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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religion and ethnicity in the country were often closely linked. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated that prior to the Taliban takeover, they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions.
According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. They said fears of violent societal repression had further increased since the Taliban takeover.
According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution, including harassment from neighbors and coworkers. They also said that following the Taliban takeover in August, relatives and neighbors who were aware of their identities were more likely to treat them harshly or report them to the Taliban, whether out of self-preservation or to curry favor with the Taliban.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, women of several different faiths, including Sunni and Shia Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. Clerics in numerous provinces preached that woman must wear modest dress and that the faithful should publicly enforce a strict implementation of sharia law. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts in urban areas, including in Kabul, before the Taliban takeover, in contrast to other more secure, Ghani administration-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and to increase their security in public. Prior to the Taliban takeover, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, considered by the religious leaders to be inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. Following the Taliban takeover, media reported instances of local Muslim religious leaders becoming more prohibitive of such activities.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, Ahmadiyya Muslims said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadiyya Muslims reported an increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community said they were able to intermittently perform weekly congregational prayer at a nondescript location in Kabul. According to international Ahmadiyya Muslim organizations with close ties to Ahmadi Muslims in the country, following the Taliban takeover, fear of persecution by the Taliban and its sympathizers had driven community members to refrain from worship at their center in Kabul. Approximately 100 Ahmadi Muslims departed the country in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover. As of year’s end, hundreds remained in country. Ahmadi Muslims said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadi Muslim representatives said they did not initially report or publicize these threats because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from Taliban representatives.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, Christian representatives reported public opinion, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches. Following the Taliban takeover, Christians described raids by Taliban on the homes of Christian converts even after they had fled the country or moved out. Christian sources stated the Taliban takeover emboldened intolerant relatives to threaten them with violence and inform on converts should they continue their practice of Christianity.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, some Sikhs and Hindus had refused to send their children to public schools because other students harassed their children, although only a few private school options were available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. According to community members, since the Taliban takeover, the small number of remaining Sikh and Hindu children did not attend school due to school closures related to COVID-19 and inclement winter weather.
Until the Taliban takeover, Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone known Jew departed Afghanistan in late August, saying he feared the Taliban would be unable to protect him from an ISIS-K attack.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, NGOs reported some Muslims remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
On August 31, the U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations.
In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence. On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar. U.S. government officials expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.” U.S. representatives also expressed concern over the status of religious minorities in a meeting with senior Taliban representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan, in December. The U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the “Taliban Political Commission” in Doha after August 31 through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit.
Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and its importance as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials promoted understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, senior embassy officials engaged leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities in June to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith freely.
Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to promote cooperation with ulema councils and emphasize the potential strong impact international Islamic scholars could have on moderating the Taliban. The embassy coordinated with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity. While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, the embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On May 20, the Ambassador, responding to a Taliban-attributed attack in Ghor in which three Hazara shopkeepers were killed, condemned via Twitter the Taliban’s and ISIS-K’s targeting of Hazaras. This followed the Ambassador’s condemnation of the May 8 attack on a Kabul girls’ school in a Hazara community that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 persons.
Following the Taliban takeover, the United States continued to support the Afghan people. The United States remained committed to providing humanitarian assistance and basic needs support to the Afghan people and continued to advocate for the need to respect the human rights, including religious freedom, of all Afghans through its engagements with the Taliban.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religious communities said interfaith relations were excellent.
Authorities reported that on April 19, Rudolf Nikollaj attacked individuals at the Dine Hoxha Mosque in Tirana with a knife following afternoon prayers, wounding five persons before police arrested him. Nikollaj, whose father is Catholic and mother is Muslim, had converted to Islam, according to his father, but was often prevented from entering mosques by worshippers who told him he was Christian. Nikollaj’s father told media his son had been depressed. In July, the Tirana prosecutor asked the Tirana District Court to put Nikollaj in a medical institution due to his history of mental health problems. In November the court accepted the prosecution’s recommendation.
According to an IRI report entitled Antisemitic Discourse in the Western Balkans released during the year, antisemitic statements in domestic media were rare, although there were some conspiracy theories regarding a Jewish American businessman’s role in influencing domestic politics and Jews controlling the world order and economy. Of 457 online media items studied between January 2019 and May 20, 2020, 17 (3.7 percent) contained what IRI determined was antisemitic content. Most media focused on Holocaust remembrance and the country’s good relations with Israel.
The Interfaith Council held several online and in-person meetings domestically and internationally on faith-related issues, such as a discussion on the country’s communist past and religion, as well as other topics, including the role of religious groups in combating trafficking in persons and countering violent extremism.
Together as the Interfaith Council and individually, religious communities provided books, food, and other donations to support institutions such as hospitals and families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with the State Committee on Religion, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era.
Embassy officials met with representatives of religious communities, including the AOC, AMC, Bektashi community, Catholic Church, and VUSH, to discuss interfaith and governmental relations, the challenges they faced regarding property legalization and restitution, and financial challenges caused by COVID-19 restrictions.
The embassy funded local organizations through grants to implement programs focused on developing community inclusivity, promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities, and emphasizing the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its programs and engagement with youth and religious communities to promote religious tolerance and harmony. As part of these programs, students at Islamic and AOC religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community. In January, Catholic officials reported that because of what they believed was growing intolerance of Christians, the Archdiocese of Algiers was unable to find a person willing to engrave a cross on the tombstone in Algiers of Archbishop Henri Teissier, who died in Oran in December 2020.
Several Christian leaders said some Muslims who converted or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity were assaulted by family members or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.
According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert back to Islam, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.
Media criticized religious communities they portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they considered government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.
EPA leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages, for example in the Kabylie region, continued to prohibit Christians from being buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians opted to be buried under Islamic rites so their remains could stay near those of their families.
Some Christian leaders stated they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. The Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, site of a fort and Catholic chapel, and the Pierre Claverie Center, a Catholic church and community center, in Oran hosted frequent nonreligious community events and reported Muslims frequently participated alongside Christians.
Protestant leaders said other faiths privately expressed support, and the EPA again reported excellent interfaith dialogue within the religious community. The EPA reported some local authorities expressed regret for church closures but stated they were duty bound to follow government directives, regardless of their personal opinions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. They also discussed church closures, registration concerns related to minority religious groups, the impact of constitutional changes, and jailed activists. In April, embassy officials requested to meet with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Worship to discuss the inability of some religious groups to register, but they did not receive a response.
The then Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities, including the Catholic and Anglican Churches, the EPA, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.
Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious roles of women with religious and political leaders, as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance. Specifically, the embassy used its cultural engagements to emphasize tolerance and its social media engagements to promote the benefits of diversity and inclusion, and it held iftars during Ramadan with members of the country’s different religious communities.
On November 15, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Algeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community continued to rely on two Islamic prayer rooms that it rented in Andorra la Vella and in Escaldes-Engordany.
The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking members of that community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona reiterated the importance of religious tolerance in periodic in-person and virtual meetings and other communications with officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs; Social Affairs, Housing, and Youth; and Justice and Interior, as well as the Office of the Ombudsman. Consulate general staff discussed the implementation of the law pertaining to equal treatment and nondiscrimination with representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing, and Youth and raised continued concerns about the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.
In periodic communications and meetings with representatives and human rights NGOs, consulate general officials discussed the groups’ views on issues pertaining to their exercise of religious freedom in the country, including the lack of legal status for religious groups other than the Catholic Church and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.
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.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During the year, several religious groups, in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Communication, held an ecumenical dialogue and participated in an interfaith social action initiative called Abraco Solidario (Solidarity Embrace), which provided food to vulnerable populations affected by the severe drought in the southern provinces of Cuando Cubango, Cunene, Namibe, and Huila. Participants included the Council of Christian Churches in Angola, the Evangelical Alliance, and Catholic organizations Caritas, and Justice and Peace.
Several faith-based organizations linked to the Catholic Church and the Protestant religious group Congregational Evangelical Church in Angola formed the Plataforma Sul (Southern Platform) to advocate for more efficient government and social responses to problems affecting rural communities and minority ethnic groups resulting from the widespread drought, such as food shortages.
In August, the human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Friends of Angola (FOA) organized a roundtable on religious freedom in the country. Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim leaders participated, as well as representatives of other NGOs. FOA presented recommendations from the participants to President Joao Lourenco, members of the National Assembly, and INAR, all calling for changes, such as recognition of Islam as an official religion, improved government dialogue with mosques around the country, no preferential treatment for any religious group by the government, creation of an independent body to regulate national religious affairs, and updates to the 2004 law on religious freedom. The government had not responded to the recommendations by year’s end.
In addition to the Catholic radio station Ecclesia, which broadcasted in 16 provinces, other Catholic (Vatican Radio and Maria Radio), Methodist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Tocoist radio stations also operated in the country under government licenses. Several religious groups had radio shows on secular radio and TV stations, such as the Jehovah Witnesses and the IURD.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials engaged with government officials throughout the year. In meetings and communication with officials from INAR and other government agencies, embassy officials encouraged the government to further ease registration requirements for religious groups and discussed the status of religious groups pending their official recognition, the implementation of religious freedom legislation, continuing COVID-19 restrictions on places of worship, and the status of closed mosques and IURD temples.
Embassy officials also engaged with religious communities and civil society representatives throughout the year. They spoke with religious leaders and NGOs from several provinces, including Luanda, Benguela, Huila, Cuando Cubango, and Cunene, as well as with representatives of multiple religious groups and organizations such as the Congregation of Christian Churches in Angola, the IURD, the Order of Angolan Evangelical Pastors, Jesuit Refugee Services, COIA, and the Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch. In these meetings, the main topics related to government recognition of religious groups, the IURD intradenominational split, and the effect of COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups. In August, embassy officials participated in a roundtable discussion on religious freedom organized by FOA.
The embassy promoted religious freedom on its website and through social media platforms. It used social media posts to promote the principle of religious freedom as a universal right on International Religious Freedom Day.
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.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity often overlap, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
A video posted April 7 on YouTube showed an electronic music event recorded on March 20 on the grounds of the Saint Magar Armenian Monastery, the only Armenian monastery in Cyprus. According to the RTCYPP, the video stirred negative reaction online among the Armenian community and news outlets. In a RTCYPP-released joint statement, the five constitutionally recognized religious leaders of Cyprus condemned what they termed the monastery’s misuse and called for protection of all places of worship against vandalism, misuse, and desecration.
The TSPA continued to report societal discrimination, including verbal harassment, toward Protestants. The TSPA again said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced societal criticism and feared losing their jobs. The TSPA continued to report many members preferred to remain silent about their faiths and beliefs. The TSPA also reported police continued to closely monitor its activities and occasionally visited representatives to inquire about church activities and attendance levels.
During the year, there were few pilgrimages and meetings across the “green line” due to pandemic mitigation measures.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The embassy promoted religious freedom on social media and met with representatives of the “MFA” and the Vakf to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from the Sunni and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss access to religious sites and instances of religious-based discrimination.
Embassy officials continued to engage with the office of the Mufti of Cyprus, who also heads the “Religious Affairs Department,” to discuss cooperation among religious leaders and access to religious sites.
The Ambassador hosted an iftar on May 10 for Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay and other prominent members of the Turkish Cypriot community, which highlighted the U.S. commitment to advancing freedom of religion and interfaith dialogue and reinforced the Secretary of State’s April 12 message that the United States is committed to strong relationships with Muslim communities around the world.
The Ambassador met the Head of Religious Affairs and Mufti of Cyprus, Ahmet Unsal, on October 19 to reiterate U.S. support for religious freedom, encourage Unsal’s participation in the religious leaders’ dialogue, and stress the importance of interfaith cooperation for the Cyprus peace process and building trust between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.
Following the posting to YouTube in April of the “techno party” at the Saint Magar Armenian Orthodox Monastery, the Ambassador stated publicly her deep dismay about the incident and expressed support for religious leaders’ call that all places of worship across Cyprus be protected. She issued a statement that the embassy “strongly condemns the misuse” of the monastery, and “Freedom of worship is a fundamental value, and we echo the call from religious leaders that all places of worship, in use or not, be protected against misuse, vandalism, and desecration.”
All references to place names within this report are for reference purposes only and are meant to convey meaning. They should not be interpreted as implying or indicating any political recognition or change in longstanding U.S. policy.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During the year, media reported the country experienced overall increases in antisemitic incidents. According to media and DAIA, in January, individuals forcibly stopped an Orthodox Jewish family traveling by car from to La Falda to La Cumbre in Cordoba Province and yelled “[expletive] Jews, get out of here. Death to the Jews!” When the father of the family left his vehicle to attempt to calm the situation, the assailants beat him and continued to shout epithets. After his children tried to intervene, they too were beaten. According to the report, the father and children managed to get back into the car and later filed a police report. Authorities later arrested the suspected assailants but took no further action through year’s end. DAIA denounced the incident.
On February 19, actor and singer Nicolas Pauls posted on Instagram a cartoon depicting a gigantic sleeved arm with a Star of David on it and a hand pressing down on dozens of persons with the caption, “To know who rules over you, simply discover whom you may not criticize.” Martin Souto, a television host and friend of Pauls, reposted the picture. Both faced intense criticism from social media, and both later apologized publicly.
According to vis-a-vis news portal, in March, an unidentified woman rammed her car into another car in which two Orthodox Jewish women were traveling in downtown Buenos Aires. According to a witness, after the Orthodox Jewish women exited their car, the assailant pulled off the sheytl (wig worn by Orthodox Jewish women) of one of the women and then pushed her to the ground, shouting, “You [expletive] Jew. I’m going to kill you; you should all have died in the Holocaust!” Police at first ordered the female assailant to leave but later arrested her after she tried to run over the two Jewish women.
On March 2, unknown vandals damaged the sanctuary of Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Lomas de Zamora, Buenos Aires Province, stealing crowns from statues of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus.
On May 22, journalist Hugo Ojeda published an article entitled, “Song to Palestineuschwitz,” that compared Israeli actions in Palestinian territories to Nazi concentration camps, adding that Israel’s “ethnic cleaning operations … exceeded the crimes that the genocidal Nazis of the past century inflicted on gypsies, communists, homosexuals and jews [sic].” DAIA condemned Ojeda’s article, and the publisher Pagina 12 later deleted the article. Ojeda made no public apology.
In June, the Israeli Ambassador remarked during a panel at the College of Law in La Plata that the country was breaching its trade obligations by restricting shipments of meat to Israel. In response, the owner of a chain of butcher shops and former Justicialist Party politician, Alberto Samid, tweeted, “The best that could happen is that the Jews no longer buy meat from us… the world does not want to sell them anything. They are a disaster as clients.” Samid did not apologize for his remarks despite receiving widespread public criticism. In April, Samid accused pharmaceutical company Insud CEO Hugo Sigman of selling COVID-19 Astra-Zeneca vaccines to the “gringos.” Samid wrote on Twitter, “This MOISHE has no limits. He never gets tired of stealing from us!!!! When are we going to go to Garin [the town where Insud is located] to block his laboratory?”
On June 3, unknown individuals spray-painted an evangelical Christian church in Neuquen Province and several Catholic institutions in San Luis Province during a day of nationwide protest against gender-based violence. The Secretariat of Worship decried the vandalism in a statement on social media, noting that it distracted from the demonstrators’ message promoting women’s rights.
On July 26, DAIA objected to the use of Anne Frank’s likeness during an episode of Showmatch, a gameshow on the private television station El Trece. Producers projected a photograph of Anne Frank alongside a contestant singing about women “who don’t leave the house.” This incident was reported to the public defender. The show’s producers issued a joint communique with the Anne Frank Center in Buenos Aires calling the episode an “unintentional error” and pledging to use it as a “learning experience.”
In August, evangelical Christian groups, including ACIERA, denounced a television production for Netflix entitled El Reino (“The Kingdom”), stating it fomented stereotypes and prejudices against evangelical Christian groups. The plot depicted a fictional evangelical Christian pastor of questionable ethics who runs for president.
On August 23, prominent lawyer Alejandro Fargosi attacked parliamentarian and human rights activist Myriam Bregman as a “militant leftist Jew.” Fargosi’s comments were widely criticized on social media, both by political figures and Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and President Fernandez expressed his solidarity with Bregman on Twitter. Bregman told local media that Fargosi never apologized.
On August 27, lawyer Gregorio Dalbon made antisemitic comments during a radio interview. Dalbon, whose clients included President Fernandez and Vice President Fernandez de Kirchner, accused the Jewish community of bribing a prosecutor in charge of the investigation of a violation of quarantine by President Fernandez, his wife, and friends. DAIA condemned Dalbon’s comments. On August 31, Dalbon publicly apologized, after apparently meeting with DAIA officials. According to media, on September 2, a group of judges requested Dalbon’s suspension from the Argentine Bar Association for these and what they stated were other offensive comments.
In September, individuals were caught trying to steal 223 bronze plaques from headstones in La Tablada Jewish Cemetery in Buenos Aires. The week before, more than 100 headstones had been smashed. AMIA leaders implored local authorities to provide more security at the cemetery, saying it appeared to be a “free zone.”
A September 15 article from the University of Buenos Aires’ student media criticized the lack of Muslim viewpoints in local media during events in Afghanistan. The article, noting a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, described an incident in which a Muslim student was heckled as she stepped from a bus with, “Be careful, she has a bomb!”
On September 24, unknown vandals damaged the sanctuary of the Cathedral of San Maron in the Retiro neighborhood of Buenos Aires and stole items from the church. The CEA and Secretary of Worship Oliveri denounced the vandalism.
Interreligious groups such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, as well as indigenous religious groups and CALIR, continued to work on increasing opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges. CALIR issued statements denouncing acts of vandalism against religious institutions and sponsored local conferences, including a regional forum on religious freedom held on October 28-29.
In October, Jews, Christians, and Muslims jointly painted over Nazi symbols that had been placed on Jewish gravestones in the Jewish community of Santa Fe cemetery. According to Horacio Roitman, Santa Fe’s DAIA representative, this response to the acts of hatred was “owed to the whole society.”
According to a University of San Martin study released in June, nearly 40 percent of the population believed that “Jewish businessmen” were benefiting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Behind the coronavirus pandemic, there are figures such as Soros and laboratories of Jewish businessmen who seek to profit financially,” 30 percent of respondents said they concurred “strongly.” An additional 7 percent agreed to some extent with the statement. Of the 43 percent of respondents who disagreed, 38 percent completely rejected the statement, and 19 percent said they either did not know or were indifferent. The study’s main author, Ezequiel Ipar, said he was surprised by the “magnitude of antisemitic sentiment,” particularly among youth.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with government representatives, including from the MFA’s Secretariat of Worship and human rights office, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and interfaith cooperation. In meetings with government officials, the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials discussed tolerance and understanding among the country’s many religious groups, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination.
In July, the Charge d’Affaires toured a COVID-19 vaccination center hosted by the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center in Buenos Aires and met with its leaders. They discussed the relationship of members of the center with the government, the community, and other faith groups.
In July, embassy officials attended an online commemoration to mourn the victims of the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA. The embassy and AMIA also collaborated in September for an AMIA-produced remembrance video for the victims of 9/11, and the Charge d’Affaires delivered remarks alongside AMIA president Eichbaum at an in-person memorial event. The Charge said, “In our grief, the spirit of unity with like-minded partners like our friends at AMIA strengthens our resolve to continue to fight extremism and make the world a better, safer place for our children.” In September, embassy officials met with DAIA, AMIA, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country and ways in which the embassy could support communities of all faiths.
Embassy outreach included virtual conversations with religious and community leaders, including those of the CEA, the Church of Jesus Christ, ACIERA, the Islamic Center of Argentina, the NGO Islam for Peace, DAIA, and AMIA. In the meetings, embassy officials discussed the status of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and ways to promote them. The embassy’s social media accounts also promoted respect for religious diversity.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some religious minorities, such as Seventh-day Adventists and several evangelical Christian groups, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported that public attitudes toward them had generally improved compared with the previous year and said there was little or no negative media coverage concerning them. While NGOs said there were fewer antisemitic social media posts than in the previous year, there were some antisemitic references in posts criticizing a Jewish, U.S. citizen businessperson.
The evangelical Word of Life Church, which members of the prior government accused of having a role in organizing the 2018 revolution, however, was the object of ongoing hate speech and vilification by anonymous social media accounts opened specifically to target them, according to Church leaders. The hate speech – including accusations of links with Azerbaijan and vilification for supporting anti-Covid-19 vaccination efforts – was posted on platforms such as Telegram, YouTube, and Facebook. Unknown individuals also created a Facebook account falsely attributed to the Church’s leader, Senior Pastor Artur Simonyan, that espoused offensive views. The Church reported the hate speech and the falsified account to the relevant social media companies, but the companies said they did not find evidence that their standards had been violated. Simonyan said he had requested an official verified badge for his Facebook account – an emblem Facebook adds to pages to verify that they are authentic – to prevent the creation of more accounts falsely attributed to him but that the company had told him that his social media traffic was not sufficient to warrant a badge.
On February 18, the NSS terminated a criminal investigation it had launched in 2018 – on charges of incitement of religious hatred – into the creation of a Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. The NSS concluded the case lacked the elements of a crime.
Members of the Jewish community reported a rise in antisemitism since the onset of intensive fighting with Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020, an increase that the Jewish community and public media largely attributed to Azerbaijani use of Israeli-produced weapons. Jewish community members stated that antisemitic slurs were again posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous, antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. Members of the Jewish community also reported antisemitic comments directed at them on public transport.
According to representatives of religious minorities, there were fewer instances of groups targeting religious minorities for political purposes during campaigning for parliamentary elections in June than in prior elections. Religious minority activists stated that during the campaign, an opposition figure who had never held elected office and whom a representative of a civil society group characterized as increasingly irrelevant, stated that religious organizations took an active part in overturning the government in 2018 and would play a key role in the elections. He singled out Word of Life as particularly active. He also stated that “pastors tell the congregations whom to vote for, and they all do,” and that “even Jehovah’s Witnesses interfere in the political process,” adding that minority religious groups were funded from abroad. He referred to both the Word of Life and Jehovah’s Witnesses as “sects,” a term these religious groups did not use to describe themselves and which was generally perceived as pejorative.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some religious groups increased their online presence, generating both positive and negative reactions in online comments. Religious minority leaders stated that since the beginning of 2020, there had been less verbal targeting of religious minorities, both on and offline, as the individuals who had previously targeted them largely pivoted to discussing the aftermath of the 2020 fall fighting and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In December 2020, the International Republican Institute released a nationwide poll examining public opinion on topics including human rights and hate speech, with a specific focus on social media. The poll was conducted in August 2020. According to the poll, 6 percent of the respondents agreed that freedom of thought, conscience, and religion was always violated (the question did not specify by whom), while another 45 percent said the violation occurred during a specific period; 33 percent said it occurred before the 2018 revolution, 6 percent said after April 2018, and 6 percent said during the 2020 state of emergency decreed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same poll found that 55 percent of respondents believed that the rights of religious minorities were either very protected or somewhat protected in the country, and 18 percent believed that religious minorities were not at all protected or somewhat not protected, with the rest refusing to answer. There was a difference in the perception of protection between members of the AAC (74 percent said they were protected) and members of other religious groups (58 percent said they were protected). Of those surveyed, 77 percent indicated that they had not seen cases of insulting, threatening, or hostile behavior toward a person based on his or her religion or belief. According to 35 percent of those surveyed, religious minorities were often or sometimes targeted by hate speech, while 53 percent said that religious minorities were never or rarely targeted. Forty-one percent believed religious minorities needed special protections from hate speech.
A minority religious group again reported societal and family pressure as the most significant deterrent to its members’ freely practicing their belief.
Both the Hebrew- and Armenian-language sides of Yerevan’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial were defaced on February 12, for the third time in five months. In contrast to similar incidents in 2020, government officials criticized the act, restored the monument, and arrested a suspect. Then Yerevan mayor Hayk Marutyan issued a statement saying, “The desecration of any monument is completely unacceptable, especially memorials related to minorities living in our city.” Then Parliamentary Vice Speaker Alen Simonyan also condemned the act, calling it a “crime against universal values” and saying that “those who committed this crime should be held to account.” Former Prosperous Armenia Party member Naira Zohrabyan, a member of the Armenia-Israel friendship group, said that “regardless of our attitude – and it is definitely negative – towards Israeli arms sales and overt military and political support to Azerbaijan … [the] memorial cannot be desecrated,” adding, “I bow before the memory of the innocent victims of the Holocaust.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as in the previous year and contrary to years prior to 2020, there were no incidents of verbal harassment toward the group’s members. The group halted all public activities in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On July 6, the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), a local NGO, held its Annual Media Award Ceremony for the best coverage of issues related to the freedom of religion or belief, awarding nine winners for their coverage of tolerance, peaceful coexistence, and diversity in the country. According to human rights NGOs, EPF’s religious tolerance and nondiscrimination initiative, which began in 2015, had had a positive impact on media coverage of religious issues in the country.
One Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, served all Islamic groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to advocate religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, and political party representatives. Embassy officials engaged government officials from the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport and the Office of the Human Rights Defender to discuss the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites of significance to Armenian communities. Embassy officials raised with government officials the cases of criminal prosecution of Yezidi and Baha’i leaders and monitored their trials.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly consulted the AAC, as well as minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Church of Jesus Christ; Yezidis; the Jewish community; Apostolic Assyrians; Pentecostals; and Baha’is, as well as individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. On social media, the embassy posted messages by the President and Secretary of State of the United States highlighting the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy officials also discussed religious freedom with human rights NGOs, including addressing religious discrimination faced by minority religious groups and the impact of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on religious groups and religious sites that were significant to Armenian communities. Embassy officers participated as members of the EPF Annual Media Award jury and spoke on the importance of religious freedom in the ceremony to support coverage of religious tolerance in the media.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In February, a group of men in Western Sydney, purportedly members of the Indian community, attacked four Sikh students. Police investigated the attack but did not label it a hate crime. Community leaders said divisions within the Indian-Australian community had grown, accusing “Hindu nationalists” of using Facebook and WhatsApp to spread divisive rhetoric targeting minority religious groups within the community, including Sikhs and Muslims.
In August, after a cluster of COVID-19 cases emerged at the Islamic al-Taqwa College, Principal Omar Hallak told media that for the second year running, families and students received “racial comments” on social media, blaming the Muslim community for Victoria’s sixth lockdown.
Twenty to thirty white supremacists rallied in a Victoria national park in January, chanting white power slogans and “Heil Hitler.” The group timed the rally to coincide with the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Police did not charge the group, stating the individuals did not break any laws; however, state Premier Daniel Andrews told media there was evidence “evil and wicked” antisemitism was on the rise in Victoria.
In August, the Victoria government’s “COVID Commander” apologized to Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community after naming the group among those who tested positive for the virus during a COVID-19 media briefing, saying it was a “poor choice of words.”
Melbourne Jewish organizations reported an increase in antisemitic messages and social media posts after news reports emerged featuring video footage of an engagement party in August in the Jewish community that broke the state’s COVID lockdown rules.
In March, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network filed a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission against Facebook under the national Racial Discrimination Act for direct and indirect discrimination and liability for hate speech. At year’s end, the commission continued to investigate the complaint. The network also sent Facebook a letter in March outlining its concerns about the spread of hate speech and dangerous conspiracy theories directed towards Muslims on the site.
In Melbourne, Victoria, an antisemitic group placed stickers during an August 21 anti-lockdown demonstration with the Star of David and a QR code linking to a video claiming the Jewish community was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The ECAJ reported 447 antisemitic incidents involving threats or abuse during the period October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021, compared with 331 in the October 1, 2019 to September 30, 2020 period. According to the council, incidents increased in several more serious categories, including direct verbal abuse, harassment, and intimidation (147 compared with 128 in 2020), graffiti (106 compared with 42 in 2020), and stickers/posters (72 compared with 28 in 2020). Physical assaults remained at the same number (eight).
The Community Security Group (CSG), which oversees the specialized and specific security needs of the Jewish community in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia under the auspices of the ECAJ, released a report on antisemitic incidents in 2020 in which it stated there were 356 reported incidents throughout the country. The CSG recorded a 21 percent decrease in antisemitic incidents compared with 2019.
In May, police opened an investigation after closed circuit television recorded an unidentified man wearing a balaclava putting up posters around Perth’s northern suburbs that included imagery that was hostile towards Jews. By year’s end, the perpetrator had not been arrested due to what police described as difficulties in identifying him.
The federal census form included “Greek Orthodox” as the only Christian Orthodox religious group, omitting other groups such as Coptic, Macedonian, Russian, Serbian, and Ukrainian. In Perth, the Orthodox religious groups that were omitted raised concerns about the form.
Uyghur Muslims reported harassment and threats in the country from the Chinese Communist Party.
The Australian Human Rights Commission published a study in July entitled, “Sharing the Stories of Australian Muslims,” based on a national survey of the country’s Muslims. The study found 80 percent of survey participants experienced some form of unfavorable treatment based on their religion, race, or ethnicity. The most common situations in which respondents experienced unfavorable treatment were when dealing with law enforcement (50 percent); in the workplace or when seeking employment (48 percent); at a shop or restaurant (43 percent); or online (43 percent).
The Victoria State Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission received 44 complaints involving religion from July 2020 to June 2021, an 18 percent increase from the previous period. Of these complaints, 19 occurred in the provision of goods and services, 13 in education, eight in employment, and four in accommodation.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy and consulate staff engaged with government officials to advance religious freedom issues and promote religious tolerance, including use of social media in response to COVID-19-related pandemic restrictions and lockdown measures that had an impact on the religious community. They also engaged with religious leaders, faith communities, and groups on religious tolerance issues and to promote religious freedom.
On May 23, the president of the Uyghur Association of Victoria hosted the Melbourne Consul General for an event with community members, discussing the importance of countering threats to religious freedom. Social media posts on the embassy and consulates’ engagement related to Uyghurs reached 110,000 persons with 8,000 engagements.
In September, the Perth Consul General spoke at the Multicultural Eid al-Adha Carnival in Perth, one of the largest multicultural events held in Western Australia with more than a thousand attendees, highlighting the importance of religious tolerance and the important role religious diversity plays in Australia and the United States. In May, the Perth Consul General attended the University of Western Australia Muslim Students Association community iftar and discussed ways to promote diversity, inclusion, and religious tolerance.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 20 antisemitic and three anti-Muslim crimes reported to police in the first half of the year. In all of 2020, there were 36 antisemitic and 16 anti-Muslim crimes, compared with 30 and six such crimes, respectively, in 2019. The ministry said its figures included only incidents that were reported to it and in which authorities filed criminal charges, and the ministry attributed all the crimes in the three years to right-wing extremists. Most incidents, according to the ministry, involved hate speech. The ministry did not provide details on any of the incidents.
The IGGO’s Documentation Center on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism reported that there were1,402 anti-Muslim incidents in 2020 (1,051 in 2019). The 2020 data were the most recent available. In 2015, the first full year in which it collected such statistics, IGGO reported 156 anti-Muslim incidents. The IKG reported 585 antisemitic incidents (550 in 2019) in the same year. From January to June, the IKG recorded 562 incidents, more than twice the 257 in the first half of 2020. Most incidents in 2021 consisted of hate speech or insults on the internet, although there were also 11 cases of violent threats and eight physical assaults. The data were the most recent available. Both groups included incidents regardless of whether they were reported to police or criminal charges were filed. Most 2020 antisemitic and anti-Muslim cases concerned hate speech and insinuations of violence on the internet (1,019 cases), followed by insulting language and property damage. Eight cases involved physical assaults. The IGGO reported men were more likely to experience anti-Muslim behavior on the internet, while Muslim women were more likely to experience it in person in significant part because of their visible face or head coverings.
The IKG reported antisemitic incidents in the first half of the year included eight physical assaults, 58 cases of property damage, 154 mass mailings, and 331 threats. Examples of antisemitic incidents included one in Vienna in May in which a group of teenagers were apprehended for throwing rocks at a Jewish family in traditional clothes, and antisemitic graffiti at the Vienna Jewish Museum in May. The IKG attributed the increase in incidents in part to antisemitic messages at demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions.
In July, the Ministry of Interior presented its first report on hate crimes. The report listed 1,936 hate crimes between November 2020 and April 2021, primarily directed against persons of a different religion, opinion, or ethnicity. The report stated 309 of the cases were religiously motivated.
In May, two days before the annual event commemorating the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, police disbanded a demonstration against COVID-19 restrictions attended by approximately 30 persons in Mauthausen after the organizer played a Hitler video.
In May, on the International Day against Racism and Violence, the Ministry of Interior reported several antisemitic postings on its Facebook site and launched investigations to identify the authors.
In May, demonstrators chanted “Allahu Akbar” and “Child Murderer Israel” and waved Palestinian flags during an anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian rally in Vienna. The IKG appealed to its members to stay away from the area of the demonstration and warned that the political situation in Israel could pose a threat to Jewish communities in Europe. Police launched investigations into the use of antisemitic slogans during the demonstration, while Integration Minister Raab and then Interior Minister Karl Nehammer warned that the right to assemble should not be abused to make antisemitic statements. Authorities arrested and questioned 11 individuals but released them without filing charges.
In May, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel held demonstrations with pro-Palestinian groups to protest Israeli house evacuations in East Jerusalem.
In a video on Twitter that became publicly known in January, Martin Sellner, head of the pan-European nationalist Identitarian movement, widely described as right-wing extremist, called People’s Party member of parliament Martin Engelberg an infamous hypocrite, antipatriotic traitor, despicable person, and “destroyer of the homeland” who has “abandoned any Christian values.” Sellner was reacting to a December 2020 statement in which Engelberg criticized FPOe Parliamentary Floor Leader Kickl for not distancing himself from the Identitarian movement. Sellner also praised Kickl for “taking a stance” against persons like Engelberg. EU and Constitution Minister Edtstadler condemned Sellner’s message as antisemitic and also called upon the FPOe and Kickl to distance themselves from the Identitarian movement. In June, Engelberg obtained an injunction from the Vienna Commercial Court that ruled that Sellner must cease the slanderous statements about Engelberg.
In September, the Brussels-based NGO Action and Protection League issued the results of its European antisemitism survey based on data from December 2019-January 2020. According to the survey, 18 percent of 1,000 respondents ages 18-75 in Austria said they had negative feelings towards Jews, and 26 percent said they would be “totally uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable” with having Jewish neighbors. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents the degree to which they agreed or disagreed. The proportion who responded “strongly agree” or “tend to agree” with the following statements were: “The interests of Jews in this country are very different from the interests of the rest of the population” (26 percent); “there is a secret Jewish network that influences political and economic affairs in the world” (30 percent); “Jews have too much influence in this country” (21 percent); “Jews will never be able to fully integrate into this society” (28 percent); “Jews are more inclined than most to use shady practices to achieve their goals” (22 percent); “many of the atrocities of the Holocaust were often exaggerated by the Jews later” (17 percent); “Jews are also to blame for the persecutions against them” (19 percent); “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes” (40 percent).
At the July presentation of a Council of Europe survey on online hatred against Muslims conducted among Muslim associations in eight European countries, the council’s special representative on antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred cited the country’s “Islam map” as a negative example fueling discrimination. The study stated the authors of hate postings were usually “anti-migration, right-wing groups, and – especially in Austria – the Identitarian movement.”
A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society Against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO that described itself as an organization working against harm caused by “destructive cults” such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to the general public and provide counseling for former members of such groups. All provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults.”
In October, the Graz Provincial Court for Criminal Matters convicted a Syrian man of assaulting Graz Jewish Community president Elie Rose in Graz in 2020 and vandalizing the Graz synagogue and a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex community center. The court sentenced him to three years in prison, stating the man could not be dissuaded from his anti-Jewish sentiments. In response to the attack, the Graz Jewish Community continued to receive additional police protection, and the government continued to provide orientation and values courses on antisemitism for refugees.
According to the IGGO report covering 2020, in June of that year a woman insulted and hit a Muslim woman on the head with a newspaper, causing her hijab to slip off on one side. The woman complained that none of several persons sitting in a nearby sidewalk cafe came to help her. In September 2020, a woman assaulted another woman wearing a headscarf on a city bus in Vienna, spitting on her, pulling on her headscarf, and shouting she should go back to Turkey. Property damage cited in the report included an arson attack against a Somali cultural association and prayer room in Vienna in May 2020.
A report presented in June by the NGO Initiative for Discrimination-Free Education listed a total of 186 cases of discrimination in schools in 2020 (403 cases in 2019), of which it attributed 15 percent to anti-Muslim sentiment and 2 percent to antisemitism. While the NGO said the sharp drop in total discrimination cases was due to the reduced physical presence of students in schools due to COVID-19, the percentage of incidents motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment (approximately 31 percent of total discrimination cases in 2019) and antisemitism (approximately 11 percent of total cases) also dropped significantly. Examples included statements by a physics teacher in Vienna who said in 2020 in front of her Muslim students that Muslims were responsible for a November 2020 terrorist attack in Vienna by a man police identified as an ISIS sympathizer. In another example, a sports teacher suggested to a 12-year-old student who was wearing a headscarf that she should go to another country if she wanted to continue wearing it.
The organizers of the annual May gathering of Croatians and Bosnians in Bleiburg, Austria to commemorate Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed in 1945 canceled the event after parliament passed a resolution in 2020 prohibiting the event.
In June, a court in the Carinthian provincial capital of Klagenfurt convicted a man of neo-Nazi activity and illegal possession of weapons and sentenced him to a 19-month prison sentence. The man had a Nazi symbol tattoo on his testicles.
In January, the court in Klagenfurt convicted a man of neo-Nazi activity and sentenced him to 24 months in prison, 16 months of which were suspended. The man had performed the Hitler salute in 2019 and had a swastika tattoo.
In January, the Vienna Criminal Court issued a six-month suspended prison sentence on incitement charges for an imam whom it convicted of making antisemitic statements in a sermon in 2018. The imam said, “Allah hates the Jews; they are the worst kuffars (unfaithful).”
Fourteen Christian groups, consisting of the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and eight Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches, continued to meet twice a year within the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria to discuss religious cooperation. The Christian groups coordinated with other religious groups and the government to create a unified set of COVID-19 restrictions on all religious services in 2020 and 2021. Baptists and the Salvation Army had observer status on the council. Two permanent working groups on “Religion and Society” and “Media” remained in place.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials – including from the Federal Chancellery’s Office of Religious Affairs; the Federal Chancellery’s Ministry for Women, Family, Youth and Integration; the Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and the Ministry of Interior – to discuss religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities. Topics included the concerns of religious groups, integration of Muslim refugees, cooperation with religious groups in combating terrorism, and measures to combat antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
The Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires met with religious group representatives from the IGGO, IKG, and Roman Catholic Church to discuss their relations with the coalition government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue, as well as how their communities were handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Embassy officers also met with religious youth groups, such as the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria and the Jewish Student Association, to discuss issues such as antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Embassy officers met with Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders to discuss interreligious relations, especially relating to the rise of antisemitism and the government’s strategy combating “political Islam.”
Embassy representatives continued to serve on the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote Holocaust remembrance and education.
The embassy continued its engagement with the Muslim Youth Organization of Austria (MJOe) to promote religious dialogue and tolerance both in-person and virtually. In February, the embassy cohosted a virtual live event with the MJOe featuring an American professor who spoke about the important role of youth in social movements. The speaker shared lessons from the U.S. civil rights movement with religiously diverse youth audiences across the country.
In continuing to highlight members of diverse faith groups, the embassy’s Women’s History Month social media campaign featured two Muslim Austrian women, including the president of MJOe, as well as a youth reporter and former participant in an embassy-sponsored exchange program. Their video commentaries were shared across embassy platforms to an audience that is not often exposed either to Muslims or to women from other religious groups.
The embassy also continued to work closely with the Jewish community to promote religious tolerance and fight antisemitism. In April, the Charge d’Affaires was interviewed for a Mauthausen Committee video created as part of World War II commemoration events. In September, together with a local NGO that focuses on antisemitism and the Holocaust, the embassy hosted a discussion with a group of Holocaust survivors. Family stories and personal memories shared during the program are to become part of a podcast project to reach younger audiences. The embassy amplified the event on social media, which garnered attention from several influential Jewish entities in Vienna.
In July, embassy staff hosted an event with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss Holocaust education. In May, the embassy again supported the annual commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp through messages on its social media channels that focused on the importance of religious freedom and Holocaust remembrance.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated citizens and civil society organizations continued to tolerate and, in some cases, support financially “traditional” religious minority groups, such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics. These sources also said that some individuals viewed groups with less of a historical presence in the country, such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals that NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers also continued to press the government to implement a civilian alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. They met with SCWRA and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding problems in the registration process for smaller religious communities and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. The Ambassador consistently underscored to the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the importance of granting unimpeded access to religious and cultural sites to UNESCO representatives and international journalists.
The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, a civilian alternative to military service, and relations with the SCWRA. The embassy protested the expulsion of a U.S. citizen who was active in the religious community because of an expired (nonrenewed) visa.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some private entities required employees to either be vaccinated against COVID-19, which Rastafarians said they viewed as a violation of their religious beliefs, or pay for their own weekly tests. Rastafarian leaders said those entities discriminated against employees who did not comply.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy representatives met regularly with government officials from the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Discussions included promoting inclusive communities with a respect for human rights and religious diversity in the country.
Embassy officials met with representatives from the Muslim, Rastafarian, and Jewish communities, and with civil society leaders to discuss religious freedom, including the importance of governmental and societal tolerance for religious diversity.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Non-Muslim religious community leaders again reported that there was ongoing societal pressure on individuals not to convert from Islam. Those who did so were unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.
Both anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. Anti-Shia posts described Shia opponents of the government as “traitors,” “agents of Iran,” “terrorists,” “killers,” “criminals,” plotters,” and, occasionally, “rawafid” (a derogatory term describing Shia who refused to accept the early caliphs). Anti-Sunni posts described the royal family and its supporters as “nawasib” (a derogatory term describing Sunnis who are hostile to the family of the Prophet Muhammad).
NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have a negative economic effect. Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among members of their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia, exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.
In February, the Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), incorporated in Dubai. The AGJC president was Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, a citizen of Bahrain. On August 22, Bahraini Jews held services in the newly renovated synagogue in Manama for the first time since 1947, with the participation of diplomats, members of Jewish communities throughout Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and Bahraini and Emirati Muslims. In October, the AGJC organized the first Jewish wedding in the country in 52 years. The event, conducted under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, which identifies itself as “the world’s largest kosher certification agency,” was the first strictly kosher wedding in the country’s history.
The government-supported NGO King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence held a conference in December entitled “Ignorance is the Enemy of Peace,” focusing on religious freedom. The center conducted programs on combating antisemitism in the wake of the government’s normalizing relations with Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords.
According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although not for conversion from Islam or for atheistic or secularist views. Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books were widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.
Anti-Zionist commentary in social media peaked with announcements of government normalization efforts with Israel, alongside protests employing antinormalization slogans such as “Death to the Zionists” and “Death to Israel.” After the normalization took place, there was negative public reaction to a Twitter post by Houda Nonoo, a former Bahraini Ambassador to the United States, inviting Jews from abroad to visit and settle in Bahrain.
The UAE research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 37 percent of Bahraini respondents said their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, slightly higher than the regionwide result of 34 percent and the result from the previous year’s survey of 32 percent. Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy representatives met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, and national human rights monitoring institutions to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely. Embassy officials encouraged continued government efforts to counter religious extremist narratives and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials publicly and in private meetings advocated for the government to pursue political reforms that took into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious or prior or current political affiliation by, for example, ensuring voting districts were drawn to promote a representative elected lower house of parliament, encouraging an impartial application process for government positions, and allowing individuals previously connected to religiously based opposition political groups to run for public office.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it related to religious practices. Embassy representatives and senior U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and attended religious events during the year, including observations of Ashura, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, Hannukah, and Diwali. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
The embassy continued to encourage the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability. In August, the Charge d’Affaires and the chair of the King Hamad Centre met to discuss potential opportunities for cooperation under the 2020 U.S.-Bahrain memorandum of understanding on combating antisemitism. The embassy also supported religious freedom through its online presence, regularly highlighting on social media high level engagements with religious leaders and the embassy’s participation in religious observances, for example, during Diwali and hosting a virtual event for Ramadan.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Freedom House in September assessed that members of religious minorities – including Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Shia and Ahmadi Muslims – faced harassment and violence, including mob violence against their houses of worship. According to the BHBCUC and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), communal attacks against ethnic and religious minorities occurred throughout the year.
From October 13-24, during and after the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, national and local media reported that mobs attacked and destroyed Hindu homes and temples after a local man publicized a post on Facebook that showed the Quran on the lap of the deity Hanuman inside a Hindu temple in the city of Cumila. The post went viral and sparked violent reactions across the country. According to the World Hindu Federation (WHF) and the HAF, mobs vandalized more than 340 Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries, vandalized or burned nearly 1,650 Hindu owned houses, and looted Hindu-owned shops and businesses. Reporting about the numbers of deceased varied: The Guardian reported seven persons died but the WHF said more than 14 Hindus died in the violence. According to media and official estimates, at least four Muslims were also killed through clashes with police. The UN attributed four deaths to the anti-Hindu violence but said others died due to subsequent law enforcement measures to quell the violence. The BHBCUC said communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year, stating mobs destroyed 70 temples and 100 homes and businesses. Ain o Salish Kendra, a domestic human rights organization, estimated that 3,769 attacks had taken place against Hindus since 2013, including those in the October violence. In response to the violence, there were several interfaith demonstrations throughout the country that denounced the attacks. Hindus refrained from public celebrations of Diwali on November 4 in favor of private ceremonies in their temples and homes. Hindu worshipers covered their faces with black cloth to protest the lack of security for Hindus.
According to Al-Jazeera, on June 19 in Bandarban in CHT, activists from an indigenous minority group killed an indigenous man because he converted to Islam.
Asia News reported the attack and death of Joy Haldar, a Christian student at St. Joseph’s High School and College. Eleven Muslim students sent Haldar death threats by phone before later attacking him and three other Christian students on May 16. Haldar sustained blows to the head and eventually died after 22 days in the hospital. The students attacked Haldar in a dispute over Pubg, an online video game. After Haldar’s brother filed a police complaint, the accused were detained and released on bail. “As Christians, we are a long way from enjoying security and justice,” the brother said.
On May 31, according to various media reports, two men with machetes attacked and left for dead Augra Jyoti Mahasthabir, a Buddhist monk from an indigenous community, at a monastery in Khagrachari in the CHT. The attackers, two Bengali construction workers who worked at the monastery, also looted money from the temple. The officer-in-charge of the Panchhari police station said police opened an investigation for attempted murder in the case.
On February 10, a group of Muslims destroyed the church sign of Emmanuel Church in Lalmonirhat District in the northern part of the country, cut down trees, vandalized the entrance to the church, and stole chairs and carpets. The local pastor said Muslims in the area were angry with Christians because new members had joined their faith community as converts from Islam. Media reported the destruction was spurred by anti-Christian propaganda at a local Islamic meeting place where Muslim religious leaders engaged in hate speech. The Bangladesh Christian Association condemned both incidents of violence.
According to media reports, on March 17, a crowd of Muslims vandalized dozens of Hindu residences and temples in Noagaon village in Sunamganj District after a Hindu man criticized Hefazat-e-Islam joint secretary general Mamunul Haque on Facebook. The media reported police arrested 113 persons, including a Jubo League (the ruling Awami League’s youth wing) party leader, following the attacks, and many of were released on bail. On March 25, police filed a Digital Security Act case against the man whose Facebook post sparked the attacks. The court granted his release on bail in September.
In September, Freedom House assessed recent violent incidents were “part of a pattern in recent years in which violence against religious or other minorities appears to have been deliberately provoked through social media.” Human rights organizations and religious leaders echoed this assessment, saying social media contributed to religious polarization and an increase in attacks on religious minorities.
On May 8, numerous individuals sent abusive comments to actor Chanchal Chowdhury’s Facebook account after he posted a photo with his mother to celebrate Mother’s Day. In the photo, his mother is wearing a vermilion bindi mark on her forehead. Numerous followers expressed surprise at Chowdhury’s religion, and some made abusive comments about his mother being Hindu. Some individuals also made negative personal comments about Chowdhury, and the comment thread was characterized by negative back and forth postings between Muslims and Hindus. In response, Chowdhury said, “What do you stand to gain or lose if I am a Hindu or Muslim? The biggest identity of everyone is that we are human beings. May these vulgar questions and embarrassing discussions stop everywhere. Come and let’s become human beings.”
Human rights activists expressed concerns regarding the wellbeing of Hindu and Christian groups, including the Rohingya Christian Assembly, in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. They said the Hindu community was segregated from the rest of the camp in response to an increase in violence against the community. Hindu leaders said they struggled to hold festivals, as these were prohibited without special permission, which was rarely given. Hindu leaders said there was inadequate access to the established temple, as access was only allowed for a maximum of 24 persons. Government officials, however, said limits on gatherings or building new permanent structures were a result of overall restrictions in the refugee camps. Authorities rarely granted permission to any group in the camps to gather during the year due to COVID-19 restrictions. Camp authorities did not allow any permanent structures, such as shelters, houses of worship, or learning centers, regardless of religious affiliation.
On September 29, unknown assailants killed prominent Rohingya leader Mohammed Mohib Ullah in Cox’s Bazar. Although authorities did not ascribe a motive for his killing, Mohib Ullah was known for being an active Rohingya community defender and rights advocate, including for religious freedom. The media reported police arrested up to a dozen suspects in October and November.
In November, the New York Times reported Rohingya Christian refugee families relocated to the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal due to what they reported was persecution and violence against them in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Members of the Christian minority in the camps stated the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant Rohingya group present in the camps, had temporarily abducted and tortured some Christian refugees.
Media reported that in September, Rohingya Muslims protested the burial of Mohi Uddin, a Christian Rohingya refugee, in the Kutapalong refugee camp, preventing the burial from taking place for 30 hours. According to the pastor of the Baptist church in Chattogram where Uddin was eventually interred, the burial of individuals of different faiths in the same place had not been an issue of contention at the camp in the past, but despite the intervention of the camp manager and UN staff, on this occasion Muslim Rohingya refugees formed a barrier to protest Uddin’s burial.
According to media, large protests took place before and during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh on March 26. On March 19, 500 Muslims protested in the street outside the Baitul Mokarram Mosque in Dhaka and 200 student activists marched through the streets on Dhaka University’s campus. The protestors said Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party were oppressing Muslims in India.
Media reported that on June 9, Christians and other religious minorities continued their annual observation of “Black Day” protests against the 1988 constitutional amendments establishing Islam as the state religion in the country.
According to local human rights organizations, a growing group of Hindu activists inside the country campaigned to reform Hindu family law to allow for greater rights for Hindu women, including female inheritance of property and provisions for divorce. According to media reports, Hindu groups they characterized as conservative protested in August the submission of a set of reform proposals to the Law Commission by the NGO Manusher Jonno Foundation (Foundation for Human Beings). The Bangladesh National Hindu Grand Alliance urged the government to take legal action against The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam and his wife Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, who advocated changes in the law, for hurting religious sentiments of the Hindu community and creating chaos in Hindu families. These tensions among different elements within the local Hindu community continued through the end of the year, without changes to the family law.
Human rights NGOs continued to report harassment and social isolation of, and physical violence against, converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism. The NGOs said individuals commonly associated a person’s faith with his or her surname. Despite constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths, the NGOs stated that when someone’s professed faith deviated from the faith tradition commonly linked with his or her surname, harassment, threats, and social isolation could ensue.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy representatives regularly met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. They discussed the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights into security policy and stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from attacks.
Following communal anti-Hindu violence in October, the Ambassador visited several places of worship to meet with leaders of major religious communities to support interfaith harmony. He visited a Catholic church on October 26, Dhaka’s Star Mosque and madrassah on November 1, and the Hindu Dhakeshwari Temple on November 2. After his visit to the Shakyamuni Buddhist Temple on November 10, the Ambassador tweeted “The United States stands with everyone, everywhere, supporting interfaith harmony and the fundamental right of freedom of religion.” On November 17, a senior Department of State official met with interfaith community leaders for a discussion in which she emphasized that the United States deeply values religious tolerance and stands with Bangladeshis of all beliefs who were promoting diversity, unity, and mutual respect.
The United States provided $302 million in fiscal year 2021 for humanitarian assistance funding for programs in the country to assist Rohingya refugees and their host communities, emphasizing U.S. support for protecting vulnerable religious minority groups. In September, at the meeting of the UN General Assembly, the U.S. government announced nearly $180 million in additional funding. With this new funding, the U.S. response to the Rohingya crisis has reached more than $16 billion since August 2017.
As part of U.S.-funded training for community policing, the embassy continued to encourage law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.
Throughout the year, the embassy continued public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups. On October 29, Department of State officials participated in a virtual meeting with Hindus and Christians, including the Bangladeshi diaspora community in the United States, to discuss communal attacks, possible causal factors, and appropriate response measures. Embassy officials attended religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities.
Throughout the year, the embassy published messages highlighting the U.S. government’s commitment to advancing religious freedom, including amplifying the Department of State’s Twitter messaging on International Religious Freedom Day. Embassy social media messages on religious tolerance reached more than 2.5 million individuals. The embassy released a statement on October 19 sending condolences to the families of victims of anti-Hindu violence and supporting freedom of religion.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, BHBCUC, HAF, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, Christian Freedom International, International Buddhist Monastery of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation. In these meetings, embassy officials, other U.S. government representatives, and representatives from the groups, discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, underscored the importance of religious tolerance, and identified challenges religious minorities encountered.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religious leaders representing the Anglican, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists churches, among others, acknowledged the 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.
Following a sharp increase in COVID-19 infections that threatened the medical system’s capacity, religious leaders called for all to pray to help reduce the surge.
Some church leaders said they had to defend their continued provision of limited in-person services following COVID-19 outbreaks among their members. Church leaders said that following these outbreaks, social and media criticism called for the complete closure of all facilities involving public gatherings, including places of worship.
The Anglican Church provided space for a shelter for victims of abuse, regardless of religious affiliation or belief.
Most religious leaders said they were not seeing growth in their membership and were concerned that the demographic profile of their membership continued to skew to older individuals.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss respect for religious diversity and tolerance and how to further advance these values. On September 22, the Ambassador hosted an event with religious leaders to discuss their communities’ activities and hear their religious perspectives on social issues and on the proposed legislation to allow same-sex civil unions. Representatives from the Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of the Nazarene, and Jewish communities participated. The Ambassador inquired about the religious organizations’ involvement in and advocacy for other social issues such as alleviating poverty and protecting vulnerable members of society.
The embassy promoted National Religious Freedom Day and extended greetings on Chinese Lunar New Year, Holi, Easter, and Ramadan via the embassy’s official social media platforms.
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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Antisemitic comments appeared on social media and in the comment sections of local online news articles, although it was unclear whether the comments were posted by persons in the country. For example, online communities on the Russian social media platform VKontakte posted images and videos featuring neo-Nazi themes and calling for violence against Jews and others.
Various religious communities reported instances of vandalism. For example, on March 4, the Homyel Jewish community reported a communal multiuse building on its premises was painted with swastikas and other Nazi symbols. Police launched an investigation into the vandalism but did not provide further information.
In March, individuals broke into and vandalized the BOC Saint Maria Magdalena Church in Navalukaml. The next day, police arrested two men who had allegedly also vandalized residential buildings in Navalukaml. A local court convicted them on charges of hooliganism and gave them suspended sentences of one and a half years as well as a fine of 1,450 rubles ($570) and 80 hours of community service, according to a September report by the General Prosecutor’s office.
In May, unidentified persons vandalized the Roman Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral in Minsk, damaging flower beds, streetlamps, a door, and the vehicle of one of the priests. Police announced an investigation but by year’s end had not announced the results.
Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, former Archbishop of Minsk-Mahilyou and one of the senior Roman Catholic prelates in the country, retired on January 3 at the age of 75, the standard retirement age for Catholic bishops. The Lukashenka regime had frequently targeted the Archbishop for criticism and barred his return to the country between August and December 2020. On September 14, the Vatican announced as his replacement Bishop Iosef Staneuski, general secretary of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the country.
The BOC continued its annual commemoration in honor of Hauryil Belastoksky (Gabriel of Bialystok), a child allegedly killed by Jews in Bialystok in 1690. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him one of its saints and martyrs, and the BOC falls under the authority of the Russian Church on traditional practices such as this. The traditional memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3 states the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty,” although a trial after the boy’s death acquitted the Jew who was charged with the crime. Some antisemitic references about Belastoksky remained on the BOC’s official website, though in recent years the BOC’s online materials focused more on his role as a regional patron saint of children. While Jewish community leaders said they prioritized other concerns, prayers for the commemoration reportedly continued to include antisemitic references.
An interreligious working group comprising the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized seminars and educational events, some of which were virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For example, in July, representatives of the working group held a forum marking the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Minsk ghetto. The participants highlighted the importance of preserving shared historic memories.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with representatives of the Lukashenka regime, including the Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs in February, to discuss religious issues. The Charge d’Affaires engaged with the authorities on issues related to religious freedom, including the registration of religious communities, the freedom to express and practice religious beliefs, state pressure on clergy for exercising their religious beliefs and participating in political life in their personal capacities, and antisemitism. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vladimir Makei, denied the Charge d’Affaires’ request to meet with Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and National Affairs Alyaksandr Rumak in December on the grounds that the previous Charge d’Affaires had already met with the Plenipotentiary in February and the situation with regard to religious freedom in the country had not changed since the previous encounter.
On October 25, the Charge d’Affaires participated in an event commemorating the liquidation of Minsk’s Jewish ghetto in 1943. The embassy shared on social media photos from the event in memory of the thousands of Jewish victims and those who strove to save Jews.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, and minority religious groups, as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about religious activities and discuss the regime’s actions that affected religious freedom. The regime’s political restrictions on public gatherings limited the embassy’s ability to hold events and public engagements with representatives from religious communities. Embassy officials discussed antisemitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups, as well as the regime’s restrictions on registration and operations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists and religious leaders. Embassy officials also discussed the status of the Roman Catholic community and the state’s relationship with the Church with diplomatic colleagues at the Apostolic Nunciature.
Following the eviction of New Life Church from its property in February, the Charge d’Affaires visited the church’s new outdoor gathering place and discussed the situation with its leadership. The embassy expressed concern publicly regarding the eviction and urged authorities to abide by their commitments to uphold religious freedom as a member state of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The U.S. Special Envoy for Belarus also expressed support for religious freedom following the investiture of Roman Catholic Archbishop Staneuski as the new Archbishop of Minsk-Mahilyou. The Special Envoy posted on social media a video message to the Jewish community before Passover and a video message to the Muslim community during Ramadan. Embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom on social media, including the Secretary of State’s comments on May 16 affirming religious freedom as a fundamental human right.
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