the Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of a Shia preacher and upheld a one-year suspended prison sentence against him for “insulting religious figures revered by a group of people” (i.e., Sunni Muslims) during a sermon. Authorities also charged the preacher with organizing an illegal gathering of more than five individuals during the pandemic.
NGOs, media, and opposition outlets reported the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics. NGOs reported prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment more often than Sunni prisoners. The MOI confirmed that on April 5, Shia inmate Abbas Hassan Ali Malallah died of a heart attack in Jaw Prison. Shia Rights Watch stated that according to fellow prisoners, Malallah requested medical treatment on April 4, complaining of chest pains, but authorities denied his request. The National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), a quasigovernmental organization responsible for investigating human rights complaints, including complaints of abuse in prison, said it found no evidence prison guards deliberately denied Mallalah medical services.
On June 8, Hussain Barakat, who was serving a life sentence in connection with a terrorism case involving the Shia militant group “Zulfiqar Brigades,” an entity associated with armed religious groups, died in prison after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Human rights activists reiterated their calls to release other prisoners and said prison authorities failed to properly counter the pandemic.
According to local media, on November 15, the Higher Criminal Court of Appeals upheld the prison sentences of 10 Shia individuals to prison terms ranging from three years to life in prison. They, along with four other men, were convicted of forming a terrorist cell that was affiliated with al-Ashtar Brigades (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that is also known as the military arm of the al-Wafa Islamic movement) and planting bombs inside Bahrain National Bank ATMs in Naeem and Jid Hafs areas in February. The four other men escaped after their trials and remained at large at year’s end.
According to the government, on September 16, the MOI arrested four Shia individuals and charged them with attempting to plant a bomb inside a Bahrain National Bank ATM in Muharraq. The government said the men were suspected members of the February 14 movement, a branch of the al-Wafa Islamic movement. Opposition sources said authorities arrested 14 individuals.
A human rights activist on Twitter stated that on July 1, Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullah Isa “Mirza” al-Mahroos, who was serving a 15-year sentence in Jaw Prison, undertook a hunger strike to protest mistreatment, lack of proper medical care, and being prevented from seeing his son, who also was incarcerated in Jaw prison. Authorities sentenced al-Mahroos to 15 years in prison in 2011, along with 13 others identified as leaders of the 2011 antigovernment protests and hundreds of other opposition activists. His family said he was eligible for an alternative sentence and had chronic medical issues.
Several Shia clerics arrested during the 2011 antigovernment protests remained in prison at year’s end. They were serving prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred. Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), activists commemorated the tenth-year anniversary of the protests amid what HRW described as “continuing heavy repression.” According to sources, protests on February 13 and 14 included slogans targeting King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and pictures of exiled and jailed opposition figures.
The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman stated the office resolved 664 grievances from inmates and detainees, constituting 94 percent of the total 691 complaints filed during the year.
In March, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), part of the Public Prosecutor’s Office responsible for investigating complaints filed against security forces, reported receiving 33 complaints in the first quarter of 2020 and interrogating 13 MOI officers. On March 15, the SIU referred three security officers to the criminal court for mistreating inmates in 2020, and on April 15, the court found the three officers guilty. Two of them received prison sentences and one officer received a fine. The SIU received 68 formal complaints alleging torture, mistreatment, and excessive force by members of the police. It interrogated 107 MOI officers tied to the complaints and prosecuted 16 in criminal court for police misconduct. The SIU referred at least 11 MOI officers to the forensic and psychiatric departments; it referred three others to military courts for disciplinary measures. As of September, military courts took disciplinary action against nine other MOI officers in cases previously referred to them by the SIU.
During the year, according to government announcements, the MOI prosecuted a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions on social media platforms. The government did not release additional details about the nature of the incident. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
According to the MOI, during the year, the ministry investigated 26 individuals for defamation of religions, a charge usually stemming from statements made during sermons, and the government prosecuted six of them for inciting religious hatred and sectarianism. Courts convicted two of the six, but authorities did not announce their sentences. The other four cases remained ongoing at year’s end. The government also prosecuted 11 of the 26 individuals for “despising other religions” and convicted one person of blasphemy.
The government continued to attach witchcraft and sorcery charges to some cases involving charges of theft and fraud. In March, the director-general of the Capital Governorate Police announced authorities arrested a woman for practicing sorcery and stealing money and personal items from clients. In October, the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Science arrested two men on a charge of practicing witchcraft and sorcery. Authorities also accused the men of violating public morals. The case was referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and remained pending at year’s end.
On May 23, the MOI Anti-Cyber Crime Directorate arrested a Sunni woman and charged her with inciting sectarian hatred. According to the government, the woman said Shia Muslims were responsible for the spread of COVID-19. She appeared before the criminal court on May 27. At year’s end, there was no further information available on the disposition of her case.
Zuhair Ebrahim Jassim and Hussain Abdulla Khalil Rashid, two prisoners convicted of involvement in targeting security forces and killing one police officer in a police bus explosion in November 2017 and killing another officer in a bomb explosion in Damistan in 2014, remained on death row at year’s end. In June 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld their appeal of the death sentence. NGOs said their confessions were obtained through torture and that the trial proceedings were unfair. A 2020 New York Times report identified the men as members of the Shia community who previously expressed opposition to the government.
According to media, on December 9, the MOI announced it had arrested a male citizen for blasphemy and for inciting immoral activities on social media. The MOI referred the case to the public prosecutor, and it remained pending at year’s end.
On February 24, a court sentenced two employees of the Jaafari Waqf to seven years imprisonment and a fine of 68,000 dinars ($180,000) for embezzlement related to renovating Shia mosques. On March 14, a Council of Representatives inquiry committee on the misuse of the Jaafari Endowment’s funds and properties submitted its final report to the committee’s office board. The inquiry committee, established in September 2020, consisted of six Shia and three Sunni members of parliament. The report’s findings had not been made public by year’s end.
On January 21, authorities released Shia preacher Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri after he spent one year in prison for a 2019 sermon “defaming a [historical] figure that is revered by a religious group.” The preacher reportedly spoke against the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Mu’awiya I, who assumed the caliphate after the assassination in 661of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, who is revered by Shia Muslims.
According to the Twitter post of a supporter, on April 9, authorities released prominent Shia cleric Sayed Kamel al-Hashemi from prison under an alternative noncustodial sentence after he served more than two-and-a-half years for contempt of the King and inciting sectarian hatred based on his comments criticizing the government.
On April 2, the government released Shia citizen Abdulnabi al-Sammak from prison under an alternative sentence. Authorities arrested al-Sammak in 2020 for publicly reciting Ziyarat Ashura, a Shia prayer deemed defamatory of religious figures that Sunnis revere. They charged al-Sammak with publicly insulting symbols and defaming the Islamic faith.
The government announced that on April 12, King Hamad pardoned 91 prisoners at the start of Ramadan via royal decree. On May 12, the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the King pardoned 203 prisoners. On July 18, the eve of Eid al-Adha, he pardoned 32 individuals, including some foreigners.
The NGO Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) stated that on January 1, Shia prisoner Mohamed Abdulnabi Abdulla (also known as Mohamed Abdulnabi Juma al-Khoor) undertook an 11-day hunger strike to protest access to medical facilities. Authorities sentenced Abdulla to life in prison with revocation of citizenship on charges related to a blast in Karranah village in August 2015 that killed one policeman and injured seven others. According to ADHRB, his health declined in prison, and from July 2020 until he undertook the hunger strike, he requested medical treatment by a specialist. On January 11, a prison doctor examined Abdulla and transferred him to Qala’a Hospital to see an orthopedist, who, according to ADHRB, did not order an x-ray. Abdulla continued to state he was not receiving adequate specialized medical treatment and remained in prison at year’s end.
The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons by sending circulars to mosques, and to summon for questioning clerics who spoke on unapproved topics. The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds that their actions jeopardized national security. The MOJIA reported reviewing on a weekly basis sermons preachers submitted to the government. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques on unannounced visits to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.
On August 24, supporters posted on Twitter that authorities summoned Shia chanters Mohamed al-Gallaf, Salih Sahwan, Hasan Norooz, Mahdi Sahwan, and Sayed Ahmed al-Alawi for religious songs they chanted during Ashura and clerics Abdelmohsin al-Jamri, Mohamed al-Rayyash, Hani al-Banna and Aziz al-Khadhran for sermons they gave during Ashura. The men were released shortly afterwards without charges. Supporters posted on Twitter that on June 12, Hoora authorities summoned Shaikh Majeed al-Meshaal to the police station; they released him the same day without charges.
International and local NGOs reported that police summoned three Shia clerics in August during the days leading up to and following the commemoration of Ashura. Authorities interrogated the men because of the content of their sermons and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Authorities released two of the men the day after their detention. The third cleric remained in police custody at year’s end.
Political opposition figures on social media stated police summoned clerics and community leaders during the year for the content of their sermons or for creating or distributing publications deemed anti-Islamic. The MOI denied these reports, saying police did not summon or arrest anyone during the year for those reasons.
In January, the family of imprisoned Shia cleric Zuhair Jasim Ashoor, also known as Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas, released a statement describing inhumane treatment by prison authorities. They said Ashoor experienced extended stays in solitary confinement, beatings, sleep deprivation, limited access to water, death threats, as well as authorities confiscating Ashoor’s religious books, including texts he was writing, and prohibiting him from practicing religious rituals. Authorities had arrested and convicted Ashoor in 2013 on terrorism charges. Ashoor’s family stated authorities had tortured him in prison for taking part in a protest inside the prison, a charge the government denied.
According to local social media accounts, on April 20, Jaw Prison authorities allowed Shia scholar Abduljalil al-Meqdad, who was serving a life sentence, temporary release to attend his mother’s funeral. Authorities sentenced al-Meqdad to life in prison after his arrest in March 2011 with other political figures on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. At least five of his relatives, including his brother Habib al-Meqdad, continued serving prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.
The MOI stated its community policing program enlisted individuals directly from communities to act as informal community police, with the goals of maintaining local peace and security, resolving local issues at the community level, and avoiding escalating conflicts to law enforcement authorities. The MOI stated these informal community police monitored religious gatherings and funerals to prevent those gatherings from degenerating into protests or acts of violence.
The NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded one incident of harassment, one incident of threat, and nine incidents in which authorities prevented religious practice during Ramadan, although the NGO did not provide details. ACLED also reported authorities denied iftar meals to inmates in Jaw Prison.
According to ACLED, authorities regulated Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power) celebrations by an ad hoc decree issued May 2 that restricted the capacity of mosques and limited attendance to men who had received the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
ADHRB reported that police arrested or summoned for questioning several Shia Muslims related to Ashura observances. These included multiple summons sent to individuals who had raised black flags on the roofs of their homes during the holy day on August 18, as well as interrogations, arrests, and detentions of, and fines levied against, other members of the community throughout the country. ADHRB stated, “The violation of fundamental freedoms and religious rites [was] not an isolated occurrence… The pandemic has offered an opportunity to authorities to continue such repression under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19. This has dangerously extended the powers given to state security forces and has seen the systematic denial of religious freedom in the country.”
In August, family members and supporters posted on Twitter that inmates at Jaw Prison went on a hunger strike to protest religious discrimination and a lack of access to medical facilities, among other complaints. Some detainees said prison officials, citing COVID-19 mitigation efforts, limited time for practicing Ashura rituals. The NIHR said, however, authorities gave inmates additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas. Officials confirmed that religious rituals were not permitted in prison cells as a matter of general policy, and that religious commemorations were only permitted in designated prison common areas.
Activists and opposition media outlets criticized the MOI for taking down Ashura banners in Ras Rumman, South Sehla, and Hamad Town.
In a study released in October, ACLED stated Ashura commemorations in the country were “rooted at the community level and bear religious, social, and political meaning” and, “What lies at the core of the dispute between the Sunni regime and Shiite citizens is Ashura’s political potential.” According to the report, in August, authorities introduced several religious practice restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that effectively repressed Ashura practice and expression, including limiting attendance at houses of worship to 30 vaccinated adult individuals, and banning children from attending Ashura rituals. ACLED stated these restrictions were enforced by means of “judicial harassment” (35 incidents) and the removal of Ashura banners (31 incidents). Authorities arrested and summoned preachers, religious singers, and maatam (a Shia prayer house, sometimes called husseiniya in other countries) directors for taking part in Ashura commemorations. According to the study, officials denied Shia prisoners the right to celebrate Ashura and punished them if they performed rituals, including with discriminatory acts like preventing them from contacting their families.
Dissolved Shia political society Al-Wifaq issued a report on the government’s actions during the first 10 days of the month of Muharram, which culminate in the observance of Ashura, marking the death of Hussein at the battle of Karbala. In its statement, Al-Wifaq said security forces summoned Shia scholars, preachers, officials of religious centers, and others during this period and tore down Ashura banners and flags throughout the country. The statement also said the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict religious activities. According to Al-Wifaq, the government investigated 100 citizens and arrested three for “practicing their religious freedoms,” and there were 45 government actions that disrupted Ashura rituals, including confiscating banners or flags and other “provocative practices.”
The government stated special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation. On August 22, the NIHR released a statement on its findings from prearranged visits during Ashura to male and female detention centers. The NIHR stated officials at these facilities said inmates could practice their religious rites “with ease.” NIHR stated it spoke at random with inmates who said officials provided them with necessary facilities and services to practice their religious rites. Independent NGOs, however, cited instances where authorities denied prisoners their right to perform religious rituals.
An overseas-based human rights group stated that in at least one case, a judge prohibited an alternative noncustodial sentencing beneficiary from participating in social, cultural, and religious activities, including visiting mosques and maatams, or attending religious commemorations while serving his sentence.
According to an August 24 report by ADHRB, the National Task Force to Combat COVID-19 (COVID-19 taskforce) announced two days before the start of Muharram that it would allow Ashura processions in the vicinity of mosques and maatams, provided participants observed social distancing and other precautionary measures, such as wearing face masks and regularly using disinfectant. The ADHRB report stated these precautionary health measures “were supposedly in accordance with recommendations by the government’s medical team…. However, the authorities have instead utilized these measures to whitewash restrictions on religious freedoms in the country, alongside concealing the systematic violation of various other human rights.” ADHRB also reported that King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, appeared in media joining in the Indian Onam festival, among large crowds, without employing any obvious public health measures.
Other restrictions on maatams and mosques included a ban on children’s attendance and limits on capacity (30 persons), hours of operation, and geographical boundaries for processions. Additionally, the government prohibited leaders from moving from one maatam to another. Some Shia religious leaders and opposition politicians stated these restrictions were stricter than those applied to other public buildings, such as shopping malls. A video that circulated on social media of a large crowd of spectators at a basketball game caused some members of the Shia community to question whether the COVID-19 taskforce was applying more scrutiny to maatams than other establishments. Media commentators negatively compared the MOI’s response ahead of Ashura to more permissive government preparations for Hindu and Christian holidays.
Media reported that on August 14, a group of 65 maatams issued a joint statement requesting the COVID-19 taskforce review the requirement to limit Ashura processions to certain areas, saying the requirement contributed to overcrowding and ran counter to the goals of the COVID-19 precautionary measures.
After the observance of Ashura, the King thanked the Shia community on August 19 for taking steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus during observances, saying in a statement that he “praised the awareness and national responsibility shown by everyone during Ashura commemoration towards themselves, their surroundings, and society.”
Women’s prayers halls and restrooms remained closed until the end of September, while male prayers rooms opened in April. Media reported that on September 5, parliamentarian and head of the Services Committee Ahmed al-Ansari said the continued closure of women’s chapels and toilet facilities and the government’s directive that the Quran should not be opened as anti-COVID-19 measures were not justified when restaurants and shops were open, where groups congregated and were more vulnerable to objects being touched by multiple individuals. On September 23, the MOJIA announced all female prayer halls and toilet facilities in mosques would reopen, with appropriate health measures in place.
Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications it perceived as criticizing Islam. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The MOJIA also reviewed books that discussed religion.
According to representatives from the Christian and Hindu communities, the government did not interfere with their religious observances and publicly encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.
The government reported there were 598 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni Islamic centers, the same numbers as in 2020. Authorities decreased the number of licensed Shia mosques to 763 (from 764 in 2020) and increased the number of maatams to 624 (from 618 in 2020). During the year, the government granted permits to build three Shia mosques, three maatams, and 23 new Sunni mosques. Authorities temporarily closed 49 Sunni mosques, five Shia mosques, and nine maatams during the year for violating COVID-19 guidelines. MOJIA closed three older mosques for renovation.
The MOLSD reported it did not receive new requests from religious groups for land or construction permits. There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, Buddhist groups reported they met in private facilities.
After the completion of construction, the new Catholic cathedral, Our Lady of Arabia, opened in December in Awali. The government donated the land for the cathedral, intended to serve as the main church for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. As of year’s end, the municipality of Awali had not granted approval for the construction of three proposed Christian churches, citing unspecified security concerns. In 2014, the King donated land for the churches.
In December, the government allocated land for a new Christian cemetery in Salmabad, acting on the Christian community’s longstanding request since the country’s second Christian cemetery filled its last burial plot in 2014.
The government permitted both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols such as crosses outside churches.
According to a December 13 report by the Canadian-American magazine Vice, the government did not fulfill its promise to rebuild 38 Shia mosques destroyed in the 2011 uprising. An ADHRB official told the magazine, “Every year there are instances where they [Shia worshippers] pray on the land of these destroyed mosques and they end up being summoned and forced to sign pledges they won’t do it anymore.” Another ADHRB official said, “The mosques that have been rebuilt are mainly rebuilt by the community themselves. A lot of them are not being maintained properly.” In response to the article, the government said in an email to Vice, “All 30 unlicensed … structures used for religious purposes referred to in your inquiry have been regularized and rebuilt to the standards of other Muslim places of worship in Bahrain (over 1,456 mosques and 625 maatams), except for three which remain under study.”
In March, the Minister of Justice confirmed that maatams were considered places of worship and therefore exempt from paying utility bills.
In November, some commentators declared that a photograph in a 10th grade family education textbook promoting positive self-image and self-esteem deviated from Islamic values by promoting homosexuality. The photograph showed a boy looking in the mirror surrounded by hearts. Assistant Undersecretary for Curricula and Educational Supervision Ahlam al-Amer released a statement defending the photograph as linked to Islamic and educational values. Members of parliament unanimously voted to start a probe into alleged homosexual content in secondary schools and suspend the family education classes until the “offensive” content was removed.
The independent but government-affiliated King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence (King Hamad Centre) reported it offered student exchanges and educational programs centered on dispelling ignorance, discrimination, and intolerance, including religious intolerance. During the year, the center’s Cyber Peace Academy developed an online “interfaith dialogue tool” and mobile app, Growing Peace, for young persons to explore scenarios and case studies on themes of violence, discrimination, hate speech, racism, and religious rights. The King Hamad Centre’s Board of Trustees comprised representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.
The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students.
All students, regardless of religion, were eligible to participate in the Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP); the government did not provide a statistical breakdown of participants by religious affiliation. CPISP published a list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools on its website. Some Shia community leaders continued to state the MOE favored Sunni students in granting scholarships rather than distributing them based solely on student merit.
Human rights activists continued to report discrimination against Shia students in university scholarship distribution.
There were reports that the MOE refused to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students, a higher proportion of whom obtained degrees in China.
The government-run television station Bahrain TV broadcast Friday sermons from the country’s official Al-Fateh Mosque and other Sunni mosques, such as Sabeeka bint Ebrahim Mosque and Sabeeka al-Nusf Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques or clerics. Some Shia activists said this was discriminatory, while others said it was better not to be subject to government broadcasting restrictions. Many Shia mosques disseminated sermons via social media. A government-affiliated human rights monitoring organization said Shia prisoners could view Shia sermon videos on their mobile phones.
On February 6, Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of the dissolved Al-Wifaq political society, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who was stripped of his citizenship by the government in 2016 and had been living in Iran since 2018, issued a statement rejecting the restructuring of the Waqf directorates by royal decree, a move that subordinated the directorates to independent councils. He stated the move was “illegitimate” and “hostile” to Jaafari jurisprudence. Qassim also criticized the fact that the budget allocated to the Jaafari Waqf Directorate was dependent on the government. He characterized both actions as the government’s “manipulation” of the Jaafari Waqf. In April, Qassim issued a statement that said a new constitution was the only way to resolve the country’s divisions. In May, hundreds of supporters gathered at Qassim’s home village of Diraz on the anniversary of a 2017 police raid on his home that resulted in the deaths of two protestors.
While by law Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence were eligible to apply for citizenship, arbitrary implementation of the law from the application stage to approval remained a common criticism of both Shia and Sunni citizens, as well as migrant rights activists. The government stated foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to state the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing, while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, the continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance of the country’s citizens.
The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public sector employees, members of parliament, or ministers. According to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 19 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 19 members were Sunni Muslims. Following parliamentary elections in 2018, of 40 seats on the elected Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia. Five of the 22 cabinet members, including one of the four deputy prime ministers, were Shia.
According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to give Sunni citizens preference for government positions, especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service, military, and security services. They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. Few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes favored Sunni candidates.
Shia community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally. The MOLSD organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods.
The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the private sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year. Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination and therefore did not utilize them.
NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations, with some NGOs describing this as government overreach. NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.
On July 7, the government announced it had created a new medal for peaceful coexistence named after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to recognize leading personalities and international organizations supporting interfaith and coexistence in the country. The Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Centre said the medal would “contribute to enhancing regional and global awareness of the importance of respecting religions and accepting others to achieve peace and harmony among different peoples and societies.”
Media reported that on August 22, King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, participated in the celebration of the Hindu festival of Onam, where he said the observance confirmed the importance of dialogue and understanding in the country.
On September 13, Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments Shaikh Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, speaking during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Italy, highlighted the importance of establishing the rule of law without differentiating between persons of different beliefs.
The Baha’i World News Service and local media reported that on October 30, Hamad Centre chairman Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa and foreign diplomats attended a ceremony in Manama marking the centenary of the passing of Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921.
The government said developments connected to the signing of the Abraham Accords and to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel promoted tolerance and acceptance of Jews in Bahrain.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 164.1 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2013 government census, the most recent official data available, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus make up 10 percent. The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist. The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, animists, agnostics, and atheists. Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers of adherents to be between a few thousand and 100,000.
Ethnic minorities concentrated in the CHT and northern districts generally practice non-Islamic faiths. The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian, as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha. Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous 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. Human Rights Watch estimates approximately 1,500 Rohingya in the refugee settlements are Christians. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said approximately 400 refugees are Hindu, while activists and leaders on the ground say the number is closer to 550-600. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than one million Rohingya refugees have fled Burma in successive waves since the early 1990s. Since August 2017, approximately 769,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Burma have taken refuge in the country, bringing the total to more than 918,000. Nearly all who arrived during the 2017 influx sought shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar District.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion and bans religiously based political parties. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.
Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Digital Security Act, to charge individuals for acts perceived to be a slight to Islam. The Information and Communication Technology Act criminalizes several forms of online expression, including “obscene material,” “expression(s) likely to cause deterioration of law and order,” and “statements hurting religious sentiments.” The Digital Security Act likewise criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” by denying bail to detainees and increasing penalties on conviction of up to 10 years in prison.
The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of “destroying religious harmony,” the peaceful coexistence of religious communities, or creating discrimination on religious grounds.
Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB to approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB Director General has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation, or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence, Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence; the standards for these clearances are not specified.
Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying that the name being registered is not already taken, and providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; confirmation of security clearances for leaders of the organization from the National Security Intelligence; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; a work plan; a 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 not inherit property under family law. Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups occurs only 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 Muslim marriages are not registered. 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 not be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.
Religious studies are compulsory and are part of the curriculum for grades three through ten in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students are supposed to 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 that 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.
In response to the violence and destruction that occurred in October following a Facebook post that spurred attacks against Hindus, government officials at the highest levels, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, condemned the attacks and called the violence and destruction of Hindu temples and property un-Islamic. The Ministry of Religious Affairs donated building supplies and food packages to Hindu families, and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, in conjunction with the government, provided tents to displaced victims. To stop the further spread of violence, the government took action to remove postings from social media that it considered provocative, such as fake pictures that triggered attacks on Hindus. Some human rights organizations, however, said the government’s actions to arrest and charge thousands of individuals were overbroad and, in some cases, deliberately targeted political rivals. By October 26, police arrested 583 suspects for their roles in the violence and brought 102 criminal charges against 20,619 individuals, including the local man who first publicized the supposed desecration on Facebook. Authorities charged a Hindu youth under the Digital Security Act for alleged anti-Islamic speech he posted online October 17, which they said angered Muslims and led to anti-Hindu reprisals in the northwestern city of Rangpur. On October 20, the government announced formation of a National Human Rights Commission panel to investigate October 17 attacks on Hindu establishments in the Peergang area of the northwestern district of Rangpur. The government stationed border guard forces and Rapid Action Battalion units around the country to prevent violence and successfully maintained peace during the subsequent Hindu holiday, Diwali, on November 4.
Some Hindu community leaders said the actions the government took in response to the communal violence helped calm the situation. Other Hindu organizations disagreed, saying the government took insufficient measures to quell the violence and stated the government’s failure to punish perpetrators of previous periods of religious violence contributed to October’s events. When the Foreign Minister stated four Muslims and two Hindus died during the violence but neither Hindu died due to communal attacks and no temples were destroyed, Hindu organizations strongly protested, noting this contradicted other official government statements. The Bangladesh Hindu Law Reform Council said the Foreign Minister’s statement was an attempt to cover up anti-Hindu attacks, and some human rights activists said the Foreign Minister’s statement enabled further violence. One international Hindu organization said police stood by in many locations rather than protecting Hindus from mob violence, and that the government arrested several Hindu individuals, which the organization called “prisoners of conscience,” for sharing information about the ongoing violence on social media.
On February 10, a judge of the Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal in Dhaka sentenced to death eight Islamic militants for killing a publisher in 2015. Two of the eight sentenced men remained at large at year’s end. The tribunal convicted the men, members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam, of hacking to death Faisal Abedin Deepan, a publisher of books on secularism and atheism.
On February 16, a court sentenced five men to death and one to life in prison for the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy. The trial began in the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in April 2019 and was delayed several times due to COVID-19.
A special tribunal in Dhaka sentenced to death 14 members of the banned Harkak-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Islamist group on March 23 in a case involving a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2000. Prosecutors alleged the defendants, members of a group that was banned in 2005, planted a bomb at a political rally where Hasina was scheduled to address supporters the following day. Of the 14 sentenced, five remained fugitives at the end of the year.
On November 23, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty of Salauddin Salehin, a member of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who was convicted in the 2004 killing of Goni Gomez, a Christian convert from Islam, in Jamalpur. The Dhaka Speedy Trial Tribunal initially sentenced Salauddin to death in 2006.
On November 1, a tribunal in Rajshahi that handles cybercrimes sentenced three individuals to 10 years in prison under the Information and Communication Technology Act for sharing a satirical cartoon and comments the tribunal deemed obscene about the Prophet Muhammad in 2013 from a Facebook account. According to the prosecution, two of the convicted defendants allegedly shared a distorted picture of the Prophet on a Facebook account in the name of a Hindu man who had nothing to do with the posting. The third defendant then printed and sold copies of the cartoon to Muslim villagers. In response, local Muslims set on fire the home of the Hindu man. In addition to the three individuals sentenced to prison, authorities charged seven others in the wake of the incident, but the court acquitted them.
In April, police arrested more than 300 members of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam over deadly protests around the March visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Accusing Modi of stoking religious discrimination against Muslims in India, the group led violent protests across several districts during Modi’s two-day visit.
On February 25, Forest Department officials tore down a Sathirampara Seventh-day Adventist church in Bandarban District. The congregation was replacing the bamboo hut they had been using for many years with a more permanent brick building. A Forest Department official said the community did not have a permit to build on the land, and that in the village “there are only three or four Christian families; there is no need for a church.”
In October, the Bangladesh Cyber Tribunal formally charged Baul folk singer Rita Dewan with blasphemy stemming from a February 2020 incident when a lawyer accused her of making derogatory comments against Allah during a musical competition, for which she issued an apology afterward. Criminal charges were brought against Dewan that same month under the penal code and Digital Security Act, and a court issued a warrant for her arrest in December 2020. Dewan surrendered to authorities and was granted bail in January.
Human rights organizations reported an increase, compared with 2020, in the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions.” The incidence rose from eight cases in calendar year 2020, to 12 cases from January to November. One organization which closely tracked the issuance of these fatwas attributed the rise to a deterioration of law and order and unrest due to COVID-19.
Thousands of mosques, including Baitul Mukarram National Mosque in Dhaka, operated under the direct authority of the Islamic Foundation; imams and employees of those mosques were funded by the government. Mosques not overseen by the Islamic Foundation still operated with oversight from a governing committee that was dominated by local ruling party politicians and administration. Islamic leaders said the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and to provide guidance on the content of sermons to imams throughout the country. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. The government also instructed imams to denounce extremism. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy.
The BHBCUC said property-restitution cases were on hold, as tribunals and appellate tribunals were not in session from March 2020 to October 2021. According to the Ministry of Land’s 2018-2019 report, the most recent figures available, as of 2018, authorities had adjudicated 26,791 of 114,749 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 12,190 of the cases, recovering 10,255 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 14,791 cases. Media reports and rights activists attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.
Freedom House’s 2021 report assessed religious minorities remained underrepresented in politics and state agencies, and that members of ethnic and religious minority groups faced some discrimination under the law, as well as harassment and violations of their rights in practice.
Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of teachers for mandatory religious education classes for students of non-Islamic faiths. 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 22.4 billion taka ($260.47 million) for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which covers July 2021-June 2022. The budget included 19.35 billion taka ($225.0 million) allocated for development through autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 17.58 billion taka ($204.42 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 1.724 billion taka ($20.05 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 32 million taka ($372,000) from the allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the budget, it received 10.3 million taka ($120,000) to run its office. For comparison, in 2020, the ministry had a budget of 16.93 billion taka ($196.86 million), including 14.25 billion taka ($165.70 million) allocated for development through autonomous religious bodies. The government provided 8.12 billion taka ($94.42 million) for the Islamic Foundation, 1.435 billion taka ($16.69 million) for the Hindu Welfare Trust, 46.8 million taka ($544,000) for the Buddhist Welfare Trust, and seven million taka ($81,400) for the Christian Welfare Trust.
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 some involving the government, that remained unresolved at year’s end. Some human rights activists said it was often difficult to determine whether these disputes and evictions were a result of deliberate government discrimination against religious minorities or of government inefficiency. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In January, more than 1,000 ethnic Garo and Koch individuals, mostly Christians, rallied at a bus stop in Tangail to protest a notice from the Forest Department ordering them to vacate their ancestral lands in the Modhupur forest. According to minority religious associations, land disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriations for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups attributed the lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities. Indigenous groups in the CHT, in particular, have large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians. Some of these communities speak tribal languages and do not speak Bangla, making it difficult for them to access government services and further marginalizing these groups.
The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including during Diwali, Christmas, Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.
Due to COVID-19, President Abdul Hamid did not host his usual annual receptions to commemorate principal Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 287,000 (midyear 2021). According to the most recent census in 2010, approximately 76 percent of the population is Christian, including Anglicans (23.9 percent of the total population), Pentecostals (19.5 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5.9 percent), Methodists (4.2 percent), Roman Catholics (3.8 percent), Wesleyans (3.4 percent), Church of the Nazarenes (3.2 percent), and the Church of God (2.4 percent). Religious groups with 2 percent or less of the population each include Baptists, Moravians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other religious groups, together constituting less than 3 percent of the population, include Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha’is. Approximately 21 percent of respondents do not identify a religious affiliation. According to the leader of the Jewish community, many Jews are part-time residents or periodic visitors to the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion, and the prohibition of discrimination based on creed. A law criminalizing “blasphemous libel” is not enforced.
The government requires religious groups to register only to obtain duty-free import privileges and tax benefits. A religious group must file the relevant customs and tax forms with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office, along with a resolution passed by a majority of its board of trustees expressly authorizing the application, plus the group’s related statutory declaration.
The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. The government provides subsidies or financial assistance to some of these schools to help cover the cost of students who could not find space in a public school. The public school curriculum includes religious “values education” as part of the historic association of schools with Christian missionaries, who founded many of the schools. At the primary school level, the focus of religious instruction is nondenominational Christianity. At the secondary school level, all major religions are included. The constitution protects students from mandatory religious instruction, ceremony, or observance without personal consent or, if younger than 21, consent of parents or guardians.
By law, vaccinations for certain diseases are required for all school-age children attending both public and private schools, as well as those who are homeschooled. There are no exceptions for religious beliefs. The vaccination program is administered through the Ministry of Health, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. Homeschooled children must be registered with the Ministry of Education.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
No further legislative action occurred during the year on the government’s 2020 announcement to legalize same-sex civil unions or on holding a referendum on same-sex marriage, but some religious groups, including Anglican, Pentecostal and Seventh Day Adventists, continued to oppose the legislation. These organizations said there was a growing social acceptance of same-sex relationships, but said they were committed to following their beliefs and were opposed to the idea of their churches sanctioning same-sex relationships. Media reported sporadic small-scale protests, some organized by religious groups opposing the legalization of same-sex unions. In 2020, the government announced it would legalize same-sex civil unions, a decision criticized by most religious leaders.
To control COVID infections, the government continued to limit public gatherings, including attendance at in-person church services based on a church’s physical capacity. Most religious leaders continued to say that COVID-19 public health restrictions on gatherings, although applied equally in the country, adversely impacted their organization’s finances, limited their ability to conduct in-person services, and hampered their membership growth prospects. Several religious organizations reported they had successfully implemented online services to offset the public gathering limits. A leader of the Jewish community said that her organization connected with new members by conducting online services. Government officials continued to engage with religious leaders to support their public messaging to emphasize the importance of COVID-19 vaccinations.
In March, with the stated intention of making better use of police and court resources, among other reasons, the government decriminalized the personal possession and use of up to 14 grams of marijuana, a change in the law that the Rastafarian community supported. According to media, Attorney General Dale Marshall said that cannabis possession of 14 grams or fewer would result in a fine rather than criminal charges.
Rastafarians continued to object to the government’s vaccination requirement for school enrollment.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.4 million (midyear 2021). According to a 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration (the latest such data available), approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC, and 6 percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, 8 percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include Jews, Muslims (who number approximately 20,000), Greek Catholics (members of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church, also known as “Uniates”), Old Believers (priestist and priestless), members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans (approximately 1,500), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Most ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, are Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess or not to profess and spread any religious belief and to participate in acts of worship and religious rituals and rites that are not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. It also prohibits the creation of political parties or other associations, or political activities that propagate religious hatred. The constitution states the law shall determine conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute. It stipulates the state may grant asylum to persons persecuted in other states for their religious beliefs.
The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA), subordinate to the Council of Ministers, regulates all religious matters. The office takes part in drafting and implementing state policies on religious affairs, enforces and protects religious rights and freedom, monitors activities of religious organizations and compliance with their charters, regulates relations between the state and religious organizations, liaises with state agencies and religious organizations upon their request, promotes tolerance and mutual understanding between religious organizations of various faiths and nationalities, and researches dynamics and trends in interdenominational relations to prevent “religious exclusiveness” and disrespectful treatment of religions and nationalities. The executive committees of the country’s six regions and Minsk city have departments for ideology and youth engagement that include coverage of religious issues. These departments are independent from OPRRNA but share information with it. The plenipotentiary representative heading OPRRNA is appointed by and may be dismissed by the President, based on a nomination from the Council of Ministers.
The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an exarchate (affiliate) of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of four other religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Uniates, and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.
A concordat between the authorities and the BOC provides the Church with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although the concordat states that it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, it calls for the authorities and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies pursuant to presidential orders. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s Orthodox patron saint.
The concordat serves as the framework for at least a dozen cooperation agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies, including with the Ministries of Defense, Healthcare, and Information. There is also an agreement with the Ministry of Education through 2025 that provides for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.
The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons older than 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, and one of these communities must have been active in the country for at least 20 years. National-level religious associations have the ability to establish regional and local religious associations. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.
According to OPRRNA data, as of January 1, there were 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,395 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,714 religious communities, 15 dioceses, six schools, 35 monasteries, one mission, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. (The latter two are clergy-led lay organizations.) The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, six schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 499 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 13 denominations encompass 1,039 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 34 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 51 communities. There are 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – registered.
The national religious associations are the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.
To register, a religious community must submit an official application containing the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and confirmation from regional authorities of the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious community not previously registered by the authorities must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion, as well as its rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches toward marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.
Regional authorities, as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk), review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, and a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.
To register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and to organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities, except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.
The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The authorities may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The authorities may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law does not contain a provision for appealing a warning or suspension.
The law prohibits all religious activity by unregistered groups. Under the administrative code as amended on January 6, individuals may be fined up to 870 Belarusian rubles ($340) for organizing, running, or participating in unregistered religious organizations.
The housing code permits registered religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. Local authorities must certify that the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. The authorities do not grant such permission automatically, and the law prohibits religious groups from holding services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.
By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including when proselytizing.
The law penalizes organizing and participating in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Included in the definition of “mass event” are religious events held in places not especially intended for this purpose, whether in the open air or indoors. The law requires organizers to request permission from authorities to hold a mass event, including those involving religious groups, 15 days before the event. Some violations of the law prohibiting unauthorized mass events may be punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Authorities must inform organizers of a denial no later than five days before the event.
The authorities have a system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services required from organizers of mass events, including religious events held outside of religious premises and sites, rallies, competitions, cultural events, festivals, concerts, and similar occasions. Authorities cover costs associated with events that are officially sponsored at the local and national levels. A July 28 amendment requires organizers to sign contracts for services before applying for a permit to hold a mass event and reimburse all costs within 10 days.
The law requires all religious groups receive prior approval from the authorities to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.
Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for restitution to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of, or compensation for, seized property that is being used for cultural or sports purposes.
The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy but does not permit religious communities to do so.
The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is the only religious group to have such an agreement. Even with such an agreement in place, students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “Such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’s sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”
The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves, regardless of whether there is an agreement with the Ministry of Education. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.
The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.
The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. Military service typically lasts from six to eighteen months; alternative service can last up to 36 months. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.
Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign clergy may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. The authorities generally grant such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. If OPRRNA does not respond, permission is not granted. There is no provision for appeals.
By law, the authorities permit foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior permission from the authorities. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. Authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other state agencies, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country – a decision which may not be appealed.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, in response to peaceful protests following a 2020 presidential election that local and international civil society groups and governments stated was fraudulent, authorities responded with what most observers described as a brutal crackdown on what the regime stated were “unauthorized mass events.” The prodemocracy movement continued to peacefully call for an end to violent action by state security services, the unconditional release of all political prisoners, a facilitated national dialogue with civil society and the democratic forces, and new free and fair elections under international observation. The authorities punished clergy, along with others, who supported the prodemocracy movement. For example, on July 6, Roman Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok, based in the town of Rassony in the Vitsebsk region, wrote on social media that he had left the country after police threatened to search his office and confiscate computer equipment in follow-up to an earlier July 1 search at his home. Police reportedly charged Barok with repeatedly violating the law pertaining to mass events, under which they could have arrested him for up to 30 days and had summoned him for interrogation several times during the year for criticizing the Lukashenka regime’s response to protests.
According to the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, which focuses on religious freedom, on August 27, a Rechytsa district court fined Council of Churches member Andrei Tryfan, a Baptist, 580 rubles ($230) for holding an unauthorized baptism of his son in a lake on August 1 that was attended by 25 associates and family members. Reportedly, a person driving by took a photo and reported it to the police. In October, the Homyel Regional Court dismissed Tryfan’s appeal.
On October 20, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused a request from Russia to extradite Jehovah’s Witness and Russian citizen Oleg Lonshakov. Authorities detained Lonshakov in Brest in late September and told him Russia had requested his extradition for “organizing an extremist organization” and that he had been placed on the countries’ interstate wanted lists. Authorities released Lonshakov, who had requested political asylum in the country, following the prosecutor’s ruling. Information as to whether he was granted asylum was unavailable.
The authorities continued to harass individuals, including clergy, who expressed disagreement with the Lukashenka regime or criticized violence by agencies under its control. After sustained harassment and threat of punishment by the regime, many religious leaders and clergy reportedly chose to refrain from commenting on regime actions. The authorities stated remarks by religious leaders constituted interference in what they deemed to be political affairs.
According to Christian Vision, an independent Belarus-focused monitoring group, in January, the BOC dismissed Archpriest Siarhei Tsimashenkau, who headed the Synodal Missionary department, due to “alleged workload and other circumstances,” as well as the department’s member priest, Alyaksandr Kukhta. Father Kukhta spoke against the 2020 presidential election and ensuing postelection violence and provided religious services to hundreds of persons in Minsk detained for participating in the peaceful prodemocracy movement. Tsimashenkau criticized BOC Metropolitan Veniamin’s engagement with the Lukashenka regime.
In a televised interview on May 20, Metropolitan Veniamin urged clergy “to stay out of politics” and “set an example for other people,” and he also said, “While every person has a right to their own opinion, they also have the right to make a mistake.” Independent observers interpreted the comments to mean clergy should avoid political activity opposing the Lukashenka regime, as expressing antiregime opinions would be a mistake. He stated the BOC issued new guidelines to prohibit its clergy from engaging in what it deemed political events and expressing support for political groups. Speaking at an Easter event on May 2, Lukashenka lauded the BOC for its “courage and endurance,” and he called on the BOC to “continue to stand with the people”; independent political analysts said Lukashenka meant to imply the BOC stands with him.
According to independent media reports in June, the KGB handed the BOC a list of approximately 100 priests who purportedly engaged in political activity surrounding the prodemocracy movement in the country. The list included religious leaders or clergy who condemned human rights abuses by the authorities and supported fundamental freedoms and who were removed from office, demoted, or forced to retire, according to independent media reports. For example, on June 9, the Russian Orthodox Holy Synod in Moscow accepted a request from the BOC to retire the 69-year-old Archbishop Artsemi of Hrodna due to what the BOC said was his “health.” The Archbishop told Radio Free Europe on July 13 that the BOC’s request for his removal was an order from the authorities because “[the authorities] considered it necessary to deal with me.” In his sermons, Archbishop Artsemi had repeatedly condemned what he said was the falsification of the presidential election and the Lukashenka regime’s violence against protesters. He also did not take action against priests in his diocese who participated in unauthorized protests or other events not authorized by the regime.
According to Archbishop Artsemi, authorities accused him of “dividing society,” citing as an example a photo of the Archbishop next to a boy holding an Easter egg painted with a symbol associated with the opposition and prodemocracy movement. The Archbishop dismissed the complaint as “laughable” and said the authorities were “purging” the church of perceived dissenters. The Archbishop also said authorities had accused him of permitting the singing of Mahutny Bozha (“God Almighty”), a hymn that protesters adopted as a rallying song, in his parish.
According to Forum 18, in April, consistently proregime video bloggers harshly criticized Archbishop Artsemi for commissioning icons depicting 10 Orthodox bishops whom the Russian Orthodox Church had canonized after they were executed by Soviet secret police. The bloggers criticized the icons as “emanating hatred.”
After Archbishop Artsemi’s retirement and the appointment of his replacement, the Diocese of Hrodna removed or transferred several priests who had participated in protests or had helped protesters injured by police. One of these priests was Father Heorhi Roy, of Hrodna’s Orthodox Pakrouski Cathedral, who had expressed grief on the internet and from the cathedral’s pulpit regarding the authorities’ violence. The cathedral had also held regular prayers for an end to violence and for peace in the country. On July 20, the BOC sent Father Roy to serve in a small locality in the Hrodna region, which religious activists said was a punishment. On the same day, the BOC removed Archpriest Anatol Nenartovich from his position as Hrodna Diocese secretary. On July 22, the BOC removed Father Mikalay Haiduk from his post as the priest of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker Church of the Bishop’s Courtyard in Hrodna and later transferred him to a small town in the Hrodna region.
According to Christian Vision, the administration of the Minsk-based Theological Seminary dismissed teacher of philosophy and priest Father Uladzilau Bahamolnikau on August 30. Bahamolnikau publicly joined a hunger strike in solidarity with political prisoner Ihar Losik on January 19. Separately, the BOC dismissed Alena Ziankevich, head of the BOC’s Association of Charity Sisterhoods, on September 7. Ziankevich was reportedly associated with the prodemocracy movement following the August 2020 elections.
Protestant groups say they remained concerned about the authorities’ ability to prosecute unregistered religious organizations, although there were no reports authorities did so during the year.
Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which, they said, restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized administrative penalties such as fines against individuals for their religious beliefs while the groups were unregistered. The authorities’ guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad and their application arbitrary, they said, to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from disfavored groups.
Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering communities and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. In March and August, authorities in Lida rejected a registration application and an appeal from a local community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Some minority religious groups stated that they did not apply for registration because their members feared harassment by authorities and did not want to submit their names, as required by the application process. Other minority religious groups preferred to negotiate registration and other concerns with local authorities, but few registration attempts were made during the year. Some communities said they decided to postpone their registrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns related to gatherings.
Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of fear of prosecution and perceived regime hostility. Some registered religious communities said they were reluctant to report restrictions on their activities because they feared drawing attention to themselves.
From July to November, authorities across the country shut down approximately 300 NGOs, including some faith-based groups and those groups whose activities were widely supported by Protestant and other religious activists and volunteers. For example, in July, authorities in Orsha shut down the AIDS Care Education Training, an independent educational center supported by local Baptist and Pentecostal communities. Also in July, Mahilyou authorities shut down a private educational organization associated with the local community of members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, “Vedanta Veda,” alleging that its leader conducted illegal business activities.
According to Forum 18, in June, OPRRNA sent a letter instructing the BOC, the Roman Catholic Church, and Muslim and Jewish communities to hold an “all-Belarus prayer” in the format of a morning service, with the widest possible attendance, including public servants, and representatives of civil society, culture, and art in the framework of the “2021 Year of National Unity” on July 3, Independence Day. The opposition used the social media platform Telegram to publish leaked letters from various ministries, including Transport and Communications and Emergency Situations, ahead of the July 3 prayer, calling upon organizations subordinate to ministries and their officials to attend those services “in accordance with their religious affiliations” across the country. On July 3, the Ministry for Emergency Situations posted a video of approximately 50 uniformed officers attending a service at the BOC’s Assumption Church, in Vitsebsk. The Roman Catholic Church urged its parishes through a message on its official website on June 16 to “add prayers for unity and peace in our country if the opportunity arises” and “to sing the Mahutny Bozha, in which we ask Almighty God to save us and our land from all evil.”
According to human rights activists, authorities arbitrarily restricted access to prisons by clergy from October 2020 through June 30 to protect against COVID-19 infections. Former detainees reported, however, that authorities did not implement other basic pandemic protective measures within detention centers. For example, authorities deliberately placed prisoners with infected individuals as punishment, and withheld medical aid. Even after restrictions were lifted, prison administrators reportedly selectively denied clergy visits for certain detainees, including political prisoners. Officials continued to state these denials were related to COVID-19.
Opposition activist Paval Sevyarynets, recognized by human rights groups as a political prisoner, requested a pastoral visit by an Orthodox priest in writing at least five times between June 2020 and April 2021. His wife also requested a visit three times on his behalf. The authorities denied all requests while he was in pretrial detention. After he was sentenced to a seven-year jail term in May, authorities allowed a priest to speak to him only over the phone, separated by a glass panel, which barred him from communion or the privacy needed for a confession.
According to her family, Volha Zalatar, recognized by human rights groups as a political prisoner, repeatedly requested a pastoral visit by a Catholic priest after her detention in March. Catholic representatives also appealed on her behalf. The Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency, refused all requests. Authorities also prevented Zalatar’s mother from giving her a prayer book. On June 2, the authorities permitted Vatican Nuncio Archbishop Ante Jozic to visit Zalatar due to his status as a diplomat.
According to Forum 18, prison authorities arbitrarily and forcibly confiscated necklaces with crosses from some detainees upon their arrest. Christian Vision reported that Vitsebsk resident Dzmitry Karneyenka said that while he was serving several days of detention in January and February for allegedly violating the law on mass events, the prison administration took away his cross.
Many prisons maintained designated Orthodox religious facilities that BOC clergy were allowed to visit through the year, and some prison administrations selectively allowed different Protestant denominations to hold religious meetings for inmates.
The authorities strove to censor the pan-Christian hymn “Mahutny Bozha,” and they harassed and punished religious leaders, clergy, event organizers, and laypeople who sang or allowed or supported the singing of the hymn. The hymn became linked to the country’s post-Soviet national revival in the early 1990s, when it was proposed (unsuccessfully) as the national anthem, and it had been sung routinely by both religious communities and pro-opposition individuals since then. After the 2020 presidential election, civil society and the prodemocracy movement adopted it as an unofficial anthem and prayer, including during protests. According to Roman Catholic activists, believers did not sing the hymn during public masses or the annual pilgrimage to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Basilica in Budslau on July 3, because authorities reportedly told organizers they would face reprisals if they did.
On July 7, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Minsk-Mahilyou Yuri Kasabutski reported that on July 4, police visited the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral in Minsk to notify clergy they had purportedly violated laws by singing “Mahutny Bozha.” Kasabutski told the press police could not cite any legal statutes prohibiting the hymn and had issued no formal warnings. He linked the visit, however, with Lukashenka’s July 2 and 3 remarks that the Roman Catholic Church would face reprisals if it allowed the continued singing of “Mahutny Bozha” in churches. Lukashenka stated the hymn was associated with Nazi collaborators and was used “to destroy the sacred statehood” and “reverse history by justifying [the collaboration of] their grandfathers.”
On August 30, independent media reported that local authorities canceled the biannual Christian music festival called “Mahutny Bozha,” which was scheduled to have been held in August. While authorities cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason, independent media commentators and local observers connected the denial with Lukashenka’s July 2 and 3 remarks.
According to observers, authorities continued surveillance of registered and unregistered religious groups. The sources stated that “ideology officers” and other representatives of the Lukashenka regime continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups, including in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. For example, prosecutors and ideology officers inspected Roman Catholic churches across the country after authorities opened a criminal case against several leaders of the nonregistered Union of Poles on March 25. Officials reportedly inquired about plans, operations, and activities of parishes and communities.
Authorities, including the security forces, reportedly continued to hold occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment. According to these religious leaders, security officials monitored religious groups for activities or speech perceived as indicating support for the opposition or dissatisfaction with the authorities.
Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to their perceptions that they could face intimidation or punishment.
According to media accounts, the BOC was free to proselytize without restrictions on television and in print media as well as in public spaces.
The Mahilyou prison reportedly refused to allow political prisoners to subscribe to the monthly newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vitsebsk, among other independent publications, from July to December, according to Christian Vision. Some families of political prisoners reportedly said that as of September 23, inmates were informed they would no longer be allowed to choose which newspapers and magazines to subscribe to, as internal prison regulations had been changed to give to prison administrators what had been an exclusive right of the inmates.
State radio station Belarus One aired a Sunday Mass at the Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral in Minsk on April 11 and resumed broadcasts of the cathedral’s weekly Sunday masses on November 28 after discontinuing them in August 2020.
Authorities continued to deny the Catholic station Radio Mariya permission to broadcast via radio but did not interfere with the station’s internet broadcasts.
According to several local Protestant groups, communities chose not to pursue many new purchases or rentals of properties as places of worship during the year, partially due to the political situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Many communities reported, however, that they did not face impediments to purchases or rentals of nonsanctioned places of worship. Some religious communities with outstanding property cases, such as the Roman Catholic “Red Church” and the evangelical New Life Church in Minsk, continued to engage with the authorities and the legal system to resolve them. Converting residential property for religious use remained difficult. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups because they were less likely to own religious facilities, and that they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.
The Saint Simon and Helena Roman Catholic parish continued to use its existing church building (the “Red Church”). The building was expropriated during the Soviet period and the authorities retained title to it despite continued efforts by churchgoers to return ownership of the property to the church. Given the property’s disputed status, the parish continued to refuse to pay rent, utilities, or land and property taxes or for 2018-19 renovation work for which Minsk city authorities billed it in 2020. By May, according to authorities, the parish was in arrears exceeding 400,000 rubles ($157,000), and the city continued to bill the parish more than 12,000 rubles ($4,700) monthly. In June, St. Simon and Helena Church community members collected more than 20,000 signatures on a petition for the authorities to return title to the building to the church. At year’s end, the authorities had not responded to the petition.
On February 17, police, authorities forced open the doors of the New Life Church (NLC) during prayer services and evicted its congregation from its building. Authorities allowed the community to remove its property but barred the community from any further access to the church. Authorities also fined NLC Senior Pastor Vyachaslau Hancharenka for not allowing bailiffs to enter the church on January 5. Hancharenka said Minsk and national authorities made it clear in a series of meetings that they would not return the church building to NLC, and that alternative rental facilities offered by the city were either too small or too expensive. Authorities also said they would not approve NLC’s purchase of land on which to build a new church until the community paid land taxes, which totaled approximately 450,000 rubles ($177,000) as of July. Although religious groups are exempt from land taxes, the building used by the church was owned by district housing authorities, who argued the NLC had to pay the land taxes per a 2009 court ruling that transferred ownership of the building to the city and denied the NLC’s appeal of an earlier eviction order. The church’s building was the subject of a longstanding property dispute with city authorities. The NLC bought the building in 2002. Local authorities, however, had refused to allow the NLC to officially convert the building into a church, starting a series of legal appeals. In addition, authorities said they would not pay NLC for the costs it incurred in converting the vacated building from a cow barn into a church.
The NLC began holding weekly Sunday services in the parking lot outside its former building immediately following its eviction. On July 23, however, Minsk police told participants they could be held liable for holding an unauthorized mass event. The city repeated the warning to Hancharenka on August 5, saying he could be held criminally liable. At year’s end, the community continued to hold services in the parking lot, and authorities had not pressed charges against Hancharenka or NLC members.
According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the regime. School administrators continued to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of Church facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.
On January 11, Lukashenka signed a decree allocating 1.43 million rubles ($562,000) from reserve funds to cover salaries of professors and employees, as well as stipends for students, of the BOC’s seminaries. As in previous years, Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church said their schools did not receive any financial support from the authorities.
On August 23, the Council of Ministers issued an order approving voluntary weekly classes on “Spiritual and Moral Culture and Patriotism” for middle school students. According to the order, the purpose of the classes was “to shape the spiritual and moral ethics and patriotism of students based on Christian traditions and values of the Belarusian people.” The material the courses covered focused on Russian Orthodox Church history and traditions and did not mention other religious groups, according to publicly available syllabi of the courses.
BOC dioceses signed several agreements with regime institutions in their respective regions of the country. For example, on October 21, Polatsk State University and the BOC Diocese of Polatsk signed a cooperation agreement allowing BOC clergy to lead or participate in classes. The authorities also encouraged student participation in BOC events. On October 12, Hrodna Medical University and the BOC Diocese of Hrodna signed a similar cooperation agreement covering 2021-2025.
On May 21, the BOC signed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Internal Affairs that was intended to prevent drug use and drug trafficking among youth. At the signing ceremony, BOC Metropolitan Venyamin said the agreement would be implemented jointly by the Healthcare and Education ministries, as well as with state media outlets and public associations.
Unlike other religious groups, the BOC continued to participate in the majority of state-sponsored public events, such as rallies or celebrations, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. For example, on July 2, BOC Metropolitan Venyamin participated in the annual Independence Day commemoration, along with Lukashenka, military veterans, public officials, soldiers, civil society representatives, and residents of Brest. In addition, regional authorities and state-run companies often included BOC representatives in their events. On March 12, for example, BOC Metropolitan Venyamin held a prayer service and blessed three airplanes owned by national airline Belavia, marking the company’s 25th anniversary. On August 9, the Metropolitan held a service at a church located at a riot police detachment near Minsk and met with officers. Human rights organizations and local prodemocracy activists criticized such public engagements with riot police due to what they said were the police forces’ widespread abuses against peaceful demonstrators following the 2020 presidential election. On September 1, the Metropolitan and Healthcare Minister Dzmitry Pinevich participated in a ceremony launching the academic year at Minsk Medical University.
Authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public venues as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. The groups said they faced harassment and possible detention if they tried to raise donations at other locations.
On July 19, the BOC signed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry for Emergency Situations under which the two organizations would streamline activities that would reinforce “spirituality and traditional moral values among officers” and also improve “interethnic communication” and their “quality and efficiency” at work.
On March 25, the BOC and the National Academy of Sciences signed a 2021-2025 plan of joint activities that included plans for scientific conferences, seminars, roundtables, exhibitions, and research work.
In public remarks on July 6, regarding the need to investigate and raise awareness of Nazi war crimes, Lukashenka said the country should follow the example of “the Jews,” who got “the whole world to bow before them” and “to be afraid to point a finger at them.”
On September 7 the state-owned newspaper Minskaya Prauda published a caricature on its front page showing Roman Catholic priests wearing pectoral crosses that progressively changed shape into a swastika and singing “Mahutny Bozha” while holding a flag associated with the opposition. Senior Roman Catholic Church leaders, including Bishop Yuri Kasabutski and Spokesperson of the Roman Catholic Church Yuri Sanko, condemned the article and said it insulted “millions of Catholics” in the country. On September 9, Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei met with Apostolic Nuncio Jozic, who said afterwards that the authorities did “not support any actions to incite religious hatred.” Independent observers viewed Makei’s meeting as an attempt to defuse the situation. In September, Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs Alyaksandr Rumak wrote to Bishop of Vitsebsk Aleh Butkevich, the head of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, that the caricature did not reflect official state policy, but he urged the Church to “follow the law” and cooperate with authorities in order to preserve interfaith peace and harmony in the country. On October 15, the Minsk regional police department said it had determined Minskaya Prauda had not violated any laws. The Ministry of Information did not cite the newspaper for hate speech and recommended only that the outlet take “measures to avoid similar publications in the future.”
Religious groups said the regime continued to apply visa regulations inconsistently, which affected the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. Authorities maintained a burdensome visa application process but, contrary to past years, did not cancel visas for clergy. Authorities refused to extend the six-month religious permit of a Full Gospel pastor, which was required to allow him to continue serving in a leadership position of a parish. The pastor, a Russian citizen, held a permanent residence permit in the country and was allowed to remain in Belarus. In general, Russian citizens do not need visas to enter Belarus but are required to obtain residence permits to live and work in the country long-term. In addition, all foreign clergy working in Belarus are required to obtain religious permits to serve in leadership positions at religious institutions and conduct religious duties.
Roman Catholic bishops continued to state that foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including a lengthy approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; and visas often issued for only three to six months. In December, however, local bishops reported that contrary to prior years, authorities renewed all requested visa applications that had previously been submitted or were pending review.
According to sources in the Roman Catholic community, authorities continued to refuse Klemens Werth, a Catholic priest from Russia, permission to engage in religious work. He was allowed to remain in Vitsebsk to continue building a new church, but since he was a foreigner, he was banned from celebrating Mass or otherwise serving in church.
The Jewish community and foreign donors worked with local authorities to erect seven privately funded monuments and five plaques that commemorated victims of the Holocaust at sites of mass killings in the villages of Yasen and Telekhany, the towns of Kletsk, Motal, and Ivanava, and other locations in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.8 million (midyear 2021). According to the most recent survey in December 2018 by the GESIS-Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, 57.1 percent of residents are Roman Catholic, 2.3 percent Protestant, 2.8 percent other non-Orthodox Christian, 6.8 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 0.6 percent Orthodox Christian, 0.3 percent Jewish, 0.3 percent Buddhist, 9.1 percent atheist, 20.2 percent “nonbeliever/agnostic,” and 0.5 percent “other.” A 2015 study by the Catholic University of Louvain estimated that 42.2 percent of Muslims reside in Flanders, 35.5 percent in Brussels, and 22.3 percent in Wallonia. According to Catholic University of Louvain sociologist Jan Hertogen, based on 2015 data, 24.2 percent of the Brussels population and 7.5 percent of the Antwerp population is Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of worship, including its public practice, and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be required to participate in any religious group’s acts or ceremonies or to observe the group’s religious days of rest, and it bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of clergy (according to law, to qualify clergy must work in recognized houses of worship and be certified by those religious groups), as well as those of representatives of organizations recognized by the law as providing moral assistance based on a nonconfessional philosophy.
The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation. Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. Discrimination based on Jewish descent is distinguished from discrimination against Jewish religious practices. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison. Courts have interpreted that an antiracism law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, skin color, ancestry, national origin, or ethnicity may be applied to cases of antisemitism.
The government officially recognizes Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and secular humanism.
The law does not define requirements to obtain official recognition. The Ministry of Justice specifies the legal basis for official recognition. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection to parliament, which votes on the application. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend granting recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.
The law requires each officially recognized religious group to have an official interlocutor, such as an office composed of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of the religious curriculum in schools, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.
The federal and regional governments provide financial support for officially recognized religious groups. Federal government subsidies include direct payment of clergy salaries and pensions, while regions subsidize maintenance and equipment costs for facilities and places of worship, as well as clergy housing, and oversee finances and donations when the legal exemption amount is exceeded. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Parent religious groups distribute subsidies according to their statutes, which may also include salaries to ministers and public funding for renovation or facility maintenance. Unrecognized religious groups may worship freely and openly but do not receive the subsidies that recognized groups do. In addition, the law stipulates a separate federal government subsidy for three organizations: the Belgian Muslim Executive, the Secular Central Council, and the Belgian Buddhist Union. Although the Buddhist Union receives this separate subsidy, the government has not officially recognized Buddhism as a religious group.
There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to apply to obtain recognition and federal subsidies. To do so, a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and receive final approval by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, and certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from lower taxes but not government subsidies. Individual houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.
The Flemish government has a policy of conducting enhanced security screening for possible radicalization of imams or worshippers and against foreign influence at mosques, including by requiring all religious communities and places of worship to submit to a four-year probation period prior to official recognition. This policy applies to all places of worship regardless of religion.
There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Individuals wearing face coverings that cover all or part of the face in public are subject to a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($160). In addition, the penal code stipulates violators may be sentenced to a maximum of seven days’ imprisonment.
Outside of the Brussels region, which still allows ritual slaughter without stunning, the law prohibits the slaughter of animals without prior stunning. The legislation does not prevent halal and kosher meat from being imported from abroad.
By longstanding practice rather than law, the government bans the wearing of religious symbols by employees in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public. The ban does not apply to teachers of religion in public schools.
The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. All public schools offer religious or “moral” instruction oriented toward citizenship and moral values. Outside of Flanders, these courses are mandatory; parents in schools in Flanders may have their children opt out of such courses. Francophone schools offer a mandatory one-hour per week “philosophy and citizenship” course plus an additional one-hour mandatory course on either philosophy and citizenship or one of the recognized religions, based on a constitutional court ruling.
Schools provide teachers, clerical or secular, for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The degree of religious expression varies but must follow a principle of “neutrality.” Because “neutrality” is not defined explicitly in the constitution in the context of religious expression, most state-funded institutions follow one of two principles: “inclusive neutrality,” where individuals must remain neutral in their behavior but may wear religious symbols, or “exclusive neutrality,” where there is a total ban on religious attire. In either case, the education provided outside of the religious classes must remain neutral.
Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools (limited to schools operated by recognized religious groups), known as “free” schools, follow the same curriculum as public schools but may place greater emphasis on specific religious classes. Teachers at these religious schools are civil servants, and their salaries, as well as subsidies for the schools’ operating expenses, are paid for by the respective linguistic community, municipality, or province.
Unia is a publicly funded independent agency responsible for reviewing discrimination complaints, including those of a religious nature, and attempting to resolve them through mediation or arbitration. The agency lacks legal powers to enforce resolution of cases but may refer them to the courts.
The federal justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and oversee their prosecution, including those involving religion, as a criminal act.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, according to Justice Minister Van Quickenborne and reported by media outlet La Libre, mosque applications for government recognition stagnated due to changes in the leadership of the Muslim Executive and an announced internal restructuring of the organization, as well as unfavorable decisions by intelligence services following the review of some mosques’ applications. Some observers continued to state that a number of mosques opted not to seek official recognition because they received sufficient foreign funding and preferred to operate without government oversight. Some observers stated the lengthy, bureaucratic process of obtaining recognition also acted as a deterrent.
On June 4, the Flemish government approved a decree to resume accepting and reviewing applications for recognition by religious houses of worship that then regional Interior Minister Liesbeth Homans had suspended in 2017. In 2020, a senior Flemish government official estimated there were 50-100 local places of worship with pending applications for recognition, some dating back to the 2017 moratorium. Local media reported in June that in the province of Antwerp alone, 31 mosques were awaiting official recognition.
On June 9, Flemish Minister of Civic Integration Bart Somers withdrew the recognition of a Pakistani mosque in Antwerp due to what he said was its failure to meet the criteria of social value. Somers stated the mosque disrupted social cohesion and had insufficient support within the community. According to the civil intelligence service, Surete d’Etat, the mosque had faced internal disputes since 2013, which in some cases required police intervention. On October 18, Somers withdrew recognition of the De Koepel Mosque in Antwerp for what he said was a failure to meet administrative obligations, such as providing annual accounts, budget, and board meeting records.
According to local media and academics, recognition applications by eight mosques in the Brussels-Capital region remained pending. Minister of Justice Van Quickenborne denied recognition to the Great Mosque of Brussels in December 2020 after a negative report from Surete d’Etat. The Surete cited what it described as questionable ties to Moroccan authorities.
At year’s end, there were 87 recognized mosques, the same number as at the end of 2020 – 39 in Wallonia, 27 in Flanders, and 21 in Brussels. The Belgian Muslim Executive estimated there were a total of 300 mosques in the country, both recognized and unrecognized.
In January, the deputy head of the Muslim Executive, Salah Echallaoui, resigned after Minister of Justice Van Quickenborne accused him of mismanagement; he was subsequently replaced by Noureddine Smaili. On January 27, the Muslim Executive reported that an internal evaluation found several of its members had ties to extremist movements and networks. The organization subsequently announced it would undergo internal restructuring. On October 6, Justice Minister Van Quickenborne requested an investigation to be led by Surete d’Etat into the operations of the Muslim Executive, since, he said, it had failed to make progress restructuring. On October 19, several media outlets quoted President of the Muslim Executive Mehmet Ustun stating that he was considering renouncing state subsidies due to excessive “political meddling.” In response, Van Quickenborne threatened to withdraw state funding for the Muslim Executive, which amounts to 500,000 euros ($567,000) per year, if the organization failed to comply with the government’s conditions for maintaining official recognition – greater transparency, reduced concentration of power among a small group of persons within the organization, and elimination of foreign influence. On December 16, during a plenary session of the House of Representatives, Van Quickenborne stated that the “current circumstances” of foreign influence and mismanagement within the Muslim Executive could justify cutting it off from subsidies in 2022, and he urged the executive to institute reforms.
An application from the Belgian Hindu Forum for the government to recognize Hinduism as a religion, submitted in 2013, remained pending, as did its application to receive a government subsidy. There were no other pending requests by religious groups.
In March, the Ghent Correctional Court ruled against the Kraainem Jehovah’s Witness congregation, finding it guilty of inciting discrimination and inciting hatred or violence against former members of the congregation and fining it 12,000 euros ($13,600). The Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the group in 2020 following a five-year investigation based on a complaint by a former member of the congregation, Patrick Haeck, who said he had been shunned after he exposed a case of sexual abuse.
Although the ban on face coverings remained unchanged, police did not enforce the law in the context of COVID-19.
On January 27, media reported that the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Sammy Mahdi, said he had ordered a Turkish imam to leave the country within 30 days for making homophobic remarks. The man, who was the imam of the Green Mosque in the Flemish municipality of Houthalen-Helchteren and a member of the Belgian branch of the Turkish religious authority Diyanet, reportedly posted the comments on the mosque’s and his personal Facebook pages. Mahdi stated that the imam’s comments could incite hate and “harm public order or national security” and refused to renew his residence permit. On April 23, Mahdi’s cabinet confirmed via a press release that the imam had left Belgium. At the same time, Flemish Minister for Civic Integration Somers began procedures to remove the recognition of the mosque due to what he said were discriminatory messages against the LGBTQI+ community on its Facebook page. At year’s end, the government continued to recognize the mosque.
In January, the city of Charleroi approved a construction project for a mosque in its municipality of Lodelinsart after a second public comment period, which the city opened in 2020 after approving the project in 2019. However, in June, Walloon Minister for Urbanism Willy Borsus denied a construction permit for the mosque, citing parking and noise concerns.
On March 8, media reported that a mosque in Court-St-Etienne had been completed. The project was approved in 2018 after four construction permit rejections.
In a newspaper interview, Mayor of Antwerp Bart De Wever stated that the city’s historic community of Orthodox Jews risked bringing a “wave of antisemitism” upon themselves because of noncompliance with COVID-19 social distancing and testing requirements. De Wever threatened to close one synagogue for violation of COVID-19 restrictions, stating that police had raided the synagogue twice on the Sabbath, evicting 37 persons in one incident and 22 persons in the other. A spokesperson in Antwerp for the Forum of Jewish Organizations called De Wever’s criticism of the Jewish community “undiplomatic,” but added that the mayor was “a close and good friend of the Jewish community.”
In October, the Constitutional Court rejected the appeals launched by Muslim and Jewish associations against the ban on animal slaughter without stunning in Flanders and Wallonia. The office of the Central Israelite Consistory of Belgium (the official representative of the Jewish community in dealings with the government) unanimously decided to lodge an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights against the decision rendered by the court. Representatives of the Islamic faith, the Muslim Executive, and the Coordination Council of Islamic Institutions in Belgium said they were also considering an appeal.
A large slaughterhouse performing kosher and halal slaughter continued to operate in Brussels, where slaughter without prior stunning remained permitted, but it could not accommodate all requests, particularly during religious holidays. The Brussels government said it had no policy on animal slaughter without prior stunning. In February, Brussels Minister for Animal Welfare Bernard Clerfayt held discussions on the subject with Muslim and Jewish leaders in Brussels who followed halal and kosher practices, as well as with animal welfare organizations. Sources stated that Clerfayt had been due to present a draft ordinance to the Brussels Council of Ministers in October that would prohibit the slaughter of animals without prior stunning, including for religious reasons, but he had not done so by year’s end.
On January 9, national media reported that, in a civil case, the Antwerp Court of First Instance ruled that the Antwerp-based NGO Mothers for Mothers, which stated its aim was to assist families and mothers in financial difficulties, was guilty of discrimination for refusing aid to veiled women. The organization allowed veiled women to access only the entrance hall to its offices, excluding them from the rest of the premises. The court ruled that the association had to remove the restrictions on veiled women or incur a penalty of 500 euros ($570) for each documented violation. On January 15, the association closed its building in Antwerp to avoid complying with the court order. A notice on the building door stated that the association deemed the court ruling “incomprehensible.”
During the year, the government appointed Ihsane Haouch, who wears a hijab, as government commissioner to the Institution for the Equality of Women and Men.
In May, the Brussels Labor Court found the Brussels-based public transportation company STIB/MIVB guilty of gender and religious discrimination after a Muslim woman was denied interviews for jobs at the company for wearing a religious head covering. The court ordered the company to end its policy of “exclusive neutrality,” which bans all outward display of religious symbols and ruled that it disproportionately affected Muslim women. In June, following internal discussions, the Brussels government announced it would not appeal this decision. In a press release, Brussels authorities highlighted the “importance of the principle of neutrality of staff in the organization of public services” and called on parliament to hold a debate on the issue.
In February, the Ghent public prosecutor’s office called for the criminal prosecution of nine members of the youth movement Schild & Vrienden (Shield and Friends), commonly characterized as far right in Flemish and Francophone news media, for violating the antiracism law. The accused included Dries Van Langenhove, a founder of Schild & Vrienden and a Member of Parliament for the Flemish political party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), commonly characterized as extreme right. The public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation in 2018 after public broadcaster VRT documented antisemitic, anti-Muslim, xenophobic, racist, and sexist messages exchanged by the members in an online chat room. Some of the individuals were also accused of Holocaust denial. On December 28, the media outlet De Morgen reported that procedural issues in the case had arisen following accusations of a lack of impartiality by investigating judge Annemie Serlippens. Serlippens subsequently resigned, and Van Langenhove’s lawyer requested that the evidence obtained through her investigation be declared null and void. The Ghent Chamber of Indictments rejected this request. At year’s end, the case had not been referred to the criminal court.
On September 1, the government ended Operation Vigilan Guardian (OVG), which since 2015 had provided domestic military protection in the face of increased terror threats. With the change, responsibility for protection of Antwerp’s Jewish quarter shifted from the military to the Antwerp municipal police, although Antwerp Mayor De Wever stated on multiple occasions that his municipality lacked the resources to protect the Jewish quarter. According to media, the Antwerp police department would need to expand significantly to meet the increased security requirement. Community members stated publicly that they felt less secure due to the end of OVG. They said the military had withdrawn the military protection because the government assessed the threat to the Jewish community was a tier lower than it had been several years earlier when the threat had been rated at the highest of four possible tiers. Community members expressed concern that police might provide less effective security because, unlike the military, the police could be called away. On Jewish high holy days, the city assigned extra police to protect synagogues and other sites.
Police continued to offer a voluntary, day-long course, “The Holocaust, the Police, and Human Rights,” at the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, site of a Holocaust museum and memorial.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 406,000 (midyear 2021). According to the 2010 census, the most recent, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious group, accounting for 40 percent of the population. Protestants make up 32 percent, including Pentecostals (8 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5 percent), Anglicans (5 percent), Mennonites (4 percent), Baptists (4 percent), Methodists (3 percent), the Church of the Nazarene (3 percent), and the Salvation Army. Jehovah’s Witnesses make up 2 percent of the population, while other religious groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Rastafarians, Baha’is, and Soka Gakkai together constitute 11 percent. Approximately 15 percent of the population does not affiliate with one of these religious organizations.
No religious group is a majority in any of the country’s six districts. Catholics reside throughout the country. Mennonites and Pentecostals reside mostly in the rural areas of the Cayo and Orange Walk Districts.
The 2010 census lists 577 Muslims in the country. This number does not include the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat group, which according to its leaders, numbers fewer than 160 individuals. Some members of indigenous groups, including the Maya and the Garifuna, practice traditional folk religious rituals.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The preamble to the constitution acknowledges “the supremacy of God.” The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. It also provides for freedom, either alone or in community with others, to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It states that no one may be compelled to take an oath contrary to one’s religion or belief. The constitution also stipulates religious groups may establish places of education and states that “no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community.” A rarely enforced law limits speech that is deemed “blasphemous or indecent.”
By law, the BCC, a board that includes representatives from several major Christian denominations, and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC) alternate in appointing the church senator to the Senate, with the Governor General’s concurrence. The BCC includes the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches, as well as the Salvation Army, the Chinese Christian Mission, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. The BAEC includes evangelical Protestant groups, the Church of Christ, and the Assembly of God Church, but it excludes the NEAB, which separated in 2015 due to political differences. The church senator also represents non-Christian groups, which participate in the church senator’s activities but have chosen not to play a role in the senator’s appointment.
By law, the church senator provides advice on public policy affecting the political positions of religious groups. This senatorial seat places the political interests of religious leaders on par with three other senators, who are appointed to represent labor unions, the business community, and the NGO community, respectively. The Senate is the upper chamber of the country’s two-part National Assembly; members of the House of Representatives run for election, while senators are appointed.
The law requires all religious groups to register with the official Companies Registry in the Ministry of the Attorney General the same way a business would register. Registration allows a religious organization to operate legally in the country; receive state recognition; negotiate, sue, and be sued; own property; hire employees; and lend or borrow money. There is a one-time registration fee of 295 Belize dollars ($150) and a yearly fee of five Belize dollars ($2.50). Requirements for registration include a memorandum of association with the government delineating the group’s objective and mission, an article of association, and a letter from the Central Bank if the organization has foreign financial contributors. The government may shut down the facilities of groups that do not register.
The government does not levy property taxes on churches and other places of worship. Other church-owned buildings occupied on a regular basis, such as clergy residences, are not tax-exempt. Religious organizations may also partner with the state to operate schools, hospitals, and other charitable organizations and, depending on funding availability, receive financial assistance from the government.
The public school curriculum includes weekly nondenominational “spirituality” classes incorporating morals and values. Government-supported church-run schools may teach lessons on world religions for students from kindergarten through high school as part of social studies curricula. These church-run schools also offer separate religious education classes that are specific to their own faith. While there is no official rule governing a student’s ability to opt out of either of these classes, parents may decide their children will not attend. The constitution prohibits any educational institution from obligating a child to attend any religious ceremony or observance.
Due to insufficient government funds and pre-independence agreements, Christian churches manage most public elementary schools, high schools, and some colleges. Churches comanage, along with the government, approximately 60 percent of primary schools, 40 percent of high schools, and 50 percent of colleges. Churches that comanage educational institutions include the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist, Nazarene, Salvation Army, evangelical Protestant, Presbyterian, Muslim, Pentecostal, and Mennonite Churches. Schools routinely observe Christian and other religious holidays at the schools’ discretion. Non-Christian religious groups run a few schools, such as the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize City. All schools, public and private, must incorporate the national education curriculum and adhere to government regulations under the monitoring of the Ministry of Education.
The law grants respect for inmates’ religious beliefs, and inmates may participate in religious activities in prison. Religious leaders may request use of the chapel inside the facility and offer religious services to inmates. The law prohibits prison authorities from requiring unnecessary work by prisoners on Sunday and other major Christian holidays (Christmas and Good Friday) and by prisoners recorded as belonging to other religions on their recognized days of religious observance. The law allows the provision of religious scriptures and other books of religious observance to prisoners. Authorities allow inmates to communicate with religious officiants via mail.
To enter the country and proselytize, foreign religious workers require a multi-entry visa, which costs 100 Belize dollars ($50) and is valid for one year. Applicants must also purchase a religious worker’s permit, costing 50 Belize dollars ($25). The visas are renewable on an annual basis. Visa information questions include an applicant’s intended length of stay, location of service, funding availability for activity, and specific purpose. Members of all religious groups are eligible to obtain visas. While a group does not need to be locally registered, a recommendation by a locally registered religious group lends more credibility to the visa request, according to local authorities.
The Belize Defense Force retains a nondenominational chaplain and space for religious observance. With the prior consent of authorities, any religious group may use the space for worship.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In January, the NEAB expressed disappointment about the government’s proposal to legalize marijuana, stating the government had disregarded moral boundaries for “mere economic benefit.” The NEAB said it found it to be “shockingly offensive that in a national pandemic crisis” the new administration would put forward this proposal in its first 100 days. The NEAB urged the government to “exercise intelligence and creativity” in finding other beneficial industries for the country. On July 2, the government introduced a bill to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act, which would authorize the legalization of marijuana. The bill sought to establish a provision for the licensing and registration of enterprises operating in the cannabis industry that would allow persons to cultivate, process, distribute, and deliver cannabis for adult use. In October, the NEAB stated it was “deeply concerned” that government involvement in the marijuana business meant the official promotion of marijuana use and development. NEAB officials said they had been voicing their concerns to the Minister of Home Affairs and New Growth Industries Kareem Musa but were still waiting for a formal meeting. The BCC also expressed concern that the government did not “seek and consider input on important moral and societal issues.”
The BCC said that legalizing the cultivation and distribution of marijuana would encourage widespread use of the drug, causing effects on the human body, particularly young people, and was “not a path civil society should choose to take.” In response, Minister Musa said the bill was intended to regulate an already existing industry and, after meeting with the BCC, he said that requirements in the law would prevent the easy accessibility of marijuana to minors. At year’s end, the bill remained pending before parliament.
In July, the BCC expressed “major concern” that actions of the government “further eroded and undermined the Church’s faith” in the existing church-state relationship. The BCC pointed to a statement Prime Minister Briceno made in July blaming the leadership of religious schools for a 10 percent reduction in teachers’ salaries that the government had instituted in June as part of its economic recovery measures. The BCC stated that while it supported the government on salary reduction under the belief that it was for the greater good, assigning blame to the leadership of religious schools was “grossly unfair.” The arrangement between the government and religious groups called for the government to provide 100 percent of salaries for primary school teachers and 70 percent for high school teachers. On a monthly basis, the government made disbursements to religious school officials, who in turn made payments to teachers. In November, the BCC stated that both government and church officials had taken steps to improve the relationship.
Throughout the year, the government held discussions with the BCC, church Senator Benguche, and several other religious leaders on plans regarding new legislation and amendments to existing legislation, as well as COVID-19 pandemic matters. According to the head of the Council of Churches, non-Christian religious groups had not engaged him on communicating their political perspectives, although by law the church senator represents all religious groups. In a July statement, the BCC said that government consultations should not be an “information-sharing exercise, but rather an open dialogue reminiscent of their past relationship.” According to the BCC, the government had not fully taken into account its concerns regarding COVID-19 restrictions on the reopening of churches to in-person worship, and it felt it unsuitable that the government had treated churches in the same manner as businesses. The BCC leadership said discussions with the government on the safest ways to reopen churches had been underway when the government announced in December public health protocol guidelines including adhering to curfews, wearing a mask, or other face covering and social distancing. The BCC also raised with the government what it said was the need for more counselors at the primary and secondary school levels, especially in the context of various difficulties introduced by the pandemic.
In October, the government passed a law rescinding the post of director of health services and, in its stead, created two positions of director of hospital services and principal health inspector. Senator Benguche said church leaders were concerned the government had amended existing legislation to eliminate the position of director of health services and in doing so had bypassed important civil servant protections codified in law. According to Benguche, this was viewed as a violation of the labor rights of the incumbent, Director of Health Services Dr. Marvin Manzanero. Benguche said the religious community was supportive of Dr. Manzanero because of his key leadership role during the COVID-19 pandemic and the professional relationship that it had established with him. While the BCC said it differed from the government’s policies on several issues, it commended the working relationship it had developed with Minister of Education Francis Fonseca and noted that under his leadership, there had been “tremendous improvement” in the comanagement of schools and the composition of church representation on school boards.
Due to COVID-19 restrictive measures, prison authorities suspended religious services and activities for most of the year, but sources stated that corrections officers encouraged private religious observance. Officials from the Catholic Kolbe Foundation stated the organization trained inmate facilitators to lead small group services and that the prison radio station broadcast religious messages to inmates. Authorities allowed inmates to communicate with religious officiants via mail.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 13.3 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2013 census (the most recent), 48.5 percent of the population is Christian, 27.7 percent is Muslim (mostly Sunni), 11.6 percent practice Voodoo, 2.6 percent are members of indigenous religious groups, 2.6 percent are members of other religious groups, and 5.8 percent declare no religious affiliation. The largest Christian denominations are Roman Catholicism, with 25.5 percent of the population, and the Celestial Church of Christ, with 6.7 percent. Other religious groups include Methodists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is, Baptists, Pentecostals, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), the Very Holy Church of Jesus Christ of Baname, and Eckankar followers.
Many individuals who identify as Christian or Muslim also practice Voodoo or other traditional religions.
Most Muslims reside in northern regions. There are some Shia Muslims, and most are foreign residents. Residents in the north report the presence of Tablighi Muslim adherents. Southern regions are predominantly inhabited by Christians.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes a secular state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of religious thought, expression, and practice, consistent with public order as established by law and regulations. The law bans any expression – including religious sermons – that infringes on the values and symbols of the state.
The Ministry of Interior has the authority to deploy the national police to intervene in conflicts between religious groups to ensure public order and social peace, provided the intervention complies with the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs. Local department and municipal leaders may also issue orders limiting religious practice to maintain public order.
Persons who wish to form a religious group or establish a religious affiliation must register with the Ministry of Interior. Registration requirements include submission of administrative materials (including the applicant’s birth certificate, police record, request letter, copy of identification, and the group’s internal rules) and payment of a registration fee of 50,000 CFA francs ($86). If a group is not registered, the Ministry of Interior may order the closing of its religious facilities until the group registers.
By law, public schools may not provide religious instruction. Religious groups may establish private schools with authorization from the state and may benefit from state subsidies.
The law bans online or written material, game shows, and other programs made public by journalists, editors, or printers that incite hatred or violence for religious purposes. The law also imposes fines between 1,000,000 CFA francs ($1,700) and 5,000,000 CFA francs ($8,600) for individuals guilty of defamation for the purpose of inciting hatred against a group of people based on their religion using written press, audiovisual media, or printed materials.
The Digital Code criminalizes use of electronic means to incite discrimination, hatred, or violence against an individual or a group of people based on their religion. Those found guilty may receive a one-year prison sentence and a fine of up to 1,000,000 CFA francs ($1,700).
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the Ministry of Interior’s Director of Internal Affairs and Religion, the primary catalyst for government involvement in religious affairs remained “disruption of public order.” For example, according to an evangelical Christian church leader, police intervened in several disputes between Voodoo and Christian followers over Voodoo practices that included animal sacrifices, initiation ceremonies, and idolatry.
Religious groups remained active in resolving the political discord that resulted from a 2020 electoral crisis. On January 26, President Patrice Talon met with a delegation from the Episcopal Conference of Benin, representing the Catholic Church, to discuss the April 11, 2021 presidential election. The delegation encouraged the government and political parties to engage in a peaceful, inclusive, democratic, and transparent dialogue ahead of the election.
Religious leaders from the Orthodox churches, the Cherubim and Seraphim Churches, the Mariavite Church, and the African Methodist Church of Benin, under the umbrella of Benin’s National Council of Ecumenical Churches, published a message on January 29 calling for social peace during the electoral process and an inclusive and fair presidential election.
To limit the spread of COVID-19, the government announced on September 1 restrictions on all cultural, festive, sporting, and religious events. At a press conference on September 2, government spokesperson Wilfried Houngbedji stated that places of worship were not affected by the restrictions. Houngbedji encouraged religious leaders, however, to raise awareness of the COVID-19 vaccine among their followers and to maintain COVID-19 prevention measures at places of worship.
Several religious events were cancelled due to COVID-19 limitations on large gatherings. Speaking on Traditional Religions’ Day on January 10 in Ouidah, Minister of Culture Jean-Michel Abimbola stated that the government was not authorizing the usual large-scale religious celebrations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government officials continued to attend inductions, funerals, and other religious ceremonies organized by religious groups while observing COVID-19 prevention measures. State-owned television often broadcast these events. Police continued to provide security for religious events upon request.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 857,000 (midyear 2021). According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows Buddhism and 23 percent are Hindu. Hindus reside mostly in southern areas adjacent to India. The 2020 report by the World Christian Database estimated that Buddhists comprised 83 percent of the population and Hindus 11 percent in 2019.
The 2012 Pew Research Center report estimates of the size of the Christian community ranges from 0.5 to 3.6 percent of the total population. The Open Doors report covering 2021 estimates the Christian population at 30,000 (approximately 3.5 percent). Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south. According to scholars, although individuals often combine Bon (an indigenous Tibetan religious tradition) practices with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition. The Sharchop ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to scholars.
Most of the country’s foreign workers come from India. In 2019 (most recent data available), India’s Ministry of External Affairs estimated that 60,000 Indian nationals lived in the country and 8,000 to 10,000 additional temporary workers entered the country daily. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Indian residents left the country and the government limited entry of most foreign workers. While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most foreign workers are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and bans discrimination based on faith. The constitution says the King must be Buddhist and requires the King to be the “protector of all religions.”
The constitution also states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” The Religious Organizations Act states that “no religious organization shall compel any person to belong to another faith by providing reward or inducement for a person to belong to another faith.” The penal code criminalizes “coercion or inducement to convert” as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Neither “coercion” nor “inducement to convert” is defined in law or regulation.
The law prohibits oral and written communication “promoting enmity among religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations.
The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” among religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment.
The law requires religious groups to register with the CRO. To register, a religious group must submit an application demonstrating its leaders are citizens of the country and disclosing their educational backgrounds and financial assets. The law also specifies the organizational structure, bylaws, and procedural rules for registered religious organizations. It prohibits religious organizations from “violating the spiritual heritage” of the country and requires them to protect and promote it. The law also states no religious organization shall do anything to impair the sovereignty, security, unity, or territorial integrity of the country. It mandates that the CRO certify that religious groups applying for registration meet the specified requirements.
Registered religious groups may raise funds for religious activities and are exempt from taxes. Registered groups require approval from local government authorities to hold public meetings outside of their registered facilities and must seek approval from the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs to invite foreign speakers or receive foreign funds.
Unregistered religious groups may not organize public religious services, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. Penalties for unregistered organizations performing these activities range from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense. The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally. The CRO has the authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading and whether it has raised funds illegally. Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.
The law states that the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities. The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the Prime Minister. A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the King’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board. The director of culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves ex officio as secretary. Heads of Buddhist religious organizations and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya, a registered Hindu organization, occupy the remaining seats. The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”
The constitution states the King shall appoint the chief abbot of the country’s Central Monastic Body, on the advice of the five masters of the Buddhist monastic body. Those individuals and a civil servant administrative secretary make up the Commission for Monastic Affairs, which manages issues related to Buddhist doctrine. The constitution says the state will provide funds and “facilities” to the central monastic body.
The law permits the government to “avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses for public assembly, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and imposing curfews. The government may apply these measures to groups and organizations of all kinds, including religious groups.
Government approval is required to construct religious buildings. By law, all buildings, including religious structures, must adhere to traditional architectural standards. The CRO determines conformity with these standards.
The constitution states that religious institutions and personalities have the responsibility to ensure that “religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.” It also states, “Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.”The law also prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity. Ordained members of the clergy of any religion may not engage in political activities, including running for office and voting.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
International NGOs continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction, although the country’s religious minority groups reported no such sanction or pressure during the year.
There were no applications to register religious organizations during the year, compared with 14 in 2020. There was no information available regarding the composition of the 14 groups. There were 139 religious organizations registered with the government as of December: 137 Buddhist and two Hindu. The CRO took no action on any pending church registration requests. The government did not offer any official explanation to applicants.
Unregistered religious groups, including Christians, reported being able to worship in private, although unregistered groups were not permitted to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature.
Christian groups said they continued to be unable to acquire burial plots and there was no clear governmental process to do so. Some groups instead buried their dead in undeveloped areas away from settlements. One group said there was no official directive requiring cremation of the dead, but that government contacts informally urged cremation. The group said cremation remained the clear national preference, given the broad influence of Buddhist practice and tradition, and that as a minority religious group, Christians had little influence on this issue.
Some Christian groups said that Christians had fewer officially endorsed public celebrations than the Hindu community.
The Open Doors report covering 2021 said Christians often faced difficulty obtaining “nonobjection certificates” from local authorities; these were required for loan and employment applications, property registration and renewing identification cards. One local organization said it was not difficult to obtain a certificate, except when the applicant had a criminal record.
The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries. According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International, authorities gave Buddhist temples priority over Hindu temples in the licensing process.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government imposed strict safety protocols and prohibited religious gatherings and associated activities during the nationwide lockdown from January to February 13.
Some courts and other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries. Some religious groups stated that government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals.
Members of the Hindu Dharmic Samudaya continued to cite strong official support for Hindu religious practice.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.8 million (midyear 2021). According to U.S. government figures, 77 percent of the population identifies as Catholic and 16 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant and Pentecostal groups. According to the local leader of the Church of Jesus Christ, approximately 300,000 followers reside in the country; the Church of Jesus Christ’s central website estimates more than 200,000 followers. Approximately 5 percent of the population identifies with smaller religious groups, and 5 percent self-identify as nonbelievers. There are approximately 1,500 Muslims and 450 Jews, according to leaders of the respective faiths and news reports. Approximately 60,000 Mennonites live in the lowlands province of Santa Cruz, according to community leaders. Many indigenous communities, concentrated in rural areas, practice a mix of Catholic and indigenous spiritual traditions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, the state respects and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion and worship,” expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private. The constitution stipulates the state is independent of all religion.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, including access to educational institutions, health services, and employment, and protects the right of access to public sport and recreational activities without regard to religion.
The law governing religious freedom and religious and spiritual organizations creates a clear distinction between NGOs and religious organizations. Under the law, religious organizations are constituted to practice, profess, and teach their specific faith or religion, while NGOs have no such faith-based ties. The religious freedom law requires all religious or spiritual organizations to inform the government of all financial, legal, social, and religious activities. The law regulates religious or spiritual organizations’ finances and labor practices by requiring their use of funds exclusively to achieve the organization’s objectives, banning the distribution of money among members, subjecting all employees to national labor laws, requiring the organizations to register with the MFA, and compelling them to pay taxes. Pursuant to a concordat with the Holy See, the Catholic Church is exempt from registration.
Religious organizations must submit 14 documentary requirements to register with the government. These include notarized legal documents, including statutes, internal regulations and procedures; rental agreement documents, utility invoices for the place(s) of worship, and a site map; detailed information on board members and legal representatives, including criminal background checks; an INTERPOL certificate for foreigners; proof of fiscal solvency; organization chart, with names, addresses, identification card numbers, and photographs; a full list of members and identifying information; details on activities and services provided by the organization, including the location of the services; and information on their financing source(s), domestic and/or foreign.
The requirements for classification as a spiritual organization or religious organization vary slightly, but the government requires essentially the same type of information from both spiritual and religious entities. The constitution defines a spiritual organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves to carry out practices that develop their spirituality according to their ancestral worldview. Most spiritual organizations are indigenous in their origins. The constitution defines a religious organization as a group of natural, national, and/or foreign persons who organize themselves with the purpose of carrying out practices of worship and/or belief around a Supreme Being to develop their spirituality and religiosity, and whose purpose does not pursue profit.
The government may revoke a spiritual or religious organization’s operating license for noncompliance with the registration requirements; if the organization does not produce an annual report of activities for more than two consecutive years; does not comply with its stated objectives; carries out activities different from those established in its statutes; or carries out activities contrary to the country’s constitution, laws, morality, or “good customs.” A religious or spiritual organization may also lose its operating license if it does not comply with the deadline for renewing the license. The government may not deny legal recognition to any organization based on its articles of faith.
A 2017 regulation requires religious and spiritual groups to reregister their operating licenses to ensure all documents list the official name of the country as “Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia.” Reregistration also requires any amendments to organizations’ bylaws to conform to all new national laws. Religious and spiritual groups were required to comply with these new registration requirements by the end of 2019.
The fees to obtain an operating license differ between “Religious Organizations” and “Spiritual Organizations,” with costs of 6,780 bolivianos ($990) and 4,068 bolivianos ($600), respectively.
The constitution and other laws provide educational institutions the option to teach religion classes, including indigenous spiritual belief classes, with the stated aim of encouraging mutual respect among religious communities. While religion classes are optional, schools must teach ethics with curriculum materials that promote religious tolerance. The government does not restrict religious teaching in public or private schools, and it does not restrict a student from attending private, religiously affiliated schools. The law also requires all schools to accept students regardless of their religious affiliation.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.
Religious leaders and sources in the MFA reported the government had not completely implemented or enforced the religious freedom law that was passed in 2019, particularly aspects pertaining to the registration requirement, due to the political fluidity in the country and prolonged restrictions related to COVID-19.
Members of the evangelical Protestant community continued to say several smaller religious communities formed congregations that held services at unofficial worship locations and conducted other activities without registering. These smaller communities continued to refuse to register their organizations because, according to sources, they preferred not to provide the government with access to internal information. Sources stated these unregistered groups still could neither own property nor hold bank accounts in their organization’s name; instead, money for a group was generally held in a bank account controlled by the leader’s family.
According to the MFA’s Office of Religion and Nongovernmental Organizations, there were approximately 648 registered groups listed under the requirements of the religious freedom law, compared with 440 groups in 2020, and an additional 75 groups with a registration request in process with the MFA. According to religious leaders, nearly all known religious or spiritual organizations that wished to register with the government had complied with the requirements. Religious groups said the registration process generally took four to six months to complete. In November, MFA officials stated they were working on a system to digitize the registration process to reduce the timeline to one to two months and planned to have the new digital system complete by 2022.
According to press reports in September, evangelical Protestant pastor Luis Aruquipa objected to government efforts to vaccinate the population against COVID-19, stating, “We are against being forced to vaccinate. You have to leave it to free will.” He also quoted a passage from Psalm 119:45: “I will walk in freedom, for I have devoted myself to your commandments.”
In September, evangelical Protestant leaders said they were upset with Vice President David Choquehuanca for “corrupting” the evangelical faith. They said Choquehuanca, who was raised in the faith, used his office to promote a syncretic religion that amalgamates indigenous rituals and evangelical Protestant beliefs.
According to Catholic Church leaders, the government increasingly pressured the Church due to its role in mediating the presidential succession in 2019, when post-electoral unrest led to the resignation of then-president Evo Morales. Catholic leaders said that the government’s public verbal attacks created a hostile atmosphere that affected the perception that many youths had of the Church. Catholic leaders also said the government was delaying international clothing donations and increasing the difficulty of obtaining documentation for incoming missionaries.
On March 13, the BEC released a statement hours after authorities detained former interim president Anez. In their statement, the bishops said that “politics of revenge” and a justice system aligned with the ruling political power “do not create confidence in the people.” The bishops released their message by video, with conference president Bishop Ricardo Centellas reading from a prepared text: “We cannot remain passive while citizens who have served Bolivia, [albeit] with their limitations, are persecuted.”
On August 25, the BEC issued a press statement expressing concern “over the deplorable human rights situation” in the country and “the manipulation of the judicial system by those at the top of the state,” and calling for a summit on justice reform. A Catholic Church representative stated that a few days after the statement was issued, he was summoned by high-ranking government officials who threatened him and ordered him to stop meddling in politics.
On September 23, President Arce delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he accused the Catholic hierarchy of “participating in the breakdown of [the country’s] constitutional order.” While avoiding a specific response to the President’s speech, the leader of the BEC made a November 14 public statement that criticized “threats and words that incite violence” and called for an inclusive, peaceful dialogue that seeks justice and peace in the country.
According to media, on October 29, the government’s ombudsman, Nadia Cruz, and other officials led a march to the BEC’s headquarters, where some protestors vandalized the premises with slogans, including, “They are not pro-life, they are pro-rape” and “rapists and perverse priests.” The protesters were reportedly protesting what they characterized as the meddling of the Catholic Church in convincing an 11-year-old pregnant rape victim not to abort.
Police and media reported the explosion of a crude bomb near the entrance of the La Paz BEC headquarters in the early morning hours of November 24. The explosion caused material damage to the structure but did not result in any injuries. While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, many believed the incident was related to the case of the 11-year-old pregnant rape victim. Minister of Government Eduardo del Castillo reported that police had identified two women allegedly responsible for the attack but did not provide any more information, citing the confidential nature of the ongoing investigation.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2021). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.
There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: BiH Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and BiH Croats with the Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish Community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on the grounds of religion and that all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.
The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.
The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It provides for equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage endowments in accordance with the law.
The self-governing Brcko District follows national law on religious freedom.
A national law on religion provides for freedom of conscience and grants legal status to “churches and religious communities.” To acquire official status as a recognized religious community, religious groups must register. The constitutions of BiH, the Federation entity, and the RS entity state that registered religious organizations are allowed to operate freely.
Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community.
Registration affords numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those that do not register, including the right to conduct collaborative actions such as charity work, fundraising, and constructing and occupying places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the Islamic Community, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish Community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the MHRR is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.
According to law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Requirements for registration include presenting statutes that define the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application. The law stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.” A group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction.
The law states that no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.
In addition to registered churches and religious communities, there are educational, charitable, and other institutions, known as “legal subjects,” that belong to these communities but are registered as separate legal entities in the MOJ registry. The Islamic Community has 121 legal subjects, the Catholic Church 400, the Orthodox Church 538, Jewish Community eight, and other churches and religious communities and alliances (primarily of Protestant groups) have 50.
Pursuant to a 2015 decision of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, employees of judicial institutions are prohibited from wearing any form of “religious insignia,” including headscarves, or practicing religion, such as by praying or proselytizing, at work.
The state recognizes the Islamic Community as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the Islamic Community’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the Islamic Community.
The law on religion states that churches and religious communities must pay taxes and contributions on earnings of their employees (pension, health, and disability insurance). In the Federation, two of the 10 cantons – Western Herzegovina Canton and Herzegovina-Neretva Canton – include religious officials in their health insurance system. Sarajevo Canton does not include religious workers in its health insurance system but offers such insurance to religious officials under more favorable provisions than those available to other citizens. The RS provides pension benefits and disability insurance to religious workers while they have residence there.
The criminal codes of all three BiH administrative units regulate hate crimes. The provisions in these codes define hate crimes as any criminal act committed because of religious belief or various other factors. The criminal codes also stipulate that these motivations be considered aggravating circumstances of a criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments.
The laws of the Federation, each of the 10 Federation cantons, and the RS affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers, who are employees of the schools where they teach, although they receive accreditation from their respective religious institutions.
The Islamic Community, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in the religion of the majority of the school’s students, with some exceptions.
In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course. Alternatively, students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. The RS Ministry of Education offers elective Orthodox religious education in secondary schools, but students have the option to take a course in ethics. In both the RS and the Federation, as well as Brcko, students belonging to a registered religious community that is a minority in the school may enroll in a course pertaining to that religious community if there are at least 18 interested students.
The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religious group.
The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member Presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.
A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.
The country has no law on restitution that would allow for the return of, or compensation for, property, including property owned by religious groups, nationalized or expropriated under communist rule.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to government officials, the MHRR made only partial progress in implementing the national religious freedom law during the year. The officials said the MHRR made it easier for religious groups to carry out educational and charitable work, but the ministry did nothing to facilitate resolution of pension, disability allowance, and health insurance issues for religious officials, despite pledging to do so in 2019. The Federation, RS, and Brcko governments did not make provisions for religious officials to fully qualify for pensions and health and disability insurance, although the MHRR asked them in 2019 to work with religious group representatives to do so. In the absence of systemic solutions, the Islamic Community independently provided health benefits and pensions for its religious workers, while the RS paid those benefits to SOC religious workers.
The MOJ said it generally processed registration applications by religions groups within a week, and no religious group reported delays in registration. No groups registered during the year, and there were no reports the ministry denied any registration applications by religious communities.
On October 18, the BiH Presidency was scheduled to take up for consideration a 2015 agreement between the state and the Islamic Community that, if approved by the Presidency and parliament, would recognize and regulate Islamic dietary restrictions in public institutions, public and private sector employee accommodations for daily prayer, time off to attend Friday prayers, and time off for one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. Serb member of the Presidency Milorad Dodik, however, requested that the Presidency not take up the agreement, stating publicly that the agreement would grant greater rights to Muslims than to other religious groups. By year’s end, the Presidency had not taken up consideration of the agreement or consulted with the Islamic Community to resolve concerns over it.
According to the MHRR, the implementation of the agreement with the SOC had likely been stalled for years due to the absence of a similar agreement between the state and the Islamic Community.
The government did not reestablish the joint commission with the Catholic Church to implement the concordat with the Holy See, a requirement after each change in government. The government and the Catholic Church nominated members for the commission, but the BiH Council of Ministers had not approved the commission by year’s end. Similarly, the government failed to reestablish a joint commission to implement its agreement with the SOC; by year’s end the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not nominated a candidate to the commission, and therefore it was not submitted to the Council of Ministers for approval.
According to representatives of the Catholic Church, nonformation of the concordat commission and nonimplementation of the agreement affected pastoral care in hospitals, work with police services and prisons, health insurance for Church workers, restitution of confiscated property, compensation for the use of confiscated property, tax policy regarding the nonprofit activities of Church legal entities, financing school and charitable Church institutions, the legal status of in-kind donations to the Church, and other issues. The Catholic Church reported that government actions recommended by earlier sessions of the concordat commission, such as legislation recognizing religious holidays, had not been implemented. The commission last met in 2016.
In July, Cardinal Puljic told an Al Jazeera interviewer that he did not understand local politicians who were persistently avoiding constructive agreement on equal rights for all in BiH. He added that Croats and other Catholics, but also persons of other ethnicities and religious groups, were left on their own, as politicians who were supposed to represent them did not act in their best interest.
On February 23, the Court of BiH rejected a 2020 complaint by a soldier, Emela Mujanovic Kapidzija, who had stated that the Ministry of Defense had discriminated against her and violated her religious freedom by prohibiting her from wearing a headscarf at work. Kapidzija filed an appeal with the Appellate Chamber of the Court of BiH, which rejected the appeal on April 19. On May 25, the Commission for Freedom of Religion of the Islamic Community filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court of BiH on her behalf. At year’s end, the case was pending. Kapidzija remained a member of the Armed Forces of BiH but could not wear a headscarf at her workplace at the Ministry of Defense pending a ruling by the Constitutional Court.
On December 2, the Constitutional Court decided in favor of a petition from BiH House of Peoples Deputy Speaker Bakir Izetbegovic requesting a review of provisions of the Rules of Service in the Armed Forces of BiH prohibiting beards. The court determined in a final ruling that the ban violated the right to privacy and the right to freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution of BiH and the European Convention on Human Rights.
On June 5, the government of BiH completed demolition of a Serbian Orthodox church built without permission on the property of Bosniak returned refugee Fata Orlovic, a Muslim. The government also cleared the property of debris. The lawyer representing Orlovic confirmed the RS government paid her 5,000 euros ($5,700) and 13 of her relatives 2,000 euros ($2,300) each in compensation.
Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s lack of a law on restitution – for both religious communities and private citizens – hindered efforts of religious communities to resolve claims of properties confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. In the absence of a restitution law, the return of property was at the discretion of local authorities, and, even if these authorities returned properties, the claimants could not receive titles to those properties. At the end of the meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Banja Luka on July 14, the bishops sent a message to BiH authorities, urging them to return confiscated property to all those who were deprived of it after World War II. The bishops stated that many private individuals, as well as religious communities, were seeking the return of property. They cited an estimate from a study conducted by the University of Sarajevo that only 7 percent of restitution claims were of property belonging to religious communities. Cardinal Puljic, the Archbishop of Vrhbosna, added that there were many “dirty acts” surrounding the return of property.
In December, the Islamic Community protested the city administration of Tuzla’s issuance of a construction permit for business facilities on land the Islamic Community stated was endowed to it by Muslim believers.
In February, Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, told media that BiH was the only country in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem and that restitution would not be a financial burden for the country. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much needed source of revenue for them. According to Finci, “We don’t need [to be paid] a single mark to carry out restitution. For example, La Benevolencija has a building where the cantonal Ministry of Interior is currently located … We only want our ownership to be recognized, instead of the state receiving rental income for our property.”
In January, SOC Metropolitan Hrizostom stated that political disagreement regarding whether the state or the country’s two entities – the Federation and RS – had competency over restitution, as well as the potential cost, continued to be the main barriers to adoption of a law on restitution. In February, members of the BiH Presidency said they would task the MOJ with preparing a report on the status and legal considerations of religious property restitution. By year’s end, the ministry had not issued a report on the issue. All major religious groups in the country continued to say there was an urgent need for a restitution law. They said the Federation and the RS restituted religious properties unequally, discriminating against religious minorities in their respective areas.
In February, according to press reports, the Zenica city council voted unanimously to return use of the city’s synagogue to the Jewish Community. Zenica Mayor Fuad Kasumovic stated that, because of the absence of a restitution law, the city would continue to own the property.
The municipality of Stari Grad Sarajevo continued construction of a large building in the center of Sarajevo on a plot of land previously claimed by four Jewish families and the Islamic Community. The BiH Jewish Community reported that the last living member of the Jewish Community with claims to the property was compensated 110,000 convertible marks (BAM) ($63,800) in September, thus ending the dispute with them. The Islamic Community was reportedly compensated for its share of the property in 2019.
Online news site Balkan Insight reported in March that Banja Luka prosecutors said in February that they had ended investigations in five cases involving the destruction of five mosques in Banja Luka and Gradiska in 1993 because the statute of limitations had expired. The Islamic Community stated prosecutors had rejected its request to pursue the cases as war crimes, investigating them instead under a law against demolition of cultural and historical monuments, the most lenient law available in terms of penalties and the statute of limitations. The Islamic Community had, according to Balkan Insight, taken its case to the state prosecutor’s office and the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, requesting that the BiH Prosecutor’s Office take over the cases and that they be treated as war crimes. At year’s end the BiH Prosecutor’s Office had not taken over the cases.
The parish priest of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Novi Grad, Banja Luka Diocese, reported that on November 11, a private local construction company paved an asphalt road directly in front of the church’s entrance, even though the paved land belonged to the church, which had not granted permission for the paving. He requested action from the local mayor, but authorities had not acted by year’s end.
The 2021 European Commission report on BiH stated authorities failed to meet court ruling requirements to complete or apply the common core curriculum or make progress in eliminating the practice of “two schools under one roof,” where children in the same school were segregated based on ethnicity. The report also said even online education was implemented via separate platforms, many RS schools did not recognize the Bosnian language, and the availability of teaching in the national groups of subjects remained limited. According to the OSCE and reports by various media outlets, returnee students (those belonging to a minority ethnic group returning to their homes after being displaced by the war in the 1990’s) continued to face barriers in exercising their rights to education in their own language. The OSCE and media reported that parents of Bosniak children in returnee communities throughout the RS continued to boycott public schools in favor of sending their children to alternative schooling financed and organized by the Federation Ministry of Education with support from the governments of the Sarajevo and the Zenica-Doboj Cantons and the Islamic Community. According to the OSCE, the RS Ministry of Education and Culture (RS MoEC) again failed to approve a group of “national” subjects (specific courses to which Bosniak, Serb, and Croat students were legally entitled and that were to be taught in their constituent language according to their ethnicity). The RS MoEC also again failed to comply with an RS Supreme Court ruling from December 2019 that students in a school in Vrbanjci, Kotor Varos receive instruction in the national group of subjects and in the Bosnian language.
According to nongovernmental organizations and media reports, parents of different faiths throughout the country continued to send their children to public school religious education classes to avoid having their children stand out from other children who attended the classes and be exposed to peer pressure.
The government again failed to comply with a 2009 ruling by the ECHR stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of minority groups, including Jews, to run for the Presidency, the House of Peoples, and other offices reserved for members of constituent peoples. BiH political leaders were engaged in negotiations during the year on an electoral and limited constitutional reform package that according to international experts would have included implementation of the court’s decision. At year’s end, however, political leaders had not reached an agreement. On December 22, the 12th anniversary of the ruling, Dervo Sejdic, one of the appellants, said he felt very sad the discriminatory provision in the BiH constitution had not been eliminated.
According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to discriminate against them and enforce selectively the rights of religious groups regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. In November, RS Vice President Ramiz Salkic, a Muslim, wrote a letter to RS Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic calling on the RS to end employment, education, language, and religious holiday discrimination against the predominantly Muslim Bosniak minority returnees in the RS. In his letter, Salkic stated the RS education system incorporated discriminatory elements, including naming schools after Serbian historic figures or Serbian Orthodox saints, celebrating the day of St. Sava, the Orthodox patron saint of schools, harmonizing curricula with Serbia instead of other parts of BiH, and glorifying convicted war criminals in history textbooks.
Religious leaders also continued to state that police were reluctant to investigate potential hate crimes targeting religious minority communities because law enforcement officials often represented and included only the members of the majority group.
On September 15, the RS National Assembly adopted a law mandating use of the Cyrillic alphabet and Serb language for all institutions that receive funding from the RS budget and at all government-funded events. The Bosniak and Croat caucuses of the RS Council of Peoples opposed the law and blocked its implementation, pending a judicial review. On November 23, the RS Constitutional Court ruled that the law violated the vital national interests of Bosniaks and Croats and was invalid. As a result, the law did not enter into force.
According to the OSCE, in 2020, the most recent year for which data were available, BiH judicial institutions completed five court cases concerning potential religious bias incidents. Three cases were treated as felonies and two as misdemeanors. In the first felony case, the Municipal Court in Kiseljak acquitted a suspect charged with causing public danger by arson due to lack of evidence. Prosecutors charged the defendant with setting on fire a local imam’s car parked inside a garage next to the imam’s home in 2017. In the second felony case, the Court of BiH sentenced an individual charged with incitement to hatred to one year in prison with mandatory psychiatric treatment as a result of a plea agreement with the BiH Prosecutor’s Office. The defendant targeted a local imam in Gacko with a series of online death threats and profanities based on religion and ethnicity. He also defecated in front of the entrance of the local mosque. In the third felony case, the Court of BiH sentenced an individual to six months of imprisonment suspended for two years for endangering personal security with online threats.
In one of the misdemeanor cases, the Municipal Court in Bosanska Krupa imposed a fine of BAM 500 ($290) on an individual it convicted of violating public peace and order by posting a video of himself in 2020, verbally insulting the SOC and its flag, calling the latter the flag of Republika Srpska, which he said was a “genocidal creation.” In the other, the Municipal Court in Bihac imposed a fine of BAM 300 ($170) on the parents of a minor girl who sprayed graffiti insulting God and Jesus on the walls of a Catholic Church. The court convicted them of failure to exercise parental supervision of a minor.
On several occasions, leaders of the IRC – whose membership comprises the four traditional religious communities – again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate in providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated the cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration that the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to the IRC, the officials rarely investigated the motives of the acts, which would help distinguish cases of simple theft from hate crimes. In many instances, IRC leaders said they hesitated to report incidents to the police or media, particularly in areas where their religious group was a minority, fearing that public attention could result in retaliation or raise tensions in the community, with deleterious effects on IRC members.
On January 11, the House of Representatives (lower chamber) of the BiH parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution sponsored by parliamentarian Damir Arnaut of Nasa Stranka (Our Party) to rename streets, squares, parks, schools, and other places that honored World War II Nazi collaborators with the names of persons from the country recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center. The resolution was nonbinding, as local municipalities, not parliament, would have the authority to implement it. Shortly after the resolution passed, the Bosniak-majority Stranka Demokratske Akcije (Party of Democratic Action, or SDA) party, which had voted for it, reversed its position and criticized the initiative for including Bosniaks among the list of Nazi collaborators. SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic stated that the choices made by Bosniak Nazi collaborators Husein Dozo, Mustafa Busuladzic, and Hafiz Muhamed Pandza should be evaluated in their “global and historical context.” SDA-aligned press labeled Arnaut a traitor and defended Bosniaks who worked with the Nazis. The BiH House of Peoples (upper chamber) had not acted on the resolution by year’s end.
The Federation and RS governments again failed to fulfill their financial commitments to support the IRC. The commitments stemmed from memorandums of cooperation that the state level government of BiH, as well as the governments of the Federation and RS entities and Brcko District, concluded with the IRC in 2011. The memorandums stipulated annual contributions to the IRC budget of BAM 100,000 ($58,000) by the state, BAM 50,000 ($29,000) by the entities, and BAM 20,000 ($11,600) from Brcko District. In practice, however, neither the Federation nor the RS governments honored their financial commitment over the previous eight years. The BiH Council of Ministers and Brcko District continued to provide the annual grant regularly to the IRC from their respective budgets.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.4 million (midyear 2021). According to Botswana’s 2011 Population and Housing Census reporting on the population 12 years and over (the most recent data available), 79 percent of citizens are members of Christian groups, 15 percent espouse no religion, 4 percent are adherents of the Badimo traditional indigenous religious group, and all other religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population.
Anglicans, Methodists, and members of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa make up the majority of Christians. There are also Lutherans, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Mennonites, and members of the Dutch Reformed Church and other Christian denominations. According to the 2011 census, there are approximately 11,000 Muslims, many of whom are of South Asian origin. There are small numbers of Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jews. Immigrants and foreign workers are more likely to be members of non-Christian religious groups than native-born citizens.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Under its broader protections of freedom of conscience, the constitution provides for freedom of thought and religion, the right to change religion or belief, and the right to manifest and propagate religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution’s provision of rights also prohibits discrimination based on creed. The constitution permits the government to restrict these rights in the interest of protecting the rights of other persons, national defense, public safety, public order, public morality, or public health when the restrictions are deemed “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.” The state of emergency imposed from March 2020 to September 2021 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which capped the size of regular religious gatherings and meetings, was the first time the government ever exercised this provision.
The constitution permits religious groups to establish places for religious instruction at their expense. The constitution prohibits requiring religious instruction or participation in religious ceremonies in a religion other than one’s own. The constitution also prohibits compelling an individual to take an oath contrary to that individual’s religious beliefs. The penal code criminalizes “hate speech” towards any person or group based on “race, tribe, place of origin, color or creed” and imposes a maximum fine of 500 pula ($43) per violation.
All organizations, including religious groups, must register with the government. To register, a group must submit its constitution to the Registrar of Societies section of the Ministry of Nationality, Immigration, and Gender Affairs. Registration enables religious groups to conduct business, sign contracts, and open an account at a local bank. In order to register, new religious groups must have a minimum of 150 members. For previously registered religious groups, the membership threshold is 10. Any person who manages, assists in the management of, or holds an official position in an unregistered group is subject to a fine of up to 1,000 pula ($85) and up to seven years in prison. Any member of an unregistered group is subject to penalties, including fines up to 500 pula ($43) and up to three years in prison. According to 2019 data from the Registrar of Societies (the latest available), there are 2,318 registered religious organizations in the country.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Police arrested a pastor from the Bethel Transfiguration Church September 7 when he tried to deliver a petition to President Mokgweetsi Masisi demanding his resignation over what the pastor said was mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. The pastor, Thuso Tiego, also criticized the government for restricting religious gatherings at a time when he said that individuals turned to churches for counseling and support during the pandemic. Tiego was held overnight at a police station and released without charge. Media reported that several of his supporters were beaten by police when they gathered outside the station demanding Tiego’s release. The national police service did not announce any disciplinary action against the officers involved.
The government continued to pursue court cases involving unregistered churches (sometimes called “fire churches”) coming into the country to “take advantage of” local citizens by demanding tithes and donations for routine services or special prayers. The government required pastors of some of those churches to apply for visas – even those from countries whose nationals were normally allowed visa-free entry. The government said in June 2019 that it was reviewing the visa policy for these foreign pastors, but by year’s end had not released the results of this review or announced any changes. Former members of one of the most prominent unregistered churches forced to close in 2019, the Enlightened Christian Gathering, subsequently formed their own smaller, independent churches with local leadership that was ultimately registered by the government.
Under the COVID-19 state of emergency that ended in September, the government limited attendance at religious services to no more than 50 persons at one time and limited services to twice a week. The government also banned all religious gatherings during “extreme social distancing” periods. Although the limits on religious gatherings lasted 18 months and prevented some individuals from fully practicing their faith, most religious groups did not say their freedom of religion was being restricted and stated that the extraordinary measures were necessary for public health
Optional religious education remained part of the curriculum in public schools; this curriculum continued to emphasize Christianity, but it also discussed other religions practiced in the country. Government regulation of private schools did not distinguish among Christian, Muslim, or secular schools. Since 2020, government policy has allowed students to wear a hijab or religiously based head covering in public schools.
Although it was common for government meetings to begin with a Christian prayer, members of non-Christian groups occasionally led prayers as well.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 213.4 million (midyear 2021). According to a 2019 Datafolha survey, 50 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, the same as the previous survey in 2016 but down from 60 percent in 2014. Atheists and those with no religion represent 11 percent, and the proportion of evangelical Christians is 31 percent, compared with 24 percent in 2016. Two percent practice Afro-Brazilian religions, and 3 percent are Spiritists. According to the 2010 census, the most recently available data from official sources, 65 percent of the population is Catholic, 22 percent Protestant, 8 percent irreligious (including atheists, agnostics, and deists), and 2 percent Spiritist. Adherents of other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Seventh-day Adventists, as well as followers of non-Christian religions, including Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Afro-Brazilian and syncretic religious groups, such as Candomble and Umbanda, make up a combined 3 percent of the population. According to the census, there are approximately 600,000 practitioners of Candomble, Umbanda, and other Afro-Brazilian religions. Some Christians also practice Candomble and Umbanda; however, some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) believe this is significantly underreported, given the number of terreiros located across the country. According to recent surveys, many Brazilians consider themselves followers of more than one religion.
According to the 2010 census, approximately 35,200 Muslims live in the country, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil (FAMBRAS) estimates the number to be 1.2 to 1.5 million. The largest communities reside in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Foz do Iguacu, as well as in smaller cities in the states of Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.
According to CONIB, there are approximately 120,000 Jews in the country. The two largest concentrations are 70,000 in Sao Paulo State and 34,000 in Rio de Janeiro State.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and the free exercise of religious beliefs is guaranteed. The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any specific religion. The law provides penalties of up to five years in prison for crimes of religious intolerance, including bullying, employment discrimination, refusal of access to public areas, and displaying, distributing, or broadcasting religiously intolerant material. By law, courts may fine or imprison for one to three years anyone who engages in religious hate speech. If the hate speech occurs via publication or social communication, including social media, courts may fine or imprison those held responsible for two to five years. It is illegal to write, edit, publish, or sell literature that promotes religious intolerance.
Religious groups are not required to register to establish places of worship, train clergy, or proselytize, but groups seeking tax-exempt status must register with the Department of Federal Revenue and the local municipality. States and municipalities have different requirements and regulations for obtaining tax-exempt status. Most jurisdictions require groups to document the purpose of their congregation, provide an accounting of finances, and have a fire inspection of any house of worship. Local zoning laws and noise ordinances may limit where a religious group may build houses of worship or hold ceremonies.
The law protects the right to use animal sacrifice in religious rituals.
Government regulations require public schools to offer religious instruction, but neither the constitution nor legislation defines the parameters. By law, the instruction must be nondenominational and conducted without proselytizing, and alternative instruction for students who do not want to participate must be available. Schools are required to teach Afro-Brazilian religion, history, and culture. The law allows public and private school students, except those in military training, to postpone taking exams or attending classes on their day of worship when their faith prohibits such activities. The law guarantees the right of students to express their religious beliefs and mandates that schools provide alternatives, including taking replacement exams or makeup classes.
A Rio de Janeiro State law enacted in March permits public and private schools to include subjects in their curricula that address respect for freedom of belief and worship; religious and cultural diversity; combating racism in the country; the important influence of Afro-Brazilian, indigenous, and Jewish faiths in the formation of national society; the relationship between religious freedom and secularity of the state; and the legal consequences of intolerance against expressions of religion.
The law prohibits public subsidies to schools operated by religious organizations.
A constitutional provision provides the right of access to religious services and counsel to individuals of all religions in all civil and military establishments. The law states that public and private hospitals as well as civil or military prisons must comply with this provision.
A Sao Paulo State law approved in March establishes administrative sanctions for individuals and organizations engaging in religious intolerance. The new law supplements an existing one from 2019 focused on religious discrimination by broadening the concept of religious intolerance, taking steps to promote religious freedom, and increasing the fines imposed. Punishments range from a warning letter to fines of up to 87,000 reais ($15,300).
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In January, the federal government created the National Registry of Religious Organizations, a voluntary database of religious leaders and entities eligible to receive federal funds and to carry out actions in partnership with the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights. Social science professor and leader of the Protestantism and Pentecostalism Study Group at the Pontifical Catholic University, Edin Sued Abumanssur, said the program duplicated preexisting databases of religious organizations, and he suggested creation of the new database was an attempt to garner the support of churches in the lead-up to the 2022 presidential election.
In January, the Rio de Janeiro city council created the Parliamentary Front of Religious Freedom. The purpose of the group, composed of 38 city council members, was to discuss strategies to combat religious intolerance in the municipality.
Acting on a Rio de Janeiro State civil police report that said the state had registered 6,700 crimes of religious intolerance from 2015 through 2019, state legislator Martha Rocha established in February a parliamentary commission of inquiry in Rio de Janeiro’s Legislative Assembly to investigate this increasing number and to discuss possible strategies to promote religious freedom.
On March 3, Governor of Sao Paulo State Joao Doria approved a state-level religious freedom law regulating the constitutional principle of free exercise of faith, including imposing fines of up to 87,000 reais ($15,300) for verifiable cases of disturbances of religious ceremonies and cults, vandalism of sacred symbols, and discrimination in schools, such as prohibiting the use of religious attire.
In March, media reported that evangelical Christians and Catholics in Pernambuco State protested the state’s imposition of COVID-19 related limitations on public religious gatherings.
In April, the STF found that government decrees to close churches and other religious temples throughout the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic were constitutional. The decision followed the STF review of Sao Paulo Governor Doria’s decree ordering the closure of religious centers to avoid large crowds. Following the decision, according to press reports, religious groups protested the government’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings in Brasilia. In response to the STF decision, in October, the Sao Paulo legislature overturned Governor Doria’s decree, and it declared religious observances and their respective places of worship were essential activities to be maintained in times of crises, including during pandemics and natural disasters, provided that the activity complied with the recommendations of the Ministry of Health.
In December 2020, the city of Porto Alegre inaugurated a Police Office for Combating Intolerance with a mandate to assist victims of prejudice and investigate discrimination, including religious discrimination. As of April, the office had registered 169 occurrences, including eight related to religious discrimination.
Beginning in June, individuals could report religious intolerance in Rio State to the military police’s 190 hotline. The Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance (CCIR), an independent organization comprised of representatives of religious groups, civil society, police, and public prosecutors’ office representatives, was responsible for documenting cases of religious intolerance and assisting victims. CCTR coordinator Ivanir dos Santos highlighted the importance of this new channel, saying that even though victims were already able to report incidents to civil police, the 190 military police hotline was more easily accessible and familiar.
In June, Bahia’s Court of Justice sentenced Edneide Santos de Jesus, a member of the Casa de Oracao Evangelical Church, to monthly court appearances and community service for repeatedly verbally harassing members of a traditional Candomble temple in Camacari, Bahia. The court also found de Jesus guilty of spreading rock salt in front of the Candomble temple to “cast out demons.” The ruling by the Court of Justice was the first ruling of “religious racism” (religious intolerance or prejudice) in the state’s history.
Media reported that in June, during a search for suspected serial killer Lazaro Barbosa, police officers repeatedly entered at least 10 Afro-Brazilian temples in Goias State. Religious leaders filed a complaint alleging that police used force in their entry, pointed weapons at the heads of those present, and examined mobile phones and computers without a court order. The Public Security Secretariat of Goias stated that a task force composed of police officers from Goias, the federal district, and the federal highway police was “working with a single purpose: to guarantee peace to the population of the region and to capture Lazaro Barbosa within the limits of legality.”
In July, a judge on Sao Paulo’s Court of Justice acquitted Juliana Arcanjo Ferreira of charges of domestic violence and bodily harm against her daughter after Ferreira took the 11-year-old to a traditional Candomble rite called a “cure” in October 2020. The girl’s father filed a police report four months after the ceremony accusing Ferreira of assault, following a weekend visit during which he discovered scars on the girl’s body from the rite, which entailed making small superficial incisions on the skin. Medical examiners found that the scars from the ritual were mild and did not cause disability; there was no conclusion that they were made under torture or other cruel means. The judge presiding over the case emphasized that religious freedom was a constitutional right and that the transmission of beliefs to children could not carry criminal consequences if it was done with “respect for life, freedom, and security.” He continued that there could be no justification, other than religious intolerance, for restricting a Candomble ritual.
In August, the government of Sao Paulo State announced the creation of an Online Diversity Police Station, a tool to enable citizens to report crimes of discrimination and intolerance, including those involving religion, through an online platform. Per the tool, after reporting, cases were directed for further investigation to the city of Sao Paulo’s newly redesigned 26-person specialized precinct for crimes of discrimination and intolerance. Alternatively, cases in the interior of Sao Paulo State were directed to the State Criminal Investigation Departments. Authorities said 20 percent of the state’s police officers in these departments had special training in combating and investigating intolerance.
According to the FAMBRAS, women said they continued to face difficulties in being allowed to wear Islamic head coverings such as the hijab when going through security in airports and other public buildings.
In July, President Jair Bolsonaro met Beatrix von Storch, a German parliamentarian and lawmaker of the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD). CONIB representatives criticized the welcoming of Storch, saying that the AfD was a party that downplayed Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust. According to media reports, however, Storch’s official visit did not include any discussion of either Nazism or the Holocaust.
In March, Roberto Jefferson, leader of the Brazilian Labor Party, posted on Instagram, “Baal, Satanic deity, Canaanites and Jews sacrificed children to receive their sympathy. Today, history repeats itself.” CONIB said in a statement that Jefferson’s post constituted “a crime of racism, with an increased penalty for having been committed through a social network.” For an unrelated matter in August, authorities charged Jefferson with belonging to a criminal organization opposing democracy. He remained in jail, pending trial through the end of year.
In Maranhao State, Afro-Brazilian religious institutions and activists working to counter religious intolerance, together with the public defender, the state prosecutor, and the Order of Attorneys in Maranhao, met in July to discuss strategies to end attacks on terreiros. According to the State Secretariat for Racial Equality, terreiros, including the Pai Lindomar Temple, had suffered increasingly frequent attacks for several years, despite military police presence in the Anjo da Guarda neighborhood where the temple was located in the state’s capital of Sao Luis. For example, on average there were five complaints of religious intolerance per year, but in two months of 2021, four complaints of intolerance were filed.
In June, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Public Ministry of Santa Catarina State (MPSC) shelved an investigation into possible illegal acts by history professor Wandercy Pugliesi. In 2020, the Liberal Party pressured Pugliesi to step down as a candidate for a local town council election in Pomerode due to his association with neo-Nazi symbols and for not being ideologically aligned with the party. Pugliesi had a large, tiled swastika symbol in his personal pool and named his son Adolf; police seized Nazi-related materials from him in 1994. In June, Pugliesi’s lawyers requested that the Public Prosecutor’s Office shelve the case after Pugliesi provided photos showing that the symbol in the swimming pool had been removed. In September, a member of the Superior Council of the MPSC requested that the Center for Confronting Racial Crimes and Intolerance study the case prior to shelving it. According to media, while there was no firm timeline for the study, upon completion the MPSC’s Superior Council would consider the results of the study and whether to recommence the investigation.
In August, federal police launched Operation White Rose, a reference to the historical White Rose anti-Nazi movement in World War II Germany, to address crimes of discrimination or prejudice based on race, color, ethnicity, religion, or national origin, as well as the placement of Nazi symbols. Documents in a database of Safernet Brazil – an NGO that promotes human rights on social networks and monitors radical websites – provided the basis for an operation against a man who made discriminatory comments against categories of individuals that included Jews and Catholics. According to press reports, the man also displayed Nazi symbols, declared himself to be a Nazi, and disseminated content related to antisemitism and idolatry of Nazism and fascism, with the intention of inciting violence.
During the year, civil police and the Public Ministry initiated Operation Bergon (named after a French nun who helped rescue Jewish children during World War II) to investigate the spread of hatred and threats of violence on social media, including against Jews. In December, civil police and prosecutors launched a series of actions, serving four arrest warrants and 31 search and seizure warrants across the states of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Norte, Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio do Sul.
The NGO Center for Articulation of Marginalized Populations reported Afro-Brazilian victims of religious intolerance in the state of Rio de Janeiro continued to view police and the judiciary as being indifferent, in general, to attacks on Afro-Brazilian places of worship. It cited what it said was a lack of investigations and arrests in these cases and that offenders were rarely held accountable.
In April, the STF declared unconstitutional a 2015 Amazonas State law requiring schools and libraries to keep at least one copy of the Bible in their collections on the grounds that it violated the principles of state secularism. Following the ruling, some postings on social media stated the STF had banned the Bible from schools and public libraries, allegations that the government said were false.
In September, acting Rio State Governor Claudio Castro declared the Terreiro de Gomeia (Gomeia Temple) in Duque de Caxias an historical and cultural heritage site. Candomble followers founded the Gomeia Temple in the 1950s. The declaration emphasized the value of Afro-Brazilian religious practices.
On January 21, municipalities around the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance. In Rio Grande do Sul, civil police distributed an educational booklet on religious intolerance, including information on what encompasses crimes of religious intolerance and how to report incidents.
On May 25, the Sao Paulo Secretary of Justice, through the Inter-Religious Forum for a Culture of Peace and Freedom of Faith, promoted a webinar in partnership with UNESCO to discuss freedom of religion as an integral effort to promote peace and tolerance in the country and worldwide. The event included representatives from a variety of faiths including Afro-Brazilian religions, Islam, and Judaism.
In May, Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly Caucus of Religious Freedom representatives held a Sao Paulo State Religious Freedom Week, a series of 16 webinars to promote freedom of religion and tolerance, with the participation of various civil society groups. Assembly deputy Damaris Moura, who led the promotion for the week’s events, said, “Defending religious freedom for all is a fundamental right constitutionally guaranteed, but still with practical problems. Therefore, it is always necessary to alert, raise awareness, and prevent.” The President of the Legislative Assembly, deputy Carlao Pignatari, defined religious freedom as “freedom to profess any religion [and to] hold services and [practice] traditions related to beliefs,” and he emphasized that religious beliefs should not have “direct influence on the formulation of public policies.” Approximately 1,000 persons attended the opening event of the week, held at the Legislative Assembly.
The State Secretariat of Human Rights in Espirito Santo State organized a State Week of Combating Religious Intolerance from January 18 to 21. Programming included a virtual educational campaign on the secretariat’s website, a roundtable on religious intolerance with inmates from the Linhares Detention and Rehabilitation Center, and two seminars on religious intolerance that included speakers representing Catholicism, Protestantism, and Afro-Brazilian religions as well as the State Council for the Promotion of Racial Equality.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 471,000 (midyear 2021). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions, including indigenous beliefs.
There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups. According to 2019 official statistics (the most recent), ethnic Malay citizens comprise 66 percent of the population and are defined by law as Muslims from birth. The ethnic Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and stateless permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes, such as the Dusun, Bisaya, Murut, and Iban, make up approximately 4 percent of the population and are estimated to be 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder followers of other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining 18 percent of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other South Asian countries. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one-quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.
The legal system is divided between secular law and sharia, which have parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. The civil courts are based on common law. The sharia courts follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no concept of legal precedent and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC.
The SPC spells out provisions for corporal and capital punishment for murder, theft, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, blasphemy, and other acts deemed crimes under sharia. Depending on the type and specifics of the offense, these punishments include fines, imprisonment, whipping, caning, amputation of hands or feet, or death (including by stoning). The SPC identifies murder, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, and blasphemy as capital offenses, although the law requires either a confession or the testimony of multiple pious Muslim male eyewitnesses to support a death sentence. Apart from caning, however, no capital or corporal punishments have been handed down or enforced since 1957. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty, announced by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in 2019, remained in effect during the year.
Most SPC sections apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, and they also are applicable to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempt from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers and pay zakat (obligatory annual almsgiving). The SPC states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation,” but without further definition.
The SPC incorporates longstanding Sharia-based domestic laws that prohibit drinking alcohol, propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close physical proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex. It prohibits “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”
Punishments included under the SPC have different standards of proof from the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, may be supported by a confession in lieu of witness testimony at the discretion of a sharia judge. If neither qualifying testimony nor a confession is available, the possible sentences are limited to caning, imprisonment, or fines.
The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which it defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and is its main defense against “extremism.” The government-run MIB Supreme Council seeks to spread and strengthen MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.
MORA’s Religious Enforcement Division leads investigations of crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. The RBPF investigates cases involving crimes not covered by sharia legislation, such as human trafficking. RBPF and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both the secular and sharia laws. In such cases, an “assessment committee” composed of secular and sharia prosecutors and secular and sharia law enforcement officers decides which court system will try the case. The deliberations of the assessment committee to determine whether specific cases will proceed through secular or sharia court are not public, and the government does not make public the committee’s bases for its decisions.
The government bans religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is available on MORA’s website. The SPC also bans most non-Sunni forms of Islam and any practice or display of “black magic.”
The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam. MORA officials state that the use of certain words such as “Allah” by non-Muslims does not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.
Under the SPC, Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion. Non-Muslims must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert or renounce their religion. If either parent converts to Islam, their children younger than 14 years and seven months automatically become Muslim.
The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks of leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information the registrar requests. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds. The Registrar of Societies, under MOHA, oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,400), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.
The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private places in which gatherings do not require approval.
The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 BND ($14,800), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam as well as the SPC itself.
Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith. All religious texts are listed as restricted items for import and require a government import permit before shipment.
The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum that are administered by the Ministry of Education, and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.
Ministry of Education schools teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children between the ages of seven and 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Non-Muslims are exempted from all religious study requirements and receive teaching on moral behavior. Non-Muslim students are still required to take MIB classes.
Ugama instruction in MORA schools is a seven-to-eight-year course that teaches the day-to-day practice of Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school. Under a 2012 government order, ugama instruction is mandatory for Muslim students between the age of seven and 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency; many students attend ugama schools in the afternoon after Ministry of Education schools have adjourned. Parents may be fined up to 5,000 BND ($3,700), imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year, or both, for failure to comply with the order. The law does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs. MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education.
Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction on beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam. Under the SPC, schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law requires that any person wishing to teach on matters relating to Islam must obtain official permission. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer private religious education in private settings, such as someone’s home.
All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to one Muslim and one non-Muslim parent. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.
Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (close physical proximity between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.
A regulation requires businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for an exemption if serving non-Muslims.
MORA has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and describes it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification). The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM/C. In his 2017 fatwas, the State Mufti declared that both male and female circumcision are required and specified that female circumcision involves a “small cut above the vagina.”
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In response to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Minister of Religious Affairs announced all mosques and other places of worship would close on August 7 until at least 70 percent of the population was fully vaccinated. As a result, many religious services moved online. Unlike for the closures mandated in 2020, MOHA and MORA did not inform members of minority religious groups about the rules for closing and reopening of churches and places of worship, and instead, they had to rely on press conferences and news articles for details.
By year’s end the government still had not ratified the UNCAT, which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014. Foreign Minister Dato Erywan stated, however, that the government was in the ratification process.
Legal sources reported that sharia courts continued to prosecute criminal, divorce and probate cases until August 7, when the country locked down to contain a second wave of COVID-19. Prior to the COVID outbreak, local media outlets reported on cases heard in the sharia and civil courts, but coverage of sharia court hearings ceased during the lockdown while reporting on civil court proceedings continued.
The government did not issue official or public condolences or acknowledge the death in May of the country’s first Catholic cardinal, Cornelius Sim. Cardinal Sim had led interfaith dialogues and gatherings of interdenominational faith leaders from churches throughout the country and frequently acted as the Christian community’s liaison with the government.
Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minority groups reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019, but they said the law continued to prohibit the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize Muslims or other non-Muslims. MORA announced 414 residents had converted to Islam in 2020, 94 of whom belonged to the Iban indigenous community who inhabit rural areas, areas where the sultan had called on MORA to do more to increase the spread of Islam. One non-Muslim said that some Muslims viewed COVID-19 as a curse from God which led to an increase in efforts to convert Christians to Islam, but also said that members of the Christian community in general believed they were under less scrutiny and pressure compared to when the SPC was introduced in 2019. The said the SPC’s blasphemy provisions could be used to constrain non-Muslim groups’ activities but expressed more concern about subtle government pressure than about the possibility of harsh punishments under the SPC.
The government continued to periodically warn the population about the preaching of non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism.
MORA awarded contracts worth more than 13.5million BND ($9.99 million) to local companies to build three new mosques in a virtual signing ceremony in October, adding to more than 99 registered mosques according to 2015 government data. Under the contracts, construction of the mosques would take two years and were projected to serve more than 6,000 congregants. The mosque construction fund was partially financed by monthly salary deductions from Muslim government workers, except those who took the necessary steps to opt out of automatic salary deductions.
MORA continued to provide all mosques with approved sermons for Friday services. The government required that registered imams deliver the sermons and forbade deviance from the approved text.
There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear a head covering (known locally as a tudong), and many women did so. When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards, Muslim females were required to wear a tudong. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.
As in past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the country’s sole Chinese Buddhist temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members (comprised of the members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and several other Chinese business associations). Members of the royal family publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with extensive coverage in state-influenced media.
The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic instructional materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. Authorities generally continued to ban the import of non-Islamic religious texts, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviated from the Shafi’i school of Islam. Customs officials continued to check personal packages entering the country to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or perceived sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.
Custom and Excise officers confiscated a Bible mailed to a foreign worker by his wife for personal use in October. Custom officials reported the worker could reclaim the Bible because it was for personal use, but the process required the claimant to obtain prior written approval from the RBPF, the Internal Security Department, and MORA’s Islamic Learning Center.
Christian leaders continued to state that a longstanding fatwa discouraging Muslims from supporting non-Islamic faiths inhibited the expansion, renovation, or construction of new non-Islamic facilities; in accordance with the fatwa, government officials slowed or did not process building plans and permits for churches. Christian religious groups said that authorities generally only permitted churches and associated schools to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety. The process for obtaining approval to renovate church buildings and associated school buildings remained lengthy and difficult, and there were continuing reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated requirements. With only six approved churches in the country, the last built in the 1960s before the country gained independence, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Several sources reported that schools associated with Christian churches had to pay government business taxes despite being nonprofit organizations. They said this measure was not applied to other nonprofit private schools with no religious affiliation. The Chinese temple was also subject to the same fatwa. Christian worshippers continued to report difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled.
The government reported that many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses on their transcripts could be advantageous. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.
Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. All church-associated schools were recognized by the Ministry of Education and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.
The Minister of Religious Affairs reported the ministry was researching and evaluating school schedules for religious schools in response to public online criticism regarding difficulties Muslim parents faced in sending children to MORA religious schools. Parents said children were forced to change school uniforms and eat lunch in the car while traveling from nonreligious schools in the morning to attend religious classes in the evening. Parents also reported they were often late to work after lunch due to religious school schedules.
Throughout the year, the government continued to enforce restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers.
Religious authorities again allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but they continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.
The government continued to offer incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing and welfare assistance. The government allocated travel funding so that those who could not participate in the Hajj due to COVID-19 travel restrictions during the year could do so in the future. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. According to government statistics, 414 individuals converted to Islam during the year, compared with 293 in 2020. Converts included citizens and permanent residents as well as foreigners. Government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (one that remembers and obeys Allah).
In a January roundtable meeting with members of LGBTQ community, participants discussed what they stated were societal pressures stemming from the country’s deep-seated Islamic culture and discussed MORA’s “raid” of a private party during which members of their community were targeted.
Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Islamic weddings continued to require sharia court approval, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, also required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.
Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.
The government continued to require residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity and were used in part to determine whether he or she were Muslim; for example, all ethnic Malays, including those traveling in the country, were assumed to be Muslim. Malays were required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.
Social media users criticized MORA’s December 22 instructions requiring shops to remove Christmas images and products one month after many stores had already started Christmas promotions. California-based Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf was among establishments the MORA official visited, prompting some social media users to call for greater religious tolerance. Although December 25 remained an official holiday on which government offices closed, including MORA, according to the social media accounts MORA officials stated the enforcement measures were needed to “control the act of celebrating Christmas excessively and openly, which could damage the faith of the Muslim community.” The government allowed Christmas decorations in private residences.
MORA faced online criticism after it punished a local nonhalal restaurant catering to non-Muslim customers for violating laws prohibiting dine-in service during Ramadan fasting hours. While similar incidents and the ensuing online criticism had occurred in previous years, comments were more numerous and personal during the year in the wake of the MORA Minister’s son receiving a five-year prison sentence for embezzlement and corruption.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.9 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 76 percent of the population identifies as Eastern Orthodox Christian, primarily affiliated with the BOC. The census reports Muslims, the second largest religious group, are approximately 10 percent of the population, followed by Protestants, including the Union of Evangelical Congregational Churches, Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches, and Union of Evangelical Pentecostal Churches, at 1.1 percent, and Roman Catholics at 0.8 percent. Nearly 95 percent of Muslims reported being Sunni; most of the rest are Shia, and there is a small number of Ahmadis concentrated in Blagoevgrad. Orthodox Christians of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church (AAOC), Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and other groups together make up 0.2 percent of the population. According to the census, 4.8 percent of respondents have no religion and 7.1 percent did not specify a religion. According to a 2019 report by the think tank Agency for Social Analyses, 74 percent of individuals identify as Orthodox Christians, 10 percent as Muslims, 13 percent as atheists, and 3 percent with other religious traditions.
Some religious minorities are concentrated geographically. Many Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) live in the Rhodope Mountains along the southern border with Greece and Turkey. Ethnic Turkish and Romani Muslims also live in large numbers in the northeast and along the Black Sea coast. Some recent Romani converts to Islam live in towns in the central region, such as Plovdiv and Pazardjik. According to the census, nearly 40 percent of Catholics live in and around Plovdiv. The majority of the small Jewish and Armenian communities are in Sofia, Plovdiv, and along the Black Sea coast. Protestants are widely dispersed. Many Roma are Protestant converts, and Protestants are more numerous in areas with large Romani populations. Approximately 80 percent of the urban population and 62 percent of the rural population identifies as Orthodox Christian. Approximately 25 percent of the rural population identify as Muslim, compared with 4 percent of the urban population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted except to the extent its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines or organizations that incite religious animosity, as well as the use of religious beliefs, institutions, and communities for political ends. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.
The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups seeking legal recognition.
The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for persons attacking individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith, carry out their rituals and services, or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may receive prison sentences of up to one year. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom to acquire or practice a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($58-$170). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine may range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($290-$2,900).
To receive national legal recognition, religious groups other than the BOC must register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies and management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances, property, and processes for termination and liquidation of the group. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon the court’s request. Applicants must notify the Directorate for Religious Affairs within seven days of receiving a court decision on their registration. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court, the country’s highest court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups with the local court, only that branches notify local authorities and local authorities enter them in a register. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. The Directorate for Religious Affairs and any prosecutor may request that a court revoke a religious group’s registration on the grounds of systematic violations of the law. There are 199 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.
Registered religious groups must maintain a registry of all their clergy and employees, provide the Directorate for Religious Affairs with access to the registry, and issue a certificate to each clerical member, who must carry it as proof of representing the group. Foreign members of registered religious groups may obtain long-term residency permits, but for the foreign member to be allowed to conduct religious services during his or her stay, the group must send advance notice to the Directorate for Religious Affairs.
The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups based on the number of self-identified followers in the latest census, at a rate of 10 levs ($6) per capita to groups that comprise more than 1 percent of the population and varying amounts for the rest.
Registered groups have the right to perform religious services; maintain financial accounts; own property such as houses of worship and cemeteries; provide medical, social, and educational services; receive property tax and other exemptions; and participate in commercial ventures.
The law does not consider unregistered religious groups. These groups may engage in religious practice, since there is no law prohibiting it, but they lack privileges that the law grants to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their names, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise. Some local regulations also restrict the groups, in breach of the law. Several municipalities, including Kyustendil and Sliven, prohibit unregistered religious groups from conducting any religious activities.
The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($120) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($870) for repeat offenses.
The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media; it does not address the rights of unregistered groups with regard to such media. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Dozens of municipalities, including the regional cities of Kyustendil, Pleven, Shumen, and Sliven, have ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature without a permit. The ordinance in Kyustendil remains in effect despite a 2018 Supreme Administrative Court ruling that it was unconstitutional. Burgas municipality prohibits the wearing of religious dress and symbols of unregistered religious groups. Some municipalities prohibit religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children.
The law states that every child has “the right to protection from involvement” in religious activities and prescribes that parents or guardians shall determine the religious attitudes of children up to 14 years of age. Between the ages of 14 and 18, children determine their religion by agreement between them and their parents or guardians. If such agreement is not reached, a child may apply to the relevant regional court to resolve the dispute.
By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required, to teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least 13 students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves the content of and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools, provided they meet government standards for secular education, and post-secondary educational institutions that meet the requirements for opening secular higher education institutions.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints and does not charge for its services. The commission’s decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. Upon accepting a case, the commission assigns it to a panel that then reviews it in open session. If the commission makes a finding of discrimination, it may impose a fine of 250 to 2,000 levs ($150-$1,200). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.
The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request that the Constitutional Court abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.
The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities.
The penal code prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press, or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 10,000 levs ($2,900-$5,800), as well as “public censure.” The propagation of “fascism or another antidemocratic ideology” is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 5,000 levs ($2,900). Courts have found that Nazism falls within the purview of “antidemocratic ideology.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 to 10,000 levs ($1,700-$5,800).
The law provides for restitution of real estate confiscated during the communist era; courts have also applied the law to Holocaust-related claims.
The law allows religious groups to delay until 2029 paying back outstanding revenue obligations owed to governments, for example, for social insurance payments or garbage collection or other municipal services, incurred before December 31, 2018.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On February 19, the Plovdiv Appellate Court confirmed the Pazardjik District Court’s 2019 verdict convicting 12 Romani Muslims on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, propagating Salafi Islam, characterized by the government as an antidemocratic ideology, and incitement to war. Two other Romani Muslims who were part of the original case did not appeal their convictions or sentences. The appellate court also confirmed the lower court’s sentences: 8.5 years in prison for the group’s leader, Islamic preacher Ahmed Mussa, and incarceration ranging from 12 to 42 months for 10 of the other Romani, all men. The 12th Romani, the only woman in the group, received a two-year suspended sentence. A final appeal of the case to the Supreme Cassation Court by both defendants and prosecutors was pending at year’s end.
In May, the Samokov Regional Court exonerated Church of God-Bulgaria pastor Nikolay Vasilev, who was charged in 2020 with holding an Easter service in Samokov in breach of the COVID-19-related ban on public gatherings. A prosecutor appealed the verdict in the Sofia District Court, where the case was pending at year’s end. Administrative proceedings in the Samokov Regional Court regarding fines imposed on other Church of God-Bulgaria officials relating to the same event were also pending.
In April, Sofia Municipality revoked its ordinance restricting the activity of unregistered religious groups, complying with a 2020 decision of the Sofia Administrative Court. In May, the Supreme Administrative Court reversed a 2020 decision of the Shumen Administrative Court and determined that a Shumen Municipality ordinance restricting door-to-door proselytizing did not violate the country’s constitution and laws, but it stated the provisions prohibiting religious activities by “non-traditional religious groups” (i.e., groups other than the BOC) inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children were illegal, since they discriminated against those religious groups. Jehovah’s Witnesses said the decision limited their right to express their beliefs and put followers at risk of being subjected to discrimination and aggression. On November 2, a five-member panel of the Supreme Administrative Court refused to review an appeal by Jehovah’s Witnesses of the court’s April ruling, stating the group had missed the appeal deadline.
Contrary to years prior to 2020, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not report any incidents against their members by government officials while engaged in proselytizing. They attributed the change to reduced public proselytizing and increased online activity due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In September, a publication in the online human rights platform Marginalia stated the national census had violated children’s rights for the benefit of religious groups by disregarding the legal right of children aged 14-18 to independent religious self-identification. According to the publication, the census instructions allowed adults to increase the number of members of a religious group by including their children, which directly affected the size of the government subsidy for that group until the next census.
The Office of the Grand Mufti and regional Muslim leaders again said several municipalities, including Sofia, Stara Zagora, and Gotse Delchev, continued to reject, on what they said were nontransparent grounds, their requests to build new, or rehabilitate existing, religious facilities. Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji said he had raised the issue in several meetings with Sofia Mayor Fandakova, including in March and October, but the mayor’s office had not provided by year’s end any information on the reasons for the city’s continued rejections of the construction applications.
The Office of the Grand Mufti said it was continuing to search for ways to litigate its recognition as the successor to all pre-1949 Muslim religious communities for the purpose of reclaiming approximately 30 properties, including eight mosques, two schools, two baths, and a cemetery seized by the former communist government. Pending a decision on who was the rightful successor to the Muslim religious communities, some courts continued to suspend action on all restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti. In May, the Targovishte District Court ruled against the Office of the Grand Mufti’s claim regarding a former mosque and Muslim school in Popovo, stating the office was not the proven successor. In October, the Varna Appellate Court confirmed the lower court’s decision. In October, the Tutrakan Regional Court ruled against the Office of the Grand Mufti’s claim to a former Muslim school converted to a secular school during communism, refusing to recognize the office as the proven successor.
In March, the Sofia Appellate Court rejected a restitution claim by the International Missionary Society Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement on a plot of land in Sofia. According to the court, the group had failed to prove that the three persons who bought the lot in 1934 had acted on behalf of the denomination despite the written declarations to that effect by two of those persons in 1949 and 1951. At year’s end, an appeal was ongoing at the Supreme Cassation Court, and the next hearing was scheduled for January 2022.
The national public school elective curriculum continued to provide three sets of classes in religious studies at various grade levels: one for Orthodox Christianity, one for Islam, and one for “good morals” (nonconfessional) developed by the Protestant NGO Bible League. In September, the Ministry of Education approved official school textbooks for students from sixth to twelfth grade in the program on Islam, grades one through five having been approved in 2020. Schools began using the full set of books on Orthodox Christianity and Islam from first to twelfth grade in the academic year that began in September. There were approved textbooks on nonconfessional religious education from first to third grade but there were no trained teachers to put them to use. The Evangelical Alliance, a group of 14 Protestant Churches and 16 Protestant NGOs, complained that the Ministry of Education delayed the training of teachers until 2022 and provided funding only for 40 percent of the candidates.
The Office of the Grand Mufti and the Evangelical Alliance expressed concern that they lacked the resources to meet the legal requirement for bringing their religious academies up to university standards by the end of the year and would be forced to close them.
In September, High Muslim Council chair Vedat Ahmed criticized schools and universities that invited BOC clerics to perform religious rituals, stating that many students were Muslims, and said it would be appropriate either to invite imams as well or refrain from any religious activity.
On February 13, Sofia mayor Fandakova issued an order canceling the Lukov March after it had begun on the grounds that the municipality had not approved the route proposed by the organizers, after the city was unable to legally ban the event in advance. Approximately 50 participants turned out for the annual demonstration to honor General Hristo Lukov, the 1940s antisemitic, pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions leader. Police divided the rally into smaller groups and escorted them to Lukov’s house, where the groups held a commemoration ceremony. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the then-ruling GERB Party, the Democratic Bulgaria Alliance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions denounced the rally. In February, the Sofia City Court rejected a prosecutor’s claim for deregistration of the rally organizer, Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, stating the claim failed to provide evidence of incitement of ethnic, racial, and religious hostility or other unconstitutional activity by the party. At year’s end, an appeal was proceeding in the Sofia Appellate Court.
In February, Blagovest Asenov, the leader of the National Resistance organization, accused on social media Jews and Jewish NGOs of being “anti-Bulgarian,” as well as of causing the “refugee crises in Europe” and “forcing the COVID pandemic” on authorities. Police issued Asenov a warning, but a prosecutor dismissed the case, citing lack of evidence of a criminal offense.
Shalom expressed “strong concern” regarding Alternative for Bulgarian Revival Party leader Rumen Petkov’s appearance for a TV interview on September 21 while wearing a yellow badge reading “Unvaccinated” on his lapel. Shalom said Petkov’s badge was a reference to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear during World War II and stated he was minimizing the Holocaust. In a subsequent public statement, Petkov denied the accusations of antisemitism and apologized to “everyone who felt offended.”
In October, the Office of the Grand Mufti expressed concern that municipal authorities had excavated the area around the historic Kursun Mosque in Karlovo and piled up a large amount of dirt in the yard, calling it a desecration. In a subsequent meeting with Regional Mufti of Plovdiv Taner Veli, Karlovo mayor Emil Kabaivanov explained the piles of dirt were the result of archaeological excavations dating back three years. At year’s end, the Office of the Grand Mufti’s litigation (which the office initiated in 2012) against Karlovo Municipality regarding ownership of the mosque was pending in the Sofia Appellate Court.
In February, Jewish organizations protested the “scandalous and slanderous content” of a question posed by Orlin Goranov, host of the game show “Last One Wins,” to contestants on Bulgarian National Television. Goranov asked for the name of the chess player who allegedly denied there were gas chambers in Nazi extermination camps and who claimed that Jews disliked working, especially in the camps, preferring others “to do all the work so that they can collect the profit.” According to press reports, the host was quoting, without naming him, the late world chess champion Bobby Fischer. The Director General of the station, Emil Koshlukov, apologized on Facebook and fired the scriptwriter for including the question. The show’s host also publicly apologized on the air.
According to NGOs, souvenirs exhibiting Nazi insignias and imagery continued to be widely available in tourist areas around the country and few local governments responded to complaints about them. In June and August, Shalom alerted the mayors of Primorsko and Pomorie, respectively, about such souvenirs, calling for their removal from the market. The Primorsko Municipality did not respond, but Pomorie authorities removed the merchandise.
In February, March, April, and November, the government allocated 11.42 million levs ($6.62 million) to fund repair and maintenance of BOC facilities in Karan Varbovka, Kyustendil, Nevestino, Granitsa, Godech, Pernik, Sugarevo, Zhablyano, Shipka, Veliko Tarnovo, Vidin, Muldava, Sofia, and Rila, as well as 3.34 million levs ($1.94 million) for repair and maintenance of Islamic facilities and for purchasing a building to house the High Islamic Institute.
The national budget allocated 42.65 million levs ($24.74 million) to registered religious groups for current expenses, such as employee and cleric salaries, educational activities, and cemetery maintenance, as well as capital investments, such as construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, compared with 33.34 million levs ($19.34 million) in 2020. Of the 42.65 million, 35.75 million levs ($20.74 million) went to the BOC; 6.35 million levs ($3.68 million) to the Muslim community; 220,000 levs ($128,000) to the Catholic Church; 176,000 levs ($102,000) to Protestant denominations; and 77,000 levs ($45,000) each to the AAOC and the Jewish community. No other registered religious groups received government funding. Evangelical Alliance representatives again said Protestants did not receive their fair share of government funding, possibly because they were not represented by a single organization, even though their numbers exceeded 1 percent of the population. The Religious Affairs Directorate held the subsidy allocated for Protestants and said it allocated portions of it (typically only for construction and repairs) to whichever denomination sent a request.
In April, ahead of Ramadan, President Rumen Radev invited Grand Mufti Hadji to meet with him “as a token of respect to the traditions and culture of Bulgarian Muslims.” The President subsequently issued an Eid al-Fitr greeting addressed to the country’s Muslim population, citing a national culture of tolerance and sharing.
In January, the Armenian Community Association objected in an open letter to the April 4 date the President had set for general elections, which coincided with Armenian Easter, stating it was a “sign of disrespect for Armenian religious customs and culture.” Pavel Gudjerov, the mayor of Rakovski, home to the largest Catholic community in the country, also addressed the President, urging him to change the date, but the President did not reverse his decree.
After the government’s term expired in May and the new parliament failed to form a government, the two caretaker governments succeeding it did not appoint a new national coordinator on combating antisemitism to replace the outgoing coordinator. In May, a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said the ministry would fill the coordinator position when parliament formed a regular government. In early November, another MFA official said the previous coordinator could not be replaced because he was appointed to the post by name. The MFA stated in mid-December it was unable to submit the draft decision establishing the position permanently to the Council of Ministers for adoption due to the elections in November and subsequent government formation process, but it expected to have a decree establishing the position permanently at the deputy minister of foreign affairs level in early 2022. At year’s end, the government had not filled the coordinator position.
According to press reports, the city of Vidin, with the approval of Shalom, was proceeding with a project using the equivalent of $6 million in EU funds to restore the crumbling synagogue in the city and convert it into a community and cultural center. The center, according to the plan, would include a permanent exhibition on the history of the Jewish community in Vidin, which once numbered approximately 2,000 members, although only approximately a dozen Jews remained.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 21.4 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2006 census, 61 percent of the population is Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 19 percent is Roman Catholic, 4 percent belong to various Protestant groups, and 15 percent maintain exclusively indigenous beliefs. Less than 1 percent is atheist or belongs to other religious groups. Statistics on religious affiliation are approximate because Muslims and Christians often adhere simultaneously to some aspects of traditional or animist religious beliefs.
Muslims reside largely in the northern, eastern, and western border regions, while Christians are concentrated in the center of the country. Traditional and animist religious beliefs are practiced throughout the country, especially in rural communities. The capital has a mixed Muslim and Christian population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the country is secular, and both the constitution and other laws provide for the right of individuals to choose and change their religion and to practice the religion of their choice. The constitution states freedom of belief is subject to respect for law, public order, good morals, and “the human person.” Political parties based on religion, ethnicity, or regional affiliation are forbidden.
The law provides that all organizations, religious or otherwise, may register with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (MATD), which oversees religious affairs. Registration confers legal status, and the process usually takes approximately three to four weeks and costs less than 50,000 CFA francs ($86). Religious organizations are not required to register unless they seek legal recognition by the government, but after registration they must comply with applicable regulations imposed on all registered organizations or be subject to a fine of 50,000 to 150,000 CFA francs ($86-$260). The ministry, through the Directorate for Customary Affairs and Worship, helps organize religious pilgrimages; promotes and fosters interreligious dialogue and peace; develops and implements measures for the construction of places of worship and the registration of religious organizations and religious congregations; and monitors the implementation of standards for burial, exhumation, and transfer of remains (which may include religious elements).
Religious groups operate under the same regulatory framework for publishing and broadcasting as other entities. MATD may request copies of proposed publications and broadcasts to verify they are in accordance with the nature of the religious group as stated in its registration. MATD also reviews permit applications by religious groups.
The government generally does not fund religious schools or require them to pay taxes unless they conduct for-profit activities. The government, however, provides subsidies to a number of Catholic schools as part of an agreement allowing students from public schools to enroll in Catholic schools when public schools are at full capacity. The government also provides subsidies to registered Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim (commonly referred to as “Franco-Arabic”) schools for teacher salaries, which were typically less than those of public-school teachers. The government taxes religious groups only if they engage in commercial activities, such as farming or dairy production.
Religious education is not allowed in public schools. Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant groups operate private primary and secondary schools and some institutions of higher education. These schools are permitted to provide religious instruction to their students. Schools (religious or not) must submit the names of their directors to the government and register their schools with the Ministry of National Education and Literacy. The government does not appoint or approve these officials, however. The government periodically reviews the curricula of new religious schools as they open, as well as others, to ensure they offer the full standard academic curriculum. The majority of Quranic schools are not registered and thus their curricula are not reviewed.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, security continued to deteriorate in the country, further weakening the government, according to media and experts. Following the terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 53 gendarmes in Inata (Sahel) on November 14, and a wave of civil society-led protests and demonstrations across the country, some peaceful and others violent, President Kabore appointed a new Prime Minister, and vowed to step up the fight against terrorism. According to sources, he reshuffled his cabinet and military leaders in an effort to establish a more effective “fighting” government and to satisfy protesters. During a parliamentary session on November 26, the Ministers of Defense and Security stated that the majority of those attacking security forces were from the country (Burkinabe) and expressed concern that security forces were hampered by the actions of Burkinabe on the ground who cooperated with extremist groups.
From August 9-13, trials involving 10 defendants facing terrorism charges began in Ouagadougou, the country’s first terrorism-related criminal proceedings. One defendant was acquitted, five other defendants were convicted and sentenced to between 10 and 21 years in prison. The court had not concluded trial proceedings for the remaining four by year’s end. One convicted defendant confessed to membership in Ansaroul Islam, considered a terrorist organization by the government and a U.S. government-designated terrorist organization, responsible for prior violent and deadly terrorist attacks. The defendant said he joined the group to “defend the Muslim religion.” He stated in the proceeding that he considered it a legitimate act to attack and burn a school and rob staff members because “they don’t pray and they have no religion,” and because the school is a government institution. More than 900 defendants facing terrorism charges remained in custody pending trial at year’s end.
The government stated that terrorists attacked religious institutions with the aim of dividing the population. On many occasions, representatives of the government acted with a stated intent to counter this influence and foster peaceful cohabitation between communities and followers of various religions.
President Kabore attended the second annual FAIB congress on August 8, during which FAIB President El Hadj Zoungrana condemned terrorist acts, thanked everyone involved in the fight against terrorism, and stated that “Islam is a religion of peace and respect for human life.”
On May 13, in a celebration during Ramadan, which coincided with the Christian Ascension holiday, Minister of State and Interior Clement Sawadogo commended the religious communities in the country for what he stated were the peaceful coexistence they had demonstrated. “When I see that Cardinal Philippe Ouedraogo has left his own faith’s celebration of Ascension Day to come here to commune with Muslims, it serves as a powerful symbol, and represents an advantage for our country which we must preserve. All believers must live in harmony, in peace, in joy so that our country is always a haven for peace.”
On July 21, Minister of National Reconciliation and Social Cohesion Zephirin Diabre and Minister of State and Interior Minister Clement Sawadogo attended the Eid al-Fitr (known locally as Tabaski) prayer ceremony in Ouagadougou. Sawadogo said, “[T]he government, through our presence, intends to commune with all the Muslims of Burkina Faso on this blessed day of Tabaski. It is an opportunity for us to show the gratitude of the government for all your prayers for us and for our country.”
The government allocated 75 million CFA francs ($129,000) each to the Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and animist communities, the same level as in previous years. Sources continued to state that this funding was meant to demonstrate equitable government support to all religious groups in the country.
On August 6, the government issued a decree integrating the traditional animist communities into ONAFAR, providing animist communities with representation in the government agency responsible for promoting interreligious dialogue as well as preventing and managing conflicts of a religious nature.
The government continued to routinely approve applications from religious groups for registration, according to religious group leaders, although the government indicated it had rejected some on “moral” grounds, such as the moral character of the person or group, lawful conduct of activities, and transparency in disclosing sources of income. Government officials indicated mosques had been closed as a result of application denials on moral grounds, but the central government does not maintain statistics on these closures.
On May 6, the government made a final decision to convey a disputed plot of land in Ouagadougou to FAIB for the construction of a mosque and community center to benefit the Muslim community. The government also committed to allocate a separate tract of land to the legal owner of the disputed land, a Christian. The parties had agreed to this arrangement, and according to Clement Sawadogo, Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralization, the government’s actions were intended to promote social cohesion and resolve tensions between Christian and Muslim communities resulting from the destruction of a mosque on the original plot of land in 2020. Some within the judiciary as well as some members of the Muslim and Christian communities stated they did not believe the government should involve itself in this legal matter. The Union of the Judiciary stated the ruling was “… a challenge to the independence and authority of the judiciary.”
In October, senior government officials indicated the government was monitoring preaching that could promote violence or intolerance on social media using ONAFAR. The MATD also announced the recruitment of a communication specialist to work on social media and strengthen the ONAFAR team.
The Director of Public and Political Freedoms within MATD stated in December that MATD was close to completing review of amendments to the law ensuring religious freedom for groups within the country’s secular government framework.
Domestic and transnational terrorist groups continued to operate throughout the year and increased their killings of individuals based on their religious identity, according to media reports. These attacks forced more populations to flee their villages, bringing more communes under the groups’ control, and preventing villagers from farming. The attacks spread to the south and west, the Cascades and the Boucle du Mouhoun Regions. Security experts stated that in the Est Region, terrorists/jihadis set up their own administrative structure requiring payment by the population of “zakat” or religious taxes. These groups included U.S.-designated terrorist groups Ansaroul Islam, Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS), Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and al-Mourabitoun. Although many attacks in the country went unclaimed, observers again attributed most to three terrorist groups: Ansaroul Islam, JNIM, and ISIS-GS. Media reported that terrorist groups regularly targeted Muslim and Christian clergy, religious congregations, houses of worship, teachers, local government employees, and schools. According to local residents, terrorist groups were also responsible for killing imams whom the groups accused of collaborating with government security forces.
Media reported a number of attacks on places of worship, religious leaders, and religious services. Militants ambushed a group of villagers gathered for a Muslim naming ceremony on May 18 and during the attack killed 15 Muslim men in the Adjarara area of Oudalan Province. This attack was initially widely reported in international media as an attack on a Christian baptism, although sources later confirmed that all victims were Muslims, the international media reports being in error. Local media further suggested that the motive for the attack could have been reprisal for villagers having provided information to the government on the movements of armed militants through the area.
On April 11, militants killed two persons they had kidnapped 10 days earlier in front of the mosque of Babonga, Yagha Province.
On May 30, terrorists linked to the JNIM organization killed the imam of Bouli, in the Centre-Nord Region, along with his son, the village chief, and member of the state-sanctioned armed group the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland. Two others in a neighboring village were also killed.
On May 30, violent extremists kidnapped three Christian worshippers in Sanipenga during a church service in the Est Region.
On July 21, militants killed a man in front of the mosque of Boudieri; they had kidnapped the man nearly eight months prior on the road between Namagri and Boudieri in the Est Region. On July 29, suspected Islamic State – Greater Sahel (ISGS) militants kidnapped two persons in Bognori, a village in the Sahel Region. They took the two hostages to the village of Wouro Djama where they killed one in public in front of village’s inhabitants, who were forced to watch. Afterwards, attackers threatened the villagers with similar treatment if they did not strictly follow Islam. All victims in these cases were Muslims.
According to the Ministry of Education, as of November 30, terrorist violence forced nearly 3,000 schools to close, depriving nearly 500,000 children of education. Minister of Education Stanislas Ouaro expressed concern that school closures had spread to parts of the country formerly free of violent extremist activity, particularly in the Cascades and Sud-Ouest Regions. In a number of attacks, militants singled out and killed individuals wearing Christian imagery such as crucifixes, according to media reports and church leaders. Some attacks took place at houses of worship, both Christian and Islamic, during prayers or other services. According to many observers, attacks also targeted Muslims whom they said the attackers believed were insufficiently rigorous in their practice of Islam.
Attacks against Christians forced some to adopt new practices in their religious observance to avoid violent extremists, according to media, NGOs, and the government. Members of the Parish Saint Paul of Sandikpenga in the Est Region learned of threats to their church building and rescheduled a planned Mass for Pentecost. An arson attack destroyed the church later that day. Local residents indicated the church subsequently closed and church leaders told members to pray in their homes until further notice.
Evangelical Christian pastor Aristar Lankoande, a member of the International Missionaries Society (IMS), reported that as of November 8, 552 evangelical churches had closed in the Est Region, and IMS had sent 422 of its pastors to minister elsewhere. Church members in the region were also encouraged to instead pray in their homes.
On March 4, militants disrupted the celebration of life ceremony practiced in traditional religion for a deceased villager in Kodjema, in Gnagnan Province.
On March 6, attackers forcibly entered the village of Souloungou, also in the Gnagnan Province, and told the local population they would be forced to adopt Islamic dress and other religious traditions. This was one of several reported incidents of armed groups forcing local populations to adopt the practice of Islam according to their standards under threat of violence.
On April 29, violent extremists attacked the village of Solmonre in Sanmantinga Province during an iftar celebration, firing shots into the air and setting several houses on fire, including the local chief’s. Much of the village’s population subsequently fled the area.
On May 3, militants stopped a passenger bus in traveling between Diapaga and Fada, claiming they were searching for security forces. They then ordered the passengers not to get involved in conflicts between violent extremists and security forces and to adopt and practice Islam according to their standards.
On May 4, ISGS militants attacked the villages of Menzourou and Kaltewoute in the commune of Tin-Akoff, in Oudalan Province, Sahel Region. They killed the son of a marabout (Muslim religious teacher) in Menzourou and burned down several houses before retreating into the countryside.
On May 7, suspected JNIM militants took control of Douma in the commune of Tangaye, 28 miles from Ouahigouya in the Nord Region and forced the closure of schools unable to meet their demand for teaching in Arabic.
On May 20, nearly 160 militants suspected of belonging to the Katiba Macina group (an Ansar al Dine affiliate) invaded the village of Douma in the Nord Region, demanding that the women wear a veil and threatening to kill husbands whose wives did not comply. They also ordered men to adopt specific dress and grooming standards, including wearing short pants and growing beards. On May 25, militants forced populations at Tankougounadie-centre in the Sahel Region to do the same and adopt sharia.
On June 1, the populations of several predominantly Muslim villages in Tapoa Province were forced to flee after militants threatened them with violence if they did not follow certain commands. These included outlawing any religions besides Islam, forcing young people to marry, prohibiting the use of alcohol, banning the breeding of farm animals they considered offensive under Islam, and requiring villagers to join their fight.
On June 4, a video circulated widely online depicted three victims of an attack in Deou, Sahel Region, whose right hands had been amputated, allegedly by ISGS-linked militants. In the video, the victims were accused of robbery and the amputations were the punishment meted out under sharia, the first such reported incident in the country.
On June 6, suspected ISGS militants forcibly entered Lonadeni, a village in the Est Region, and threatened to kill anyone who engaged in indigenous religious practices.
On Sept. 15, a Catholic priest reported to local media that his local diocese had been forced to close a parish after violent extremists invaded its community and threatened non-Muslims with violence, forcing local clergy to flee mainly to Gaoua in the Sud-Ouest Region. He also reported that several towns in the region were unable to celebrate the Catholic feast of the Assumption out of fear of an attack by violent extremists.
On October 15, militants allegedly linked to Katiba Macina forced the closure of four schools in the villages of Gosson, Daka, Yankore et Bossoum in Sourou Province when they refused to adhere to their religious demands and teach in Arabic.
On October 25, unknown individuals destroyed an animist religious idol in the city of Orodara, which was meant to bless local families.
On November 4, a widely circulated video depicted the amputation by violent extremists of the hand of a young man accused of theft.
On Christmas Eve, priests, catechists, and some worshippers from the Parish of Titao, in the Lorum province, Nord Region, were forced to flee, helped by security forces, to avoid being attacked by jihadis. “This is the first time in 50 years that we did not celebrate Christmas at Titao,” stated Father Victor Ouedraogo, the manager of the Research Center for Interfaith and Social Dialogue (CRDIS) at Ouahigouya in the Nord Region.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 57.1 million (midyear 2021). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately 6 percent are Christians, primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations. Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately 4 percent of the population. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of Judaism, traditional Chinese religions, and animist religions. The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the deposed civilian government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016. There are an estimated 600,000 stateless Rohingya in Rakhine State, and according to the United Nations, as of August 31, Bangladesh continues to host approximately 860,000 Rohingya refugees.
There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist, and some Karen are Muslim. Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Magway, and Mandalay Regions, practice Islam. Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions are animists, observing traditional indigenous beliefs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The 2008 constitution, drafted by the military junta in control at that time, states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides to all citizens the right to profess and practice their religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.
The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings “of any class” by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.
All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities. The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs, whether religious in nature or not, and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs.
The law bars members of religious orders, such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group, from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.” The election law states that a candidate’s parents must be citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth; authorities have denied citizenship to most Rohingya, thus precluding most Rohingya from running for office.
Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”
The law bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC or Ma Ha Na), whose members are elected by monks.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture’s Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools. Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies may start the school day with a Buddhist prayer.
Monastic schools, run by monasteries and nunneries in all states and regions of the country, serve approximately 320,000 students. Those that are officially registered use the official state primary and middle school curricula but also teach about Buddhist culture and ways of life.
Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. One of the laws bans polygamy, making it a criminal offense to have more than one spouse, which observers say targets the country’s Muslim population. A marriage law specifically for Buddhist women stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance. A religious conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards. The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion. A population control law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing.
To register a Buddhist marriage, a couple must appear in court with their national identity card (which identifies their religion as Buddhist) and attest that they are married. Buddhist marriages may be registered at any court with relevant jurisdiction. Christian marriages are regulated under a Christian marriage act dating from 1872, and to be recognized, must be officiated by a Christian religious figure registered with the Supreme Court. There are only a handful of ministers or priests registered in the country. The officiating church must submit details of a marriage from its registry to the Supreme Court within three months of the marriage ceremony solemnization, and only the Supreme Court is permitted to recognize Christian marriages, making it nearly impossible for a Christian marriage to be legally recognized. Muslim marriages officiated by a mullah are recognized under the law with no court filing requirements.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As was the case in previous years and following the military coup in February, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. Both before and following the military coup and the deposition of the civilian government in February, there were reports of threats, detentions, and violence targeting minority religious and ethnoreligious groups, which, according to media reports, increased under the military regime. According to local and international NGOs, there continued to be almost complete impunity for regime security forces that had committed or continued to commit abuses, including what the NGOs said was genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim. Local media outlet The Irrawaddy reported in February that one of the military units responsible for the 2017 atrocities and other human rights abuses in Rakhine State against Rohingya was also involved in crackdowns on prodemocracy demonstrators following the military coup.
According to Agence France Presse (AFP) and other news sources, in February, following reports that military forces beat, arrested, and used rubber bullets against protestors in and around Myitkyina, the capital of predominantly Christian Kachin State, a Catholic sister knelt before security forces, begging them not to shoot children. In March, Pope Francis said, “I, too, kneel on the streets of Myanmar and say, ‘Stop the violence,’” referencing the actions of the Catholic nun from the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier.
In April, local media reported that residents found the body of a Muslim muezzin, who was wearing a dress and lipstick, hanging in a mosque in Yangon Region. Residents said regime security forces likely killed him. Also in April, according to local media outlet Myanmar Now, soldiers opened fire inside the Sule Mosque in Mandalay’s Maha Aungmyay Township, killing Ko Htet, who was sleeping inside the mosque when the attack started approximately10 am. He had spent the night there after fasting, as Muslims around the world began observing Ramadan. According to the news report, witnesses said soldiers started firing immediately after storming the mosque. Two others were injured in the shooting.
On May 24, local media reported that military forces bombed Sacred Heart Church in Kayan Tharyar, Kayah State, killing four persons who had taken refuge there, and that on May 28, government forces fired upon the Church of Saint Joseph in Demoso, Kayah State, and killed two men who were collecting food for displaced persons. Local media also reported military forces killed a volunteer from a Catholic seminary on May 29, in Kayah State. After the Sacred Heart bombing, Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, issued a statement on May 25, asking the junta not to target places of worship. Violence involving houses of worship and other holy sites continued however, including on June 6, when the military reportedly shelled another church in Kayah State that it stated was being used by “terrorists” to launch offensives against the regime.
In June, the opposition NUG issued a statement promising to “seek justice and accountability” for crimes the military committed against more than 740,000 Rohingya. In addition, the NUG said that if it returned to government, it would repeal a 1982 law denying citizenship to most Rohingya. In August, the NUG issued a statement in which it held the military regime responsible for having “perpetuated crimes against humanity,” including war crimes committed based on religion.
In June, Pope Francis lamented the suffering of IDPs in Burma, stating, “Churches, pagodas, monasteries, mosques, temples, just as schools and hospitals, [must] be respected as neutral places of refuge.”
In September, regime soldiers shot and killed Baptist pastor Cung Biak Hum in Chin State while he attempted to extinguish a fire started by artillery fire. A soldier reportedly cut off his finger post-mortem to remove his wedding ring. The general secretary of Chin Baptist Convention told local media, “The military should carefully distinguish between their enemies and civilians… If they continue this way, fighting could grow into a larger ethnoreligious conflict.”
In October, The Irrawaddy reported Buddhist Gurkha student Lin Paing Soe, from Kyaukse Technological University, was tortured to death while detained by regime security forces. According to the report, regime security forces used racial and religious slurs and beat him “inhumanely.” An October Associated Press report on the military’s use of torture included a story of an unnamed monk who described unsanitary conditions in detention and how the military forced him to defrock and “kicked him in the head, chest, and back.”
In February, regime security forces arrested Myanmar Now reporter Kay Zon Nway for her coverage of peaceful protests in Yangon and placed her in solitary confinement for staging a “hunger strike.” Her lawyer told local media that she was fasting for Ramadan. Kay Zon Nway was released from Insein Prison in June after 124 days in detention.
On February 1, Myanmar Now reported that regime security forces arrested and detained three senior influential monks, including vocal critic of the military Ashin Ariya Vansa Bivansa, better known as Myawaddy Sayadaw. Authorities sentenced him to six months in prison and subsequently released him on August 2, after serving his full sentence for defamation.
In May, the online Buddhistdoor Global journal and multimedia platform reported that the military raided a monastery in Mandalay purported to be associated with prodemocracy activities. A teacher from the monastery reported that he was beaten repeatedly by three members of the military before being sent to an interrogation center at Mandalay Palace.
In June, The Irrawaddy reported that regime security forces arrested three Christian pastors from Kachin State who organized a prayer for “peace in Myanmar.” If convicted, the pastors could serve up to three years in prison for incitement. Regime security forces released all three in October.
In August, Myanmar Now reported the military issued, then rescinded, plans that would have installed Buddhist monks at military checkpoints in Mandalay. Local monastics objected to the plan, with one Mandalay monk saying that the military was “…trying to exploit the religion for their political gains.”
On September 16, in Mandalay, armed men in plain clothes, accompanied by uniformed military, arrested Reverend Thian Lian Sang, an ethnic Chin pastor. According to the Baptist World Alliance, following his arrest, regime security forces entered Sang’s home, where they confiscated money and cellphones belonging to the Church and the pastor’s family.
In November, a regime court extended by two years the prison sentence of prominent Buddhist monk Ashin Thawbita, who was charged earlier in the year with violating a section on defamation in the telecommunications law for his comments on social media the military perceived to be defamatory. His new sentence stemmed from an additional charge of incitement under the penal code.
Religious leaders also expressed concern that religious assembly could be misconstrued by the regime as prodemocracy organizing. In June, according to multiple local media reports, soldiers in Mandalay beat Buddhist monks for reciting suttas (religious discourses) interpreted as antiregime.
According to media reports, in April, Christian leaders said regime security forces raided and searched several Christian churches across the country, including in Kachin State and Mandalay Region. Regime security forces reportedly said they were looking for individuals involved in illegal activities and for antiregime activists.
According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region experienced destruction of homes and places of worship and suffered physical violence by the military. Myanmar Now reported in December that in Thantlang, Chin State, the military had destroyed at least seven churches, in addition to 842 homes, in a series of arson attacks starting in October. In November, the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) condemned the military’s attacks on civilians, citing as an example the military’s continued shelling of the town of Thantlang and its setting fire to homes and churches. According to BHRN, the attacks were part of the “Kill all, burn all, and destroy all strategy the military is documented using against other ethnic and religious minorities.”
In October, media sources reported regime security forces arrested seven workers from the Catholic Church social agency Caritas (Karuna) who were on a mission to provide aid for IDPs in Kayah State. At year’s end, Church officials were working to secure the release of the aid workers. Local residents with knowledge of the situation said that it was common for the military to inflict violence against local residents in the area and make arbitrary arrests based on religious affiliation.
According to AAPP, the military regime had detained 35 Buddhist monks for participating in protests, as well as nine Christian leaders, and a Muslim religious leader for unexplained reasons since the military coup as of year’s end
According to the IIMM, it collected and analyzed more than two million pieces of evidence of possible human rights violations or abuses in Burma from 2019-2121, including reports of approximately 1,300 victims and eyewitnesses in Rakhine, Chin, Shan, Kachin, and Karen States.
According to The Union of Catholic Asian News, more than 100,000 persons, many Christians, remained in camps for displaced persons in Kachin and Shan States, while another 100,000, mostly Karen Christians, were in camps across the Thai border.
In August, the regime amended the penal code to include a provision on genocide. According to legal experts, the decision reflected an attempt to ease international pressure on the regime as it faced a genocide charge at a United Nations court for genocide and crimes against humanity committed by members of the military against Rohingya. According to The Irrawaddy, the provisions of the law include up to the death sentence for killings committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial, or religious group.
The regime enforced at least three different laws to limit gatherings, including religious gatherings. A gathering of five or more persons – including for religious reasons – could result in charges and punishment under a natural disaster management law (three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both), a communicable diseases prevention and control law (six months’ imprisonment or a fine), or Article 188 of the Penal Code – defiance of a government order (one to six months’ imprisonment or a fine).
On October 7, the UNHCR reported that regime authorities continued to confine approximately 148,000 Rohingya in 21 displacement camps. Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya remained extensive, with authorities requiring them to carry special documents and obtain travel permits even to travel within Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside. According to humanitarian aid organizations, regime authorities made no new efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees during the year, most of whom remained in camps in neighboring Bangladesh. According to these organizations, under the military regime, there was no possibility for the voluntary, dignified, safe, and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya.
The regime’s General Administration Department reinstated legal action against Rohingya traveling without documentation, a reversal of an April 2020 order. For example, in September, regime security forces arrested 30 Rohingya traveling without documentation and sentenced them to two years in prison. In November, Myanmar Now reported that regime authorities in Buthidaung, northern Rakhine State, had tightened travel restrictions on local Rohingya, requiring them to obtain a permission slip from an immigration office to leave the township. According to one Rohingya interviewee, previously Rohingya residents had to obtain a recommendation from their village administrator to travel outside the township but now immigration officials had to grant permission as well.
Rakhine local media reported human smuggling of Rohingya from Rakhine State to Malaysia continued, including eight identified cases in October. Radio Free Asia reported in December that a court in Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State sentenced 109 Rohingya to five years in prison with hard labor after convicting them on illegal immigration charges. The refugees had fled Burma during the military’s 2017 crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and made their way to camps in Bangladesh; Burma’s navy intercepted them in late November as they attempted to reach Malaysia.
During the year, the regime tightly restricted external access to ethnic majority areas where religious minorities also live, including access by UN, humanitarian, and media organizations. Fighting between the military and some ethnic armed organizations, such as the Chin National Front, escalated after the coup, though it was difficult to categorize the increase in fighting as primarily religiously motivated. The United Nations reported that as of December 17, more than 296,000 persons were newly displaced since the coup, particularly in ethnic majority areas, including Kayah, Karen, Chin, and Shan States. According to UN reports, thousands more were displaced by year’s end, particularly in Kayah and Karen States in the southeastern part of the county. According to the Karenni Human Rights Group (KnHRG), as of the end of the year, more than 156,900 persons had been displaced since May, of which 95 percent were Karenni Christian, due to the escalation in violence between the military and ethnic armed organizations. According to The Union of Catholic Asian News, in April, more than 100,000 persons, many Christians, remained in camps for displaced persons in Kachin and Shan States, while another 100,000, mostly Karen Christians, were in camps across the Thai border.
The regime continued to restrict the right to freedom of association, including of religious groups. In the run-up to the November 2020 general elections, the now deposed NLD-led civilian government reinterpreted the law on registering organizations to require NGOs that received foreign funding to register with the government. After the coup, the regime required banks to report on all foreign funds received by both local and international NGOs. According to various religious groups and NGOs, the process to register an NGO remained lengthy and was often unsuccessful.
Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings. Buddhist leaders said obtaining such permission was more difficult for non-Buddhist groups. Representatives of religious groups said the need for multiple permissions, unclear authority, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.
According to local media reports, at least 30 churches and a mosque were damaged or destroyed during fighting between the military and joint ethnic armed organizations and opposition People’s Defense Force. CHRO reported that as of November, the military had destroyed 36 churches and Christian-affiliated buildings in Chin State. Similarly, KnHRG reported that as of December, the military had destroyed at least seven Christian churches in Kayah State.
In August, CHRO reported soldiers were camping in church compounds. They reportedly tore up Bibles, destroyed property, drank alcohol, and slaughtered livestock on church grounds. KnHRG reported similar incidents in the first week of December in Karenni State’s Demoso Township.
According to a BHRN report entitled Before Our Eyes, which it released in July, on February 28, eyewitnesses saw many military officers gathering around the gate of a mosque compound in Mandalay. They proceeded to shoot the gate open and advance into the compound. Eyewitnesses heard gunfire and saw military forces destroying the mosque’s interior. According to the BHRN report, on 18 March in Thingangyun township, police and military forces destroyed the doors of a Hindu temple.
According to local media and NGOs, there were no reports that the regime held perpetrators accountable for crimes against members of religious minority communities. NGOs also said that regime authorities prevented them from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings. In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the situation remained unchanged from 2019, with the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya, restricted by the regime. Restrictions varied governing the travel between townships of persons whom the government (before its removal in February) and the regime considered foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others in northern Rakhine State. Depending on the township, restrictions usually required the submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s immigration and national registration department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks but was issued almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists. Sources stated obtaining travel permits often involved extortion and bribes. Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine State if they were to visit.
According to NGOs, such restrictions, which continued under the regime, continued to impede the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods and education, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities. Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim continued to receive additional scrutiny on their movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion; obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.
According to various religious organizations and NGOs, services to process the registration of NGOs, whether religious or not, were unavailable during the year because of regime-imposed COVID-19 protocols. According to representatives of some civil society groups, NGOs refrained from registering because doing so would require providing extensive information on the staff to the regime, which they preferred not to provide.
According to CHRO, neither the government overthrown in February nor the subsequent military regime issued any permits to Christian groups to register and own land and properties. All such registration applications remained pending at year’s end, with some pending for more than 16 years.
In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes. As the democratically elected government had done before it, the regime Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture continued to restrict non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes.
Both prior to and following the military coup in February, COVID-19 restrictions limited access of members of minority religious groups to religious sites. This led to the suspension of applications by Christian groups to buy land in Chin State and Sagaing Region.
Sources continued to state that authorities of both the deposed democratically elected government and the regime generally did not enforce laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”
In June, the military regime ordered all primary schools to reopen following months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but approximately 90 percent of primary and secondary school students refused to enroll, many reportedly to protest against the military regime. Similarly, hundreds of university students refused to enroll, although it was unclear to what degree COVID-19 also played a role in their decision. In early July, following a third wave of COVID-19, the regime ordered all primary schools to close again; many schools did not reopen until the end of the year. Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere. At year’s end, the regime ordered all institutions of higher learning to reopen on January 6, 2022.
Due to continuing regime-imposed restrictions of movement on Rohingya, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools. Rohingya and Kaman children in central Rakhine State had physical access to only one high school, located in Thet Kae Pyin, Sittwe township, according to international observers. Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university, but Rohingya students could take a limited number of online courses. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students could attend classes and take examinations but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.
On September 24, military regime-appointed Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture U Ko Ko issued an order to monasteries and convent schools not to accept long-term guests and requiring that temporary guests register at the ward administration office. According to local media outlets, the order explicitly named the CRPH, NUG, and other prodemocracy organizations, making clear it was designed to prevent these institutions from becoming safe havens for prodemocracy supporters.
In February, the regime granted amnesty to several high-profile ethnic Rakhine politicians, including Dr. Aye Maung and writer Wai Hin Aung, sentenced to long jail sentences for high treason under the deposed NLD government. In September, local media outlets reported that the regime had dropped charges against and released promilitary, ultranationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, and several other monks. Media reports indicated that some Buddhist nationalists had joined a promilitary militant group called Phyu Saw Hti to assist the military regime in its counterinsurgency operations. The prior civilian government had charged Wirathu with sedition based on comments he made during a 2019 promilitary rally, where he criticized Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationships with foreigners and her wearing of high heels. According to press reports, Wirathu was widely known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and prejudice against Rohingya.
According to leaders of minority religious communities and human rights activists, during the COVID-19 pandemic, inconsistent enforcement and interpretation of COVID-19 pandemic regulations exacerbated communal disparities, with harsher outcomes for minority religious communities. In February, the regime-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar and Myawaddy News announced the regime had allowed the reopening of houses of worship. Some chose to remain closed due to COVID-19. According to media reports, Yangon authorities requested that Muslims observe Ramadan at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to additional government restrictions on all forms of worship, including Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, but sources reported punishments for violations were disproportionally applied to religious minorities, restrictions that continued under the regime. Although Muslims said authorities had granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha in prior years, COVID-19 restrictions prevented this activity during the year. Regime-controlled media continued to report frequently on officials and military personnel paying respect to Buddhist monks, offering donations at pagodas, and organizing “people’s donations” of money and food. Regime-controlled media also highlighted regime COVID-19 vaccination efforts. In August, The Irrawaddy reported that only citizens were eligible for the military’s nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program, which excluded noncitizens such as Rohingya.
Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions continued to require the applicant to list his or her religion.
Authorities continued to require citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. Citizens were also required to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves did not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, continued to face problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on their application for a citizenship card.
The regime halted the deposed government’s previous call for Rohingya to participate in the citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs). Under the civilian government, NGOs reported that authorities coerced or pressured Rohingya to apply for NVCs. Rohingya generally expressed distrust of any documentation process that did not affirm their citizenship or that would grant naturalized versus full citizenship, which carries fewer rights under law. NGOs documented past cases where Rohingya were forced to identify as “Bengali” when applying for an NVC, with the implication that Rohingya are viewed as “foreigners” not entitled to full citizenship rights. The few Rohingya who did receive citizenship through the NVC process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits and that they had to pay bribes at different levels of government to receive the document. The regime announced a citizenship documentation project in May, which, it stated, was a concerted, nationwide effort to issue household registration lists and national identification cards and a means to prevent the kind of voter fraud the military regime said occurred in the 2020 general election. According to the director general of the Department of National Registration and Citizenship, as of November 5, the regime had issued 171,149 household lists and 567,371 national registration cards. Authorities issued no citizenship cards to Rohingya through this program by year’s end.
Statements by some authorities before and after the coup exhibited Buddhist nationalist sentiment. In August, CINC Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech, “Most of us are primarily Buddhists in our country. The Buddha devotees were disheartened in their faith in Buddhism during the previous five years. Since the time we took power, we have emphasized religious affairs under the provisions of the constitution.”
Regime-controlled media continued to report frequently on officials and military personnel paying respect to Buddhist monks, offering donations at pagodas, and organizing “people’s donations” of money and food.
In May, The Irrawaddy reported that the regime released Michael Kyaw Myint, the leader of the Yeomanry Development Party detained by the deposed civilian government. Kyaw had previously served a year in prison after leading an anti-Muslim mob in Yangon.
According to local media, some ethnic armed organizations operating in the country continued to pose a threat to ethnic and religious minority groups. The AA continued to force local villagers, including Christian religious leaders, to construct roads without any pay for their labor and recruited villagers to attend military training camp. According to a local source, the AA also forced Christian religious leaders to attend its administration training, often holding them against their will.
In September, gunmen shot and killed Rohingya Muslim activist and community leader Mohib Ullah in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Ullah was known for his detailed compilation of abuses and atrocities committed in 2017 against Rohingya in Burma. According to press reports, his killers were likely associated with the insurgent group ARSA. Ullah spoke out against ARSA militancy and abuses in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.2 million (midyear 2021). According to the 2008 national census (the most recent), 62 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 21.6 percent Protestant, 2.5 percent Muslim, and 2.3 percent Seventh-day Adventist. Another 6.1 percent have no religious affiliation, and 3.7 percent belong to indigenous religious groups. The head of the Islamic Community of Burundi, however, estimates Muslims constitute 10-12 percent of the population. The Muslim population lives mainly in urban areas; most are Sunni, although there are some Shia communities as well as a small number of Ismaili Muslims in Bujumbura. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Church of the Rock, Free Methodist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Christians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Eglise Vivante, Eglise du Bon Berger, Hindus, and Jains. According to 2018 statistics from the Ministry of Interior, there are approximately 1,000 religious groups in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes a secular state; prohibits religious discrimination; recognizes freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; and provides for equal protection under the law regardless of religion. These rights may be limited by law in the general interest or to protect the rights of others, and may not be abused to compromise national unity, independence, peace, democracy, or the secular nature of the state, or to violate the constitution. The constitution prohibits political parties from preaching religious violence, exclusion, or hate.
By law, all religious celebrations and prayer sessions must not cause harm to the natural environment and must respect public order.
The government recognizes and registers religious groups through a 2014 law governing the operational framework of religious groups, which states these organizations must register with the Ministry of Interior. There is a 20,000 Burundian franc ($10) fee for registration. Each religious group must provide the denomination or affiliation of the institution, a copy of its bylaws, the address of its headquarters in the country, an address abroad if the local institution is part of a larger group, and the names and addresses of the association’s governing body and legal representative. Registration also requires identifying any property and bank accounts owned by the religious group. The ministry usually processes registration requests within two to four weeks. Leaders, administrators, or adherents of religious groups who continue to practice after denial of their registration application, or after a group has been dissolved or suspended, are subject to six months to five years of imprisonment, a fine, or both.
The law regulating religious groups provides additional specific registration requirements. Any new, independent religious group based in the country must have a minimum of 300 members to qualify. Foreign-based religious groups seeking to establish a presence in the country must have at least 500 members to qualify. The law prohibits foreigners from being part of executive and decision-making committees of religious groups at the national level.
The law on religious groups does not provide broad tax exemptions or other benefits; however, the financial laws exempt from tax goods imported by religious groups if the groups can demonstrate importation of the goods is in the public interest. Some religious schools have agreements with the government entitling them to tax exemptions when investing in infrastructure or purchasing school equipment and educational materials.
The official school curriculum includes religion and morality classes for all primary and secondary schools. The program offers religious instruction in Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam, although all classes may not be available if the number of students interested is insufficient in a particular school. Students are free to choose from one of these three classes or attend morality classes instead.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Authorities released former Seventh-day Adventist Church president Lameck Barishinga from prison in February; he had been arrested and imprisoned since October 2019 without formal charges. His arrest followed a dispute among leaders within the Burundi Seventh-day Adventist Church, including a disagreement over the disposition of church funds that led to violence among church members. The East-Central Africa Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church issued an official statement in February thanking God, the Government of Burundi, and people around the world for Barishinga’s release, characterizing his imprisonment as having been “for his faith.”
Media reported that police arrested approximately 40 followers of Eusebie Ngendakumana, also known as Zebiya, on October 12 and detained them in an Ngozi prison on charges of public disturbance after they attempted to visit a shrine in anticipation of a Marian apparition (appearance of the Virgin Mary). Ngendakumana, whom her followers described as a Catholic prophet, set up a shrine at her home in Businde, Gahombo commune, in Kayanza Province, stating that she had regular visions of the Virgin Mary on the 12th of each month, and urged followers to join her. Her followers, who had been deported from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Burundi in 2020 after five years spent in South Kivu and North Kivu Provinces in eastern Congo, said they feared for their safety in Burundi and believed that Businde is a holy place where they had to make a pilgrimage and commune with God. Community residents complained of noise levels and a lack of respect for their property on the part of Ngendakumana’s followers, which led to physical altercations between the groups, causing police to intervene and prohibit the followers from accessing the shrine. Police had sought to locate and arrest Ngendakumana for six years on charges of “inciting civil disobedience.” The group had not sought accreditation as a religious denomination because members stated they considered themselves members of the Catholic Church. Catholic Church representatives in the country stated publicly that Ngendakumana did not represent the Church.
Following disputes over the election of their next leader, representatives of the Islamic Community of Burundi (COMIBU) met with Minister of Interior, Public Security, and Community Development Gervais Ndirakobuca on October 16 to discuss its election plans. Disagreements on succession within COMIBU arose after the August 2020 resignation of the former mufti and legal representative of COMIBU, Sheikh Sadiki Kajandi, who resigned after being accused of selling COMIBU property and using the proceeds for personal benefit. The government then appointed Kajandi as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Sheikh Jacques Ya’quub Nahayo, deputy mufti, became COMIBU’s interim legal representative for a term of six months.
COMIBU’s electoral commission put forward two candidates for the position of mufti in January, and the Superior Council of Sheikhs put forward its candidate, Sheikh Yusuf Gihete, a former legal representative of COMIBU. Several days later, the deputy mufti asked the Superior Council of Sheikhs to withdraw Gihete from consideration, indicating only that the decision for withdrawal came from “higher up.”
In February, the COMIBU general assembly elected Sheikh Hassan Nyamweru as mufti, but the Ministry of Interior refused to accept and validate the results, stating that some individuals eligible to vote in the election were excluded from the opportunity to vote. Following the failed election, Minister of Interior Ndirakobuca agreed to a proposal by the deputy mufti for establishing a temporary management commission directed by the Superior Council of Sheikhs to lead COMIBU for one year on a nonrenewable basis. In October the minister invited the president of COMIBU’s general assembly and the 11 bodies that make up COMIBU to attend a meeting to find a solution for organizing elections. Media reported that many in attendance were not legitimate members of the 11 COMIBU bodies, inferring that such attendees were there to support the candidate favored by the government. The Minister of Interior directed that elections should be held within two weeks of October 16. Elections finally took place on November 13, resulting in the election of Sheikh Shabani Ali as the new mufti.
In a June meeting with religious leaders, Minister of Interior Ndirakobuca asked Muslim sheikhs to lower the volume of early-morning calls to prayer so as not to disturb the public while sleeping. At the same meeting, he asked Chris